Expert Tips for a Road Trip with a Toddler

Author: Celine Brewer

Last Updated:

Having gone on many long road trips with young kids, I can say from experience that a road trip with a toddler is more challenging than a road trip with a baby. The dynamic begins to change around the time when you start traveling with a 1 year old, but it seems most challenging when you are on a road trip with an 18 month old. A road trip with a toddler takes patience and setting the right expectations.

This is not to say that a road trip with a toddler on a plane isn’t worth it – quite the opposite. Although it can be challenging going on long car rides with toddlers, the overall experience of traveling with a toddler can be quite enjoyable. This post will give you the tools to not only survive a road trip with a toddler, but have you saying “that was so much better than I expected!”.

a toddler with curly blond hair smiles big during a family road trip vacation.
A big smile from our daughter during a family road trip vacation.

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“I Need Advice on a Car Trip with a Toddler”

As a baby and toddler travel expert, I see parents asking this question over and over. For parents traveling with young kids, I am commonly asked about how to entertain a toddler on a long road trip. For example:

  • “How can I keep my 1 year old entertained on a long car ride?”
  • “Anyone have advice to keep an active 18 month old busy during a road trip?”
  • “Help! Long road trip with a busy toddler… please send me all your tips!”

Sound familiar? Who hasn’t planned a family trip with a toddler and not gone out seeking tips for taking a road trip with a toddler. I know I have, especially when I was road tripping with a toddler for the first time.

Traditionally, I would respond to these questions by sharing our best airplane activities for babies & toddlers post as there are many similarities between surviving long flights and long car rides. But, it occurred to me that there is more to successful long car rides with toddlers than just keeping them busy.

Why? Because a few suggestions for activities aren’t going to give an anxious parent the comfort and confidence they need that they will survive that long road trip with a toddler… That road trips with a toddler aren’t so bad and they will make it to their destination with their sanity intact.

image of toddler walking beside cars on road with father behind him
Father and son get some fresh air during a stop on a family road trip.

Road Trips with a Toddler vs. with a Baby

So why am I specifically addressing tips for a road trip with a toddler? I have written separate posts on a taking a road trip with a baby and road tripping with a toddler, as babies and toddlers have completely different needs when it comes to car travel.

In general, babies aren’t as active or as likely to throw a tantrum. And, babies can often be more easily lulled into sleep by some warm milk.

Toddlers, on the other hand, are completely different beings. They want to move and explore. Toddlers know what they want and they aren’t afraid to tell you (or scream it at the top of their lungs).

As a parent, having to keep your toddler contained in a car seat for the duration of a long road trip can be a frightening prospect.

a happy toddler smiles and holds an owl shaped white noise machine during a road trip on a family vacation.
Our son shows there can be some really fun times on road trips with toddlers!

Our Experience Road Tripping with a Toddler

A common trick for traveling with toddlers is to throw a screen in front of them, but sadly, this didn’t work well for me. As toddlers, my kids had very little attention span for movies or games on the iPad until they were about 2.5 years old. Even after limiting their TV at home, it still wasn’t exciting enough to keep our toddlers entertained on a road trip for very long.

I never thought I’d wish for my kids to be addicted to the screen, but when it comes to long car trips with toddlers, this is exactly what I find myself hoping for.

Granted, every kid will be different in this aspect. My daughter had a great attention span for shows at 2.5 years old but my son was different. There are some shows he loves, like Little Baby Bum, that work better than others but overall he had an attention span of about 20 minutes (and it was much less at 12 – 18 months).

a toddler on road trip with ipad and headphones.
Our daughter watches a show during a road trip. It was likely “Frozen” – it was ALWAYS Frozen…

What does that mean for road trips with our toddler? It means I spent a lot more time trying to keep our toddler entertained, but still content in his car seat.

