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A long road trip not only gets you from A to B but can also be invaluable time for families to talk and connect. Exploring national parks and wilderness areas can help kids understand the fragility of the natural world.
But for many parents, trips like these are too difficult to contemplate. The practicalities are overwhelming. How do we entertain the kids during the long car journey? How do we stay sane on the flight? Where do we stay? What do we pack? Should we wait until the children are older and it’s easier?
Take advantage of parks and beaches. Photo: Getty Images
The truth is, if you wait until it’s easier, you’ll never travel at all. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Everyone has these thoughts the first time they travel with kids. But you can learn how to become a good traveller and teach your children to do it, too.
Here are some tips.
GETTING THE CHILDREN ENGAGED
Sally Webb with her children. Photo: Sally Webb
Involving your children with the research and planning of the trip is by far the most important thing you can do.
It will not only pique their interest for the trip itself but it’s likely to have a significant, positive impact on the way your child views the world and researches things in the future.
You might be planning a holiday, but don’t forget that exposure to different countries, cultures and history is formative for them. Spend time talking about where you’re going and researching the possibilities as far as sights and activities are concerned, then get your kids to nominate the things they want to do.
Archie touches the Emperor Constantine’s hand. Photo: Sally Webb
You can take it one step further and tell them that they are going to be the guide when they are there, so they take the planning more seriously.
Most children from about seven or eight will jump at the chance to learn about a new country or culture. They invariably end up sharing amazing facts that even adults won’t know (who knew that Paris has more dogs than children?).
THE PACKING PROCESS
Look for ways to explore airports. Photo: Getty Images
If you pack well for family travel, things are more likely to run smoothly. If you pack badly you’ll regret it.
When you’re a parent travelling with babies and young children the list is everything. Archie (now nine) did his first country road trip from Sydney to the Blue Mountains when he was three weeks old.
My list, which sits on the desktop of my computer, started with his first trip and has been evolving ever since. Nappies, disposable change mats, dummies, sterilisers, muslin wraps, floaties and baby carriers came and went.
Have family, will travel.
The central core (clothes and undies, hats, a favourite toy, toothbrushes, medical kit, snacks for the kids, decent teabags for me) has stayed pretty much the same.
Now we’re including books, journals, can’t-live-without electronics and destination-specific items like rash vests, snorkelling gear and fishing rods.
There are dozens of apps (both free and cheap) that can help you – Packing Pro is one of the best – but pen and paper work just as well.
Child’s play: fun at the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Sally Webb
If you’ve got a baby or toddler, it’s worth investing in an ergonomic baby carrier or toddler backpack. A lightweight, collapsible umbrella stroller, small enough to go in an overhead locker on a plane, is indispensable. It’s surprising how often an older child, who at home might avoid the stroller, will get tired and need to be pushed, especially if you’re doing a bit of walking. Strollers double as high chairs (low chairs, really) in restaurants or apartments where they are not available. Carry essential medications in your cabin baggage, and pack scissors in your check-in bags for use at the destination.
BOOKING THE FLIGHTS
There is one golden rule when you’re planning and booking a family trip that involves flying: all airlines are not created equal. Discount fares offered by low-cost carriers can be very appealing at first glance, especially when you’re buying multiple tickets, but remember that low cost usually means no frills.
When you add on baggage, meals, drinks and entertainment, the price difference may not be so great as it first appears. The “extras” you pay for on a full-service airline might be the difference between an enjoyable flight and a nightmarish one.
Importantly, full-service carriers are more likely to look after their customers when things go wrong (due to aircraft problems, unforeseen environmental disruptions or industrial action) and this can be worth way more than any savings you may make initially, particularly when travelling with children.
THE RIGHT TIME TO FLY
If you have the option with domestic travel, daytime flights are usually best. You can put the kids to bed at your destination and the routine isn’t thrown out of whack too much.
