My family went on a three-day trip a couple weeks ago that involved lots of riding in the car. Nervous about the idea of traveling that far with a preschooler and a baby, I called on my friends and readers for their best advice. The tips they offered were excellent, and I learned a few tricks from their valuable insight. They also inspired me to reach out further and turn it all into an entire blog post solving one of life’s great dilemmas for families – traveling with kids without losing your mind!
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I have quite a lot of traveling experience. My family took a vacation almost every year when I was growing up, and we often went far and always by car. So I remember a few things about family vacations from the perspective of a kid.
In my high school and college years, my travels took me around the world. I visited Canada, Mexico, France, England, Italy, Hungary, China, and Morocco, and I spent a semester studying abroad in Spain. So I know a few tricks when it comes to traveling as a single person.
But my experience traveling as a parent is limited. We’ve taken a couple trips with kids, but not enough to give me the kind of valuable experience I wanted to offer other moms.
So I called on other, more seasoned, mommas and asked them to give me their best and favorite advice! And I have to say, they did not disappoint! What they gave me produced a GOLD MINE of tips for traveling with kids that will be sure to help you rock your next family vacation!
TIPS FOR A MORE RELAXED FAMILY VACATION
Of all the tips I received, there was one that was repeated over and over: pack each day’s outfit for each child in a large resealable bag, complete with underwear, socks, and accessories like tights, hair bows, etc. That way they are easy to find and grab, and you don’t have to dig through bags or suitcases. This was mentioned by several people, and I think it’s genuis!
Here are some other tips:
“We travelled with a potty chair. Always! That way we could stop anywhere when we had a little that needed to go.” – Teri
“Everyone has their own suitcase and is responsible for carrying it. These days, the kids often just use a backpack, especially for shorter trips.” – Linda
“Always have an extra outfit actually in the car (just in case) so you don’t have to pull out the luggage if something happens”. – Emily
“A few years ago, I started creating a packing checklist for every vacation destination. When the time comes to go to that vacation spot again, I go onto my Word document and print that checklist off. I can then start packing and crossing things off confidently, knowing I’m not going to be missing anything. (Plus, I don’t have to spend half a day creating that checklist each time and hoping I’m not forgetting anything!) Now, for us, packing for a family of seven has become a breeze!” – Denise, my friend and blogger at www.deniserenae.com
Debbie, a blogger from Merci Debbie, had this advice to offer for packing and traveling with a baby:
“The best thing I’ve learned from traveling with a baby is to pack light! Before I had a baby I used to be an extreme over packer, I would end up with multiple outfits and shoes, a full suitcase and a jam packed carry on. Because I did my first flight with my son alone when he was 8 weeks old, I had to edit myself and learn to bring only the necessities so that I could finagle it all—which allowed me to focus all my energy on the baby.
I now travel lighter than ever: both of us packed into one carry on suitcase and then a diaper bag carry on. I’m still packing multiple outfits for us both, but work hard to make sure that a couple items can transfer and work with other pieces. I’ve even gone as far as ordering diapers and wipes off of amazon and having them shipped to my destination so that I don’t have to pack those.
Traveling lighter has allowed me to stress less as I travel with my son. My primary focus has now turned to making sure I have our IDs and money, toys and snacks for the trip, and always, always an extra outfit in your carry on for the baby. Owning a baby carrier has been key, I often wear my son through the airport which offers up one less thing for me to carry in my hands, and one less worry now that he’s walking. Having toys and pacifiers, diapers and wipes are all necessary, but I don’t let it consume my packing or my trip. I’ve learned that traveling light and with a less stressed attitude makes everything go a bit easier.”
My Best Packing Advice
Though I don’t have a lot of experience traveling with kids, I have packed for a lot of my own trips, and here is my best advice:
Make a packing list! Start it days (even weeks) before you need to leave so you have plenty of time to keep adding to it as you think of things. You might even want to store your list on your phone so you can jot down your thoughts as soon as they come to you, no matter where you are. To think of everything you need to bring, mentally walk yourself through your usual routines or the activities you might be engaging in on your trip. I can’t tell you how many items I’ve almost forgotten but caught using this strategy!
A few people told me that they often drive at night so their kids sleep through the whole trip. One mom said that the last time they visited her parents, her parents took the kids for a few hours once they got there so she and her husband could sleep. If you will have an opportunity to catch up on the lost sleep once you reach your destination, that sounds like an ideal plan!
Other advice included:
“Breaking up the drive as much as possible without sacrificing too much time has been our go-to when traveling with our boys. When [our oldest] was about a year old, we vacationed in Virginia and did our best to just keep driving as long as he was asleep. This had us stopping for lunch in the late afternoon, but we had snacks with us, so it worked!” – Kishona
“Plan travel around nap time.” – Emily
“We always try to find a park (or something fun) to stop at every couple of hours.” – Sarah
The common element that almost everyone mentioned was food. Snacks appear to be the secret formula for keeping kids happy on long trips. Here is what a few people had to say on the subject:
“I made sure to pack lots of easy, not messy snacks and snack cups for the kids, and we made sure to let them out to stretch and run around a little when we stopped.” – Anne
“Lots of snacks available. Bento boxes are fun!” – Tammy
(I had to ask what Bento boxes were. Check these out!)
