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When three small children are being shoe-horned into the back of a small saloon car at a ferry, shuttle or motorway terminal, surrounded by luggage, barely able to see above the bottom edge of the window, with at least a 12-hour day on the road ahead, the journey has all the the potential of a disaster. Careful planning, however, can avoid many problems and transform travelling with kids, if not exactly into a delight, then at least so that you no longer dread the prospect of the homeward leg.
Measure the intended journey in kiph – not kilometres per hour but kids per hour, that is, a realistic number of hours that children can be expected to travel without a break. Whatever figure you initially believe is feasible, divide it by two. Kiph is roughly half the optimum kilometre rate. There is a limit, a low one, to the number of hours children will tolerate being strapped in and compelled to sit in a car.
Motorway and autoroute services stops are for letting off steam, not to force children to find a new place to sit. Take sandwiches and plain snacks, and eat them during the journey, where they offer a welcome distraction and a much cheaper alternative to motorway food. At the service stop, order only cold drinks, preferably mineral water. Encourage the children to spend almost their whole time running around.
Afraid they may get lost? First, write your mobile number on each child’s forearm. Second, buy a set of walkie-talkies that work in France, one for you and one for each child. They are far cheaper than mobiles, have a considerable novelty value, and enable you to keep in contact with roving children over quite long distances.
Invest heavily in in-car entertainment. A portable CD player should be regarded as more or less essential, together with a large collection of CDs suitable for the particular age group or groups. Consider buying sing-along tapes, another ideal way to pass the time. Buy at least one audio cassette blockbuster that lasts for many hours. A popular example would be Stephen Fry reading one of the Harry Potter novels, often around 30 hours of tapes. This will not come cheap but when you come to calculate the acph (audio cassette per hour) price against the kilometres travelled without complaint, your only regret may be that you failed to buy several more.
Not all distractions require sophisticated technology. Books with lists of interesting things to look out for should remain the staple diet of car journeys but recently have become more difficult to find. In the 1990s Michelin sponsored a revival of the old I-Spy Books but they were not a commercial success. However, most are still available on Amazon for trivial sums. Particularly relevant are: I Spy on the Motorway, I Spy on a Ferry, and I Spy on a Car Journey in France.
Free up space in your car for your children by buying a roof rack. The Swedish manufacturer, Thule, makes aerodynamic roof boxes that are extremely easy to fit and one soft top model, the Ranger, that easily stows away when you do not need it – usually from the day you arrive at your villa until the day you leave for home.
Maximise your children’s sleeping hours. Consider starting your journey around 9 o’clock at night, when kids will be at, or close to, their bedtime. With luck, they will sleep for the majority of the trip, allowing you and your partner to take turns driving without interruptions. If they do wake up, small light sticks that can be bought in outdoor equipment stores often prove durable night time diversions. Alternatively, pack the car the previous night and begin your journey extremely early the next morning, as soon after 4 a.m. as possible. Wake the children gently, leave them in their pyjamas, and buckle them in. With luck, they will go back to sleep and you will be several hours into your journey before they surface.
Drive as though you are carrying a cargo of eggs. Children generally do not respond well to sudden turns, stops and starts, or to violent acceleration or braking. Coping with kids who are feeling unwell in a car can use up all the time you have gained by driving at high speed or overtaking other vehicles. Buy booster cushions so that children can see comfortably out of windows and into the front of the car. Good ventilation and/or air conditioning tends to reduce headaches and other symptoms that may force you into an unwanted and unplanned extra stop.
Try to plan your journey with military precision. If you propose to stop overnight at a hotel, always book the rooms in advance. Driving from one hotel to another on spec, only to be told repeatedly that each is full, will be bound to cause friction and complaints from the children. Make sure you have studied the map carefully in advance showing how to reach your chosen hotel. Arrive early, eat early, go to bed early and have an early breakfast. In the morning, fill the car up straightaway at the first petrol station you come to. Every hour you gain on the autoroute before 9 a.m. may just keep you ahead of the traffic jams and inevitable queues for petrol during peak summer weekends and avoid the frustration that children feel when a long journey seems about to become even longer.
Teenage children may be capable of travelling longer distances but often prove more vociferous in their complaints. Do not expect them to be grateful that you are including them in the family holiday, rather, be prepared to be told that they are doing you a favour and would prefer to be elsewhere with their friends. As teenagers’ degree of independence during the holiday is likely to depend on the amount of money you give them, try setting in advance a range of handouts on offer – the highest of which, of course, will allegedly depend on the degree of co-operation you receive during the journey. (No, of course this won’t work: these are teenagers, after all. They will behave badly and still get the maximum when you relent later.) And as the return journey is often even more trying because there is usually nothing to look forward to, consider visiting a theme park on the way back. You can find a review of each of the leading French theme parks in back editions of this newsletter, available on the dominiquesvillas.co.uk website.
From our May 2007 newsletter