7 tips for taking a road trip with little kids as a single mom

single mom road trip

I am writing this from a plane with my kids on the way from our NYC home to Chicago, where we will spend two weeks visiting friends and family, and the places where I grew up in a small town in Northern Illinois. 

This pilgrimage has become an annual tradition. It started out as a road trip — a mode of transport inspired mostly by my budget, but turned into an incredible adventure defying all naysayers who said I was insane for being on the road, alone, with a 3- and 5-year-old for two weeks. 

Here you will find tales of past summer road trips, and all my advice about single mom road tripping, and why you absolutely must travel with your kids. It is one of the most empowering things you can do in your single mom journey. Have a great summer! 

Why road trip with your kids as a single mom

Tomorrow morning I leave on a 10-day road trip with my kids, ages 3 and 5.

I thought of cooking up a clever intro to this post, but the bare-bone facts seem to be plenty compelling to anyone to whom I mention this adventure.

The trip — New York to Chicago, Milwaukee, rural Illinois and back — will be long, yes. And — mark my words — it will be fun. Even for me.

We could have flown. I have flown many times with my kids, and I have to say that they are awesome flyers. Airports are exciting, and they get into the protocol of check-in, boarding, ordering whatever you want to drink from the attendant. Dollar-for-dollar, flying and driving come out about equal — gas, hotel, restaurant meals considered.

But I believe driving will be better. Here is why:

1. Driving is more freeing.

My family's life is so structured. We have a routine, each and every day. As a divorced family, we have even more than others: the weekdays are built around work and school, evenings and weekends split between my house and my ex's. Rushing to catch planes is just one more time-sensitive task that I am compelled to avoid. So I am.

2. I want to reconnect with my kids.

If we flew, we would be going from our crazy New York life to the home of friends and relatives. Sure, I would spend plenty of time with each of my children over a week and a half. But when it is just the three of us on four wheels for days on end, we will get into the groove of it being just the three of us. Otherwise, I can get into the groove of either being without my kids, or looking to the hours when I am without my kids. I want it to be different.

3. Kids need to learn how to just be, and not be entertained. My neighbor Jen, now in her early 50s, has very fond memories of annual month-long roadtrips starting when she was aged 3 and her brother 5. Her parents took the backseat out of their VW Bug and the kids would play, nap and snack as they cruised leisurely across time zones. For weeks on end, people. True: I am bringing my iPad loaded with two movies: Charlotte's Web and Night at the Museum (I figured out how to mount the device between the front seats with a bungee cord). I downloaded the audio recording of Stuart Little. Then we will pass the time by counting silos and sing 99 Bottles of Beer, just like I did as a kid. Except it will be fun.

4. I want to prove I can do it

I want to feed my ego and thumb my nose at all the people who tell me I am crazy and that I will do a U-ie on Rt. 80 when my kids are pooping in their booster seats and throw half-gnawed organic yogurt-covered pretzels at the back of my head like confetti. Because a) my angels never act like that, and b) if they do, I will just crank up the Feist and continue on with cruise control until the next rest stop. Where I will bind them to their seats with the bungee cord.

5. I want to learn how to indulge my kids.

This is something that is hard for me to do, and I want to get better at it. Do special things, spoil them a little. I don't believe in buying lots of stuff — for adults or kids. My children have never tasted fast food. But we will be stopping at McDonald's PlayPlaces and it better blow their goddamned minds.

5. This scene is rich for material.

I am opting not to video record / seek endorsements / take copious notes on this trip, despite what my colleagues urge, en lieu of taking a proper vacation. You know, a vacation? Like, days and weeks when you do not work? That. In fact, I just turned down a big radio interview, even though I could have figured out how to make sure I was in decent cell service off the freeway in Pennsylvania at 3 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, but that would be stressful. And a radio interview, as fun as it is, is classified under work — not vacation. Instead, I think something even better will come of focusing on my kids. Like living stories to write about. Stories that will make me rich and famous. 99 subaruAnd so check back here over the next couple of weeks. I don't have many plans, so I can't tell you what you will find. But you may just get reportage from the field. Field of happy vacationing. In a 1999 red Subaru Forester named Rosie. With two kids. And a mom. Whose blood pressure is actually lower than when she departed.

