Remember when road trips were thrilling and carefree? With a bit of planning on your part (well, a lot), a road trip with a toddler can be just as fun. We recently drove over 2000 miles up and down California, stopping at a different hotel for almost every one of the eight nights. No longer did we have a screaming infant who didn’t know why she had to be strapped in; we had an adventurous 22-month-old who announced the things she saw and understood “Getting out soon.” Here are a few tips for a taking a road trip with a toddler. If you have a baby, check out Taking a Road Trip with a Baby.

Best Road Trip Toys: There are two ways to go in terms of toys for a toddler on a road trip: buy a really involved electronic toy or buy a whole bunch of little toys from the dollar store. If you’re traveling a very long distance, you’ll probably need both. Some of our favorite electronic toys have been the customizable Elmo cell phone that says Baby J’s name, a fake camera with lights and music, and of course, our iPad.

The iPad games we downloaded (Phone 4 Kids, especially, and the 5 Best iPad Apps for Toddlers) did have a learning curve, so it helped that we introduced the games before just tossing the iPad in the backseat. For our next trip, I may buy a kid-safe case that covers the home button so she can’t get out of the game.

As for small toys, I spent about $20 at the dollar store on flashcards, stickers and books. When your toddler gets really bored, remember that YOU are the best toy! I sung songs we had learned at preschool, put on a puppet show, and made all the toys talk.

Food for your Drive: Feeding Baby J snacks in the car gets less messy the older she gets. She was highly entertained by the little bear-faced snack containers I bought to give her small portions of Chex Mix and Goldfish, two perennial toddler favorites. Avoid sugary snacks if you already have an active child, as you’ll want to keep car rides as calm as possible.

The most important food item to take on a road trip, however, is milk in individual aseptic containers! You can store it unrefrigerated until the moment you use it. We buy the 24 pack of Organic Valley Organic 1% Milk, 8-Ounce Aseptic Cartons. I think most toddlers will probably even drink it room temperature if you don’t have access to ice or a hotel fridge. Milk keeps a toddler quiet if you get lost, and helps the transition from cranky to asleep. If you’re desperate for some peace (and willing to ignore the ingredients/calories), order a milk shake from a fast food place or a caffeine-free blended drink like the Starbucks Vanilla Bean Frappuccino.

On the last trip, we discovered the joys of the Goober Grape peanut butter and jelly (swirled together in one jar). You can easily spread this on a bagel with a plastic knife in the car. We had an impromptu picnic on a gorgeous overlook in Pacific Valley south of Big Sur, where we ate the PB&J bagels and granola taken from a hotel breakfast. We also brought the vegetable peeler this time, in case with we stopped for some roadside fruit (Baby J won’t eat skins still). It’s always a good idea to get fruit in wherever possible to avoid problems with a change in diet.

Dealing with Yucky Potties: You may be lucky and have a toddler still oblivious to the potty and its real use. If you’ve got a curious one like Baby J, you’ll be visiting every potty on the road, even the yuckiest Porta-Potties in deserted state parks. Have a routine, and practice changing diapers with your toddler standing up! This will reduce the germ fest of diaper changers and save you when you get to a bathroom without baby amenities.

Another great way to use the potty is as entertainment at a restaurant. Once we’ve ordered and the crayons aren’t cutting it, I’ll take Baby J to the bathroom just to get her out of the high chair. It’s an acceptable way of letting your toddler stretch her legs and a great activity in itself—especially if they have an automatic soap dispenser at her level.

Go, Go, Go… To Sleep!: I’ve written several posts about why your baby won’t sleep on vacation and how to get your toddler to sleep in her own bed. Since we had already converted her crib at home to a toddler bed, we figured she would want something without rails for travel too. Instead of spending $70 on something she may or may not sleep in, we borrowed a mat from my parents. Of course, we didn’t use that either. After driving long hours each day, we were too lazy to deal with her sleep issues and let her sleep in between us in the king bed. Lesson learned: Baby J went pretty much right to sleep when in the bed with us. Of course, if you have more than one kid, you may need to be more strict about where your toddler sleeps. It was just after doing the research (and reading about recent recalls of the PeaPod), I wasn’t ready to commit to a toddler travel bed that wasn’t perfect.

A road trip is full of surprises: wrong turns, disappointing hotels and those beautiful moments when it seems you could drive forever with a happy toddler. On your next vacation, enjoy this precious age of curiosity and wonder.

Photo by little peppercorn