On the Trials of Toddler Travel, A Few Words to the Wise

Traveling with toddlers is a special kind of crazy. But if you prepare properly, it’s totally tolerable.

My husband’s family lives just shy of a 15-hour drive from us. We’ve always loved traveling to see them. Sure, it’s not super exciting being in the car that long, but it can be an adventure. You get to take in so many sights and see so many travelers. No two trips will ever be the same.

Two summers ago, we made the trip with our newborn. At just seven weeks old, it seemed crazy to some, but it was honestly seamless. I was still on maternity leave, and our little girl loved to sleep. And sleep. And sleep. We took stops for snacks, stops for our older daughter to stretch and scream, stops for the baby to eat and change diapers, and then, we’d be off again.

Fast-forward to last summer: Our baby was now 15 months old. It was, to put it mildly, rough. Calling it an adventure is akin to the way people call a horror movie a thrill, when really, it’s a nightmare.

We stopped CONSTANTLY. Our girls needed time to stretch. Our oldest just needed time away from her sister. The snacks we brought didn’t last. The toys we brought weren’t entertaining. No one cared about taking in the sights outside the car, because no one could think about anything other than the whining, crying toddler inside the car.

My husband and I were just about to book our summer stay for this year when we realized…we’ll be taking a trip with a two-year-old. Cue daunting thriller music.

We. Are. In. Trouble.

Time to call in the experts. Partnered with our experience, I think we can make this work. We now know a few things that should (fingers crossed) make this trip run a little smoother:

Leave early

Get the car all packed, and check – and double-check – you have what you need. Then load your little ones in the car. They will (hopefully) fall back to sleep, and you can get a good head start on your trip. Plus, the lighter traffic will help you cover more miles. Just be prepared for a quick breakfast and bathroom stop when they wake up. 

Find distractions

This seems like an obvious one, but think of how much goes into one day with your toddler. They say the average two-year-old has an attention span of five to eight minutes. Sure, sometimes they can be distracted by something and then go back to what they are doing, but still, that requires a LOT of activities.

The single best purchase we have ever made, in our life, were DVD players for our car. The set clips to the back of our seats and allows each of our girls to watch their own movie. Our oldest makes it through over half a dozen movies by the end of our trip, and our youngest watches “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” episodes on repeat.

Outside of movies? Toys, games, books, and more toys, games, and books. We pack a large beach bag with goodies and stash it on the floor between our girls. Every time someone gets a little bored or whiny, reach into the bag for a lifesaver. Want to draw something? Want to look at this book? (And stash some surprises in there. Nothing turns a frown upside-down like a new coloring book or a snack they don’t get to enjoy at home.)

Convenience is key

Try to find travel-friendly toys and accessories. Snack cups help avoid messes and can help make sure your little one isn’t endlessly eating. A drawing board or dry erase board works much more efficiently than lots of floating crayons. It may even be worth it to invest in a travel tray, if you travel often. This can help kids keep toys contained and have a surface for play.

Don’t forget to make things convenient for you also. Keep baby wipes, tissues, and snacks within reach of your seat. You don’t want to pull over every 10 minutes to climb around in the back of the car.

Plan your stops

Obviously, there are times you have to stop and fuel up or take a bathroom break that you didn’t plan. But try to set up a fun destination for lunch or dinner that your kids will enjoy. It may seem like it’s best to just plug away and get the travel part over with, but that’s guaranteed to make the trip worse for everyone.

Even if you’re just sitting in a fast-food booth, go inside and sit down and eat. Give the kids a chance to run around and get out of the car. Some people prefer to stop at parks to burn some energy, but I give that strategy mixed reviews. What kid is ever ready to leave the park when you are? And that’s after hours of playing.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon at a park and then get back in the car for hours. (I also don’t want to listen to my kids for hours begging to go back to that park.) So while I fully embrace making stops, I definitely opt for pit stops and not mini-vacation stops.