6 Tips for a Successful Road Trip with a Toddler

I’ve been in your shoes. We’ve made the long 8-hour car trip with our kids to see their grandparents more times than I can count. In addition, we traveled with our kids around the world, going on many international road trips. Each family road trip had its unique challenges, especially because neither of our children enjoyed sitting in a car seat and would rarely sleep in it for any length of time.

Despite our challenges, we always made it, and you will too – you’ve got this! No matter what happens on your first road trip with your toddler, you’ll make it through fully intact with a brand-new set of family vacation memories and more confidence about traveling with your kids.

a toddler reads a colorful magazine for small kids while on a road trip vacation with his family.
Our kids loved reading Chirp magazine on long road trips.

Over my years of traveling with toddlers, I’ve gained a lot of experience in family road trips. To help you have the best road trip with your toddler, I’ve shared the six most important things I’ve learned about taking a road trip with toddlers.

1. The Best Time to Leave for a Long Road Trip with a Toddler

Choosing the best departure time for a family road trip is one of the most important elements on how your road trip with a toddler will go. In our experience, doing a large part of the driving while your toddler is sleeping is a big step towards a successful car trip.

The best time to leave for road trips with a toddler will vary for each family. To help you decide, consider the following:

  • Your toddler’s sleep schedule.
  • Their usual feeding times.
  • Their feeding method (do you need to stop to nurse them, or can they eat solids on-the-go).
  • The parent’s work schedules.
  • Acceptable arrival times, etc.

After considering these factors, the best departure time for your long road trip with a toddler should become more clear.

a toddler sleeps in his car seat during a long car trip on his family vacation.
Our son enjoys a nap during one of our long road trips.

For some families, starting your long road trip with a toddler right before nap time or in the evening before bedtime might be the best option, but for most families an early morning departure is likely the best time.

Since our kids did not sleep in their car seats for long periods of time, we tried to be in the car while it was still dark outside – typically by 5 am. We’d wake the kids, quickly feed them and change their diapers, then put them directly in the car in their PJ’s with a comfy blanket on top.

With any luck they’d go right back to sleep and even if they didn’t, we found they’d at least be groggy and quiet for a couple of hours. This usually bought us a few hours of quiet driving before they woke up or were hungry enough to want to eat.

2. Strategically Plan Your Road Trip Stops

Another of our most important road trip tips is to pre-plan your stops. When planning your stops, consider how long you are comfortable leaving your child in their toddler’s car seat. Of course, things rarely go strictly to plan when you travel with a toddler, but it’s never a bad idea to have a staring point to optimize around.

How long can you travel with a toddler in a car seat? Every child will be different, but for older babies, there is a widely used “2-hour rule”. There isn’t much discussion or consensus about how long a toddler can safely sit in a car seat, but if you are concerned, err on the side of caution and/or check your car seat manufacturer guidelines.

In addition to the health and safety of your child, planned stops are especially useful for keeping energetic, mobile toddlers happy. Letting them crawl or move around for a while does wonders for their moods.

a young child smiles while playing during a family road trip with a toddler.
Our son needed a lot of playtime during our family car trips.

For example, at the halfway point of our 8-hour road trip to the grandparents, we would stop for an hour at a McDonald’s. We’d have a quick bite and a coffee, then we’d let our kids play in the young kids area of the PlayPlace to burn off some energy.

It’s worthwhile to do some research and plan these stops for your toddler in advance. A picnic area with a playground works equally as well, and the fresh air is great for everyone’s spirits. Just try to avoid a long sit-down meal at a restaurant as this is just more sitting; the goal is to get your child moving.

Toddler Road Trip Tip: If your toddler is still nursing, keep in mind that several breastfeeding stops can add a lot of time to your journey. If you don’t plan for this extra time, you may arrive at your destination much later than you might think. You may wish to leave a little earlier to compensate.

3. Feeding Your Toddler on Long Road Trips

If you are taking a long road trip with a toddler, you will be making several planned stops for the health & safety of your child. Chances are good that at least one of these stops will involve a proper meal for your child. If you prefer to pack healthy food from home for feeding your toddler solids, use a small insulated cooler with an ice-pack to keep food safe and cool.

toddlers eating granola bars at a picnic table on a family road trip.
Granola bars were always a hit with the kids on our road trip stops.

