How To Survive A Road Trip With Small Kids

A toddler and a baby drive across the country…

Little Lyon Cub recently told me a few times that she drove a school bus while at preschool that day.  She’s not two and a half yet, so I doubt she drove an actual school bus, but I’m happy she has an active imagination.

My toddler and baby didn’t drive themselves across the country obviously……. but we all survived an almost 3000-mile road trip from Maryland to California last fall.

We didn’t just survive, it was actually awesome.  We had a really great time and spent some serious quality time together.  Little Lyon Cub was a few weeks shy of her second birthday, and Tiny Lyon Cub was three and a half months for our trip.

Why didn’t you fly?

We got that question several times from several people.  Why wouldn’t you just fly?

We decided to drive for several reasons.

  1. Our car had to get from the east coast to the west coast and it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bin on the airplane
  2. Chris and I had each done a cross country drive before, but not with each other.  We’d both gone across the south half of the country and wanted to see the middle too
  3. Looking for quality family time?  Put everyone in one car for eight days.
  4. What an adventure!

I’ve boiled our success down to two simple words:

  1. snacks
  2. parks

But really, the main piece of all of this, as I’m sure you can imagine, is flexibility.


Babies do not need snacks.  They need lots of milk, but snacks are not required.  Tiny Lyon Cub was small enough that he slept most of the time in the car, which was super helpful.

We were really curious about how it was going to go with him.  He was old enough to be mostly (but only mostly) predictable with his milk requirements and young enough to still spend most of his hours sleeping.

Do you know who needs snacks?  Toddlers.  There are not enough snacks in all the land to fill a toddler.

Just finished eating a good dinner?  Can’t possibly fit any more food in that tiny body?  Ha.  If there is a snack option, or mom or dad have any food of any kind, a good toddler will take it.  It’s part of their code.  Their dedication to it is impressive.


Just like a shiny new toy (or even one that’s neither shiny nor new, but new to them right now), a new snack can carry you a long way.

I packed a variety of snacks for Little Lyon Cub and for Chris and me.  The night before we left, my aunt showed up with a whole other snack box.  She had lovingly packed a legit variety for all three of us in a nice plastic storage box with a lid.  It fit perfectly right under my feet without bothering me, and the lid made sure nothing got crunched.

Crucial, because we had no other space.  Anywhere.  In the whole car.  Not another inch.


What I really mean by car friendliness is messiness.  The first step is to just accept that the car seat and the entire car are going to be a freaking mess by the time you get where you’re going about 14 minutes into your trip.

Make your peace with it now, don’t try to fight it.  Your trip will be much more enjoyable.

You can, however, make informed snack choices in a laughable attempt to make the full-scale car detailing you’ll inevitably have to perform when you finish your trip, slightly easier.

For example:

  • animal crackers will make crumbs everywhere; dry crumbs are easily vacuumable and can wait to be cleaned until your trip is over
  • yogurt will spill and turn into finger paint; giant pain in the ass to clean and probably needs to be addressed sooner rather than later

Pouches are great if your kid can eat them generally without making a huge mess.  Little Lyon Cub is capable of eating a pouch and making zero mess.

She’s also very capable, depending on her mood, of making an epic mess.

There were no unsupervised pouches in the car on our trip.

Little Lyon Cub also didn’t get milk in the car.  She had her water cup and could have all the water she wanted.  Milk was reserved for meals at a table.

Water spills require no attention and some time and air to clean up.  I don’t have to tell you that milk is a whole different story.

One more thing

There’s one more very important component of the snack box.  If it’s about mealtime, and mom and dad are hungry, and the kids are sleeping, do you know what you do not do under any circumstances?  Stop the car.

Make sure you stay on top of your gas tank and your bladders because if you’ve got sleeping kids you do NOT stop to pee, to get gas, for food, not even through the drive-through.

Get as many miles as you can in while they’re out cold.

That means if you’re hungry you need to have something to hold you over, too.

Parks Parks Parks

We planned out our stopping points along the way, but everyone knows no good plan survives first contact with the enemy.  The name of the game here is flexibility.

We saw several very cool places and things, but we also saw a lot of parks.  We quickly became park/playground/green space finding experts and toured many of them along I-70.

A playground was a bonus but not required.  Little Lyon Cub loves getting chased around by her daddy, running around fountains, and doing basic calisthenics in just about any environment.

Any strip of grass or a good sidewalk to run around on will suffice.  Kids aren’t that picky when it comes to running around and getting wiggles out.

I mentioned playgrounds.  When you can find one not far off your route, use it!  We found many more than we thought we would, easily (thanks Google Maps and being able to zoom in far enough to see a playground at a park!).  

Keep in mind though, a playground also probably means your stop will be a little longer.

