After driving multiple times from New Jersey to Florida (and back!), here are my tips and essentials for making the road trip more manageable and with the proper safety precautions during Covid.
Tips and Essentials for Very Long Road Trips with Toddlers (During Covid)
Before I begin this blog post, please consult the CDC website for COVID precautions and recommendations before traveling. This is not a blog post trying to encourage you to travel during COVID. Rather, this is a blog post on how to survive very long road trips with toddlers – and it happens to be during COVID, so I’ll include some tips on that!
Now that we have that out of the way, yes, I’ve done multiple road trips to Florida from New Jersey and back. It has taken between 19 and 20 hours, depending on how long our stops for potty breaks/food are and how traffic was. You may be wondering why we didn’t split this trip up into two days. Well, first off, we took these trips during COVID and the whole reason we were making the drive in the first place was because we wanted to reduce our risk of contracting COVID while traveling. To us, a hotel visit only increases your risk!
Also, I just wanted to rip the proverbial Band-Aid off – why make something into two days when you can do it in one and power through it? For us, the thought of getting the kids into a hotel, unpacking a bit, and trying to get them to sleep in a new place and then waking up and repacking back the car and all of that was more headache. I’d rather do the drive in one day and wake up in Florida!
Before I get into the logistics/schedule and all of that good stuff, I wanted to share some safety precautions we took.
- We got negative COVID tests before we left.
- We wore masks every time we had to leave the car (to pump gas, to go to the bathroom)
- We brought hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and used them as needed (the wipes were used to wipe down the steering wheel and the indoor handles of the car.)
- We avoided rest stops for potty breaks, because we found that they were usually much more crowded than a gas station (at a gas station, we rarely saw 1 person other than the person at the counter.)
- We washed our hands anytime we used the bathroom, of course – and with Luca, we just made sure he literally didn’t touch anything and if he did, we washed his hands and used hand sanitizer afterwards.
- We packed all of our meals, so we wouldn’t need to stop in anywhere to buy food. We did stop once at a drive-through Starbucks and were super careful to wipe down the coffee cups (which probably wasn’t necessary, but we were being extra cautious.)
The night before we left, we packed the car with everything possible except for the food. Our goal was to start our engine at 4:00am. So, we woke up at 3:30am, got dressed, poured our to-go coffees, and Lu put the food in the car and left the car running to warm up. We also set up travel noise machines in the back seat, next to both of their car seats, so it would be the same white noise sounds as they have while they sleep in their beds/cribs.
Then, we went to get the kids. To do this, we simple grabbed them out of a deep sleep (I had to unzip Roma’s sleep sack, which was cumbersome and mostly woke her up), wrapped them in warm blankets, and carried them out to the car, put them in their car seats, and covered them with their blankets. And off we went!
Before I show you the rest of the schedule, I just want to say this: the most important part of all of this is prepping your kids verbally. By this, I mean explaining everything ahead of time, so they’re not surprised and then they remember what you told them and they act accordingly. For example, every night Luca went to sleep for two weeks before we left, I told him “the road trip story” where I walked him through everything from the 4am wakeup to the 11pm arrival in Florida. Roma was a bit harder, because she was younger, but it made everything so much better, because Luca understood every step of the way what to expect and what to do.
Here’s a general schedule after that:
- 7-7:30am: the kids wake up. I gave Roma her milk and a toy to keep her quiet while her brother finished sleeping.
- 7:45am: potty break and gas at a gas station and breakfast, which we eat in the back of the car (sitting on what little trunk space there is, since it’s fully packed!) I change Roma’s diaper. We let them wiggle their legs and kind of run around a bit.
- 10am: Snack break – this snack was something that was safer to give in a car seat (blueberries and Cheerio’s.) They didn’t leave their seats for snack, I sat in the back with them as they had it.
- 12:30pm: Lunch, potty break, and gas stop. Another diaper change and another little run around the car to get their wiggles out for 10 minutes. We usually put on a song and dance.
- 1-2:30/3pm: Nap time! For this, we simply put some relaxing music on (like Jack Johnson) and the white noise machines, cuddle them up in blankets and jack up the air conditioning. Before nap time, we simply say, “Ok, just like when we’re in our apartment, we take a nap after lunch. Now it’s nap time, so get comfy and go to sleep.” And we tell them that before lunch, too – “Okay, we’re going to have lunch and then afterwards, we’re going to get back in the car and take a nap!” Roma doesn’t nap as well in the car as Luca does, but she takes at least a 1 hour nap.
- 4:30pm: Quick gas station stop with potty break and snack.
- 6:15pm: Stop for gas, final potty break, dinner, and some more wiggles out.
- 7 to 10:45pm: The final stretch, the kids fall asleep around 7:30/8:30pm.
The Toddler Entertainment
Yes, yes, these kids watched a lot of shows and videos during this 19 hour car ride. I’m not going to sugar coat it, it’s unsurvivable without screen time. Both of our iPads have data plans, so we didn’t have to necessarily pre-download any shows and also, a lot of their favorite shows are on YouTube (like Super Simple Songs or Songs for Littles for Roma and Blippi for Luca.) We leaned into the usuals – Peppa Pig, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Daniel Tiger, and even some movies, but for whatever reason, my kids aren’t that into movies, they much prefer quick shows.
