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 (adults as well as kids), random vomiting episodes and hours spent looking for or queuing for a public toilet.
Family trips rarely go to plan, fit to a schedule and often result in exhausted, frazzled parents; but it is still worth it!
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! This is an evolving list – travel for us has changed enormously now we no longer need nappies or carriers – and will no doubt continue to evolve and adapt through the upcoming teenage hormonal maze.
Always carry plenty of tissues and/or toilet roll. It gets used for anything and everything on every trip. 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. For dirty cutlery, dirty tables, no water for washing, 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 for our travels – they proved invaluable!
Never leave home 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.
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 it is needed. We spend hours over the course of a trip looking for toilets or queuing for 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?”
Always leave more time than you think you need to catch your bus, train or plane. Thankfully, we have never missed a journey but we have had several mad marathon runs through airports and along train platforms.
Never walk past a playground. During a tightly scheduled sightseeing day, just half a hour spent having fun in a playground is worth it to keep everyone happy. Aerobic exercise and an energy burn off for the kids and (on rare occasions) a rest for parents. Playgrounds often lead to unplanned interactions with local children and new friends. Make sure to quickly check the equipment first as safety standards vary from place to place. A wooden slide with splinters sticking up (Punta Arenas, Chile) will do no bottom any good.
Build in downtime to your days sightseeing itinerary, especially in extreme weather. Children cannot regulate their body temperature in the same ways 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.
Ditch planning apps or National Lampoon style itineraries. You may not tick off all the ‘must do’s’ but you will all be happier and less stressed for it. We saw so many families running around Disney trying to keep to their minute by minute schedule.
Plan down days. This can be frustrating when you only have a few days in one location but you will find you can fit more into the sightseeing days you do have if you allow the children off days. Down days for kids usually mean shopping, washing and planning days for parents!
Get the children involved in planning from a very early stage. Let them help choose a destination and things to do once there. Respect and include their choices where possible even if you know you will not like it (Disney!). However, avoid making everything about the children – my heart sinks when I hear people asking for recommendations on things to do with a toddler, or child – this is your trip too! If you only ever do child friendly or ‘acceptable’ activities, they will not have wide ranging experiences. Hiking in Patagonia with kids or travelling the Trans Siberian are not as child friendly as theme parks but both are amongst our kids favourite memories.
Sometimes you have to accept your children need a bit of familiarity; eating at Mc Donalds’ in Chile or going to the cinema in Mongolia was not among my envisaged travel experiences for those places but they meant a great deal to the children.
Involve the children in planning itineraries. 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 home schooling! It is not always easy for parents to relinquish this element of control or to find the time to do it, but it is worth it.
Always carry water and never ending snacks. The ultimate weapon against irritability.
Respect your child’s personal boundaries. Don’t ask or 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 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…
Even if you are travelling light, bring some home comforts. We travelled hand luggage only and each child bought a soft toy and lego from home. I didn’t pack pyjamas for them – not a multi functional outfit! – and they hated not having them. They were over the moon when three months into the trip, I relented and bought them some.
These is functional, day to day stuff we do to help our family travel; we are not perfect and some thing work better on some days than others. Travelling safely with children is a huge, separate issue I have written about in ‘How To travel Safely With Children.’
I would love to hear and learn any tips and tricks you use to help your family travel!