Summer holidays – the highlight of every school year for as long as you remember, right? It’s a time of anticipation, excitement, ideas, adventure and more. As a parent, the “more” becomes mind-boggling logistics, ever-growing expenses, endless packing and the endurance race of actually getting “there”, wherever “there” is.
Whether you are taking to the skies or hitting the road, the potential potholes in travelling with children mean that instead of creating cherished holiday memories en route to your destination, the journey to and from often becomes a time to be quickly forgotten – if at all possible. But there are simple survival strategies that can minimise the pain of family travel.
Add extra time for tantrums and toilet stops
Maeve and Brendan Cassidy exchange wry looks when I ask them if they invested in apps, tablets (of the technological type) or ride-on cases for their four children – aged 10, 8½, five and three – before their trip from Belfast to Chamonix, France, this year.
“Our first trip with the eldest two was, well, a disaster,” says Maeve sheepishly. The couple admit they weren’t exactly prepared for that first trip and fell into the “BC” pothole – travel before children.
“We had both travelled extensively,” explains Brendan. “We were actually pretty good at it when it was just the two of us. And we are better now – but at the start we were fairly clueless.”
“We had two easygoing children and we thought they would take it all in their tiny strides. They were four and 2½ and, well, they didn’t,” recalls Brendan.
The stress started when they were all rushing headlong through the airport with more bags than they could carry and absolutely no time to spare, says Maeve. And it’s on this that their top travel tip is based: add extra time. Every time.
Think about how long it takes to get out the door any day with a baby or toddler in tow. Now add airport stress. Amend your BC (before children) travel timeline with that in mind because despite all urgent pleas, children tend not to respect the time-critical nature of travel arrangements. Extra time will be needed to facilitate tantrums, general idling, toilet trips and mindless wandering. You are much more likely to keep calm – and make it to your destination – if you just add that extra time.
The same applies if you are travelling by car – it will take longer to get "there" than it ever did BC. So, don't just count in time for additional stops; plan them. Letting kids burn off steam outside the car will make the time in the car more bearable. Eileen Ogintz, a mum and editor of online magazine Taking the Kids (takingthekids.com), advises planning a stop at an attraction on the way to your ultimate destination. Just make sure the attraction lives up to the hype and is definitely open when you get there. Ogintz also recommends picnic stops.
Pack enough snacks to survive
On the subject of food, travelling long distances – whether by plane, train or car – with young children minus a packet of fruit pastilles or its equivalent is, according to father and author Ben Hatch, like walking through a vampire-infested graveyard after midnight without a wooden stake. There is a chance you just might survive, but why take the chance? Hatch travelled over 8,000 miles around Britain with his wife and two children – and subsequently wrote Are We Nearly There Yet? A Family's 8000-Mile Car Journey Around Britain (Summersdale) – so he should know.
When you are planning your snack packing, factor in turned-up noses to on-board food offerings and try to include at least some healthy options to avoid sugar crashes mid-journey.
Avoid airport terminal trauma
Before getting as far as boarding a plane, there are a number of tricks that can ensure a smoother transit through the airport. For younger children, the experience of walking through a security scanner after handing over their favourite teddy into a teddy-eating X-ray machine can be one step too far. Tackle this before reaching the airport by talking it through with your child. Picture books such as Look Inside an Airport (Usborne, €18) illustrate all the details of the airport journey and are ideal for younger travellers.
Encourage all sorts of carry-on
Asking children to pack and carry their own small piece of carry-on luggage can minimise the weight burden if you are travelling solo with more than one child, as well as build their excitement. Just make sure they don’t fill their bag with their entire dinosaur collection – slip in a change of clothes and snacks instead.
For younger children, pack a second change of clothes (nappy blow-outs do happen) and get in on the rage for ride-on cases (Trunki Trixie Ride-on Suitcase, €40) that mean you can pull them along if little legs get too tired for long terminal buildings.
When travelling with babies you are entitled to bring additional liquids through airport security. Lisa O’Farrell, mum of Alessandro (22 months) advises packing smart to accommodate all the extras.
“Alessandro was five weeks old on our first trip from Dublin to Malaga, so this meant carrying on a lot more than a sandwich bag of liquids,” she says. “Most changing bags have numerous pockets, which is great usually, but at the airport arrange your baby liquids into one section so you can easily hand them in at security.”
Make yourself a home from home
O’Farrell’s first trip with Alessandro was to a family apartment. “Travelling to a home away from home makes life so much easier,” she says. “I knew what the supermarket and pharmacy stocked. I knew they would have Ale’s formula, for example. In the apartment, we had a cot, steriliser, etc.”
Thankfully, most bulky baby equipment is now available to hire from holiday rental companies. Though renting may sound expensive, it can work out cheaper than an additional bag with many airlines. Try babytems.com in France, littlerascalsalgarve.com in Portugal and spainbabygearhire.es in Spain.
