10 Tips For A Blissful Road Trip With Kids
By: Heather Gow, ellaslist explorer
You either love them, or you hate them. For me, youth and freedom were all about cruising the highways and byways in my clapped out but unbreakable old Camry, with the window down and some loud alternative 90’s rock blasting from the stereo. Back then, I could throw a toothbrush and a change of undies in a bag and be in the car with ten minutes notice. These days, it takes a month of planning and two days of packing to get our family of six away for a weekend.
Remember To Enjoy the Journey
At the traditional post-holiday post-mortem after our last big driving holiday, the kids nominated various tourist attractions as their highlights, while both my ever-loving and I agreed that the actual journey was the best bit. We are heading off again this June, with an addition to the family. Our ten-month old son has the incredible talent of impersonating a cross between a labouring cow and an angry Wookie at the smallest provocation, and has been known to sustain that brain-stabbing noise for several hundred kilometres.
Nevertheless, we are optimistically setting off up the North Coast with four kids, aged 12, 6, 5 and the aforementioned 10 months, in search of warmer weather (for the body) and patchy internet connections (for the soul).
Here are our top tips for not just surviving, but making your road trip the best part of your holiday.
1. Have A Plan. But Be Prepared To Ditch It.
Just like your plan for a drug free, Zen-like water birth often evolves into an exercise in experimental narcotics after your first real contraction, your plan to cover a thousand clicks a day with a young family may go sadly awry. Like a birth plan, a road trip plan when you have a young family is a great opportunity to think about your preferences and potential contingencies for when things go wrong, but to try to stick to the plan too rigidly is a recipe for disaster.
So think about when you’re going to leave, where to stop for lunch, and where to stay, taking into account your baby’s sleep habits, your toddler’s capacity to sit still and your teenager’s capacity to tolerate boredom – but, if you must book accommodation before you leave, check the cancellation policy or be prepared to ditch a little cash. Otherwise, lastminute.com.au and wotif.com.au are your friends when you just want to hit the road and see how far you get.
2. Manageable Chunks Of Time.
Manageable chunks (of time!) are great things and useful whether you are writing a novel, managing complex projects or trying to overcome procrastination. You could do worse than to keep this in mind for your road trip too. A four-hour driving stint may be perfectly achievable if you leave at 4am or if your children have been recently lobotomised, however, in most cases, two to three hours is the most you’d want to aim for without stopping for at least a wee break and a bit of a run around. Yes, frequent stops will make your overall trip longer, but your kids and your sanity will thank you.
3. Maslow's Hierarchy of Food
You know your little darlings will be asking for food before you’ve hit the end of your street. We tend to manage this with a cooler bag full of snacks in the front passenger footwell, ready to be doled out at appropriate intervals. But if you start out with the good stuff, you’re leaving yourself nowhere to go in the bribery stakes. (“If you lot are totally silent for the next 150 kilometres, you can have a sugary treat!” – Great Moments in Parenting 2015.)
Start out with the apples and carrot sticks and work your way up to the TimTams and Fantales. (Bonus tip: Fantales are a triple-benefit road trip treat. First, eat the Fantale. Second, have a celebrity “Who Am I?” Quiz. Third, see who can rip the wrapper into the longest streamer. I am have been the undefeated champion since 1991, but the dexterous fingers of our 12 year old may see me relinquish the title this trip!)
4. Consider seating arrangements.
In the normal day to day, our five year old sits in the middle next to the baby, the six year old in the very back
So for this trip, we’ll change things around so that our 12 year old can help the baby if needed, and the 5 year old will get a highly sought after window seat. We may end up leaving it that way permanently, or leaning across to strap the baby into the middle seat may be too much of a stretch. We’ll see.
5. Be Prepared To Get Dirty.
Frankly, if you’re precious about your car seat covers, maybe a road trip is not the holiday for you. If you’ve got children under five, by the time you arrive at your ultimate destination, the car seat covers, clothes and kids will be covered in crusty rusk remnants, sultanas, and chocolate. And that’s before we consider the possibility of bodily fluids. Let the kids eat in the car. If you must, find the towels that have the most potential to embarrass you (should house guests suddenly arrive) and use them under the seats to catch most of the detritus.
