Without doubt, the most effective way to strike fear deep into the heart of any childless plane passenger during boarding is to creep purposefully towards their seat row with a baby or toddler in tow (bonus points if your child is already whining, throwing up, or plastering your hair with a goop-laden teething rusk). Not surprisingly, the primordial fear of kids on planes runs both ways. Even normally cucumber-cool parents can be reduced to nervous stress puddles just thinking about the potential for Junior to throw a nuclear-level meltdown midflight (and the inevitable roomful of disapproving stares to follow).
However if you’ve been postponing plane travels with children because of how tricky parental folklore portrays it to be, or holding out on that big family road trip thanks to how un-fun and ripe for disaster they seem in comedy movies (here’s looking at you National Lampoon’s Vacation), we’ve got a red hot scoop; trips with kids CAN be survived – even enjoyed – no matter what age your children are. This parenting public service announcement comes with a caveat: for smooth travels you’ll need to align your expectations to match your child and their strengths.
Here’s seven tips to help you get up, up and away.
1: Know Your Child’s Limits
It might look picture perfect on Instagram, but will that trip to a Mexican reef to swim with whale sharks delight or terrify your little ones? Let your innate knowledge of your child’s physical and emotional stamina be your guide when considering travel destinations and activities. If Junior can’t get through an episode of The Wiggles without getting so hyped up they trash the lounge room before collapsing into a regenerative power nap, a consecutive five-day pass to Disneyworld might be a stretch. Likewise, if Junior can’t get around a shopping mall without requesting to be picked up, a hike to Everest’s base camp mightn’t bode well unless you’re prepared to seriously step up your Sherpa game. Granted, children don’t often reach their potential until they’re challenged. However proceed with baby steps, keeping in mind that testing their mettle on the road can backfire in spectacular fashion (think dummy spits Kanye would be envious of).
2: Don’t Mess With Sleep
Dovetailing the last tip, travels run smoother if you incorporate your child’s sleep patterns into your schedule as much as practicably possible. A tired child is like an emotionally fragile time bomb, so minimize situations likely to cause over exhaustion and light their fuse – like scheduling a giant family reunion the night you arrive after a long-haul journey, or booking consecutive red eye flights.
If your child sleeps well in cars and planes, it can be helpful to earmark big stretches of travel time to coincide with their usual naps – but be aware that some mini travel gurus have trouble falling asleep in new situations (like hurtling through the sky in an oversized tin can filled with strangers, for example). Unfamiliar surroundings overstimulate little minds making it harder to rest, so add any familiar touches you can. Try following a similar sleep routine to the one you regularly use at home (eg: dinner, book, cuddles then bedtime), or pack their fave soft toys or blanket to help sleeptime spaces feel more familiar wherever you may be.
3: Feed Their Bellies
It’s likely the term hangry (or hungry-angry) was invented by a child or a pregnant lady, as there are few more ferocious creatures than either on an empty stomach (and woe betide those who have both in their travel party). To keep collateral damage from your hangry hordes to a minimum always have a solid supply of healthy snacks on hand. Aim to reach destinations well before meal times, especially at night – you’d be surprised how many places don’t have late night food options. Be mindful of how long food wait times can be in popular restaurants (apparently it’s hip to be hungry). And while it’s fine to cajole picky eaters into trying new cuisines while on the road, best to initially order more familiar regular staples as backup.
4: Keep Them Briefed
Aside from mushrooms and bats, few living creatures like being kept in the dark. Kids feel less anxious (and act more calmly) when they know what to expect, so shed some light on your travel plans well in advance. Explain schedules by breaking trips down into steps, and try anticipating anything new or surprising they may encounter. For example; “The flight will be three hours, then we’ll have to wait to get through immigration, which is a big room where they’ll stamp our passports and take our photo,” etc. Show them through maps or pinpoints on the globe the destinations they’ll be visiting. Even better, involve them in the planning process or let them have some input on the activities you’ll be undertaking.
5: Keep ‘Em Separated
As Aesop once wrote, “familiarity breeds contempt”. If he hadn’t lived BC (as in ‘Before Cars’) Aesop may well have been referencing the stereotypical family wagon on school holiday missions, kids bickering in the backseat. If clashing kids drive you nuts, try rotating them in alternate seating arrangements. Get creative by booking them into different plane rows or splitting them up either side of parents, or utilising the car’s front seat to literally keep them out of reach of each other. Once at your destination, divide them up on separate activities with different family members as chaperones. Give feuding kids the space and time away from each other they need, and you’ll minimise opportunities for them to get on each other’s nerves (and salvage your own nerves while you’re at it).
6: Stress Less
For small humans prone to thinking nostrils are an acceptable hiding place for Fruit Loops, children can be surprisingly hard to fool – they can sense stress like Yogi Bear can intuit a nearby picnic basket. If you’re uptight about the logistics of your upcoming travels they’re likely to get anxious too.
If you’re not the naturally-Zen type and it’s affecting your children, consider steps to minimize stress levels. This may be simplifying your itinerary by making less stops or detours. For DIY plan-o-holics with travel option overwhelm, perhaps it’s time for a travel agent take over the planning reigns.
For those buckling under the responsibility of having a family’s worth of passports, airline tickets, travel insurance certificates and bookings in their care, consider ways to back it all up. This may be leaving photocopies with loved ones at home, organising originals in a dedicated travel wallet, and keeping virtual copies accessible somewhere safe on your phone (look for apps which can also file bookings into timelines and add updates automatically).
And when it comes to minimizing stress, get your packing sorted as early as possible – having your bags sitting ready and waiting is one less reason to
If you haven’t yet sourced suitable luggage to pack, here’s a helpful roundup on things you should look for when choosing the best travel backpack or, for further piece of mind, a rundown of the best anti-theft bags and backpacks.
7: Make It Fun
No matter where you roam, there’s always room for fun. Turn climbing steps in the airport or subway into a counting game. Get older children to help map out the series of sights you’ll be visiting into make-believe Amazing Race-style adventures. When they tire of classic trip games like Eye Spy, show kids something new, like how to use the Google Translate app to interpret any foreign signs they pass by.
Sure, there will always be tedious aspects to any form of travel. Flight delays and cancellations, anyone? But by keeping your cool and using a little ingenuity, you can completely change how your children perceive travel’s inevitable little setbacks. Then, when it’s their turn to travel without you (say when visiting relatives on school holidays, or knowing how to prepare and what to pack for summer camp for the first time) they’ll be equipped to handle it like the confident little travel buffs you’ve raised them to be.
Better still? By consistently making the effort to keep travel engaging for your little entourage, the more likely you’ll be to set the stage for you and your family to share the trip of a lifetime.
This post was originally published in the travel section of News.com.au