Traveling in a car with your child

Over nearly nine months of international travel with our 2-year old, we obviously took our fair share of flights—roughly 40, if you’re keeping score. But we spent plenty of time in the car, as well, renting vehicles in several different cities and exploring our surroundings via automobile, always with our little man in tow. (We also had several tour guides who carted us around, so our experience in this regard was quite varied.)

Car trips with kids are notoriously unpleasant, but we landed on a few ways to keep everyone as sane—and as safe—as possible. In this post, we’ll share just a few of our survival tips.

Choosing the Right Vehicle

Let’s start at the very beginning: If you’re renting or buying a new vehicle, it’s important to select the right one. Generally speaking, we’d encourage you to consider an SUV—though there are plenty of exceptions. In Europe, for example, we found that the streets were so narrow that driving and parking an SUV could be truly frustrating.

The car for our safari in Botswana (no seat belts or car seat required!)

In countries where SUVs make sense, though, they can really be nice—and we’d include the U.S., China, India, and many South American nations here. For one thing, these vehicles are on the heftier side—so if anything ever did happen, God forbid, you’d have a certain level of built-in safety. And of course, SUVs are simply a little more spacious, meaning you can get car seats in and out with greater ease.

With our awesome tour guide and driver Rinku through Rajasthan, India

A note for car renters: At many rental places around the world, we found that the base level car was a manual. Assuming you prefer automatics, always double-check this! Don’t just assume that the car you’re getting has an automatic transmission.

Of course, there are a lot of scenarios—including most of the European cities we were in—where renting a car really isn’t needed; you can often get around just as well by foot or via public transportation, and you can save some money just by renting cars for longer distances.

Riding with Your Toddler

Once you have a vehicle, you’ll need the proper car seat; we have one that we can happily recommend, and we’ll simply refer you to that post for more details.

Aarav happily strapped into his car seat while in Austin, Texas

As you drive long distances with a toddler, you’ll need to do something to keep your little one entertained.  First, you’ll want toys the toddler can hold and play with solo—that is, without you having to sit by them or to help them. We found that a lot of the toys that worked well on the plane also worked in the car. Books, too, can be useful ways to keep your child entertained in the car.

Now, we did download a few shows and educational apps for some of the longer trips, and those were definitely helpful—though we will caution that, especially on bumpier roads, there is also a slight risk of car-sickness here. That’s just something to keep in mind, and of course it will depend very much on your child.

Music can be a good source of entertainment, too, and our child spent hours simply enjoying music in the car. (His genre of preference is Bollywood; of course, your music may vary.) Then again, we’d only recommend this is you’ve trained your child to like music that you like, or at least find tolerable. Spending hours listening to nursery rhymes can suck, even though it doesn’t suck quite as much as listening to a screaming toddler.

Whenever possible, try to leave on car trips around nap time; and if you can’t do that, do what you can to tire your child before the trip. Getting little ones to sleep during the car ride just makes things easier on everyone.

Aarav asleep in mom’s arms in Mendoza, Argentina (no car seat required!)

Snacks are, as ever, essential—and we recommend picking dry stuff, like chips, that your kids can eat by themselves with minimal mess.

One more word of advice: For longer trips, it’s probably wise to give yourself an extra hour or so—to stop for food, to change diapers, or simply to give your child a few minutes out of the vehicle. Kids can really get tired of being in the car seat, and a quick break can do them wonders.

The bottom line: Car travel can be a little intimidating, even if you’re just sticking to a trip here in the States—but with the right planning, it’s possible to keep everyone happy.

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