Ta-dah! Just like that, my birthday trip to Berlin has been and gone. Hugh is now three months, so it was his first trip abroad and our first time away as a family of four. To say it was possibly one of the most anxiety ridden birthday gifts I’ve ever received is an understatement. We’ve travelled with one child on numerous occasions, but with two, would it be a whole different ball-game? How would we cope? What happens if the recently toilet trained toddler has an accident in the air? How do you say, “No dairy or soy please,” in German? Would one of them get lost? Might we lose both? Would the pushchair lose a wheel (like last time)? And on the mum worries go…
Although I love to travel, I do suffer from anxiety before we depart. I like to feel prepared and in control. It’s a horrible feeling, inherited from my worry-wart of a mother, which I’m hoping one day will be left behind for good. But, with April being stress awareness month and the time when many school-gate mums ditch the winter jackets in favour of flip-flops and flowery skirts, it’s time to start prepping for your next summer break. Here are my top tips to help you plan for a successful summer retreat with young children.
Before You Go
Book Attractions in Advance
Do your homework. With the average cost of a family day out increasing sharply in the last decade, it pays to research any must-see attractions before you leave. Last year, we took Oscar to Sea World – we would literally have saved $60 if we had purchased our tickets online in advance, rather than at the gate. We were stupid – our condo had wifi, we had a tablet, it would have taken us seconds to pre-book. We’d also have been ahead of the queues, which would likely have prevented the (especially unwanted – once we realised how much extra we’d spent) tantrum of the day!
Choose Night Flights
All parents of small children know that their happiness directly correlates with the amount of sleep their children get. If they’re at the age where the noise and vibration of a simple car-ride will cause your children to doze, then they’ll likely find it just as easy to drop off to sleep on board an aircraft, especially if you’ve been able to time take-off close to bedtime. This means less entertaining for you, fewer worries about them kicking the seat in front or them, or making too much noise, and less chance of them feeling any discomfort in their ears as the cabin changes pressure. Plus, you can take advantage of the on-board mini-bar without having to bribe them with drinks and treats too.
Pay Extra for Airport Parking
Before children, we were of the thinking that we would travel as cheaply as possible. If that meant parking in the next city, taking a bus to the airport and adding an extra hour onto our journey, so be it. Low-cost meant that we were winning. With children – woah! No way! Small children have a disproportionate amount of luggage compared to their size and what they can physically carry. Add in the time it takes to collapse and unfold a buggy, whilst holding said children and their luggage and it starts to become a logistical nightmare. If your children are anything like mine then they have limits on how long they can behave for – and I’d prefer them not to use up all of their good behaviour before we’ve even set foot inside the airport. Instead, paying a little extra to park as close to the terminal as possible will save you a lot of hassle. Pod parking at Heathrow is great and Meet and Greet is even better. If you use either service, I guarantee you’ll be grateful you did when you arrive and have a much shorter journey home at the end of your trip.
At the Airport
Wear Your Baby
If you have a pushchair, most airlines will let you use it up until you reach your departing gate. Depending on its size and which cabin you are sitting in, you may even be able to bring it on board the aircraft. However, retrieving your pushchair once you’ve landed isn’t always easy. When Oscar was one, we flew from Dublin to LA via Heathrow. We had timed the flights to allow a few hours in London for any delays and to enable little man to stretch his legs and burn off some steam before the biggie across the Atlantic. The pushchair was meant to be returned to us in London. We had been told it would definitely be brought back up to us in London. What actually happened was that it had been checked through, so we wouldn’t have it back again until we reached America. Fortunately, the airline were kind enough to gift us a little stroller to use. Unfortunately, we had donated this to another family in LA before we realised that our original pushchair had been returned minus a wheel! Aaah! Why?! Nightmare! From this point on, we always bring a baby carrier, just in case.
Use a Backpack as Your Carry-on
This goes a little against my ‘travel in style’ image that I one day hope to portray; but let’s face it, once you’re wearing a baby on your front who has probably spit-up on your only set of clothes then all sense of elegance disappears. However, backpacks are practical. They have multiple compartments for separating children’s items from your items and side pockets are great for stuffing a muslin, baby-wipes or a drink for your child – whatever you think you’ll likely need to access most. Of course, the best design feature of a backpack is that they enable you to be hands-free for clutching hold of your escaping toddler – see below…
Brand Your Toddler
They’ve been confined to a seat in a car, on a bus, in the plane… the first thing they’ll likely want to do as soon as the passenger seat-belt sign has turned off is run! Eventually, the lure of colouring, plane-spotting and even the ultimate treat – Haribo – will wear thin; then the freedom of long concourses with travelators and slippy, slidey floors will take over. On our most recent trip, there was no need for Oscar to carry a passport – everyone in the terminal would have known who he was as a result of us shouting his name so frequently: “Oscar, wait for mummy… Oscar, stop at the gate… Oscar, come closer… Stay still, Oscar, Oscar, OSCAR…!” So yes, airports are busy places and whilst you’re triple checking that you haven’t misplaced your passports or boarding passes, it would be all too easy for a little one to wander off. You may decide to purchase a tracking device – there are several brands available – but if that’s too high tech for you then simply scrawling your mobile number in biro on their arm could help you if the unthinkable happens.
