We may have four kids between us, but thanks to the pandemic, we haven’t really had the chance to nail the whole travelling with children thing. I recently flew to Gran Canaria for a week with my almost one-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, and boy, was it an eye-opener.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect to spend whole days horizontal on a sun lounger before dragging my sun-dazed self off for a sunset beer, but I also, perhaps naively, didn’t expect to spend days hunting out the nearest playground, where I would stand pushing the pram to get the baby to sleep while watching the toddler whizz down the slide for the millionth time. Just like I do at home. Because that’s the thing about holidays with small children, it’s essentially just your usual routine in a different setting.
Don’t get me wrong; we had a wonderful time, and watching the kids take in every holiday experience – from getting a sneak peak inside the plane’s cockpit to building sandcastles and ordering gigantic ice creams – with such awe brought me utter joy. It was just different. And it got me thinking that, as the world opens up again, a list of our tips (plus some great ones from you guys) for travelling with little people might come in handy. So, whether you’re braving a plane or holidaying closer to home, here’s how to make it as pain-free as possible…
1. Sort your passports well in advance
If you followed my passport drama on Instagram stories, you’ll know my daughter’s first passport turned up three hours before I had to leave from the airport. I 10/10 do not recommend starting a holiday this way. The turnaround times for passports seem to vary week by week – when I applied, it stated 5 weeks and then changed to 10. My advice would be to allow plenty of time and, if in doubt, book an in-person appointment – there’s a one week fast track service for first passports or children’s renewals.
2. Choose your travel times wisely
You know when you’ve been travelling for what feels like forever and arrive feeling tired and grumpy AF? Now imagine feeling like that with a toddler or baby who is equally if not more tired and grumpy AF. Whether you’re getting to your destination via a plane, train, car or boat, it’s worth trying to work the timings to suit your kids routine, be that arriving in time for their usual bedtime or aligning your journey with nap time.
3. Allow plenty of extra time
I think there are two types of people in this world: those who take the “check-in opens 2.5 hours before the flight” directive with a pinch of salt, and those who get there with 3.5 hours to spare just in case. I’ve always been the latter, which comes in very handy with children. Everything just takes so much longer, so it’s definitely worth giving yourself a little extra wiggle room.
4. Bring something to help their ears pop
Babies and toddlers struggle to equalise the air pressure in their ears on their own, which can make take off and landing a bit uncomfortable. Sucking on a bottle, breast or dummy can help babies, while swallowing water or sucking on a sweet can relieve the sensation for toddlers. Both of mine seemed completely unfazed by take off and landing this time, but I remember breastfeeding my son when he was a baby to take away any discomfort, which seemed to help.
5. Pack ALL the snacks
Seriously, I can’t overstate this enough. My two devoured everything I’d bought for the plane within the first hour of the five hour flight, so I’d definitely up my snack game next time. I tried to steer clear of anything too sugary to avoid the inevitable crash and meltdown, but a bag of jelly snakes handed out sparingly definitely kept the toddler happy.
If you’re travelling abroad with a baby, it’s also worth taking some pouches and formula from home. I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but Spain had a far more limited selection of ready-made baby food than UK supermarkets. Snacks are equally important once you’ve reached your destination – a few of you recommended filling up a snack box or creating sandwiches from the breakfast buffet if you’re staying in a hotel. I’m not ashamed to say we made our son peanut butter and jam sandwiches for his lunch using the breakfast buffet and it was probably the only thing he happily ate all of the whole holiday.
6. And plenty of entertainment
It sounds obvious, but make sure your tablet of choice is fully charged and loaded with their favourite shows or game apps. My son is a YouTube fiend, so we explained beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to watch it on the flight because there was no internet, which definitely avoided a tantrum. We also took some mess-free colouring, stickers and a selection of small toys like cars and figurines.
One thing I would say is avoid anything noisy and be prepared to pick things up from the floor of the plane approximately 1000 times. I didn’t do this, but I’ve heard that wrapping up old toys or buying some new ones from a charity shop – is another great way to entertain/distract kids, and a brilliant tip from one of our Instagram followers was to pack a second bag of different toys for the way back, as her toddler had grown a bit tired of the selection after 10 days away.
If you’ve got a smaller kid one of the best bits of advice we’ve been given is to tie different toys onto the corners of a muslin. That way they’ve got a variety of things to play with and you don’t have to pick up anything off the floor.
7. Plus a spare outfit for everyone (and layers)
Yes, including yourself. I lifted the straw on my toddlers water bottle during the flight and the cabin pressure essentially turned it into a water fountain, which soaked us both, while my daughter smeared mushed-up crisps all over my trousers.
