How to Travel by RV With Kids -- and Actually Enjoy It
When some child-free friends invited my family of three to go RVing around New Zealand's North Island, I was apprehensive. Would my then 9-month-old daughter tolerate sitting in the car for hours on end? Would facilities in the campsites be suitable for a baby? Would my partner and I actually have a good time, or just spend the trip feeling stressed? And would it be the last time our friends asked us to travel with them -- ever?
But I'm always up for a challenge — especially a travel challenge — so we took them up on the offer. With that experience under our belts, here are a few tips for RVing with kids -- and actually enjoying it!
Choosing a Vehicle
Our priority when choosing an RV was the cost -- low cost, that is. We hired a vehicle that could sleep four adults, since our daughter was used to sharing a bed with me and her dad anyway. There were no onboard bathroom or kitchen facilities, but our friends had some simple cooking equipment.
If you're on a larger budget you can get some really comfortable RVs that are self-contained with toilets, showers and kitchen facilities. Despite sounding great, and probably being very comfortable, these hotels on wheels aren't necessary to have a good time. (Though if you want to live in the RV and travel full-time, those things are a great idea.) Unless you have older kids, you're probably unlikely to be RVing into the real wilderness to places where there aren't well-equipped campsites. We stayed at campsites that had toilets, showers, cooking and even laundry facilities (with the exception of one night, where we only had long-drop toilets and cold running water -- we used our friends' camp stove that night). Even if we'd had a better-equipped vehicle with all the modern conveniences, we probably wouldn't have used them most of the time.
We brought our own car seat to fit into one of the back seats of the RV, since we had requested one with the correct anchor points when booking. However, I wasn't happy with the way our seat fit into the vehicle, so we ended up renting one from the RV rental company for a low fee.
Our vehicle only had two back seats and could seat three adults in the front (including the driver). This allowed either me or my husband to sit in the back and entertain our daughter when she wasn't sleeping, as she definitely wouldn't have been happy sitting in the back by herself without being able to see one of us. If you have multiple kids who need car seats, you may need to do some calling or Googling around to find the right vehicle for your needs.
If money is tight and your schedule is flexible, find out how to rent an RV this summer for only $1 a day.
Keep Your Schedule Flexible
We were traveling around New Zealand's North Island and had a few places we wanted to visit but no set itinerary. My daughter was still sleeping a lot, so we tried to time the longer stretches of driving when she would be most likely to nap (late morning and mid-afternoon). Most days we would drive for a couple of hours, stop at an attraction, have lunch and then drive for another couple of hours in the afternoon, reaching our campsite in the late afternoon.
We didn't consider our adventure a "road trip" -- if we had, we might have been disappointed or frustrated by the lack of distance we covered. But by shifting our expectations, we all had a great time.
If you want to travel by RV with kids, it may be best to stick around your own backyard until they can tolerate more car time. Luckily for us, our backyard is pretty spectacular: Our itinerary included the outer areas of Auckland, Rotorua, Taupo, Matamata (of "Lord of the Rings" fame), Raglan and the King Country.
It's also a good idea to ditch any firm routines, or at least relax them. Our friend commented on how well our daughter was doing with a change in her routine -- but to be honest, we aren't the kind of parents to have concrete routines. Our lack of military precision proved very handy when it came to RV travel. She slept when she needed to, ate when we did and had a few swimming pool "baths" throughout the week. (Do kids really need to bathe every single day?)
Avoid Peak Travel Seasons
One factor that really helped with our play-it-by-ear approach was that we were traveling outside peak season. If we had been traveling during the peak summer season, we would have had to book some campsites in advance, which would have restricted our flexibility. (Here's are some tips for traveling to America's national parks during the shoulder season.) Even if you have to travel during peak season, try to head the direction everyone else isn't -- here are a few ideas.
Treat Yourself to a Hotel or Cabin One Night
Traveling with kids can be exhausting under any circumstances. Consider breaking up your RV trip with a night in a hotel or a cabin in a campground. We dropped by my sister's house en route, and enjoyed sleeping in proper beds and luxuriating in full-size showers with a door that went all the way to the floor. Another night, in Taupo, we stayed at a really upmarket campsite with heated floors and piped music in the bathrooms plus an onsite geothermal spa complex.
Packing Tips for RV
If you have older kids, or just want more space, consider bringing a tent. The sleeping quarters can be tight in RVs — even quite luxurious ones. If the weather's good, the older kids might like to sleep in a tent beside the van. You could even switch things up and put a parent and a kid in a tent. This gives everyone a bit more space. Our friends did this because even though our RV could have slept four adults, it would have made midnight bathroom visits very disruptive.
If you plan to self-cater, bring as much full-size kitchen equipment as you can (obviously this doesn't apply if you're flying to your destination). Well-equipped campsites usually provide basic pots, pans and utensils, but if the kitchen is busy, you may have to wait to use them. They also may not have items like cheese graters, potato peelers, sharp knives or large pots.
Also, make sure to bring enough flashlights, lanterns and backlit e-readers (if you like to read). Once our daughter was ready to sleep, at least one parent had to leave the common areas and stay in the van with her. That's where an e-reader came in very handy. Older kids may enjoy playing cards or other games by lantern light -- and headlamps or hand-held flashlights are useful for those aforementioned midnight trips to the bathroom.
Kids tend to love the adventure of camping and traveling by RV, even if parents might be apprehensive about comfort levels. If you have a generous budget, your comfort probably won't even take much of a hit -- but travelers on a lower budget can make RV travel work for them, too.
Thinking about a camping adventure for your family? Here's some more advice: