There is a photograph on my desk at work. A chubby-cheeked toddler, smeared in sunblock and bulging out of a swimming costume while smiling innocently up at the camera from underneath a floppy hat. When I say it is the most beautiful creature in the world, I am biased. He's my first-born son and the photograph was taken poolside in a Ras Al Khaimah hotel around nine years ago.
On our first family holiday.
What the photograph does not show is the scene exactly a few yards to the left. Me, gaunt, exhausted, in the foetal position and broken. Utterly broken. If the camera had been able to capture my expression, a generous interpretation might say I was crying tears of joy at the cherubic little boy in front of me. A different spin would be that the tears were of frustration at a complete lack of sleep the night before. Not that anybody would know, but if they had any glimpse of how the demanding baby had refused food, sleep or polite conversation in favour of crying, nappy filling and obvious distress, they would forgive the tears.
But nor were the tears I was crying at that exact moment coming from a point of despair. No, if I had been included in that photograph they would show tears of an altogether different kind. I was crying because I had just smeared haemorrhoid cream over my face instead of sunblock. It was getting in my eyes and stinging. As I realised, it dawned on me I had done the same to the baby and he would need to be cleaned up. Again. The trip was nothing short of disastrous and saved only by the fraction of a second it took to take the cherished photograph.
On the other side of my desk is a photograph of my second son. He is wearing the same hat, has an equally beautiful smile and is just as adorable. The difference is I am in this photograph. You can’t see if I am crying in the photograph or not because I am wearing sunglasses.
That is the moral of this story. Travel with children can easily be a disaster. Without planning, experience and some flexibility you can end up with a face full of haemorrhoid cream. But if you take just a little time to prepare and adapt, you’ll have lasting memories that are as pleasant as the holiday photos suggest.
Every parent knows that family holidays can be fraught affairs full of pains and pitfalls (which can’t always be blamed on the children). So check out these tips, hacks, suggestions and ideas for making travelling with kids a breeze.
Buy a bumbag
Fashionistas might tell you the much-maligned accessory is making a comeback, but the wise parent should not be bothered about that. Get one because you can keep all your passports, phone, dummies, local currency, hotel keys, wet wipes and even a pack of Pokemon cards with you (and easily accessible) at all times.
Get a wheeled suitcase, too
Trust us, it will change your travel strategy forever. Oh, don’t trust kids to pack for themselves, either. They won’t do a good job.
That means setting off early. Order taxis in advance, check in online, have mid-journey mealtimes planned. Winging it and playing things by ear was fine before you had kids and will be fine when they’re older, but nothing is likely to introduce stress to a travelling party including youngsters than last-minute panics. Preparation and organisation will keep you all calm while travelling and a holiday that starts off calm is likely to get calmer.
Take only what you need
Disposable nappies are sold in most places in the world. By all means take a supply with you, but you can probably forgo shoving a crate of pull-up Pampers into a suitcase. The same goes for toys. You will need some for entertainment, but you don’t need to transport a full nursery with you. Seeing new things and experiencing another place should be thrilling enough. Just make sure you pack Teddy, though.
Have an overnight bag
We might have mentioned wet wipes already. Have some ready. As well as wiping sticky hands, faces and bottoms, they’re invaluable on long trips. They will be a bath, flannel, tissue and much more so place them in your overnight bag. This essential holdall is your insurance against travel delays and emergencies. While the bumbag has trip essentials, this is where to keep a spare book, teddy, change of clothes and snacks. You will definitely need snacks.
Most airlines have seats with bassinet attachments at the front of economy sections. These collapsible baby beds are usually free but have to be booked in advance. Do it. These seats have more leg room and having an actual bed a baby can lie down and sleep in is extremely useful. Also make sure you have advanced hotel bookings for your final destination.
Make it fun
Children need to be entertained. Classic travel activities such as I-Spy, drawing or a quiz can fill hours of journey time. They won’t realise it but the games are also engaging them in their immediate environment and encouraging them to take in and understand the surroundings all the better. With the order and routine of an airport or long journey it is important to remember the trip should be about having a good time together.
Keep a routine
We understand that holidays should be relaxing and it is good to break the shackles of a school-run and scheduled after-school activities. Sticking to some semblance of a routine, however, will keep important boundaries and give you guidelines within the holiday. Stick to set mealtimes and have established bedtimes and getting up times. They do not need to be as rigid as when you’re at home, but a semblance of a routine will reduce anxiety, tiredness and hunger.
Apps are your friend
An entire holiday will not be spent looking at Crossy Roads and Pokemon Go. That benefits nobody. Allowing children to take a turn on your smartphone or tablet, however, can cut out boredom on long car journeys or while standing round in airports. As well as a few simple games an app like Audible plays audiobooks to keep children entertained.
Have it and be covered. If you come back without havng to make any claims then consider it money well spent and yourself lucky. You don’t want to be stuck with medical bills or lost luggage costs when you should be enjoying a break.
Take a pushchair
Airlines transport them free of charge and a collapsible stroller has many functions you will appreciate while away. As well as giving a toddler a rest it can be a makeshift bed, trolley, chair and even toy while you are out and about.
Give some pocket money
Set a budget for children at the start of the holiday and encourage them to stick to it. Let them make their own souvenir-buying mistakes and purchasing decisions while encouraging sensible spending.
Handing over holiday decision-making to a juvenile is a recipe for disaster, but you should hear their opinions and requests. An entire week of museums and street cafés might not be what they want. If there is a nearby waterpark they have spotted and want to visit, consider putting that on your agenda.
A day in a foreign country will probably teach your child more than a week in school. Foreign foods, different cultures, sights, sounds, smells, languages and experiences are all learning opportunities when experienced first-hand. Escape the bubble of your hotel and explore something new.
Have alone time
If you’re travelling with more than one adult, factor in some time for yourself. Even if it is just an hour or two to walk around a market or sit by a swimming pool alone, it is a good time for you to recharge. This is your holiday as well and a small break from children, while your partner or co-traveller is on baby-sitting duty, will make you appreciate the time you’re together more than if you’re surrounded by the rabble every minute of the trip.
Challenge yourself, but be realistic
No type of holiday is off-limits, but consider the needs of the whole group. Your dream vacation of trekking to Machu Picchu or clubbing in Ibiza might not appeal to everyone. Choose holidays that are suitable for the fitness, comfort and lifestyle interests of everyone in the party.
To friends, relatives, teachers, or neighbours. It doesn’t matter who, they will appreciate the thought and it is a good evening activity to help kids wind down with before bedtime. The same goes for a holiday journal or photo scrapbook – both great creative outlets.
Holidays are an expensive business. As the saying goes: “A penny bun costs fourpence” when treating an entire family. Loads of attractions have discounts for advanced online bookings or family passes with reduced rates. Look at a local version of Time Out or research destinations before you travel.
Travel in a group
Co-ordinating trips with companions or relatives can make or break a friendship for life. If you pick the right people to holiday with it can mean shared babysitting, good company and playdates for children. Get it wrong and you’re forced to stay on a houseboat with people you can’t stand and who want different things. By all means travel like this, but discuss work-sharing, time apart and expectations before you book.
If we could offer you only one tip for the holidays, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of our advice has no basis more reliable than Time Out’s own meandering experience. Also – check it is not haemorrhoid cream before you smear it on your face.