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Top tips for surviving (& enjoying!) a road trip with kids

With road trips ever-popular, keeping the kids happy in the car during long trips is crucial. ANGELA SAURINE shares her tips to keep the kids entertained on Australian road trips.

toddler tints window shades
Toddler Tints window shades

We all have memories of long road trips from our own childhood. In those days, they were often in station wagons with no air-conditioning — a killer on hot summer days — with families playing rudimentary games like I Spy for entertainment. With international borders closed, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the idea of germ-infested planes and airports and fears of sudden border closures putting many people off flying domestically, today’s generation of children is also (unexpectedly) getting to experience the joys of road trips, en masse. But while they are great for family bonding, getting through them is an art. “Road trips are a terrific way to spend some quality time with the family, explore your own backyard and create life-long memories,” Choice Hotels spokeswoman Kari Hunter says. “They provide excellent adventures for the kids and are a cost-effective way to explore the country. They are great fun for kids, but to ensure they stay entertained in the car we recommend packing colouring books, pencils and paper and even downloading some travel apps that are packed with games.”

ABC Kids listen has some great podcasts for pre-school aged children, including Story Salad, Short & Curly, News Time and Imagine This. The Disney Magic of Storytelling is also a great podcast, and there’s even a Sesame Street podcast you can download before your trip. Switch between listening to podcasts and playing music. I have various playlists saved in my phone, and usually start with one of ‘adult’ songs that my two-year-old son also likes (and don’t contain any swearing). When that no longer works and he starts getting antsy, I turn to kids’ music, such as The Wiggles and silly songs, for the last hour or two.

I’m lucky (so far) in that my son is still having naps, so I always try to loosely time my trip around them, and not travel too far in one day. Four or five hours seems to be about the most we can handle, with at least one long stop to eat lunch and break up the drive. I think the ‘stop, revive, survive’ guide of taking breaks every two hours is a good one — it’s important for drivers to have a rest, but also good for kids to know there’s a stop coming up soon and for them to stretch their legs. Make the trip about the journey as much as the destination. There are so many cute towns, beaches and picnic spots to explore en route, so don’t rush. Pack a picnic lunch in an esky, or do some research about what’s along the way and check out a cool café. This way you are also helping regional businesses, at a time when they really need it.

Having new toys on hand, even if they are small, cheap ones like Matchbox cars, is a good way to engage them when they start getting bored. You can even consider putting birthday and Christmas presents aside and saving them for your next road trip. Spread them out throughout the journey.

Portable DVD players and iPads are great for older kids – this isn’t the time to be concerned about screen time, it’s about survival! But make sure you allow plenty of time for games first, including, yes, good old I Spy, as well as number plate games. It’s also a nice time to take the opportunity to talk about memories of road trips from your own childhood or tell stories about parents met, for example.    

toddler tint mystical mermaid car shade
Toddler Tint mystical mermaid car shade

When it comes to gadgets, consider buying a backseat organiser so kids can store their drink bottle, toys, books, pencils and anything else they might want. Sunshades that can slip over the window in the back seat can reduce heat and glare (and help them sleep!). There are a few funky ones with vibrant patterns available, such as Toddler Tints and Baby Got Shade. Kids neck pillows can also make sleeping in the care more comfortable.

THE FEEL GOOD FAMILY’S TOP TIPS

the feel good family at stanley in tasmania
The Feel Good Family at Stanley in Tasmania

Katie and Paul Guerin have been on the road, living in their caravan with their now four-year-old son Jasper, since late 2019. Known as The Feel Good Family, they have covered 35,000km of the country’s east coast for their YouTube series Family Travel Australia, and plan to head to South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia this year. “Being on a road trip with no end date means that adaptability, flexibility and choosing your battles are daily activities,” Katie says. “But with that comes the opportunity to all grow together and become more open minded and open hearted.”

the feel good family at trinity islands in queensland
The Feel Good Family at Trinity Islands in Queensland

Their main advice is to have plenty of healthy snacks and options for keeping the kids entertained and happy. “We find that on travel days, towing the van to a new destination, Jasper is a non-stop eating machine, probably because he is strapped in his car seat and not outside running around and playing,” Katie says. “Having your road trip food prepared and ready to go not only means you’ll keep the family satisfied and have plenty of options, you’ll also be reaching for a much healthier alternative to what you can pick up at a service station. It’s also a great idea to have forward planned your dinner meal and, at every opportunity, make sure to ask your kids ‘Do you need a wee?’ before buckling them in.”

the feel good family on the fraser coast
The Feel Good Family on the Fraser Coast

The family’s road trip essentials include a mini diffuser and essential oils to keep them feeling calm and happy, and a minipresso so they can make a great morning coffee on the road. “For Jasper, we love the Disney electronic readers, and an absolute must is our Apple Music subscription,” Katie says. “I Spy has only just started on our road trips, but a game we love that Jasper created is called Name This Tune. He hums a song (normally something from The Wiggles or Frozen) and we take it in turns to guess what it is. A correct guess gives you the opportunity to hum your favourite tune (as long as it’s something from The Wiggles or Frozen!).”

the feel good family at winton in outback queensland
The Feel Good Family at Winton in Outback Queensland

Katie’s advice for any other family considering a lengthy road trip is to go for it. “With international travel still so unknown there is no better time to get out and explore our incredible country,” she says. “These experiences not only provide a rich education for our children, they will also form some of their most treasured memories, whose value will truly be appreciated when they themselves are parents. Life is not a rehearsal! The best gift you can give to your children and yourself is spending time together making memories that will last a lifetime.”

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