I survived a 12-hour road trip with two toddlers, so you can too

Is it really worse to travel 12 hours in a car than 2 hours in a plane? After a horrible experience flying for the first time with our 15-month-old twins over the summer thanks to flight delays overnight, my wife and I decided to risk toddler tantrums in the car rather than in the air. Though the flight to Chicago from New Jersey is less than two hours and the drive over 12, we decided the trade-off was worth it. After two days on the road, I learned a ton about how to prepare for a successful trip and make it through alive.

In an airplane, there isn’t much room to get up and move about. The aisles can provide a distraction, but don’t really offer much opportunity to burn off energy for a toddler. If you can grab the bulkhead seats, there’s at least some room to move around there, but being trapped on a plane with cranky kids can quickly become an exercise in massive frustration as there aren’t enough options or space to calm down and hundred of judging eyes will quickly align upon you. There are movies on the screens to divert, but for parents trying to minimize screen time, this isn’t a feasible option. A plane might be faster, but at least a car provides some options.

In a car, there’s more privacy, ability to put on music or books, carry more toys, snacks, and books, and even stop for a break and to get out if needed. Planes certainly don’t allow that. A car also allows bonding time that otherwise wouldn’t occur. It also sets kids up for being ready for longer road trips later in their lives, opening up options for cross-country travel. For parents who need to bring a stroller, car seats, and pack-and-plays, a car is really the only way to get everything needed to a destination. Even though flying may often be faster, skipping the check-in and security lines and having the flexibility a car provides can make a huge difference.

The biggest downside to traveling by car is the amount of time spent in the same seat and having to deal with the boredom kids feel as a result. Toddlers especially may get agitated as they are uncomfortable and bored but can’t express themselves. Because of this, much of the drive may be spent trying to keep them occupied and entertained. Bring toys and books. the best type of toys are those that can’t get easily thrown across the car or lost in between seats. Things with clips are perfect. The last thing you’ll want to do while driving is have to do over-the-seat yoga to reach in between the seats to retrieve a favorite toy.

Another great toy to bring along is a wooden puzzle maze. These provide great distractions while not having pieces that make it all over the floor. It’s like a wooden puzzle without having wooden puzzle pieces that can be flung at your head from the backseat, which while providing a nice distraction, is assuredly quite painful. Instead, children can spin around the pieces and stay occupied for at least some time.

Some parents may scoff at the idea of listening to children’s music in the car. Others may be shocked it’s possible to listen to anything else. On our trip, we found a balance of children’s music during times when they were most cranky and audio books and classic rock other times. Alternating between all three kept us sane and singing along throughout the drive. Trust me, you’ll learn the words quite quickly too. A sing along is the only way to hear the same song eight times and not go crazy.

Snacks are another way to occupy some time in the car. I was originally very against the idea of eating in the car, but after 15 minutes of screaming from two hungry monsters, I gave in. We got snack cups that are designed to allow reaching in, but prevent too much spilling all around the car. Unfortunately, our children learn to shake things in school and they quickly figured out that shaking the cups like maracas quickly empties out all the Cheerios. The dog was quite happy to vacuum up the floor and car seats for us.

Parents also need to be on the alert for smelly diapers in the car. Nothing sets kids off faster than being wet and / or smelly. In the event of a mid-drive stink emergency, pulling over is the only option. You don’t need to wait for the first rest stop or fast food restaurant though. The trunk is the perfect place for changing. If it isn’t big enough, just use the grass off the shoulder. Getting back on the road and on track quickly is the aim because time is ticking until the next diaper bomb.

For lucky parents, long drives on the highway are recipes for sleep. One strategy is to leave on a trip at night, just after dinner and before bedtime. That way, the kids will fall asleep shortly into the drive and sleep all the way through. This of course only works if the parents can stay awake long after. We tried this on our drive and only made it until about 11, two hours later than our normal bedtime before getting too tired because becoming parents made us old. For parents of young children, parents can at least ensure the drive comes during one of the longer naps of the day. Time things right and a long nap can offer a lengthy respite during a long drive.

Planning ahead for a road trip, just like any outing with children, is key. Traveling just around nap or sleep times can head off behavior issues and tantrums. Knowing the child and their schedule is another key to success. A day in the car should be treated much the same as a day at home with the same schedule and activities. Making time for quiet reading time, taking breaks for walking or crawling around, and keeping to the same feeding schedule will keep things calm and relaxed. A long car ride isn’t the time to try new things or change schedules. It’s also not the time to stick super hard to rules. It might be the right time to relax rules about screen time and eating in the car, just to keep sanity.

Following these rules, we made it halfway across the country, 12 hours in the car, not just once but twice. If it worked for us with twin toddlers, it will work for anyone. Have a plan and stick to it and things won’t fall apart too badly. If they do, be ready to stop for a while and regroup. Part of the benefits of traveling by car are the ability to be flexible and make your own way. Enjoy it.

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