I was contacted by one of the lovely people at RelayRides (a peer-to-peer car rental service with an expanding US airport rentals arm) asking about my favourite travel hacks. As expats with kids we travel, a lot, usually by plane. Our favourite way to travel, however, is to pile the family into our car and drive; and of course we like to make it as easy as possible.
We have been very lucky on two fronts, firstly all our children (now 8, 6 and 5 months) love the car and secondly we have always lived in places where we can drive to some amazing sights- by age 9 months we had already taken our son to 11 different countries in the car. Now we are based on Borneo we are looking forward to driving around Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei.
|Jump in a car and you can take your own little comforts everywhere.
Using our own car is, for us, an easy fix to travelling with young children. We don’t need to worry about lugging child seats everywhere for use in taxis and we don’t need to over limit what we can bring with us and, in some circumstances, our dogs can come too, even better we can charge our electronics while we drive. So here are our top tips for road trip travel hacks.
|Cars allow all the family to come...
Tent and camping equipment
We don’t typically plan our routes in any great detail or book rooms in advance. We like to point the car in a direction and drive, picking up a room when we get there. This usually works well as, if you turn up to a hotel with vacancies at 9pm it is usually possible to negotiate a reduction on the standard ‘walk in ‘ rates as they want to fill the rooms. We like to keep a tent with us though in case we can’t find a room and have to camp wild (much more comfortable than sleeping in the car) or sometimes alternating camping and hotels to save money but still have access to good, private, showers. Babies love camping – they seem to view the tent as a giant play pen, a place where everyone is on the same level.
|Babies love camping - this makes road trips easy!
Pop Up Cot
I hate travel cot/port-a-cribs they are usually anything but portable and pack down to be heavier and bulkier than my suitcase for a three week trip. If we are away with a small baby for a day or two we let them room in our bed but any longer and it is handy to have their own sleeping space. A pop up cot typically weighs about 2kg, packs down smaller than a dinner plate and can be used in a room, in a tent and as a shady play pen on the beach.
Cold Water Sterilizer and bottles
Not all destinations will have access to an electric mains or microwave so a cold water sterilizer is the perfect way to make sure any bottles are safe to use. We have a ‘lock n lock’ box that is completely water-tight, we leave it on the floor of the car to swap bottles in and out of throughout the day, it fits two so one can be in use/washed clean and the other kept sterile. The sterilizing solution is good to use for 24 hours before it needs to be refreshed. When our older two children were babies we had access to single cartons of pre-prepared formula milk which were sterile until opened and decanted into a bottle so we used those. For trips in Borneo with the new baby we will take a kettle that plugs into the car to make fresh formula.
|Kids can be comfortable and safe in their own car seat...
Audio Books and Music
We refuse to let the kids watch videos in the car – we have always used trips as a chance to chat and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes a little boredom can be a good thing - it makes them come up with all sorts of games to pass the time. An audio book is, however, a great way to help pass the time on a long motorway journeys and can help a driver keep going through a night time journey if everyone else is asleep. Our kids love the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling and all the Harry Potter books. Now our older kids are starting to enjoy different types of songs and music we get them to help us put together a playlist before we go anywhere – then we can all wind the windows down and belt out our favourite road tunes!
We usually rely on bottled water when we are out and about but we carry a powerful hand held filter (it claims to make raw sewage safe) in case we run out in the middle of the night.
|Cars take you everywhere - from a Kazakh resort...
I can always snap something on my ‘phone but our outdated iPhone 4’s do not have good cameras. I try to keep a point and click in my handbag. Having the car means that I can drag along my heavy but good quality DSLR, I keep it in the smugglers compartment so it is out of sight and take it out as and when I need it.
