Ask any adult about their memories of childhood, and many will immediately think back to their favourite childhood trips as a family – whether by car, train or plane. Why? Because for a child, a long trip is always a grand adventure.
For parents, though, travelling with kids can be a challenge that will test negotiating skills, patience and the ability to function simultaneously as tour guide, squabble referee and entertainment director. If you plan ahead, travelling with young ones can be a treasured experience instead of a hardship, and you’ll enjoy it just as much as they do.
Travelling With Kids In the Car
One advantage of a car trip over a plane trip is that you can stop and let the kids out at regular intervals to play, look at the sights or just release a bit of pent-up energy.
Plan your trip to allow for lots of breaks: toilet breaks, sightseeing breaks, picnic breaks, running-around-in-the-park breaks and any other excuse for a break you can think of to alleviate the stress and boredom of being cooped up in the car for hours on end. Estimate your travel time and then double it – this should turn out to be just about right to allow for unexpected stops, essential breaks, delays in departure, flat tyres and whatever else the world throws at you. A rushed, panicked trip is never a fun trip.
A week or so before your road trip, list what you’re planning to take and start collecting it. Leave yourself plenty of time to pack – take a day off work if necessary to get the packing and other last-minute prep chores done. Charge your phone and all electronic devices and toys just before leaving, and don’t forget to bring the chargers. Pack lots of water, some healthy food (not sweets – the last thing you want is four kids in a car, all on a non-stop sugar rush), and basic safety items like a first aid kit, a torch or two, etc.
If you have smaller children, must-pack items include toilet paper and a portable potty, a plastic bucket or similar container for carsickness emergencies, a Frisbee for rest stop activities, their favourite electronic games or books, stuffed animals/security blankets and a nightlight for those extra-dark hotel rooms along the way. Ideally, each child should have their own pillow. Audio books can be an excellent way to pass the time for young children. And you can’t go wrong with some Wiggles songs either.
Pack strategically, putting ‘outdoor items’ in an easily accessible and separate bag. This will contain hats, jumpers, raincoats, a change of clothing for each child, towels and togs for swimming, sunscreen and insect repellent so you’re fully prepared for outdoor fun when opportunities arise along the route. Budget Direct’s ultimate packing list can be useful for your packing.
Getting a good night’s sleep is the best preparation for a serious car journey. It’s not just the children who will benefit from plenty of pre-trip rest – you’ll be less stressed (and a safer driver) if you’ve had a solid kip the night before as well. Let kids nap on the way if they feel the need. If you leave just before lunch and feed the kids during a trip’s first hour or so, there’s a good chance one or more of them will nod off shortly afterwards.
Check out your route beforehand for parks, tourist attractions or playgrounds so you’re already aware of potential stopping spots along the way. That way, when kids pipe up with “Are we going to stop soon?” you can reply with a ‘when, where and why’ answer. It’s unrealistic to expect small children to sit still in a car for 2-3 hours at a time. Give them plenty of opportunities to take a break and escape from the confines of the vehicle. It is easy to plan your road trip with the help of Budget Direct’s comprehensive and interactive Road Trip Planner.
Food and drink
The best in-car snacks are the kinds of things that won’t create a disaster if they’re spilled. Sandwiches, nuts, sultanas, rice crackers, bananas and muesli bars are usually pretty safe, but try to avoid messier types of snacks. Non-spill drink containers are definitely the go. The occasional treat is fine (you don’t have to turn into the ‘health police’), but for your own sanity, keep sugary snacks to a minimum. Have some wet wipes on hand to clean sticky hands afterwards.
Choose restaurants with a play area for the little ones, and preferably with designated kids’ meals, which will save you some money on a stretched budget. Stopping for sit-down meals should be a relaxed affair, not a ‘hurry-up-so-we-can-get-back-on-the-road’ job.
Children are designed to be active, so if they’re going to be happy on a long car trip, you’ll want to make sure you have a range of options to keep them occupied and entertained for the duration. If you have brought a baby or toddler along, get in the back seat with them for awhile and tell them a story, read them a book or give them some new toys to play with.
Toys that are made up of lots of small pieces (which inevitably get dropped on the car floor) don’t work as well as simpler distractions like doodling boards, sticker sets or magnetic story boards. Depending on the child’s age, electronic games can be a good option, but be aware that carsickness is more likely to occur when a child’s head is pointing down for long periods while concentrating on a game. Make sure they take plenty of breaks from the digital world and stop to look out the window for awhile – otherwise you’ll have a car full of nauseous, headache-afflicted kids on your hands.
For older children, bring along a magnetic chess set or a travel version of Battleship, Scrabble or a similar game. These sorts of games will occupy them longer than simpler choices like Connect Four. The best travel games are ones that have pieces that slide/lock in place or are magnetised. Let older kids listen to their own music players, so they don’t have to suffer through Mum and Dad’s ‘lame, old-people music’ on the radio.
No matter how hard you try to keep everyone happy, squabbles are bound to develop at some stage (multiplied exponentially by the number of children in the car). The younger the child, the less inclined they will be to share, so make sure there aren’t too many ‘communal’ toys, but that each child has their own. Pillows can provide a handy barrier between cranky siblings. Prevention of conflict is better than cure – a well-fed, well-rested, engaged child will always be more agreeable than a sleep-deprived, hungry one.
There are two ploys that can be useful in keeping children relatively quiet during car trips. The first is for the non-driving adult to pretend they’re sleeping, which can (sometimes) have the effect of quieting down the whole car. Another idea is to prop a timer (you could use the one on your smartphone) where children in the back can easily see it. As soon as you get the inevitable question “Are we there yet?” you can just point to the timer, which lets everyone know exactly how long it will be until the next stop.
