How to travel with kids
Sarah Siese, author of Heaven on Earth: Kids, shares her top tips on travelling with children, and how a little extra planning can vastly improve your holiday.
My rule of thumb when travelling with small children is that ‘getting there’ is far harder than ‘being there’. The more thought I have put into how to travel with my three in tow – often an equation between the age of the child and the distance to travel – the easier the holiday has been. As babies, my twins flew on our laps across Europe to Greece without a sound. At two years old, I would strap them into a familiar car seat and drive them across the Continent to avoid departure lounges. When toddlers, with airlines insisting on keeping everyone in their seats at all times and making legroom a thing of a past, a trip on Eurostar – during which a walk up and down the corridor would keep the children happier that being told to belt up at the back – always proved to be a better bet.
To help you prepare for the necessary evil of taking the tribe across the globe, we have compiled the following list of dos and don’ts. The list begins with the not-so-obvious suggestion of talking to the customer services department of your chosen airline before flying out. Without you knowing it, many airlines and tour operators do offer families special provision to pre-book seats together, or – in the case of BA for example – to order a healthy child’s meal online, or book one of their special Britax child seats on board. When The Times undertook two comprehensive surveys to rate twelve airlines on how they catered for families, the ratings included everything from charges for infants, pre-bookable seats, provision of cots and bassinets, along with nappies, formula milk, baby food, bottled water and beakers and bottles in emergency situations. Airlines were also graded on what entertainment and entertainment packs were offered to make the flight as hassle-free as possible for parents. As someone who has experienced the horror of boarding a plane to find the baby change bag had been left on the back seat of the car, I would argue that paying a little extra for a decent airline is worth its weight in nappy bags.
Finally, what rings true for a mother of a baby, will not necessarily register on the Richter scale for a mother with a pre-schooler. For this reason, we have divided up the list of dos and don’ts to cover the most difficult ages. After the age of six, when the wonderful world of books, Game Boys, iPods and in-car/flight entertainment kick in, you are on your own – free to open a book and read yourself, perhaps for the first time that year.
From hard experience, it is also better to travel pessimistically than optimistically. Having suffered a delay on a trip to Spain on my own with a bored eighteen-month-old son who seemed intent on clearing the bottles and packets from the bottom shelf of Boots and diving into the Disney store’s pile of Pooh Bears, I later became obsessed with checking what airport authorities provided in the way of a ‘family’ area once parents had checked in. Copenhagen airport, for example, has a fabulous replica of an airplane with peekaboo windows, a slide down the back and endless tables of Lego for small children to play on. Some terminals in Heathrow, however, have nothing but shops and won’t even let you sit at the oyster bar for a restorative glass of wine with a child if you have a child in tow.
Again, preparation can be the key. A quick look at the Internet, or a call to the airport before you book might make you choose a regional airport over Gatwick or Heathrow because with little ones, size does matter. Little things please little minds, and when it comes to travelling with kids, bigger is not always better.
Dos and don'ts
Babies – up to eight months
- Do check with the customer services of the airline to find out what provision is made for families with babies. For example, whether you can take a pushchair to the boarding gate, where they are checked into the hold and reclaimed at the other end, either at the aircraft door (ideal) or the carousel (not so ideal). Regulations vary between different airports and airlines.
- Do request bulkhead seats if your child is under two, where the cot/child seat is attached after take-off. These seats are often near the loo, and also offer a little more legroom.
- Do take all baby essentials as hand luggage – you may get delayed taking off.
- Do take a wet flannel in a plastic bag as well as wipes. Babies hate the taste of chemicals on their fingers.
- Do feed your baby on take-off and landing to stop discomfort as the cabin pressure changes.
- Do offer frequent feeds, including water, because flying is an especially dehydrating experience for an infant.
- Don’t forget to take a change of clothes, as well as nappies and wipes. The law of gravity demands that the cup of water will find its way down the baby’s front.
- Don’t forget to take the food your baby is used to, and ask for it to be warmed. Many airlines do not carry baby food, and on board is not the place to acquaint your baby with new tastes.
- Don’t plan for your baby to sleep throughout the journey. Even if the baby does sleep, if there is any turbulence, the cabin crew will disturb them so that their seatbelt can be attached, according to regulations.
- Don’t forget to take your baby’s favourite teddy. Airlines do provide sheets and blankets for cots, but the familiarity of a teddy can make the difference between sleep or no sleep.
Infants – aged between nine months and two years
This is the most challenging age, when children are crawling, walking, demanding constant entertainment, and the rest of the passengers tend to scowl rather than coo over your little angels.
- Do book airline seats well in advance so you can all sit together, and order children’s meals at the same time.
- Do take a supply of healthy snacks (rather than sweet ones, which will result in the inevitable sugar rush), such as raisins, bread sticks and rice cakes. Just the conjuror’s trick of pulling something new out of the bag will be a distraction for a few minutes.
- Do take reins for toddlers. It is often a long walk from the aircraft through passport control to the carousel, and reins can keep a toddler upright.
