Family holiday checklist: what to bring on a road trip with kids
We are heading off on a road trip around Europe this summer so I’m in the process of getting organised and deciding what to take. I’ve put together my findings in this post. It’s useful for me to have it written down so I hope it proves useful for you too. I’d be interested to hear what you would add to a family holiday checklist, let me know in the comments below if I’ve missed off anything vital!
General travel essentials for a family holiday checklist
This might all seem rather obvious. However, when I worked as a travel agent I was contacted on more than one occasion by customers who’d discovered their passports were out of date on their day of departure. Not only is it worth checking your passport validity some months prior to your trip, it’s also worth having an electronic back up of all of your travel documents. We tried to hire a golf buggy in Rome one summer and didn’t have our passports with us. Luckily we had copies on our phones which were accepted.
- Passports: check they’re in date
- travel insurance
- EHIC cards
- driving licences
- travel documents / tickets (we have PDF versions saved on our phones)
Family holiday checklist: road trip essentials for your car
Laws vary from country to country and will no doubt change from year to year so it’s worth checking with a reliable source such as the AA or RAC for the most up to date information. The AA has a country-by-country checklist which I found useful when planning our trip (France seems to have the most stringent laws). Meanwhile, the RAC sells European driving kits which include warning triangles, hi-vis vests and other essentials. There’s a special French version of the kit which includes a breathalyser kit. Here are the main things to pack when you’re taking your car to Europe:
- Reflective jackets for all passengers
- warning triangle
- first aid kit
- breathalyser (for France)
- GB sticker if your car does not have EU plates
- Headlight beam converters
Motorways in Europe
Motorway toll tag: if you’re driving on French, Spanish or Portuguese motorways, you can purchase an electronic tag which debits your bank account, meaning you don’t need to pay at the toll booth.
Motorway vignette: we were once fined for driving into Austria from Germany on a motorway without a vignette displayed in our windscreen. It’s now possible to buy the vignettes online but they are not immediately valid so we’ll buy ours locally this summer. Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland all require cars to display a vignette.
Family holiday checklist: a note on packing clothes
If we’re not flying, we pack clothes into holdalls as they squash into the car more effectively. I’ve also recently become a convert of packing cubes. These are particularly useful on a road trip if you’re just staying somewhere for one night and want to quickly grab a set of clothes for everyone: if each member of the family has their own colour coded packing cube everything can be located more efficiently (I’m not usually an efficient person).
Useful kit to keep handy in your car
It’s easy to fill the precious space in your car with unnecessary clutter but there are various items to add to a family holiday checklist which will make for a more pleasant journey. There are also various things which are essential to have close to hand rather than buried at the bottom of a suitcase. This is rather a long list, and no doubt I’ll struggle to have all of these things “to hand” but I guess some things will be more useful on certain days than others.
- Sick bag: one of my children suffers mild travel sickness if he hasn’t eaten breakfast when he gets in the car (on a 5am start to Cornwall or early trip to the airport). We’ll be finding out this summer whether this sickness extends to mountain hairpin bends so my son will have a plastic bag stashed close to him.
- Insulated water bottles: certain members of my family are becoming increasingly intolerant to drinking water which has spent too long in a hot car so I’m investing in some insulated water bottles to ensure that everyone stays hydrated (and doesn’t moan) this summer.
- Sun cream: it’s good to stash a bottle of sun cream in the car as well as in a beach bag in case you stop for an impromptu picnic or walk. I’m investing in Green People sun cream for me and the kids as the normal off the shelf stuff makes my hands itch.
- Bag with swimming gear including towels: on a road trip across Croatia one summer, the sea was so inviting that we kept stopping for a quick dip around every bend in the road. In the end we just drove around in our swimwear sitting on a towel but this might not be everyone’s cup of tea… Nowadays our towels and swimwear tend to take up residence on the parcel shelf which is a great place to dry them.
- Easy to access spare set of clothes for all: I once had an unfortunate incident at an airport with my then-baby’s nappy leaking onto my clothes. It’s easy to assume that just the kids need a spare set of clothes but since said incident I always pack a spare set for us all in the hand luggage for flights and for the boot of the car on road trips.
- Insect repellent and bite cream: it’s good to keep insect spray accessible in the car in case you go out for dinner before reaching your overnight accommodation and also have the sting relief cream handy in case you are bitten.
