How to Survive a Long Car Ride with Young Kids

I recently had to drive to visit family that lives approximately 280 miles away from us. Unfortunately, my husband was away on business. So, it was just me, the kids, and our old Subaru Forester.

I love my kids. But, the thought of being in a closed space for six hours with nobody but my two little kids, was extremely distressing. They are ages 5 and 3 and vibrant, sassy, and full of energy. To say that they don’t like to sit still is an understatement. So, naturally, I was worried.

In the days leading up to the trip, I researched ways that could help me make the best out of this situation. Once I was prepared, my attitude also changed and I even started to look forward to the trip. That went a long way in making things easier. Young children are very attuned to their parents’ mental state. If we are dysregulated, it makes it impossible for them to be calm. My confidence made them less apprehensive. And even though I didn’t feel 100 percent confident, I’ve learned to fake it so I can make it, and that was good enough.

Feeling confident, I put together a plan that I was certain would help make our road trip as pleasant as possible. Here are some of the things that helped.

1. Leave plenty of time to get to your destination

It was supposed to be a six-hour drive, but I made room in our schedule for a ten-hour drive. We left our house at 8 am and planned to get to our destination at 6 pm. This ensured plenty of time for stops, bathroom breaks, mealtimes, and any unplanned “emergencies”.

2. Taking lots of breaks for free play outside and restroom breaks

I know it’s tempting to just try to drive as much as possible to get to your destination as fast as you can. However, with kids, you have to take things s-l-o-w. I planned two big stops along the way at places of interest. Once we stopped at a playground with vendor booths for ice cream. Another time we stopped at a national reserve for a short hike. The secret was to not look at the ticking clock and to be present in the moment. By doing that, my kids didn’t feel anxious about going back in the car and were more cooperative after having fun outdoors. I also mapped out beforehand all the places that had restrooms along the way so I could be prepared in advance for a five-minute bathroom break.

3. Planning the trip around sleeping schedules

In retrospect, this was the best piece of advice I received. After lunch, my kids napped for a whole two hours, shortening the driving time significantly. I scheduled a big stop to hike and let out steam before having lunch so my kids would be tired. When we hit the road again after eating, the kids were fast asleep after about ten minutes. This cut two whole hours off my six-hour trip!

4. Screens

I know screentime is a controversial topic. But a six-hour (potentially 8-hour) car trip alone with two young kids is not a normal situation. The kids’ bickering could escalate in minutes and yelling and throwing things inside the car is dangerous for all. And sometimes, we all just need it to be quiet, so we can concentrate, all the more so in a situation like this. So, when things started heating up between the kids (thankfully this didn’t happen as often as I expected), I was prepared with some educational games, their favorite apps, and portable videos.

5. Car fun kit

I keep a car fun kit in my car with portable toys that are available to my kids only inside the car. I fill it with fun little surprises and toys like a Rubik’s cube, puzzles, water coloring books, comics, little action figures, kaleidoscopes, fidgets, and stickers. Having access to these toys only in the car makes them more attractive and my kids are happy to explore and play with them during car drives.   

6. Classic road trip games

There are classic road trip games such as ISpy, 20 questions, and ‘Name that Tune’. Apparently, my kids’ favorite game of all was one where they waved hello to random people driving in the cars parallel to ours. And if the people were friendly enough to wave back, the kids would be over the moon!

7. Snacks

Albeit planning stops along the way to eat lunch and supper, I also packed many snacks to eat in the car. This gave the kids something to do and helped calm them down. Normally, I don’t give out snacks in the car that could cause a mess but this time I just brought whatever I knew they liked without giving it a second thought. I packed fruit, veggies, sandwiches, energy bars, cheese sticks, potato chips, and cookies. Also, lots of water and fruit packets. We actually finished them all by the time we got to our destination! In addition to eating a big lunch and light dinner along the way. This proves that you can never have too many snacks when your with your kids.

8. Audiobooks

Depending on your kids’ focus and concentration skills, this can be a lifesaver. It really does a good job of calming them down, it’s educational, and it’s entertaining. We have CDs of all the classic stories and fairy tales and my kids and I love to listen to them during car rides. There are also plenty of narrated content for kids on youtube.

9. Comfort objects

Before heading out my kids and I filled the backseat with pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, and other beloved objects that put my kids in a good mood. This made the car a bit more homey and pleasant for them.

It’s important to note that I didn’t use all these at once. The snacks, screens, car fun kits, and audiobooks were all brought out at strategic times during the way. Whenever the kids started bickering, or whenever I needed a bit of time for myself to just drive quietly without being bombarded by endless chattering, that’s when I pulled out something I had planned in advance and presented it to them. To my surprise, my kids spent a fair amount of time just looking out the window, daydreaming, or talking amongst themselves. They didn’t need every minute of the trip planned or to be constantly entertained. We did go through all the things I brought for them so there were definitely times when it was appropriate. But overall, our little road trip turned out to be a generally pleasant one.

About Dana Torres

Born and raised in Israel with a ten year interval in New York, Dana considers both places her home. She first made the choice to commit to a frugal life when she signed up for a degree in the Humanities. Today she loves nothing more than to share her newly learned skills and experience in thrifty living with others.

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