Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco
The Observer, Sunday 20 January 2008
Planning your trip
1 If this is your first trip with your children, plan for a slower pace than you might usually attempt. If you want to see more than one place, be realistic about what you can cover with little ones in tow. The less you feel you have to pack in, the more enjoyable and stress-free the holiday – and you’ll be better able to take the odd day indoors in your stride if the weather is bad or the kids need to rest.
2 If you are travelling with another family, or adults, before you go, discuss what each person wants to do, agree how to split chores or take turns minding the children, and talk about the balance of spending time together and apart. Come to an agreement about the way you’ll split the bills (taking into account the smaller share of expenditures for the children).
3 If your children have special needs, it can be helpful talking to parents whose children have similar conditions, and who may have useful travel tips – try disabledfriends.com or youreable.com. Getting an identity bracelet that has details of your child’s medical condition, treatment and their doctor’s name is useful in case of emergencies (medicalert.org.uk).
4 Similarly if anyone has serious allergies, you might want them to travel with a card that specifies, in the language of your destination, what they’re allergic to and how serious the condition is. Allergy UK produces cards in 27 different languages (allergyuk.org).
5 If you are looking to keep costs down, consider a home exchange. If you swap with another family you can end up with a child-proofed home, toys to play with and insider information on things to do and healthcare services. The following websites may be useful: homelink.org (house-swap organisation with over 13,000 homes in 69 countries); matchinghouses.com (house swaps for families with special needs).
Other low-cost options include farm stays and university accommodation (venuemasters.co.uk); these have potential pluses such as animals to look at, sports facilities and wide open spaces.
6 If you’re going down the hotel route, always check for special family deals, from discounted rates to free meals for children; many international chains offer these. Most hotels and guesthouses provide breakfast, but unless it’s included in the room rate, it’s often a waste of money for children, particularly if they only eat a piece of bread or a bowl of cereal. If breakfast isn’t included, try asking for ‘complimentary’ ones for the children. Alternatively, you could take along something to snack on for the first day, and buy in a simple breakfast to eat in your room thereafter.
7 Supervised childcare such as a kids’ club sounds good, but can mean little more than a bunch of children lumped together in front of a TV while an attendant keeps an eye on them. Ask how many children are cared for, whether groups are split according to age, and what specific activities might be – and be prepared to check it out yourself when you arrive. If anything seems amiss, be prepared to cancel your plans and start looking for alternatives.
8 Finding accommodation when you arrive can be challenging with children in tow. So even if you do want to keep things flexible, it’s worth pre-booking for your first few nights: this will allow you to look for other places in a more leisurely way.
9 If you’re going overseas, see your doctor at least two months before you leave to discuss your plans. When making the appointment, mention the ages of your children and ask if they need to come to the appointment; when you go, bring everyone’s vaccination records, and ask the doctor to note down their blood groups for you. If any of your children has a pre-existing medical condition, ask for help in identifying a doctor in your destination who specialises in the same condition. Children under 18 months won’t be given any travel-related jabs.
10 If you’re travelling to a country in which malaria is endemic (check the list of affected countries at who.int/ith/en), you need specialist advice on the appropriate antimalarial medication. You’ll also need to make sure you take ample supplies of insect repellent, clothes to cover everyone up in the evenings and, if the place you’re staying in doesn’t have them, bed-nets impregnated with insecticide.
11 You can get antimalarials in syrup form, though tablets are much more common. As children are usually prescribed smaller amounts of the same antimalarials as adults, this means breaking tablets into pieces, so it’s a good idea to buy a pill-cutter; these are widely available and cost next to nothing.
12 If you’re going to need visas for your destination, don’t be surprised if they’re a requirement for children as well as adults, and that their fee is the same as for yours. As many countries require visas to be collected in person by applicants (including children), you may have to make a trip to the main embassy in your country, although it’s often possible to apply in writing first to avoid two trips.
13 There are a number of instances where you might need to carry extra documentation when travelling with children. If you have an adopted child, you must take their adoption papers; and if you’re the only parent travelling – regardless of your marital status – you might be asked for proof of consent from the other parent for your child to travel. This is more likely in countries where overseas adoption and/or child trafficking is common. If the name on your child’s passport is not the same as yours, or if your child bears little resemblance to you, the chances of this being an issue increase.
