How to Entertain a Toddler (and Large Dog) on a Long Road Trip

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that the following information is what works for us. I am in no way stating that the following information is the end all be all in regards to traveling with a toddler and a dog so if it doesn’t work for you, please don’t come at me with a pitchfork, okay? 

Clay and I both lived 650+ miles from Clemson University, which meant we drove long distances during winter and summer breaks while in college to go home. I had a little red Eagle Talon with no cruise-control that I would navigate along I-85 and I-95 at speeds I wouldn’t dare attempt today – what is it with being 19 and feeling indestructible? After Clay graduated and drove to and from Ft. Huachuca, AZ for training, we were married during winter break of my senior year. I went back to South Carolina to finish my last semester before joining Clay up at Ft. Drum, New York. So I spent many hours on I-81 going back and forth. And since we were married over 7 years ago, a year hasn’t gone by that we haven’t taken a 700+ mile road trip to visit our families in North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania with Lucy in tow, in addition to flying/driving somewhere else for vacation.  The point is – we had logged many miles in the car before we welcomed a son into our world in 2009. And you know what happened then? Everything changed.

The last pre-kid vacation – 6 months pregnant – San Diego, CA – July 2009

Every couple pregnant for the first time thinks “I’m never going to be like that…” when observing parents of young children engaged in some sort of child-rearing activity. In fact, I had many of those moments when pregnant with Weston and observing families of young children during our travels that summer in California. But as is the case with 98% of other first-time parents out there, our tune quickly changed once we actually became responsible for a tiny human being. However, we were still determined not to be homebodies. We never were before children, so why would we limit ourselves to two-hour car trips and no longer flying just because we added another person to our family? So we took our first road trip when Weston was five weeks old – we drove 7 hours to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.

Long story short – that trip certainly was a learning experience (e.g. we grossly underestimated how often/long we would stop for me to nurse the little guy, among other things) but I am happy to report that we have learned quite a few things since then. But we’re still far from perfect travelers so please don’t be afraid to give your own suggestions!

June 2012 – Lucy hidden from view behind the drivers seat

So without further ado, here are some suggestions (that work for us) on how to entertain a toddler (and large dog) on a long road trip…

McDonalds/Chick-Fil-A/etc.. playgrounds are your friend. Regardless of your opinion of fast food, the fact is that many of the houses of saturated fat populate the Interstate system. And while it would be nice if Whole Foods had environmental friendly playgrounds built out of recycled hybrid cars with fresh fruit and vegetable carts for parents to peruse at their leisure, the cold hard truth is that you’re more likely to find a McDonalds on your travels. And that is okay. Because you don’t have to eat there for your child to enjoy the indoor playground equipment likely shipped from China. While I certainly don’t advocate squatting, I find no shame in ordering only a coffee to enjoy while the little guy burns energy. I always carry an extra pair of toddler socks in my purse while traveling for this exact situation.

Crayons and coloring book. Duh. However, if you’re not too keen on having your child potentially make a mess in your car, you probably want to rethink this whole parenthood thing.

Plenty of drinks and snacks. Again – duh. You can never have too many drinks or available snacks. Apple slices, crackers, goldfish, granola, fruit snacks, and carrots are just a few. We always have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on hand too. Word of advice – be sure to pack the amount of snacks you think your child will eat for the day. And then triple it.

Don’t be afraid to let favorite toys/stuffed animals drive the car. They can’t be any worse than Illinois drivers. Just kidding. Sort of.

Bring on the DVD’s! We find no shame in having our son watch movies in the car on 20+ hour road trips. Do we use the DVD player every time we are in the car? No. Do we let our son watch a couple of movies throughout a 12-hour day on the road? Absolutely. We did not set out to purchase used-vehicles with built-in DVD players – it just worked out that way. And with portable DVD players being fairly inexpensive, you are not out of luck if your car doesn’t have one. In fact, my sister bought this iPad holder that goes over a head rest in the car so her son could watch movies on their recent road trip – genius!

Sing, sing, sing, sing. The sillier the song, the better.

Seek out rest areas with playgrounds. We are big fans of rest areas. There is not much I dislike more than having to get off the interstate to use a restroom and most are pet-friendly. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a comprehensive list of all the rest areas located on the interstate system. Sometimes we hit gold and will stumble across a rest area with a playground (fyi – there are a lot on I-44) which means that one of us can walk the dog while the other watches little guy burn energy. If you want to do some pre-planning at home, Google “state you will be traveling in rest area with playground” and you should be able to find something along the way.

Surprise packages/toys. I usually stop by the dollar store before we leave on a long trip because I like supporting the Chinese economy. And also because I find inexpensive little trinkets to surprise the little guy with throughout the trip. For $5, I emerge with five packets filled with multiple tiny dinosaurs, farm animals, and cars. These little treasures are perfect to hand back to a toddler (assuming he/she doesn’t put things in his/her mouth anymore) and a great way to tie in scenery. For example, you can have your child keep an eye out for cows and when he spots one, you can hand back a little toy cow that hopefully isn’t toxic.

And finally, accept your limited food choices and get creative. During the summer, we are unable to leave Lucy in the car so we can grab a bite to eat. This means that we’re limited to eating in the car and let’s face it – fast food isn’t exactly a gourmet meal. I am not going to lie – there are times when we indulge in such fare, but we certainly don’t make it a regular occurrence. Of course packing meals is the most economical solution but it isn’t often the most convenient. If you’re lucky enough to live among Wawa’s (we are not…tear), they have an amazing hoagie bar where you can get a made-to-order sandwich to take on the road. Jimmy Johns is another option. And we have been known to get Panera Bread/Atlanta Bread/McAlister’s Deli to-go and eat it in the car or a bench in a park. What is nice about all of these options is that you can order earlier in the morning and save them for lunch if know you’re driving through an area with limited dining options.

For another road-trip related post, see How to Make a Road Trip Playlist.

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3 thoughts on “How to Entertain a Toddler (and Large Dog) on a Long Road Trip

  1. This is so cute, and timely. We just returned from a road trip and I was going to blog about it. I am saving these tips for when Nolan is older 🙂

  2. ❤ your ideas! Very thoughtful and reassuring. We have yet to take a long (more than 4-hours) road trip with our kiddos (ages 3 & 2, no dog) and have been putting it off. My husband and I are both ready to goooooo somewhere. So, this fall, I'm hoping we will tackle our fears and hit the road!

  3. Oh, roadtrips. I definitely had the thought that life would carry on as it had, just with a car-seat in tow. Three car-seats later, and every one of your points is spot on. The in-car snacks are what get me every time, though. It seems like the moment the girls are strapped in, they instantly grow the appetites of lumberjacks and we’re out of snacks within an hour!

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