Travel has never been so kid-friendly. Long gone are the days when in-flight entertainment was limited to one communal screen, museums hid all their fascinating wares behind glass, and dining out at fancy restaurants was an adult-only affair.
The experience of travelling as a child has dramatically improved in the last 30 years. Here are five reasons we’re envious of today’s young explorers.
The world is your kid’s oyster
Then: plane travel was considered a luxury, low-cost airlines had yet to take to the skies and, for many, family holidays were annual events bookended by seemingly never-ending drives, complete with squabbling siblings and ‘are we there yet?’ on repeat.
Now: thanks to a boom in affordable air travel, the modern child may take numerous trips each year, blending close-to-home camping expeditions or farm stays with urban adventures in the world’s ‘must-see’ cities such as London, Paris or New York.
What were once considered 'trips of a lifetime' are also more likely to be regular fixtures in childhood, with long-haul holidays spent zip-lining in Costa Rica, snorkelling off Thailand’s beautiful beaches or penguin-watching off the Cape in South Africa all boosting a young jet-setter’s memory bank.
We all sleep easier, family style
Then: the whole clan often crowded into one unappetising hotel room, slept top-to-toe in a cramped tent or descended upon some kindly old friend or distant relative who had once politely suggested ‘you should really come and stay some time’.
Now: hotels are generally far better prepared for families, offering adjoining rooms, cots and even babysitting services. There’s a whole range of luxury places created specifically for the family market – Cavallino Bianco (cavallino-bianco.com) in Italy, the UK’s Watergate Bay Hotel (watergatebay.co.uk) or Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii to name just a few – with kids’ clubs, child-friendly food, play areas in the grounds and so on.
But the accommodation revolution does not stop there. Thanks to popular home swap and rental sites it’s now super easy for families to locate great apartments, often with toys, bunk beds and all the mod cons required by today’s child. If you really want to go the extra mile, companies such as Bush Baby Travel (bushbaby.travel) offer safaris where the whole family can sleep comfortably under canvas in the bush. There’s also the family cruise option, with entire ships devoted to entertaining your children… did we mention Disney?
Our digital natives engage differently with a trip
Then: without portable screens and global roaming, children were kept busy while travelling by what now looks like a relatively limited repertoire: playing games, reading books, writing a travel journal or filling up a sketch pad.
Now: technology has transformed how children engage with a trip. Sure, the tech-free pursuits still apply – kids from any era adore reading, writing, drawing and (hopefully!) playing games as a family. But now they supplement these with a wealth of digital aids: Google Earth (google.com/earth) to see what their destination looks like before they arrive; translation apps to converse easily with locals; search engines to help locate fun things to do while away; and of course Skype or social media to share stories with family and friends back home.
Tablets are now key weapons in the parental arsenal against ‘I’m bored’: they get families through delays and meltdowns, and provide respite for siblings who need a bit of space from each other. Just don’t forget to pack the charger.
It’s all about the little ones
Then: children were often an afterthought when it came to planning a family trip; parents’ priorities – relaxation or gallery-hopping, for example – came first and youngsters were expected to behave impeccably, despite the absence of anything to engage, excite or entertain them.
Now: children are specifically catered for as a group with very distinct needs. Museums and art galleries in particular have upped their game with kid-friendly tours, interactive exhibits and a much more tolerant approach to the occasional squawk from a toddler. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art helps inspire little ones before their visit with the #MetKids website, while the British Museum offers free family activity trails.
Many restaurants offer children’s menus (plus colouring pens and paper) as standard and big airlines such as Emirates offer kids activity packs; of course, in-flight entertainment now gives each member of the family the ability to choose what they want to watch, listen to or play.
Forgotten an essential piece of kid-related kit? Never fear – there are now various hire companies ready to jump at the chance to help you out.
Priority one is family time
Then: family bonding was a natural outcome of hanging out together in a tiny hotel room with nothing to do. It wasn’t necessarily something parents particularly focused on or planned for, it just happened.
Now: in today’s busy world, any period away from the daily grind is actively viewed as precious family time; it’s a chance to properly engage with each other and unite as a family. From time to time, parents may revolt against the modern technologies that, for the most part, make family travel easier – signing everyone up for that cooking class in Florence or a child-friendly trek in Tasmania so that the whole family takes on a new challenge together.
In some professions, the potential to negotiate a period of working abroad or extra unpaid leave is increasing, allowing time-squeezed parents to spend even more quality time with their little darlings.