How to survive a road trip with kids

No kids! That’s the easy answer. A road trip with kids is not for the faint hearted. I don’t recommend choosing a road trip just because it will be a fun outing with the kids – chances are, unless your family is the Brady Bunch, all hell will break loose and you’ll be wishing you packed that bottle of champagne in a cooler bag in the glove box.

I’m lucky that my kids travel reasonably well (they must have inherited the driving gene from their father). We do have our moments, though. Toys, toilets and vomit are the bane of our life. The key is preparation. Plan, plan, plan — winging it will end in tears.

Here’s my top 11 survival tips for a road trip with children:

1. Know thy kids

You can read all the tips you like but if they don’t work for your children, then they’re obviously useless. The DVD player is the classic example. If your child is prone to motion sickness, the DVD player will just end up covered in vomit. So consider:

• Do they get motion sickness?
• Do they have a small bladder and constantly want to go to the toilet?
• Do they sleep well in the car?
• Do you have two or more who constantly fight?
• Are you travelling with a baby or a very young child who doesn’t understand bribery yet?
• Do they travel well or not?

2. Car sickness

This one can’t be overstated. Motion sickness in children is common (peaking between 10 and 12 years) and if you don’t know if your child suffers from it, you soon will when you embark on your first journey. There are motion sickness tablets designed for children, most of which need to be taken before they actually get sick. If you’re caught out there are a few other remedies:

• Peppermints, ginger ale, hard-boiled sugar lollies and lemonade are all known to help sooth a nauseous stomach.
• Avoid focusing on games or reading. Instead, focus their attention outside the window.
• Give them a light snack beforehand — nothing too heavy or greasy.
• Avoid unnecessary head movements by using a pillow.
• Get some ventilation in the car from an open window or air-conditioner.

3. Entertainment

Audio entertainment

Just because you need to entertain your kids doesn’t mean you should forget entertainment for the adults. Hours of The Wiggles may drive you more bananas than your kids. Instead, invest in headphones for the kids and then listen to what you want. However, this tip is only recommended if your children are old enough to put their headphones on themselves, otherwise you’ll forever be leaning in the back trying to put them back on.

Games

Start by looking at the world once in a while. There’s nothing wrong with staring out the window and leaving your kids to their own thoughts. It builds character. When that runs out there are plenty of tried-and-true games that will help them explore the scenery, learn there is life outside the city, and help with motion sickness. Some of these include:

• 20 questions
• I went to grandma’s house
• The alphabet game
• I spy
• Road trip bingo
• Travel versions of Scrabble and other board games

One of my favourites is the Are We There Yet? phone timer app. Just put your mobile within the child’s sight and put the timer on. This will mesmerise them for a while and divert blame for the long ride onto the phone. ‘We’ll be there when the phone says X.’ You can also try interpreting time in their language, ‘Three more Wiggles CDs and we’ll be there.’

In-car DVDs

If you Google ‘road tripping with kids’, the most common tip is not to leave home without a DVD player. While I don’t disagree, it’s only really an option if your kids don’t get car sick, they can agree on a movie, they can all see properly from where they are sitting, no one leans forward and no one touches any buttons. You do, of course, have the option of a DVD player for each child if you want to go all out. However, as per my headphones comment above, unless they’re old enough to manage their own headphones and DVD players, this one can also be problematic.

Outdoor activities

Rest stops are a great opportunity for your kids to stretch out and burn off some pent-up energy. Bring a ball they can kick around or create a rest-stop activity, like creating a scrapbook of all the places you stop. Picking up a flower, leaf or something else small that they can collect along the way helps them focus on the trip rather than the destination.

