Travelling with children

Anyone who has taken a long road trip with kids will agree that travelling with children is quite a challenge. It’s great fun for the first hour or so, but once they’ve eaten all the snacks and listened to the same song ten times over, boredom sets in fast – and that’s when the moaning and fidgeting begins

You can’t blame kids for getting restless in the car. Because they’re confined by seatbelts or car seats, they can’t stretch out, or turn over, or squeeze through the gap in the front seats to cuddle up on Mom’s lap. The only thing they really can do is complain. And they will – unless you take some easy steps to ensure their trip is happy, comfortable and – most of all – interesting. Unlike adults, children don’t share our ‘slothful sentiments’.

Travelling by bus or taxi allows children slightly more freedom of movement, but they’re still in a confined space, and it’s your job to make sure the little angels don’t get so over-active that they annoy the other passengers or, worse, distract the driver.

We have smart ideas for making sure everyone’s journey is a pleasure…


  • Travel when the kids are sleeping. It’s sensible to plan your trip so it coincides with a long sleep. This may mean leaving in the early morning, or beginning your trip in the late afternoon, when the kids are exhausted after a long day. With any luck, they’ll sleep through half the journey.
  • Plan ahead. Games, toys, activities and interesting snacks go a long way towards alleviating the boredom of a long road journey. It doesn’t take much effort to plan these in advance, and if you read on you’ll find plenty of creative strategies for keeping the kids happy and occupied throughout the trip.
  • Take a no-nonsense approach. Road safety is paramount, and what really matters is that the whole family arrives safely at your destination. Don’t be tempted to let your kids take off their seatbelts, wriggle out of their car seats or distract the driver, no matter how impossibly they are behaving. If things spiral out of control, pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so, and explain to the kids that you won’t get on the road again until they have settled down. It will also help to…
  • Choose stopping points with playgrounds. Most large filling stations on major routes have children’s playgrounds, which are an excellent place for the kids to blow off steam. Take along a frisbee, a soccer ball, a skipping rope or a bottle of bubble mixture for added enjoyment.
  • Don’t let the sun shine in. Remember to take along a towel or blanket for tucking into the window – this will prevent the sun from bothering or burning your child.


Part of the fun of a road trip is the great South African tradition of padkos – those interesting snacks and picnic foods that break the tedium of a journey, and which are remembered with so much fondness long after kids have grown into adults. Here are ideas for putting special effort into your padkos so you can create treasured family memories!

  • Avoid crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks, which will be gobbled up quickly, and have little nutritional value.
  • Instead, prepare a selection of delicious, wholesome snacks, creatively wrapped or packaged in small servings. Dish out these treats every now and then during the journey – not only will they satisfy the kids’ hunger, but they’ll also help keep boredom at bay!
  • If you’re travelling in summer, take along a cooler box for keeping the padkos chilled. If it’s a winter journey, don’t forget to pack a thermos flask filled with hot chocolate, cocoa, tea or soup.
  • Here are some time-honoured ideas for excellent padkos, including some interactive snacking ideas the kids will love:

    • Sandwiches cut into little triangles. Tasty fillings for kids’ sandwiches include grated cheese, thinly sliced cucumber, mashed pilchards or sardines, sliced ham, peanut butter, and shredded chicken or tuna mashed with mayo and NutriDay plain yoghurt. Make the sandwiches the night before, and pack them into lidded plastic boxes. Adding finely sliced iceberg lettuce to the boxes will help keep the sandwiches soft and fresh.
    • Small tubs of NutriDay yoghurt – remember to pack a few plastic spoons! For a special treat in summer, freeze the yoghurt tubs the night before you go to make refreshing ‘popsicles’.
    • Cubes of fresh fruit. Pile these into lunch boxes, or make fun fruit ‘kebabs’ by threading the cubes onto wooden skewers or toothpicks. If you’re planning to travel on a hot day, pop small fruits such as grapes, litchis and cherries into the freezer the night before. Frozen fresh fruit makes a delicious, interesting nibble!
    • If your kids are old enough to thread ‘kebabs’ themselves, give them each a lunch box filled with cubes of fruit, cheese, biltong, ham and sausage, pass around the toothpicks and encourage them to make their own snacks
    • Other good savoury snacks for road trips include hard-boiled eggs (wrap each one in tin foil), biltong, dried fruit, nuts, mini-meatballs and popcorn. How about cutting crunchy raw veggies into slim ‘sticks’ and serving them with a little tub of delicious tzatziki dip?
    • A large bottle of water is invaluable for quenching thirst and for quick clean ups. If you’re travelling in the heat of summer, fill a two-litre plastic cooldrink bottle with water and place it in the freezer the night before you leave – it will thaw slowly as the day warms up and ensure a steady supply of icy water.