Also bring an extra jumper and even a blanket (especially if it’s a longer or night flight) as temperatures on planes can vary hugely. Hannah did a red-eye flight with a toddler back from the Caribbean (pre-lockdown) and despite having three plane blankets and one of her own was FREEZING. Be prepared!
If you are travelling long-haul with a small child, we’ve got a separate feature on that here.
8. And, don’t forget a mini first aid kit
There’s nothing worse than a screaming, teething baby at 1am in a different country without any way to help take their pain away. It’s always a bloody brilliant idea to pack a small travel pouch with plasters, Calpol (you can get sachets from Boots or Amazon which are hand-luggage friendly) and anything else you regularly rely on at home so that it’s to hand if you need it.
9. Bring a cabin-size pushchair (even if your kid’s a bit bigger)
Loads of brands now offer strollers which fold up to fit inside the plane’s cabin meaning you don’t have to check it into the hold. Hannah swears by the BabyZen Yoyo+, whilst Bugaboo have just launched their new Butterfly design. One thing we would say that as well as being an easier, more practical choice for whipping your kids about once you’re at you’re destination, they’re a bloody god send for the airport – even if your kid is three/four and normally doesn’t use a pushchair. With 15/20 minute walks to some gates and the chance of a delayed flight, there’s nothing better than knowing your little angels have somewhere to relax (or maybe even nap?) rather than asking for a pick-up.
And if you’ve got a baby/kid who still loves a carrier? BRING IT. It’ll leave you hand-free at the airport to navigate passports and hand luggage, plus means your little one will – fingers crossed – be comforted.
10. Book an all-inclusive/kids club
I can’t speak from experience here, but my brother-in-law who has six-year-old twins raves about a holiday they had to Ibiza where they could put the kids into a club for up to six hours a day. SIX HOURS. It’s the kind of holiday package that would have made me shudder pre-kids, but now I totally get it.
Going all-inclusive means you don’t have to worry about finding a restaurant that’ll cater for kids, and you can satisfy the pleading for an ice-cream in seconds. As a friend put it: “When I was looking for places to go last year I found a hotel offering kids club 8am-6pm which could be followed by a night nanny services. I could not imagine why you’d need services to basically remove your child 24/7… then I holidayed with a toddler.”
If you’d rather go for a villa or apartment, my advice would be to do you research to make sure it’s as child-friendly as it can be. We stayed with my husband’s family for part of our trip to Gran Canaria, and the apartment was just not set up for kids, which really impacted on our ability to relax and enjoy the trip. If you’re planning a trip this summer, we’ve rounded up the most kid-friendly holiday resorts in Europe here.
11. Schedule some chill time for your kids
While my son no longer naps during the day, we always have “quiet time” where he watches his iPad or we read a book. After a day of travelling followed by a couple of full-on days exploring and playing with his cousins and later than usual nights, he was absolutely knackered. On our next holiday, I’ll definitely be encouraging a bit more downtime.
12. Think about sleep aids
There’s always the panic about whether your kids will sleep in a new place – even worse if you’re sharing a room and are worried that one slightly too aggressive cough in the night will wake them. Try and think about all the things that help them sleep at home to try and replicate a similar environment. Whether that’s cuddly toys, a fave blanket, a sleeping bag, white noise machines or portable black out blinds (which you can find on Amazon or Boots). Hannah always packs a kids sleep spray too so that hotel room beds smell just like home!
13. Don’t over-complicate things
Small children don’t need action-packed days and elaborate plans. My toddler was at his happiest on the beach, asking if he could bury his grandad in the sand and shrieking as he ran into the waves. That aforementioned playground is always a sure-fire winner too.
14. Take grandparents or other family members
I appreciate this isn’t always possible, but if you can holiday with the grandparents or other family members who are happy to help out with the kids, it really is a game-changer.
And if you can’t? Make sure to play tag-teaming if you’re bringing a partner on holiday with you. Taking two hours for yourself to sunbathe and read in solace or to take an exercise class and then swapping means you get the best of both worlds.
15. Holiday with friends who have kids
You have company, the kids have company, everyone’s a winner.
16. Be flexible and (try to) relax
Nothing sums up the “expectation vs reality” of parenting like a holiday with kids. No matter how idyllic the setting, teething babies will still be teething babies, toddlers will still throw tantrums and refuse to eat anything that isn’t beige and processed and you’ll probably come home feeling as knackered as you did before you left, but you’ve just got to lean into it all.
If you’re stressed, uptight and anxious, everyone else will be stressed, uptight and anxious. As one of you brilliantly summed it up on Instagram: “Tip no.1 is the only real tip you need: accept your holiday will in no way resemble a holiday pre-child. Accept it and embrace it.” I couldn’t agree more – holidays with kids are wildly different, but absolutely bloody wonderful too.