The Ultimate Family Road Trip Guide
Nothing strikes fear into a parent quicker or more fiercely than the words “are we there yet?”, fifteen minutes into a four-hour road trip. That phrase starts a whole litany of complaints from “he looked at me funny” to “I need to pee” (five minutes after you passed a gas station where they were SUPPOSED to have a pee).
There are two ways to approach the idea of a family road trip with children, one with hysterical laughter and the promise to never, ever attempt such a feat or with some pre-planning which could actually turn the travel portion of the trip into a fun extension of the holiday (yes, really!).
Our ultimate family road trip guide breaks down everything you need to remember to take or do when going on a road trip, some handy hints and tips for keeping the kids occupied and helps you plan in advance for things like car problems.
Plan Your Route
The very first thing you need to do when planning a road trip is to plan the route. While it might be tempting to go straight from your home/base to your destination it might be worth making a few detours along the way. Look at where the gas stations or rest stops are between here and there and plan your trip accordingly. You may be able to go for four hours without a pee, a nappy change or running around on the grass however your children probably won’t.
Take into account areas that are known to be congested, difficult to navigate and take a paper map, just in case your trusty GPS or smartphone navigation app fails half way there. It might also be worth considering the time of day you will be traveling. Depending on where you are going, you could consider driving overnight? This way the children are much more likely to sleep through the journey, it will be less congested and could make all the difference to the journey. If you aren’t confident driving at night or if logistically this isn’t the best option, don’t worry, we have plenty more nuggets to help you survive traveling with the kids.
Before any car journey, but particularly before any long journey make sure you have enough air in the tires, water and oil, gas and that everything is ship-shape. This is the best way to ensure that you avoid a breakdown.
The Breakdown Box
Despite our best efforts (see above) sometimes, and usually at the most inconvenient times, our car breaks down. If you have children in the back this could turn into the road trip from hell if you aren’t prepared. Don’t take chances, make sure you pack the following in a breakdown box for emergencies (as well as the usual car gear such as a warning triangle, spare tire etc, and all the other car-related things you should have in place).
Water – The more the better, who knows how long you may be waiting in the heat for a tow truck or mechanic?
Snacks – Extra snacks are ideal as again, you don’t know how long you may need to wait for help.
Something Cool to Occupy the Kids – Children sitting on a bench awaiting pick-up or stuck in a car that isn’t moving are going to get crabby FAST. Make sure you pack something new and interesting to keep them occupied and stave off boredom whether it is daytime or the middle of the night.
All-Weather Gear – If you break down on the side of the highway the current advice is, if it is safe, exit the car (using the doors on the opposite of the moving traffic) and move a safe distance away from the road. If you’ve broken down on your way to your holidays the chances are luck has already abandoned you, so you could well be going out into very hot weather or even rain. Make sure you have something to keep everyone dry and cool as well as appropriate footwear.
Medication – If anyone in your party require take medication, it would be wise to pack a few doses in the breakdown box which should be easy to grab and leave with as you may not have time to go through your luggage for the things that you need.
A Flashlight/Torch – If you get stranded at night this could be useful.
High Visibility Wear – These waistcoats and similar are perfect to throw over clothes to ensure you are visible at night and relatively inexpensive.
Coinage – You may not be able to get a cellphone signal or have enough battery to call for help so money for a payphone could be useful (as could having the details of your breakdown company written down rather than simply stored on your phone).
These are the very basic items that should be in a breakdown box; add anything else you might feel will help promote safety or help keep everyone happy during the wait.
Be Climate / Weather Aware
Did you know that you can still get sun-burnt in a car? Well you can! Make sure that everyone has sun screen on and that shades are in place for the children. Also consider how hot the car is or will become and make sure that everyone has enough water to keep them properly hydrated.
Horrible for the parents and not too fun for the children, car or motion sickness can be a real pain when it comes to family road trips. Thankfully there are a number of ways to avoid motion sickness or manage travel sickness. Each child is different so it pays to be prepared and indulge in some trial and error in advance. Some parents swear by travel wrist bands that are commonly available, some say small and regular snacks and sips of water help, some say visit the pharmacist to ask for age-appropriate motion sickness tablets and others say travel at night when the little ones are asleep.
We say try all of these to see what works and also remember to take regular breaks for fresh air, keep the car cool and make sure you have sick bags and a clean-up bucket “just in case”. Hopefully you won’t need it however it pays to be prepared.
Keeping Children Occupied
The best way to start your holiday is with a car full of children who get louder by the minute and who alternate between that fun whining “I’m bored” stance and constant shrill bickering, right? If you want to get to the end of the journey with your nerves and temper intact you need to find a way to keep the kiddies happy (we don’t want them to be upset and dislike the travel time either).
In-car games are a great way to keeps children active, for example Knock Knock Ding a Ling. If someone sees a mail box they call out Knock Knock, if they see a payphone…. You get the gist. Do some advance research on in-car spotting games and easy activities that you may rotate throughout the journey.
iPads / portable DVD players are quite easily the best invention ever made when it comes to traveling with kids. Invest in some headphones for your child/children and let them concentrate on their favorite movie or game. If you have one iPad / portable DVD player and two or more children opt for shorter videos and make sure they take turns to choose what to play next.
Paper games are great for breaking up the monotony and there are so many to choose from. Popular versions include tic-tac-toe and Hangman however with a little research we’re sure you could come up with a lot more.
Digital fun and reading also pass the time however consider battery-life time, how long you want them playing on games and also whether this type of activity or reading will contribute to travel sickness (it does for some).
Music / Audio Books
Singalongs are great fun (especially when they get to choose the music) and of course making up silly alternative words to favorite songs is a must. Audio books are better suited to quiet time as your little ones will have to be quiet, sit still and listen if you they want to hear the story. Even little toddlers enjoy audio books and they can be great as a wind-down activity for when you want your little ones to take a nap.
As long as you have enough activities and toys and are able to rotate them throughout the journey you should hopefully have the “keep the kids happy” box checked.
**Top Tip: Those over-seat activity holders you see that allows children to get their own toys and games out and have everything on hand are brilliant, particularly if there is no-one else (not driving) to help get things out, open them, pass them around etc.
Food and Drink
Snacks and drinks not only keep people well fed and hydrated, they break up the monotony of a road trip. Choose snacks and meals that are healthy, fun, something special. Do remember to ensure that they aren’t too messy or will get icky in the heat of the car.
Hydration is important in a hot car, as is remembering to plan your route to include plenty of rest stops! If you are stopping for a meal somewhere on the way try to avoid foods that will be too heavy on the stomach or too strong / spicy as this will increase the likelihood of car sickness. Also try and avoid very sugary foods and drinks as while your children’s high as a kite cheer might be fun to start with, the inevitable crash and burn mood-change that comes soon afterwards is less so!
**Top Tip: Don’t let the kids be in charge of the snack box! Do so and it’ll be empty in ten minutes and everyone will look like they're ready to throw up (whether they normally suffer with car sickness or not).
When it comes to taking a road trip, particularly long ones with children, you can either have a hideously fraught journey or a surprisingly pleasant one. Which one you’ll enjoy or endure comes down to the amount of planning you do in advance. Go back through this guide with your particular family needs in mind and make sure that you have everything you need (and that they could possibly want) organized in advance.
After that all you need to do is concentrate on having a wonderful trip!