“I always made sure there were plenty of snacks. We had a box for the dry snacks (crackers, raisins, granola, cookies) and a cooler for fruit, meat, and cheese.” – Linda
“Healthy snacks like nuts, granola bars, natural beef jerky, etc. are helpful to have in your travel bag or purse. Schedules always seem to get thrown off when you travel, but having something that can stop hunger (and not hype your kids up) is really helpful in preventing meltdowns. I always have something with me so we can be more flexible as we explore.” – Lindsay, blogger at Let Me Give You Some Advice
For more from Lindsay, check out some of her other helpful posts about traveling with kids:
Beat the Boredom
And for activities to beat the boredom and release all the pent up energy from travel, quite a few people had some valuable (and creative!) ideas to offer there, too:
“We also made gas station stops into a physical activity. Jumping jacks… Running..if there was a safe place, of course. Anything to get rid of the wiggles.” – Teri
“Family singing (YMCA has always been a family fave!)” – Tammy
My friend Kishona (Life in Lape Haven) told me that her boys loved “magnetic fishing.” She made little felt fish with paperclips on them, then dropped them on the floor of the car. Her boys then used a string with a magnet on it to catch the fish. She also said that pipe cleaners have been a big hit with her boys! She hands them a couple at a time and lets them make different things. (My son Aidan would love this!)
“See a chick-fil-A or other place with a play place? Stop! Let them play. Eat in silence. Get back in the car. That’s my trick.” – Liz
“When they were littles we strapped a small tv/vcr unit in between the front seats so they could watch videos during the longer trips (before they could read). We also made “activity bags” with paper on a clipboard, markers/pencils, seek&find books, dot-to-dots, travel bingo, window markers. When they could read we added books to the activity bags. Another great resource for car trips are the Adventure in Odyssey CD’s!” – Linda
“The alphabet game works well in the car. You start with “A” and name something you see that starts with that letter, then the next person does “B” – or you try to beat everyone by naming the next object before anyone else. Depends on how competitive you want to be! License plates are also fun to keep track of.” – Linda
“When kids get older, you can use a map and draw out the path you take to your location. You can sketch in “stops” where the kids can play a game to win prizes at that stop. We also liked playing the ABC game and seeing how many license plates we could find. You can use the map to color in the states!” – Ashlei
“I see something…(name a color)” – My mom
“Keep toys, books, etc. back so that they are fresh again for long rides. Sing alongs and telling stories from the parents’ childhoods go over really well with our kids. They also like playing the different parts of favorite stories (eg. Goldilocks and the 3 Bears).” – Sarah
“For long car rides we have portable CD players and headphones so the kids can listen to books on CD or Adventures in Odyssey.” – Brianne
A friend and mentor of mine, Cara, was a treasure trove of suggestions for activities! Here’s what she had to say:
“One thing that we have done that everyone enjoys is reading aloud. I pick chapter books to read to the kids, and some of them are not necessarily “kid” books. I have read Heaven Is For Real, The Shack, and the Orphan Train Adventures Series by Joan Lowery Nixon, for a few examples. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would be another great read-aloud. For younger kids, I recommend E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little).
Each of the kids pack a “fun” bag for their time in the car. As they get older, I oversee the contents less and less. They often pack a tablet (which they hardly use except on trips), books, Bible and devotional, crayons and notepad or coloring book, and dry erase board and dry erase markers. They often include small toys, stuffed animals, or LEGOs (I tell them they are responsible for them). I know my nephews are huge fans of their dry erase boards. I do get somewhat nervous with the dry erase boards with younger children because those can make permanent marks on clothing (which may come off with rubbing alcohol and diligent hands).
We are fans of the DVD player. Our kids see movies as rewards and so they value times when they can watch a movie of their choosing.”
She also mentioned that for herself, she likes to stay entertained (and resist the temptation to be a backseat driver 😉 ) by reading aloud to her family and working on simple crochet or knitting projects.
Another experienced mom of four, Laura, suggested magnetic building tiles (like these) for slightly older kids and soft books with lots of crinkle pages, ribbons, strings, etc. for babies.
Our Favorite Travel Activities
Our boys exceeded my wildest expectations on our recent trip. Here were a few of their favorite toys, games, and activities:
- Lots of books! (read by me, of course)
- Thomas and Friends Me Reader
- Taggies animals/blanket
- Little Einstein CDs (this one was perfect for lulling them to sleep!)
- Picnic lunches at the nearest playground
- Seek & Find books
- Travel Shape Sorter
- String of beads (this simple item kept Aidan entertained for hours!)