The standard requirements for authorisation to travel are your child’s birth certificate, your marriage certificate (if applicable) and a signed and attested consent letter from the other parent confirming you can travel with your child. If the other parent is no longer alive, you may need proof.
14 Getting your children started on a few holiday-related projects before you leave is a great way to prepare them for what’s to come. You could explore maps, or the history, geography, animal and plant life of your destination, or read books or watch a film that’s set there. If the food is likely to be radically different, research dishes that they might enjoy, and try rustling up something similar before you go.
On the move
15 If it looks like you’re going to be weighed down with mountains of bags, you may want to send on suitcases and bulky items such as prams via a baggage delivery company. You’ll pay around £70 to send up to 30kg of luggage one way between European countries, and £110 between the UK and US, but prices per kilo come down the more you send, and you’ll get better rates if you send things a few weeks rather than a few days before you travel. Try firstluggage.com or carrymyluggage.com for a quotation.
There are also companies that specialise in delivering baby products such as formula, baby food and nappies – try babiestravellite.com.
16 Hand-held carrycots are superb for babies small enough to carry when on the move, and can double up as a bed, too. Although some hotels offer beds for babies, they’re often pretty poor, with saggy mattresses and no shields to prevent babies from falling out. It’s better to play safe and bring your own. Most carrycots come with a detachable cover for the body and a shade for the head, and some have a built-in net screen as well. Apart from the obvious protection against the sun and bugs, these are useful for blocking out glaring ceiling lights – such as in airports – which tend to bother babies. Travel cots that break down into several pieces and pack away into their own bag are useful for babies and toddlers too large for carrycots. Carrying babies in a sling strapped to the body is a popular option; both hands remain free and you can detect changes immediately, sensing the moment your child wakes, sneezes, or has a stomach cramp. Slings are the perfect travel aid: they’re comfortable, practical, and fold away into no space at all. They’re suitable for babies over a week old, measuring at least 53cm tall and weighing more than 3.5kg, and the best ones have wide straps that distribute weight, are machine-washable and have a back or neck support for the baby.
17 A pram or buggy can be useful on holiday even if your child is walking, serving as a place for them to rest during day trips, a makeshift bed when out in restaurants and something to help with carrying the bags. If your destination is unlikely to have paved paths, it may be worth investing in an all-terrain version.
18 In each new place, don’t forget to designate a meeting point in case anyone gets separated from the group. If it’s likely you’ll be in really dense crowds, promising a reward for staying together works as a good incentive.
19 Child monitors can be a real help to keep an eye on young children in crowded places such as airports and shopping malls. The parent carries a tracking device – about the size of a TV remote control – while the child wears a watch-like contraption. Should the distance between the child and the tracker exceed the user-defined range, or if the bracelet is removed, an alarm sounds. Furthermore, once the tracker sounds the alarm, you can push a button to set off a bleeper on your child’s bracelet to help you track them down.
20 If your children still crawl around on the floor, one way of keeping them reasonably clean is to take a plastic sheet that you can put down anywhere for them to play on.
21 If you have to sterilise things regularly, consider taking a portable steam steriliser; they work well and with minimum fuss. For sterilising small items on the move – for example dummies or teething toys – you can use sterilising tablets in a watertight screw-top container.
22 If your child is on bottles, bring what you need to make up fresh ones along the way; to save space, fill spare bottles with water, then add milk powder and top up with boiling water when you need them.
23 Breastfeeding in an unfamiliar destination can be a worry, and it is worth doing some research into local attitudes towards feeding in public before you go. If in doubt, try finding some female company, perhaps in a women’s clothing shop. Another idea is to head for the ladies’ toilets of a posh hotel; these are usually spacious, with seats and pleasant surroundings.
24 If you’d like to be met at check-in and helped with the children and the bags all the way to your plane, ask for ‘meet and assist’ services when booking your flight. This is generally provided by the airport and not the airline, and whether or not you get it depends on the availability of staff – but if you’re travelling as a single parent with more than one child, you’ll be given priority.
25 If you’re a member of an airline’s frequent-flyer club, you may be entitled to use a private departure lounge. Facilities such as a supervised place to leave hand luggage, comfortable chairs, free drinks and snacks, TVs and spacious toilet facilities are especially welcome when travelling with children. If you’re not a member, you can often use the lounges if you buy a day pass.
