How to Survive a Road Trip With a Toddler
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Everything I’ve learned about taking a road trip with kids…
There’s a Dar Williams song I love called Road Buddy, about how you always think a road trip is going to be this amazing adventure – right up until you actually take one – and I think about that song every time we drive from Scotland to Kent: which we’ve just done for the second time this summer. I dunno, it’s almost like we don’t actually WANT to have an easy life or something?
It’s about a seven hour drive, and it always begins with me carefully pouring coffee into my travel mug, and then leaving said mug on the kitchen counter, so I can spend the next seven hours just THINKING about the coffee I could be drinking, while a grim-faced Terry drives us past every single Starbucks and other drive-through coffee shop we pass en route, refusing to stop at any of them.
Here is my face when I realised I’d forgotten my coffee approximately 5 minutes after leaving the house on our first trip south this summer:
And here, by contrast, is my much happier – and, OK, ever so slightly smug – face last week, when I DID remember the coffee, but had yet to realise it was just going to make me want to pee, which is Not Allowed under Terry’s strict Rules of the Road:
Look at us! What a happy little bunch of travellers we are, our little faces all alight with the excitement of a road trip! Only, not really, because, as I hinted above, Terry takes these journeys very seriously. His rules are as follows:
Terry’s rules of the road:
01. We must leave the house as early as possible: ideally before we’ve even gone to bed, if that’s possible. One time, I actually contemplated sleeping in my clothes, just to shave a few precious minutes off my morning routine, and get us into the car faster. Last time we made this trip, Max basically trashed the living room while Terry and I were getting ready to leave, and Terry tried to persuade me to just leave it like that, because tidying it up would take all of three minutes, and we DID NOT HAVE THREE MINUTES TO SPARE, DAMMIT
02. The car must be loaded the night before, to save time in the morning. As an added bonus, we then get to lie awake all night worrying in case someone steals it with all of our stuff in it, and that’s actually quite helpful really, because if we’re not sleeping, we might as well get up and hit the road, right?
03. We are only allowed to stop if it’s absolutely ESSENTIAL.
04. Terry will decide whether or not it’s absolutely essential.
05. Before we had Max, pretty much NOTHING was classed as absolutely essential. Nothing. I swear to God, that man would’ve made me wear a catheter if he’d thought I’d agree to it. So we’d basically do the entire trip in one go, without stops, and, as soon as we arrived, there would be a tense few minutes while Terry messaged all of his brothers and nephews to compare times, and work out if anyone had managed to beat the current record for this trip. I would honestly not be surprised if there’s a league table for this, but I know better than to ask.
Now that we have Max with us, we’re allowed to stop along the way, but only if there’s no chance of us actually enjoying it. So, toilet and food breaks are grudgingly permitted now, but sightseeing, getting a coffee for me, or anything that might make the journey feel like an adventure, rather than a slog, is absolutely unthinkable. Picture us, if you will, sitting grudgingly in a roadside McDonald’s, eating burgers against the clock, while Terry silently frets about how all the cars he managed to overtake on the first leg of the journey will now be “getting away from him” while we waste time on fripperies like toilet breaks and sustenance.
We’ve now done this trip four times (Including return journeys) with Max as a baby, and another four with him as a toddler, and while this obviously doesn’t make me an expert on the fine art of taking a road trip with kids, I have learned a few things along the way, which I will generously share with you now…
How to Survive a Road Trip With Kids:
However many snacks you think you’re going to need, bring twice that amount. At least.
You should absolutely aim to only take a careful selection of healthy, nutritious snacks, but you should also prepare yourself for the fact that a small amount of Forbidden Snacks will probably work better, and you’ll just have to make your peace with your parenting here, because that’s the way this particular cookie crumbles – and that’s not just an expression, by the way: on our last long trip to Kent, there was an ACTUAL cookie, and it ACTUALLY crumbled all over the car. About five days into our break, I found the remains of it in the glove box, and then there was a full-scale tantrum because I wouldn’t allow Max to eat the five-day-old, mouldy cookie. True story. Follow me for more parenting tips.
