If you’ve been following Tea with Mum for a while, you might have the impression that we fly every time we go on holiday. Well, we don’t. We drive or train whenever we travel within Germany – to Berlin or Munich, for example – and further afield to Brussels, Zwolle, Paris and Italy. We have thousands of kilometres – even thousands of miles – of road trips under our tyres. As most travel this summer is likely to be the road trip kind due to safety and flight restrictions, it is prime time for us to share our tried and true hacks for a great road trip with kids.
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Let me preface this by saying that I assume your car is in order. We make sure we have appropriate tyres for road trips (i.e. snow tread and chains if we are travelling in winter) and take the car in for a service before any major trips. A car breakdown can quickly turn a great road trip with kids to a disaster.
Safety is also important. We always use the security cargo cover that is standard on our car when we travel. If you don’t have one and you have a station wagon or SUV, buy a cover or at least install a cargo barrier. This will prevent all your luggage and whatever else you may have in the boot (trunk) from flying forward and causing additional injuries.
Check that you have all safety equipment
We also assume that you have checked any safety requirements. In Europe, each country sets its own rules as far as safety equipment (safety vests, warning triangles, fire extinguishers, driving with your lights on) and car seats are concerned. Two examples:
- You can be fined in Italy if you are stopped and do not have a safety vest in your car for the driver and all passengers, including children. The fine is payable on the spot and the local Carabinieri will escort you to the nearest ATM to help you make your payment.
- The maximum age/height limits that determine whether a child needs a car seat or booster differs between the Netherlands and Germany. When he was visiting, my nephew did not require a seat in the Netherlands (age requirement) but did in Germany (height requirement). We assume that any car seats you will need will fulfil the mandatory safety requirements.
Add useful tools to increase comfort
Our car has multiple USB ports for charging or powering phones, tablets, etc so do not need a battery pack. We have a dashboard-mounted phone holder and hands-free installed for telephoning – it connects automatically when we get in the car. Our back windows have built-in sunscreens, so we don’t have to get any for summer. If you don’t have any of these, we would recommend that you get and take one.
We also have wifi in our car, so we can stream movies in the back seat if we wish. I know from experience, however, that writing a blog post while driving along (particularly over borders) is a great way to totally consume the wifi for the month.
Finally, Germany is known for its Autobahns that have no speed limits (this does NOT apply to all Autobahns!) and for its traffic jams. It also has a wonderful GPS system and regular radio announcements to help you navigate around the worst of the traffic – sometimes. Unfortunately, the system is not as good in other European countries. Install a traffic app on your phone before you leave to help navigate around any traffic hotspots.
Tip 1: Avoid the busiest travel days
Long-weekends some of the busiest times for travel. The increased number of travellers and cars on the road increases the chance of accidents, traffic jams and delays.
Unfortunately, long weekends are few and far between. This means it is not always feasible to avoid travel on such weekends. If possible, try and road trip closer to home to cut down on the amount of actual travel time on long-weekends.
The first and last days of school holidays are also the busiest on the roads. If you can, wait a few days to leave. Midweek works well for traffic, though it might not work with any holiday rentals you have arranged (these often run weekend to weekend).
Tip 2: Leave early
When you’re going on a road trip with kids, leave when it is best for you and your family.
For us, this often means leaving very early in the morning – around 5 a.m. We get everything we can in the car the evening before, then put Miss M in the car with her favourite lovey, still in her pyjamas, and leave. She will go back to sleep almost immediately and allow us to get a couple of hundred kilometres along our trip before she wakes. We change her out of her pyjamas at our first stop.
Tip 3: Map your route and do your homework
It is just as important to do your homework for the road trip with kids as it is to do your homework for your destination. Map your route and pick out where you plan to stop – vaguely.
Work out where you can stop and what there is to do. We often try and find a zoo or a museum, or even just a large park to stop at for a couple of hours. For example, on our way to Munich, we stopped at a dinosaur museum. Find out costs and opening times. If appropriate, book tickets online for discounts or time slots. Traffic will have an impact, obviously, so you might want to have a few options up your sleeve.
Tip 4: Book your accommodation
If you are planning on stopping somewhere overnight while on your road trip with kids, book in advance and be flexible.
In Germany, at least, any cheap accommodation near major Autobahns will be booked out well in advance. You might need to venture closer into a city away from the main roads. On one trip to Italy, we chose to stop at the Basel Zoo and then in Milan because we could not get any affordable accommodation along our route before getting to Italy. On our next road trip to Italy, we spent the day at Legoland and then stayed overnight in Munich before continuing on to Italy.
If the trip itself is your focus, rather than reaching a specific destination, make sure any accommodation you book is not too far apart. It is great to get to your hotel/motel/campground early enough to have a break, play in the pool, go to the playground, etc. before it’s time for little roadtrippers to have dinner and go to bed.
For most trips, we use booking.com. It has a wider variety of accommodations, so you are sure to find an unusual gem.
