The first time you contemplate hitting the road as a family can feel fraught with potential disaster – you envisage being stuck without vital wet wipes, or seeing your precious toddler getting sucked into the chaos of a Turkish bazaar. Relax. It will be okay. It’s actually very satisfying exploring the world with your younger charges in tow. Here are a few tips to ensure that even the most daunting trip will be as smooth as the proverbial baby’s.
Where to go
Pick a destination that caters to the preferences of the entire family. This is your holiday, too! If the thought of crowds and queues makes you shudder, don’t plump for Disneyland simply to please the younger generation. On the other hand, if your four-year-old proves reticent at the mere suggestion of a walk to the shops, perhaps leave the Alpine hiking holiday for later years.
Look for destinations that will give you more bang for your buck, experience-wise. A voyage to Sri Lanka, for instance, will please beach babies, adult architecture buffs, nature-loving children, and foodies of all ages. A city break in Paris, meanwhile, will be a sure-fire success if you alternate visits to galleries and museums (keep them short but sweet, to avoid boredom) with a ramble and clamber around the child-friendly Parc de la Villette and a trip to the top of the Tour d’Eiffel.
What to do
You may be tempted to lash out on the latest high-tech theme park, leaving your wallet wincing, but don’t assume that these big-ticket attractions will be the most fulfilling for your kids: a splash about in the shallows of a local duck pond can prove far more fun than a fancy water park, and more meaningful as a family, too. If you’re headed for a city, check out local transportation options, as trams, trains and buses are often cheap adventures that excite the little ones (and save tired, small feet at the same time).
One of the greatest parts of travel is meeting new people, so look for opportunities for your children to interact with local children. A visit to the playground may spark new friendships, whilst libraries, museums and local festivals can all offer social activities for kids. Expat networks are handy for getting the lowdown on family-friendly events. Even if you need to ask for help finding a bathroom or requesting a special dish at a restaurant – travelling with children is a terrific ice-breaker.
By the same token, if you’re travelling well off the beaten track, be aware that you and your children may be a local attraction in your own right, with people wanting to coo over your kids and have their photos taken with them. If it looks like your children are getting paparazzi‘d out, don’t be worried about saying ‘no’ when enough attention, however well meaning, is enough.
Where to stay
So you’ve picked your destination and booked your flights, but exactly where are you all going to bed down? When it comes to accommodation, pick the type that genuinely appeals to you. Keen cooks itching to hit the local markets might relish an apartment rental, whilst parents looking for anything but the sight of a saucepan should go for a sleek hotel suite with snappy room service – and an amenable child-friendly policy. There’s nothing more dispiriting than arriving at that dream Fijian resort with your laugh-a-minute toddlers, only to discover that the clientele comprises entirely of canoodling, cocktailing honeymooners.
One especially good – and often overlooked – form of accommodation for families is house-swapping. Check Craigslist, or Homeexchange.com to connect with other travelling families; exchanging homes with a similar family is ideal for getting local tips and useful equipment, such as strollers, baby beds, and even a family-friendly car.
What to pack
Don’t slow your family journey down by turning yourselves into a procession of human packhorses. A good rule of thumb is to pack everything you think you’ll need for the entire family, then remove around one quarter of each person’s belongings: it’s generally far easier to find a local laundry service than to drag excruciatingly heavy bags about, and chances are your children won’t miss those extra outfits anyway.
When it comes to packing for emergencies, check reliable sources to find out whether staples such as baby formula milk, wet wipes, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and basic medical supplies will be available at your destination. Lonely Planet guides and its Travel with Children book are good resources for this information.
For those long journeys where boredom is an imminent threat, make sure you pack plentiful diversion in the form of books, crayons, games, small toys and occasional unexpected treats – but avoid bringing along any toy of sentimental value, just in case it’s mislaid en route.
Here’s wishing you and your assorted musketeers a lifetime of amazing journeys.
This article was published in August 2012 and refreshed in January 2013.