International travel, especially long hauls with both night and day legs, is trickier. While the general advice for reducing jetlag for all passengers is to adjust to the time zone of the destination as soon as possible, you can’t force that with kids. If the plane departs at night they’ll be tired and need to sleep straight away.
There’s nothing wrong with having the kids fly in their pyjamas – indeed, for long night flights changing kids at the airport and cleaning teeth can help them settle once on the plane.
SURVIVING TRANSIT HELL
Being stuck at an airport between two flights with tired and fractious children really can seem like you’ve entered transit hell. There are a few things to remember. Kids need to move and run and expend energy; if you’re between flights this is the time to do that, before they are cooped up again for another 10-12 hours.
Try playing “fetch” with a small rubber ball to get children running around, or carry two plastic fly-swatters and some balloons for impromptu badminton. Some airports are better than others for killing time during a layover – and it may influence your choice or airline or flight route.
If only they were all like Changi in Singapore with its famous butterfly garden, home to 1000 species (Terminal 3), kids’ playground areas, an enchanted garden (Terminal 2) which mixes electronics with nature, as well as the Changi Social Tree where older kids will enjoy uploading photos on to a site that won’t expire for a century.
There’s also a swimming pool attached to the airport hotel.
FUN, GAMES AND OTHER DISTRACTIONS
Don’t assume the in-flight entertainment system will be appropriate for children or that every seat has its own screen. Not every airline is as good as Singapore Airlines, Qantas or Emirates in that department.
You might find yourself on a code-share flight on an older aircraft, where there are no individual seatback screens and the movie playing overhead is not appropriate for children.
Bring books for each child, remembering that paperbacks weigh less than hardbacks. Colouring books and sticker books are useful. (There are more detailed activity kit suggestions in the book.)
Load up tablets, smartphones and DVD players with television shows, movies and games suitable for the age of your children.
Consider bringing back-up batteries or portable chargers.
Also, check what features your airline offers in the seat and pack appropriate connection cables.
Power sockets, including USB ports, have been available in business class cabins on many airlines for some time, and are becoming more common in economy class cabins on newer aircraft.
Invest in some child-sized over-ear headphones. It’s easier for children to hear and they don’t slip off as often as the ones provided by the airlines.
LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR
I remember a time, pre-children, when I used to dread being seated near a family travelling with a baby. Then I suddenly became that family. And my perspective changed. The simplest piece of advice I can give families flying, especially for the first time, is to be aware of those around you.
We’ve all paid our fares and we’ve all got a right to travel as comfortably as possible in this ridiculously cramped space. It’s not a normal situation but it doesn’t last forever, either. As a parent of a baby or child you do need to be aware of what your children are doing.
Most passengers can put up with a crying baby when a parent is doing their best to comfort it. But few passengers will forgive a parent who lets their child repeatedly kick the seat in front of them, or lets a toddler run riot.
TAKE A BREAK FROM THE HOLIDAY
Travelling can be exhausting. With the exception of low-key beach or resort holidays, you invariably end up doing much more than you might when you’re at home.
Build plenty of downtime into your itinerary. Children need time for physical and imaginative play regardless of where they are and what they are doing. So don’t pack every day full of activities as museum fatigue and sightseeing exhaustion sets in sooner for kids than adults.
Perhaps have a tour or excursion planned for the morning, followed by a relaxed lunch and a free afternoon. And if you have a busy day, be sure to follow it with a day off. This also allows you to spend extra time in a particular place if it really appeals to the kids.
Plan your activities around the needs of really young children. If they usually sleep during the day, try to stick with that routine. Do your sightseeing in the morning or late afternoon, and use the kids’ rest time to have a siesta yourself.
Visiting local parks and playgrounds can be a wonderful way for kids to interact with local children, even if they don’t speak the language. Indeed, in many cities, from Paris to New York to Madrid, the public parks and gardens count among the city’s principal sights. One child I spoke to told me that the highlight of his family trip to Venice wasn’t the gondolas or the food; it was playing soccer with a group of children in one of the city’s squares.
