Have baby, will travel . . .
Long-haul trips can seem like an adventure too far with kids in tow. But well-travelled families say don’t let the fear stop you
Roxana and Brian Hefferon with their children, Mia (3) and Sophie (4) at home in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Roxana and Brian Hefferon in Thailand with their newborn daughter Mia and one-year-old Sophie.
To jet off on a long-haul flight when your first baby is just two weeks old is admirably audacious – but to do it again one year later with your second baby at the same age, as well as a toddler in tow, seems to be asking for trouble.
But Roxana and Brian Hefferon, who live in Dalkey, Co Dublin, have always loved travelling and they haven’t let parenthood ground them.
After their first daughter, Sophie, was born in Dublin in February 2009, Roxana was determined not to miss out on a trip to California that was scheduled for Brian’s work two weeks later.
It meant the new father hightailing it to the office of the registrar to get a birth certificate and then applying for a passport for the newborn with photos taken in the maternity hospital.
Although Roxana had plenty of help because Brian’s parents travelled out with them to San Francisco, she says there were moments, while still getting to know the baby, when she wondered what she was doing.
“I think I stayed in the hotel for 48 hours, but then the baby was fine and we did a bit of travelling no problem, with a pouch,” she says. Roxana was breastfeeding Sophie, but she remembers having problems and sending Brian out to drive around for hours in search of formula. “It was all new for us.”
Next stop Thailand
One year later, they were again hastily acquiring a birth cert and passport after Mia was born and the family was due to fly out to Thailand for the wedding of Brian’s brother.
“Can you imagine me missing that trip?” asks Roxana, but she admits her doctor thought she was “absolutely mental” when she inquired about the possibility of being induced to make sure she didn’t.
However, Mia arrived of her own accord two weeks before what turned out to be a bit of a “crazy” trip, as the weather was so hot. “She was a very good baby and she wasn’t complaining, but you could see her sweating so bad.”
Since then, they have made regular trips to Roxana’s native Argentina but she says it is easier travelling with a baby than with small children who need to be entertained. But you do what you have to do, she says, recalling, for instance, how one Christmas holiday, she and the two girls survived a 12-hour stopover in New Jersey’s Newark airport on their own “without killing each other”.
The one legacy of first travel experiences of the Hefferons’ daughters is that Brian, in his rush to register Sophie’s birth, forgot what they had agreed for her middle name and left it blank. So, with the need for equality supreme in all sibling matters, they decided Mia should not be given a middle name either.
For most new parents, just getting out your front door suddenly becomes a bafflingly time-consuming and logistical challenge.
No matter how well-travelled you are, when the thoughts of flight delays, Third World conditions and strange food seem like a catastrophe waiting to happen rather than an adventure, it’s probably time to put the backpacks in the attic for a while.
As the children get older and more robust, the wanderlust may return – but by then, you’re paying full or almost full air fares for the entire family and have to work around school term times.
In hindsight, you might wonder why you didn’t travel more when they were younger . . .
Anywhere is doable with children, provided parents have the right attitude, suggests Colette Pearson, a long-haul specialist with Abbey Travel in Dublin. While they need to be cautious, she recommends the World Health Organisation website as a mine of up-to-date information about health issues in any destination you might care to consider.
For journeys into the unknown with children in tow, there is a lot to be said for travelling with a guide and other families for company. Pearson handles bookings with the UK-based adventure holiday company Exodus, which has a dedicated family brochure.
GoHop also organises private tours and small group holidays for more adventurous families. Its long-haul expert Andre Migliarina says South Africa has become very popular with those looking for a safari experience.
Due to the weakness of the rand, it will usually work out cheaper there than Kenya or Tanzania, which are priced in US dollars.
Sri Lanka, where you can combine sightseeing with chilling out at a beach resort, is also on the up, he says, while Jordan is a favourite Middle East destination.
Siobhán Daffy and Martin Dunne, who live in Glenasmole, Dublin, grabbed the opportunity to take a 2½-month trip to Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong in autumn 2011, before the eldest of their two children started school.
Having planned it all themselves, “I wasn’t worried, I was really excited mostly,” says Daffy, “but I gave a lot of thought to it.” For instance, they chose night flights to try to minimise the disruption to Meadbh, then aged four, and two-year-old Dían.
“We got them into pyjamas in the departure lounge and followed routine as if we were at home: we read stories and brushed teeth and put them off to sleep. That really worked for us.”
They flew to Perth in Western Australia, where they were due to meet friends down the southwest coast, but first Daffy used airbnb.com to book the family into a self-catering apartment in the city for three nights, to give them all a chance to acclimatise before seeing other people.
“We spent loads of time on beaches living wild, staying in a caravan on friends’ land, and just had an amazing time.”
It was a “nature paradise” and the place to be with small children, she says. The only concern was snakes but they took the advice of locals on how to avoid their likely haunts.
In contrast, a week navigating Melbourne, seeing friends, was much harder work. Then they flew to Wellington, New Zealand, a more “low-key” city where the people are really friendly and that was more relaxing.
A stay with the Tui community on Golden Bay on New Zealand’s South Island followed. “We didn’t know, being a family, how long we could stay, but we ended up a month there in the end.”
They lived in tents, eating with community members in a shared house and then “house sat” for a woman for the last two weeks. “We were just so relaxed. It was timeless time.”
