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Roadtrippin’ With a Toddler: How to Successfully Spend 24 Hours in a Car with a 14 month-old Without Killing Yourself or Your Child

June 25, 2013

Well, we’re home.  And, though Michigan was amazing, I’ll be honest: it’s nice to be home.

Last year, when Lila was 4 months old, we flew with her to Nantucket.  Afterwards, I wrote this post detailing tips and things we’d learned about traveling with a baby.

Even though there’s only a twelve month difference between traveling with Lila this summer and last, I feel like a lot of things have changed.  Traveling with a toddler is just different.  Not better or worse, juts different. 

Actually, that’s not true.  There were definitely things that were better.  And there were definitely things that were worse.  Here are some things we learned during our time in Michigan, as well as some things we picked up along the way during the 1580 miles (roughly) it took us to get there and home.

1.  During the long stretches of car riding, let them watch Elmo.  Seriously.

Despite having driven back and forth from Louisiana with Lila several times, this was our first trip with a portable DVD player, and MAN do I regret not getting it sooner.  One of my friends asked how exactly we’d survived without it before this trip, and truthfully, I’m not sure.  Elmo is one magical little bastard.  Lila could be screaming, crying, throwing a fit to the max, and with one switch of a button, that little red monster would pop on the screen and sing a song about gold shoes (look at them glow!), and suddenly it was all rainbows and lollipops again in the backseat.  I don’t know what it is about Elmo that kids love so much, and frankly, I don’t care.  The hours of blessed silence our Elmo DVDs afforded us on the ride to and from Michigan made the DVD player priceless.

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Staying in a hotel?  Book a suite.

We’ve had friends who have had really bad luck staying in hotels with their kids, particularly if the kids are toddler-age.  I think it’s really confusing for kids to have to sleep in the same room as the parents—if I were the toddler, I would be looking up at the bed the whole time, thinking, Why can’t I just sleep in there with you?? Plus, it’s annoying for the parents—lights out at 7:30 or 8:00, no television or noise—it just seems like a pain.  A lot of hotels will let you book a suite for no extra charge, or just a small amount more.  Totally worth it.  During our two nights in hotels, we set up Lila’s pack and play in the extra room, drew the blinds, closed off her door, and boom—she was out like a light, and slept just as well as she sleeps at home.  We were able to still read and watch tv from our room, and everyone woke up happy and well-rested.  Lila got to enjoy some time in the giant hotel bed:

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…just not with us.  Winking smile

Map out your trip well, and don’t push it too hard.

When it was just the two of us, Ryan and I would often play roadtrips by ear, deciding on the road how far we wanted to drive, if we wanted to split a trip into one day or two, etc.  Not on this trip—everything was planned out pretty specifically.  We knew where we were going to stop and when, and we had our hotels booked way in advance.  This was important not just because we had Lila with us, but especially because we had the dogs with us.  We’ve been stranded on long stretches of highway before with not a dog-friendly hotel in sight, so we knew we needed to book that stuff in advance. 

We also tried to plan our trips so that the bulk of the driving would fall during a time when Lila would be likely to want to nap.  Naps weren’t a guarantee, but we could at least try to encourage them by driving when she would likely be pretty sleepy.

The trip to Michigan was twelve hours total.  Again, if had just been the two of us, we might have pushed through in one day.  We’ve done twenty hours straight before (craziness), so it wouldn’t have been that bad.  But, now that Lila is so mobile, she has SO much energy.  I knew that twelve hours (or eight, or ten), probably would have been WAY too long for her to handle in one day.  Breaking at six hours each day seemed to be just the right amount of time—six hours was right about when she was reaching her limit.

As with any trips you take post-baby, it’s important to remember that traveling with a child is a different type of travel, and I think the trip goes much, much more smoothly if you just respect that fact and work with it, rather than trying to fight it every step of the way.

Don’t kill yourself in an effort to stay on schedule.

Lila isn’t a super-scheduled baby, even at home—she takes naps at different times on different days, depending on the mood she’s in, when she wakes up, etc.  That being said, she does have a pretty set bedtime—between 7 and 7:30—and we stick to that pretty rigidly.  But not when we travel.  In Michigan, we stayed up later, and so did she.  Some nights, she didn’t go to bed until 8:30…and that was fine.  She slept later in the morning (#winning), and everyone was happy.  Our vacations are a pretty loose, unstructured time for us, so I don’t see why it would be any different for Lila.

