12 February 2015

Travel Hacks for Road Trips with Small Kids

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!

Water Filter
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.

...to the palace in Budapest

A good atlas/ GPS/ travel APP
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.  
Seychelles Mama

Click  on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat


  1. You guys are AWESOME!! You've definitely got rod trips with kids down to a fine art! I love it! Your trips sound so cool. Seychelles, especially Praslin is not big enough for a road trip and your not actually allowed to go camping here but you definitely make it sound appealing!!
    I have to say, I think I need to start making Arthur walk more too after reading this. I just worry here as along the roads there are rarely any pavements!!!
    Thanks so much for linking this with #myexpatfamily

    1. Thanks! I know how annoying it can be when roads are so dangerous. Miri is not a pedestrian heaven. Can you walk on the beach? We go out most weekends to take the dogs on a long walk on a nearby beach. Our older dog is the limiting factor as she has less energy than she used to but we can get her to make about 6km.

  2. We're certainly looking forward to some road trips when we are in South Africa. St Lucia (like the Seychelles) was too small for long trips. The furthest we ever went was about 25 miles! So the girls haven't been good in cars for long journeys as they weren't used to it growing up. But now they have tablets and are older they can go for a lot longer - reading and listening to books, playing Minecraft or hangman, listening to music. I am SO glad the days of having to sing along to the Wheels on the Bus the whole way down the M5 are over...

    1. I bet South Africa will be awesome for Road Trips - all those reserves! Can you take your own car on to them. Years ago we went to a Safari Reserve in Nigeria and we could use our own car.
      British Roads are just too full. From when our middle daughter was two months I had to commute to another city for work (with the kids) 250 miles away. I would drive up on a Wednesday morning and down Saturday evening. 4 hours each way unless roadworks or an accident intervened. There were always delays! On the upside it did train the kids to be patient in the car. I made them listen to Radio 4 - they would hum the theme tunes to all the shows....

  3. True explorers! Love it :-) And yes I remember our pop up travel cot would go with us everywhere, it was amazingly useful. The kids now bring their own stuff to keep them occupied - mostly books, audio books, notebooks and pens and now their tablets. Have a fantastic time on your Chinese New Year adventure!

    1. Thanks. So much easier when they can entertain themselves isn't it!

  4. Awww amazing read! We love traveling & camping too. Even if its just to places around where we live but the tips here are so helpful for us as well =) #myexpatfamily

    1. It is such fun - am thinking about whether to let the older ones camp in the garden if the rain holds off.

  5. Wow... and I just love the fact that your car has a "smugglers compartment" :-)

    1. yup - under the boot were we keep the jacks etc but useful for keeping things out of sight. :)

  6. The more I read about you the more I think we have so much in common. We LOVE road trips and have done plenty. Living in southern Europe we are well placed for them. We also love camping and did a fantastic road trip with tents last summer in Iceland. I'm happy our kids are no longer in the bottle/nappy stage but we have been driving around Europe and Australia since they were that age and they are great car journeyers. We also held out as long as possible without a GPS as we love real maps but our newest car came with one built in (no choice). I must say as the navigator I do now get too see a bit more of the scenery than a map page now that we have it! But we still take a real map to get a feel of the lie of the land so to speak. All your tips are great ones and for anyone not experienced at road tripping this post is wonderful inspiration.

    1. Wow that does sound freakishly similar! I really want to go to Iceland. My husband has been about three times on school trips but I have not ever made it over. We want to take the car up through the Orkney's Shetlands and Faroes but we heard recently the ferrys no longer operate so will have to fly and rent.

  7. Wow, you are incredibly organised, this is a brilliant post! We have done a fair bit of travelling with the kids, but not quite so off the beaten track :) We had a fab lightweight travel cot (LittleLife Arc) and carriers and a back pack. Thankfully we don't need half the stuff now, which makes packing the car a lot easier. We do tend to pop some camping gear in, even just to be able to make a cup of tea on road :)

    1. Yes it was so much easier when the older two were done needing the 'kit'. I sometimes wonder what we let ourselves in for with number three 6 years after number two! We wouldn't be without her though :). We love travelling with the kids - something so magical about sharing the world with them and watching their experiences broaden their minds.

  8. I love that this post is both practical and inspiring! We've been talking for ages about how we really ought to go for a road/camping trip soon, etc. We will, we will! And I'll be sure to have a read of all of this again when we do ;-)

    1. Thanks for the kind comment! Enjoy your trip - we always love the planning (or lack of sometimes) as much as the trip. All the many options - it is so exciting....