With distant destinations now easily accessible, and low-cost airlines making travel more affordable-even with the recent hike in oil prices-most parents plan to take their children with them when they go abroad. Making a family vacation a success for all, however, takes a little more than just booking the tickets.
Health comes first
For off-the-beaten-track travel, before you even start opening the atlas, the first issue to consider is health. Ask yourself, if you want to go somewhere far off and exotic, whether your children are old enough to understand the importance of any necessary medication. Will they get something out of the vacation, too, apart from an increased dislike of long-haul flights? Pre-trip jabs may take their toll on your tots, and you may find that administering anti-malarial tablets, for example, to youngsters on a daily basis can get tiresome.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to avoid visiting areas at an altitude of more than 3,200 feet with babies under 12 months, and, while 2-year olds should be able to cope with 6,500 feet altitude, make sure you can turn back easily to lower ground if they start having difficulties. Regions affected by malaria, and those where recent outbreaks of rabies cases have been reported, are not recommended either. Check with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs for other warnings.
Arrange for a medical check-up, and ask the advice of your local doctor or pediatrician well in advance of your planned vacation, to allow for possible inoculations, and to make sure your children will be able to travel well. Think also about the routines and natural rhythms that your children are used to-and every child is different. While a certain disruption will be inevitable, try to respect your children’s body clocks, and don’t try to cram too much into a short period: Round-the-world trips in eight days with under-10s may not be the best way to spend your vacation time!
When you are sure that this is going to be a fun time for the whole family, you can start planning properly. Here’s our guide to a stress-free trip with the kids.
Do your homework on your home from home
As with any major project, it pays to do a little research before taking action. We suggest that you contact the hotel or resort you are hoping to stay at, and ask them about facilities for babies and children. This should not be a one-question e-mail or phone call, however: Make a list of what is important to make the vacation go as smoothly as possible for you-and your off-spring. Here’s a mini-checklist to help you:
Questions to ask before you book your hotel/resort:
- What are the room-sharing options for you and your children?
- Are there childcare facilities, and what are they exactly?
- How much do they cost, or are they included in the price of the rooms?
- Are they available every day, all day, or only at certain times?
- Is there a baby listening service?
- Who are the child minders: hotel staff, specially trained hotel staff, outsiders?
- What child-centered activities are on offer, and who runs them?
- Do the kids have designated carers, or does the staff change every day?
- What security measures are in place? Do parents sign the children in and out each day?
- Are there indoor and outdoor play areas? Are they safe? Are they fun?
- What food is available? Is it the same as the adult menu, is there only fried food, or are there special child portions?
When you are satisfied with the answers, and feel that your kids will have a good time, you’ll be ready to book your tickets.
Babies-to go, or no?
Many readers wonder if it is wise to travel with infants. In fact, the under-2s are probably the easiest age group to manage on the move. This is for several reasons: They travel free on airlines; babies of up to six months or so are still eminently portable and go easily on your lap; babies usually don’t suffer from jet-lag; and, last but not least, babies are an open sesame to a genuine welcome wherever you go, loved as they are all over the world. That said, keeping you and your baby happy and comfortable may involve some preparation…
Book the right seats
If flying with a baby, try to book specific seats in advance to give you more leg room and space for a travel cot. Let the airline know you are traveling with a baby, as you should be able to get priority when boarding, and they may even be able to provide a “sky cot” or special baby seats. For long flights, some couples try to get separate seating and then relay each other, one parent looking after the infant while the other tries to get some rest. This website can help you identify the right seats before you commit yourselves.
If traveling by train, request seats together-two seats facing another two is a good configuration for families of four-and make sure to ask if there are any family reductions for the tickets. And, if driving a rental, check to see if child seats are provided.
Packing for baby
Pack plenty of disposable diapers in the main baggage, to check in, plus wipes, bibs, and milk formula, if you use it. In your hand luggage, you should include a few of these items plus a spare change of baby clothes, so that they are easily accessible during the journey.