Once you’re home, strip the covers off and throw them in the wash – or consider the alternative: a never-ending whine from the backseats that will have you considering whether you could pull off a commando roll from a moving vehicle.
6. Tap Into Local Knowledge.
Some of our best road trip moments have come from social media shout-outs for the best places to eat/sleep/play, or from random tips from local strangers. We were once locked into the road trip hell of McDonalds – hey, it’s on the highway, it’s got a playground and toilets, sometimes the coffee is drinkable – but in the last few years we’ve found a few local gems that meet our needs in a far more pleasant manner.
The Long Track Pantry at Jugiong, for example, has great coffee, fantastic locally produced food, and plenty of space for the kids to run free. Butterfly House at Coffs Harbour, is another tip that came our way via a Facebook request – we stopped there for lunch three years ago and the kids are still talking about it.
7. Get off the beaten track.
Sometimes it’s tempting to just stay on the freeway to save time, but in the interests of road-trip awesomeness, it’s imperative that you take the occasional exit. The aforementioned Long Track Pantry, for example, requires a mere three-kilometre detour, and I can almost guarantee that once you’ve been there once, it will become your Sydney-Melbourne pit stop of choice.
I have many treasured memories of seemingly random (Dad, did you plan them?) road trip detours to follow tourist signs to waterfalls, lookouts, and nut plantations. You can almost drive from one end of the state to the other these days without getting off a dual carriageway – but the experience will be so much the richer if you dip into the rural and coastal communities that have been bypassed.
8. Get in-car entertainment sorted.
Whilst I’ve got a bit of a philosophical objection to in-car DVD players as being anathema to the spirit of the road trip, that’s not to say I haven’t generally had a couple hidden somewhere in the luggage in case of emergency. I’m pleased and slightly proud to say we haven’t needed them – whilst admitting to playing a mobile Youtube version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on high rotation to placate the screaming baby on occasion!
We’ll have a bag of books, activity books and colouring-in resources. We have a game of Spotto which has been going for three years with a constantly-changing set of rules. Eye-Spy and Twenty Questions are stalwarts. Miss 12 Year Old has her own phone. But the piece de resistance is a box set of audio CD’s of Roald Dahl stories which was given by a dear friend and fellow road-trip fancier on the occasion of my eldest daughter’s birth. Ever-loving and I have loved the rediscovery of the stories whilst the kids are finding them hilarious the first time around. Miriam Margolyes reading Matilda has to be heard to be believed. Of course… that old classic of waving to people in other vehicles and counting how many waves you get back brings hours of enjoyment too!
9. Manage Expectations.
Like asking for food, asking “Are we there yet?” starts almost before you turn on the ignition. Explaining the distance in terms the kids understand can help. For example, our 6 year old understands “The time it takes from when you first get to school until lunchtime” far more readily than she understands the concept of four hours or 400 kilometres. Our 5 year old is more likely to understand “the time it takes to watch Frozen twice”. We often need to let them know that they’ve got plenty of time to have a nap – fear of missing out (FOMO) starts early it seems, and will keep them awake when they could be snoozing away the miles.
10. Consider The Opportunities, Not Just Potential Pitfalls.
It’s easy for road trip planning to degenerate into a morass of contingency planning, disaster prediction, and general logistical overload. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile to remember the possibilities are huge. It’s not often we get to have our whole family at close quarters for long periods of time, with little to do but talk to each other. It’s not often the kids get the opportunity to entertain themselves with nothing but their thoughts. It’s not often you get to share a sense of exploration and adventure with your partner and to show the kids things together that they haven’t seen before. And as every relationship counsellor will tell you, sometimes opportunities for real communication and connection arise when you are sitting next to each other, both looking forward.
So there you have it – my top ten tips for a blissful road trip experience. And if you’re somewhere north of Sydney next Saturday and hear a distant sound, something like a distressed bovine Wookie – it’s just us, passing through.
Heather Gow is a mother of three and a step-mum of one. She’s on a break from her psychology career and is currently kid-wrangling full-time. She writes stories for children when hers are asleep. She blogs infrequently and tweets lefty political rants. She lives in the Eastern Suburbs and can generally be found somewhere on the endless loop between school, daycare, swimming lessons, gymnastics and Nippers.