14 tips for surviving road trips with toddlers

If you’re considering a long-distance road trip with a toddler, here are 14 tips and tricks that will make your journey easier...

4 mins

One minute we were driving through glorious sunshine, fields gleaming in the evening light – the next minute, the air was thick and muggy, pitch black. As our car smashed through hammering rain, it was almost impossible to see. I gripped the steering wheel for dear life and pondered whether road tripping through the night across France had been the right call. (Having trialled the drive in the afternoon, I can now say with certainty that it was).

Our parents used to do the same night road trip with us when we were small. We figured our toddler had been training us up ever since she was born – drilling us through endless sleepless nights to make sure we were totally prepared for a 15-hour overnight drive that would transport her from Bristol to Dover, then Calais to Hossegor.

No stranger to long road trips, our 18-month old is generally a lovely passenger. But on long road trips there are bound to be occasions when it all goes wrong – be it overtiredness, boredom, hunger, projectile vomiting or some completely unfathomable reason. 

Here are some tips and tricks we've learned along the way – hopefully they'll help your road trip with a toddler go smoothly...

1. Do it overnight

Thanks to the lull of a moving vehicle, when placed in the car at 7pm the majority of toddlers will sleep through the night. You may face a couple of night awakenings when you have to swap drivers, but these are pretty manageable. If you attempt the exact same drive in the day you face many many hours of non-stop child pacifying. Even when they should be sleeping. And so should you.

2. Go 'flexi' on the ferry from Dover to Calais

We found the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais is the best and cheapest way to get to France. And if you buy  a ‘Flexi’ ticket, you can jump on another ferry should you be earlier or later than the original booking. 

The downside is the Dover/Calais crossing is often the furthest from your end destination. There are plenty of other crossings from Portsmouth, Poole etc but these tend to be much longer, more expensive and often overnight, meaning you still have the issue of entertaining a toddler for a day’s drive.

3. Forget the plane

Going by ferry, in our experience, is significantly easier than flying with a toddler. There are no limits on fluids, no de-robing, x-rays or waiting for luggage to appear, no limit on using electronic devices and of course if you’re held up en route you can normally jump on the next boat. 

Another unexpected bonus is that the ferry makes the perfect wear-out zone for little legs – restaurants, family areas, a shop stocked with Peppa Pig and plenty of breeze out on deck. You can also all snuggle up together and sleep on the floor should you happen to jump on the 02.40am crossing!

4. Plan what you’ll need for the crossing and pack it separately 

Bottles of milk, changes of clothes (for you and baby) and nappies should all be singled out from your main luggage. Separate the items in advance into a ferry bag filled with things to entertain your toddler – stickers, snacks, playdo, books. Treat them to a couple of new toys/sticker/colouring books to keep interest high!

Take food and drinks stored in a coolbag that you may want on your journey, but be aware that the ferry restaurants will not heat up any food you bring on board. You can always stock up on more along the way but you might not want to stop too soon if you’re on a roll!

5. Snacks are your friend

Healthy, unhealthy, unusual, whatever, snacks are worth their weight in gold on long drives with toddlers.

6. Pack light, but not too light

You have the car so make the most of it. Buying everything brand new when you get to your end destination can be expensive, so if you’re camping or staying in self-catering accommodation, load up with salt, pepper, toilet roll, tea, coffee, toys, bikes – things that will make your life easier when you arrive and save you an immediate trip to the supermarket.

7. Nap when your partner is driving

Once the little one is asleep (if they ever go to sleep!), maximise your snoozes as you’ll need to be as refreshed and alert as possible. You’ll also feel a LOT better the next day, when come 6am the little one is wide awake and ready to go. If you’re driving in Europe, the peages (toll plazas) can be a right pain as they normally loom out of the night just as you’re falling asleep so be aware you need to snatch sleep when you can get it.

8. Check if you can check in early

Most places don’t allow you to check in until the afternoon due to previous guest check out times and subsequent cleaning schedules. If you arrive well in advance it’s worth finding out if you’re accommodation could be ready early – they might take pity on you if they realise you’ve driven all night with a small child!

9. Take an iPad or DVD player

I cannot stress this enough. Download some child-friendly movies and your little ones’s favourite CBeebies programmes from BBC iplayer in advance of your trip, it will buy you hours of childcare.

10. Pack wipes

Keep plenty of baby and Dettol wipes in the car. You will need them.

11. Invest in a satnav

Because really, why wouldn’t you? They make life so much easier, reduce arguments between couples and of course, you can keep driving whilst your partner sleeps without having to wake them to navigate.

12. Give the kids what they want

Within reason of course! But if your child has been particularly well behaved, suffered hours in the car with little but your singing to entertain them and the promise of freedom at some incomprehensible future date, then just buy them that teddy they grow deeply attached to the instant they set foot in the service station.

13. Remember it’ll all be totally worth it

Think of those beaches, the glorious mountain views, the heat, the snow, the food, the holiday awaiting you at the end of the drive.

14. Bring their PJs

You won’t be able to do the full bedtime routine, but you can do bits of it to let them know it’s time for sleep. Take a travel sleeping bag (if not too warm), their PJs, their fave cuddly toy and read a book, then let the motion of the car do the rest!

Angharad Paull is a writer, mother and traveller. You'll find more tips and inspiration for families who love to travel on her website, Mama Travels Earth.

Main image: Happy kids in car (Shutterstock.com)

Related Articles