Honor personal space, sleep, and kid rituals

On long car rides, we’ll often end up staying overnight somewhere. It’s worth finding a place with enough space to accommodate your family’s sleeping habits and other needs. Hotel rooms usually do not, unless you want to sleep in a big bed with all your children piled on top of you.

We are not a family that co-sleeps. We don’t even share a room with our little ones on vacation. But in a hotel – unless you want to spring for the executive suite – one room is what you get. This was so out of the ordinary for our toddler that she jumped on the bed and kept trying to run off the end of it. We couldn’t make a big enough barricade. The next morning, everyone was tired and grouchy. It made the last leg of our journey so much worse.

Another helpful tool on this trip would have been a mini overnight bag. It’s not fun to drag four giant suitcases into a hotel that you’re sleeping in for a few hours. All you need are the essentials: some toiletries, pajamas, and clothes for the next day.

Also, if your child has some kind of bedtime ritual, stick with it, no matter where you are. Bring that book you always read or the blanket she has to sleep with. It will help!

Above all, don’t lose out on great family adventures and lifelong memories because you assume it’ll be too difficult to get there. Plan well, and go.

How to Survive a Long Flight With Little Kids

Getting on a plane with a small kid is one of the most stressful parenting experiences ever. These 14 ways to entertain them can help.

One of the more stressful parenting endeavors is getting on a plane with small children. If you have a baby or toddler who doesn’t understand the importance of the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign and can’t yet read “Harry Potter,” you need to come prepared with distractions.

Here are a few ideas to keep small kids entertained – gleaned from my own flights with small children.

1 | Magazines in the seat pocket in front of you.

My husband and I spent a good chunk of time on one flight playing a game of, “Let’s find the dogs and cats in the the SkyMall magazine” with our one-year-old. As an added bonus, you may also find that cat hammock you never knew your pet needed.

2 | Plastic cups, napkins, and straws.

There is some novelty to be had in these basic objects – and the good news is they hand them out for free on a plane. Stack the cups, play peek-a-boo with the napkin, or let your little one spend some time crinkling a cup.

3 | Snacks that take some time to eat.

Puffs (doled out one at a time) for small kids, or lollipops for older ones, can be good options because they take some time to eat.

4 | Let other people hold the baby.

When our first son was young, we were sometimes lucky enough to sit by people who were happy to hold the baby for a little bit. On one flight, a flight attendant offered to walk our crying baby up and down the aisle for a little while. We let her. Take advantage of people who are willing to help.

5 | Your smartphone camera and photo album.

Take a video or picture of your kid with your smartphone and then let him see it. Or just let him scroll through your photos and videos. Yes, it can be this simple at this age.

6 | Stickers.

Toddlers can spend some time working to pull them off the sticker sheet and then decorating some paper, clothes, or your forehead with them.

7 | A new toy wrapped as a present.

Unwrapping it will take some time and playing with it will take up some more. Something like these Squigz can be a good option since they can suction onto the tray table in front of you.

8 | Apps.

All screen time restrictions should be lifted on an airplane. It’s an unusual occasion and if it makes your life easier, then use it. We like Duck Duck Moose and Night and Day Studios apps for really young kids, and LEGO DUPLO and Toca Boca apps for older toddlers or preschoolers. My kids have also gotten a lot of mileage out of ZOOLA Animals – one version is just pictures of different animals and the deluxe version allows you to feed and dress animals (a giraffe can don purple butterfly wings).

9 | Sing songs.

Pre-kids I wouldn’t have belted out a few verses of “Wheels on the Bus” on a plane. Post-kids, if it prevents a meltdown – anything goes.

10 | Walk up and down the aisles.

When young kids are getting restless, sometimes a change of scenery will help.

11 | Headphones.

Often helpfully located in the seat pocket in front of you, these can provide some distraction. Let your little one try them on themselves or you. Just don’t expect them to actually listen to music with them.

12 | Make silly faces.

Bonus points if you can get the strangers seated near you to make a few, too.

13 | Drawing.