4. What to pack

Food: While I hate the thought of food in cars, this one’s an essential. You can plan to have rest stops and eat your main meals then, but the ‘I’m hungry’ whine is inevitable, so a few snacks at the ready that you can chuck in the back are a must. Word for the wise, though — choose snacks that aren’t messy. Small, cut-up sandwiches are good, squeeze-tube yoghurts and juice pops are not. All day gobstoppers that wire their jaws shut are my favourite (though not for very small children). While junk food treats may be tempting and can work to keep them happy and quiet for a while, be wary if your child doesn’t react well to the sugar rush.
Cleaning essentials: This includes an overload of nappies, towels and spare clothes for everyone (including you!) and a plastic bag. Baby wipes are essential, not just to clean up after any motion sickness, but for sticky fingers, messy mouths, runny noses, spilt drinks and impromptu toilet paper.
Motion sickness bags: Enough said.
Toy bags: Let them pack their toy bags themselves. Filling a small backpack with their favourite toys of the day gives them a sense of responsibility and they’re more willing to play with them along the way. Give them a set of rules, though: nothing noisy and nothing likely to be used as a weapon against a sibling.
Car seats/boosters: Ensure these are properly secured, as up to 60% of car seats aren’t installed correctly.
Pillows: Keeps them happy and can double as a barrier between fighting siblings.
A ball: This is great to get everyone moving at rest stops.

5. Break up the trip and avoid travelling alone

Travel, rest, travel, rest. Break up the trip in bite-sized chunks. Roadside rest stops are good. Roadside restaurants are not. The little munchkins will want to run around and stretch their legs, which they can’t do at restaurants. Let them run free while you catch your breath (and your sanity), tire them out and then head off again — hopefully they’ll be ready for a nap. Rest-stop picnics are also a great idea.

6. Leave at the right time

There are good times and not-so-good times to leave for your road trip. This is especially true when you’re travelling with kids, as you want the ride to be as short and smooth as possible, and for them to be occupied for as much of it as possible.

Keeping this in mind, consider the following points when choosing your departure time.

Check the weather: Bad weather could slow down your trip. It also excludes outdoor rest stops, so you may want to leave later in the day.
Estimate your travel time, then double it: Don’t give yourself a deadline — there’s nothing worse than being under pressure to get somewhere and forcing the whole family to push on.
Consider leaving while it’s still dark: Stealing your kids away in the night in their PJs and slipping them into their car seat while they’re in a semi-comatose state will mean they’re likely to be very quiet for some time (at least until the sun gets up). Again, know your kid, though, as this can backfire if you don’t rest along the way. You could find yourself exhausted by the time you arrive with your kids full of energy.
Leave when a nap is due: This has the same benefits as leaving while it’s still dark. The key is not stopping the car while they’re asleep as this is a sure-fire waker-upper.

7. Learn to ignore them

The more you interact with your kids, the more attention they’ll want. If you start off the trip entertaining them, they’ll expect it the whole trip and you’ll be exhausted by the end of it. Staring out the window and having some quiet time is fine — save your best entertainment for when they need it.

You can always pretend to be asleep (if you’re the passenger, that is). Napping means you’re conveniently unavailable to answer questions and referee fights. And, if you’re lucky, the driver will do the shushing, announcing, ‘Mummy is asleep so we all need to be quiet’. This has a short lifespan but it’s worth its weight in gold while it lasts.

8. Managing very young kids and babies

If your baby is still in a rear-facing seat, give them something to look at. They won’t be able to see out the window and who can blame them for getting bored if they’re staring at the back seat. You can buy activity mats, strap-on mirrors and other toys that strap to the car seat to keep them entertained for a while. An adult sitting in the back for some of the trip helps (or an older sibling, as long as they’re not going to tease and torture them).

9. When all hell breaks loose

If you’ve tried ‘stop that or I’ll…’ for the umpteenth time, try doing something unexpected to stop whining or break up a fight, like turning up the music really loud, stopping the car and getting out, putting on the AM static (again, really loud) or breaking out in song. The distraction will take them out of the moment.

10. For the serious traveller (CB radio)

You can plan your trip but you can’t plan traffic. Keep up to date with traffic reports and consider investing in a CB radio. This double acts as entertainment as your kids learn the lingo and listen to what others are discussing (be warned of truckie language, however).

11. Have the right attitude

Having the right attitude before you set out can also help. If you make the road trip more about the journey than the destination and plan accordingly, you’ll more likely get the whole family engaged, rather than counting down the hours until you reach your destination.

THE FINISH LINE

If you decide to be brave and venture on a road trip with kids, keep in mind that preparation is key. Be prepared with snacks, entertainment, car sickness remedies (or vomit bags at the very least) and ensure you have plenty of rest stops on your route. Above all, be prepared for all hell to break loose, as it probably will at some point!

Want the ultimate Australian road trip guide? Check out our Cars101 site for more tips and practical resources to make the most of your next road trip.

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