On the road
Most of our experiences and tips below are related to car travel, although much of it can be used for bus/taxi/coach travel too.
Regulations and restrictions
- All occupants of a car must be suitably restrained, and this most definitely includes children. Full regulations for infant and child car seats can be found be found at http://www.childcarseats.org.uk/index.htm
- If a rear-facing car seat is in the front seat, please turn OFF the airbag.
- Although other countries may have different rules and regulations, it is accepted that they will be relatively similar, if not stricter. For example, some countries forbid persons under the age of 12 sitting in a front seat, regardless of height. Therefore it is recommended that you ensure that there are suitable car seats at your destination. The above website also has a very comprehensive list of regulations in other countries. Please not that requirements can also change from state to state in America.
- If you are hiring a car having flown to a destination then you will need a child car seat. These can be hired from the car hire company but be aware that there are many different types of car seat. Long will I remember spending well over an hour in a Phoenix Airport car park trying to fit a strange looking infant car seat. We had opted to hire one as, to be totally honest, we will never put a car seat in the hold of an aircraft. So, there we were with an eight month old and, to be honest, not a clue. Now here’s the annoying bit, the car-hire assistant was not allowed to fit the seat, and the manual made no sense. In the end, just as the assistant offered to get a police officer to fit it for us (much to our embarrassment), a more familiar car seat was found - result, but something to keep in mind if hiring car seats.
- If you are likely to be using taxis on a regular basis for more than short journeys, it might be worth investing in a travel car seat as taxis are unlikely to carry one at all times. If you book in advance and mention the requirement most firms can try to have a car seat for you or alternatively you can now get foldable or inflatable car seats / booster seats.
Queues and waiting
- There is no doubt that traffic jams are a pain for adults. Add children into the mix and you have a nightmare. There is not much that can be done unfortunately, other than having a good selection of entertainment, if you unexpectedly end up in a jam or slow-moving traffic. One option in this situation would be to just pull off the road after experiencing it for long enough and let the kids run around, have some food etc. I find country pubs are good for this and stopping is important if you have a baby. Oh I remember the bored screams of a baby in a traffic jam – not at all pleasant. You will feel more refreshed for when you return to the traffic, it might even have cleared.
- If you plan ahead, it might be possible to escape heavy traffic, but not always. For example, we often use the A303, which is very busy at times with people off to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. We try to use the road at the times others don’t, such as earlier or later in the day, or timing it to be going in the opposite direction to the main traffic. Now that IP is at school this is not so easy, but it does seem to still apply, that the earlier or later in the day we travel the better.
- Some queues are unavoidable, such as at tollbooths and bridge crossings. Mercifully, these do not involve too long a wait. One trick we always try to do, it to have plenty of the local currency so that id a quick-drop facility is available, you can get through quicker. These queues tend to be shorter too, but just gauge at the time. We have generally found the French, German and American road systems to be quite free flowing. But there will always be exceptions and driving into any built-up are will be busier.
- Queues to get into a destination like a theme park or historic house will have queues during the peak season. These will be equally hyper and frustrating, depending on how your children cope with waiting to get into an exciting location.
- In a built-up area think about alternative modes of transport. Driving can be hectic and frustrating, especially in an unfamiliar city. We noticed this when we drove to a friends wedding in an American city. We thought we would keep the hire car and take a cheaper non-city-centre hotel. Big mistake as although the hotel was lovely, we felt it would have been easier (with an eight-month old) to be close to both our friends, the sights and the peace of our hotel room. Parking can also be a hassle in any unfamiliar city.
Our girls love going in London-taxis and we don’t have to get GG out of the pushchair, which is a bonus. Depending on the city, underground trains can be fun or stressful, some being easier than others. Buses are also a great alternative as children are sitting just that little bit higher and can see more. The only disadvantage to this is the likelihood of having to collapse a pushchair.
Food and Drink
- To a certain extent there are very little restrictions to what you can carry on the road. There are some draw backs though, the main limiters being; the available storage space; how messy something might be to eat; and the life & storage needs of an item, such as dairy products. A plug in coolbox can be good and we have had to do this in order to take goat’s milk around with us (IP is not good with cow’s milk).
- Children can get very messy, at the best of times, regardless of how clean the food you have given them should be! So, we would recommend investing in a number of cover items. One cover over the child car seat, one under the seat and one on the back of the driver/passenger seat in front. The latter may also offer storage for travel entertainment. Covers mean any mess will hopefully be contained, meaning you are able to shake it out and resume your journey. Even if the cover needs to be washed, this is easier than having to wipe clean the actual child seat and/or main car seat.