Nap in the crib (or pack and play, or bed), not the car or stroller or backpack.

Going on so many hikes on this vacation, it was really tempting to just let Lila nap in the backpack (or in the car rides on the way to the hike).  Similarly, on trips where you’re exploring a city by walking, I can see that it would be tempting to let kiddo nap in the stroller.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with allowing them to sleep in the backpack or stroller, should they happen to fall asleep.  Lila definitely fell asleep in the car-seat once or twice.  But those naps really shouldn’t take the place of regular, lie down and sleep, naps. 

Again, I get why it’s tempting to skip naps and just go.  But the few days that we tried that, we really, really paid.  I’d rather stick around the house a bit longer, read my book, allow Lila to nap, and then have a HAPPY baby for the rest of the day (afternoon, evening, etc.).   Being in a different city or state or country doesn’t mean that the child’s needs have changed, and kids NEED their naps! Trying to ignore that need is just asking for trouble, in my opinion.

Be honest about what you can (and can’t) do.

Traverse City is known for its foodie, fine-dining scene, as well as its beautiful vineyards and wineries.  During our time in the area we partook in…neither.  We ate out at restaurants multiple times with Lila, but at the age she’s at right now, a multiple-course, multiple-hour dinner in  a nice restaurant just isn’t in the cards.  And that sucks, because one of the things we like to do most on vacation is eat.  Our days of meals like this one are over for a while.

But you know…that’s okay.  I’d rather have a cheeseburger in a loud diner with a happy child than stress myself out by trying to take her out to a nicer restaurant.  We’ve done that before, and it’s not fun for anyone.  Lila gets bored and aggravated, we spend the meal constantly worrying that she’s being too loud or is about to throw a bread plate across the room, and no one really enjoys themselves. 

No thanks. Eventually, we’ll be able to take her to nicer restaurants.  But for right now, we need to accept the fact that casual dining suits us best.

We planned our activities in a similar fashion.  There were some longer hikes that I would have LOVED to have done, but frankly, Lila does best when her time in the hiking backpack is limited.  And the wineries?  Obviously I would have loved to visit some of them.  But wine tasting with a fourteen month old?  No thanks.  Another time, another trip.  This trip was more about playgrounds and beaches:

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…and that’s okay.  

Don’t forget that it’s a vacation.

This seems like such an easy one, but sometimes I think it can be the hardest.  During the second week, when Lila was sick, I started thinking—This trip was a bad idea.  We should have just stayed home.  We should just stay home until she’s 18. 

Stay home?

That’s not really our style.  We LOVE to travel, and having a child hasn’t changed that.  If anything, it’s made the urge to travel even stronger—I want Lila to love travel and exploring new places as much as we do. 

Vacationing with a toddler certainly isn’t always easy, and sometimes it might not even feel like a vacation.  But it’s important to remember—it is.  Take advantage of it.  Relax.  Enjoy yourself.  And be grateful that you get to take in views like this:

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…with the ones you love the most!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2013 1:00 pm

    SO true- great tips! We’re driving an 8 hour trip with Kay soon and I’m semi-terrified. Fingers crossed 😉

  2. June 25, 2013 10:09 pm

    Those are excellent suggestions. I saw an interview recently with Julie Bowen from Modern Family, and when asked if she allowed her kids to watch videos while they were in the car, she replied that when she was growing she and her siblings were all over that car – playing, fighting, laying around in the backseat and on the floor. Today, kids are essentially strapped into a straight jacket car seat and expected to sit still. It just doesn’t work! She said she was willing to do whatever they needed for entertainment. That made so much sense to me. It was a great trip, and Lila is a precious little girl! I’m looking forward to more fun trips with her (and her parents)!

  3. June 25, 2013 10:49 pm

    Amazing post and so right on! Oh and Elmo always saved the day for us with Jay! He LOVED Elmo! I’m so glad you guys got to enjoy a great trip together as a family!

    PS, Max still has melt downs on trips. It never ends… 😉

  4. June 26, 2013 12:11 am

    Excellent tips! I definitely reread your post from last year…will be VERY useful for us this summer 🙂

  5. Patti permalink
    June 26, 2013 3:42 pm

    I tried to look at the hard times of these early outings as investments in future years and great times. We had a neighbor once who said they tried traveling with kids and it was hard so they never did it again- they missed out. It won’t be too long before she looks forward to trips. I am all for using Elmo for less stress for everyone. Looking forward to seeing you in Seattle next week.

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