But I definitely didn’t just stick them with iPads and let them zone out the entire trip. I tried to strike a balance, because my kids also get super cranky and fidgety if they’re doing physically doing something and just zoning out on TV. They like to be stimulated, so I make sure to try my best to entertain them myself and then when they start to cry or whine or demand too much of me, they get the iPad! You know your children best and their thresholds, but the worst thing you can do is overdo the iPad so that when you actually need it (like when you’ve just had ENOUGH!)
So, other than the iPads, this is some of the other entertainment I provided: (and I say “I” instead of “we” because Lu drives the entire time and doesn’t have to entertain the kids!) Also, keep in mind that this list is going off all of the trips I took, so I didn’t take ALL of this with me, maybe about half of this list per trip:
- Singing together to music – just playing music in the car and singing together can be great entertainment. It takes a lot out of you, but burns a good chunk of time. We love songs that involve moving your hands, like “Wheels on the Bus” or something like “Old MacDonald” with different parts of the song to act out.
- FaceTime – okay, this is kind of like screentime, but when in doubt, call Grammy and Pops. Or Aunts and Uncles, cousins, anyone! We called our nanny! They can hold the phone and our family is pretty good about being patient and talking to them.
- Books – we don’t pack too many books, but a couple new books can be exciting, especially when they’re being read to. Otherwise, great lift-the-flap books or touch-and-feel books are good for all ages. Luca’s into scratch-and-sniff books, like this one.
- Sensory toys – by this, I mean toys that are basically like fidget toys that they can just manipulate with their hands and explore. The ones we brought:
- Bendable tubes
- Play Doh, always a hit.
- Pop bubble sensory toy, great for finger strength
- Playfoam, but it has to be supervised!
- Stretchy string
- Wikki Stix – we play a lot with these at home, so my kids know how to manipulate them, but it’s also great to play int he backseat with them, making them bracelets and things.
- Stickers – this one’s pretty obvious, but if your kid loves stickers, stickers are great! I bought puffy stickers, which are their favorite and themed to things like they love (animals for Roma, cars for Luca.) Also, I used this trick by Busy Toddler so they wouldn’t need my help to peel.
- Magnetic drawing board – this is more for Luca, but Roma played with it a bit too.
- Paper and crayons
- Toys – it can be hard to find toys that are appropriate for the car seat and can be played with independently, but we generally stuck with smaller toys, like cars and little figurines. Some other toys included:
- Games –
I try not to sit in the back the entire time, because then they start depending on you to keep them occupied, and I find that if they’re just back there together, they either entertain each other or are better entertaining themselves. One of the questions I had was “what kind of car do you drive?” We currently drive an Audi Q7, but the trunk space is subpar and it’s a bit tight, BUT I can sit somewhat comfortably between the two car seats in the backseat, so that’s good. Just not a lot of stretching out room!
The Adult Entertainment
Okay, that sounds weird, haha. For us, I’m honestly entertaining the kids for pretty much the whole time, but we switch off listening to podcast episodes. The last time we drove, we talked openly about everything in our marriage we wanted to work on. We talked about that while the kids napped. Once I found a 20 questions list and I read that to Lu and we chatted. But in general, time flies between entertaining the kids, stops, food, and the podcast episodes.
The logistics in the car
Some random logistics:
- For all the play in the car, including screentime, we bought these little trays/desks which was super helpful, especially when coloring or playing with a toy with several parts.
- We bought this handheld potty for Luca for emergencies (like if he was about to pee his pants, but we couldn’t find a safe place to stop). He actually never used it, but we had him practice on it before we left and he loved it, so we knew it was a good backup.
- Invest in a good portable charger, like this one – for phones, noise machines, and most importantly, iPads!
Also, obviously, this trip takes a lot of strategic packing. I had a series of bags that were filled with appropriate things:
- I had a “changing and essentials bag” which had the white noise machines, my kids’ First Aid stuff (Tylenol, Band Aids, etc), Roma’s changing stuff/diapers, and a change of clothes.
- I had the meals bag, which just had all of our meals in it (it was a freezer bag, which actually kept the food chilled the whole trip.) That bag lived in the trunk.
- I had the Snack Bag – which was a smaller bag that just had all of the snacks and waters.
- I had the entertainment bag – which held all of the toys.
- I had my bag, which had all of my chargers, my phone, hand sanitizer, Lu and I’s snacks, etc.
Food – Snacks and Meals
For snacks, we didn’t take the kids out of the car seats, so I sat int he back with them as they ate and we kept it simple – small cut up fruit, Annie’s Bunnies, and things like that. Oh, and lollipops of course!
For all of the meals, I served it to them in our Bentgo lunch boxes and after each meal, I’d wipe it out so that for the next meal, I could refill it. So each time they ate a meal, it was nice and contained – and they love those Bentgo boxes!
- Leftovers (we ordered pizza the night before we left, so I gave them leftover pizza!)
- Roasted veggies (sweet potatoes and broccoli hold up well)
- Chickpea salad sandwiches or chickpea salad with crackers
- Yogurt sticks with fruit and granola
- Breakfast was always blender muffins and fruit
- Banana bread and fruit and Cheerios (er, Cascadian Farms’ Purely O’s)
- Grilled cheese sandwich
- Ham and cheese roll-ups
- Quesadillas with black beans
And yes, we eat the same things as the kids – nothing fancy! One trip I had grilled chicken that I was going to have to throw away, so I made Lu a chicken panini for the road. We eat everything chilled!