Travelling as a young adult seems like a rite of passage for many of us. But what happens when your normal travel routine is rudely dashed by an additional small person spontaneously appearing in your life?
Travelling with kids is certainly no easy feat, but this article should give you some insights into what to do, and more importantly what not to do when your family starts to grow in numbers.
Don’t make it a battle
Just before our first child was born I asked one of the local salty sea dogs for advice, and these were his words ‘Don’t make it a battle’. This has become a bit of a mantra in my house now, probably uttered once a fortnight!
With this in mind, when you are on the road with kids, I think you have to let a few of your normal routines and good habits slide. Oftentimes, you will all be sleep deprived, hungry, and out of your comfort zone, kids included. It’s ok to give them a screen for a bit longer than usual, or maybe allow that unhealthy snack that you wouldn’t normally.
To make this piece easier to digest, we’re going to split it up into two parts – Road Trips and Flights. But, before we get into the details, here are a few go-to tactics when traveling in any form with your offspring.
1: Bring snacks
You’ll be surprised at the joy a small snack can give your kids, and adults for that matter – Especially when they are bored out of their brains! A good idea is to pre-portion the snacks and try to ration them if you have a long journey ahead. You can even make games out of this – say things like “in fifty miles you get another snack” for instance.
On that theme, I remember buying a small bar of chocolate whilst driving through Europe, on our way to the big-wave mecca of Nazaré, Portugal. We were on a particularly boring section of highway so I made up a game to see how long you could make your small piece of chocolate last in your mouth. The whole bar probably lasted an hour between four people and we ripped through about eighty miles of road in the process – I’m chalking that one down as a win!
2: Let them know how long things will take
Our eldest daughter likes to know everything which I think is a pretty common trait among small humans. The calls of ‘are we there yet?’ can be avoided to a certain extent by explaining the journey to them. Try to compare the timings with something your kids can relate to.
For example, if soccer practice lasts an hour, try to use that as a yardstick to explain how long your journey will last.
You can also take a look at your route on a computer, or better still grab a physical map and talk about where you will be going. But do this ahead of time, so your kids can mentally prepare for the journey.
3: Take breaks
Not so easy once you are on the plane, but if you are travelling with kids under your own steam, don’t do what I used to do and try to race from point A to point B. Allow a tonne of time to get to your destination, and explore a bit away from the motorway service stations if you have it in you.
Last Summer we were traveling to Portsmouth in the UK, to get the ferry to France, so we made a pit stop in the town of Glastonbury. We spent an hour or so out of the van, had a picnic in the park, and checked out a few of the crazy shops. It broke up the journey nicely and made the last section of driving much more enjoyable.
4: Have extra clothes at the ready
You never know when the shit will hit the fan, so be prepared with extra clothes in an easy-to-reach bag or cupboard in your van. Even if they are not needed, it takes the pressure off knowing you’re prepared.
5: Charge your devices
A really easy thing to do is make sure all phones, tablets and the like are fully charged before you head off on your trip. If you are a heavy tech user, a good additional purchase is a portable power bank to top up your juice when needed. These small backup batteries can be bought at any electrical shop or online for about $20-$30.
Being a surfer, I have always gravitated towards multi-purpose vehicles – minivans, estate cars, pickups, and the like. I have owned several surf wagons since passing my driving test many moons ago. The joys of loading up your van with friends, snacks, and supplies and heading off into the unknown are one of the great things in life!
However, when you throw a few kids into the mix, your priorities have to change a little, or maybe a lot!
Bag Check: What to Pack for a Road Trip
Of course, you want to take some of your own personal belongings, but remember this trip is not just about you.I distinctly remember heading off to Northern Spain for a Summer trip with two kids under three years of age and about six surfboards! Kids wedged in the back of the van next to a pile of boards. I probably only ended up using one of the surfboards! It turned out to be a pain in the ass having to move the boards in and out of the van every day too – never again.
Here are a few things we like to include for the kids, especially if we’re camping.
6: Headtorch: These can be picked up super cheap on Amazon or your local camping shop. Great fun for the kids when the sun goes down, and practical too. Super small to pack too, so won’t take up a load of space in your bag.
7: Kids’ reading books / Colouring books / Puzzle books: A bit of a tradition in our family is to get a new puzzle book or a coloring book (or both) if we are going on a trip. These can be picked up from your local newspaper shop or supermarket. Take one or two ‘reading books’ too and you’re set.
Top Tip: If you are doing a lot of driving and the kids have books or something in front of them, keep an eye on how much time they are looking down at their book or screen. On a trip around BC, after driving through the winding mountain passes, the back of our rental car was filled with child-sick because they spent too long looking down at their book. Not fun!
8: Travel board game / Pack of cards: Playing a board game or card game is a family favorite – providing the kids are old enough – and if not, just make teams with an adult on each team. We’ve had a few camping trips in particular, bbq fired up in the evening, and endless rounds of Go Fish or Uno to pass the time. It makes for some amazing memories your kids will remember into adulthood.
9: Tablet / iPad / Kindle: Ok, so I left this one until last, and in our family, we try to keep these as a last resort. But, when you’ve got an hour left to drive and everything else is done, the digital screen can be a game-changer. On our first long road trip some years ago I was adamant our kids would not be allowed to turn into vegetables on the screen, but after a few hours of driving through the middle of France, I gave in, and plugged them into the matrix. The result? An hour and a half of quiet, aggro-free highway driving.
Top Tip: If they are old enough, have your kids pack their own ‘activity bag’ so they can choose what to bring. Obviously, you’re going to have to police this a little, but in theory, it should be one less job for you to do.
The following hints are a few things to remember to do if you are taking a flight, long haul, or short travelling with kids in tow.
Bag Check: What to pack for a flight
10: Luggage: Be sure to check in as much stuff as possible into the hold. This way you only have (hopefully) a small bag to take through the airport. You can normally check kids’ car seats and strollers free of charge.
Top Tip: If you have small kids, don’t check your stroller into the hold. Keep it with you until you reach the gate. This makes navigating the airport so much easier – and often gets you fast-tracked at airport security.
11: Download movies ahead of time: Depending on your airline you may or may not have an entertainment screen. If you are flying budget and are taking your own devices, make sure you download a couple of movies, games, or tv shows for your kids to watch on the flight. You’ll be kicking yourself if you forget to do this!
12: Pack a blanket: The familiarity of a favorite blanket will make your kids really comfortable, especially if there is the option for a mid-flight nap.
13: Boiled sweets or a dummy: Taking off and landing can be especially strange for kids who have not been on a plane before. Sucking a sweet or a dummy (if they’re small) can help to equalize the pressure on their ears and make them ‘pop’ back to normal.
14: Plan a surprise: Keep a surprise up your sleeve to bring out when things are getting tiresome. This could be as simple as a snack, new book, or small toy – a good way to make the flight more exciting for your little ones and get yourself over a bad patch.
15: Spend some time: Make some time to sit with your kids and give them some one-to-one attention. Play a game with them, read a book together or do some puzzles. They will appreciate the time with you. I’ve found it’s also a really good way to prevent fistfights between siblings!
Travelling with your children is very challenging, but if you don’t get too stressed and try to make it fun, your kids will respond and enjoy it too.
Whatever tips you take away from our list here, remember to keep things light-hearted, don’t overthink it too much and relax!
by Matt Hapgood
Matt Hapgood is a surfer, father, and entrepreneur. He has worn many hats in his career, from teaching elementary kids to working as a removals guy. He’s the founder and main contributor to MattHapgood.com and is currently living in the Algarve, Portugal.