Signing up for a long car ride with a toddler can strike fear in many people to the point they’d avoid it at all costs. Sometimes just getting stuck in traffic in your own city or while travelling to a big city with your little one can be a mini nightmare (hey Toronto…I’m looking at you!).
From Mexico, to Canada, the U.S.A. & Iceland, we have now road tripped around with a toddler in 4 different countries. We took our little Isla on her first road trip from Canada to the U.S. when she was just 4 weeks old. It was only a 3-4 hour drive in each direction but we still didn’t tell many people out of fear they’d think we were crazy & we definitely didn’t share our new parent outings on social media. We knew road tripping isn’t something people normally do with a newborn especially when there was no big obligation why we went, family we were visiting or reason we had to take the trip…we just felt like going! It was from that moment on we’ve never hesitated to hit the road with our daughter!
Now living in Cancun we spend a lot of time driving up & down the coast here in the Riviera Maya. What that means is it’s just become part of our normal routine to drive a good hour to an hour and a half just to get around to most places in the area with our daughter in tow. We love taking advantage of our great location in Cancun so it’s quite easy to road trip to places like Holbox, Merida, Valladolid, Coba, Tulum etc.
We’ve driven from Toronto to New York City with Isla (more than 800 km) & have rented cars in Houston, Texas & most recently Iceland so we could get around & out of the main cities we were staying in. Although the nearly 10 hours of airplane travel over a few days from Mexico to Canada and then to Iceland didn’t faze our daughter, she absolutely kept us on our toes in the car driving around the island. She really only played with one or two different things the entire plane rides but in the long car rides for our sightseeing adventures she needed a ton of extra entertaining. Thankfully my travel bag was well stocked form our flights and ready because we went through just about everything else I had on hand during the rest of the time in the car around Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.
If you’re not a parent you’ll think driving alone with a child isn’t such a big deal. If you’re a parent, especially of a toddler, you completely understand and are anxiously awaiting for some toddler road trip coping tricks! For me there are two parts to travelling in a car with a toddler…first off preparing your child’s car seat space & then of course some great car friendly entertaining ideas.
Setting up Your Toddler’s Space in the Car
If we’re going to be in the car at least an hour & a half I try and prep Isla’s space in the backseat to make things as comfortable & convenient as possible for all of us. There are many times I have a bag full of activities ready and waiting to hand off to Isla to play with and she instead passes the time by just staring out the window. Actually I’m amazed how much time she enjoys just looking out the window and watching the world, cars and people pass by so be prepared that it’s also ok for your little one to do nothing and be completely content. That said I’m not crazy and know I need to be prepared for anything and everything that second she’s had enough of window gazing. Before we even hit the road I take a little time to set up her space in the backseat. I find that bit of extra prep is so worth it in the end!
- Portable Folding Stool
One of the first things I set up for her is a folding stool from inside the house to serve as a little side table in the car. We bought her the stool here at Walmart in Cancun and I know it’s pretty universal (at least at Walmarts in North America) because I’ve seen the exact same stool in stores all the way from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. We originally just bought it for her to use in the house but that mommy lightbulb went off one day and I got the idea to bring it in the car with us. It’s acts as a great little table in the car at the perfect height for Isla to rest a few books & toys so she can have easy access to them. It’s also pretty handy to keep in the car because the second we need to get rid of it, it just folds up and can be placed in the trunk.
I originally bought a Fly Tot inflatable cushion for air travel with Isla because 90% of the flights we do each year are all considered international flights and on average about 4 hours long. They’re long enough that at 3-years-old we’re usually still guaranteed a good long nap each flight from our daughter and could use the extra room for her to stretch out to get comfortable. After a few flights it occurred to me that the Fly Tot would also come in handy in the car. I’ve started inflating it to use to fill the footwell area to act somewhat as a footrest but really it’s to help catch the 142 different items she drops during a long car ride. Whether I’m the passenger or the driver I feel as if I hear “Uh oh Mama I dropped my _______________” just about the entire time. This way things don’t fall too far and actually gives me a chance at being able to retrieve them while still on the road. Without it I felt like I needed superhero stretch like arms to try and reach back, under and around compartments on the ground to try and find whatever it was she dropped.