26 Check the latest restrictions on hand luggage before travelling. The more stringent regulations relate to carrying liquids, gels and creams, which includes baby foods, drinks and nappy cream. The standard instructions are not to carry over 100ml of any single item, although exceptions are usually made for essential medicines or supplies for children under two. You can also get away with more (up to 400ml) in the way of milk and drinks so long as these are decanted into bottles and no-spill cups; if you carry the same in the original cartons or bottles, you’ll be asked to leave them behind. There are also discretionary limits for baby food – these are generally kept vague, but as long as you don’t have more than what security staff deem to be a reasonable amount for the flight, you’ll usually be fine.
The best way around the restrictions is to decant creams into small bottles, and bring just powdered milk; you can get hot water to make feeds on most flights, and as soon as you pass security, you can buy bottled water too.
27 Some airlines let you check in online, which allows you to book preferred seats from home and cuts out queuing. When you get to the airport, you usually join a fast-track queue to hand over your checked luggage. Similarly, train stations which feed airports occasionally have check-in facilities, meaning you’re then free to board the train with the children but without the bags. Some airlines allow you to check in luggage in advance, sometimes as much as a day before you fly. Though you have to make an advance trip to the airport to do this, the advantages are that you get to turn up a little later than usual on the day, and will have your hands free to tend to your children.
28 The low humidity of cabin air can cause mild dehydration as well as dry and irritated nostrils, so it’s important to get kids to drink regularly. If anyone gets a streaming nose (also a factor of low humidity), wet the insides of their nostrils with a finger dipped in water – this often works like magic. Flying can also prompt air expansion in the middle ear and sinuses, which can be painful for babies and infants because of their smaller ear passages. To prevent discomfort, massage your child’s ears from behind and give the earlobes a few gentle tugs from time to time. Toddlers also find it helpful to suck on something or have a drink during take-off and landing.
Rail and bus travel
29 When booking tickets, make a point of asking for deals for families and young people. In many instances, a family travelcard reduces the cost of ordinary tickets by so much that it’s worth buying one even for a single trip. Such deals are usually restricted to travel outside rush hours. To buy a railcard, you usually need to show identification for one or both parents, and have photographs with you.
30 If you’re travelling with more than one child and you want space for them to play, it’s a good idea to buy more tickets than you need, or book out an entire compartment. This might sound elitist, but sharing a packed carriage can be overwhelming when you’re with small children.
31 When you’re boarding a bus or train, decide who is going to get on first, who will go last and who is stowing the luggage so as to be sure nothing and no one gets left behind. If you’re on a train, establish limits in terms of how far older children can stray and how long they can be away for, emphasising that they always need to come back to you when the train slows down to stop.
32 Regardless of the regulations in your destination, always use children’s car seats whenever driving with your kids. If you’re going to use the seat in several different cars – taxis, say – go for a universal model which works with all kinds of seatbelts. For general guidelines and information on some of the common errors when fitting child’s car and booster seats, go to childcarseats.org.uk.
33 Extra rear-view mirrors trained on the back seats will allow you to keep an eye on the children without having to turn around, and are particularly useful if you’re driving without another adult. They are easy to get hold of in car accessory shops or online.
34 Accessories for entertainment such as tape decks or portable CD/DVD players fitted for use in cars (via the cigarette lighter) help to ensure the right mix of entertainment for children. And if you don’t want their fun to bother the driver, bring headphones as well.
35 If you’re heading for the heat, choose clothes made from natural fibres – sweat irritates delicate skins and can lead to prickly heat or sweat rash. Expect to change your baby up to three times a day – particularly if they’re not used to the heat and will sweat a lot. Children will need two sets of clothes per day, and sunhats with wide brims and neck flaps are worthwhile when playing outdoors. Equally, don’t overlook the fact that children’s eyes are more vulnerable to glare than yours; get them sunglasses, or goggles with elasticated straps, which stay on better.
36 If the tap water isn’t safe to drink, you’ll need to boil, filter or sterilise your own, or buy bottled water. If you plan to use bottled water to make up formula feeds, aim to get the lowest mineral content you can. Make sure the children don’t drink from taps, including when brushing teeth. Keeping a bottle of drinking water by the sink is a helpful reminder.