Tip 5: Involve your kids in the planning
From the start, involve your kids in the road trip planning. They will probably be too young to make any big decisions, but they can help decide smaller aspects, such as where you stop for a longer break. To make it easier to reach a decision, let them choose from a pre-approved list. (This also works well for any city trips).
Tip 6: Don’t overpack
It always feels like we have more in our car on our return journey than we did on our outward journey. In fact, by the end of the trip, things can be quite cluttered. I think it is a curse of the road trip with kids – we tend to pack everything because we are travelling in a car and don’t have weight restrictions like we do on flights.
In reality, we should not pack more than we would if it were a flight. One outfit a day, plus a couple of extras for accidents/car sickness. Add a bathing suit and towels, sunscreen, hats, spare shoes and a raincoat and you are good to go.
Tip 7: Look after your driver
On a road trip with kids, the driver’s needs trump everything. If the driver needs a break, needs to hear a weather or traffic update, needs a comfort break – their needs are paramount. Drowsy drivers die; distracted drivers do too.
Tip 8: Get a map
Miss M loves maps. When we are road tripping, she loves comparing where we were with where we are going and how much further it is. It is easy and educational and provides hours of distraction. If you don’t have one, just print some off google maps.
Tip 9: Keep your car looking and smelling clean
When you are on a road trip with kids, you are all going to be in your car for a number of hours. If you don’t do something to stop it, it will quickly get quite messy and even start to smell.
Some of our recommendations:
- Take some dryer wipes or an essential oil spray (such as lemon or peppermint) to combat the smell
- Use a seat protector under your child’s seat to protect the upholstery; make sure it is one that is crash test approved
- Cupcake forms are not just for baking: use some to line any cupholders in your car to catch any bits and bobs
- Only allow your kids to drink water in the car; it will dry and not leave sticky, smelly residue
- Take hand wipes and disinfectant wipes, glass wipes can also be useful
- Don’t forget your bin bags; collect any rubbish as you go and dispose of it at all stops
- For a longer trip, consider taking a small vacuum cleaner that will connect to your cigarette lighter
Tip 10: Pack entertainment
When packing for a road trip with kids, you definitely want to pack some toys and other things to distract them while en route. We recommend taking a backpack – one for each child – and letting your child help choose what should go in it. The bag helps corral the toys during your trip and can be used as a day pack, too.
Generally, I try to avoid small toys that are likely to fall on the floor and cause tears because they can’t be reached. Lego and beads, for example. Likewise, slime, playdough or felt-tipped markers are left home because they can easily make a mess. Basically, if I won’t pack it on a plane, I won’t pack it in the car.
We always include
- paper, an activity or colouring book and pencils – I love these double-ended pencils for twice as many colours
- a couple of storybooks
- a Barbie or two (minus shoes and anything easily lost; all clothes go in a ziplock bag)
- an etch-a-sketch
- a pack of cards
- a dinosaur or two
- a camera to take photos of things we see along the way.
To sweeten the trip, we try and have at least one new toy for Miss M. We give it to her the night before we leave or during the trip. The new toy can distract her for hours.
We also found a table for Miss M to use in the car. It makes it easier to draw, play cards and even play Barbies. If you get a good one, it should have a spot for a drink bottle, a tablet and pencils and other supplies. Hers straps around her seat and clips on the side with a buckle so that it is easy to get on and off.
And yes, we do use our iPad in the car when on road trips. While we can stream movies while driving, we prefer to download a couple just in case. We also have Miss M’s favourite apps on hand – currently, she is enjoying playing Archaeologist – Jurassic Life and Ice Age by MagisterApp. Just remember to pack the headphones too!
Tip 11: Don’t forget the low/no cost games
There are numerous free or low cost games you can play during a road trip with kids.
- Miss M currently loves playing I spy. We use colours instead of letters to make it easier for her.
- Naughts and crosses only requires a piece of paper and a pencil
- We play the number plate game: we have two versions. In Germany, the first few letters on a number plate will tell you where the car is registered. We see who is first to work out where that is. European number plates also show a country code on them. On a longer trip, we also see who can find plates from more countries.
- If I have time, I’ll put together a scavenger hunt with things for Miss M to find. I have a list of things that I generally have on our list, as well as a few that are specific to where we are travelling. For example, for a trip to Berlin, I would include a bear (the symbol of Berlin) and a watchtower from the old border. For Munich, I include a dinosaur (we drive past sites where they were found) and hops (grown for the Bavarian beer). For a trip across a border or three, I will include flags from the countries we pass through.
- We pack Miss M’s journal so that she can draw pictures for the places we visit as we drive along.
- On our next trip, we will also take along our printable passport worksheets, so that Miss M can add to the pages. Subscribe to our emails to get this and other Little Helpers!
Tip 12: Remember the lovey!
Don’t forget to pack your child’s lovey for your road trip with kids. You might want to label it – such as with a bracelet with beads for your phone number. Loveys tend to fall out of the car, get left at a motel, not make it back to the car after lunch. One of ours is somewhere on the Great Ocean Road...
