The Ultimate Guide for Traveling With Kids: It Does Not Have To Be Stressful
Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Ever since we had our first daughter in 2014, we’ve traveled by car several times a year. When she was barely a month old, we DROVE from Pittsburgh, PA to Mystic, CT. That’s an eight-plus-hour trip without stops. When you add a 1-month-old, it becomes at least 12 hours. That.Is.LONG. Regardless, we never gave up traveling. For one, my family lives overseas and we have to take long trips whether we want to or not. So early on we decided that our kids will be travelers. That we will not turn into the hermit crabs and never leave our zip code area. Now, 7 years and three kids later, everyone is a wonderful traveler! But it takes intentional prep. Read on to find out my most helpful tips for sane travel!
Prepare your child
Talk to your child about what is going to happen. Especially if it is their first time. We all fear the unknown - no matter how exciting that unknown might be. Go through the trip that’s ahead of you. Look at the map of where you will be traveling to. Explain how you and your child will pack for the trip. Have them pack their own backpack with the things they would like to have while traveling: their lovey, the favorite toy, the favorite book, and a snack. Something simple. It will teach your child responsibility and give them control over the travel ahead.
Don’t lie to your child
If you are getting ready to conquer a 12-hour road trip, tell your child about it! Don’t lie and say “oh it’s not so bad, you will be fine, it will be quick.” Wrong! It WILL be long, tiring, and maybe at some points boring. Tell them.
What does “a long time” mean? Is it as long as their favorite TV show? Is it as long as the 45min drive to the grandparents? Tell them that “hey, we will be in the car for 8 hours - that means we will have to be patient. You will need to be creative, play some games, and even take a nap in the car. Then we will stop for lunch, ok? After lunch we will only have one TV show amount of time left before we get there!” This helps your child put what “long” means into perspective. We all fear the unknown. Imagine how it feels for the immature mind who cannot understand the concept of time yet. The sequence of events eliminates the stress and anxiety of the unknown. And trust me - you will have a much more patient traveler, and less questions of “are we there yet?”
During the weeks leading up to the trip, I would preemptively mention to my girls how glad I am that they are coming with me because I will need all the help with the baby that I can get (hehe!). I would say something like “oh my goodness, how will I reach your sister to give her a snack?” Or “what will I do if your baby sister cries…” And immediately my 6-year-old would say “momma, we will help you! Don’t worry!” And you bet they did! She or her 4-year-old sister would “watch” the baby while I helped the other sister in the bathroom (right next to me, but it still counts!). They would make silly faces or play games with the baby if she was getting fussy, which in turn kept them entertained, too. And so forth. The sweetest! And each time that my girls fulfilled their promise of helping me - I praised them and rewarded them. As a result, it only encouraged them to continue helping. If your kids are anywhere as competitive as mine, they will race to help first. Yay!
Speaking of rewarding your child - prepare! Make sure to have their favorite candy on hand or something else small that you can pull out at a moment's notice. If it’s in your budget, plan to buy a new toy or a treat at your next stop. It will give your child something to look forward to AND will encourage them to continue being patient. I found that budgeting for a small treat at a gas station eliminated the stress for me too. I didn't have to say "no" 17 times on our way to the bathroom through the aisles of colorful candies, or feel tense that a meltdown might happen.
As for you, mom and dad, be patient! I cannot repeat this enough.
Expect the worst so anything else will seem so much better.
Have reasonable expectations. Your child is strapped into the most uncomfortable position for hours. Wouldn't YOU be annoyed at some point? You can't turn, can't lie down for the nap, can't even recline! Discomfort with the capital D.
Take your time traveling. Be ready for the bathroom stops that take longer than you might like. Be ready to walk around and stretch out your legs. Maybe do some bunny hops or frog jumps on the sidewalk? We always play "move like an animal" at rest stops.
Have small busy bags ready for when boredom takes over the little minds, to prevent the emotions from driving their behavior (read below).
PRO TIP: If you are traveling with a child that still needs to nap, may I suggest having a lollipop on hand? As much as I don’t encourage sugar for the little bodies (especially if they have no room to go crazy during the sugar rush), when you are traveling with littles it is all hands on deck! Or, all tricks-on-deck. Sucking on a lollipop mimics the soothing sensation of the pacifier.
