Last week, I did a 15-hour solo road trip with my two little kids. And I didn’t go insane.
I didn’t start off insane, either, thanks.
But seriously, this is a road trip with kids that we’ve now taken so many times, and it’s only gotten easier over the years.
Here’s how it began:
A few times a year, I used to pack my kids up to fly from NYC, where we live, to my hometown in Northern Michigan.
I’ve been working remotely for my parent’s IT company (and running this lil’ ole site) since 2013, so the concept of digital nomadism was pretty familiar to me long before the pandemic made it more mainstream.
When we go to Michigan, we’re usually there for 3-6 weeks at a time. We’re also incredibly lucky and blessed to have access to a family vacation home I usually share with my brother, who’s also a remote worker and travels back and forth to Michigan.
My husband will almost always stay back in NYC to work, coming up for one or two long weekends in the middle of our trip.
It’s great to get away, even while we miss my husband. The kids run around in the fresh air, I get some work done on site instead of remotely, and spend time with my family and friends on Lake Michigan.
Back when I had just one kid, the flight from NYC to Traverse City wasn’t fun, but it was pretty straightforward.
And after my second was born, the flight got a little more hectic, for sure, but by breastfeeding him on the plane I was usually able to stop any drama before it began.
However, that nursing baby is now 6. Our breastfeeding days are behind us. He’s old enough now that I have to buy him his own plane ticket. And I hate flying solo with kids.
There was so much to despise about being the only parent with little kids on a plane: TSA checkpoints, packing (and worrying about the weight limit), running to catch connecting flights with a slow-moving older kid while babywearing and dragging 3 pieces of carry-ons, someone always needs to poop at a really inconvenient time, stopping the kids from constantly kicking the seat in front of us, and so on.
Then there’s the one-off problems and delays! Like the time my son knocked a huge cup of hot coffee all down the lap of the lady next to us and then cried for the next hour because his ears hurt. The time we got delayed in Detroit for 4 hours and it was midnight and there were no restaurants open. The time we had two blowout diapers in the air and I didn’t pack a change of clothes….. yeah, I’ve come to dread the flight part of our trips up north.
Three years into it, my mind was made up: I was done with flying.
Plus, we were gone for so long it became really difficult to do anything up there without a car. And renting a car for 3-6 weeks ain’t cheap, yo.
The first time I told my husband I’d rather drive the 15+ hours from NYC to my parent’s house than fly like we usually did, he thought I’d lost my mind. Back then, we didn’t even own a car- so it was a huge undertaking.
Know what? That drive, even 15 hours long, was so much easier than flying.
I hereby consider this my declaration: we are never flying again (unless, obviously, circumstances demand it.)
I’ve been doing this drive at least once- frequently twice or three times- a year since 2017, and I’ve learned me some things since then.
Here are my BEST tips for making a big, solo road trip with kids (and keeping your sanity)
1. If you’re renting, get the car the day before you leave.
We picked up the car the day of, and while I was pretty organized with packing, I wish I had more time to get used to how the car handles and the little ins and outs like, does it play music via bluetooth or an auxiliary cable? What are the wipers like when it rains? How hard is that brake pedal? I had to figure too much out while I was also managing traffic jams leaving the Bronx and passing snacks to the backseat. Next time, I’ll pick up the car the day before we go and take it for a test spin before hitting the open highway.
2. Always keep a bag of snacks where you can reach it.
I keep a large, soft cooler within grabbing distance on the front seat and pack it to the brim with snacks that take a long time to eat, like fruit leather or trail mix (they eat each ingredient individually, because kids)
3. Keep a toilet bag handy, including a portable potty.
I kept a bag of diapers, wipes, toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and a portable potty seat like this one. This saved my life when my son was napping and my daughter needed to pee. She could squat on the side of the road and I didn’t have to wake him up to take us all to a rest stop.
4. If you’re able to, embrace the tablet
If we’re stuck in a traffic jam or something else that’s interminable, I’ll turn on my hot spot and let them watch some Kids YouTube (something I’m typically pretty anti, but desperate times and all that)
Otherwise, I spend some time a couple of nights before we leave on the road trip with kids downloading episodes of their favorite shows, favorite movies, and even songs to a tablet.
Then I hook this long iPad holder rod in between the headrests and plug in a headphone splitter so more than one kids can use headphones and you’re not listening to the theme song for Bunk’d for 14 straight hours. The kids can watch “tv” like I’m driving a 1990s Windstar minivan with a VCR in the dashboard.
5. Get awesome back-of-the-seat toy and drink holders.
These were inexpensive and perfect for our trip. The kids had a place to put their stuff that wasn’t in the footwell, and things were kept in easy reach.