- Lap Tray
In my opinion this is one of those must have items! Most of the time I find things by just real life trial & error and getting something in my head I decide to go looking for. Isla does amazing in the car but was constantly fumbling with all of her toys, books, snacks and car activities so I started my research for a tray. I found a car specific activity trays that clips around her car seat itself so it stays in place. I chose the lap tray by Skip Hop because it is cushioned underneath (the part that rests on my daughter’s lap), has a small lip so things don’t roll off and it comes with a removable wipe clean insert for the top.There’s also a small pouch that hangs from the side to stash a few handy items. I keep the strap of the tray through the back of the car seat and just clip it up when she wants to use it.
- Cup Holders
We have a Diono car seat for Isla which only came with one detachable cup holder. We found a great cup holder that hangs from the headrest in front of her which I really like because she can easily reach it but it doesn’t get in the way if she’s using her play tray.
- Sleeping Headband
I’m not sure if every parent has this problem but to this day when our daughter falls asleep in the car she gets a serious case of floppy head. Almost as soon as she passes out her head always ends up falling forward. Just to keep her comfortable and sleeping longer I found a great stretchy head support headband that works great to keep her head upright. It stays clipped around the top of the headrest and then can just stretch right out & over the top of the car seat and her forehead when she falls asleep. Admittedly I was a little nervous to use it at first but she’s never left alone with it on and a few times the weight of her head has actually pushed the headband up & off instead of down. The band itself is so stretchy so we’ve been able to travel with it and use it with various car seats and cars.
This might seem like a pretty obvious one but as soon as Isla could reach her window as a baby she started ripping off her window shade. For some unknown reason she’s always despised it! Once she could finally speak she told us because she wanted to be able to look out her window without anything in the way. That said as soon as she falls asleep and the hot Mexican sun is beating down on her I slip it on to give her a bit of shaded relief so it’s still an important item to have around.
- Snacks & drinks
This is another one of those categories that’s a given when leaving the house with kids for any length of time! When possible I like to pack up a little cooler bag with some easy to dish out snack items like pre-cut fruit, fruit pouches, crackers & cheese. Our go to water bottle is an amazing one by Thermos that we now have in a few different colours & designs. It truly keeps her “agua” cold, it’s easy for her to open & close the lid by herself, it doesn’t leak when shut, it has a built in straw that pops up, it fits most cupholders & comes with a small carry handle that folds into the top. We’ve also recently bought the matching FUNtainer stainless steel food jar for fruit. It definitely helps keep her cut up fruit cool but I think she just also really likes the novelty of the cute container so it’s a win win all around. Isla has never really been prone to car sickness but I do believe it’s good to have some bland snacks on hand like crackers just in case to help keep her belly just full enough.
- Mini Potty
Travelling around Mexico means we don’t always have quick access to a bathroom at a coffee shop or fast food restaurant every few minutes…very different than driving around the U.S. or Canada. Gas station restrooms can be hit or miss here in the Yucatan peninsula if they’re even working or open not to mention the state of some public bathrooms may be a little gross. When Isla went straight from diapers to underwear I started keeping a small kids potty in the trunk of our Jeep because I wasn’t taking any chances of losing our potty training progress we made. If I couldn’t get her to a proper toilet in time or if I was by myself with her in the middle of nowhere or late at night, I would rather her use the mini potty in the car then have an accident. I have a small children’s potty I bought from IKEA which is my favourite because it’s pretty compact and discreetly sits in the trunk area until we need it. The bowl portion lifts out for easy cleaning. That tiny potty has saved us on several occasions!
In general our daughter just travels well whether it’s on a plane or in a car! I really don’t believe it’s all by chance but likely a combination of exposure, frequency and lots & lots of mom preparation. I do find a lot of the same air travel tips & tricks can be applied to road trips but with a few variations.
Right out of the gate I will mention Isla at 3 and a half years old has still never touched a handheld device such as a cell phone or tablet. We have spent countless hours on planes with her and in cars so all in seat entertaining has been done the old fashioned way. It’s just been a personal choice as a family so we have always had to come up with our own creative ways to keep our active toddler busy while in the car without handing over an iPhone or iPad. Because we don’t have to worry too much about weight or space when travelling in the car I don’t mind packing up a little bin of activities to keep her occupied.
Books have always been great to have on hand. I try and pack a combination of picture based book so she can flip through them herself as well as longer storybooks that I can read to her. At some point during our road trip I often end up in the backseat so I can read to her and help that last part of the trip pass easier.
