Nine years ago…. and …. What to look for in a family van
I graduated today.
No cap for my Diploma in Journalism but definitely a gown.
Great fun to wear on what must be one of the windiest days in the Waikato this year!
So in honour of my celebration of success (and because I’ve had little free time to write a new blog post) I am going to flashback to my very first piece of published writing; an article about motorhomes!
It was written back in October 2003 in the UK after I approached Practical Motorhome magazine and proposed an idea for an article, which to my amazement they agreed to pay me for!
I was not a writer or journalist at the time.
A stay at home mum of three children (then aged 10, 7 & 1) I dabbled as a freelance marketing consultant when I wasn’t playing with Lego or washing baby bottles.
The article was based on the search for the perfect family van and I offered advice on what features to look for, with kids in mind.
Re-reading it now, years down the line and in another continent, many of the points are still relevant.
My knowledge at the time was perhaps a little biased, using references to the average European and American models that we had seen and knew.
Whereas, now, here in New Zealand, we own a bus!
I won’t paste in the whole article as it refers to some specific models and showrooms that we visited.
But here for your enjoyment… a selection of Kiwi Annison vintage 2003.
TRYING ONE ON FOR SIZE
We decided before we got married that we would have a motorhome, one day.
At that stage we could only afford a small tent, but we knew we’d get there eventually!
Many weekends were had under canvas, with us gazing dreamy-eyed at motorhomes, especially the hours we spent packing up, and they just folded up deck chairs and drove off!
Moving up through several tents, as our family became 3 in number and then 4, we eventually progressed to caravans for more creature comforts.
We still had our dream and spent many Sundays browsing around motorhome dealers.
The children became accustomed to these daydreaming trips and settled into the routine, declaring which beds would be theirs and trying them out!
And then it happened – whilst on one of our window-shopping trips, we found one!
Not the perfect layout, but, it was affordable, in excellent condition, would fit on our drive and as a five berth it would cater for our family that had had a recent new addition!
Soon the 16year old Swift KonTiki 650 was sat in front of our house, with us sat very proudly inside it!
A wonderful season of trips followed and each most enjoyable.
We decided that our family suited motorhoming very well, but did our motorhome suit us?
Although we were coping with three children in our 21ft van, the layout did at times make things difficult and once the children were asleep in their assigned spaces, there was little room for us to relax.
So after some research and internet browsing, we came upon our next motorhome, a 9yr old Travelmaster Montego, imported from America several years earlier.
Just perfect for a family; four bunks at the back, a huge bed over the cab and plenty of space in between!
We couldn’t have designed a better model if we had tried!
But what about the designers, are they getting it right for families?
And so I began my search into what motorhomes are available, and are actually suitable, for a family.
The kids were packed into the car and off we went to do some more Sunday browsing.
With fridges, the bigger the better if you have a family and a small freezer is a boon if you can get one.
Whilst thinking about safety; drop down lids on sinks, hot oven doors etc – don’t search for the 100% safe kitchen as you’ll just not get it. Instead try to use good safety measures and generally encourage the children to keep away whilst you are cooking.
Many kitchens are placed directly opposite the dinette, which does offer good access when serving but can block the central aisle when cooking. An end kitchen means the main part of the van isn’t affected when you are cooking. However, do check the bathroom door when using the kitchen; in our KonTiki, the door couldn’t be opened if you had the grill or oven open.
Dining with infants often requires a little more work, we still have to sit our seven-year-old on a cushion for him to reach the table with ease! For our youngest we use a small chair that clamps onto the table edge, although this close proximity does often lead to food being pinched off your plate!
LOOKING FOR A BED?
When considering beds for youngsters, obviously safety is a big issue.
Children sleeping over the cab or in bunk beds need some form of safety guard. Most modern vans provide adequately in this department, many using strong nets that can be fastened up when the child is in bed. Bunks with a solid guard have a small gap towards the end of the bed, which allows night-time trips to the toilet without children getting tangled in netting!
If you sleep a child in a bed with no fitted guard, most household bed guards fit satisfactorily and provide that extra safety.
Many models now feature bunk beds, several with a fold up lower bunk allowing external access to a large storage area for bikes etc. Whilst I think these are an excellent addition, my only question to manufacturers would be; why cannot you make triple bunks? Surely with a little clever design, there could be provisions made to have three beds over each other. I have seen such a design in an American 5th wheel trailer, and it worked very well.