Behavior and attitudes
As for possible behavior issues, check out some of this great advice:
“When the kids were older, we paid them each some money for good attitudes and no fighting in the car. It was money for them to spend on souvenirs which we probably would’ve bought for them anyway. 😉” – Tammy
Kishona, from Life in Lape Haven, offers this awesome idea (I love it so much, I’m thinking about applying it at home during our day-to-day activities!):
“On our recent family road trip, we borrowed an idea from my oldest son’s kindergarten class to track and reward good behavior: a clip chart. Instead of a traditional chart, though, I just used some string. I colored a long piece of twine with markers, making sections of red, yellow, green, blue, and purple, and I tied that twine (so that the colors showed) around my visor in the car. Then I marked two mini clothespins with my boys’ initials, one for each boy. I also colored the clothespins so the boys could see exactly where their clip was on the “chart.”
Every morning the clips started out in the middle of the chart on the green section. If the boys were good – such as being helpful, cooperative, kind, or extra patient – they got to “clip up” to blue, with their goal being to clip all the way up to purple and stay there until the end of the day, so that they could receive a small reward. However, if they weren’t being good – fighting, disobeying, being whiny, or complaining – they would be clipped down. If they ended their day on red, they would earn a different kind of “reward.” (Thankfully, that didn’t happen.)
This system worked really well with our boys, and since we explained it to them ahead of time, they had a clear understanding of what we expected of them and what they were working toward. It was a good way to reinforce that our behavior is a choice and that we can adjust our behavior when we’ve made the wrong choice, and it gave us a chance to talk a little bit about forgiveness, grace, and how God’s mercies “are new every morning.”
We liked this so much that we’re making an in-home version to use daily.”
Kishona wrote a post on her blog, Life in Lape Haven, about a slightly different clip system that her family used on their most recent family vacation that helped them make their vacation about more than just them. It is seriously awesome, and I think you’ll be inspired by how they used their vacation to reach out to others. Take a look!
Other Traveling Advice
“If your child gets car sick, put one of the silicone bibs with a pocket on them to help protect car seat straps.” – Emily
ONCE YOU GET THERE…
“We’re planning on renting a house for our next trip. We’re going with my parents, so it costs about the same as renting two rooms but it gives us a little more freedom with the kids (they can go to bed at normal bedtime while we stay up, they have more room to play, etc).” – Anne
“One thing that we’ve found to be important when traveling with the kids is to not cram too much activity into the day, otherwise they get tired and cranky. They still need nap times and to go to bed at a fairly normal hour.” – Anne
“Install a white noise app on your phone. Sleeping in new places can mean lots of strange new noises and a white noise app (we use Relax Melodies) is perfect for blocking out sounds and helping everyone sleep a little easier.” – Lindsay, blogger at Let Me Give You Some Advice
“Put a fitted sheet over a pack and play to keep the bugs and sun out. Keeps little ones happy.” – Allison
“The biggest thing I think about with camping (in our camper…I’ve never tent-camped with kids) is the food. Inevitably, we are setting up camp at supper time, which means everyone is hungry and patience is a tad short. I try to plan a meal that will take little prep (grilling with a salad or another already prepped side) to make the meal come together quickly. Then I also plan slow-cooker meals for other days of camping because I would like a vacation, too!
When we set up the camper (unhitching from the vehicle, leveling the camper, hooking up water, etc.), the setup process can take 30-45 minutes. The kids know that everyone should have hands available to help. We could assign specific jobs, but usually we simply are all available and move to do what the next task is.” – Cara
My good friend Brianne (whose family of 6 camps on a regular basis) had this creative advice to offer:
“We have toys specific to the camper. They don’t come out of the camper, so when we go camping they are “special”.
When showering at the campground our kids wear swim shoes! Shower stalls are gross.
We also use the bathroom as storage in the camper. We don’t use the shower so I put up a couple tension rods and we hang all the kids clothes in there. Undies go in a hanging shoe shelf thing that I cut off so it only has 4 slots ( one for each child). We use the bathtub to hold our shower caddies and a large hamper for dirty clothes. [My husband] and I wear cheap flip flops to the shower. Also for little ones it’s much easier to use a terry cloth robe for the shower house. No undies or PJs needed after showering. Just put the robe on and head black to the camper to finish getting dressed.”
Although my own personal experience traveling with little ones is just beginning, I think my friends, family, and fellow bloggers did a pretty outstanding job of packing this post with valuable advice. I hope you benefitted from their insight as much as I did!
But the fun isn’t over! If you have some really awesome tricks up your sleeve that you didn’t see listed above, would you do me a favor and share them in the comments below? Let’s make this post the ultimate go-to resource for traveling families everywhere!
Items Mentioned In This Post:
- Potty Chair
- Adventures in Odyssey
- Pipe cleaners
- Travel Bingo
- Window Markers
- Bento Boxes
- Orphan Train Adventures series
- Dry Erase Board & Markers
- Thomas and Friends Me Reader
- Little Einstein Lullaby CD
- Travel Shape Sorter
- Silicone Bibs With Pocket
- Pack and Play
- Hanging Shoe Shelf Organizer
- Terry Cloth Robe
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