Where was I? Oh yeah: however many snacks you think you’re going to need, trust me, you’re going to need way, WAY more than that. As a seasoned toddler-owner, I thought I was prepared for how many snacks they consume, but I basically just spend the entire journey twisted round in my seat, handing snack after snack back to Max, so I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s literally NO amount of snacks that would be enough for this situation. None.
(We were still in our own driveway here. Desperately wish I was joking.)
Build anticipation. Lie, if necessary.
By this, I don’t just mean in the obvious way, by making sure everything is packed and ready to go the night before (Not necessarily IN the car, obviously, although, I have to admit, it does help – especially with the amount of stuff we normally take with us…), but in the sense of preparing your small people for what’s coming.
We always spend lots of time talking about the planned trip, and preparing Max for the fact that it’s going to take a very long time, and that, yes, he might get a bit bored, but that we’ll do what we can to make it exciting for him. So we usually all go to the supermarket the night before and let him pick out a particular treat for the journey, whether it be a snack, or a toy (Or, you know, BOTH…), and we’ll make sure there’s something new for him to play with or watch, so that he’s at least got something to look forward to. Because someone should have something to look forward to in this scenario, no?
Take lots of entertainment options
Look, I should probably just have started this article with the caveat that, on the road, the normal rules of parenting no longer apply. It’s a bit like how calories consumed while standing in front of the fridge don’t actually count, or how daytime drinking is absolutely fine, as long as you’re on an aircraft, because who even knows what time it is anyway?
Taking a road trip with kids falls into the same kind of category as those things, but I can sense I’m about to dig myself an even bigger hole than the one I was planning here, so let’s just say that the first few times we embarked on a long car ride with Max, we were convinced we’d be able to do it all perfectly, but, now, a few years in, we’ve learned to consider it a victory if everyone is at least still talking to each other by the end of the journey. For instance:
On the left, Max is watching a movie on his tablet, and, on the right, he’s got one of those hideous sticker books that have a bunch of plastic toys attached to the front cover. Now, neither of these are things we’d normally give him at home – or even on a shorter journey – but these are obviously not normal circumstances, and if we’re going to expect him to sit in a car for 7 hours, we need to supply some entertainment for him and not feel too guilty about it.
(As it happens, I DID feel guilty about it, because that magazine lasted all of five minutes before he lost interest, so we basically just drove a bunch of plastic dinosaurs to Kent for no reason, really.)
(The headphones, meanwhile, lasted around 15 minutes, before he refused to wear them any longer, and that’s why I now know the entire script of Despicable Me 3 off by heart, despite never having actually watched it. Yes.)
A much bigger hit, on the other hand, was this box of fidget toys, which actually did keep him entertained for a pretty long time: not just on the drive down and back, but every time we’ve been in the car since then, basically:
Before anyone says it, yes, we also try to keep him entertained with games like I Spy, etc, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the adults in the car will need a break too, at some point, and that’s when you’re going to be glad you brought some backup, in whatever form it might take.
Our car is like a travelling trashcan even at the best of times, but when we’re preparing for a long trip, I always pop a bin bag in the passenger seat footwell, to contain the various pieces of rubbish that I know will be generated along the way. And when I say, “always”, I mean, “I’ve only actually remembered to do this once, but I’ve deeply regretted it every time I haven’t done it, so, please, learn from my mistakes…”
Similarly, make sure you have a decent supply of wipes or similar: no, they’re not good for the planet, and we’re desperately trying to cut down our use of them, but it’s 100% certain that something will get spilled, or someone will need to be wiped down, so take whatever you need to be able to deal with that, and to deal with it many times over.
As well as the wipes, if you’re taking a road trip with kids, I also advise taking a decent supply of hand-sanitiser and paper tissues, because not only do the bathrooms you find by the side of the road have a tendency to be pretty gross (We had to make an emergency stop at a petrol station bathroom a couple of weeks ago, and I swear it was like someone had walked in, thought, “Hmmm, this place isn’t nearly disgusting enough: how can I fix that?” and then proceeded to do it…), and often lacking in basics like toilet paper and soap, if you have to stop by the side of the road, you’re going to be really glad you were prepared for it, trust me.
Repeat the phrase, “It’ll be worth it,” at regular intervals.
Because it will be worth it: trust me on this one, too…
What are your best tips for taking a road trip with kids?