The trip ended with four days in Hong Kong where they didn’t quite know what to expect, “but it was so different, we got loads out of it”.
Daffy doesn’t know how much of the big adventure her children will be able to recall in years to come.
However, while “they mightn’t remember it in their memories, they will remember it in their bodies and their souls – the freedom and the time we had together as a family”.
And the two siblings really bonded during that trip, she adds. “They have an amazing connection and a lot of it came out of that time they had together.”
A family affair . . . managing long-haul travel with children
Whenever you leave your “home fortress” there are health issues, says the medical director of the Tropical Medicine Bureau, Dr Graham Fry.
Often asked when the best age to travel with children is, he likes to reply: “Eighteen – when they’re no longer children and no longer your responsibility.”
On a more serious note, there is no definitive “safe age”, he says.
The risks vary according to each stage of development.
In fact, one of the most common kind of fatalities, he points out, is when a small child, of say three or four, falls, unnoticed, into a swimming pool and drowns – “they sink immediately and don’t flap around like an adult would”.
With First World long-haul destinations, such as the US and Australia, long flights are the main issue, but increasingly popular spots in Africa and southeast Asia bring health considerations too.
Burma is an emerging “exotic” destination for Irish holidaymakers, says Fry, the way Thailand was 20 years ago. “But when countries are ‘exotic’, it means they don’t have a good medical infrastructure, so if you do get sick, you’ve got a problem. You are not going to get European-standard treatment.”
There is probably nothing more frightening than being in a remote, foreign country with a sick child.
Families wanting to venture off the well- beaten tourist trail need to be cautious and make sure it is realistic, he warns.
Don’t get carried away at this weekend’s Holiday World in the RDS and sign up for something on a whim.
Instead, do your homework before you book, not like the parents with two children under 10 who came into him.
They had chosen a package holiday in Ghana in west Africa because it was cheap and then discovered they faced a bill of many hundreds of euros for the necessary vaccinations.
Malaria prevention is another big consideration. If you go to an affected region, you are going to have to make your children take malaria-prevention medicine daily.
Anne Maniar, who lives in Celbridge, Co Kildare, knows all about that struggle.
She and her husband, Naeem, have travelled a number of times to his native Mumbai in India, with their three children, Malika (12), Darius (nine) and five-year-old Cyrus – most recently for two weeks last May.
Preventative medicine for malaria comes only in pill form, “which is a total pain” where small children are concerned, she points out.
The first time they went there with Darius, it was a “nightmare”, she recalls, as he wouldn’t take it and, when she crushed a tablet into juice, he had a tendency to vomit it up.
“Then you’re worried he’s not getting the protection.”
They always waited until the children were at least a year old and had completed their immunisation programme here before taking them to India.
Before any trip, she goes into the GP with a list of requirements for her travelling medicine box, including an antibiotic, which she then asks the pharmacist to give her in powdered form because, once water is added, it needs to be refrigerated.
She likes to have it for one of the children who is prone to developing a chest infection from moving from air-conditioning indoors to the humidity outdoors, she explains.
Liquid Motilium suitable for children is also available only on prescription, so she stocks up on that for stomach upsets.
“In general, you just have to be really careful,” she says.
For instance, always check bottled water is sealed before your children open it to make sure it is not a refill of dubious provenance.
Slices of water melon and pineapple are good, she finds, for helping to keep small children hydrated – these should be freshly cut in front of you.
A general rule is to eat only fruit you can peel yourself.
She believes it is good for their children to realise how privileged their lives are back in Ireland, compared with what they see all around them in Mumbai, where at night time children are going around with bags begging – not for money but for scraps of food.
The big crowds are difficult for her children, agrees Maniar, who is very wary herself and used reins, or wrist-to-wrist bands, on them when they were smaller.
She also recommends a sling or baby carrier with small children, even if you don’t use them at home.
To other parents who might be considering India as a holiday destination, she says: “Don’t let your fear stop you – just prepare yourself.”
Mark Puech was a bit apprehensive about bringing his two older children, Theo, now aged 10, and Louis (nine) to India a year ago.
His wife stayed at home in Rathmines, Dublin, with their other child Johnny , who, they felt, was too young to get anything out of the trip.
With an Indian father and Irish mother, Puech spent his childhood in India but left in 1979 at the age of 18.
While he has no immediate family still living in Meerut, about 65 kilometres outside Delhi, he has many friends there and he also wanted to show his sons where he grew up.
“It was a bit mad for them – they were a bit awestruck,” he says of the boys’ initial encounter with a world so different from anything they had experienced.
They soon settled in, though, and enjoyed being a curiosity with the locals, with lots of children wanting to play with them.
One highlight was taking an overnight train trip to a tiger sanctuary, where their open-top four-wheel drive went within a few metres of one of these endangered species.
However Theo and Louis weren’t too keen on Indian food.
“They stuck to the plain food – rice, pasta and pizza when they could get it,” their father says, “but Indians are very indulgent so they were always trying to get what the kids liked.”
Puech, who was accompanied by a sister, did his best to try to minimise the risk of stomach upsets by taking the usual precautions with water and so on, but one night the two boys were “dosed” with ice-cream, “and at half two in the morning it all came out”.
The three of them were sharing a bed and ended up having to strip down to their underpants; they put all the soiled pyjamas and bed clothes in a corner and found one duvet to huddle under on what was a chilly night.
It’s moments like these that memories of travel with children are made of . . .