Don’t miss our tips on traveling with a newly potty training toddler.

While driving, portable toddler snacks are great as they work as both nourishment and distraction. My go-to travel snack for traveling with small kids was Gerber Puffs as they take forever for kids to eat them. But as they got older, I started offering Cheerios travel cups, Gerber Yogurt Melts or pureed baby food pouches on family road trips because of their dissolving properties.

Avoiding a hangry kid is essential for road tripping with a toddler, so pack extra healthy road trip snacks and plenty of fruit. Make sure to pack food for yourself as well and don’t forget lots of water for everyone.

If your planned departure time is at the crack of dawn, be sure to pack breakfast for the kids so they have something to eat when they wake. I usually packed a car-friendly breakfast of dry Cheerios in a spill-proof snack container and milk in a spill-proof sippy cup. It’s not the most exciting breakfast, but it’s portable and it takes a long time to eat; all those minutes of a happy, occupied toddler on a road trip really add up!

Spill proof toddler snack cups and one of these best travel sippy cups can be such a lifesaver when traveling with a toddler.

a toddler holding snack cup on a family road trip.
Our son never let go of his snack holder on our road trips!

Important:
While your toddler is in a rear-facing car seat, be sure there is someone with them in the back seat at all times while they eat.

4. Getting Your Toddler to Sleep in the Car

Every child is unique and hopefully you’ll have a good idea of what conditions help your toddler sleep in the car. This is stating the obvious, but for a toddler on a road trip, sleeping in the car is a great way to easily pass the time.

For toddlers who are new to potty training, you might consider still using pull-ups for naps in the car to protect your car seat. You can also pack a toddler travel potty for any emergencies stops you might need to make!

a road trip with toddler asleep in his car seat.
Our son holds his favorite stuffy during a rare road trip nap.

Strategies we’ve used to get our kids to sleep in the car on a road trip were:

  • We play soft music or audiobooks with bedtime stories for kids. There’s a ton of wonderful bedtime storybooks for kids on Audible.com, just try to ensure the driver doesn’t get sleepy too!

  • An old trick, but a good trick, is to increase the temperature in the car slightly to help them get a little more sleepy.

  • If you can’t leave super early in the morning, try leaving when your toddler has a full tummy right before nap time.
a toddler sleeps during a long car trip on a family vacation.
Is there anything better than a sleeping toddler on a road trip?

5. Road Trip Activities for a Toddler

How do you entertain a busy toddler on a long car ride? If your toddler is not eating or sleeping in the car, they will likely need some form of mental stimulation. It helps for parents to take turns driving so one can always be in the back seat interacting with the toddler.

To entertain toddlers on a car trip, you have a wide selection of choices. Excellent road trip activities for a toddler are:

a toddler plays with a water based drawing pad - one of the best travel toys for toddlers.
Our kids loved water based coloring books (this time on a plane).

In addition to the above suggestions, I also love the items listed in our 1 year old travel toys and 2 year old travel toys.

I didn’t let our toddlers watch much TV at home, but on travel days, I let go of my guilt and just let our front-facing toddlers watch the iPad. Just remember to pack toddler headphones!

Little Baby Bum was a fun & educational favorite that they’d watch silently for hours – you can download episodes on Netflix. We would keep the iPad out of reach by securing the iPad to the back of the front seat.

3 year old and older sister using LCD writing tablets while on a family trip.
Our kids loved traveling with their Boogie Boards – for planes or road trips!

Another of my favorite road trip activities, regardless of the kids age, was to play kid-friendly audiobooks in the car. Audiobooks are such a great activity to occupy a growing child’s mind without the need for a toy or a screen. As mentioned above, this is also a good toddler road trip sleep strategy.