- Audio Books
Audio books have been another fun way to pass the time. The Libby app is a great mom weapon to have loaded on your phone. Through the app you can sign in with your local city or town’s library card and browse & borrow audio books direct from there. I have an iPhone 8 so I had to buy a special little cord so I can connect my phone to my car’s stereo but it was so worth it. I usually wait to play an audio book once she’s starting to get antsy and losing interest in regular books & other toys.
- Wikki Stix
This has been a newer addition to our travel bag and it came at just the right time. I don’t really think she would have fully grasped them at too much of an earlier age so 3 was kind of the perfect time to finally get them. Wikki Stix are basically pieces of yarn coated in a non-toxic wax. The coating makes the pieces of yarn super sticky yet still mouldable so they can bend and twist all without making a mess. You can shape them into pictures on a flat surface or make 3-D type structures without needing anything else to stick them together. They’re also completely reusable and never dry out so no special storage in between usage is needed. They’re basically a travelling godsend both in the car and on planes!
- Doodle Boards
Isla has always loved magnetic doodle boards. They’ve kept her busy in cars, on planes, in restaurants & in parks. We even had a fun little side kit of magnets she could stamp different shapes onto the board. After somehow losing her absolute favourite slim magnetic doodle board that fit perfectly in my backpack (ya I’m still a little sad about that) we replaced it with a small Boogie Board which has been just as awesome. A Boogie Board is a thin tablet with a LCD display. All you can do is draw and erase on it using an attached stylus so it’s perfect for her to create pictures without going through a ton of paper and constantly dropping crayons or pens.
- Window Gel Clings
These have been a fun a go to item we’ve always flown with and have on hand for long car rides as well. Truthfully she enjoys them more on a plane because she can reach the window better to move them around. In the car it’s a bit harder for her to reach over her car seat so for road trips they’re a little hit or miss for our little one. Some road trips she loves them and other times she’s gotten a kick out of ripping them apart! lol
- Reusable Vinyl & Sticker Books
We’ve surprisingly gotten many hours of playtime out of vinyl sticker books. We’ve had a few fashion ones that come with reusable vinyl sticker clothing and accessories she absolutely loves. She often sits there for the longest time dressing, undressing & redressing the dolls in the book. Sometimes you just don’t know what will interest your child but when you find something that does, you go with it!
- Paint With Water Books
These paint with water books have been a favourite activity when travelling and at home for awhile now. The colour appears on the pages as you brush water over them and then disappears again when dry so you can do them over and over. Isla has never liked the little pens that come with the books so I give her a small cup of water with a paintbrush. She prefers to feel as if she’s actually painting.
One of our biggest road trip challenges isn’t so much during the day but at night. I find once the sun disappears boredom sets in real fast! She’s no longer happy just staring out the window & she can’t see any of her books and toys anymore. We try and keep her kiddie flashlight on hand so she can have some light without asking us a hundred times to turn on the car’s interior lights. She’s had a really cute, durable and easy to use kid’s flashlight by VTech since she was a baby. It’s perfect because she can spin the top to change the colour of the light which helps keep her busy.
For the longest time I was so fixated on conquering air travel with our daughter since we would do it so frequently between countries that I hadn’t even thought about all of the time we were spending in the car on a weekly basis mixed with regular little road trips around. We were inadvertently mastering road trips with a baby and then toddler without even thinking about it.
Travel in general with a toddler ,where you need them to stay put in one place, is always going to be challenging which is exactly why you shouldn’t really just wing it if you don’t have to. In the car you have the space to bring a few extra activities & time to set everything up so do it! You’d rather be prepared then instead find yourself running out of ideas while on the road. We’ve always had a lot of fun all together in the car & I hope you’ll find a few of our family road trip tips & tricks useful to hit the road with your own little one!
The following products were mentioned as items we personally used with our daughter. We are in no way affiliated with any of the manufacturers…
- Libby by OverDrive-Ebooks & Audiobooks
- Boogie Board-LED eWriter
- Melissa & Doug-Paint With Water
- Wikki Stix-Soft flexible
- Fly Tot-Inflatable Airplane Cushion for Kids
- Skip Hop-Travel Activity Tray (Style Driven)
- Thermos-FUNtainer Insulated Stainless Steel bottle & Food Jar
- Head Support-Toddler Car Seat Headband
- Flashlight-Spin & Learn Color Flashlight by VTech
- IKEA-LOCKIG Children’s Potty