Thinking ahead to when the kids are safely tucked up in their beds, will there be room for you to relax in the motorhome? Yes, its great when you can sit outside enjoying your glass of whatever takes your fancy, but not so relaxing on a cold windy night. This is when end-lounges are excellent, distancing you from sleeping babes, to put the TV on or even have friends round for a ‘quiet’ drink! Otherwise in many models, you are sat around the table in the middle of the van with children possibly sleeping in bunks behind you and/or over the cab. This can work but obviously doesn’t give you quite the same comfort, freedom or level of volume on the television! A plus point to look for are swivelling cab chairs which give another comfortable seat.
THE SMALLEST ROOM
When you have come up from camping, with middle of the night trips to the toilet block, the fact that you have a bathroom, any bathroom, is fantastic! But after the initial excitement has become matter of fact, you do start to realise there are things you need to look for.
With young children, the bigger the room the better, as you often need to be in there with them and it’s not always easy! Any extra space for storage is great as you can get all your bathroom products in there plus first aid kits, sun cream etc saving space in your main lockers.
For small children the bathroom sink will undoubtedly be too high and mum or dad may need to help or provide a step. Also, it would help to have a light switch that can be reached by people under 5ft tall!
Many bathrooms have a shower, which is in the centre of the room and leaves you with limited space when using it. The larger bathrooms, have a separate shower area within the bathroom. This makes life so much easier, allowing you to supervise youngsters without actually being in there with them! Plus it’s a great space to keep your laundry bag or dirty shoes!
PACKING IT ALL UP
Lots of storage space and good organisation may sound dull and boring but it does make life away that much easier if you have a place for everything. The unfortunate part is that many manufacturers just don’t seem to realise how much ‘stuff’ you need for your family, in particular smaller children who seem to require more than anyone!
Just where do you put the buggy, backpack, bottle steriliser, huge stack of nappies and many changes of outfit required? And that’s leaving behind many of the semi-essential items!
Lockers under seats are often filled with bedding, coats, wellies and such like, with overhead lockers and any drawers quickly filled.
A good storage answer is outside lockers, and those wonderful things… roof boxes. Some may say they spoil the appearance of your lovely sleek motorhome, but you try and fit everything for a weeks holiday with three children, into the van!
Even if you don’t have juniors’ belongings to worry about, check out the storage anyway. Many 5 or 6 berths just don’t cater for storing clothes for more than 4 people.
ON THE ROAD
It’s so tempting for children, whilst travelling, to go and get something from a locker. So ensure before you set off that they have a selection of books, comics or whatever keeps them occupied. The table provides a great place to play travel games, do colouring books etc. We borrow story tapes from the library and they generally keep us all entertained for most of the journey!
One of the great things about traveling in a motorhome is that you can pull over to use the toilet, have refreshments or generally stretch your legs.
Kids and travelling CAN mix well, plan things first and you can have a great journey, because otherwise, well it could put you off forever!
Obviously one of the most important elements when looking for a motorhome is finding a layout that will suit your needs, however, compromises will generally have to be made and if you are willing to make small adaptations yourself then even better.
List down what’s essential for your family and what you can cope without. Look around at motorhome shows and accessory shops, its amazing what you can buy that will let you adapt the van to make it more suitable for you, e.g. slings to add a bunk bed, a folding leaf for the dining table.
Manufacturers seem to be making only a token gesture at designing family motorhomes, with a large majority of their purchasers being retired or semi-retired, perhaps they don’t see a profitable market with families. However, with many people still unsure of air travel, crime in several holiday resorts and high costs of foreign travel in general, the market for family motorhomes is actually growing.
Designers need to envisage the day-to-day lifestyle of a family living in a motorhome to ensure they provide the best layouts possible. They need to add the most appropriate finishing touches that are practical rather than the extravagant. Prices need to be assessed to provide an affordable range, with cheaper basic models for first timers.
In general, a family with two children will find many motorhomes with suitable layouts, however, having that extra child does seems to cause problems with sleeping or dining layouts! Also, don’t presume that just because a van has six berths it’s automatically suitable for day-to-day use by that number of people.
But please keep looking, browse around dealers, scour the internet, ask about, anything but don’t give up, as one day you will find it!
- Get the kids to try their beds, can they get in and out ok?
- Check the safety provisions on over cab beds and any bunk beds
- Are there curtains around beds for privacy?
- Reading lights provided?
- Is there adequate wardrobe and locker storage?
- Check how much space can be used under the seats
- Look at size of any external lockers
- Is there a roof box or bike rack on?
- Check the kitchen: imagine boxes of cereal in the cupboards
ON THE ROAD
- Ensure good seat belt provisions
- On a test drive, sit in the back to see what the noise level is like
- Do the base cushions remain in place during travel?
- Is there a stereo with rear speakers?
- How many can sit at the table?
- Do the cab seats swivel?
- Does it have window blinds / flyscreens?
- Removable carpets are a great practical bonus