It could be National Lampoon’s Family Holiday From Hell. Or, it could be postcard perfect… Book in for the latter with these sanity-saving tips for travelling with kids.
People thought I was nuts when I told them I was taking my son, Maxwell, who was four at the time, to Dubai, Italy and Scotland for a month long adventure. Just the two of us!
I made a few travel mistakes, like leaving our passports at one of the hotels, but overall we had an amazing time. I’d do it all again in a flash – but with a few travel tweaks next time!
Travelling with kids can certainly be difficult and of course children’s needs change at different ages – babies are very different travel companions to 4 year-olds or 8 year-olds. But the rewards of travelling with kids are plentiful. Travel opens up little minds to different cultures, foods, experiences, ways of living and much more. It is a life enriching experience, even if they don’t remember every little detail.
So what wise travel lessons have I learned along the way that I can share with others to get the best out of your holidays?
Here’s my top travelling with kids tips…
Start small and think local
I had big ambitions to take my son hotel hopping and sight seeing in Dubai, Scotland and London for four weeks, but to be fair, I did have a lot of small practice trips to test the water, suitcases and stroller prior (I had a lightweight Silvercross stroller that came everywhere with us!).
I’d been flying from Sydney to Melbourne to visit my family fairly regularly since Maxwell was a newborn – I think they’re easier when they are newborn because they don’t do much other than sleep and feed! We also did regular weekend getaways to the Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley and South Coast, so I’d ironed out a few creases before the intercontinental adventure.
Small trips, even day trips, weekenders, or heading interstate for a few days are a brilliant way to get your head around the baby gear required, test how your little one responds to car trips and flights, and determine your little one’s timing and sleep patterns.
One of my first car trips, when Maxwell was just eight weeks-old, was from Sydney to the Central Coast. It was a three-hour drive in scorching summer heat on the Australia Day long weekend and it was a disaster. I completely messed up the timing, so we got less than 10 minutes down the road before having to pull over to feed him. The car was packed chock-full with baby gear so finding anything was impossible. Then on the way home, we, along with 20,000 other Sydney-siders enjoying the long weekend, spent an entire day in bumper to bumper traffic and 40 degree heat. Maxwell screamed in the back. We pulled over several times to console him but it was basically screams and parent’s anxiety the whole way home.
Have your essentials like feeding, nappy gear and comforter at arm’s reach and in one bag. If you are driving with your partner, one can sit in the back with bub to console, sing, play Twinkle Twinkle Youtube videos (instant hypnosis) or whatever it takes to ease the cry.
If you are flying, I always put the nappy bag or essentials under the seat in front of me rather than in the overhead locker – so I can access things easily.
Tune in to their routine
Babies and children love a routine, and you’ll quickly work out the best timings for travel (not long-weekends in summer!). My golden rule after the scream-a-thon trip was to feed him before we left so he’d sleep in the car. My other friends swear by doing long haul car travel at night, so the kids sleep the whole way. I’m always worried about night driving though because being tired (micro sleeps) are the second biggest cause of road fatalities on NSW roads. Also, most accidents are likely to happen between midnight and dawn. If you are driving long-haul, remember to stop and stretch the legs every 90 minutes.
I’d always book flights to coincide with feeding times too, so he was sucking while ascending or descending – a trick that helps to equalise the ears – and to ensure he slept for the flight.
Test their limits
When it came to our big overseas journey, Maxwell was 4 and more than capable of walking. Yay! No strollers to juggle or carry up and down stairs, escalators and train platforms!
For the months leading up the trip, we did ‘test tourist days’. We’d walk into Sydney city (only 20 minutes from where we lived at the time) and visit the museum, Darling Harbour and other places so I could monitor his endurance and timing. I gradually increased the excursion time until I found the maximum. Six hours on-the-go was his absolute limit before crankiness set in (for both he and I!).
When it came to finalising our holiday itinerary, I made sure we never exceeded this and always allowed for plenty of rest stops.
I alternated sightseeing days with rest days or low endurance days (eating gelato riverside in Venice, yes please!), and avoided planning any tourist activities on flight days or long-haul travel.
