Travelling with children is enjoyable and rewarding in many ways but it is not easy, stress-free or simple! Don’t believe anyone that tells you it is!
Those happy, smiley Instagram family travel photos do not show the tantrums, meltdowns, random vomiting episodes and hours spent looking for or queuing for a public toilet. And that includes the adults as well as the kids!
Family trips rarely go to plan, or adhere to a schedule and often result in exhausted, frazzled parents.
But without doubt, it is worth it!
As we are constantly learning from small successes and giant mistakes, I have compiled a list of things we do, or do not do, with our children in the hope of making our family travel that little bit easier and less complicated! It is not a comprehsnive list of what we pack and do, more a list of what we do to avoid stress and maintain family harmony!
This is an evolving list as travel for us has changed enormously now we no longer need nappies or carriers – and it will no doubt continue to evolve and adapt through the upcoming teenage hormonal maze.
Tops tips for travelling with children.
What to pack for a family trip
Even if you are travelling light, bring some home comforts. It is worth the valuable luggage space. On our year-long trip we travelled hand luggage only so space was at a premium. Each child brought a soft toy and some lego from home but I didn’t pack pyjamas for them as they are not a multifunctional outfit! The children hated not having them so three months into the trip, I relented, bought pyjamas and the kids loved them.
Always carry plenty of tissues and/or toilet roll. It can be used for anything and everything. Never leave paper behind to mar a beautiful landscape – if you poop, you scoop.
Carry wet wipes for emergency use. As few brands are environmentally friendly, we try to use these sparingly. Can be used for dirty cutlery, dirty tables, for washing, cleaning up unexpected projectile vomit – their use is endless.
Carry and use hand gel. Use before eating to save a whole load of problems later on.
Carry paper sick bags. More environmentally friendly than plastic bags, they are useful for unplanned shopping, removing toilet paper from nature, isolating wet clothes – and of course vomit. We were given a pack of reinforced vomit bags as a leaving present and they proved invaluable!
Never leave home or go out for the day without a pack of cards. A delayed bus, a long wait for dinner, a queue for the toilet, persuading energetic kids to cool down in shade – whip out the cards.
Always carry plenty of water (ideally in reusable bottles) and a never-ending supply of snacks – healthy or otherwise! Snacks are the ultimate weapon against irritability and continual moaning and complaining.
Always carry a first aid kit. We have a substantial kit for our rucksack and then bring a tiny First Aid kit out on our day trips. It is filled with plasters, sterile wipes and headache pills for mum and dad! It is used constantly!
The world is getting smaller every day. Don’t overpack – you will be the one carrying it! Most items can be bought anywhere in the world. Travel with seasonal luggage. Visit charity shops and second hand shops to stock up on hot/cold weather gear in hot/cold countries and donate it back when you do not need it anymore.
Do not bring lots of toys and games from home. They will inevitably get lost, broken or left behind. Charity shops, yard sales and second hand shops are also a good place to pick up cheap toys, books and games which again you can donate when you leave. Children love lots of toys but they don’t need them – they will find and make their own entertainment wherever they are with whatever they have got.
Get the children involved in planning from a very early stage. Let them help to choose a destination and things to do once you are there.
Respect and include their choices wherever possible even if you know you will not like it (Disney!). It is a family trip after all, not your trip.
Avoid making everything about the children! My heart sinks when people ask for recommendations on baby/child-friendly things to do or places to eat – this is your trip too! If you only ever visit child-friendly places, they will not have the wide-ranging experiences you are hoping for. And besides, what makes one attraction or restaurant child-friendly and another not? I have seen many forum comments on how such and such is notchild-friendly and yes, hiking in Patagonia with kids or travelling the Trans Siberian is not as ‘child-friendly’ as theme parks but both are amongst our kids favourite memories.
Travel and visiting new places should be fun, exciting and never feel like a chore or a race. Ditch planning apps or National Lampoon style itineraries. You may not tick off all the ‘must do’s’ but everyone will be happier and less stressed for it. We saw so many families running around Disneyworld trying to keep to their minute by minute schedule and sadly, they did not look like they were having fun.
Build in downtime to your days’ sightseeing itinerary, especially in extreme weather. Children cannot regulate their body temperature in the same way that adults can so they need time to warm up or cool down. No one will enjoy an inflexible, frog marched day in hot or cold weather. Better to enjoy one activity than to be miserable doing three activities.
Plan down days. This can be frustrating when you only have a few days in one location and are eager to get out and explore, but you will find you can fit more into the sightseeing days you do have if you allow the children to have off days. Down days for kids usually mean shopping, washing and planning days for parents!
Always leave more time than you think you need to catch your bus, train or plane. It is a fact that you cannot move quickly with children. Thankfully, we have never missed a journey but we have had several crazy sprints through airports and along train platforms.
Involve the children in day to day planning. Get them to help with setting the budget, reading timetables and maps and working out translations. It teaches them responsibility, gives them a sense of ownership, allays boredom and qualifies as homeschooling! It is not easy for parents to relinquish this element of control or to find the time to do it, but it is worth it.
On the road with kids
Learn to love playgrounds and never, ever, walk past a playground. During a busy sightseeing day, just half an hour spent having fun in a playground is worth it in order to keep everyone happy. The kids get an aerobic exercise, a good runaround and chance to burn off excess energy they might have kept contained on a visit to an art gallery! On rare occasions, it might even mean a rest for parents!
Playgrounds often lead to unplanned interactions with local children and the chance to make new friends. Be sure to quickly check play equipment first as safety standards and styles vary from place to place. A wooden slide with splinters sticking up will do no bottom any good.
Learn to give in – at times – for the sake of family harmony! Sometimes you have to accept your children need a bit of familiarity; eating at a famous global fast-food chain in Santiago, Chile or going to the cinema in Ulan Batoor, Mongolia was not amongst my envisaged travel experiences for those places but they meant a great deal to the children. And the air conditioning was bliss!
Respect your childs’ personal boundaries. Don’t make them have their photo taken, give hugs, good night kisses to auntie so and so or even handshakes if they are not comfortable with it. We don’t as adults so why ask children to?
Encourage your children to learn and use basic language in each country. We have occasionally asked each child to learn a different language each and be the principal teacher for the rest of the family when in that country. It does wonders for their confidence and it delights local people that your children are making an effort to engage with them.
Encourage personal responsibility, organisation and planning skills. Let the children unpack and pack for themselves, carry their own bags, make and strip beds etc. This is a work in progress…
Allow kids to be kids. Let them run, climb, build a snowman, make a sandcastle. Before you know it, they won’t want to anymore.
Public toilets and children
When you see a public toilet use it, even if you don’t need to, and ‘encourage’ everyone to go at the same time! There will never be a toilet nearby when it is needed. We spend hours on any trip looking for toilets or queuing for the toilets.
Teach your child how to use a squat toilet before they need one; don’t assume they will work it out themselves. BIG MUMMY FAILURE!!!
Use toilets on public transport before you arrive at your destination; otherwise, you will be running around the station or airport trying to find a toilet when you really need to be finding your taxi or catching your connection. It often saves you having to pay for a toilet too. Or, as we found in Iceland, looking for and using the toilets at the arrivals terminal took so long that when we got to immigration it was closed. We had to bang on the door calling “Hello, can someone please let us into Iceland?”
Never let children go into a public toilet alone. If sending older children, send in pairs and make sure they go in and leave together.