If you are on a long-haul flight, you might consider preparing bottles of milk in advance, which you can ask the cabin staff to warm up for you, or, if you don’t mind the extra baggage, a travel sterilizer holding a couple of bottles without risk for up to three hours.
An alternative strategy is to prepare your baby for the journey in advance by feeding her cold food and milk occasionally in the weeks before the trip, so that if it isn’t possible to warm anything up, it’s not a drama.
Make sure to take a familiar blanket and spare clothes for your baby, so that you don’t need to worry about laundry facilities as soon as you arrive, but don’t overburden yourself either. Four changes should be enough-if you are heading somewhere warm, you could get away with even less. Remember that in hot climates, cotton is much more comfortable, and your baby will need a hat.
Strollers may end up being more trouble than they’re worth-depending on your destination, you may not find a smooth enough surface to use them once you arrive, and they may not arrive with the rest of your baggage. Instead, why not think about a backpack or sling to carry your baby, and, if she’s taking her first steps, encourage her to practice walking.
Flying with children
This is more challenging, because children-as opposed to babes in arms-are mobile and usually keen to stay on the move. On the plus side, there are seatbelts to keep them in place. With the right attitude, your kids may even look forward to their first (or subsequent) flights.
Contact the airline well in advance-at least 24 hours before the flight-to book any special children’s meals, and don’t forget to do the same for the return journey, too. Take advantage of any options to book specific seating, as a window seat is a boon and makes for constant distraction for younger children, plus they can’t escape down the aisle without you noticing. If this isn’t possible, why not ask the cabin crew if you can sit near other families, perhaps the kids could make friends, and if they get a little noisy, the other parents will be more understanding.
Check with your airline also to see if there is a special play area in the airport lounge, priority boarding, and special fun packs for children. Be sure to claim all these extras if you can, and ask about arranging visits to the cockpit.
The bare necessities…
A small first-aid kit is essential, to be packed in your main baggage (for security reasons, most airlines will not allow sharp objects in your carry-on), containing at the very least: a small sewing kit, good insect repellent and after-bite lotion, waterproof band-aids, crepe bandage, sterile dressings, a roll of micro-pore tape, antiseptic cream or wipes, analgesic, antihistamine for allergies and bad bites, suntan lotion, and a Swiss army penknife (with tweezers and scissors). Take some candied ginger or ginger biscuits if anyone in the family gets travel sickness, or take your usual medication for this.
You’ll have made a note of your passport numbers, issue and expiry dates, your travel details, and credit cards. Before you leave, take a digital photo of your passport pages, and send it to an e-mail address you can easily access, just in case, or leave photocopies with a trusted friend or family member who can be contacted easily. It shouldn’t be necessary to take more than two major credit cards with you, and one per adult is ideal, to minimize loss by theft.
Pack a few healthy snacks, in case of delays, especially for long journeys, and things that are easy to eat: dried fruit, such as raisins or figs, and fresh bananas, apples, and mandarins are convenient traveling fruit; fruit juice and water in screw-top bottles or individual cartons with straws are better than cans or family size cartons, and reduce the risk of spillage. Try to avoid high-sugar juices and E-additive sodas-your children will probably be overexcited as it is. If you are driving, take advantage of mealtimes to make a proper stop for everyone, for bathroom trips, rest, and a chance to stretch those limbs. You can be more flexible about what you eat and pack picnic-style food, for example, in an ice-box, with thermos flasks if you don’t plan to eat in diners or cafés along the way.
As meal- and bed-times may be disturbed by traveling, one handy tip is to associate the soothing aroma of lavender with sleep. Put a couple of drops of lavender oil or essence on your children’s pillows when you tuck them up in the run-up to your vacation, and be sure to take some of the magic stuff with you to dab on the blankets when they need to go to sleep on the journey.
You should pack a couple of goody bags to distribute when mid-trip boredom kicks in. These can contain special treats like a chocolate or fruit bar, a new toy or book, or a favorite game. Extra wrapping can add to the excitement. These bags should be kept in your carry-on luggage, or slipped in as a surprise in your kids’ carry-on bag.