At a minimum, you can draw animals on a napkin with a pen. Or you can get more advanced and bring things like Water Wow! drawing books or mess free marker sets like Color Wonder.

14 | Books

 Bringing some of your little one’s favorite books can be a good distraction.

5 Budget-Friendly Tips for Hitting the Open Road this Summer

On a family road trip, the good outweighs the bad, and even the bad always makes for a funny memory. Here are 5 tips for making the most of it.

The countdown is officially on at my house! My family limped, clawed, and dragged our way through the end of school to summer vacation. And now we’re ready for our road trip!

This is our first summer back in the U.S. after three years overseas, and one of our biggest takeaways from our time in Europe is the fact that the United States is . . . BIG.

Really, really big.

And after visiting more than 20 European countries, I’m ashamed to admit that the number of U.S. states we have visited pales in comparison, which brings me to our summer plans — the Great American Road trip! I’m talking national parks, national monuments, the World’s Largest Whatever, a few great diners, and miles of open road in between.

No strangers to the road trip, one recent summer, we drove 5,000 miles. In preparation for our upcoming “windshield extravaganza,” I’m reminded of a few road trip nuggets that’ve helped us along the way. No matter your destination, these tips can help make for a more enjoyable (and affordable) trip.

1| GET ON THE SAME PAGE.  

This is step # 1 for a reason. Let’s say your family loves a good road trip. They love the idea of getting away from it all — a few hours on the road each day, plenty of time at the destination to explore, hike, swim, relax and play, with leisure time to spare.

Meanwhile, you, who also loves a road trip might be thinking, we’ll knock out 600 miles today so tomorrow we only have to do 400.  We’ll see X, Y, and Z along the way, and get to the hotel by midnight.

See the disconnect?

Before you set out on the open road, ask yourself and your family these questions: How far do you want to go every day?  What are you hoping to accomplish on this trip? What do you think is a realistic amount of time in the car each day, given the attention span and abilities of everyone involved?

When I think about being on the same page, a purple sand beach comes to mind. On a previous road trip through California, my husband had a particular purple sand beach on his list of must-sees. We were already hours behind schedule, and by the time we finally arrived at this beach, it was DARK. One child was sleeping, and the other needed to be.

When I first realized how late we were going to be, I automatically assumed this beach was off the list. But as I sat in the car with my sleeping son and watched as my husband and daughter disappeared down a dark, wooded trail to the beach with nothing but a dim flashlight, I learned then and there to never assume anything.

The takeaway? Discuss these things before you set out. Manage expectations. Set limits. Give yourself permission to deviate from the plan when necessary. Figure out a set of rules that everyone can agree on.

(Fun fact: In the dark, purple sand looks exactly like regular sand. Truth.)

2| SHARE OWNERSHIP.

Give everyone ownership of the trip. With the exception of babies and toddlers who can’t yet tell you, Yes! We can’t wait to visit Niagara Falls, let everyone have a say-so in what you do and see along the way.

I find that my children are more engaged when they are involved in the planning and choosing of what we do and see. Provide travel books ahead of time for each person to browse, and then compile a must-see list.

For young children, take the time to tell them what’s available that you think they would enjoy.  There will likely be a lot of overlap in what people want to see and do, which works out great, but when each person also has the anticipation of seeing or doing their special thing that they picked, something extraordinary happens: the kids are more patient, more interested, and generally happier when we do something from their must-see list.

Also, depending on the ages of your kids, finding books that have some connection with where you are going is a great way to increase interest and engagement (think non-fiction, but not travel books for this). 

We did a road trip through Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic and as we drove, we read aloud from an autobiography of a Holocaust survivor. It truly was one of our most memorable trips. Reading about an experience while being in the very place where it happened made the trip more meaningful for all of us.

Visit the library before you go, and find books tailored to your travels. Maybe you’ll be following the route that Lewis and Clark took when they came West — read about it along the way! Passing through the Sacramento, CA. area?  Maybe check out a book on the gold rush of 1849. Wherever the destination, there’s likely a book that would pair well and with a little planning, you can be prepared with some relevant materials for you and your kids. 