Planning Stops

Every time we’d get back in the car, I’d consult trusty Google Maps about 2.5-3 hours down the road and identify a few potential stopping points.  If we were coming up to mealtime, food options were a factor.

Gas is obviously a critical component on a road trip, and of course, getting out all the wiggles.

The other ginormous component here is flexibility.  Have I mentioned that yet??  

We pushed each leg of the trip as far as we could before entering complete meltdown territory, but it was a fine art.

You don’t want to stop too soon or too often, because you’ve got to get there eventually.

If you push it too far, your tiny passengers may just implode with little to no warning.

There are no “ok sweetheart, just 20 more minutes and we’ll be there” conversations with a toddler and an infant.  There is right now, and never, and that’s about it.

We made the mistake of trying to push to far the first night and we did not do that again.

Which brings me to my next point…

Do Not Over Plan

I would highly recommend AGAINST booking hotels in advance.

Remember how “just 20 more minutes” doesn’t really work with small kids?  If you’re an hour away from the hotel and the clan has decided it’s time to stop RIGHT NOW, you’re going to have a problem.

The other side of that is if you think you’re going to need to stop for the night by now but magically everyone is completely content and totally happy, or maybe even sleeping like angels(!) count your blessings and keep going!

You never know what tomorrow will bring.  Maybe you’ll get a great day of driving in.  Maybe you’ll get much less than that.  Take what you can get when you can get it.  If the kids are sleeping, press on!

Thanks to smartphones, finding good places to run around and booking hotel rooms at the last minute is totally doable and highly recommended.


You’re booking your hotel room each night at the last minute, great job!  Let’s talk about the actual hotel room.

Your needs in this area can vary widely depending on the age of your kids and their habits/tendencies.  Tiny Lyon Cub was still tiny so sleeping in the little travel bassinet in the same room with us was all he had known in his short life.

Little Lyon Cub, however, was very used to sleeping in her own room.  

She was no stranger to the pack ‘n play, but she rarely just passed out as soon as she’d get into bed (and still doesn’t really do that).  She likes to talk and sing for a bit and ease into her sleep.

When you’re all in the same room, and she knows her parents are right there in the bed, even though the lights are off, this becomes a bit of a distraction.

This is where you may need to get a little creative, depending on your kid(s).

Upgrade If You Can

One or two nights were able to get a “suite” that had a little half wall and a pullout couch on the other side, so there was a slight separation from the bed.  We put Little Lyon Cub’s pack ‘n play right up against the half wall on the couch side, so she couldn’t see us in the bed, or her brother on our side either.

It wasn’t a real wall, so the lights were off and we were quiet, but it helped her settle down faster.

The two nights we stayed at Zion National Park we wiggled our way into an actual suite and had a living room and a separate bedroom.  Little Lyon Cub slept in the living room and Tiny Lyon Cub slept in the bedroom with us.

The front door was off the living room so we couldn’t use it while she was sleeping. But, there was a little patio off the bedroom so we went out there while the kids were napping or after they went to bed.

We were on the ground floor so we could hop over the railing from the patio and go to the lobby to use the bathroom or one of us could go get food or something.

That room was brilliant.  Plus the view of the canyon was insane.  

Get Creative

When we were at Arches National Park, also for two nights, we had a normal hotel room but the hotel itself was small.  The monitor reached both to the lobby/lounge area and also to the little outdoor patio seating area they had, so we could get out of the room and take advantage of those while they were sleeping, while still being close by and able to keep an eye on the kiddos.

On more than one occasion, Chris and I have sat in the hallway outside our hotel room door with a few beers talking until we were ready to go to bed or during a nap.

Not the most romantic of settings, but there are plenty of things about having kids that aren’t romantic, ha.

When you’re checking in and the nice person at the front desk is assigning you a room, don’t be afraid to ask for one close to a patio or lounge or something so your monitor might reach and you don’t look sketchy drinking beer in the hallway…

My Kids Sleep In Bathrooms & Closets

Both on this trip and at other hotels or times we’ve visited family…anytime our family of three or four has one bedroom to work with, both of my children have slept in various closets, bathrooms, a laundry room once…  

Pretty much any place there is an outlet for the camera, airflow, and a door that can be closed.  

Actually, a door is not even always required.  Sometimes all you have is around a wall or tucked into a corner.  Sometimes that’s all you need.

My point here is, creativity and flexibility continue to be the name of the game.

We Didn’t Break The Bank

None of these rooms were insanely expensive.  If you’ve got points or any kind of status, an “upgrade” may be much easier than you think.

Even if you don’t, it never ever hurts to ask.  Especially when you’ve got little kids running around the lobby after a long day in the car.  Other parents get it.  If they can help you out, they probably will.  

When we did pay for the “suite” it was often an extra $20-$30 for the night or so, and very well worth it.  We’re not talking about fancy resorts at high traffic times of the year.  