How to road trip with little kids as a single mom (what I learned)

After returning from a 2-week road trip with my kids, this is my perspective:

Why was everyone I know warning me not to make the trek from New York City to rural Illinois with my two children? Maybe it’s because the kids are ages 3 and 5. Or perhaps they worried my sanity would be tested by the fact that this journey happened by car. Or was it that I did it alone, with no other adult along for the good times?

Despite friends’ and acquaintances’ dire predictions of highway meltdowns and sleepless nights in hotels, I was thrilled to find how fun and relaxing the trip was. Lucas and Helena were remarkably well behaved, and I enjoyed the whole experience far more than I predicted—and despite the naysayers’ shrill warnings, I predicted it would be fun!

I had never done a trip like this with Helena and Lucas, and I learned a few things about traveling with little kids. If you plan on taking a similar trip, here’s what you need to know:

Create traditions

One mom I know gives her sons little boxes of Froot Loops when they hit the road, and the kids gnaw on the florescent cereal “like it’s crack, since road trips are the only time they are allowed that treat.” My kids and I decided that white chocolate–covered pretzels (my favorite) and gummy bears (theirs) will be our special road trip snack. Besides food, pick an album or two to sing along with—over and over. Make it music that the family will always associate with the trip.

Team up with other adults 

You don't need to tell me you love your kids. I know you do. But kids can be really, really boring (not to mention annoying). Build in time with other adults. I have traveled with another single mom friend, and I always build in visits with friends or family wherever I go. Don't be shy about asking if you can be a houseguest, make a point of calling old friends or even acquaintances in the area you're visiting, or, before leaving for your destination, put out a call on social media for contacts and connections who live in your destination. And when you land, never be shy about chatting with other families at the beach, museum or campground. You never know what magic might happen.

Pack snacks—but not too many

Of course kids (and adults!) need calories to stave off the grumpies while on the road. But don’t rely on sugary or greasy treats to occupy bored minds. Try to keep the munchies few and relatively healthy. Instead, stop for a sit-down meal, which will likely be healthier than fast food and provide a great way to take a break. Sitting face-to-face as a family will allow you to track maps with your kids, look at guidebooks and brainstorm your next stop.

Don’t rely on gadgets

Many parents suggested their favorite Pixar films as ways to sedate restless little road warriors, and I loaded up my iPad with a few. But only on the very last leg home did I bust outBabe and Kung Fu Panda. Research finds that extensive video game playing and small-screen viewing will actually rev kids up, not calm them down. Instead, try to keep them occupied with audio books. We listen every year to E.B. White’s Stuart Little, read by Julie Harris. Also, get into the sing-along songs. Our family loves old country-western, and we belted out June Carter and Johnny Cash’sJackson more times than I can count. Insider tip: If you do go for the iPad, stretch a bungee cord between the headrests of the front two seats and drape the tablet’s cover over for backseat viewing.

Find ways to exercise

Parents and kids alike need to stretch their legs and burn off steam, so scope out rest stops with playgrounds. We kicked around the soccer ball and tossed the Frisbee at these spots. Book roadside hotels that have pools (99 cent app iExit is handy for finding accommodations as well as gas stations, restaurants and campsites). I swam a few laps at the Clarion in Hudson, Ohio, while keeping an eye on the kids splashing around in the shallow end. Download yoga videos to follow en suite after the kids go to sleep.

Me with Lucas and Helena at a roadside restaurant

Me with Lucas and Helena at a roadside restaurant

Remember: Everything is a big deal when you’re little

The fact that my children are so small made it easy to impress them. Staying in a hotel was totally glamorous. (My daughter and I had a bit of a verbal tussle when she insisted that our ’80s conference center digs were “the most beautiful in the world” and I politely disagreed. Hey, it’s my duty as her mother to teach her taste!). They giddily opted for “special beds,” which were made of folded quilts on relatives’ floors, over an actual bed and marveled at the salad bar at a truck stop. Who needs spendy amusement parks?Lucas enjoying our hotel bed

Lucas enjoying our hotel bed

Take the slow road

The main reason I opted to drive rather than fly on this vacation was my desire to get off our strict schedule and just chill. Even though we mostly stuck to the highways (as opposed to the more interesting local routes), I made a point of taking it easy. When someone wanted to stop to pee, we pulled over and took a break—even if we’d just lunched an hour earlier (save for the moment when, stuck in standstill Chicago traffic, my 3-year-old son awoke from a nap, screaming for a toilet. Suffice it to say, I was grateful to have an empty water bottle on hand). At the last minute, I decided to drive straight from Illinois to New York and skip our plans to stay over at a hotel. The payoffs were plentiful: A giant rainbow met us as we rounded the bend in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains just before dusk. And when the sun set, my city kids marveled at the galaxies of fireflies swarming roadside. “I like driving in the car,” my daughter said.