Include everyone in decisions about what and where to eat. Even very young kids can voice an opinion on what they feel like eating. And if they know that in two hours you’re going to be at the restaurant they helped pick out for dinner (thank you, Google), they’re more excited, and better able to resist the urge to ask, “Are we there yet?”

Pass the time by reading and sharing some basic facts about the city or area, pull up the restaurant website and read the menu (this also helps keep things on track once you get there), and talk about what you hope to see at your next stop.  It may go without saying, but the common-denominator here is communication. 

People of all ages do better when they are in the loop and know what’s going on!

3| GROCERY STORE PICNICS.

Eating out is one of the biggest costs of a family road trip. Three words — grocery store picnic —are the backbone of a successful road trip. Grocery stores are in nearly every town, no matter how small, and offer options for everyone to eat what they want at a fraction of the cost of a traditional sit-down restaurant.

Take your grocery items to a local park or riverfront and have a picnic. Let the kids play and run around for a bit before piling back in the car. When my family travels, the goal is to avoid eating in restaurants (this includes fast food) whenever possible, which helps keep costs in check. 

Bring some items from home that don’t require refrigeration. Peanut butter, a loaf of bread, crackers, oranges & apples are always staples when we travel .

4| CHAIN HOTELS.

Chain hotels, while sometimes lacking charm and local culture, are a great tool in the road trip arsenal. There’s comfort in consistency and predictability, and this is what chain hotels almost can provide.  Especially for children (and even for adults), the closer reality is to expectation, the better the outcome.  Since most chain hotels are pretty similar, this takes some of the unknown out of the picture, which for some can be a source of stress.

Other benefits to a chain hotel are that they are often located in suburban areas, just outside the city, so they can be easy to get to at the end of a long travel day, and they tend to be very close (walking distance) to public transportation. Parking is usually free, or nominal, and you can just leave your car and take the train or bus to and from the city.

Join whatever “priority” or membership club the hotel has, as there is always some benefit to this. If Wi-Fi is not free, hotels usually waive the fee for preferred members, and Wi-Fi is essential to planning your travel for the next day. Best of all, chain hotels almost always include breakfast — a variety of innocuous food that everyone will eat. EAT this food. You’ve already paid for it.

5| BE FLEXIBLE AND ROLL WITH IT.

Car trips are an adventure, there will be highs and lows. Your kids will pester each other when they get bored. You’ll get grumpy. You might drive the wrong way down a one-way street and find three lanes of traffic heading straight for you. We did. You’ll live through it.

Your car might develop vapor lock and stall out just inches away from a 1200-pound moose. Ours did. You’ll live to tell about it. 

You might contemplate jumping out of your vehicle moving at high speed when things get to be too much. Ok, we never did this, but we definitely considered it.

On a family road trip, the good almost always outweighs the bad, and even the bad always makes for a funny memory when it’s had time to fade a bit. Perhaps Dan Stanford said it best, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” 

You’ll also share countless moments and laughs, bringing you closer together. And your kids will definitely remember the journey – maybe even more than the destination.

Here’s to the open road. Safe travels!

Comedy In Cars With Kids- A Playlist

Traveling long distances in cars with kids is in many ways like bathing a cat. It goes against their constitution, it’s often a last resort, and you basically just hope to live through the experience with minimal scarring.

You can prepare for the young’uns entertainment with various tech-y items, art supplies, toys, and books. You pack snacks as though, instead of trekking through civilization, you’re actually about to set sail to the New World. Throw in a couple of pillows and a blanket each, and if traveling with reasonable people, you might journey at least one town over before someone files a complaint about something.

There’s got to be something in this for you. And since you totally can’t drink and drive, I suggest comedy.

While I could compile hours and hours of hilarious bits of storytelling you could listen to when the kids fall asleep, there’s no nap guarantee. Instead, I’ve rounded up some kid-safe gems you can fire up at any time.