We did it. A cross-country road trip with a 15-month-old toddler and a 105 pound German Shepard. 7 days in the car, 50 hours, 3,400 miles from San Diego, California to Portland, Maine. And we survived!
When I tell people this, they look at me like we’re completely nuts. Some moms are too scared to even take their child to Target let alone put them in a car for 50 hours and expect it to go smoothly. But let’s be honest here. Even though we have a pretty easy going child, I was terrified about this trip. But there was no way around it. Zack just got out of the military and we want to raise our family on the east coast as opposed to the west coast (where we were stationed). So here we are.
When prepping for this trip, there was one question I had multiple people ask me. And when I asked for tips from others on how to make this trip go smoothly, those people brought up the same topic: electronics.
Now it’s not that I’m against electronics. I mean, I work online. My entire life is electronic and I admit I’m glued to my Macbook and iPhone more than I care to admit. But our toddler isn’t going to be one of those kids. I see it constantly and all I hear from other moms is how “essential” an iPad is in all areas of life: a doctor’s office wait, a long car ride, restaurants, grocery shopping, rainy days. Well, we just survived a 50-hour cross-country trip with our toddler and not once was she given an iPad or iPhone. So I promise it’s absolutely doable!
If you’re a mom like me, then this post is for you. I’m sharing everything we did to ensure we’d have a good, electronic-free road trip with our toddler.
Know Your Child
First and foremost, you need to know your child and use that knowledge to your advantage when planning trips. For example, if you know your child hates their car seat, then don’t go into a 12-hour drive thinking you’ll “get through it”. You won’t. By the time you arrive at your destination, everyone will be exhausted and moody and beyond stressed out. Don’t do that to yourself. If you know your child could snack on pretzels all day long and be SO happy, then pack them. For real. Allie doesn’t eat well on trips, but she’s obsessed with pretzels. If she got cranky or hungry, I fed them to her like they were the healthiest thing on the planet. And it worked for us. I also made sure to pack her favorite toys no matter how loud and annoying they were because I knew she loved them. So always plan around your child and their individual needs.
Plan For Extra Stops
We typically planned a stop every 2-3 hours based on Allie’s age, needs, and personality. I think the longest we went without a stop on this trip was 4 hours and that’s because both Jack and Allie were doing phenomenal. Allie had taken a 1.5-hour nap and was busy reading books and having some snacks so we went with it. Once she started breaking down, we planned to stop at the next exit so it worked very well for us. Other days, we had to stop every 2 hours because she was having a harder time staying entertained. We really just played every day by ear and went from there.
Another point on stops: be sure to extend these breaks a bit. Our stops were typically 30-45 minutes long which allowed us plenty of time to eat something, change Allie’s diaper, walk Jack and give him water, put gas in the car, stretch our legs, etc. Again, we were in no rush at all during our trip. We really took the time to enjoy each state we drove through and allowed Jack and Allie as much time as they needed to get comfortable again prior to getting back on the road.
Shorten Your Travel Days
If you’re going on a long drive (for us, this applies to a drive that’s over 10 hours), then it may be better to shorten your travel days. Again, based on Allie’s age, needs, and personality (and the fact that we had a very large dog with us as well), we opted to keep our travel days to under 10 hours (preferably closer to 8 hours). Our longest day was 9 hours and our shortest was 5 hours. We did the entire drive from San Diego, CA to Portland, ME in 7 days which was a very long week, but the shorter travel days were better for everyone. We arrived at hotels by dinnertime and were able to take a couple of hours to ourselves to relax and settle in before putting Allie to bed. We were also in no rush in the mornings either. We all woke up and got on the road at our own pace. So it was much less stressful and easier on all of us.
Buy New Toys
I only bought Allie a couple new toys for this trip, but sometimes having something new can help tremendously. If Allie was ever in the middle of a larger “breakdown” then I’d whip out a new toy or something she hasn’t seen before and handed it to her. It was typically just enough for us to find the next rest stop and get her out before the next breakdown hit. If you have older children with better attention spans then this trick could buy you even more time. For our toddler, it gave us a good 20-30 minutes of silence while we made plans to stop again.
Aside from toys, we also packed plenty of books. Both new and old. Allie loves books so much. She could easily look at the same book for 30 minutes if we let her. So books are a win here. Not to mention they’re a much better alternative to an iPad.
Pack Their Favorite Snacks
As mentioned earlier, always pack their favorite snacks. We don’t typically give snacks in the car due to choking purposes, but when you’re going cross-country (or on any extended road trip) then snacks are a life saver. We made sure all snacks were ones Allie’s had a million times before and only gave her softer snacks that were super easy to chew even if she were distracted. Food pouches are awesome for this if you have a baby or young toddler! They’re far less likely to choke on them. As for meals, we always stopped and gave both Jack and Allie a full 30-minute break to eat.
Make Everything Easily Accessible
This is more for you. We had a basket that stayed right next to her car seat that contained things like diapers, wipes (lots of wipes since they’re multi-purpose), baby Tylenol, saline drops (and any other medications we could potentially need), diaper rash cream, a thermometer, hairbrush, hair elastics, trash bags, tissues, etc. I also had a second basket for snacks that stayed closeby as well. If we needed something, I could easily get to it with little to no effort. We did the same things with her toys, Jack’s dog toys, dog food, bottled water, etc.
Keep The Bedtime Routine
If your child is overtired, then it’s going to make the driving portions of your trip a nightmare. I know it can be really challenging to have any sort of routine in place when you’re traveling, but keeping Allie’s bedtime consistent was super important to us. Especially since we had just gone through the process of re-training her in the sleep department a couple of weeks prior to our trip.
The big thing we wanted in regards to sleep was to be at each hotel by dinnertime in order to allow us the time to go through Allie’s bedtime routine: dinner, bath, clean diaper, pj’s, cuddles, book, etc. We also wanted to be able to give her enough time to run around the hotel room and get some energy out of her system prior to going to bed (we felt this would make it easier for her to wind down when we went to put her in her pack n play). Her bedtime ended up getting pushed back to 8 o’clock or so (as opposed to her usual 6:30pm bedtime), but we went with it. It wasn’t bad at all and our system worked for us.
Be Flexible and Patient
At the end of the day, you need to be patient and flexible throughout your trip. Long road trips are hard for even some adults. Imagine how challenging they must be for young children! So it’s best to go into it with an open mind and realistic expecations. Your attitude plays a huge role in how your trip goes!