If you’re on a road trip you’re pulling into hotels on the side of the highway on a Tuesday night.  An upgraded room probably won’t cost you much and will be worth it when you’ve got kids on the road for multiple nights.

The Contingency Plan

Have some sort of contingency plan.  This day in age, it will probably look like a tablet or screen.  Little Lyon Cub is a big Elmo/Sesame Street fan so we had a few episodes downloaded on Chris’ tablet, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

We made it to day six before pulling it out.  I could not believe it.  I figured it’d be more like day two, but she was happy as a clam with the other activities we had for her.

She drew on her Magna Doodle (brilliant) for hours, snacked, read books, snacked, napped, played with her friends (her favorite stuffed animals), snacked, etc.

Towards the end of the trip though, she was starting to be over being in the car, and Elmo and company saved the day.  We wanted to wait as long as we could to pull out the screen not from “screen time fear”, but because we didn’t want the novelty to wear off too early.

We had eight days of road-tripping and hotels ahead of us, we didn’t need the wheels falling off on day three.

Take A Day Off, Or Two

Depending on how long your trip is and how much time you have, taking a day or two of no driving is a great option to keep everyone sane.

If you’re looking at a 15hr trip for a week of family vacation, then maybe skip this section.

We planned on taking eight days to get from Maryland to California, which included no driving at all on days five and seven.

We spent day five at Arches National Park.  Day six was the drive from Arches to Zion, which was only about five hours (most days were closer to eight hours of driving, so that was a treat).  Day seven we spent at Zion National Park.

Talk about an awesome way to get some wiggles out.  Utah is a pretty cool place, both National Parks are spectacular.

It was wonderful to stay in the same hotel room for two nights in a row, twice in a row.  That gave us a temporary break from unloading and reloading the car, and to have some time out of the car, especially on the back half of the trip.

Arches and Zion both have some kid-friendly hikes/walks, so I wore Tiny Lyon Cub in the carrier and Little Lyon Cub walked with us, getting on daddy’s shoulders when she needed a rest.

We all loved it, had a great break, and saw two of our country’s glorious National Parks! 

Don’t Forget About Time Changes

This one we did forget about and just kind of got lucky with.

We were heading east to west, so the days we crossed a time zone line, we gained an hour.  At first, the thought of making already slightly challenging days longer sounds terrible.

It actually was quite a blessing.

On the first day of our trip, when we were still amateurs, we did not have a time change.  We pushed it a little too far and were rewarded with a dueling meltdown in the car followed by a hurried trainwreck of a transition into the hotel for the night.

That first day we also started at around 4:30 am, hoping the kids would pass out for the first chunk of our day since it was the middle of the night and they should still be sleeping…

Tiny Lyon Cub fell back asleep because he’s a baby, and that’s what they do.  Little Lyon Cub, in all her toddler glory, did not.

She napped later in the day, but she was exhausted and had spent the whole day in the car.  By the time we stopped for the night, she was in rare form.

Trying to get everyone into the hotel, fed, and in bed asleep, while overtired and all in the same room, was a challenge.

A Blessing or a Curse

When we did have a time change, it allowed us to still get a full 7-8 hours of driving in, and have a smoother transition to the hotel for the night because we had an extra hour to play with.  It was a much less hurried process, and everyone still got to bed at a reasonable hour followed by a decent night’s sleep.

The time change also brought an awake family earlier than normal the next morning.  

Normally that wouldn’t sound good, but we were able to get up and on the road early each morning without having to wake any sleeping kiddos.

If you’re driving east to west, I believe the time changes will be an unexpected blessing, as they were for us.

If you’re driving west to east, that’s a whole different story.  I hate to say they’ll be a curse, but it’s quite possible.  Plan accordingly, and as with all of this, be flexible.

In Conclusion

Road-tripping with littles is totally doable.  If you go into it with the right mindset and stay flexible, it’s actually a really enjoyable family experience.

Our kids won’t remember our trip when they’re older, but we will.  

We’ll tell them the stories, look at the pictures, remind them how much fun they had.  Also that we did take them to do fun things when they’re teenagers, convinced we’re the worst, and ruining their lives.


To sum it all up:

  1. Have a solid variety of snacks on hand for everyone
  2. Have an idea of where you’re going to stop throughout each day and for the night, but don’t lock yourself into anything too early
  3. When planning stops for food, gas, bathrooms, etc. don’t forget about running around with the kids so they don’t go stir crazy
  4. It’s ok if your kid sleeps in a bathroom or a closet, I promise they’ll be just fine
  5. Have a contingency plan up your sleeve
  6. Don’t forget about time zones
  7. Stay super flexible and take lots of deep breaths 🙂

Ready to stop running around with your hair on fire?  Check out my free resources or schedule a free consult call to see what future you is up to.

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Written by Kayla

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