Audio children’s books will keep the whole family entertained in the car, and with portable players and headphones, the children can choose what they want on a train or plane-just remember to bring spare batteries. A small bag of notebooks with pencils attached on a string or crayons and paper is a good stand-by for younger children.
For beach vacations, all you need is swimwear, beach towels, spades, and balls to keep kids happy, and in most destinations you should be able to buy these locally at a reasonable price, thus saving precious packing space. To protect the feet, “jellies” or neoprene shoes are advisable for beaches with shingle.
It’s a different story for vacations in the mountains, where it is best to pack the children’s most comfortable walking shoes, rather than breaking in new shoes. Warm clothes for the cool temperatures in the early morning and evening will be required, too, and light daypacks.
Get the children involved in the whole business of traveling and let them pack their own little cases. You can make this fun by telling them to choose just one of their favorite toys or games, or allowing them to fill one small bag only.
Older children might enjoy keeping a log book or travel diary to show their friends, which they can fill with ticket stubs, beer mats, postcards, and other objects they pick up on the way-so don’t forget a stick of non-spill glue or adhesive tape, and safe scissors. A disposable camera or small digital will also help your kids make their own souvenirs.
A new wallet with some of the local money could also be given, to give the children a taste of financial autonomy and a little practice in simple math.
This may seem obvious, but leave yourselves plenty of time on the day of departure, and make sure, if booking a cab, to take the traffic into account. Allow for at least an extra 20% time for each step of the journey, from traveling to the airport or station, to checking in, to finding the right gate, to actual boarding: Far better to arrive at the station or airport early and in control than frantic and late-you will communicate your stress to the kids whether you want to or not!
To make your kids more visible-and easier to spot if they go astray-pick out their brightest clothes for the journey, and wear something that will make you stand out in a crowd, too. Failing that, give them little whistles to blow if they get lost.
Your main packing should be done, check-in bags all set to go, and any last minute items ready to slip into your hand luggage. Before you leave, dress your baby in layers that are easy to take off or put on again, according to the temperature in the cabin. Plus you won’t need to change her whole outfit if there’s a spill.
Before boarding, make a visit to the bathroom in the airport, both for you, the kids, and for any diaper changes, so that you don’t spend all your flight time squeezing past other passengers to get in and out of the undersized bathroom on the plane or train.
Surviving the journey
Change your watches together to the time of your destination, if flying across time zones, and get the kids to calculate when lunch time and dinner is there to help them adjust.
On take-off and landing, you can alleviate the discomfort that the sudden change in air pressure can bring by giving your baby a pacifier or a bottle to suck-make sure it’s to hand. Children can have candy to suck, or can drink water or juice to alleviate possible earache.
For younger children, attach a little plastic bag to the seat cover in front to keep their crayons and toys easily accessible, whether the fold-down tray table is in use or not.
Once the initial excitement of settling in and take off is over, and before any in-flight films are shown, a bag of toys and games is invaluable. (It was in your carry-on hand luggage, right?) This may also be the time to rediscover more traditional activities, such as coloring-in books, cards, and, if you have the patience, I-spy…Older children can learn to map read, or start filling in their travel log.
Once you’ve all reached your destination safely, show your children the fire escapes, if they are staying in a separate room from you, and make sure they know who to go to for help in the hotel or resort, introduce them to the reception staff and any designated staff who deal with children. Remind them not to go off with strangers, or to pet any stray animals.
Older children could be given responsibility for keeping the room keys or for sending the family postcards if no internet café is handy for regular updates.
If you’ve crossed a few time zones, make sure everyone gets some sunshine, to speed up the body’s adjustment to the new location. You are now ready to enjoy your vacation!
It’s always a good idea to take your kids for a post-trip check-up with your paediatrician, if only for your own peace of mind.
To prolong the feel-good factor, make time to look at your children’s travel logs and souvenirs when you get back. Recreate some food similar to what you tasted together, get out the photos, and have your own Show and Tell session to remember the first of many successful family expeditions.
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