7 Tips for Driving Interstate With Kids (plus night vs day driving)

Our journey experience, pros and cons for driving during the day or night and tips for preparing, planning and packing.

We recently drove from Melbourne to Sydney (and back!) with our two children, aged 2.5 and 6 years old. It’s our first holiday as a complete family and our very first road trip with our kids.

First and most lasting impression of the trip is it’s a long drive. I understood before we left that driving interstate with kids was going to be a long drive – but it really IS A LONG drive.  With plenty of stops and breaks it was about a 12 hour from door to door. The Google Maps estimate of 8 hr 39 min was wildly misleading and our estimated time of arrival kept creeping further away as the journey progressed – but of course Google Maps doesn’t take into account numerous food, toilet, play and nap stops along the way.

Make sure you factor these essential stops into your own planning!

Just under 9 hours – it’s a lie!

Now that we’re back at home safe and sound, we’ve been discussing and reflecting on our journey, what worked well – what we’d do differently – and so I thought I’d share some of our insights from our journey:

Plan ahead: Not necessarily your entire trip planned out before you leave, but have an idea of what you might need in the next hour or two. Google Maps is extremely helpful for this; search “petrol stations” “Mcdonalds” “motel”  – whatever it is you might need coming up in your trip and scan ahead along your route. Even on major roads the amenities you’re looking for might not be directly along that road and it can be difficult once you’ve gone passed a turn off to turn around and find your way back.

Be flexible: A couple of times we had planned to stop at a particular town, but the kids were settled and happy in the back, so the co-pilot quickly worked out how far to the to the next possible stop and if we could get another hour behind us before stopping we would. (Unless we were exhausted, hungry, busting for the loo or needed to swap drivers)

Pack snacks: Not just junk food! As tempting as it is to just pack treats and sugary snacks  it’s a good idea to mix them up with real food – sandwiches, fruit, nuts etc. Don’t forget plenty of water for everyone in the car.

Pack toys, books, smartphones/tablets devices –anything: Because our children are 2.5 and 6 years old I gave them both a small back pack each in which they could pack their own toys for the car (exceptions were made for a couple of larger things that wouldn’t fit in their back packs, like a favourite doll and a large hard cover book). But that way they had a little bit of control and involvement in the whole process. Also by setting them a bag to back it’s also limited how much stuff they could bring in the car.

Get comfortable. Avoid packing things under your feet, or cramming in around your sides. Pack as lightly as possible to avoid too  much stuff in the car and aside from a bag of snacks, toys and anything you need immediate access to while driving avoid packing anything in the car – put it in the boot. “A cluttered house, a cluttered mind” also applies to driving.  (Hopefully you have a big enough boot!)

Be Insured. About an hour after leaving home my darling partner starts asking me when did we last pay for Road Side Assistance because it just occurred to him that our 12 months of coverage had just expired. We had comprehensive car insurance, but hadn’t renewed our road side assistance. For peace of mind check this BEFORE you leave.

Safely support kid heads while sleeping in the car. We did a lot of reading before the trip to find the best and safest solution to driving during while our children were asleep. Infasecure (who manufacture both our children’s car seats) provide some good advice about “Nodding off – falling forward in the car”. Against their advice we did try an after market product as well, but pulled over a very short distance into the trip to remove it because she wasn’t comfortable – and found we didn’t need it anyway. Not a very well spent $30.

Not impressed...
Not impressed…

Pros Driving During the Day:

  • It’s safer, we were driving during a time we would normally be awake, so we were more alert, because we weren’t interrupting our body clocks.
  • We had better visibility in daylight.
  • It’s more of an adventure for the whole family getting to see and experience new towns, different landscapes, we made a big deal about crossing the boarder and talking about the history of some of the places we drove through.
  • Most importantly – at the end of the day we all got to go to sleep in a proper bed (our OWN beds, as we drove during the day on the way home).

Cons Driving During the day:

  • We needed to stop frequently and for longer periods of time to allow the children to get out and run around.
  • It was more expensive because we did tend to stop and buy food a lot more along the way (For example: I had NO IDEA how expensive breakfast at McDonald’s was!)
  • Possible (probable/inevitable) tantrums driving for 12 hours, even with lengthy stops, with a 2 year old in the back. (Look at that sweet face… that’s the face of a toddler who just screamed the car down because she wanted to hold her brother’s hand – and he initially refused until we BEGGED him to PLEASE just hold his sister’s hand so she’ll stop screaming.)
Sweet as can be – as long as she gets her own way!

Pro Driving At Night:

  • The kids were quiet and slept for most of the drive to Sydney.
  • There was less traffic on the road.
  • Also less traffic meant there was no waiting for a petrol pump or queues at the food stops, despite being the beginning of the school holidays (Funnily enough there was a queue for a toilet at a petrol station just out of Gundagai at 2am! So either it was just an optimal toilet stop OR Gundagai has some serious night life we don’t know about!)
“The” toilet at Gundagai once the crowd had dissipated.

 Cons Driving at Night:

  • We were tired.
  • We drove more slowly and cautiously, because we were aware we were tired.
  • Despite not having to get the kids out to play we still took just as long to arrive at our destination, because we did still have to stop to rest and nap a couple of times.
  • Even though there’s less cars there are a lot more trucks on the road – as well as Kangaroos to look out for.
  • The kids have an unsettled sleep also. Around 3am our toddler woke wailing “I want my bed” – it broke my heart that I couldn’t give that to her.
  • Did I mention we were tired? Not just during the drive but for days afterwards. I was shattered. This is my face “Before” and “After” the 12 hour drive. I felt exactly how I looked – strung out and exhausted.
7pm – excited to be getting away!
7am - please just let me sleep!
7am – please just let me sleep!

No matter what, drive sensibly, rest often, be safe, stay alert to what’s going on around you and also aware of how your feeling physically and mentally – if you feel like you’re zoning out stop or swap drivers. If simply cannot go on, find a motel and check in – it’s better to arrive a day late than not at all, especially with the family in the car. (There are often 24 hour check in motels along or just off major roads like the Hume Hwy, work out approximately where they are before you leave and allow for an emergency stop-over in your budget.) 


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Rachel Stewart

Rachel is the founder of Parenting Central Australia. She is raising two children, boy and girl, with her partner.She has a background in early childhood education, but right now is content to be a stay at home mum.She is passionate about birthing rights, breastfeeding and mental health. She enjoys crafting, drinking coffee (sometimes wine) and spending a little too much time on Facebook.

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