Kids are not baggage – you can’t just sling them in the boot. I know because I’ve tried. A bored child can turn into an insufferable one when you are trapped together for hours in a claustrophobic car.
But don’t despair. Here are some of the ways you can prime their imaginations for a trip before you set off, and engage and entertain them on the road to ensure it runs smoothly.
Inspire them beforehand with films, books and songs
Stir their imaginations before you set off with films and books on classic or family road trips, or load them up onto your tablet or e-reader for the journey. And don't forget the power of song when spirits flag mid-journey.
What to watch
Entertain older teens en route with dysfunctional family journeys in What We Did On Our Holiday and Little Miss Sunshine. The cringe-making Aussie road trip antics of The Inbetweeners 2 may also amuse the more mature teen. For a shot of retro silliness, try the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies.
Play younger children RV starring the late Robin Williams. They may also enjoy Cars and Mr Bean’s Holiday. (Be careful they don’t start loading diners’ handbags with seafood in a copycat move.) Show them family unity on the road in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Thelma and Louise is an iconic movie to watch with teen daughters. And you could say that Star Trek is the ultimate road trip, if you substitute skyways for highways.
What to read
Those in their late teens might appreciate Keroauc’s On the Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Younger teens will thank you for John Green’s recent US road trip novel Paper Towns. Very little ones may have fun with Are We There Yet Daddy? by Virginia Walters or Norman Bridwell’s Clifford Takes a Trip. And you can always take the whole family on an imaginary road trip to Mordor with an audiobook of The Lord of the Rings. If car sickness is a concern, pack sick bags and set rules about reading on winding roads.
What to listen to
There are plenty of road trip compilations out there, but why not get creative yourself and establish a road trip soundtrack you can add to and reuse?
A family rendition (or 100) of Disney’s ‘It’s A Small World’ still features in all of our road trips, with the kids’ voices going from squeak to growl over the years. Tweens might like Rihanna’s ‘Shut Up and Drive’, while Springfield’s ‘Born to Run’, or ‘Born to Be Wild’ from Easy Rider might (for better or worse) get Dad singing. We find anything by Queen works; if they’re happy in the back then turn up ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and if it’s all going pear-shaped then ‘Bicycle Race’ might be more appropriate. ‘Hit the Road Jack’ and ‘(Get your kicks on) Route 66’ are, of course, essential.
Keeping them occupied and entertained en route
Giving older children roles and responsibilities keeps them busy when you're on the move. Assign the roles of navigator, mechanic, budget-keeper or translator, and practise these tasks before the trip; ask one of the kids to research hotels each morning and help their language skills by encouraging them to reserve a room.
Avoid outbursts and manage expectations by briefing passengers on how far you’ll be travelling and lengths between breaks. Play I spy or the yellow car game to pass the time. In Britain, tally up how many times you see an Eddie Stobart lorry. In Japan, play animal bollard bingo.
Forget your worries about screen hours. This is the one time you need them to be mad on Minecraft. Tech them up with a DS, iPad or whatever it takes. Buy a language package and learn together.
It helps to have a project. In the Faroes or Scandinavian countries knit a family-sized jumper. In Japan, write Haiku. Instagram your journey and set a daily competition with a prize; Haribos make an ideal international travelling companion and Chupa Chups are Spain’s finest invention. Sprinkle them liberally in the back.
Use their interests to your advantage
Excite the kids with a destination and trip theme that reflects their interests and ages.
- Dark arts: Drive the sets of The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, staying in a hobbit hole in Waitomo. Visit the locations of the Harry Potter films including Glenfinnan Viaduct and King’s Cross. Shake but don’t stir up the family on a Bond locations tour.
- Fine art: There are as many options for an art tour as there are clouds in the sky. Take a classic Grand Tour route of the past through France and Italy. Paint your way around Spain wearing fake moustaches, Dali style. An art theme is great for multigenerational travel; tantrums turned to tears of joy when my mother stood in front of Michelangelo’s David on an Italian road trip.
- Street art: Do your own street art drive-by. In Paris, many of the well-known mural walls change regularly and you can often catch artists with a can of spray paint in their hand. In Berlin, you can swap your own car briefly for a Trabant and be driven along the East Side Gallery. A driving tour of Belfast's murals is a good way to understand the politics.
- Fairy tales: A fairy-tale tour is great for any age as you can make it as spooky as your kids can take. Ours have taken us from the graves of the Brothers Grimm in Berlin to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum in Odense, where we dressed up as chickens. Like you do.
- Food: You can pretty much do your own food tour anywhere in the world. Consider Catalonia for its restaurants, street markets and paella cookery schools.
- History: Kids studying world history at secondary school might appreciate some holiday homework immersion; plan a WW1 trip through Flanders and Normandy.
- Geology: Our USA national parks road trip was packed with education about the formation of rock and ice. And for the first time we began to identify trees correctly. Meanwhile Iceland is a living, moving classroom.