- Generally speaking, we prefer to give IP and GG just a drink in a car (in sealed straw cups) to limit the mess. We have to be aware though that they are not left with their drinks for too long as we then have a manic dash to the next services for the eldest to go to the toilet! This does mean that as parents, we can’t snack in the car either (unless they are asleep!), but that is not too bad as we have to stop roughly every 2-3 hours anyway.
- Regular stops will be needed when in a car. This is especially true of babies, when you will need to stop and get them out of their car seat every 2 hours maximum. Although it may sound like a real hassle, regular stops can benefit everyone. Planned well, it gives all the passengers a chance to stretch their legs and forms a perfect meal stop. When driving down through France, we have been impressed with most of the rest areas as they have small play areas for the girls to let off steam. Letting off steam at regular intervals definitely assists a more peaceful journey.
- While stopping in the UK is often restricted to service stations, you might also want to take into account picnic areas and sign-posted viewing points. If you have made a packed lunch or brought snacks, it can add to the fun of a journey.
- Service Stations in the UK are much improved, compared to 10 years ago, but can still be limited in what they offer. If the services have good standards in space and food (both quality and variety), this can also mean higher prices. Hey, they can’t stop you eating your own food there though, unless you blatantly do it in the middle of their restaurant of course!
- Oh, and finally – if your child is prone to car-sickness, refrain from giving them dairy or fatty foods prior to the journey. The old fashioned ‘sucking on a boiled sweet’ does seem to work if the child is old enough.
- There are a number of activities and entertainment methods that are possible in the car. For one, you don’t have the space/weight issue that you have when you are flying. But, you do have one major problem. By the very nature of a child being restrained, they are unable to pick up any bits they drop on the floor. When there are loose or small items, parents spend a lot of time reaching round to the rear footwells trying to locate ‘vital’ toy things. When you have car trays, or similar children’s headrest attachment, then losses are reduced a little.
- For babies - mobiles, mirrors and brightly coloured pictures that attach to windows or the car seat itself can be successful. Remember thought that they will need to sleep often and also need to be removed to have a kick about roughly every two hours.
- Very young children have limited attention spans and in our experience DVD players have had only limited success under the age of two. Instead we relied on water pens (Tomy’s Aquadoodle is one version), colouring (crayons and pencils only, with plenty of spares) and CDs (specifically nursery rhymes and songs).
- Older children are still likely to enjoy drawing, but will also have the concentration for an in-car DVD. It can be so nice when they get to this stage and you cease to have all the little questions. These systems are so good now that you can have twin screens showing the same or different DVDs, perfect if you have two very different children.
- We get IP and GG to pack their own little basket of things to entertain them on the journey. In it they will put pencils and crayons and paper. Each Christmas and birthday grandparents give them little books of plain paper (about A6 size) for them to draw and colour in. Recently we have moved to pencils and crayons that have little cartridges that pull out from the bottom and are pushed in at the top, so no more sharpening on the go, and each girl has the same.
- Other useful entertainment includes magnetic or electronic games for older children.
- Never underestimate old-fashioned games either. IP is just starting to learn to read and loves playing simple ‘eye spy’, which is great for her letter sounding.
- My final pointer would be to utilise the children’s sleep time as then less entertaining is required. We often head off straight after lunch so that GG (2 years) spends most of the journey sleeping. IP (4 years) has been known to drop too, which has been a welcome treat for Mr Alex and I (lovely uninterrupted conversation – bliss). You might want to make the most of time away by travelling just after the children’s tea. We often do this when returning from grandparent’s houses (about a three hour drive). The girls (in their night clothes, with a blanket and toy) have about an hour in the car awake and then slowly conk out. When we return home, we transfer them into their beds and then we are free to unload the car etc.
- Of course there are the safety factors related to children’s restraint, but don’t forget to put car-door child locks on.
- Baby view mirror – it may not strictly be considered a safety item, but it was an essential piece of equipment for us. Easy sight lines meant less stress when a baby is sleeping or crying, meaning more attention spend on the road.
- Sun protection. Even in the winter sun protection can be important, especially even in winter due to the low sun. For a number of years we played around with cheep sunblinds and freebie pop-up sunshades. These were good but not ideal and needed to be regularly re-positioned. So in the future I would go for a canopy over the car seat and/ or car-window sleeve style blinds.
- And remember….don’t push yourself to drive too long – this can be dangerous. Tiredness increased when you drive and when you have children, so be careful and no driving through the night. Remember that you still have to settle children and unload a car at the end of a journey, with children unlikely to give you a lie-in when you most want it!
Qualifications - Driving license held for 15 years.
Experience - Monthly road trips (on average) in the UK, with average journey time being 2.5 hours and up to two children ranging in age from zero to four. A 10 day road trip across Arizona and Nevada with an 8-month old baby. Annual drives down to the South of France from when GG was 3 months old.