Travel Time (From Tots to Tweens)

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Travelling with children can be a bit like taking a herd of wild goats on a vacation. Factoring a child’s needs into your travel time involves a lot more than sticking an iPad in their hands and planning for potty breaks.

For the Little Ones:

Take your time

The greatest thing you can take—whether at the airport, sightseeing or getting from A to B—is extra time. Little ones love to explore and don’t care for the time pressures of travel, so you’re more likely to retain your cool if you factor the gawking, stalling, toilet stops and tantrums into your timeframe.

Book ahead

Whether you’re camping or staying in hotels, it pays to book ahead. Trying to retain the spontaneity of travel BC (Before Children) doesn’t pay off. You might arrive at your destination to find you can’t bag a bed or pitch and have to hit the road again with tired, hungry toddlers melting down into a gelatinous ooze onto the luggage cart.

Give them a camera

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Giving toddlers their own (robust, child-friendly) camera encourages them to observe their surroundings and focus on what interests them. You might be surprised at the results from their knee-high view. Amongst pictures of feet and wheels, my three-year-old has shot flowers, animals, helicopters, boats, rocks, sidewalk gum and police horse butts.

Be prepared for the climate

It’s simple advice, but children dressed comfortably for the weather and terrain will be happier in a new environment. With all the gear available, there’s no excuse for dressing toddlers in ski-suits four sizes too big, forgetting their gloves, or leaving them barefoot on a beach where sea urchins lurk.

Pack for potty training

Planes and public transport during the potty training days can be a nightmare. As if you didn’t have enough in your carry-on, now you’re expected to add a potty, three changes of clothes and bags of wet, stinky pants. Potty-training gurus may disagree, but if toddlers are still having lots of little accidents then I’m all for putting them back into trainers on the plane. Sometimes sanity is EVERYTHING.

Be “app-friendly”

Thanks to toddler-friendly apps, there’s no need to cram a toy box into your hand luggage when travelling by plane. By all means take a book and a magic scribbler (crayons just get lost down the side of seats), but the most compact form of entertainment is a device loaded with apps and games. There are great age-appropriate gems out there for most smart-phones, tablets and laptops that aren’t all mind-numbing saccharine explosions of cartoon propaganda. Some are actually really innovative and engaging. But don’t underestimate the power of the Bubble Wrap Pop app when your kid-friendly headphones are involved!

Invest in a child locator

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In my experience, toddlers aren’t fans of reins, backpacks with a leash, or any infringement on their freedom. Keep tabs on them at airports, train stations and crowded attractions with a child locator. The child wears a small unit (strapped to a belt or shoe), and you keep the transmitter. If you lose your child, set off the alarm and follow the sound to find them.

Keep bugs at bay

Whether you’re travelling to Thailand or Disneyland, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer are handbag essentials. A wipe of the cutlery in restaurants where you’re unsure of hygiene, or a squirt of hand sanitizer when there’s no washing facilities, can zap a few germs and prevent toddlers from catching some common bugs.

Don’t forget the medicine

Whether they’re out of routine, jet-lagged, or eating less healthily, kids always seem to get sick on vacation. Dampen the impact of broken nights, frayed temperaments and fevers by packing an easy-to-swallow medicine such as Calpol in the UK. Other basic ingredients in your first aid kit should include antiseptic wipes, plasters, sting treatment, and a thermometer.

For Older Kiddos:

Don’t let the children pack their own carry-ons or tote bags

We once went on a trip with our eight-year-old, who complained incessantly that her backpack was too heavy. The reason why? She’d brought along her entire collection of fossils “just in case”. Do let the children have input but remember to edit this heavily before departure.

Don’t be a public transport snob

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Most kids love the novelty of travelling by train, bus and boat, so ditch the rental car and use public transport where possible. In New York, my seven-year-old would complain about the smell of the subway system, but soon it became a hilarious joke to which we would try to “name that smell” and she looked forward to each adventure beyond those iconic turnstyles. (Kids are gross. They enjoy being gross. I’m totally okay with this fact. Make it a memory rather than a sore point.) You are able to engage with them so much more on your journey when you don’t have to focus on driving around locations you aren’t familiar with. Plus…finding parking in a foreign location is a frustration like no other. Bow out (if you can)!

Keep the activities coming

If you’re heading out on a long journey, have a collection of toys to be handed out once an hour. Handheld puzzles, tiny colouring books, stickers, word searches and finger fidgets will pass the time on a long flight or car journey.

Have a number of family games ready in case of delay

Punch-Buggy and Padiddle are popular, if violent, favorites for car journeys, whereas more cerebral ones like the Alphabet Game are safer for air travel. You can also find a great selection of travel games online. Creative Kidstuff, for example has a few innovative games perfect for packing and the tried and true ones like Magnetic Checkers and Travel Bingo.

Avoid sweets (as much as possible)

Resist the temptation to keep them going on a long journey by feeding them sweets. Pack a mixture of savory snacks like cheese sticks, flavored nuts (cocoa or honey covered almonds are a big sweet tooth tamer, while packing in some travel-time protein), dried fruit or fruit leathers, on-the-go applesauce pouches, granola and trail mix—anything to avoid arriving in a strange city with children in the middle of a sugar rush. Save the splurging for that awesome doughnut shop or that world famous gelato you heard so much about.

Encourage them to keep a travel journal

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Get your kids drawing and listing things they’ve seen and interesting foods they’ve tried. Who knows? This might also encourage them to try different foods. Collecting postcards from places you visit and asking them to write themselves a message on the back means they can reach adulthood with a library of memories all their own.

Brand them

If you’re going to be travelling through busy, crowded airports or transport hubs, write your cell phone number on your child’s arm in case they get lost. If they are old enough, continuously remind them of the name of your location (last trip we stayed at a hotel called “The Row”, so I told her to “Row, Row, Row her boat back here” if she got lost). Another idea is to give them a “dog tag” to wear with your name and cell phone number. I actually made one for my daughter in those pet tag machines (which can be found at most pet stores) and put it on a necklace chain. (A hot tip for temporary tattooing: Use a non-toxic marker to write, wait for it to dry, and apply hair spray or New Skin to set it and prevent it from smearing.)

Check your passports

Children’s passports only last five years and they have a habit of running out when you’re not looking. Allow at least four weeks to renew one. The cost of a last-minute passport is astronomical, and particularly galling if you only realise it’s necessary when already in the ferry queue at Calais. Don’t ask us how we know this. We just do.

Remember the baby wipes

Even if all your children are long out of nappies, don’t forget the baby wipes. They’re useful for washing hands, cleaning toilet seats, and wiping down restaurant tables. In the same spirit, little bottles of hand cleanser can be a lifesaver in some countries, but check the travel regulations for liquids well in advance.

Engage and involve older children

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The best way to avoid a soul-destroying sulk from your teenager is to involve them in the planning of the holiday and ask them for input on what they’d like to do. You might be surprised to hear it’s not spending all day on the internet. And whatever happens…stay calm. Kids are more likely to have fun if they see that you are. So fake it if you have to. They’ll sleep hard so then you can indulge in that extra glass of wine or chocolate lava cake you told them they couldn’t have.

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