The ultimate family road trip (part 1)

All you need to know about campervans

When some friends of ours approached us about taking a campervan trip across most of New Zealand – driving from Christchurch up to Auckland – we weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into. We agreed nervously, keen to spend some time with our friends and our kids, but unsure of how driving 700km over seven days would play out with three young children (aged eight, six, and two and a half). We soon began referring to the trip as ‘the adventure of a lifetime’ – partially in jest as we weren’t sure that we (as parents) would make it out alive!

It turned out that we were nervous for nothing. Campervans, in my opinion, are not just doable with young kids, they’re ideal for young families. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to sell up and hit the road permanently, but travelling with kids while having ample leg room, all of your supplies, and constant access to food and facilities turned out to be quite handy – not to mention fun!

the-ultimate-family-road-trip-part-1-002Hiring a campervan – what you need to know

The only way we could afford to do this sort of trip was to hire a relocator. Relocators are campervans that have been driven to one city but are needed back in their city of origin. The hire company provides incentives to persuade people to drive them back, including a drastically reduced rate ($5 a day!), paying for the vehicle’s ferry crossing, etc. We hired ours through – an online booking site that lists the vehicles and the dates they’re available. It’s typical to not have a vehicle pop up for certain dates until three to four weeks before the hire date. In other words, if you can be patient, you can save a heap of money.

In our case, we got a six-berth campervan for $5 a day for four days. To stretch our trip to seven days, we booked the campervan for an extra three days (luckily at a reduced rate). Imoova also paid for the vehicle to cross the ferry, but we had to pay for our passenger crossings. We also paid for fuel, as well as a $100 road fee.

This seemed fairly reasonable as the camper was both our vehicle and our accommodation – plus a large portion of our entertainment (road trip!). Additional trip costs included food (you can save heaps by cooking your food in the camper), activities, paid campsites (we only paid for two nights of the six. The other nights were spent at freedom camping sites), and the flight from Auckland to Christchurch.

To help plan our trip, we used CamperMate – a free app that is truly a camper’s best mate. It contains detailed information on both paid and freedom campsites, plus locations of dumping sites, fresh water, petrol stations, public toilets, tourist attractions and so on. You can set it to send you notifications when you’re nearby these types of facilities, and it also lets you know about special deals.

the-ultimate-family-road-trip-part-1-003What is provided

Our campervan made for a pretty comfy trip. All towels, linen, duvets, and pillows were provided, as well as heaters, camping chairs and table, TV with DVD player, and a kitchen with all the mod cons – four-burner stove, oven, microwave, toaster, kettle, coffee plunger, and mini-fridge, plus all of your dishes, cutlery, and cooking utensils. Our camper also came with a built-in navigation system that could connect to our phones via Bluetooth, which is how we played our music. Of course all campervan models are different, so double check with the hire company to find out what’s provided.

As for bathing, there was a small but hot shower with good water pressure, as well as a chemical toilet for doing the necessary business. The toilet and waste water tanks needed to be emptied nearly every day. My husband happily took on these tasks in exchange for me changing any soiled nappies for the week (deal!). If emptying waste isn’t your idea of how to spend your week of holiday, then simply use the bathroom facilities at paid campsites instead.


What to pack

I’ve never been much of a camper, and I really wasn’t sure how to pack for a week on the road with kids. Our friends who had done this type of trip before gave us the advice to ‘pack for all seasons’, and Bob’s your uncle, they were right! During our seven day adventure we saw snow in Arthur’s Pass, rain in Wellington, sun and sand in Tauranga, and everything in between.

Additional items we were glad we brought were an umbrella, a first-aid kit, wet wipes, paper towels, hand soaps for the sinks, laundry soap, toiletries, a hair dryer, journals/activity books, some favourite DVDs, favourite toys/blankets for sleeping with, snacks, and music that the whole family could jam to. (I can’t stress that last one enough – happy, upbeat music can be a lifesaver when you’re 30 minutes from your destination and everyone is over it). And of course don’t forget the car seats if your children are young enough to require them.

the-ultimate-family-road-trip-part-1-004We made a controversial decision before the trip not to bring devices with us. Typically we take tablets with us when we travel, to give the kids something to do, and to bail us out of difficult situations (like someone having a melt-down at a restaurant). But a big reason we were taking this trip was so that we could all see New Zealand – not just the airports and major cities, but all of the beautiful in-between bits as well.

We didn’t want the kids (or ourselves) to miss it because they were too busy playing Minion Rush on the iPad. We made it fair and applied the rule to us as parents as well – we had our phones with us for directions and communication, but we saved any social media activity and texting for late at night when we were parked and the kids were sleeping. (Full disclosure – there was a TV and DVD player built into the campervan, which we used twice). I’m happy to report that after the first day, the kids got used to the lack of screen-time and just enjoyed the scenery along with us – counting cows, playing travel bingo and the ABC game, and colouring in. It was 2007 all over again!

games-yellow-article-bannerAbove all, bring your flexibility and sense of adventure. Things will occasionally not go according to plan – there will be surprises and last-minute changes, scraped knees, late nights, and early mornings. When travelling with kids, we’ve realised that it’s great to prepare for every scenario, but in the end you throw up your hands and go with the flow. After all, the unplanned adventures are some of the most memorable.

Read part 2 of this story here – The ultimate family road trip (part 2)