Make Use of the Airport Lounges
Okay, so the impression they give is that they are only for high-flying business executives, but most airline lounges will welcome families with small children too. If you are a frequent flyer, you may be able to access them for free, but if not you should still be able to enter for a nominal charge. Please don’t scream at me when I suggest paying more money towards the cost of an already very expensive holiday (aren’t all trips costly these days?) Hear me out – You’ve checked into your flight with your family and somehow have made it through airport security in record time. You’ve whizzed past duty free (too many bottles that little people might break) and now have a happy couple of hours to waste away before you can board. You might grab a coffee whilst you wait, the children will almost certainly want feeding – twice – you pick up a beauty magazine for the flight (even though you know there’s little chance of you reading it) and before you know it you’ve spent another £50 without even trying. Well, in a lounge you will have access to as much complimentary food and drink as you need, many will stock popular newspapers and magazines, some even have a dedicated children’s area to help keep them amused. If you’re using the Virgin lounge at Heathrow then you may just be able escape the children briefly for a treatment in the spa (just don’t do what I did one year and have a pedicure if you’re planning on wearing shoes afterwards!)
Befriend Your Fellow Passengers at the Gate
Call me two-faced, but if I’m not with my own children then I don’t particularly want to be surrounded by your’s. (Sorry, if that sounds a little harsh). However, I’ll always offer to help if it looks like a parent with a young family is struggling. Not everyone will though. I’ve seen the steely looks on my fellow passenger’s faces as we queue up to board. No one likes to admit it, but they’re likely all thinking and secretly hoping that their allocated seat isn’t the one directly in front of the toddler who thinks he’s a donkey, or beside the screaming lap infant. I would be. But at the gate is where clichés are key: a smile and a little quip to show yourself as prepared, friendly and ‘not that family’ before you suddenly become ‘that family’ despite how well you’ve prepared seem to go a long way. Then, when your nappy bag ends up half-way up the cabin when you’re seated near the front and everyone is prepping for the crush as you exit the plane on landing, some kind stranger might just help pass it down for you (thank-you to the gentleman who did this on our return from Berlin)… then hopefully you won’t be the last off the plane and the last in the queue at passport control (because queuing with children rarely ends happily!)
On Board the Plane
Hopefully, your children will have munched their body-weight in food whilst you were having a spa treatment in the airport lounge, so hunger doesn’t come knocking too soon after you’ve boarded the plane. But if it does, or if boredom sets in (my son always seems to confuse feelings of boredom for hunger pangs), then you’d rather be prepared than have to wait until the flight attendant is able to make their way to you with the catering cart. If you’re obviously travelling with little ones, airport security are often quite generous with what you are permitted to take through, as long as you have liquids tested. Alternatively, many travellers suggest pre-ordering baby foods and collecting them from Boots air-side. Whatever foods you decide to stash for your children, it is better to have them then to have not – and a ‘special snack’ can be a brilliant distraction when the pilot switches the seat-belt sign on.
Bring Baby Wipes and Hand Sanitizer
Our eldest son wasn’t ever much of a mouther, even when he was teething. Our youngest son is the complete opposite: he’s a finger-chewing, thumb-sucking fiend and now that he’s learnt to hold onto small objects, these too are being explored by his mouth. I have to confess that the three-second rule for dropped objects is now more like the thirty-second rule, and I’m perhaps not as conscious or vigilant about sterilising everything as I should be. Yet, nor am I complete pig either – and would definitely prefer a dab of hand sanitizer over nothing. Baby wipes have saved the day on many occasions – spit-ups, poo explosions, dummy drops, accidentally touching a piece of old chewing gum left over from the previous flight – yuck! If you only pack one thing, pack baby wipes.
Pack Something to Suck
Small children have smaller ear canals than us grown-ups, so it stands to reason that they are more susceptible to the changes in cabin pressure, particularly during take-off and landing. I have a hard enough time encouraging my three-year old to blow his nose on the ground, let alone teaching him to blow gently enough to clear his ears in the air. Tugging gently on their ear lobes might help, but an easier fix is to encourage swallowing. For slightly older toddlers, a lollipop is the ideal solution – it requires lots of sucking which induces swallowing and should last long enough until the pressures have equalised. For babies, timing a feed is useful, but if that is too tricky then a dummy will at least help to soothe them (and the passengers around you) from any ear discomfort.
You might think it strange for a blogger to say, but it’s taken me quite a while for me to get on-board with anything tech. My husband is always telling me off for not using the smart capabilities of my smart phone. Whilst I know that iPads and tablets and phones and whatever else pops up next are part of our lives and here to stay, I still am a little uneasy when I see young children using them. It’s a personal preference that Oscar doesn’t have a tablet of any description yet, so when he is allowed to use one I find it scary that he knows EXACTLY how to use it. How do kids know this stuff? It’s probably a good job that he does know though, as downloading a dinosaur movie or two (thank-you ‘Ice-Age’) onto the tablet for Oscar to watch mid-flight proved the perfect way to keep him in his seat, distracted and remain on Father Christmas’s good boy list (it’s never to early!)
Stress Free Travel
Okay, so the reality of doing anything with children ever is that it’s highly unlikely it will be completely stress free. We did encounter tiredness and tantrums during our trip to Berlin. At one point, Oscar was doing his best injured bird impression, rolling around on the pavement outside the restaurant like he was in agony, squawking at me because (amongst other things) his tee-shirt kept falling down; it just wasn’t staying high enough to look like a crop-top from the nineties! I’m not sure any amount of prepping would have prevented that; but on the whole, once this and the musical beds episode at bedtime was over, we had a great time and the journeys to/from Germany were mostly uneventful.
We survived our first trip as a family of four, we didn’t lose either child, the pushchair remained intact, there were no little toilet-training accidents, no one had an allergic reaction to the Currywurst sausages and miracle of miracles, Baby Hugh slept without the aid of his Sleepyhead! I may be another year older now, but at least it’s not as a result of ageing through travelling abroad with my family…
…Although next year, if you were to offer me a child-free weekend away I probably wouldn’t say no…! Anyone care to join me?