Just do it 

I know how overwhelming traveling alone with kids can be. It can also be lonely. Hell, I remember feeling so triumphant very early in my single motherhood when I successfully walked 8 blocks to a neighborhood playground with my newborn and toddler. But remember: You are living in a time of unbelievable abundance — as a person, as a woman, and as a mother. Yes, your Instagram #familyvacation pics will not look like you may have dreamed. But that does not mean you cannot do this. It is a vacation, for crying out loud. Not brain surgery on your second grader. Go. Have fun. Embrace the challenge. Even more importantly: Relish the good times, the memories you are making on your own terms, with your own, wonderful and complete family.

More on road trips and the single mom:

For the record, every year my kids and I go on this trip (they are now 5 and 7). We have a small Subaru Impreza hatchback, don't bring a tablet, and spend our many hours on the road listening to audio books (Stuart Little is a tradition– great travel story!), podcasts, singing along with the radio and talking. Oh, and being silent. I didn't realize that I am an anomaly in this regard until the Wall Street Journal last year interviewed me about my renegade no-iPad road trip practice.

I realize most people think I am a renegade, and by renegade, they really mean a total moron, for traveling alone for so many hours with children. I'm no moron, and I'm also no hero. All this feigned “admiration” and quizzing/judging only  speaks to the general over-parenting/coddling trend that complicates parenting and stresses out adults and children alike. I mean, read Little House on the Prairie. The Engels and their gaggle of girls were on the road for MONTHS. WITHOUT AN iPAD. And while I suspect that Mary and Laura probably took turns beating the crap out of each other with a plastic hairbrush for 15 minutes just like my kids did last night, everyone lived to have bestselling memoirs and a prime-time spin-off created in their likeliness about how normal they all were.

The other point: Everyone assumes that single motherhood is so prohibitively impossible that a meager American rite of passage (the great road trip) is beyond their ability.

To which I say: Eff that.

This trip, just five days in, reminds me how much I love traveling with my kids. How they are really on their best behavior when on the road. With so much to entertain and engage them, with so much of my undivided attention and with a break from our usual (often grueling) routine, they are a delight, hairbrush pummeling aside. In other words, people are full of crap. They tell you that you are crazy for traveling alone with your kids because they don't think they can do it. Don't let others define what you are capable of. You're raising children alone for crying out loud. You've been through a hell of a lot worse than grumpy children whining for McDonalds while a sign reading ‘Next rest stop 40 miles' whizzes by. Let's put things in perspective. Personally, touring around the beautiful upper United States in summer with two of my favorite people is a hell of a lot easier than being cooped up in a Queens apartment with those same people. But that is just me.

This year we started off in the Catskills with my single mom BFF Morghan and her parents rented a lake house and invited us. Despite the perpetual rain, the kids had a great time fishing, beating the crap out of each other and playing board games while Morghan and I caught up on work news, men news and drinking. The kids are like cousins, having grown up knowing each other while their single moms, who are like sisters, got their acts together, and it was a great sendoff for the rest of our voyage. Thanks guys!

Five hours later: Niagra Falls, bitches! Inside scoop: Stay on the Canadian side, which is about 5,000x nicer, cleaner and prettier than the New York side. We did the whole scene in about 18 hours: takeout eaten on a picnic blanket at Victoria Park, taking in the falls, a dip in the hotel pool, an hour of Canadian Broadcast kids' TV, bed. Then breakfast at the hotel, a Hornblower falls boat tour, lunch at Canadian fav Tim Hortons and on the road again. Single mom insider tip: Make sure you get your ex to sign a travel consent form, or else the very cute, ripped, blond Canadian border agent will grill you and make you wish you had. Take it from me.