6. Take the exits that don’t go to truck stops.
We pulled off the highway to tiny Midwest towns and villages to use the bathroom or grab lunch, instead of always hitting the truck stops. It was nice to see places other than Burger King and Waffle House.
7. Then, take the truck stop exits and embrace the BK playspace.
The best part about a Burger King or McDonalds Playspace is it’s enclosed, so you can relax and let the kids run around and blow off some steam while you gather yourself for a bit.
8. Load up your own podcasts and playlists.
Living in the city, I get so used to having strong data wherever we go. But when you’re in the middle of nowhere on I-80, that data streaming station turns silent. Make sure you’ve got some good stuff to listen to as backup for your solo road trip with kids.
9. No data leads me to: Real life maps.
Google Maps is great but get a road map, just in case.
10. But speaking of data use, Audible is my favorite way to pass the time.
11. Don’t forget your headphones.
I often joke that noise-cancelling headphones are my self-care, and nowhere is that more true than on the road.
I don’t actually use the noise-canceling effect because safety, but wearing my big headphones drowns out the kids yelling just enough that I can keep my sanity and hear my audiobook and everyone survives the trip.
12. “Hand on the car!”
Again, we’re city folk. My kids aren’t used to cars and parking lots; they’re used to standing behind the yellow line at a subway stop.
I made it a rule that whenever we’re in a parking lot, they must keep their hands on the car at all times while I gathered my purse and diaper bags and made sure the car was locked. It stopped them from running around in front of traffic.
13. Juice boxes for the kids and a ‘juice box’ for your phone.
My kids don’t get juice very often, but I bought a few boxes as a road trip treat. But mama’s juice box is what I really came to depend on; not the drinkable kind, the battery kind!
We have this hardcore chargeable “juice box” for charging phones, laptops, and tablets, and it is amazing. I charged it fully before we left and it gave enough power that I didn’t have to charge it again till we arrived in Michigan- despite having to charge all 3 devices on it at once while driving. If you want a more affordable option, this one is great, too.
14. Make-your-own surprise bags.
My kids love those packaged ‘blind bags’ with small toys in them, so I took that idea one step further for the road.
The day before we left, I made each of them 2 or 3 “surprise bags” in gallon ziplocks using toys we already had. Each ziplock held things that went together; a handful of Hatchimal toys for my daughter, a few matchbox cars for my son, playdough, etc.
When they piped up from the backseat, I handed back a ziplock bag and they stayed quiet for another hour or so.
15. Don’t try to do it all in one day.
I’ve learned this one the hard way over the years. Technically, you can make a 15 hour road trip in one day. I mean, it’s totally possible.
But is it worth it? I find we are all WAY happier if I stop driving for the day at about 5pm, when we stop for dinner and stay at a hotel with a pool for the kids to play in and blow off steam. Then hit the road again first thing in the morning.
16. If you’re breaking it up, get the long day out of the way first.
Again, this is another hardwon truth for me. I’ve tried breaking our road trip with kids into all kinds of ways: half the way one day, half the way the next. Leaving at 5pm and letting the kids sleep while I drive. And, like I said, trying to get it all done in one go.
But it works best for me if I leave at the cracking crack crack of dawn the first day, drive til 5 or 6pm, sleep at a hotel, and hit the road for like 2 or 3 hours tops the next day.
That second day is a SLOG. It’s best to make it short and sweet!
17. Pack an overnight bag
Pack a small bag of overnight things, including toiletries, and pack it last- so it’s easy to grab. You don’t want to haul in the big suitcases just to stay in a hotel for one night.
18. Soft car toppers
We got this soft car topper that straps in our luggage on top of the car and I adore it. It rolls up so small that I just leave it in the car year-round. It holds our suitcases really well. And it leaves my back window nice and open. It’s worth not being able to open the sunroof for the duration of the trip.
19. Get the RoadTrippers app
I LOVE this app, available for Androids and in the App Store. It shows me every cool, interesting sight-seeing place nearby wherever we are, as well as restaurants, gas stations, and coffee shops. I can see at-a-glance what hotels are available and nearby, and book straight from the app. It also helps me visualize our trip before we go with interactive maps.
Our 15-hour road trip with kids usually takes about a day and a half to finish, since it includes our hotel stop and 4,000 bathroom and food breaks. But all in all, over the years it has become super painless and what’s even better, I feel in control of our trip- unlike when we’re flying.
Have you traveled long car trips with kids? What are your best tips for my trip home? I’d love to hear them!
updated August 17, 2022. This post may include affiliate links, for which I’ll receive a small commission if you purchase via the link.