Road Trip Tips for Traveling with Kids

So you think you want to travel by car through Canada with kids.  Do it!  Be prepared though for the less-than-koombaya moments, and let me help you out a little with what’s worked for us.

Let me start by saying that I loooove road trips.  Even with my kids.  Even with the dog.  Okay, less so with the dog because she will not sit still – it’s like driving with a herd of monkeys in the car.  A “herd” of monkeys?  That doesn’t sound right but I’m going to go with it.  I’ve traveled enough as a child and as an adult with my own small people to offer some advice:

  1. Don’t overuse the “devices”. We have a car DVD player because we live in 2005 and don’t have an iPad.  I found that since our windows aren’t very dark, if I used it during the day the screen was too hard to see and was a source for constant complaints from the back seat.  If we used it as soon as it got dark enough, the novelty wore off and when we really needed it to work its magical art of entertainment, like when we still had 300 km to go – it failed. So just hit “play” when it’s needed.
  2. Before leaving home accept that they will cry at some point and there will be nothing you can do about it. Bring good music. Often I am road tripping alone with the kids and all I can do it turn up some road tunes, or silly kid music and take solace in the fact that the worst thing that can happen is for them to cry.  They’re strapped in to 5 point harnesses and can’t really reach each other yet to inflict harm with flailing arms and legs.  When my little guy was smaller “Wheels on the Bus” brought him out of almost any fit.  It doesn’t do the trick anymore, but we once listened to it on repeat almost the entire way to P.E.I.
  3. Strap a bag to the arm of their car seat with crayons, paper, books and their favourite toys. This will help ease the flow of the “my car is on the floor and I can’t reach it” “My box of toys is on the floor and I can’t reach it” complaints.  At each gas station collect them all and put them back in the bag.
  4. Outside of major cities and southern Ontario, stop at most gas stations and get your kids to try and go to the bathroom. Especially the TransCanada through New Brunswick.  They are literally 300 km apart.  If you miss one and little Sally has to go pee, or if you’re dangerously close to running out of gas your choices are limited.  You can either make a long detour off of the highway to a town and then back, adding at least an hour to the trip. Or you can pray to the gas gods that running on fumes really is a thing, and that poor little Sally’s bladder hold out.
  5. Put all of your hotel/extra road clothes and things you’ll need along the way in one bag that easily accessible in the trunk/back of the van. Having to tear apart the trunk to find a suitable pair of pants for Sally, whose bladder didn’t hold out is not a time saver.
  6. Bring a few bags for garbage and get rid of it at every stop.
  7. Snacks, snacks, snacks! Bring as many healthy and happy snacks as you can.  Bring along whatever your kids will eat that is healthy, easy to portion, and not terribly messy.  Kids love trail mix?  Grab a box of the snack size baggies or snack size Tupperware containers and fill them up for an easy to access and pass to the back snack.  Kids love oranges?  Peel and pack into those baggies or containers and pass ‘em back.  Kids will eat apples?  Slice and splash some lemon juice on them to keep them from going brown, put ‘em in and pass ‘em back.  My kids will eat fruit all day long so we pack our baggies with all kinds of fruit and a bunch of sandwiches. Try and choose healthy for so many reasons.  Believe me, no one wants kids hopped up and whining and sticky from 6 chocolate bars and a big bag of candy.  We only give water in the car because again, juice is sticky and milk is nasty when you sniff out a week later exactly where it spilled.
  8. Have a hard surface for your kids to colour on.
  9. Add extra headphones. My kids are fidgeters and see them as a puzzle to disassemble.
  10. Bring Tylenol and Gravol, because you never know and they both cost $20 at gas stations.
  11. Get CAA! We let ours lapse this year because we thought we weren’t using it.  Boy were we wrong! To date this year I’ve needed two…count ‘em…two tows.  Not cheap. Plus they offer great discounts on hotels and attractions.
  12. Create a list of conversation questions to ask your kids. I love this one.  The answers always surprise me and usually make me bust a gut laughing.  “Where do you think Polar Bears sleep?”  “If you were an animal what would you be and why?”  “When you grow up what will your house look like?”  “What is your favourite thing about the beach?”  Games like travel BINGO or finding every letter of the alphabet on passing cars can be great as well.
  13. Quebec has a great layout of rest stops along the TransCanada that are open 24/7, relatively clean, have space for kids to stretch and run and are well lit. Take advantage of these.
  14. If you can fit it in, bring a potty. Especially if you have a daughter or a child with “active” bowels. I just learned of this one recently and haven’t road tested it but it sounds brilliant.  If you’re in a pinch you just w ipe it out with a Clorox wipe and you’re back on the road in no time.
  15. If the purpose of the road trip is simply to get from Point A to Point B, make sure to limit your stops and save money. Only stop for gas and make sure everyone goes to the washroom.  Only eat the food from the cooler in your car.
  16. Pack the kids bathing suits even if you don’t know what hotel you’re staying at or if it has a pool. You want to see heartbreak?  Look into the eyes of the child who has just noticed the chlorine smell of a hotel pool and tell them “sorry darlin’, we didn’t bring your bathing suit”.
  17. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stanley) and let go of any expectations. I’m happy that my kids have always traveled well.  That said, they have cried when I couldn’t do anything to help at the time.  They were safe, just a little unhappy at that moment.  Don’t overload the interior of the car with things.  Bring their favourite toys, favourite music and small blankies or snuggly stuffy.
  18. Kids sleep in weird positions in the car.  They look horribly uncomfortable.  You or I would be seized up after sleeping like that.  They are however just fine.  Stop worrying.  I’ve heard that some kids will use neck pillows, but I’ve never met these children.
  19. Family feuding? Our kids are 13, 4 and 1 so we haven’t had to deal with this too much…yet, but take a lesson from my parents who successfully dealt with my brother and I constantly battling in the back of the car. Stack blankets on top of the cooler between 2 kids in the back seat so they can’t see each other too much. Admit it:  We are not above bribery, people!  Get a roll of loonies that are just for them to spend however they would like once you get to your destination.  Every time they fight, they lose a dollar.  This was particularly effective on me as I could envision boxes and boxes of Smarties.Enjoy this opportunity to connect with your kids. Sing silly songs, make up hilarious stories together and teach them about this beautiful country, and how to be great travelers. When they grow up they will be able to confidently pack a bag and venture out to create more wonderful memories on their own.


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