With babies, we started with simple audiobooks like Winnie The Pooh, but we soon graduated to some classic Disney storybooks, which are excellent entertainment for toddlers on road trips.

As the “Netflix of Children’s Books”, the Epic! Digital library is one of our favorite travel apps for kids. In addition to thousands of toddler books you’ll have access to on your tablet, The Epic reading app has a great selection of children’s audiobooks you can listen to during the road trip.

The Epic reading app offers a free 7-day trial, so you can try it risk-free on your upcoming family car trip. Read our Epic! review for more details.

a selection of travel toys for toddlers in the car.
A picture of the toddler travel toys we brought along on a family vacation.

If your kids love Disney stories, you’ll find a wide selection of classic Disney stories on Audible.com. Audible offers new members one free audiobook (sometimes more), so at a minimum, pick up your free audiobook for your road trip.

For example, you could download a free copy of 365 Bedtime Stories (14.5 hours) or 365 Frozen Stories (17 hours) and have more than enough toddler-friendly audiobook entertainment for your entire road trip.

One of our most popular blog posts of all time is the Best Airplane Activities & Travel Toys for Toddlers. I recommend reading this post as there are a lot of similarities between entertaining a toddler on a road trip and a flight. I also wrote about the best screen-free toddler travel toys, which also work well for road trips with toddlers.

Keep in mind, by traveling by car, instead of a plane, you’ll be less concerned about how much noise your child is making (within reasonable limits of course!). This is one reason to relax and smile while road tripping with your toddler.

6. Keep Your Routines

If have an established bedtime routine with your toddler, keep it going, even on the trip. As you approach bedtime, stop and change them into PJs, give them their favourite stuffy and if you usually play music or read a book, do that. Toddlers, just like babies, find comfort in routine. This is one of the best tips for getting your toddler to sleep on vacation.

a toddler on a family road trip eats an apple at a picnic table.
Healthy road trip snacks!

Road Trip with a Toddler Packing List

What road trip essentials should I bring for my toddler? Packing lists are an essential tool for any parent planning a trip with a toddler. You have enough stuff to keep track of, let alone remembering everything you need to bring for a successful car trip.

a toddler in a car seat keeps busy with his sippy cup and a toy during a family road trip.
Our son listens to music on his white noise machine with a Bluetooth speaker.

As you plan your car trip with a toddler, keep in mind the essential items I’ve discussed above:

Destination Ideas for a Road Trip with a Toddler

If you are looking for some ideas for the an awesome road trip with a toddler, I can help. In addition to road trips to the grandparents, we’ve taken our kids on some great road trips. In addition, some of our reader’s have shared their stories with us as well!

using backpack carrier for baby for travel in Norway
Our Norway road trip with a toddler was incredibly scenic!
a warmly dressed is walking on a hiking trail during a family road tip through Iceland.
Our week-long road trip with a toddler through Iceland was incredible!

We often get inspiration for our family road trip ideas from the Lonely Planet book Epic Drives of the World. As the road trip is an American institution, you won’t be surprised to find that there are over 40 American road trips highlighted in this book.

If you are looking for a more of the best road trips in the USA, Lonely Planet also publishes a book called USA’s Best Trips – 51 Amazing Road Trips.

This post was written & edited by:

info@babycantravel.com | Website | + posts

Celine Brewer is the owner of Baby Can Travel. Not only does she have years of experience traveling with babies & toddlers, but she's helped millions of new parents travel with their babies and toddlers for over a decade. In addition to writing on her baby travel blog, she has shared her expertise on traveling with a baby or toddler by contributing to articles about traveling with a baby with the Washington Post, USA Today, the Lonely Planet magazine and Pregnancy & Newborn magazine.

Celine also writes about family travel on the site FamilyCanTravel.com, which she co-owns with her husband. Being from the Canadian Rockies, she shares her passion about her home and travel to Banff National Park and area on their site TravelBanffCanada.com.

Read more about Celine Brewer.