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Holiday Travel with Young Kids

It’s the time of year when many families take to the road, going home for the holidays. It’s the time of year when my inbox is full of letters seeking advice for how to stay sane while traveling with young kids. For too many parents, getting there is so stressful that every year they promise themselves they’ll never, ever, go visiting again. Then Christmas comes around, nostalgia for home sets in, and they’re back in the car. By the time they arrive at their destination, the kids are in meltdown and the adults are fried. Not a pretty picture.

Here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. Young children can be taken on very long car trips with a minimum of stress and a maximum of family togetherness. The secret is simple: To travel with kids, travel in the “kid zone.”

Young kids are little bundles of energy — curious, active, and distractible. Attention spans are short. Bladders are small. Coop them up in the back seat with little stimulation except passing cars and it’s only normal for them to wind up.

Traveling in the kid zone means accepting and working with your children’s developmental ages and stages. With good planning and pacing, car trips can become the stuff of happy family memories. Fighting children’s legitimate needs guarantees that everyone will end up fighting.

At rest stops, I always can tell which parents are in the “kid zone” and which think that kids can just be folded into adult schedules: Parents in the kid zone are taking their time. They walk around with their kids, pointing out sights and providing commentary. They get everyone a drink. They make at least two trips to the bathroom. If the weather allows it, they take out a Frisbee or ball and play for awhile. They find an area where no one will mind if they jog around a bit and whoop and holler. Everyone goes to the bathroom one more time. Finally, everyone piles back in the car.

Contrast that with the family in pre-meltdown mode: The adults are grumpy. They don’t talk to the kids except to correct them, take their food order, or grunt. Any conversation is between the adults. They hurry the kids through the bathroom. They hurry them through their snack. They hurry them back into the car. They are so intent on “making good time” that no one is having a good time at all.

I know which car I’d want to ride in.

Travel Hints

  • Do as much as you can ahead of time. If you do nothing else, plan so that you can leave calmly. Leaving calmly sets the tone for the trip. Are you expected to bring something for the holiday dinner? Make it a week or more ahead and pop it in the freezer, then transfer it to your picnic cooler before you leave. Pack the car at least a day ahead. That lets you focus on the kids instead of your stuff when you are trying to get out the door.

    Travel when the kids are asleep. Put the kids in pajamas or sweats and leave late in the day. Drive for a couple of hours, stop for dinner, then settle everyone in to sleep. Most kids are lulled by the darkness and the hum of a car. Make sure one parent takes a long nap before leaving so that he or she can spell the other driver when it gets late.

    If you’re on a long trip, you can carry the kids into a hotel room at 2 a.m. and they’ll sleep at least until 6:00 a.m. One parent gets up with the kids and takes them to breakfast while the other gets some more sleep and then it’s on the road again. Alternatively, go to bed with the kids at 7 or 8 p.m. Set your alarm for 2 a.m. Load sleepy kids into the car and you get at least four hours of travel time before they fully awaken and you stop for breakfast.

    Bring comfort toys and “loveys.” A favorite blanket and pillow, a stuffed animal, and favorite toy act as familiar anchors when kids are feeling unsettled by a trip.

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Travel Hints Continued…

  • Plan to take longer getting there. You need to stop every two to three hours, depending on your kids’ temperaments. Plan on at least 20 minutes per stop. If you plan it, you won’t resent it. It simply takes time for kids to run off some of that pent-up energy and reorganize for the next lap.
  • Plan stops that will break up the trip. If the trip will take 8 or more hours (and you’re not able or willing to consider night travel), identify some interesting sight to see at the halfway mark. Stopping for an hour to check out a roadside attraction, explore a beach or hiking trail, or play at a playground will do wonders. Two four- or five-hour trips are easier to manage than one that is eight to 10 hours long.
  • Engage with the kids. Forget about having adult conversation along the way or playing your own music on the radio unless the kids are asleep. Kids travel best when adults are involved with them. Play age-appropriate games. (Count all the red cars, for little ones. Find license plates for all the states for older ones.) Sing together. Do you have a limited repertoire? Put on a sing-along CD and join in. Sing loud. Sing soft. Sing in funny voices. Playing with kids makes the miles go fast for everyone.
  • Bring food and drinks. Accept it. Children need to eat more frequently than adults. You don’t want to stop every time someone is thirsty. You don’t want to spend the inflated prices at roadside stops. Bring along a supply of juice boxes, granola bars, and dried and fresh fruit. You’ll save both time and money, and the kids won’t load up on sugar and fast food.
  • Bring some activities to keep boredom at bay. Pack a bag with books, crayons and coloring books, a few toys, and a few things that are reserved for car trips. An inexpensive pair of binoculars or a telescope, a kaleidoscope, or a magnifying glass can hold kids’ interest for quite awhile, especially if they have never seen them before. Dole these items out one at a time when the kids are getting restive.

    Books on tape, as long as they appeal to all the young people in the car, also can be helpful, especially if parents show interest.

    If you have a car with a built-in DVD player, or if you have a portable player, bring a batch of DVDs. The secret is to use them judiciously. Save them for when you’ve run through your other options or make a rule of a half-hour tape every couple of hours so that watching a movie is something special. If movies are on constantly, the kids start to regard them as background noise rather than as something that engages their interest. More important, if movies are on constantly, you’ll miss out on all the other fun.

Travel Time Can Be Family Time

Traveling in the kid zone means embracing the life stage you are in. It may not seem like it, but this sweet time of childhood goes by very, very fast. For a few short years, parenting well means accommodating children’s needs and making family memories. When parents see car time as an opportunity to share excitement about traveling and visiting, to model how to entertain yourself, and to play along the way, car time can be important family time. This helps lay down a foundation of love and togetherness that will see you through the teen years — when the kids will spend car trips either plugged into their MP3 players or asleep and won’t be the least bit interested in talking to you.

Holiday Travel with Young Kids

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Holiday Travel with Young Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.