I learnt my lesson at our first stop in Dubai. We were staying at Atlantis, the incredible waterpark and hotel for three days, and I thought I’d try to get him onto the local time straight away. We jumped into a taxi and headed to Dubai Mall, an incredible shopping centre with an Olympic size ice rink and shops galore – gold souks, designer stores, unique handy crafts. How exciting! But baby cakes had other ideas and zonked it on route. I attempted to carry him around the shopping centre for an hour then gave up. It wasn’t much fun. Rest up. They’re little! A happy child equals a happy mum!
Invest in good luggage
I learned the value of great suitcases and bags the hard way. I was regularly doing interstate trips to visit my family in Melbourne with bub in the Baby Bjorn baby carrier (a Godsend), a handbag over one shoulder, nappy bag over the other, overnight bag and trying to push an old suitcase with bung wheels spinning in all directions that weighed a ton. It was just too ridiculous for any one person to handle. My solution? I bought a lightweight (2.9kg – seriously!) hard shell Samsonite suitcase (grab one in the sales for 40% off), which had 360 degree spin wheels and was the best purchase I’d ever made. I could push it along with one finger and it was big enough and light enough to fit all our gear into. This meant we could lose the overnight bag!
Do yourself a favour and ditch your handbag too. Put your keys, wallet and phone in the nappy bag, and if you have a good suitcase like my Samonsite, you can just pop the nappy bag on top of that and push the case along with one hand. And have the other free for bub! The less bags you have the better.
Don’t forget the entertainment
I was against computer games for a lonnnng time, and still believe they need to be managed in moderation. But when colouring books and Matchbox cars no longer keep the kiddies amused, technology can be a mummy and child’s best friend. Adults like dining at nice restaurants, kids couldn’t care less about the fancy black squid ink risotto and lake views. They just want to play! Or sleep!
And when you’re on the go for four weeks at a time and dining out for the 28th time in a row, you need to cut them some slack and keep them entertained. I took a lightweight DVD player with a selection of movies, the iPad and downloaded some games and apps on my phone for airport layovers, train journeys through Italy and end-of-long-day meal times. I wouldn’t go anywhere without them now.
These days, technology is even better. With Netflix, you can download many of your favourite movies and TV shows beforehand then watch them in the airport lounge, on the train (or plane), at dinner… wherever you like. And if your hotel has Wi-Fi, you can stream shows (so it doesn’t suck up yur data!). I so wish this existed in 2013! Can you imagine how much space I would have saved lugging DVDs around? There are also portable Wi-Fi devices called dongles that provide Wi-Fi on-the-go, these can be purchased from your local Coles or Woolworths.
Portable phone chargers are another must-have to keep the kids happy (playing games in-transit) and ensuring you have enough battery power to take holiday videos and photos.
More top tips for travelling with kids
- Make sure the kids have their travel vaccinations and are up to date with their immunisations before heading overseas.
- Don’t leave home without travel insurance. You do not want to be in a foreign country with a sick child (or be sick yourself) and no insurance.
- Have your itinerary handy in multiple locations if you are heading overseas or to multiple destinations. One copy on the TripAdvisor App, email it to yourself and a loved one, and have a hard copy in your carry bag and packed in your suitcase. Or am I just over cautious?
- Don’t cram in too much. You are better staying at one hotel for a week and having alternating rest-adventure days from one point than staying at three hotels and moving around a lot (which is what I did in Europe – it was too much).
- Count your bags before you leave the house, at the airport, when you’re walking through security machines and any other pit stops. I almost left an overnight bag on the baggage carousel in Fiji, and left my handbag in a taxi in Phuket. It happens!
- Be child-safe. Write your contact details and the hotel name on a lanyard and hang it around your child’s neck while travelling. If you are frequently on the go, writing contact details on kids arms doesn’t work!
- Download the TripAdvisor app. It will keep all your travel details safely in one place. And, as a bonus, each time you take a photo, the app records the name of the place and maps its location. So when you get back home and try to recall the name of that incredible gelato shop just near the Roman Forum, you’ll have the exact details handy!