We’ve already driven from London to Lisbon 6 times and then back. 5 of those long drives with kids were with: a 3 months old; a 2 and a half year old and me pregnant; a 3 and a half year old and a 6 month old; a 4 year old and a 1 year old, and a 4 and a half year old with an 18 months old. So, I’m starting to feel more or less like a long-drives-with-kids-expert and here are my top tips for long drives with kids.
(Please note that what I’m describing as a long trip is a drive that include overnight stays along the way)
I’ve written a few things on the subject when my eldest was 3 months on this post, but 5 years later feel I have things to add now. Especially now that I have two kids in the car and we’ve done quite a few more of these.
Let go of your pre-trip anxiety!
“Sure Millia, such an easy thing to do!”
You’re right, it’s not. Please don’t give up on me straight away.
I can’t sugar-coat this trip as easy because it isn’t . It is tiring and there will always be moments in which you will question your life choices.
The first trip will always end with a “I’m never doing this again!” (usually out of your partner’s mouth – especially if he’s a male in a heterosexual relationship). The second trip probably ends with the same phrase. And by the third you’re both like “this is actually quite ok”.
I also still get anxious before the trips and I do so on any kind of trip (flying or driving). My main reason is my hate of packing. On driving trips I’m always worried about how will the kids cope, how tired we’ll all get and whether I don’t have enough clothing, enough food or enough entertainment for them.
But what I’ve been finding is that the trips end up never being as hard as I had anticipated. One needs to be flexible of course, but generally kids will most likely surprise you.
And as for things we bring, I always pack way to many clothing options, I always have more than enough snacks (as of course I add snacks along the way in the stops we make), and the kids don’t need as much entertainment as we think they do. Also, as long as you have your passport and bank card with you (supposing you have some money in the bank or a credit card, of course), you can always get back home or buy what you forgot/need along the way.
I find that these long trips actually help the kids learn to be bored and eventually enjoy boredom. And they also a way to spend more time with us, so it allows for extra bonding and extra chatting (lots of extra chatting if your kid is already verbal).
Kids also tend to behave differently in a long trip. They might start by asking a “are we almost there?” in the first hour of the trip (my eldest started one of our trips asking that question every 5 minutes for the first 2 hours) but they will get on to being interested in the entertainment you brought and what is going on around them. Otherwise they’ll simply start having conversations with you, singing along to the music and (the best part) sleeping.
The only exception to my “it’s never as hard as you anticipate” is that you will be as tired as you imagine you will be. Especially on the last leg of the journey, where the roads seem to never get to your final destination and that last hour seems to never end.
Useful things to have in the car
These are general items that I cannot live without when traveling by car. Some items are quite obvious, some have affiliate links and I’ve explained why for each of them.
- A car journey travel bag – As in a bag separate from the holiday luggage with changes of clothes for the whole family for the length of the car journey. This bag includes pyjamas, toothbrushes and necessaire, comfortable extra clothing for the car trip, socks and underwear for the whole family. It’s a very useful bag to access should there be an “accident” with liquids or food, and “accidents” with body fluids of any source (you know, kids!). It helps to avoid having to dismantle the whole Tetris that allowed everything to fit in the car and the panic of having to go through the full luggage to find pants for the eldest. It is really handy when in the hotel room because it’s easier to find what everyone needs. It’s just one bag and it serves everyone. Ours is in this style of bag (that can be folded when not in use – ours is our favourite travel bag).
- A bagpack with electronics – sometimes you might drive through a city and decide you want to go to a restaurant. Having it all in a bagpack makes it easier to take it with you so that it’s safe in case you car gets burgled. But please always be mindful of pickpockets and always make sure the bag is secure even if it’s with you.
- A couple of plastic bags to use as a bin – The “oldfashion” supermarket style or a small bin bags even, it needs to be malleable enough so that it is easy to tuck on the side of the front passenger legs or door.
- A plastic bag with no holes for sick – yep, it can happen… Better prepared than sorry. I’ve been considering these for our next trip.
- A pack of baby wipes – for hands and faces, any brand you like will do
- A pack of Antibacterial wipes – for anything that needs to be cleaned in the car (or the outdoor tables you might sit at for lunch – we all know how kids eat and how dirty does tables are)
- A large box of tissue paper – I find it handier than the small pocket tissue bag, but those pocket bags are easier to fit around the car. A box usually lasts a little longer, it’s quicker to grab and sometimes we know that speed is necessary when it comes to snot.
