Mother-of-two and keen road tripper Megan Wood shares her tips for enjoying long drives with young kids and how to plan for those inevitable mishaps
Twelve hours from Sydney to Byron Bay? Done that. Ten hours from Auckland to Wellington? Yes, that too. Having embarked on many long and ambitious road trips with my children I have experienced it all, from picture-perfect moments to flat tyres, nappy-related disasters and motion sickness. When children are involved it pays to expect the unexpected, things will go wrong, but with a little preparation everyone will arrive at their destination, sanity intact.
Screens are great, in fact they are a must, but whatever you do don't rely on them as your only source of entertainment. Tablets run out of charge, phones go through black spots and younger kids will drive you crazy every five minutes asking you to fix something or help them find what they are looking for. Have a back-up plan and mix-up the entertainment with podcasts, colouring books and pencils, and other small (and non-messy) games.
When I was a kid, my brothers and I would play I Spy type games. One of our favourites was "spot the service station, although the lustre soon wore off for my brothers as I had by far the best eyesight and won every game. The concept is a good one though - simple games such as I Spy or variations like "spot the red cars" work really well on younger children. If your kids aren't spelling yet, "I spy something that's the colour ... " works a treat.
Plan to make twice as many stops as you would if you didn't have kids with you. Two hours at a time is more than enough, unless they are asleep or you have quiet, angelic offspring. Come up with a plan of towns that are conveniently placed for a stop and check if there is a park or playground there for burning off some energy.
If you are going on a long trip with overnight stops, make sure you have them booked in advance and let your kids know how far to go until you get there - it is always easier to wait if you know there is an end in sight.
This may sound really obvious but make sure you know where you are going. I mistakenly entrusted the navigation to someone I shouldn't have when my second child was only 2 months old and suffice to say I found out the hard way that if you are travelling from Rotorua to Auckland, going via Tauranga is not the fastest route. With a screaming newborn in the backseat, being lost is not ideal.
This is essentially bribery, I am not going to lie, but it works. Before you leave on your trip, visit the toy shop. We are not looking for longevity here - stock up on small toys and other distractions that are under $5 and stash them in a bag that you can keep handy. After each of your pit stops, offer one of the toys to your child as a little "gift" and they will be much more willing to get back in the car and it will keep them occupied, even if for only a little while.
Heading back from Wellington to Auckland one year with my son, then 4, I splurged on some Hot Wheels cars at a convenience store and they were the only thing that got us through the last two hours of driving without a full-blown meltdown.
Pack a chilly bin full of drinks, snacks, fruit, sandwiches and anything else your child might desire on the way there. Never rely on finding food along the way and most parents know the window between hungry and hangry is very small. Keep the chilly bin somewhere really handy like on the floor in the back seat, because a hungry child is not a patient child, and you don't want to have to unpack everything when hunger hits.
Expect the worst
What can go wrong, will go wrong. Another eventful road trip saw us get a flat tyre on State Highway 1 heading south and while we were trying to reassure our hysterical kids that we did actually know how to change a tyre, a family pulled up next to us, offered to help and pretty much changed it for us while we distracted our grumpy children. To that family, I am eternally grateful.
Fill the tank, get a service done on your car before you leave, make sure they check that your spare tyre is in good condition and you have a jack and socket wrench in the boot. Just in case.
Oh no . . .
Have some towels and wipes handy, you never know when you might need them. One road trip saw my son and I stop off for an impromptu swim when we saw a stunning beach, another saw him succumb to some really bad motion sickness. If you suspect your child might get a bit green around the gills on the windy roads, try to keep them off screens, keep the windows down, stop even more often than planned, and consider preventative medications - they can work wonders.
Despite all the dramas, I love road trips with my kids. My whole crew is heading north just after Christmas and I can't wait. If you can enjoy the trip as much as the destination, the holiday starts as soon as you leave home.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com