- Flip flops for all: my kids often kick their shoes and socks off in the car so it’s handy to have some footwear for them to quickly slip on if they need to nip to the loo at a service station or they want to dash off to the beach.
- Cloth tote bags: we tend to get a build up of banana skins and apple cores in our car. I’m not an advocate of using plastic bags (except for the sick bag) so I’m aiming to use a washable cloth bag for rubbish. I’ll also carry a few cloth bags for shopping trips and also for dirty laundry. If you’re stopping at a few different places for a night or two it’s useful to dump the build up of dirty laundry into one bag in the car so that when you reach somewhere with a washing machine you don’t have to sort through lots of bags to find the offending items.
- Torch: I haven’t needed a torch yet on my car travels but I keep one handy just in case.
- Paper map: I love paper maps but I fear I’m in an ever-decreasing minority. I reached for my paper map of Copenhagen in a bike hire shop recently and the assistant looked blankly at me and got out her phone to access Google maps. However, if you want to get an overview of your journey, there’s nothing quite like a big fold out map to plot your route.
- Spare coins: as with paper maps, this is less and less useful in our digital age but they do still come in handy. We got lost trying to drive out of Marrakech once and ended up paying someone on a moped a small amount to lead us out of the city, money well spent!
- Toothbrushes and paste for the kids: recently we’ve had a few occasions where we’ve inadvertently arrived home late and the kids have been fast asleep. The sleep deprivation I experienced in my early parenthood years has taught me not to wake a sleeping child so I’m aiming to be organised next time and brush the boys’ teeth before we set off. We’ve started using bamboo toothbrushes as an admittedly pathetic way to try to balance out the giant carbon footprints we create each day.
- Emergency snacks: no doubt all parents already know this, but it’s pretty essential to always have snacks handy for long journeys. I also pack emergency snacks for the grownups so that our children don’t have to witness the monsters that their parents become when it’s past our own mealtime.
- Phone cables: it’s a good idea to always keep a phone cable in the car. I’ve been guilty on more than one occasion of forgetting to unplug a cable when leaving a hotel…
- Rain jackets: my kids, like all little people, have tons of energy and they really don’t care if it’s raining so having the right clothing easily accessible in the car is essential to avoid a build up of that energy.
Entertaining children on a road trip
I’m a bit old fashioned. I’ve managed for the last eight years to avoid entertaining the kids with screens in the car. This year will be a real test as we have a couple of days of long drives. We’re taking tablets just in case but I’m hoping a mixture of audio books and favourite playlists along with traditional car games and interesting things to look at out of the window will see us through. I’ll report back in September on that one…
- Playlists: we’re slowly educating our kids on music from our own child/teen/adulthoods. There was a point a few years ago when I worried whether we’d ever graduate from listening to nursery rhymes but it does seem to have happened quite naturally. Our current favourite playlist includes contemporary pop songs like George Ezra’s Shotgun and Luis Fonsi’s Despacito mixed with songs by Bon Jovi and Nirvana plus the odd bit of classical music: the William Tell overture, the theme tune to Jaws; it’s amazing how many pieces of classical music work for children. If your kids are still big fans of nursery rhymes, I have a recommendation: I managed to drive for two hours with nothing but Sparky Songs to entertain the kids. Richard Larcombe, a musician and children’s entertainer has put together some brilliant CDs mixing classic nursery rhymes with his own music. My children still enjoy his rather violent rendition of Dr Foster Went to Gloucester…
- Audio books: I don’t care what people say about the joy of tablets on long journeys (but only because I haven’t introduced them yet), nothing beats passing time in the car than listening to a story. I loved Paddington and Secret Seven tapes as a child and my boys love Roald Dahl. Next up for us is David Walliams.
- Card games: I’ve invested in Uno but have yet to play it. We also have a few sets of Top Trumps: there are tons of different sets depending on your interests. I’ve bought football stars and racing cars for my boys. My brother swears by Plop Trumps (surprisingly educational animal poo-themed cards), there’s basically a set for any interest from Star Wars to the Lion King.
- We’ve recently been using Usbourne’s 50 things to do on a car journey which covers a really great range of games including Un-I-Spy (my five year old plays this very well as he keeps forgetting that you have to actually be able to spy the thing), the yes / no game where the player cannot say either of those words when answering questions and many more.
