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Buckle up: 10 tips for road trips

Parenting Place tips for road trips

There's nothing like a road trip for some quality family bonding time. Hours and hours squished into a moving vehicle... it's an adventure alright! Road trips with kids can be daunting, but with some careful planning and stashing, you'll be making memories for all the right reasons.

1. Make the most of nap time

Many a wise parent will time their travel to coincide with kids' nap times. Some families even try the 'leave really early... like 5AM!' strategy. I can't speak from experience on this one, but the theory is that the roads are quieter, the kids are quieter (they may even fall back to sleep) and by morning tea, you might already be nearly there.

2. Keep all the essentials close at hand

Pack plenty of snacks and water bottles – more than you think you'll need. (And grab a rubbish bag for all the debris.) You could stagger the snacks, say one snack every 50 kms or so. Or you could pre-package individual snack boxes for each child so they can self-serve. (This may of course backfire, especially if you leave home at 5AM and they don't go back to sleep but instead eat all of their food before you've got anywhere.)

Keep a survival kit of travel essentials handy in the front – wipes, plastic bags, hand towels, paracetamol and plasters all packed into an ice cream container. (If you can't imagine what the ice cream container is for, just take the kids on a few more road trips...)

3. Stash some surprises

Have a stash of small toys handy with you in the front, ready to pass back when boredom calls. Toys your kids haven’t played with for a while will help hold their attention, and if you can throw in some new little surprises you'll get even more mileage.

4. Plan for lots of stops

Break up the journey with a stop every couple of hours at least to stretch legs and 'spend a penny', as my granny would say. Have an idea of some of the things you’ll see along the journey and tell the kids what to look out for – “We’re stopping for our next break when you see a giant gumboot/carrot/sheep/kiwifruit/apricot/trout/soda bottle or a particular sign for such-and-such town…”

You could give kids a map and tell them where your planned stops will be so they can follow the journey. If your kids have devices at the ready, you could challenge them to Google a fun fact about some of the places you'll pass through, or find a good reason to stop at certain towns. Biggest ice creams? Best pies?

Maybe give your kids a ‘Pit Stop’ pass or two each. If they see something they want to take a closer look at, then you’ll stop and check it out. Adults can have some too if you like. I seem to remember my mum had an unlimited supply of "let's stop and do that bush walk" passes whenever we went on road trips...

We’re stopping for our next break when you see a giant gumboot, carrot, sheep, kiwifruit, apricot, trout, soda bottle...

5. Play car games

Most of us will resort to some sort of digital entertainment on road trips, but it pays to hold off as long as you can and encourage plenty of good old-fashioned looking out the window. Games like 20 Questions, Car Cricket, Spotto, Tractor, I Spy and Road Trip Bingo are great ways to do that (plus looking out the window is helpful to keep carsickness at bay).

6. Listen to stories

Audio entertainment, like audio books and podcasts, is an absolute win because everyone can tune in and listen, while looking out the window at the same time. Depending on the length of the trip, you could get the whole family enthralled in some wonderful chapter books and listen through from start to finish.

Car trips are also great opportunities to talk, especially with our older kids. There's less pressure than with face-to-face conversations – you can just look out the window if things get too awkward, which our tweens and teens will likely appreciate. Keep it light, share a story or two, and throw out some questions – you never know where conversation might lead to. To give you a headstart, Parenting Place has created Chatter Box – a series of fantastic conversation starters. There are questions for the whole family, for teens and for couples.

7. Create a family road trip playlist

Everyone gets a say as to what songs go on the playlist, and you can enjoy one another’s choices while you wait for your favourites to play.

8. Get crafty

Obviously glitter and glue sticks are not coming with you, but some other carefully selected craft supplies can keep kids entertained in the car. Pipe cleaners, tinfoil for modelling, little whiteboards with dry-erase markers and sticker books all work well en route.

It will be tricky to keep teens off their screens, and while we recommend scheduling in some screen-free time for conversation and road-trip games (you’re never too old to spot horses), you could also empower your teens to put their devices to good use and further engage them in the journey.

9. Give teenagers a job

Involve your teenagers in the planning of the trip, and invite them to contribute to the itinerary. Lure them with food! Give them the task of researching places to eat along the way – they can assess reviews, find their favourite cuisine and calculate mileage between pit stops. If there are other places of interest to them along the way, make an effort to stop – it might be a speciality shop they’ve heard of, the scene of a famous (infamous!?) event or a location from Lord of the Rings.

Navigation, photography, social media documentation… all can be achieved using the devices your teens will have no doubt packed in their backpack or pockets. Reality is, it will be tricky to keep teenagers off their screens on a long road trip, and while we recommend scheduling in some screen-free time for conversation, road-trip games (you’re never too old to spot horses) or simply gazing out the window, you could also empower your teens to put their devices to good use and further engage them in the journey. Swap around who gets to ride shotgun – and the person in the front seat is responsible for navigation. Teens can also document the trip with photography and video. There’s no better way to see the holiday through your young person’s eyes than by following the journey on their Instagram or Snapchat stories!

10. Take your time

It’s all about the journey, not the destination. Okay, so that may be a slight exaggeration... but the point is, the journey doesn’t have to be merely endured – it can actually be enjoyed! The journey itself is a huge part of any family adventure, and where many of our kids' holiday memories will be made.

Travelling anywhere has the potential to be an enriching experience – even in a car! Yes, flying would get you to your destination much faster, but the slower pace of a road trip has its advantages. You can stop in interesting places, you can have picnics in fun playgrounds, you can look out the window and count how many horses you see… The trick to making the most of road trips is to have fun along the way. Allow plenty of time so you can enjoy going with the flow and keep ETAs just that – an estimate.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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