We have, so far, avoided getting a GPS – we try to pick up good maps for the countries we are going to and, if we need a specific address, we use the maps function on our ‘phones to search it out. This can sometimes go wrong. No good atlas is going to show you where you can park your over height car in Budapest (we spent three hours driving around looking for a hotel that had above ground parking) and a European Atlas is not going to have a road plan of a third tier regional Italian city showing how to not go the wrong way down a one way system. A few weeks ago I took some visitors to the capital of Brunei only, on getting to the outskirts, to remember the map was in the other car and we had no idea how to get from the ring road to the centre. Things like this always work out in the end, however, and are usually something to laugh about afterwards.
Small Buggy and a carrier
We like to make the kids walk as early as possible. When they are babies it can be helpful to have a small fold buggy that fits in foot well. We also keep a carrier (we like Baby Bjorns) in the car for trekking up mountains, through caves or into the jungle. When the kids get a bit older we use a back pack style carrier. This is really handy because there is space under the seat to put a cool-bag full of sandwiches. We try to dispense with a buggy as soon as possible – by the time our middle daughter was 18 months we spend five weeks driving round Europe without one. We used the carrier to help her out when she got tired but she walked a lot of the time all by herself – good training for her!
|A carrier helps when little feet get tired
A holiday is not a holiday without some good books to read. In years gone by we would have to devote a lot of space and weight to enough books to see us through a trip but these days we have kindles and iPads. I keep guidebooks on my kindle (and have them on the kindle app on my ‘phone to check when out and about). There are often some good free information apps with details about destinations and some of the museums in Europe have excellent free apps with information or audio guides on the exhibits (the Museum Cluny in Paris is a good example).
The kids are usually allowed to pack a few books, some colouring pencils and a diary (so they can keep a history of our trip). If we have an evening in a hotel we might let them watch a video on the iPad but they are usually too tired or, now they are older, want to read up about where they are going or have been. We talk about what we are planning to see or where we are planning to go and they are allowed (within reason) to add their requests into the mix. A few years ago when we were in Slovenia our son asked to try horse-riding so we found a stables that would let him have a go. When we were in Turkey our middle daughter asked to see ‘anywhere with carvings’. This helps the kids really enjoy their holidays and feel that they are getting as much out of them as we are.
|Having a car gives you the flexibility to let everyone do what they want.
Of course we pack prescription medicines but if we are traveling somewhere we might not be able to get child friendly medicines I will also pack some sachets of children’s paracetamol. Forgetting this can make for some interesting and frustrating experiences. Last year our daughter came down with tonsillitis in Bishkek and, of course, only spiked a fever late at night. When we went to get some calpol we realised that we had forgotten to pack it. The 24hr pharmacy had no children’s syrup available so we had to work out the correct dosage of paracetamol per kg. After that we had to split the adult tablets, grind them on a spoon and mix them with some juice. Luckily we were able to buy some kids syrup the next day.
Plug in Cool Box/ Picnic Basket
Each morning we will stop off at a convenience store and buy some bread rolls, cheese, ham etc and make up sandwiches for lunch, that way we don’t have to worry about tracking down somewhere to eat. We have a cool box that plugs into the car – this means that we can keep drinks and snacks like chocolate and fruit nice and cold for when we get back to the car after exploring something interesting. Post six months the babies have always just chewed on some of the bread or eaten a piece of soft-fruit or vegetable so we don’t need to worry about heavy jars of processed baby food, I usually wash the fruit then stick it in the sterilizing solution for a few minutes so we know it is safe to eat.
|Picnics are a perfect time to stretch legs...
Numbers for Emergency Services
While most countries in Europe/Eurasia will allow the emergency services to be accessed by 112 it does not work everywhere and some countries have different numbers for different services such as ambulance, fire, police etc. It is worth knowing the numbers for each country you are going to be in. 10 Years ago we were driving in Sweden when we witnessed a particularly nasty RTA between a car and an ambulance. Being first on the scene meant that we had not only to give assistance to the victims but also alert the emergency services.
|Roll on the Borneo Road Trips...
We have a holiday for Chinese New Year next week so we might drive somewhere to get away from Miri for a few days. We probably won’t take the tent but will have just about everything else with us.
Posted as part of the My Expat Family monthly blog link up. Visit the site to read more exciting expat blogs.