- Usborne sticker books: I love these books: cars, trains, Ancient Greeks and Shakespearean characters can all be brought to life in the form of an Usborne sticker book. They’ve saved us on several occasions in pubs and restaurants when we’re waiting for food to arrive.
- Scrap paper and pencil case with colouring supplies and scissors.
- Homemade holiday itinerary: my other half is in the process of making this. It’s going to include a daily information sheet of destinations, distances, things to look out for and a map of our daily route so that the kids are fully involved with each day’s itinerary. There’ll be a space for them to add their own notes (“this is boring” perhaps) or pictures each day.
- Tablets: so, I’m going to attempt to avoid using our tablets in the car. But just in case we get stuck in a traffic jam half way across the Alps, I’ll have these secretly stored for emergencies. Let’s see how long I last…
Other useful items to add to a family holiday checklist
- Cool box: this year we discovered a brilliant cool bag which keeps ice lollies frozen all day as well as raw meat reliably cold when we go camping. Unfortunately our cool bag is no longer available but the Hi Gear self inflating cool bag looks very similar.
- Large water storage bottle: this is a good idea if you know you’ll be in the car for a long old time and you’re not sure when you’ll be able to get hold of more water. It’s unlikely to be a problem on our trip in Europe but I do remember an occasion driving through a remote part of Argentina, rather low on fuel, and having to survive on a bag of cookies for what seemed like ages.
- Portable battery charger: my phone is ancient and its battery dies pretty swiftly so I’m glad we’ve invested in one of these devices. If you’re on a day out, not using your car and you’re taking tons of pictures on your elderly phone, it’s handy to have a charger.
- Plug converters: with so many things to plug in the wall, from insect repellent to phone chargers, I’m guessing most families need a few of these in their suitcase.
- Washing powder and washing up liquid: if you’re away for an extended period and you’re self catering it’s useful to have a small supply of washing powder for clothes in case your holiday accommodation doesn’t supply it. I’m also taking a small container of washing up liquid and a hand soap bar as we’re staying at more than one self catering location. If I’m staying in a hotel for one night I always think it’s a waste to open the bar of soap, so now I carry one with me.
- Reusable wipes: I’m as guilty as the next parent of disposing of countless baby-related rubbish over the years but I have managed to survive without using disposable wipes for quite some time now thanks to my stash of Cheeky Wipes. The kids will be using these in the car for mucky hands and faces and in the shower as face clothes. They also double as kitchen clothes if these haven’t been provided in self catering accommodation.
- Reusable beeswax wraps: I hate using clingfilm and it’s annoying when you self cater on holiday and have to buy a roll of the stuff and then abandon it a few days later. Beeswax wraps are a great alternative which can be reused countless times. I haven’t used cling film since I bought some about six months ago.
- Spare glasses / sunglasses / sun hats: the boys in my family have a habit of misplacing their sunhats so I’ll be packing a spare hat for each of them. One of my boys wears glasses so we’ll pack his spare pair. He’s also got some prescription sunglasses for the first time this summer so he’ll no longer be shortsighted on the beach in a normal pair of sunnies.
- Picnic essentials: we’re going to be doing lots of picnics on our trip this summer so I’m packing a few essentials including plates, cutlery (inc a sharp knife as these are always lacking in self catering accommodation) and a peeler.
- Photography: Instead of investing in a new camera for the kids, I’ve given them my old smartphone. It’s heavy and seems far less destructible than my current phone or a proper camera so the boys can be in charge of what they photograph and video.
- Toilet roll: this should be at the top of my list really…
If you’re packing for a flight rather than a road trip, the website Flying with a Baby is a brilliant resource. The section on tips for flying with a baby is particularly helpful.
And if you’re travelling within the UK, don’t set off without my bumper guide on where to stop just off the motorway with kids.
Looking for route ideas from England to Italy? I’ve written an article all about the various ways of driving to Italy from the UK.
Pin for later:
What do you have on your family holiday checklist?
Let me know what you would add to a family road trip packing list in the comments below.
Travelling across the UK? Make sure you read my guide on where to stop just off the motorway. It includes picnic spots, playgrounds, nature reserves, pubs and much more: add this to your family holiday checklist!