Over the past years we’ve had our fair share of long road trips transversing Europe with young children- baby, toddler and pre-schooler aged.
Initially, with only one child or when Hugo was just a baby and Angelina was a toddler I had no concerns about driving across Europe as the lone adult with them (and our dog). Times have changed. I now aim to squeeze at least one other adult into the car for long trips.
Over the years we’ve tried different tactics to ease our trip; strategising over travel times and days. There are couple of general (common sense) things I consider in planning the drive. These make the trip so much easier!
My 6 top tips
(which I learnt through lots of trial and error, often through sweat and sometimes through tears.)
1. Avoid the ring roads in rush hour
Do you know which major cities are along the route? Avoid them and their ring roads like the plague (especially London’s M25) between 7 am and 9 am and 4pm and 7pm; If you are about to hit an outer ring, Périphérique, or whatever the evil road of traffic congestion hell is called, at these times, just pull aside at a rest place and spend the time having a nice relaxed meal and playing with the children instead of inching along in the traffic;
2. Travel on the weekend
If your schedule allows travel on the weekend. A lot of European motorways ban lorries on the weekends, this lowers the congestion on the roads, makes traffic flow slightly faster and makes even driving in the rain so much more pleasant. The disadvantage is the rest stops along the motorway get very full, often difficult to find a safe place to park even for a quick toilet break;
3. Check the calendar for your planned days on the road
Are there any national, regional or school holidays when you plan to pass through the country or specific region? It’s always worth checking when school holidays start in different countries, we’ve had friends stood on French motorways for hours on end, inching along at snail pace at most, mostly due to sheer volume of traffic. I have had to wait a couple of hours on border stops before for the same reason too;
4. Check what’s along your route- castles, lakes, museums, etc.
I have whizzed past the most amazing places year after year, only to be held up in some silly traffic jam a bit further down the road. Now I look at what is along my route, what’s worth making a shorter or longer stop for. Plan for nice places to stop for main meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner (and then be flexible to change these plans if the traffic or other circumstances dictate differently.)
5. Check the weather forecast
Both summer and winter have their own challenges. In the summer it’s no fun being stuck in the car in temperatures in excess of 30C (86F). Even with air-conditioning and window shades it can get very unpleasant (as we found out last year). It’s useful to have back up plans for detours- maybe opted for a longer, slower, but much cooler route that takes you through forests in the height of the day instead of on the motorway.
In the winter, snow and frosts, can make for a treacherous journey especially for those of us used to the generally benign British roads. The days are shorter, dressing up and down each time you get in and out of the car add to the time everything takes.
6. The MOST important tip: go with their routine
The most important consideration, in my opinion, is always to try to fit around the routine of your children. It makes life so much easier, everyone less cranky, the drive more pleasant. For me this means I try to drive, as much as possible, when the would naturally sleep- during the afternoon nap time, evening and night. (The roads are also quieter then too.) This gives me a relatively tiring, but peaceful drive. It really is worth it!
While my Littlins were in a buggy, I would leave Oxford at 8pm, hopefully missing traffic jams, transfer the sleeping children into buggy on the ferry, find a seat and have a nap myself, transfer them back into the car as we arrived and drive on. (The Eurotunnel would’ve been a great alternative, because you don’t have to get out at all, but it is also double the price of the ferry & gives less flexibility, so it hasn’t really been an option for us.)
Now, with the Littlins slightly older, we aim to leave home at 2-3 pm, a natural lull of the day. This gets us to miss the afternoon rush on the M25 and to Dover for about 6pm, which means we catch either the 6pm or the 8pm ferry depending on traffic.
On the ferry we go straight to the self-service restaurant and grab a warm meal.
After a quick meal we head over to the soft play area, where the Littlins have a run-around. When they are bored of this, as it’s not a big place, we have a wander around and maybe sit in the kids TV corner. In the summer, while it’s still light, it’s possible to go out onto the open deck. (Though this does freak me out- I’m too afraid of heights and the kids of course want to go to the edge. Yikes!)
The 2 hours is a perfect break! We get back into the car and drive on. The Littlins are generally asleep by the time we get onto the motorway from the port in Dunquerke and it’s a quiet drive through the bit of France, then onto the rest of Europe, depending on where our destination is.
Some of my extra tips on things to take
of things I learned through the years:
- always have spare clothes, but especially food, drinks and muslins AT HAND
- if you are breastfeeding have at least 2 extra tops at hand (not in a bag in the boot) and triple the amount of breastpads you normally use.
- I believe even breastfed babies will benefit from having a bottle of cooled, boiled water offered to them in the heat of summer. (I learnt the hard way: on one trip I added 3 hours to an already gruelling 12 hour drive, because the baby was crying- she was hot and bothered- and I had had a full let-down while looking for the next rest place and then not enough milk to satisfy her. I ended up asking- with hands and feet for the lack of any German knowledge- for a coffee spoon in a café and spooning her water.)
- if you have a car-sickness prone child teach them to throw up in a container (a travel sick bucket) as soon as possible. A little bucket with a muslin draped into it works very well- the muslin protects from the spashes. Little Miss mastered using the bucket at just over 2 years of age. (I have yet to figure out what to give and not give to stop her being sick, there seems no specific foods or drinks that make it worse.)
- dress children in comfy clothes with thin waistbands (so that doesn’t press). A number of thin layers is a good idea.
- the first time I had driven with my Littlins (then 3 years old and 16 months old) on my own in the winter I chose to drive in the daytime. With sub zero temperatures, I did not want to risk night time driving. I fear hitting black ice and not seeing where I end up. In anticipation, I’d invested in an in-car DVD player, (which I have only used a couple of times since). It was pretty good at keeping them occupied, but we did have to stop more often and each stop was minimum 30 minutes, which adds up on long journeys.
What are your tips for long distance driving with young children?
I’d love to hear your from you!
Image source: Pooperninny