- A pack of paper napkins – Sometimes McDonalds will forget to give you those in your drive trough order (and yes, you will eventually end up in one just because it’s so convenient, quick and it exists everywhere) and tissue paper does not do the same job. These are small and usually enough to get the job done as napkins. But I really like this pack of disposable hand towels as they’re multipurpose.
- An antibacterial hand spray – for when there’s no toilets around or before lunches/dinners in the car. We use this Ineos one as with kids it’s so handy just to spray their hands (but also for us adults). It’s very compact and fits in the middle console of the car. I also carry these super handy thin soaps everywhere, they look like sheets of paper but they’re soap, love them.
- Hand moisturizer and lip balm – it’s only when I’m driving that I notice the state of my hands. We always have this Fast drying Neutrogena moisturiser in the car (the last thing one needs is a stressed car owner looking at the moisturised fingerprints on the driving wheel). As for lip balm, any of your preference works, I recommend it because with air con they dry up really quick.
All them snacks
The first thing my kids say even before I strap them into their chairs varies between two of the following sentences: “Mum. I’m hungry!!!” or “Mum, I want a snack”. So no matter how long we travel for, I always have a small bag of snacks next to the passenger’s feet.
For both short and long trips I keep that smaller bag on mine or my husband’s feet for an easy grab with a variety of options and a couple of nesting boxes in it to serve throughout the trip (something like this or like this). It needs to have a lid in case they don’t want to eat it all straight away, so it can be closed off for later.
For the long trips we also have a Soft Cool Picnic bag (ours is from Sainsbury’s) for all the extra snacks for the rest of the trip (and save some of the favourites for the trip back). This bag needs to be a soft one so that it fits ideally right in the middle of the car, right behind the front seats. It’s handy to be accessible from the front seats and out of everyone’s way. I also have a small Cool bag for yoghurts for the first day and fruit. Please throw away any excess yoghurts for the next days. We’ve learnt from that mistake (and we didn’t have any sick bags available… Yeah… Fun…)
Don’t forget to pack snacks for the adults too! And a couple of caffeinated or energy drinks.
Also remember a couple of favourite sweets and chocolates, to help in those moments that you’re tired of either the driving or the kids. Especially the kids. But don’t forget to eat them sneakily. You don’t want to share those. If you’re not willing to share those, have a snack the kids hate at hand to pretend that’s what you’re eating. You can thank me later. #winkwink
To keep hydrated we have each their own botte of water that is filled at the start of the day. We always keep a 1.5 or 2L Bottle at hand inside the car for refills throughout the day and then have a couple of more of those in the back, next to the rest of the luggage.
We don’t pack lunches/dinners but if you’re a picnic type of person, pack it for the first day only as the cold packs will not last longer. And you honestly want to avoid sick kids. And adults, for that matter.
Kids entertainment and useful items
I’m in the process of creating a separate post with some of our favourite entertainment we’ve taken for our kids, but I want to give some generic tips on this.
- Favourite toys – most played toys will always be played with. For my son it’s cars for example.
- Some new toys/games/books – so that they have fresh interests during their trip
- Toys that are fairly self contained – so you’re not constantly hearing cries and whining that X thing is out of reach and fell through the “cracks” of the car.
- Neck support for naps – no matter how good their chair might be, they will sleep a lot in it. Keep them in a reachable location for whoever is on the passenger seat. I’d also add one for you. It has been very handy.
- Travel tray for each kid over 18 months – they’re great for both containing their play and eating in the car. We have this green one and this blue one (it also exists in pink) and it’s in the car all year long.
- Blankets – Whether it’s summer or winter, bring a blanket for each kid (another item we always keep in the car) and also keep it within reach. Some nights get chilly and inside the car the air con might not be at the right temperature for every one of you.
- Foot rest – If your kid is forward facing and his/her feet are dangling in the air, you could get a foot rest accessory. Apart from a quite expensive one, I haven’t yet found anything good/practical enough. So we put a bag/backpack at their feet so that they can rest their feet on – the kids will be stepping on in and kicking it, so make sure that nothing in it breaks.
- iPad with downloaded favourite shows – they need to be available offline. Even if the device can be used on roaming, it’s best to have lots of downloaded offline options for when the internet is scarce. For some sanity, I think headphones are essential. These are the ones we have.