Travelling With Kids By Airplane
One area where many travellers get caught out is having a passport that’s close to its expiry date. When travelling abroad, ensure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your planned arrival date home. This will avoid unpleasant surprises – like not being allowed to board your plane!
Passports are crucial documents, so make a copy of relevant pages and email them to yourself along with copies of birth certificates and other proof-of-identity documents.
The more children you have and stuff you need to bring, the more bags you’ll have. Get in the habit of doing a bag count every time you leave a hotel, hop in a taxi or arrive at a new destination.
It’s surprisingly easy for a kid’s knapsack, laptop case or small carry-on to get left behind if you don’t. If you’re carrying a money belt or neck pouch under your clothing, always do a quick pat-down check to make sure they’re in place before changing locations.
It’s not a pleasant scenario, but it can happen: you arrive at your destination tired but excited after a long flight, grab your carry-ons, head to the baggage carousel – and your suitcases don’t show up. They might be permanently lost or just delayed for a day, but either way, if you’ve thought ahead and packed a few essential items (like a change of clothes for everyone) in your carry-ons, you’ll be better off. Medications should always be in your carry-on luggage.
Just about every family has a conversation like this at least once during an overseas holiday: “Where did you put my phone charger?” “I don’t know – I thought you packed it.” When one parent packs a bit of this and the other packs a bit of that, things get left behind.
The solution is simple: leave one person in charge of packing everything. That way they know where everything lives.
If you’ve done your research, you may already know about health risks at your destination (undrinkable tap water, crazy traffic, mosquito-borne diseases or whatever). But your travel doctor can advise you on things you may not be aware of and make sure you have all the vaccinations and medications you need for a safe, healthy journey. The doctor can also provide a signed authorisation list of medications you’re taking with you, to make customs enquiries go more smoothly.
One thing you don’t want to leave home without is a family travel insurance policy. You needn’t buy this from your travel agent – it’s easy enough to shop around online for the most suitable deal.
You’ll rest easier knowing you’re covered for unpleasant surprises like serious illness or injury, lost luggage, stolen belongings, emergency medical evacuation, sudden cancellations and more. Travel insurance is not all the same, so make sure you understand what’s covered and what’s not for your trip.
Stroller/car seat combos are a very worthwhile investment if you have a toddler. Make sure the seat is approved for use in both cars and planes. The stroller is stowed when you board at the gate, and the seat is carried to your designated seating row. If you’re bringing a car seat, you’ll need to pay for an airline seat for it.
School-age children quite like having their own ‘personal’ suitcase. Pick one that’s a convenient size for your child and comes with wheels for rolling/dragging along. Your travel doctor can make recommendations about how children can best clear their ears during take-off and descent. If they’re old enough to safely chew gum, this can work well in many instances to help young ears adjust to changes in air pressure. You can also buy non-prescription ear drops that numb the eardrums and help with pain. Encouraging your child to eat or drink during take-off and landing can help clear sore ears too.
With a baby, try to get a bulkhead seat with a bassinet (the built-in crib attached to the wall in front of you). Booking an overnight flight that matches up with your baby’s sleeping habits can also make life easier for all concerned.
If you have the kind of child that loves to run off at every opportunity, dress him or her in bright clothing so they’ll be easier to spot in a crowd.
If you need to change your baby’s nappy, try to do it before boarding: airport changing areas are much roomier than the inside of an aircraft toilet.
Once aboard the plane, make sure children (and you too!) stay well-hydrated; plain water is the best beverage. Older children are usually pretty happy with the window seat, but whoever has the weakest bladder should probably take the aisle. If you need any assistance from the flight crew, ask away – they’re happy to warm a bottle, bring some drawing paper or do whatever they can to ensure your children have a pleasant flight.
Dress your children in a couple of light layers to offer some adjustment options if they get too hot or cold. Have a jumper handy – airplane cabins can get quite chilly. Slip-on shoes are more convenient than lace-ups for toddlers.
Where available, in-flight movies are an excellent way to keep children occupied over the course of a lengthy flight. Always have some books or toys at the ready for other times. There are plenty of toddler-friendly iPad apps around these days as well. Make sure you and the children get up and walk around now and then to stretch muscles and keep circulation moving.
Off the plane
The longer the overseas flight, the more likely you and your family will be affected by jet lag. Adjusting your body clocks to a new time zone can take a few days. If you land in the morning, one of the best anti-jet lag plans is to have showers at the hotel, change clothes and head out for a walk in the fresh air. The light exercise will do everyone a world of good and give you a chance to investigate the neighbourhood.
Find a park or playground for the youngsters. Have a light dinner and get everyone to bed early in the evening. The quicker you adjust to local time, the better. Don’t plan on any major tours or strenuous activity on your first full day – ease into things slowly.
All aboard the choo-choo
Train rides – whether in Australia or in an exotic foreign land – are a wonderful adventure for children. Many of the travel tips that apply to car and plane travel also work for trains, but rail excursions do have a few unique features.
First is the safety aspect: keeping children away from tracks and well within the platform safety zones is crucial. You can’t let a child run around a railway station the way they do at an airport – a much tighter rein is necessary.
One huge advantage of train travel is the option of booking a sleeper car.
Another great thing about train travel is the dining car. Being able to take bored children from your cramped compartment to a spacious dining car for a meal, a game of cards or just a change of scenery is a welcome option. The further the dining car is from your cabin, the more exercise you’ll all get!
Train tip: you’ll often save a bundle on train fares by buying your overseas train tickets online in Australia, months before departure.
This post was brought to you by Budget Direct Travel Insurance