Family Road Trip with a Toddler and Preschooler

The view from the backseat on a road trip

I’m sharing this story to serve as an inspiration to all the families out there whose babies or toddlers hate being in the car but who one day hope to see the world via an epic family road trip! (Or they just want to be able to visit Grandma.)

Hello, my name is Jessica. 2 years ago I was commuting 50 miles to work with my children. The opportunity to bring the kids (and my nanny) to work was a huge benefit of the job, but the commute was horrible for my daughter. She had been fine as a baby, but somewhere around 18 months something changed and she became a holy terror in the car. It. was. bad. Family road trips were straight up out of the question during this time.

The obvious solution was to leave her home and have our nanny watch her at the house. But I hated the idea of being so far away during the day. Plus, my son was still nursing and having him at work meant I didn’t have to pump.

That left us to choose between moving or quitting my job. We moved.

We sold our house and moved to the middle of nowhere to reduce her car time. That should tell you how bad it was!

Fast forward to this weekend. The opportunity arose to clear our schedule and make a quick trip down to Malibu to meet Chris’s cousin. It was 6 hours one-way and we didn’t have any vacation days to play with. So the option on the table was: 12 hours of driving (not including stops) over the course of 36 hours (with the option to get a hotel Sunday night and finish up before work Monday if necessary).

Two years ago this trip would have sounded like child abuse. Now? It was really really fun!

We listened to audio books, sang sing-a-longs, read books, Facetimed with family, and stopped at fun places!

So here is my advice for those parents who are worried that they’ll have to walk everywhere for the next 18 years:

This too shall pass. Keep trying. Shorten up your time in the car any way you can, but keep trying.

And here is my advice for all parents everywhere who are planning a road trip with their little munchkins!

10 tips for enjoying your family road trip

#1 Make your stops count

Forget about the 5-minute stretch break at 7-11 and set your GPS for the park right off the highway. We have found that stopping for 30 minutes someplace where the kids can really stretch their legs is a huge sanity saver. They get their energy out on the playground and then settle in for another long stretch of road.

My favorite road trip stop in California is Spyglass Park in Pismo Beach. There are clean bathrooms, a playground, and a stunning view of the beach and town. It also has the advantage of being either the first or last beach town along 101.

[Pro-tip: Open Street Map allows you to search for playgrounds.]

#2 Eat in the car

Let me preface this by saying that you need to be safe. Don’t give the kids choking hazards and keep them within reach of the adult in the passenger seat.

After that warning, kids think eating in the car is fun! It also keeps them occupied and passes the time. We either pack our food or go through a drive-thru.

Avoid sugar (and definitely avoid caffeine) for the kids since you want to keep them calm. Bring plenty of water (even though it will mean more bathroom stops) as it will keep the kids occupied and hydrated.

#3 Bring the travel potty

Seriously, this is a game changer. Kids don’t give a lot of notice and sometimes public bathrooms are disgusting. We keep this in our trunk and have taken many pit stops on the side of the road. You can buy the disposable liners or you can use gallon zip lock bags. For #1 you can just let it fall onto the grass.

The view from the backseat on a road trip
What my daughter sees out her window!

#4 Make a road trip sing-a-long play list

Hearing my daughter sing “Waltzing Matilda” was a definite trip highlight and dancing in the car is one of the only ways to expel energy while staying in a car seat! I was not digging Chris’s “Family Road Trip” Pandora station though, so I’ll be working on that before our next road trip.

#5 Bring a basket of small toys

Keep them within reach of the adult in the passenger seat and release them strategically! Happy meal toys are really the best for this.

Toddler along for the ride on the family road trip
I wouldn’t have chosen this toy because it makes noise, but K brought it along himself. Artistic sepia tone courtesy of HJ!

#6 Bring coloring supplies

Just expect your children to be tattooed by the time you reach your destination!

#7 Facetime with family

Or Skype or Facebook Messenger chat or whatever! This is a great time to catch up with family. My mother-in-law read books to the kids and they each got to take turns holding the phone and being read to. This allowed the grown ups to chat and not worry about entertaining them.

#8 Let them take pictures

HJ had a ball taking pictures out the window on the ride. We passed a whole herd of elk and it was so cute to see her clambering to get the phone up to take the picture in time. All photos in this post were taken by HJ. They actually turned out perfect for this post!

My daughters view of the front seat
On a road trip, this is what we look like to my daughter! My son is still rear facing, but he’ll get this view soon enough!

#9 When all else fails, let them watch TV

In the whole 12 hours of driving, they each only got 25 minutes of screen time (not including picture taking and Facetime) but that little bit of screen time saved us from a potential melt down. Time your screen time strategically so that it ends when you reach a stop or destination and you don’t have to take it from them mid-ride.

#10 Drive during nap or bedtime

As much as possible, let those kids sleep in the car. Sleeping in the car is basically time traveling and it is the most powerful tool in your arsenal! We try to avoid road trips in the morning when the kids have the most energy. Early afternoon and late evening are the sweet spots!

Scenery of a toddler road trip
Is it weird that I love these pictures my daughter took? There are hundreds.

If you’re currently in a rough stage when it comes to car time, have hope! Those times will one day be a distant memory and you’ll be able to have your own wonderful family road trips!

Just writing this makes me want to plan another one!

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2 responses to “Family Road Trip with a Toddler and Preschooler”

  1. Such a great list of tips Jessica! I particularly love tip 7 & 8 – FaceTime and let them take pictures. We’ll definitely be giving these a go on our next road trip ☺️


    1. magnetsfromeverywhere Avatar

      Thanks! This was our first road trip where we let her take pictures but it’s definitely going to be one of our favorite tricks from now on!


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