Last night we landed in Charlevoix, Michigan where we are staying for nine days in a giant, 5-bedroom historic house for free, thanks to my new obsession, HomeExchange.com, which connects travelers who want to swap homes. For free.  So the lovely couple whose house we are trying not to destroy is staying in my New York City apartment and (presumably) feeding our cat and watering the plants. More on this arrangement later.

Two weeks ago I posted about my impending road trip with my kids. I had a hunch that despite the naysayers we would have a great time. Guess what? I was right.

This is what I learned:

1. People rise to expectations. Even little people. Ignoring the meltdown my daughter had at each of the three family members' homes we stayed at, my 3- and 5-year-olds were remarkably well behaved. Lots of explanations, including that everything was new, and my brilliant, curious children were engaged — even on the road (they're city kids, so they aren't in cars that often). Also, I took a true vacation, did not do any work and felt truly relaxed. The herd follows the leader. Finally – I expected that we would have a great time. And we did.

2. If I spoil my kids every now and again, they will not grow up to be Veruca Salt. When we arrived at my mom's Milwaukee condo after a few days with my brother and sister-in-law in Chicago, we were greeted with the scent of oatmeal raisin cookies wafting from the oven. I initially put my foot down, as dinner was near and Helena and Lucas had just pigged out on my SIL's homemade chocolate chip cookies. Then I reconsidered. “They're on vacation – give them a cookie!” I told my mom. (Translation: “I want a cookie!”). Other goodies: consistently ignoring our 8 p.m. bedtime. An ice cream stop at McDonald's, which was all my idea because my children don't know what McDonald's is and frankly, they were not impressed. And for a bedtime tret before conking out on the final stretch home: A giant bag of gummy bears. Even though they didn't eat dinner.

3. I love sleeping near my kids. Last year I put my foot down about kids in my bed. Aside from morning snuggles and the occasional illness, everyone is to sleep in their own sack. On the road, we  shared a room – hotels, guest rooms. The kids love cuddling into “special beds” made of sheets and quilts folded into mini sleeping bags on the floor. I love having them close and hearing their tiny snores all night — just like when they were co-sleeping infants.

4. The more time I spend with my kids, the more time I want to spend with my kids. In our daily routine of shuffling everyone here and there and fighting against the clock, I find it easy to count the minutes until I have alone time. When there is no alone time in sight, it was easier to live in the minute. As I write this on Sunday afternoon — a time when I normally enjoy the freedom that comes with shared custody — I miss my monkeys.

How about you? What are your plans for this summer? What have you done recently as a single mom that others said was crazy/impossible/stupid? Share in the comments!

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Nathalie Voyer on February 15, 2019 at 11:00 am

    Drove from Montreal, QC to Toronto, ON last summer with my 10 year old daughter. It was a fun trip. We stayed at a Airbnb, she took a taxi for the fist time on top of calling for it like we see in the movies. We saw Mamma Mia and she loved it and she will remember it.

  2. andrew on January 28, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    My Mom took her 4 kids on a whole three month adventure in the summer of 1982 in a 1975 VW Bus Westfalia. My twin brother(8,) younger brother(6) and my younger sister(4.) We left Minneapolis two days after school ended and got back to the Twin Cities three days before school started. We spent six days camping and one day in a hotel per week. We went all over but focusing on NY, VT, NH, MA, RI, CT, PA and drove to NC, SC, GA, AL, TN, AR, MO and IA. All I remember was a couple in Fredonia NY were just amazed that my mom could handle driving a VW Bus with 4 kids alone… The Fredonia guy was getting in a argument with my mom that her vw bus was fuel injected. It was pretty hot in the bus without AC and my younger brother was up front with my mom and my younger sister sat between my twin and me…

  3. tess on June 1, 2018 at 2:09 am

    love this

  4. LaToya on November 11, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Thank you so much for the courage and sharing. Next month I am taking a 7 day cruise with my 4 year old twins! First time traveling alone, I am looking forward to the experience. No cleaning, cooking, finding entertainment, I am READY! This single mom is doing great things

  5. Karen on July 27, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    this is wonderful, and yes..kids are fascinated by hotels and such!!:0) enjoy this time while you can…they grow up so quickly!!

  6. Emma on August 6, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    That’s great! Have fun and report back!

  7. Kelly on August 6, 2013 at 10:34 am

    My kids and I leave next Wednesday for our 4 day trip, and just last week they were asking me what traditions we have!! I will for sure use your ideas when we set out next week!

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