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Tried and tested ways to survive long-distance car trips with children

By Clare Ringrose 6 min read

A few things can make the difference between a long-distance car trip being a living nightmare and mostly tolerable—even enjoyable.

We live in northern New Zealand, but I grew up much further down the island so a visit “home” is a big undertaking. It means a car trip of 10 to 11 hours, including stops. As our family has grown, flying has become cost prohibitive, so we’ve had to learn (often the hard way!) how to survive these journeys with our littlies in tow.

Long-distance car trips are enough to fill most parents with trepidation. As seasoned veterans with 14 years' experience, we’ve discovered a few things that can make the difference between it being a living nightmare and mostly tolerable—even enjoyable.

I still remember our first trip as a family: My oldest was 16 months. Being the organised type, I’d sorted everything, right down to the outfit my daughter was going to wear. And just in case, I’d packed extra clothes where they could be easily accessed. The first outfit lasted a mere 1.5 hours when she lost her breakfast all over it. Undeterred, I changed her into her spare clothes. That lasted until just before lunch, about the same time we discovered our child is prone to car sickness.

By the time we made our last stop before our final destination, my poor girl was shivering at the petrol station forecourt as I threw a rather grubby jumper over her singlet and nappy—that was all we had left!

This wasn’t all that went awry that first trip. Knowing my husband likes long car trips as much as visiting the dentist (and accordingly makes as few short stops as necessary), I had explained that this wasn’t going to be possible with a toddler. She would need time to stretch her legs and burn off energy. I envisaged this as an idyllic family stroll through a park. But hubby had a different view, and the result involved me chasing a bored toddler around a featureless piece of grass beside a railway line while hubby sat in the car wishing we would get this over with and drive again.

Fast forward to the next decade and our car trips are a lot less traumatic for all. We have found what works for us—mostly a happy middle ground that is quite different to what either of us pictured back in those early days.

So here’s a few lessons I’ve learned along the way, which I hope help your forays into long-distance travel with children go more smoothly than our first ones did!

1. Choose a travel time that works for you

Your travel time will depend on several factors. Shorter trips might be planned around nap times for your small person. Some parents swear by travelling at night—but only attempt this if you can guarantee the children will stay asleep and the driver will stay awake.

In our case, we can’t guarantee either, so we aim to go as soon as possible after we get up. Within half-an-hour of an early start, we are on our way (it does involve being super organised the night before). We pick up the children still asleep and put them straight into the car. While they rarely stay asleep, it takes them a while to properly “wake up” and eat breakfast. You’re half-an-hour down already!

One alternative to an all-day trip is to break it up with an overnight stop. There are pros and cons to this; it's all about weighing up what’s best for your situation.

2. Feed the noise

My philosophies on healthy eating and mealtimes go out the window on long-distance car rides. Eating is a great way for small people to pass the time! I pack an “all-day lunchbox”, which caters for breakfast and snacks, supplements the lunch we purchase en route and keeps growling tummies at bay as teatime approaches. Go for food that doesn’t make too much mess and will be eaten slowly. Think mini sandwiches, crackers, dried fruit, juice boxes, tiny-shaped biscuits and individual chip packets.

For lunch, we opt for fast food. Normally I’m not a fan of these places, but it's a rare treat for my children and in my opinion, that’s where these places come into their own. They are easily located on main routes, have relatively clean restrooms and—my personal favourite—a set menu, which means I can give them options long before we stop, giving them time to “lock in” their final choices before we reach the edge of town. When we arrive, one parent orders while the other finds a table and gets everyone seated, locates a highchair and begins feeding the baby if necessary. Optimal time utilisation!

If you want to save money or avoid them eating too much fast food, make sure they’ve had plenty of access to their lunchboxes before you get there and then buy them a small meal or snack.

3. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

During that first car trip, I spent much of the first portion trying to keep my little girl entertained, but I tired of it and soon discovered she was quite happy to look out the window—for a while at least. Of course, there will inevitably come a time when your children get bored, but if they’re happy, leave them to it. Save the entertainment for when it becomes absolutely necessary (which it will). Possible entertainment solutions include:

Music 

Vary your music. There’s only so much children’s music an adult can stand before wanting to throw themselves out the window of the moving vehicle! Broaden your children’s horizons—explain that we take turns choosing and you may find your children actually enjoy ABBA as much as you do!

Progress charts

Print a map of your journey and add landmarks along the way. Children add a sticker as they pass each one. This gives them a sense that they’re actually getting somewhere. For younger children, try a chart where they add a sticker when they see certain objects (e.g. bus, tractor, horse, etc)

Toys

Choose appropriate toys and dispatch them sparingly. Consider some small, cheap, new toys for novelty value. Beware of battery-operated toys with annoying repetitive sounds. These are probably best left at home (or at Grandma’s).

Car games

Oldies but goodies. Start with I Spy or First One to See. For older children, try something like Car Cricket. Or search for “road trip games” online for ideas.

Conversation​

It's a great time to chat about passing landmarks, giving them a bit of a geography or history lesson as you go. Or ask older children questions about careers, world events or ethical dilemmas.

Screen time

For many years I avoided this: I want my children to see their country and spend quality time with us during car rides. But we have resorted to a tablet loaded with movies for my son who really struggles with being stuck in the car all day. I have to admit it makes the day a lot more bearable for all concerned.

Pack thoughtfully

You don’t want to unload your car every time you stop. I aim to have everything for the journey packed inside the car and save the boot for suitcases. Things you’re likely to need en route include:

  • wallet, phone and charger

  • water bottles

  • food

  • nappy bag

  • carsick supplies

  • spare clothes

  • toys

  • raincoats or umbrellas

  • sunhats or sunscreen

For winter trips, I also give each child a small blanket. Unlike a jumper, they can add or remove them without undoing their seatbelt or carseat straps. Or use them to play games in or fold up and use as a pillow.

With younger children, most necessities can be stowed on the floor below their legs. By the time they are a bit lankier, you may not need things like nappy bags and toys.

A good habit is to check the ground around your car just before you leave each stop, in case anything has fallen out. You don’t want to get two hours down the road and discover the favourite teddy is still where you had lunch.

4. Car sickness

Keep them cool, ensure they have a good view out of the window and opt for as smooth a journey as possible. If your child is particularly prone to car sickness, it may be worth looking into medication for very long journeys.

While we are now able to avoid most incidents of car sickness, it still pays to be prepared. Pack lidded containers, wet wipes and spare clothes.

Survive . . . even thrive

Fourteen years on, my husband still hates long car trips. My four kids and I aren’t that keen on them either, but now, when we arrive at our destination, my thoughts are generally, That was exhausting but we did it! rather than dreading the return trip with utter terror.

Clare Ringrose is a busy full-time mum to four children, Amia (14), Vienna (11), Toby (8) and Zara (4). They live near Whangarei, New Zealand.