For British travellers, the summer of 2022 seems destined to be remembered as the season of waiting: queueing for passport control, parking on motorways, sleeping in airports or staring down tracks in fond hope of spotting a non-cancelled train. Getting there and back used to be the most tedious part of the holiday. Increasingly, it is the holiday.
How can you keep yourself and your loved ones occupied and amused during the Great Standstill? Here are 15 tips from the professionals:
Always carry baby wipes
This sound advice comes not from a parenting expert, but from Dougie Rankine, editor of Truck & Driver, the UK’s bestselling trucking magazine. “One of the most versatile and important items a motorist can have,” he says. If you need to know why, try travelling without them. The first time you forget the baby wipes will be the first time everybody in the back seat decides to paint their faces with yoghurt.
Limit screen time for kids
While there are any number of gadgets to keep children occupied during long car journeys, screens can lead to fights, irritability and car sickness. “If you can hold off until the end of the journey, when children are naturally a bit more tired and a bit more fractious, it would be something I’d probably keep in my arsenal,” says Becky Cranham, a former primary school teacher and director of the educational resource site PlanBee. “Until then, I think I would always advocate things like car games or different activities.”
I-spy is the obvious automotive classic here, but Cranham prefers some form of road-trip bingo, where kids are each given half a dozen things they have to spot out of the window. When somebody wins, give them six more things. Repeat.
Keep your satnav on
Keep your satnav on all the time, even if you know where you’re going. “At the start, it’ll give you route options and display any delays,” says Rankine, “and this will live update so you can alter your route to avoid potential problems.” For fun, you can also check every hour or so to see how long it would take you to drive back home.
Keep plastic bags
Keep a store of empty plastic bags. “In case someone is sick, which always happens on a school trip,” says Cranham. “And you can put dirty clothes in them.”
Remember: in a car full of kids, choice is your enemy – it leads to discord. Today, the entire history of sound recording is available on your phone, which is disastrous from a decision-making point of view. Curate your in-car listening before you leave: one series of one podcast; a single 12-hour audiobook, or a strictly limited greatest hits playlist.
When my children were small, we always travelled with a single CD, which we learned off by heart by day three. After the holiday was over we never listened to or spoke of that CD again. We once survived a week armed only with disc two of Now That’s What I Call Music! 61 – the one with Crazy Frog on it. I think I threw it off a bridge in the end.
Think like a trucker
No one has more experience dealing with seven-hour tailbacks than lorry drivers. If you find yourself parked outside an overwhelmed ferry port, you really want to be in a truck. “The trucks sitting in those queues have fridges in them,” says Rankine, “while an increasing number have microwaves and they all have beds. With 24v power it’s easy to run an electric kettle to make coffee.”
Rankine, however, does have some practical advice for those who have neglected to obtain an HGV licence before setting off: keep your vehicle well stocked with non-perishable snacks and drinks. “Crisps, plain biscuits, cereal bars, juice cartons,” he says. “Whatever you happen to like that won’t go off or melt, really.”
Invest in a cooler
You can buy 12v coolers that plug into your car’s power outlet. “But beware of running it off the battery when the car is stopped without the engine running,” says Rankine. “They come in all sorts of sizes, from ones that take a six-pack of cans to large ones that’ll take a week’s worth of food. They can also run off mains power, so make sure everything is fully chilled in the house first, before you leave.”
Block the sun
Get sun blinds for your windows. If your car is stationary for long periods, you could find the hot sun pelting in from a similar angle for hours.
Time to improvise
When stationary, improvise. Even a simple game of I-spy tends to disintegrate once your vehicle stops moving. “You say things like: ‘Well, it’ll just have to be things in the car,’” says Neil Mullarkey, parent and co-founder of the Comedy Store Players, an improv group. “And someone picks ‘wing mirror’, which actually isn’t in the car, but is sort of, and then the game doesn’t pass the time but creates anger.”
Mullarkey, who teaches improv skills to corporate clients, recommends a simple storytelling game, where each player in turn contributes a sentence, the first letter of which must begin with the last letter of the sentence before. “So: ‘I want some cheese’; ‘Everybody wants cheddar’; ‘Right, let’s go buy some,’” he says, demonstrating. “Until of course, somebody comes in with ‘Let’s go to Halifax’.”
Remember your air-con
Get your air-conditioning serviced. Car air-con systems need to be re-gassed every 24 months at the very least, although it turns out you should have thought about this ages ago. “Air-con specialists are besieged during summer, especially during heatwaves,” says Rankine. “The worst thing you can do is leave it until before you leave for the south of France.”
A little psychodrama
Pretend to be other people. Endless passport queues can be stressful for travelling couples, especially when you’re surrounded by people eavesdropping on your personal relationship psychodrama. Why not adopt somebody else’s psychodrama? Keep a few improvisational scenarios on your phone: we’re having an affair, and are returning home to our respective spouses; you have just emerged from a 20-year coma, and I’m your guide to the modern world.
To be a good improviser, Mullarkey says, “you need to let go of the fear of being seen as mad, bad or wrong”. The good news is, whatever people think, it’s not really you. The bad news is, with nowhere to go, you might have to inhabit your roles for several hours.
Fun with strangers
Play the name game. Select a stranger from the mass of other stranded passengers and try to guess their first name from their general posture, dress sense or bearing. “Then you say, slightly too loudly: ‘Reginald?’ And if they turn, that’s a point,” says Mullarkey. “My children hate this.”
Activities as backup
Think Covid pandemic. Remember trying to keep your children occupied at home during lockdown? Think of the airport as a shorter version: you need activities and games – along with paper, pens and pencils – to pass the time. “A set of those sorts of free activities that children can do at a moment’s notice is something that teachers carry with them,” says Cranham. Her website PlanBee has plenty of ready-made free resources, from activity sheets to quizzes, available to download.
Commiserate with strangers. This can be hard for the British, but one of the main reasons people are reluctant to be friendly when they’re waiting in airports or railway stations is the open-ended nature of the delay – you don’t know how long you’re going to get stuck talking to someone.
Mullarkey says the key is creating an artificial time constraint: create a reason for the interaction to be limited. People are always happier to talk to you if you start by saying: “I’m just waiting for my gate to be announced” or “I only have a few minutes before these sleeping pills take effect.”
The journey as quality time
Remember: the driving part still counts as your holiday. “Having that time in the car where you’re playing games, singing songs can be a good opportunity to have a really nice family experience together,” says Cranham. “Even if it’s just for the first 20 minutes.”