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Stranded On The Road With Toddlers - Tips For A Road-Trip Breakdown

Stranded on the road with a toddler

Interstate Nightmare

For financial and convenience reasons we decided to drive instead of fly for our fall-trip to family. The journey went along smoothly until halfway through our drive back.

Suddenly, a break-down. On the interstate. In the pitch dark. With toddlers.

We are very grateful that no one was hurt and we made it to the side of the highway safely.

I won't bore you with the mechanical specifics, but it was even worse than we originally thought. We learned from the mechanic that we brought our car to, that our car was no longer safely drivable.

No offense to all the kind locals that helped us, we were stranded in the middle of nowhere. The nearest standard car rental location was over one-and-a-half hours away. 

Spoiler: we rented a 20-feet-long UHaul truck and drove it the four-and-a-half hour drive home safely. 

Here is the advice we'd give you, in case you find yourself in a similar situation. I'll try to stick to a chronological order.

Get Your Car Inspected

I know, I know. This advice is of little use after you've broken down. Still, in the off chance you see this before heading out, here's the most important tip:

If you're driving an older car and thinking of embarking on a long road trip, have it inspected by a mechanic!

I'll leave it to you to define for yourself the words 'older' and 'long.' But if you think of your car as old and the trip as long, you're probably right.

This is especially true if your car has some seemingly mild symptoms of potentially much worse problems. Consider: have you been getting more flats lately? Has the engine been extra noisy?

The inspection will cost you some money, but it is certainly a worthy preventative measure.

Load Up On Provisions

When we say "load up on provisions," we're speaking mostly about snacks, but this can include changes of clothing and tools for entertainment.

Obviously, this is true before any road trip, but it becomes even more important before, during and after a car breakdown.

The unpredictability of scheduling and the extended delays, and toddlers, will cause you to need ample provisions even more.

You'll be thanking yourself for taking any opportunity to add to these provisions.

Confirm Absolute Safety After A Breakdown

As far as car breakdowns go, the lucky bunch get them while their car is parked. This situation is assumably safe from physical dangers.

But, many breakdowns happen while the car is driving and carry with it many more dangers for physical harm. 

Here is basic checklist:

  • Get to the side of the road, away from where cars drive. This is especially true on a highway.
  • Turn your blinkers on so others can see you.
  • No one should leave the vehicle if they don't have to.
  • Remain buckled while inside the vehicle.
  • If possible, get your kids away from the scene, e.g. to a park, restaurant or hotel.

Remain Calm

Remaining calm is much easier said than done, but try to take in a few moments of deep breaths to decompress.

All the necessary actions needed to get you out of this rut will go smoother if you're calmly oriented.

Call The Cops

If you're in an extra dangerous location, like the side of a highway, calling the police is a good idea. It may also be helpful in less dangerous situations.

The cops will be able to shield your vehicle from passing cars with their vehicle and flashing lights. 

They also can provide an emergency ride for your littles to get them even further out of harm's way, like to a hotel. This was a major kindness when we broke down.

They often will even help with an easy fix to your car like changing a tire. In the event they can't fix your car, they'll at least use their local knowledge to point you to someone that can.

Get A Room

After a breakdown there is definitely a temptation to rush to get the trip over with as soon as possible. While this is reasonable, working wildly to fix the problem may just make it worse.

So it might be a good idea to regroup at a nearby accommodation, be it hotel, motel or inn, to choose your next moves.

This is especially true if your breakdown happened at night or early morning. There is very little you can do when most mechanics and stores are closed.

Be sure to find out about your hotel's checkout time, late checkout policy and lobby comfort in case more time becomes required.

Be Open To The Kindness Of Others

Being on the receiving end of someone's kindness can sometimes make a person squeamish. We'd much prefer not being reliant on others.

But that ideal is easy to live by under normal circumstances. In a dire moment of potential strandedness, it's more than ok to take the help of other's. There are only so many services you can pay for.

It can be a free ride, mechanical expertise or logistical advice, or really anything.

When we had our car's breakdown, people offered plenty of favors but the greatest kindness for me was all the warm conversations we were a part of and well-wishes we were granted. These came from both kind strangers and people we paid for a task.

Work Away From Your Kids - If Possible

Granted, this will only be possible in a road trip with two adult caregivers. But, getting things done without the kids nearby is a game-changer.

Arranging a tow-truck or discussing with a mechanic grows far more difficult and complex with the responsibility, and noise, that comes with taking care of littles.

Have your spouse, or another responsible adult stay with the kids at the hotel or another venue, while you get the car fixed.

Avoid Rash Decisions

I get it. Road-tripping with toddlers with the eventual breakdown in an unusual place, requiring you to make quick decisions on a topic you probably know little about (automotive repairs) is a recipe for some poor decisions. 

The extreme ideas can range from gutting the entire car, to driving on it without repair, to buying a new car, to Ubering the five hours home.

All of these can be the right decision, but you should think long and hard so you know that this is the right call for your family.

Call a friend (or your dad) that knows their stuff for their advice. List your options and the pros and cons, then choose accordingly.

For example: when we learned that our car was unsalvageable, we were on the verge of selling it at the bare minimum to a nearby scrap dealer. Some wise advice from a local stopped us. Instead we posted it on Facebook Marketplace a few days later, after we got home, and managed to sell it for 5.5 times more than the scrapper offered.

Don't Get Scammed

For the same reasons why a stranded person is more likely to make poor decisions, they're more likely to get scammed.

To prevent your desperation from leading you to bad financial decisions, be sure to price-compare and ask unbiased locals or friends what the reasonable rates would be for the goods and services you require.

Understand Transportation Options

If your car is fixable, then great! This makes your strandedness temporary and your next-steps straightforward.

In our case, we learned that our car wasn't fixable, so other transportation options had to be found.

Unless you're extremely quick (and smart) with your decisions, buying a new car would be tough under such difficult circumstances and brief notice.

The choice of options will come down to your location, budget, baggage and comfort criteria. Another consideration is how your child/ren would ride in a given mode of transportation. 

The options include: public transportation, hired rides like a taxi or Uber, car rentals.

We found ourselves so far away from a city that the only option was to rent a 20 foot-long UHaul!

In case your wondering: Can a car seat be installed safely in the cab of a truck?

Yes! If done correctly.

Entertain More

Your kids just had their already-difficult drive grow even more difficult. They deserve a life-boat from boredom!

The easy answer is simply to extend screen time. You won't get any judgement from us on that.

Still, try your utmost for some more wholesome forms of road-trip entertainment as well. Activities like highway I-spy or an extended, boisterous singalong are always fun!

Help Child Process

Whether your car's breakdown was dramatic or dull, your child may have a difficult time processing the experience.

Children are rarely privy to seeing their parents or caregivers struggle to find solutions to a serious problem.

Most struggles don't happen so suddenly and don't require immediate attention. Solving the crisis of a car breakdown and subsequent strandedness happens in the child's full view.

Besides for acknowledging what happened help your child understand why it happened and how the solution came together.

Our family turned it into a compelling adventure story, where the event was admittedly scary but eventually heroic. 

The kids' good spirits and kind behavior really saved the day!

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