Taking a Car Trip With Your Kids: Basic Tips To Help You Plan Smart

I've learned lots about traveling with kids the hard way. Lesson #1: PLAN AHEAD. Read this post for my best car trip tips, and you can avoid my mistakes!

Next weekend we’re off to visit my in-laws. But instead of over the river and through the woods, our 21st-century car trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house involves nearly 300 miles in my beloved Subaru Outback. At least most of it is on interstate highways, but you can do the math: We’re talking at least five hours of actual “drive time.” And that doesn’t count stops.

I’ve spent most of my adult life living far enough away from family that a long car trip was generally the cheapest and easiest way to see them. Whereas my younger single self sometimes took a train or plane trip instead, the cost and hassle of doing this with kids has made my trusty all-wheel-drive station wagon the automatic default choice for visiting most of our far-flung family.

In fact, my husband and I were so used to packing up the car to see our folks that we thought nothing of planning three road trips for the first two months after Kimmie’s birth. Including a 350-mile-each-way drive to my mother’s house in the dead of winter, so our 22-day-old daughter could be baptized in the church where we were married. (What were we thinking?)

Each time we do a major road trip, it gets easier – in part because our kids get older, which cuts the amount of gear I feel absolutely, positively compelled to haul along. My kiddos are the first grandchildren on both sides, so the first time my husband and I took Kimmie to visit our childhood homes, our parents’ houses had been newborn-free for over three decades. In other words, we had zero gear waiting for us on arrival.

How not to pack: Gear

So into the car, along with our own clothes, went

  • A half-dozen outfits per day for Baby.
  • Breast pump/extra batteries, plus enough bottles/milk containers/diapers to get us from point A to point B (which was suddenly an 11-12 hour trip, not a 6-7 hour one as before), and still have a few clean spares of each on arrival. (Remember, both pumping and bottle-feeding can occur while traveling at highway speeds, so long as the grownup doing them is not also the one driving. Nursing, not so much.)
  • At least one play yard, sometimes two.
  • And the baby bathtub.
  • And the high chair, lest Mama be the one holding Baby in lap (and thereby wearing Baby’s meals) three times per day.
  • Plus baby monitor, noise machine, music box, and nightlights. Plus the bibs, sippies, miniature spoons, and unbreakable plates/bowls that gradually replaced the bottles and milk storage containers.
  • Not to mention enough baby cereal, yogurt, bananas, rice cakes, etc. to last until we made it to the grocery store.
  • And later still, multiple potty seats (one for each floor of the house) and multiple step-stools (lest every trip to the bathroom by our preschooler require an adult chaperone to turn the water on and off).

How not to pack: Toys

And the toys – holy cow, the toys! Because the only thing more exhausting (I’ve learned) than visiting the home of someone who doesn’t have small children, is visiting such a home when there are no toys present, either supplied by your host or brought along by you.

As far as small children are concerned, the entire world is full of toys waiting for them to explore. They are far less bothered than grownups are by the fine distinctions we draw between, say, Acceptable Toys for Baby (teething and otherwise) and Everything Else:

  • China and crystal knickknacks;
  • Grownup books and magazines;
  • Remote controls and other small electronics;
  • The dog’s water dish;
  • The cat toy under the couch. You know, the one that belonged to the cat who died last decade.

And when you’re talking toys for a trip so far from home, you’re really talking TWO sets of toys: One set for playing with once you reach your destination. Plus another set whose sole purpose is to keep your little angel behaving angelically for as much of the long drive as possible.

Tips to help you plan smart

I’ll devote future posts to such topics as packing for an overnight trip with Baby, flying with small kids, and actually surviving the drive itself (especially if you’re the only adult in the car!), among other topics. But for now, my parting suggestion on taking that car trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house (or any other overnight destination you plan to visit regularly) involves seeing what advance planning you can do on the other end, with grandparental assistance:

1. Borrow

  • Do they have friends from whom they can borrow baby gear? If so, is it current/recent and safe?

In our case, all of our parents’ friends had older grandchildren – and the only gear either set could dig up at first, old highchairs, bordered on inconvenient at best and unsafe at worst (let’s just say that restraining systems and trays have come a long way). So this wasn’t much help for us, but it’s a crucial place to start.

2. Rent

  • Is there a gear exchange or rental service you can access on their end?

Larger cities and vacation destinations often have businesses that rent baby gear to traveling families. If your parents’ town doesn’t, perhaps they can borrow some things from their church or another community organization.

3. Buy

  • Might they consider acquiring a few staple items?

Especially if their prospects (or hopes) for additional grandchildren are good, or you plan to visit them every few months, your folks might be more than happy to invest in their own stash of baby gear, preferably in consultation with you (i.e., so you can keep them in the loop on 21st-century safety standards, so they know that a crib full of blankets and stuffed animals, with slats wider apart than a soda can, is not part of your nursery-away-from-home wish list for your newborn).