  • Take along a packet of thick baby wipes for cleaning sticky hands and faces. A damp facecloth tucked into a zipping plastic bag works just as well.
  • Pack a few plastic shopping bags for storing rubbish, and for wet clothes and nappies.
  • Spread a large old towel or blanket over the entire back seat – this will catch spills, crumbs and toys, and can be easily shaken out when you reach the end of your journey.


  • Because kids love novelties and surprises, a clever approach is to take along a selection of small, interesting, inexpensive items they’ve never seen before, or toys they have forgotten about. Read our article for tips about hiding and recycling toys your kids have lost interest in.
  • Don’t give the kids all the toys at once. Rather bring them out at suitable intervals – say, every 150 km you travel. Alternatively, you can explain to them that once they settle down and behave, they’ll be rewarded with a new surprise. Save the best toys for last, when the journey seems as if it will never end.
  • Avoid toys that make a noise, anything hard and sharp, and toys with small, loose pieces that could be swallowed or get lost in the car.
  • Some ideas for toys: a pack of cards, puzzles, bubbles, magnets on a metal baking tray, big beads (or pasta shapes) for threading on a shoelace, colouring-in books, crayons, sticker books, paper dolls, bubble wrap for popping, bamboo fans, and mini magnetic board games such as Snakes & Ladders.
  • To prolong the enjoyment, wrap each toy in several layers of bright tissue paper (or use the comic pages from the Sunday papers).
  • If your child has a favourite soft toy, take it along for the ride. This is a good way of distracting him from stressful moments during the journey, especially if you put him in charge of looking after Teddy or Bunny’s welfare.
  • A long car trip is a great opportunity for kids to listen to wonderful stories. Borrow CDs or cassettes from friends, or download free children’s stories and podcasts from the Internet. You’ll find free downloads here and here.
  • Car games such as I Spy, Punch Buggy and 20 Questions are fun for the whole family. Click here for a list of 10 cool car games for kids!
  • If you’re travelling with older kids, use your road trip as an opportunity for learning!

    • Encourage the kids to be observant, and to ask questions about things they see along the road. Borrow a good illustrated reference book from your local library before you go (such the Reader’s Digest Book of the Great South African Outdoors or The Dorling Kindersley Big Book of Knowledge). These marvellous books contain fun facts about everything you’re likely to notice along the way, such as farm equipment, crops, wildlife, insects, birds, mountains, clouds and so on.
    • Provide each child with a scrapbook and a stick of glue so they can make a record of the trip. Encourage them to pick up souvenirs en route – for example, a feather picked up in a playground, or flowers and grasses from the roadside. If you’re heading out on holiday, keep the scrapbook going when you arrive at your destination so the kids have a visual record of their adventures.
    • The kids will also enjoy plotting your progress on a road map. Tuck a map into a plastic folder, and give the kids a coloured felt-tip pen so they can write notes on top of the map. Let them figure out where you are in the world!

Do YOU have top tips to share about making road trips fun for kids? Or any lovely memories of the padkos you enjoyed as a child? We’d love to hear them! Post a comment below, or share your experiences on our Facebook page.