If you don't know what baby food or medication will be available, parenting expert Sigrid Daniel recommends packing double what you normally need. "There is nothing worse than a teething toddler, snuffly babe or headachy little one and no pharmacy to be found." Adapt the old mantra and hope for the best but pack for the worst.
Crowdsource for help along the way
With all of this additional luggage, O’Farrell recommends “using the crowd” at the airport when you are travelling solo and not being afraid to ask for help. “Most people are more than happy to help you fold up a buggy or lift a bag at the security desk, so ask them,” she advises. “You might get the occasional person who will refuse to help but the odds are that the person behind them will look disapprovingly and offer to help.”
Don’t forget the entertainment factor
Whether it's on the road or in the sky, on-board entertainment is critical to surviving the trip. Rachael Fenlon, mum of Eoin (12) and Ruth (7), uses her teacher training organisational skills to plan trips. Her advice is simple. It goes back to 1907 and has been used by millions of Scouts ever since: be prepared.
“It might sound boring but preparation is key no matter what age the kids are,” she says. She gives the example of Eoin’s first transatlantic flight when he was three. “The flight was over eight hours long, so we brought eight new activities for him. They don’t need to be big things but having a new jigsaw, book or aquadoodle set to pull out every hour meant he was entertained – and we were happier.”
If you are travelling long-haul the best way for your child to spend time in the sky is sleeping so try to book overnight flights to maximise sleep potential and minimise jetlag.
We all scream for screen time
Yes, screen time might be evil, but in the middle of a five-hour road trip or, worse again, a 10-hour flight, a tablet or iPad works. Pre-trip, ensure it is fully charged and armed with offline apps, movies and headphones. But remember, when it comes to the screen, don’t cave too early. Fenlon says that while the iPad/tablet is great for mid-trip amusement, if it is overused too early you have lost what was potentially your most powerful weapon.
Using tech to make your trip easier is not just for the kids. Download all sat-nav maps needed before you travel to save on roaming charges and minimise any frontseat tetchiness that will be quickly mirrored in the backseat. Using a sat-nav also means the non-driver can relocate to the backseat for some face-to-face time with younger children.
Stay cool when you hit turbulence
Regardless of the all the planning, stops, singing or snacks, there may be a time that you just have to tune out the tears. Presuming that nothing is really wrong in the backseat, remind yourself that your child is safe in the car and will soon – or eventually – stop or fall asleep.
Similarly, tantrums will happen at 30,000 feet. Most people around will empathise with you so instead of worrying about them, concentrate on trying to soothe your child so that they can feel comfortable again. Adding your anxiety to the mix will only fuel the tantrum fire, so take a deep breath and remember to breathe out again.
Get appy: What to download
Getting children to document their trip can be a great way to keep them interested and occupied. Postagram your iPhone or Instagram snaps into postcards. Upload your image, type in a quick message and place your order. The app prints your postcard and mails it to any address for $1 in the US and $1.99 for non-US addresses.
Travel Diaries (traveldiariesapp.com)
This is a web-based app that requires a PC or iPad. It provides a template for creating a gorgeous travel diary with words and images that can be stored, shared and printed into a hardback book. Free, with costs for printing and upgrades.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Friends – First Words (€3.99)
This is a mash-up of Eric Carle illustrations in a digital pop-up book that teaches words. Language options include English, Spanish, French, simplified Chinese and German, so the book app can be used across ages.
Launched by British startup Made in Me, this is a collection of digital comics from brands including Disney, the Beano and Transformers. Kids can read and record their own voice narration. The comics are sold as in-app purchases, so you'll need to buy a few before heading off on a trip.
Toca Mini (€2.99)
Toca Mini gets children to create their own characters using colours, stamps and tactile touchscreen controls. Perfect for trips, especially when parents are setting creative challenges for children to complete.
Haven’t booked your summer holiday? Try a city break
If you haven’t booked your family summer holiday, why not try a city break? European cities offer child-friendly alternatives to week-long resort holidays. Barcelona offers everything that is most charming about Mediterranean cities – endless sunshine, fantastic food, a relaxed pace and culture on every corner – as well as a stretch of sandy beach.
For the Fenlon family, the Catalan capital offered plenty to amuse the adults and children (aged seven and 2½ at the time). There are markets and street entertainers on La Rambla, Camp Nou for football fans and fairytalesque Gaudi for the art lovers, as well as a bountiful supply of city apartments for a “home away from home” experience.
For those shorter on time, London offers a getaway with plenty of free activities that bring history to life. Get to Buckingham Palace before the 11.30am changing of the guard, then wander through St James’s Park for duck-feeding and a picnic in Green Park. Many of London’s museums are also free to enter.