Grandparents can easily stock their home with a small stash of age-appropriate toys via their local church’s annual rummage sale (where my mom scored most of her collection), yard sales, or local thrift shops. (Just make sure they check with you on current safety standards and your preferences!)

Craigslist (if they have a good one in their area), for-sale bulletin boards at work and community centers, and secondhand stores oriented toward baby and kid gear are also super places to pick up used gear at a fraction of the cost of new stuff. The internet, discount stores that sell overstocks, and clearance sales on discontinued patterns or models are also a good way to go.

If they can only get ONE item for your infant’s first visit:

If the grandparental units can only afford the money and/or space to make one investment along these lines, I’d recommend a very basic play yard (such as the basic Cosco model we got on clearance in a discontinued pattern as a second play yard for travel). We eventually convinced each set of grandparents to get one, so we’d have one less thing to schlep back and forth.

If their house is multistory, see if they’d consider getting two – one for sleeping in, and a second for wherever you and Baby spend waking hours, whether inside or in the yard. (One definite advantage of the Cosco model is it’s small enough and light enough to carry through most doorways without breaking it down first.)

Why a play yard?

As you may have discovered already, play yards are for so much more than playing in. You can also use them for

  • Blocking access to the sharp edges of a stone hearth;
  • A portable crib for Baby;
  • Creating a “Baby-safe zone” where Baby’s toys (not to mention Baby) won’t become deadly tripping hazards for unaccustomed-to-stepping-over-such-things grandparents;
  • Keeping Baby separate from Grandma and Grandpa’s friendly resident pets; and
  • Containing Baby in Grandma and Grandpa’s yard, on their deck, or by their pool.

So if your folks are willing to spring for just one item to make your visits easier (and thereby increase the chances that you’ll visit again), this is the one I’d recommend.

What tips do YOU have for road-tripping with infants?

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20 thoughts on “Taking a Car Trip With Your Kids: Basic Tips To Help You Plan Smart”

    1. *thanks* – glad to hear you second that hack, Jasmine (also so glad you discovered it on your own, too!) – it’s amazing what a huge difference that can make 🙂

  1. I don’t have any kiddies yet, but a lot of these tips work even if you don’t 🙂 I recently just did a road trip to the lake district – it was a 7.5hr drive each way! x

    1. You know, I’d never thought of it that way, but I can totally see your point – on the rare occasions I get to travel solo, I revert to my old habits (ALWAYS bring bicycle if it’s not winter – meaning long drives when flying would be faster/easier) – researching bike rentals ahead of time might save me some hassle, even if it wasn’t quite the same as my own road bike on long rides 🙂

    1. It is totally a game-changer. I think it was after that first trip for Kimmie’s christening that we begged my mom to consider getting one, since we had several more trips to her already scheduled in the upcoming months. It made a HUGE difference when it came time to pack the trunk, not to mention one more thing to pack up on the “last minute” list at either end.

  2. My husband and I have been putting off an extended road trip with our son for some time now. I think these are great tips I can use to finally take the plunge for that trip. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You’re more than welcome, Elle, and I hope they do help! The first one is always the hardest to wrap your brain around, but once you’ve got that first long road trip under your belt, each one gets a little easier – your kiddo keeps getting older, and practice really does make better! 🙂 (at least in my experience)

  3. Great tips! You are a brave woman to take long trips with your little one! I find toys aren’t really necessary during family visits because everyone is so eager to hold or play with the kids! No extra entertainment needed!

    1. HAH! They say necessity is the mother of invention! You are lucky to have your family a lot closer, by the sounds. Believe me, when you camp out for days on end with extended family because it takes a day of travel each way, they get pretty sick of holding/entertaining the kids (and the kids of being held) soon enough 🙂 Now that they’re a bit older, both the actual drive and the entertaining-themselves-and-each-other-at-destination are a little easier, thank goodness!

  4. This is amazing, we just too an 18 hour car ride twice to and from Phoenix to Houston having a new bag for each kids filled to the brim with in car activities was our saving grace and when they got bored with that their tablets were charged up and ready to go (most of the time) I am lucky that we are completely out of the baby stage and didn’t need any gear this time, it made packing a little bit easier!!

    1. Aiyiyi! We haven’t attempted anything anywhere near that long yet. You get the gold star! (but if your kids are older, I’m sure that helps a TON!). We haven’t done a car trip with tablets entertaining the kids yet, tho I suspect that day will come when they both have their school-issued iPads. (!!!) Now that they’re both reading, we’ve swapped out most of the toys for a new-to-them stack of books each way. I totally agree, I am SO glad to leave behind the gear-schlepping aspect of baby and toddler travel!

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