- Do ask if the swimming pool (if there is one) is attended full-time.
- Don’t forget that although children under two pay ten per cent of the adult fare, they are often provided with no food and no baggage allowance, so check ahead about weight allowance and number of bags admitted. Some airlines, such as BA, do offer twenty-three kilos of luggage allowance for under twos.
- Don’t take overnight flights if you can possibly avoid it. Children without the familiar routine of bedtime often do not sleep at all, so neither will you.
- Don’t be tempted to drug your child with Piriton or Vallergan (over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines sometimes prescribed by doctors for jetlag), unless you are able to try out the medication before flying. It can result in hyperactivity (as my twelve-hour flight to America with a lively four-year-old proved). Camomile tea, on the other hand, is harmless and may bring on sleep.
- Don’t put off the trip to the loo until landing. Just before descent is normally the ideal time, and prevents a crisis in the long wait to disembark.
Up to the age of six
Children at this age usually love the excitement of flying; the main problem is stopping them watching videos for ten hours non-stop, often washed down with the unlimited fizzy drinks that come free from the trolley.
- Do put a bracelet tag on your child with your mobile phone number if they are prone to running away in crowds.
- Do get your children to pack a small backpack with Lego, magazines and colouring pencils to carry on board. Ask ahead whether entertainment packs are offered.
- Do buy one new thing to do with the child as a treat to save for a fractious moment: a new book to read together or a game of travel Scrabble.
- Do remember to take blindfolds if your child will only sleep in the pitch black.
- Don’t forget to have some boiled sweets in your bag to help ears pop on the final descent.
- Don’t forget to ask at check-in whether you can sit with other families. The best entertainment can be a like-minded child with new magazines and toys in their backpack, and thankful parents looking for respite.
There are no universal regulations for kids clubs in hotels, so standards do vary depending on your destination and your hotel. Clubs should offer a safe and stimulating play environment, and provide activities that appeal to and inspire children, regardless of the length or frequency of their visits. If they are biased towards the local area, so much the better.
The following checklist is not a comprehensive tick-the-box guide, but should give you enough basic information to assess the club’s suitability depending on the age of your children.
- How safe is the environment? Gleneagles, for example, has an ingenious tagging system, like a clothing security device, for keeping track of children.
- How engaging is it for children? Do they offer a daily timetable of activities
- How well managed is the service? What is the ratio of staff to children?
- How cheerful, kind and patient are the staff? Ask to meet a couple.
- Parents should feel welcome to stay with their children if they want to, especially at mealtimes.
- Location, location, location: is the club bright and airy or tucked away in a dead-end zone, dark and uninviting?
- What are the resources like? Are staff able to use other areas of the hotel e.g. the ballroom, or the grounds, access to fresh air should be a pre-requisite. It’s no holiday for the child if they are confined to some chilled air-con zone or pen.
The clubs should comply with all relevant legislation, including the screening of PlayStation games, administration of medication, infection control, accident and fire procedures and very comprehensive written risk assessments, all of which you are entitled to enquire about if you have any concerns.
Staff should also be suitably trained in first aid, anaphylaxis and have EpiPen training.
Healthy drinks and snacks should be available throughout the day as part of promoting a healthy lifestyle and avoiding dehydration, and you should be asked whether your child has any special dietary requirements or nut allergies.
Staff should interact enthusiastically and purposefully with children in play activities building their confidence and self-esteem. You should expect an appropriate balance between activities children can choose for themselves and those inspired by adults, which will enable them to plan, negotiate, take decisions and be independent.
A constantly changing theme in the kids clubs renews energy for both staff and children. Although the focus is on fun and relaxation rather than learning, activities in a seaside location, for example, should always feature the local wildlife to show thought has gone into the structure of the day.
Often kids clubs’ activities are divided into different age groups, but there should be flexibility for the age groups to interact, or for siblings to stay together if they want.
Examples of activities at the best clubs
- Outdoor activities, such as dog walking at Fairmont Waterfront in Vancouver
- Bird watching, such as at Hell Bay in the Scillies
- A well-equipped club will have a huge number of props for imaginative play, such as dressing-up, a grocery shop, a playhouse with dolls, Brio train set, castles and farmyards, dolls house, ethnic dolls, board games like snakes and ladders, such as at Gleneagles
- Artistic play: T-shirt painting, painting art for the walls, mask making, such as Reethi Rah
- Indigenous crafts, such as weaving with local Rastafarians at Round Hill, Jamaica
In the twenty-first century it is becoming increasingly commonplace for children to be an inclusive part of guest hospitality. Although you don’t expect to see signs saying, ‘Only well behaved children are welcome’, it is important to remember to be considerate to other guests who may not have little ones in tow.
Taken from Heaven on Earth: Kids, © Sarah Siese and St Christopher’s Publishing Ltd..
For more travel tips and details about the Heaven on Earth series of books, visit www.heavenonearth.co.uk.