Driving holidays with kids

Hayley and I have a lot of experience when it comes to driving holidays. Both of us have extended family and friends who live interstate, and flying anywhere from Canberra is ungodly expensive! So with a family of four we drive to wherever we possibly can.

With school holidays lots more families are on the roads so we thought it may be helpful to share some of our coping strategies. We have both taken our families up to the Gold Coast with in the last six months. I head down to Melbourne usually on my own with the kids a few times a year, and Hayley does a many short trips away to the NSW South Coast, southern tablelands and Hunter Valley.

Here’s our tips for preparing (and surviving) your driving holiday.

1. Plan your driving times

It sounds a bit obvious and there are roadside rest areas, service centres and McDonalds in most towns, but car travel is really exhausting for the kids as well as the driver/s. So to minimise grumpiness and tiredness it’s important to have a plan for the drive. Check out the route you want to take on google maps and work out how long the driving time will be. Then work out what time you want to start or finish the drive, and how long your driving stretches will be.

If your kids still nap, try starting a big drive about a half hour before nap time. This helps get them to crash out while you get through a solid stretch of driving without any fuss.

Packing the car the night before and leaving first thing in the morning is another strategy that works really well on longer trips. Everyone is refreshed and it’s a bit longer before the car starts to get too stuffy. I also have friends that swear by driving through the night with the kids sleeping in the car the whole way there. My body clock is not suited to this, and I would need a day to catch up on sleep. But everyone is different.

2. Plan your stops

You should allow at least 20-30 minute breaks for every 2.5 - 3 hours of driving. Use google maps to work out which places/towns you will stop. Look for service centres, parks and fast food chains that have water, food and toileting facilities. Bonuses are playgrounds so the kids can stretch their legs and burn some energy. I found there were few roadside rest areas and service centres between Sydney and the Gold Coast so we were hoping for the best when we pulled off the highway.

For longer drives you may need to think about stopping somewhere overnight and continuing the next day. Book accommodation or reserve a room in advance before the trip. Don’t rely on motel and caravan parks to have vacancies or receptions to be open after 4pm, especially in school holidays and over long weekends.

3. Bring your own snacks

Pack some snacks for the trip to help pass the boredom! For longer drives take LOTS of snacks. Fruit, muesli bars, nuts, sandwiches, coffee thermos, crackers, biscuits and veggie sticks all make great snacks. I don’t recommend chocolate - it melts everywhere and is hard to clean up from the front seat. Prepare and pack snacks the night before. I throw them straight into a shopping bag and then put in the front seat ready to hand out as bribes for quietness.

For those with babies needing milk bottles, I make up the bottles and put them in insulated lunch bags to keep cold/warm during the trip. Don’t forget to fill and bring a water bottle for everyone.

4. Keep supplies you will need on hand.

I keep a nappy change mat, pack of wet wipes and nappies in the back of the driver’s seat. I keep a spare dummy in my front console so I can pass it to the back seat if needed.

Something I learned from a friend just recently is to pack a stopover bag if your stopping overnight on the way. Pack pj’s, toothbrushes and a set of clean clothes for everyone in one bag to take into your accommodation for the night - no need to unpack the whole car. Amazing tip.

My car has a lot of drink bottle holders in the doors and front seats. I load these up with sunscreen, umbrellas and bottles of wine (so it can go straight into the fridge on arrival).

I also take an extra shopping or plastic bag to collect wrappers and food scraps during the trip. It helps keep the car a little cleaner and I just dispose of it at our destination. You can hang the handle through your head rest too.

5. Pack light

Yes you have a car boot and you don’t have to pay for extra luggage, but it’s better to just pack what you need, or enough for a few days if you can access a washing machine. No one would want to be stuck in the backseat of a car for 8 hours unable to move because they are squashed in with the luggage. Your kids don’t either. Try to keep the floor space empty so they have room to move and wriggle (and breathe!). Invest in a cheap stroller from kmart or big w that is lightweight and takes up less space. Another reason to pack light is it saves on fuel and therefore saves you money. And if you get a flat tyre, it’s easier to unload less stuff on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere (trust me on that one).

6. Take entertainment

We get the kids to pack a small bag of things to play with on the trip as well as their bedtime toy. They usually pack coloring books and pencils, a story book, some kind of noisy toy with buttons and sounds, or some little cars. We have never really bothered with tablets and phones - reception can be patchy and I never have enough storage space to download anything for them to watch. However, we did buy a portable dvd player to strap onto the head rests for our trip to the gold coast. If your kids are over three it might be worth it, don’t bother otherwise!
For bigger kids take the footy to kick around when you stop and during the holiday.


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