When I got married at age 22 and had my first baby just 10 days shy of my 24th birthday, I had a lot of people my age telling me that they didn’t want to settle down yet because they had important things to do. Like travel.
As it turns out, I’ve had the opportunity to travel more as a married adult and mom than I ever thought I would. Josh and I don’t have some long itinerary for family travel, and it’s not exactly like we’re jetsetting across the world (though ironically, I didn’t fly internationally for the first time until I was pregnant with Paisley).
However, we do take a lot of road trips with our kids – usually one per quarter. Between family spread out across the country and Josh attending school out of state, we’ve had the opportunity to road trip quite a few times in the past couple of years. In fact, we log a few thousand miles on each kid before he or she is even born.
As a result, I’ve gained quite a bit of experience as a road tripping mom. Now that we have two toddlers and a newborn to travel with, we’ve definitely gotten some parts of the journey down to a science. Here are my top tips for road tripping with toddlers:
1. Opt for a Vacation Rental
When it comes to choosing vacation lodging, we always opt for a vacation rental home or condo, rather than a hotel room. Vacation rentals are becoming more and more popular, and there are options in nearly every location and at every price point you could imagine.
As a family of five, we’re already too big to be comfortable in the traditional hotel room, and unless we spring for a suite, we’re all stuck in one giant space together. Since I’m not keen on the idea of going to bed at the same time as my one-year-old, I definitely prefer the flexibility that a vacation home has to offer.
Additionally, vacation homes are just that: homes. That means that you get all of the amenities of your home environment, even when you’re thousands of miles away.
Like a kitchen, which frees you up to prepare meals and snacks whenever you please.
Or a laundry room, which means you can clean messy kids’ clothes whenever they need it without having to spend half the day in a laundromat or your hotel’s coin operated laundry room.
Plus, having separate sleeping rooms and a living area means you can entertain or simply kick back for some grown up time long after the kids have gone to bed.
Lower priced vacation rentals tend to be a bit pricier than the lowest budget hotel rooms. But in our case, we save a lot of money on other things, like eating out (since we can prepare meals at “home”) and diapers (since having access to a laundry room means we can travel with cloth diapers instead of buying disposables). Overall, the cost savings from staying in a vacation rental make it a more economical option than staying in a hotel.
2. Plan Your Menu
Whether you stay in a hotel, with family or in a vacation rental, it’s always a good idea to plan your trip menu before you head out. For our family, this can mean anything from jotting down meals for each day we’re gone and plotting which we’ll prepare ourselves and when we’ll eat out to having a massive cooking day before we leave so that we can bring a bunch of prepared food along in a cooler.
My favorite method of menu planning is plotting out each meal and DIYing all of my meal components so we can simply throw things into a cooler and cook stuff when we arrive – kind of like Hello Fresh by me for me (yes, I’m a dork). This takes a lot of the stress out of prepping meals while on vacation – no chopping vegetables or measuring condiments – but allows us to have healthy, homemade dinners while we’re away.
We also carefully plan a car snack bag, since driving seems to make everyone bored, which in turn make everyone hungry. All. The. Time. I like to throw in snacks like chopped fruits and homemade crackers, as well as protein-rich snacks like hard boiled eggs and nuts. We have a strict “no eating in the car” rule, so these come out at fuel stops and we enjoy a picnic and a little break along the way.
Since we limit the amount of processed food we eat, we don’t have many options for eating at restaurants or picking up grab-and-go food while we’re on a road trip, so we plan those excursions sparingly. Meal planning also saves us a lot of money and keeps us from having to tame hungry toddlers in restaurants multiple times a day.
3. Take Advantage of Sleep Schedules
We love to drive when our kids are sleeping, mostly because sleeping kids don’t fight with each other! They also don’t need to eat as much or take as many potty breaks, which helps us to speed through a large chunk of our trip without much stopping.
In general, our kids seem to be a lot happier when they’re well rested. If we start a road trip late at night, we usually get a good long sleep out of the kids, since they’re already used to sleeping through the night (hashtag: blessed). Then we’re almost to our destination by the time they get up.
The biggest downside, of course, is that we arrive wherever we’re going with well rested toddlers and tired parents. But what else is new?
4. Pack Outfits, Not Solo Garments
I have a terrible, space hogging habit of packing every single garment I think I might want to wear while I’m away. But when it comes to packing for my kids, I’m a space saving robot, mostly because I don’t want to admit that my children’s clothes are big enough to take up enough space for two individual bags. (I have issues.)
I’ve found that the best way to pack kids’ clothes is to pack them by the outfit – one for each kid for day we’re away, plus a few extras if we’re not going to have access to laundry facilities.
For our most recent trip away, I took it a step further and put each outfit, along with accessories, stuffed it into a gallon sized Ziploc bag, and pushed all of the air out to save extra space in the kids’ luggage. I even labeled every bag by day to keep everything straight.
Not only did this save us some space, but it also kept things SUPER simple, so I didn’t have to try to match pre-coordinated outfits after they shifted around in a travel bag. And Dad could dress the kids without committing fashion crimes.
5. Stick to “House Rules”
One of the easiest ways to make a road trip with toddlers suck is to toss everyday rules out the window while you’re away. Vacation is already a huge upheaval for routine, diet and sleep conditions. A lot of times, we overcomplicate things by letting everyday rules slide while we’re away.
For us, leaving the proverbial rule book at home is a disaster waiting to happen when we’re on the road. If something is expected or off limits at home, it needs to be expected or off limits when away on a road trip, as well. Now, we keep a handle on regular rules to ensure that the kids stay within the expected boundaries and everyone has a good time.
We’re certainly not strict, controlling vacation helicopter parents – believe me, there are plenty of treats for the kiddos on a Rystedt Road Trip. But we also know that if our kids are used to things being one way at home, they appreciate the consistency of things being the same while we’re on the go.
6. Make the Most of Little Things
We are by no means big budget travelers, even though we travel often. The blessing of traveling with toddlers is that they have no concept of how big or little a fun excursion might be.
For example, when we were in Florida right before Paisley’s second birthday, I was majorly tempted to book a family excursion to Disney World. But even with kids under three getting into the park for free, this was still an adventure way out of our price range.
Instead, we took Paisley to Disney Springs, which is 100% free to walk around. We took her to the Rainforest Café and then to the gift shop, where she could pick out a birthday present. And you know what? She loved it. We also spent about what we would have for half of an adult park ticket.
Paisley is three now and still has zero concept that there’s a difference between a Disney World trip and a Disney Springs trip. Heck, my kids still think that a trip to PetSmart is basically a trip to the zoo.
Toddlers enjoy doing things with Mom and Dad simply because they’re doing things with Mom and Dad. Whatever your budget, there are fun little things that are huge things in the eyes of your littlest road travelers.
We’re taking full advantage of our kids’ innate wonder and curiosity over the things that Josh and I have done a thousand times before. They don’t know any different… And soon enough, they’re going to be way too big and way too cool to be awed by getting sprinkles on an ice cream cone or looking at lobsters in the grocery store.
Implementing these road trip tips has helped us to cut down on the drama that traveling with toddlers can bring about. I used to be afraid to go outside of a certain “home radius” for fear that I’d lose control of the situation or my kids would need something that I couldn’t provide.
Now we travel with confidence, and actually have the chance to enjoy our trips, rather than dread them.
Are you a road tripping parent with toddlers? What are your favorite travel tips? I’d love to hear from you!