Keeping your child busy
When we travel with our girls, my goal for activities is something small or something we can use and throw away (and make room in our bags for souvenirs!).
How to use busy bags
Bagging just adds to the excitement of the screen-free activities because the child doesn't know what's inside. It's like opening a birthday present! Also, paper bags help keep these activities organized and contained. I give one per hour to each of our kids. I have used busy bags so much that by now my kids know that they have to be kind and patient in the car if they want their busy bag at the end of the hour. I also found that this process helps the kids who cannot tell time have an idea of how much longer they'll have to be in the car. Is your trip going to be three-busy-bags-long? Eight?
What to put in the busy bags:
Each busy bag should contain an activity and a treat. Kids tend to enjoy snacks more than the actual meals, so I choose to give in on trips and let my girls have the joy of frequent snacking.
Cling on stickers - these are great for little ones because they stick onto windows, faux leather, plastic, vinyl, etc. without ruining the surfaces. They can be removed and reapplied over and over. My 18-month-old spent hours with her stickers, transferring them from her car seat onto the car window (sometimes, her face...) and back.
Activity books - mental stimulation is as important and tiring as physical one. Take your child shopping before the trip so they can pick out the activity book they want. They will be so excited to have something new for the trip! Brain Quest books are by far my favorite for anyone 4 years old and older.
Mosaic stickers. This helps visual development as well, and I am all about multi-benefit activities!
Paint by sticker books
Another one of our favorites is the Wacky Faces sticker books. Make a contest of who can make a sillier face, and expect some giggles!
Finger paint - no water, no mess. Great sensory play, that can be left behind if all of the pages get used up.
Knot a Quilt kit like this one https://amzn.to/3z2Tejy My 7-year-old did not look up for 2 hours straight!
Build your own toy kit: stay busy building, then keep busy playing with it.
Bag of fruit loops so they can make their own snack necklace for later. My girls prefer actual beads to make their necklaces, but again - I like activities that I can dispose of. And...not to have to pick up tiny beads out of the car for the upcoming months.
A notebook and some markers to draw the map of where you’re going or where you would like to go for the next trip. These are my favorite markers for the little hands https://amzn.to/3zvL84D
Tangrams. I love these travel tangrams for car rides. They are compact AND magnetic, so the pieces don't go flying around while your child tries to build the pictures. This particular set is from Montessori and offers different levels of design which allows plenty of learning fun from my littlest to my oldest.
Audiobooks. Audible is the best space saver! https://amzn.to/3PgOQUY I keep the app on my phone and stories are readily available any time! Some audiobooks and podcasts can even be downloaded so you could play them when the internet connection is poor or unavailable. I used to think that audiobooks were nonsense... That it would just be an unnecessary noise because my kids wouldn't listen. Oh, how wrong I was! My girls get so involved and listen calmly for hours! We even started listening to the stories on our drives to after-school activities. You can pick anything from Disney stories to educational podcasts.
Lite-brite. I love this travel-sized one for car rides. You can even find refill sheets based on your child's interests, like this one https://amzn.to/3RR6LmS
PRO TIP: get some disposable containers! This is especially good for road trips so you don’t have to spend time (and money) at drive-throughs or restaurants. If you plan to depart right before the next meal time - eat in the car. It will keep the kids busy for a little while so you can cover some ground. When they are done - toss the container! And to make things even better - these are compostable!
Remember, that you are in charge of which activities are age-appropriate for your child. For example, small parts (beads or lite-brite pegs) pose a choking hazard for toddlers or any kid that might find pleasure in shoving small things up their noses (you know what I mean?!).
Lastly, keep in mind, that some activities will not be busy enough to occupy your child for a full hour until the next busy-bag time. THAT'S OK! Maybe the first hour of the trip (or the entire first trip) will be a learning curve for them. They will be fine! Trust me. Little boredom never hurt anyone. But you have to be patient too. Remind them to look out the window. Talk. Sing. Play with the activity from the previous busy bag. Watch trees so you know how to draw them. If you read and used my advice from above and explained to your child that they will be bored at times, then they will be expecting this downtime.
What activities have you used before that occupied your child during travels? Leave a comment!