Here’s a piece I wrote for our local NCT magazine – 10 top tips for happy holidays with children.
1. Do your research. Getting the right accommodation in the right location will make the difference. Think also about the type of holiday you want – villas can be great as they enable you to self-cater and usually come equipped with cots and high chairs; but they can also be quite isolating – often a drive or a long walk from shops, restaurants, and beaches and not geared up for socialising with other parents and children. On the flip side, hotels are often constricting (no wet trunks in the beachside restaurant!?!) and can work out expensive – with no opportunity to fix a snack or meal, it can be tedious waiting in restaurants to be served when you have children that want feeding now. Plus you are usually squashed into one room – not ideal when the lights have to go out at 7pm. There are some great websites now that specialise in accommodation that’s geared especially for small children – but that’s also special for Mum and Dad too. My favourites are i-escape.com (it has a new ‘kids collection’ and rates every property according to how child-friendly it is); and babyfriendlyboltholes.com, which has some fantastic properties that bridge the divide between villas and hotels, allowing you to self-cater but also with communal pools (for meeting other parents/children), boxes of toys and meal delivery services. We’ve just come back from one in Spain that, for my money, was near-perfect (you could email me for the details but it’s almost too good to share).
2. If you fancy going somewhere other than Europe, consider looking south rather than east or west. Jet lag really affects children and can result in your holiday becoming more fraught rather than relaxing. The most we’ve attempted is a 6 hour time difference when travelling to Mexico and, even on a 10-day holiday, it was probably too much. A week into the trip Leo and Genevieve were still struggling to stay awake till dinner, making evening meal times a grumpy, fairly miserable experience for everyone. There are plenty of destinations that are child-friendly – South Africa, Mauritius, Egypt, Oman, Dubai – which are 4 hours difference or less and don’t require jabs. Overnight flights have worked particularly well with our children – put them in their pyjamas as soon as you board and, hopefully, like Leo and Genevieve, they’ll wake up at touch down.
3. If you have toddlers, get Trunkis. Not only do kids love packing them with their own toys before they go, they love being pulled round the airport. In our experience, Trunkis make lengthy check-in queues less painful as one of you can take them for a ride to visit the oversize baggage belt whilst the other holds the place in line!
4. Use valet parking at the airport. Sounds expensive? You do pay more, but in the grand scheme of your holiday, not much – typically about £30. And for the relief of not having to cart 3 case, 2 car seats and potentially one or more grumpy / over-excited / tired (delete as appropriate) children onto a transfer bus, worth every penny.
5. Travel far and wide whilst you have a baby. Honestly, they are really portable! City-breaks, long-haul holidays – babies go with the flow. We took Leo on a touring holiday or South Africa when he was 10 months. Still napping and, thankfully, not walking, we could sup chardonnay at wineries and enjoy long lunches without any bother at all – things that would be impossible now. What’s more, if you’re breastfeeding, it can make it all even easier – you don’t need to worry about sterilising bottles and you have a comforter ready to go. On several occasions my wife’s boobs have masterfully brought instant peace and relief to an entire Boeing 747. Don’t waste the opportunity to go when they’re little – it’s a narrow window.
6. If you’re going long-haul with an under 2, fly BA. Most airlines will give you a bassinet for small babies; but few will offer you one once the child is over 9 kg. BA guarantee you one up to the age of 2 – which also means Mum, Dad and older siblings get to sit in leg-room seats (and for someone who’s 6’2”, that is a huge bonus). Best of all, the seats are allocated at booking for no extra charge – so there’s no scramble when online check-in opens the night before.
7. Get an iPad. Even if you have to sell Grandma’s silver teapot to finance it, it’s worth it. As far as I’m concerned, once onboard a plane, the gloves are off. The children can watch what they like, play what they like, and eat what they like, provided they stay relatively still and don’t screech. I personally don’t believe in using any sort of sedative with children, but the iPad is equally – if not more – effective in keeping them entertained (and quiet). The only problem is if you have 2 children and one iPad… in which case a spare iPhone can come in handy (as was the case for us on a recent flight back from Alicante). And the iPad is not just for the plane – it’s great for all those moments when you have to hang around, or just for when the children need some quiet time out of the sun. A total lifesaver.
8. If staying in a hotel, make sure you know what time breakfast is served in the morning – and come prepared with food to keep the children going if they wake up early. Inevitably, if you travel west to the Caribbean and US, your kids will be waking up on their first morning at 4-5am, raring to go. The agony of waiting till 8am for the breakfast buffet to open is intolerable for everyone; a pack of Digestive biscuits goes a long way to ensuring family harmony.
9. If possible, arrange a private transfer when you arrive. Especially after a long flight, you just want to know a car is waiting for you and will take you straight to your accommodation. Some of the most stressful moments on holidays have been at car rental desks. Getting the keys to a car always takes ages (how many bits of paper?) and your children are invariably exhausted or starving just as you are trying to sort it all out. When we went to Cape Town, Avis offered a service where a driver picked us up and drove us to the hotel, and delivered the hire car later. No trauma of navigating to the hotel after an overnight flight, plus I was able to do all the paperwork sat in the hotel lounge with a cool drink whilst Leo slept – perfect.
10. Slow down. My wife will laugh at me writing this, as she knows it’s something I find almost impossible to do. But travelling with children is teaching me to kick back and take it easier. For a small child, a walk to get an ice cream in the local village cafe can be enough of an outing – you don’t need to do much else apart from play and (hopefully) enjoy the sun. And the pace is making me appreciate places more. Recently, in Mexico, we managed to spend 3 nights at Chichen Itza (where, pre-children, 1 night to dash around the ruins would have sufficed). And yet between spotting banana plants and birds in the gardens, splashing in the (freezing) pool and popping into the nearby town for a fajita lunch, we managed to be in the taxi home bidding ‘adios’ – or rather, ‘hasta luego’ – before we knew it.