HANDS-ON AND SPECIAL INTEREST ACTIVITIES
Finding activities where the kids are actually doing things rather than just listening or watching is the key to engaging them fully with the destination. Children love interactive experiences and learn so much from them. Cooking classes are a wonderful way to learn about the culture of a place through its food.
Learning how to make dumplings in China or pizza in Italy as a family means you develop those skills collectively. You can repeat the exercise at home, which keeps the holiday memories alive.
Combine your cooking tour with a visit to a local market to discover the staples of a particular cuisine, how they are used and how food is traded. Even just visiting a supermarket or a small deli and seeing the differences from your regular shopping haunts at home can be fascinating.
Children are wonderfully creative and imaginative. Given the right tools and inspiration, they can get a completely original take on a destination through art and craft. Pack a few pencils or crayons and a sketchbook in a day pack and encourage your children to draw what they are seeing.
Or give them a tough “sports” camera or smartphone and let them create their own pictures or movies, from which they can later make a collage, slideshow or feature film.
Look for tour operators who can build an art element into an itinerary if that’s what your children enjoy.
Create your sightseeing plans with special interests in mind. If your son is a cricket nut and you’re heading to London, consider a tour of Lord’s cricket ground. He’ll probably remember more about that than if you took him to Buckingham Palace or Trafalgar Square.
Look for riding stables or trail rides for horse-mad girls (or boys); it’s another way to explore the destination. If you all enjoy cycling, build a holiday plan around riding bikes together. Use the guidebooks you’ve been reading at home to create your own treasure hunt through the city. Set questions or challenges for your children (depending on their age) and see how they resolve them. At a minimum, if you are visiting large museums or art galleries always ask if there are special guides or audio tours for children.
Travel Without Tears: 645 ways for families to take on the world ($19.99) is available online at travelwithouttears.com and from independent bookstores.
FAMILY TRAVEL: THE CHECKLIST
WHOSE HOLIDAY IS IT ANYWAY?
A family trip is not just about the kids, it’s about the whole family. Think about what will work for both parents and kids, so you can connect with each other and the destination.
RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME
Is it the right time of year to travel to the destination you’ve chosen? Bad weather can wreak havoc with the best laid travel plans, and monsoon rains or scorching summer temperatures can be unpleasant.
Do your research – guide books, newspaper travel sections, the internet – before you travel and cross-check against user-generated feedback sites for places that work for families.
DON’T GET SICK
Staying healthy starts well before you leave home. Consult your GP or a specialist travel doctor and make sure you have the necessary vaccinations. Understand the health risks of the country you are travelling to and make sure the children understand them too.
BABES IN ARMS
Newborns and infants are more susceptible than adults to health risks and changes in environment. Be well-prepared before you go and vigilant when you’re away.
Find books and movies about or set in your destination and watch them with your kids. Find out what they are really interested in before they get there.
THE HAND, CHILD, LUGGAGE RATIO
How many children do you have? How many bags? How many hands? If you’re negotiating airports, metro or train stations with strollers and suitcases, less might well be more.
HOTEL VS APARTMENT
Choose your accommodation carefully. Having kitchen facilities is a huge bonus for families for preparing snacks and meals. Apartments are usually much more affordable than hotels when there are several children.
If you have a baby or pre-schooler who needs daytime sleeps you’ll need enough space so you can read or relax while this happens.
CHOOSE ACTIVITIES CAREFULLY
If a trip or tour involves something physical – walking or cycling for example – but is not recommended for kids under 12, then don’t expect your nine-year-old to do it.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sally Webb is a journalist, publisher and family travel expert and founder of Travel Without Tears, which inspires families to travel the world. She took her son Archie on his first long-haul flight when he was three months old and they haven’t stopped since.
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How to travel with children: The kids are all right