With the great British summer almost upon us, many of us will be taking a long car journey over the next few months. But if you’re travelling with little ones, how can you keep the whole family content during a lengthy drive? It’s not as hard as you might think, but happy family road trips do take a little forward planning.
How long is long car journey?
“Are we there yet?” Time passes differently for children. If you’re planning a drive which will take more than a couple of hours, get the kids involved with your journey preparation by showing them your start and end points on the map. To help them get a sense for the distance you’re going to cover and how long this will take. Encourage comparison with a journey they’re familiar with.
You might say: “This is where we live. This is where Grandma lives. Driving there takes about 45 minutes. Where we’re going tomorrow is all the way up here! See the difference? We’re going to have lots of fun on the way!” Make the journey sound like an adventure before it’s started, and you’ll have happy eager faces ready to help you on your way.
Checkpoint acquired! Making the car journey pass more quickly
Some parents swear by night-time driving. Only do this if you’re confident in your ability to travel through the night in a safe and alert manner. Ideally swapping driver roles with a partner every couple of hours. And bear in mind that if the children snooze all night, they’ll be fresh as daisies when you get to your destination – just when you need some rest.
So if that doesn’t appeal, how can you get through a long car journey with your sanity and sense of humour intact? Having a sense of the distances you’re covering will help, so encourage older children to use the atlas to plan some checkpoints to look out for. All the family can then join in ticking the checkpoints off the list, enabling you all to feel a sense of achievement as your destination approaches. Next up is to plan your refreshments.
Food and drink
‘Sweets for the journey’ may have a certain nostalgic ring to it, but lots of sugar (and additives), eaten in cramped conditions and blended with boredom is a potentially volatile combination. Instead, pack a range of easy-to-eat snacks which won’t cover your car seats with crumbs.
Snacking does keep boredom away and it will keep your kids going a bit longer between meals. Plan ahead and choose carefully to avoid a massive clean-up post trip, sore tummies or worse.
What constitutes the road snack from hell? Anything slimy, juicy, crumbly or sticky. Bananas immediately turn into a brown mess once they’ve been in a car for more than ten minutes. Yogurt tubes may seem like a good plan – until they squirt everywhere. Anything with chocolate is a bad idea.
Top tip: hang a plastic bag from the seatback in front of the children so they can chuck any rubbish in as you go along. If you have a brood which thrives on competition, give each child their own rubbish sack and offer a small reward for the person who manages to keep the seat area the cleanest.
Drinks-wise, stick to water only. Juice cartons, which tend to explode stickily over all the cabin, are usually laden with sugar too. Make it personal by getting the kids each their own water bottle and half fill with ice cubes.
Many modern vehicles are now fitted with an in-car video entertainment system, or you may pack an iPad for children to watch a video on. Try not to use this too much. Video locks your children off in their own worlds. This can be useful for a short period, but if you rely on it for longer sessions, you may find it comes back to haunt you. Watching videos can bring on car sickness if children have the device on their laps. You will also have all the usual arguments about what to watch, only you’re less able to safely arbitrate from the front seat.
As an alternative, try audio books. Listening to a story is a more creative activity than watching a film; children’s imaginations and comprehension are stimulated in much the same way as if they are reading books. Plus, with an audio book, the entertainment becomes a family activity, which includes the driver. You can pause and discuss what’s coming next, who’s the funniest character and so on.
Don’t bother with those scaled down magnetic travel versions of games such as Ludo or Connect 4. Invariably the pieces get knocked off the board into the depths of the footwell, never to be seen again. An added side-effect is that children may then dive down to retrieve any lost bits and pieces, which could be dangerous in the event of a collision.
The old favourites of I-Spy, Car Spotter and the Word Association game will go down well, and can keep families entertained for ages if you ring the changes frequently and insert an element of competition into proceedings.
For children who need to fiddle – and even the most placid child can get antsy on long journeys – colouring, knitting, a Rubik’s cube or simple child sewing kits can help keep little hands busy. If all else fails – sing. As loudly as you can bear. See James Corden’s karaoke car pool on YouTube if you need inspiration.
Car journey sickness
If you have the slightest suspicion that a child may suffer from car sickness invest in some ‘seabands’. These clever wristbands, which come in both child and adult sizes, stimulate an acupressure point on the wrist which, stops you feeling sick. Do double-check that the bands are positioned correctly; if they’re even just a little bit off-centre, the effect will be lost.
Remember that very young children may not recognise the symptoms of car sickness as such, so keep an eye on them. Going unusually quiet, complaining of a tummy ache or even that they feel hungry, combined with a tell-tale pallor, are signs to stop the car immediately!
By using seabands in addition to regularly letting fresh air into the cabin and making sure the passenger can see the horizon, hopefully you can avoid this most unpleasant of travel side-effects. Travel sickness is especially alarming for little ones who may not have experienced vomiting before, and needless to say, cleaning out your car after such an episode is no way to start your holiday.
Break up the journey
The final important thing to remember is to plan regular breaks into your trip. You will need to stop more frequently with children, and this makes for a safer, more alert driver too. If you’re due a break but can’t immediately get off the motorway, refresh the atmosphere by switching from car games to listening to a story to singalongs to quiet time to snack time – and stop as soon as you get a chance.
The worst part of journey is when you’re using the Satnav to guide you to your hotel in an unfamiliar city. This is the moment when, children will generally get louder and more restless – at the same time the driver needs to concentrate. So save one of the atmosphere refreshers till last, and arrive at your destination in the minimum of fuss.
Enjoy the trip! And remember that by the time they’re teenagers they’ll probably sleep all the way anyway.