We also make sure that we take a light blanket or at least a warm cardigan (mine) for snuggling when Miss M gets a little tired.
Tip 13: Consider who sits where
The law may require children to sit in the back of the car. However, if you have an extra seat, you might want to consider sitting in the back for part of your road trip with kids. Sitting with your kids can be good for conversations or making decisions, and for playing games (such as Uno or Barbie). Your child might also eat better if you are next to them to assist.
Tip 14: Celebrate the milestones
Quite literally. Make an event out of the milestones you pass: changing states or countries, travelling a specific distance (e.g. every 100 km), travelling for a specific length of time, etc. Have a snack, play a game, give your child a gift, sing a song, take a break. This will help break up the monotony, especially on a long road trip with kids.
Tip 15: Pack snacks, lots of snacks
Kids are always hungry. For some reason, road trips tend to make them even more hungry than normal. Is eating just a way to pass the time? Perhaps.
You don’t want to keep stopping for more supplies and the snacks at stops on the motorways/Autobahn/autostrada are often much more expensive. Save time and money and take you snacks with you.
Safety is paramount: NEVER unbuckle a crying infant to breastfeed while driving. NEVER give unsupervised rear-facing babies bottles of finger foods. Both are just too dangerous.
Avoid sugary foods. They will make your kids happy for a while, but they will have epic meltdowns when they crash from their sugar high.
Our food recommendations – basically the same as what we recommend for long-haul flights with kids:
- dried and sliced fruit (apple, mango, mandarins, strawberries, grapes)
- rolls, plain or with filling
- yoghurt or jelly squeezes
- crackers and dip packs
- carrot and capsicum sticks and snow peas, with dip, if you like
- small salami sticks and cheese cubes
- crackers, pringles, popcorn, rice crackers, prezels
- cooked pasta
- doughnuts or mini muffins
- dry cereal (in a bag)
- cooked cubes of sweet potato or pumpkin
To keep the food fresh and cold in Summer, we take a small cooler that we connect to the car via a cigarette lighter. It came in handy for keeping milk cool and for bringing Italian cheese, fresh pasta and salami safely back from our trips. Some will even keep things warm – perfect for football games. Just don’t leave it plugged in when you stop the car if you haven’t checked that it is not still draining the battery…
Take some chewing gum or lemon drops, too. They will help keep you awake and refreshed on a long drive.
Tip 16: Keep hydrated
The catch-22 of long road trips with kids. The more you drink, the more frequently you will need to stop.
If you can, allow your kids to have a good drink about 45 minutes before you are planning to stop. This will mean that you will need to use the toilets around the time that you were planning to stop anyway.
Foods with a high water content will help span the time between stops and drinks. Capsicum, jelly and grapes will all help. Avoid salty foods, too.
To avoid a sticky mess in the car, we recommend only drinking water in the car. Freeze juice boxes for a summer road trip with kids. They will help keep your food cool and can be a wonderful treat when you take a break.
Tip 17: Augment your first aid kit
You should have a first aid kit in your car – it is a legal requirement in most countries. However, as with travel first aid kits, many are not really suitable for a road trip with kids. Add some kid-appropriate first aid supplies, such as fun bandaids and your child pain reliever of choice. This post will give you ideas of what you might want to add.
If motion sickness is a problem, try ginger drops to suck on. Pack large ziplock bags in case there are any emergencies when you can’t stop.
Tip 18: Toilets
You will need to use the toilets. Be prepared, and stop regularly.
If your child is in nappies, be happy. Take everything you need to be able to change them in the car. If they are transitioning, you might want them to wear pull-ups for the trip, just in case.
If you have one, take a potty. Include wipes and a nappy bag for cleaning up after use. There is otherwise nothing wrong with using a bush on the side of the road, though your child might feel more comfortable with a potty.
Take a change of clothes, too. Just in case.
Tip 20: Say yes more often
I struggle with this one, though I am getting better at it.
Your kids will be more relaxed and more surprised if you say yes to some of their requests to stop somewhere. Can we play in the playground? Why not? Can we get ice cream? Of course. Can we go to a castle? There are bound to be plenty, especially in Europe. Unless you have to reach your destination by a specific time (such as to check-in or for a time slot at a zoo or museum), say yes and stop when your kids want. After all, it is just their way of saying that they need a break and a stretch – without the whining.
Tip 21: Keep the change
Keep your small change in Europe in particular. You will need change to use toilets at rest stops and for tolls on highways, in France and Italy, for example. You can’t pay for your toilet use with notes or cards. Toll machines will often taken cards, but only certain types. Keep your change to ensure that you can pay these incidentals.
Follow these tips and enjoy your road trip with kids!
To stay safe and have fun! Isn’t that what you really want for any road trip with kids? Follow these 21 tried and tested tips and arrive safely, happy and healthy with your nerves in tack, and have a wonderful vacation.