- Music playlists – a couple of playlists with music they like and kids friendly tunes of your own is highly important. Also downloaded into both your phones (ideally shared between you on Spotify, for example) so that you can add songs to it along the trip if you feel like it and it can automatically show up on the connected phone (should internet be available at the time).
- A contained toys and books location – if you have space in between seats, I love this car organiser as it fits all their stuff, it can safely be strapped in with the car’s seatbelt and both kids can easily reach it. Otherwise, a backpack for each kid (which you can also be strapped to the seatbelt) works.
Extra road trip advice
- Download offline maps on Google Maps – internet might be unavailable in certain locations and offline maps will always bring you to your destination, despite not being able to give you the quickest or best route to it.
- Playlists and podcasts are essential – I know I mentioned them for the kids, but honestly, they truly help a driver. It helps me stay awake when I’m tired and give me extra energy to reach the destination. Don’t underestimate it.
- Bring a coffee mug from home – there’s a lot of service stations that don’t have covers for their takeaway hot drinks. If you need hot water for formula, bring a water thermos – you can always ask for free boiled water in most serviced stations and hotels.
- Washing up liquid + tea towel – This feels odd at first, but it is quite important, especially if you still give them milk in bottles – and I think it’s always handy irrespective. Pack a small plastic bag (a resealable freezer bag) with a small container for washing up liquid, a small sponge and if you use it a small bottle brush. I make do with the sponge as my kids are older but for babies you need to clean things better. And then a tea towel is handy to clean it. I use it to wash the kid milk bottle, our coffee mugs, the water bottles and cutlery.
- A cutlery set – For some of you it might seem unnecessary, but I forgot it on my last trip and was in need of it. Maybe I’m just odd but I don’t really like the wooden flimsy cutlery, so having a set of knife, fork and spoon for everyone is really helpful. You will also most likely forget to ask for cutlery at some point and then it might be tricky to eat your food without it.
- If you’re starting to feel really tired take a real break – We have once stopped and slept for an hour because none of us was in a state to continue the trip. Stop at a safe place with good visibility and a quick getaway route should something happen. If you’re just tired but good enough to keep going, it should go without saying, but stop at the gas station and get coffee, new savoury snacks and sweets or energy drinks with you. And please don’t overestimate your tiredness.
- Make use of the kids sleeping hours – If you can, travel bits of your trip during natural sleeping times for your kids. Both of my kids sleep in the afternoon, so we travel during that time and also travel up to 12pm. We’re not early birds, so this is the schedule that works best for us. For my brother, the best time for him and his family is leaving at 4 am as his kid will sleep until at least 8am.
- Check and book hotels in advance – We usually book things the day or couple of days before and so far it’s been fairly ok. During COVID times it was easier as you could just show up, but from a recent situation we got in (no hotels in the whole city due to a major conference), I definitely recommend booking at least 24h in advance, as you can then adjust your route should a city be majorly overbooked.
- Check fuel/energy levels at around 7/8pm – If you’re traveling past that time it’s always best to fuel up around that time. It saves the stress of services closed earlier than you expect or the next stop not being available due to roadworks. Again, one learns by experience. For those on electric vehicles, we have noticed that sometimes they don’t have them available at service stations that technically have them, so always play it safe and stop on a prior than planned option.
- Count on more breaks than you’re predicting – and also for them to be longer than you’d hope for. Let the kids run and play, they need to be let lose on these breaks. We tend to stop every 2-3 hours, usually for 30 minutes to an hour. Saying that we have had to stop 3 times in an hour and a half once. Count those estimated breaks into your driving estimations. It of course depends on the kids personalities, how often they need toilet breaks and how much you make use of their natural sleeping cycles, but a 6 hours drive with small kids very easily turns into a 10 hours day.
I have a lot of information in my head (as you can probably tell, it never ends… Hahaha), so I have decided to break up everything else I can advise you with into other posts. Please find the links below (please note some of these are a work in progress at the time of posting this, so if you find the link is not yet active either sign up for the blog updates or save it and come back to it later – I intend to finish them very soon):
- Important documents when traveling through Europe: a checklist
- Best Toys for long drives with kids
- Tips for driving through France
- Tips for driving through Spain
- Tips for driving through Portugal
I hope these tips and advices were very useful to you.
Please comment on this post if there’s anything else you need to know or you’d like to see another post about.