37 When eating out in countries with poor standards of sanitation and hygiene, always eat at busy places where the turnover of food will be fast, and avoid buffets: they’re notorious for harbouring the bugs that cause diarrhoea.
38 When eating in restaurants, if the crockery or cutlery is wet, giving it a dry wipe with a clean tissue will lower any potential dose of bugs. Check that bottles and cans are unopened before handing these to the children (and use straws or clean the can or bottle before they drink), and get them to avoid ice and salads.
39 Carry some non-prescription antihistamine such as Piriton, for symptoms such as sneezing, streaming noses or itchy eyes. For skin allergies, try applying over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream; natural alternatives include drinking honey and apple cider mixed with warm water, a spoonful of honey or, particularly for hayfever, nettle tea.
40 Children are particularly prone to dehydration, mostly because they don’t drink unless they feel thirsty. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, you should drink more whenever it’s hot so that you produce slightly diluted milk; but if temperatures are particularly high and you don’t have enough milk, give them some water to drink, too. Also check all your children’s urine from time to time; if it’s darker than usual, cloudy or strong-smelling, insist that they drink more.
41 Constipation can be caused by dehydration or changes in diet. Give babies water to drink, use a light oil to massage their tummies, and bring their knees up to their chests a few times. You can also gently rub a button of Vaseline over their anus. Give older children water and a few teaspoons of a light vegetable oil to drink, as well as trying the Vaseline and abdominal massage.
42 Most hotels do not provide mosquito nets for baby cots so you’ll need to take your own. The easiest way to protect babies from insect bites (apart from mosquito nets), is to put them in a light cotton fabric sleeping bag, with a long-sleeved top, and slather a healthy dose of insect repellent on the fabric.
43 Most tourist accommodation isn’t particularly child-friendly, so once you’ve checked in you’ll probably need to make some adaptations yourself. Start off by checking locks on doors and windows to make sure the room is secure. Check the sturdiness of the fittings – wobbly balconies and railings are unsafe and mean you should change your accommodation straight away. Point out things such as loose towel-rails or curtain rails to the staff and either agree that you can’t be responsible should they fall down, or ask for them to be fixed or removed. Use insulating tape to cover exposed wires or sockets or block them off with furniture that’s too heavy for your children to move. It’s also a good idea to check the temperature of the hot water; it’s often scalding, so you may need to warn your children.
44 Once you’ve researched your destination, prepare a list of possible activities that take various lengths of time and suit different weather conditions. If you’ve more than one child, give each a turn to make choices from the activities list.
45 If you’re travelling with more than one adult, try splitting up from time to time, either having time with the children, or heading off without them to do something on your own.
46 If you plan on walking or cycling, remember that young children won’t want to focus on getting from A to B, but on following their interests, so allow time for exploring. Plan your route around the capacity of your youngest child and your ability to carry them. Try to choose a route where the scenery will change frequently. Good choices for walks or rides include following a river or canal towpath; there are no hills to negotiate, and there’s the possible bonus of water to play in and birds to feed. It’s also a good idea to combine walks or rides with an activity such as swimming or taking a short train ride.
47 Children might get more exposure to sunshine than adults if carried in backpacks or on a child seat at the front of a bike; and if they’re not walking or cycling themselves, they’ll get colder than everyone else as they won’t be warmed up with exercise – protect them accordingly and have layers to pull on and take off.
48 Apart from taking photographs, there are lots of ways to help your children preserve memories of your trip. You could buy a postcard for each destination and help them to note a single memory on the back, alongside the date or their age. You could also get them started on collections of things that can be found in most places, such as badges, paperweights, model cars and boats or toy animals.
49 If your children are keeping a journal, encourage them to draw and list things they see and eat; they could also collect autographs and doodles from people they meet as well as ticket stubs and labels to stick in. If free mini-maps of places you visit are available, get extras for the children to stick into their books, and help them circle the places you’ve seen. If you’re encountering different languages, put in lists of new words and add more as they learn one set.
50 Local toys are often worth seeking out, and make great gifts to take home. Apart from the novelty value, kids tend to like playing with the same things that local children have, and it can help with making friends.