One minute we were driving through glorious sunshine, fields gleaming in the evening light, the next the air was thick and muggy, pitch black. As our car smashed through hammering rain, it was almost impossible to see. I gripped the steering wheel for dear life and pondered whether road tripping through the night across France had been the right call. (Having trialled the drive in the afternoon, I can now say with certainty that it was).
Our parents used to do the same night road trip with us when we were small. We figured our toddler had been training us up ever since she was born – drilling us through endless sleepless nights to make sure we were totally prepared for a 15 hour overnight drive that would transport her from Bristol to Dover, then Calais to Hossegor.
No stranger to long road trips, our 18-month old is generally a lovely passenger. However, there are occasions when it all goes wrong – be it overtiredness, boredom, hunger, projectile vomiting or some completely unfathomable reason. It is these journeys where, hungover to hell I have been forced to sing and sign every nursery rhyme in my repertoire. The occasions when I have spent several hours craning my neck back in the opposite direction to meet urgent toddler needs every two minutes – “do you want water? a snack? a book? are you too hot? what’s the matter darling? no you can’t get out of your chair, I can’t cuddle you now poppet, it’s ok I’ll get the bear you just purposefully dropped out of reach“…are what drove us to time our ferry arrival time with her evening sleep.
If you’re considering a long-distance road trip with a toddler here are my tips and tricks to make the journey a bit easier:
1. Do it overnight
The majority of toddlers, when placed in the car at 7pm will sleep through the night thanks to the lull of the car. You may face a couple of night awakenings when you have to swap drivers but these are pretty manageable. If you attempt the exact same drive in the day you face many many hours of non-stop child pacifying on your part. Even when they should be sleeping. And so should you.
2. Board the ferry from Dover to Calais
The ferry crossing from Dover to Calais is the quickest, cheapest and if you choose a ‘Flexi’ ticket you can jump on another ferry should you be earlier or later than the original booking. The downside is the Dover/Calais crossing is often the furthest from your end destination. There are plenty of other crossings from Portsmouth, Poole etc but these tend to be much longer, more expensive and often overnight, meaning you still have the issue of entertaining a toddler for a day’s drive.
3. Ferry vs. Plane
Going by ferry, in our experience, is significantly easier than flying with a toddler. No limit on fluids, no de-robing, x-rays or waiting for luggage to appear, no limit on using electronic devices and of course if you’re held up en route you can normally jump on the next boat. Plus the ferry makes the perfect wear-out zone for little legs – restaurants, family areas, a shop stocked with Peppa and plenty of breeze out on deck. You can also all snuggle up together and sleep on the floor should you happen to jump on the 02.40am crossing…
4. Plan what you’ll need for the actual journey and pack it separately
Bottles of milk, changes of clothes (for you and baby), nappies should all be singled out from your main luggage. Separate the items in advance into a ferry bag filled with things to entertain your toddler – stickers, snacks, playdo, books. Treat them to a couple of new toys/sticker/colouring books to keep interest high! Take food and drinks stored in a coolbag that you may want on your journey, but be aware that the ferry restaurants will not heat up any food you bring on board. You can always stock up on more along the way but you might not want to stop too soon if you’re on a roll!
5. Snacks are your friend
Healthy, unhealthy, unusual, whatever, snacks are worth their weight in gold on long drives with toddlers.
6. Pack light, but not too light
You have the car so make the most of it. Buying everything brand new when you get to your end destination can be expensive, so if you’re camping or staying in self-catering accommodation, load up with salt, pepper, toilet roll, tea, coffee, toys, bikes – things that will make your life easier when you arrive and save you an immediate trip to the supermarket.
7. Nap when your partner is driving
Once the little one is asleep (if they ever go to sleep!), maximise your snoozes as you’ll need to be as refreshed and alert as possible. You’ll also feel a LOT better the next day, when come 6am the little one is wide awake and ready to go. If you’re driving in Europe, the Peages can be a right pain as they normally loom out of the night just as you’re falling asleep so be aware you need to snatch sleep when you can get it.
8. Check if you can check in early
Most places don’t allow you to check in until the afternoon due to previous guest check out times and subsequent cleaning schedules. If you arrive well in advance it’s worth finding out if you’re accommodation could be ready early – they might take pity on you if they realise you’ve driven all night with a small child!
9. Take an iPad or DVD player or some kind of moving image device
I cannot stress this enough. Download some child-friendly movies and your little ones’s favourite CBeebies programmes from BBC iplayer in advance of your trip, it will buy you hours of childcare.
10. Pack wipes
Keep plenty of baby and Dettol wipes in the car. You will need them.
11. Invest in a SATNAV
Because really, why wouldn’t you. They make life soo much easier, reduce arguments between couples and of course, you can keep driving whilst your partner sleeps without having to wake them to navigate.
12. Give the kiddos what they want
Within reason of course, but if your child has been particularly well behaved, suffered hours in the car with little but your singing to entertain them and the promise of freedom at some incomprehensible future date, then just buy them that teddy they grow deeply attached to the instant they set foot in the service station.
13. Remember it’ll all be totally worth it
Think of those beaches, the glorious mountain views, the heat, the snow, the food, the holiday awaiting you at the end of the drive.
14. Bring their PJs
You won’t be able to do the full bedtime routine, but you can do bits of it to let them know it’s time for sleep. Take a travel sleeping bag (if not too warm), their PJs, their fave cuddly toy and read a book, then let the motion of the car do the rest!
What did you find worked for you? I’d love to hear your tips!