How to travel with children without losing the plot?
Like most of my parenting journey, I learnt the hard way how to travel with children.
We’ve certainly had moments on our trips that we’d all prefer to forget. For example, when they were babies and we had food poisoning from a questionable chicken burger on our way to a wedding in Queensland. And when we moved to the USA — six flights in 56 hours with three children under five, and no sleep!
On our way home several years later, we traveled through the Rocky Mountains and danced with real live American Indians. We went to Universal Studios and screamed on the Jurassic Park ride. And we visited Mickey Mouse at Disneyland – where our four year old whacked him on his nose! Ouch!
We did things we never dreamed we’d do.
Yet, six months later, our children announced that their favourite place in the whole wide world was Lake Bonney Caravan Park, a couple of hour’s drive from our home in Adelaide. And their favourite ‘theme park’ was the Monash playground, a free community playground in the Riverland.
Family trips became one of our favourite things to do
and we’ve had fewer of those ‘moments’ since we’ve learnt to simplify and enjoy the journey.
On one of our trips, the six of us traveled to Queensland in our Tarago–without a trailer or roof rack. Many caravan parks now have camp kitchens, so we no longer have to take our own barbecue or gas bottle, tables, chairs, saucepans and kettles. On that trip we packed two very cheap tents, and limited each passenger to a back-pack and a handbag-sized bag, a gym-mat, pillow, polar-fleece blanket and quilt cover (without the quilt).
We relied completely on what the towns between Adelaide and Brisbane had for us to do and eat. We figured that they needed our business more than the big supermarkets back home did.
So we got to taste the bakery food in every town, and checked out community centres and local landmarks. In Coonabarabran, for instance, there was a really neat planetarium, where our seven-year-old astounded us with his questions about particular constellations. We had a great trip of over 7000 kilometres.
Perhaps we’ve missed some of the more famous spots along the way.
But we’ve learnt to have fun, discovered all sorts of surprises and enjoyed the diversity of interests in our family. And the kids have stored up enough silly stories about their parents to write their own novel.
Tips we’ve learnt along the way:
. Treat the whole journey as an adventure.
Don’t try to travel too far in one day with little kids. Take your time, even if you need to take an extra day to get there.
Stop every couple of hours, at least, to break up your trip, stretch legs, wear off energy, find a toilet and perhaps, change seats.
Even a pile of stones or a creek on the side of the road can turn into an adventure. More than likely, your kids will remember the tiniest thing you did along the way — as long as they had time to spend with you.
. Pack a ball or Frisbee and find the local playgrounds. Most towns have an oval or sports park. Botanic gardens and national parks are usually cheap places to visit, and they have all sorts of adventures in store for kids (of all ages).
. Have the children participate in the planning. Get some maps or ‘trip-tix’ from your automobile association, information from the internet or library, and help the children to plan and anticipate the trip. On the way, help them to follow the roads on the maps, and look for interesting landmarks such as Big Koalas, old buildings and airstrips.
. Save your sanity! As parents of little children you still need to cater, cook, wash and clean, even when on holiday.
Aim for simplicity. Is it necessary to have a big holiday far away while your children are really little? Could you get the same benefit from having a more relaxed time somewhere closer?
Is your destination family-friendly? Could you be less ambitious about how far you will travel on the first day? Is it possible to get the kids looked after while you pack? Could you spend a whole day just relaxing when you get to your first destination? Can you plan to have a day to chill when you arrive home, so you’re not exhausted when you return to work and school?
We discovered that the most stress came from just getting going.
Our parents/grandparents live an hour away. So sometimes we stay there on our first night, just so we’re on the road – then have an early start from there the next morning. With a box of cereal, a long-life milk, (and a stainless-steel coffee plunger) we head off before anyone is ready for breakfast, and stop for brekky somewhere further along the road.
. Keep a list of travel games in the glovebox: ‘I spy’, ‘Car cricket’*, ‘Animal, vegetable or mineral?’ Borrow audio books from your local library or download them onto a phone, or stock up on the CDs your kids like to listen to. Make sure they are not your most ‘unfavourite’.
. What about a scrapbook? Keep a glue stick handy to incorporate collections you make along the way: tickets, pressed flowers and leaves. Have pencils/felt-tip pens on hand for kids to ‘journal’ — even a two-year-old can ‘draw’ his trip, while a school-age child can write a diary. Remember, like the trip, it’s not the destination or end result that is always the most important.
. Keep bottles of water in the car and a picnic kit in the boot or in your luggage, with a plate and a knife, and a jar of Vegemite or peanut butter. Lunch can be as simple as purchasing a loaf of fresh bread at the local bakery and making fresh sandwiches at the local playground, saving money for entrances to zoos and theme parks and for accommodation. A bottle of water and a roll of good quality paper-towel makes great wipes for sticky fingers and faces.
. A trip to the local supermarket for a roasted chicken, a bag of salad and some bread rolls makes a quick, nutritious and relatively inexpensive meal for a family. It’s easy to pack to take to theme parks or to eat when you arrive at your destination. And it really helps the cook to enjoy the holiday!
Pack a bag of apples, bananas or oranges for healthy ‘fast’ food. Freeze long-life milk or drinks to keep your esky (cool-box) cool, and to keep the little ones hydrated, cool and busy for a while.
. Children don’t tend to appreciate the value of your money. While Disneyland might have been your life-long dream, that does not oblige your child to appreciate its monetary value. The simple things in life are often the best.
. Give your children their own spending money, or even better, help them to save for the occasion. Then allow them the freedom to spend ‘their’ money and learn its value. It’s also an effective technique for stopping the
We found this worked when we stopped for an ice-block too. We told the kids they could choose an ice-block up to x-amount. (As the kids have grown older and gone on their own adventures, our ice-blocks have been replaced by coffee.)
. Teach your children protective behaviour.
Teach them to speak politely and respectfully to new people, but be aware of their safety and security: Not to tell anyone their name, or where they live. And to not go with anyone other than their family.
DO NOT put their name on their hat, t-shirt, bag etc. in a place where it is visible.
Teach your child to stand still if they are lost in a crowd, so that those they’ve lost can retrace their steps to find them. If someone else wants to help them, teach your child to stay still and ask the person to bring mum or dad to where they are.
Children should especially learn that ‘if you can’t see Mummy, Mummy can’t see you’. Practice at home, and get them to also practice saying ‘NO’ really loudly.
. Keep a list of what to pack, so that you don’t keep forgetting the same thing, such as the hammer to bash in the tent pegs. (No prizes for guessing why I know that one).
. Plan for your trip home too. Don’t be like me. On our first trip I had all sorts of activities for the way to Brisbane, but forgot about the trip home. Oops!
You might like to send some postcards to your home address to remind you of your trip. Or take lots of photos and put a book together as a keepsake. How about getting the kids to design a ‘slide-show’ – using music and narration, when they get home. Or keep a private Facebook page or use Instagram especially for your trip.
. Treat the whole trip as the adventure. So a caravan park an hour away can become as much a treat for your children as Disneyland. (Ain’t that the truth?)
. Finally, remember that
‘Happiness is not the destination; it is a way of traveling’.
Originally published in 'The Lutheran' magazine, March 2008.