Family vacations can be hard. Tiffs, tears, tantrums… and the kids can act up too. But traveling with the clan can also be profoundly rewarding: you get to watch your children’s horizons visibly expanding, you get to experience the world through fresh eyes again, and you get to eat ice cream.
If you want to make it memorable for the right reasons (rather than, say, for losing your seven-year-old in New York’s Central Park, as I did last year), you need to think logistics. For instance, my kids (now) go nowhere without my cell number on a piece of paper in their pocket, and the instruction to show it to any mommy if they get lost. But there’s more.
“The journey is part of the fun,” said someone who had never tried to navigate a headstrong toddler through a battalion of non-smiling Customs and Security officials at a Namibian airport. That stuff becomes a lot less of an ordeal if you’ve allowed extra hours for it (I allot precisely 120 minutes more than when I’m traveling alone), and if you’ve stuffed your carry-on bags with bribes (for the kids, not the officials).
Don’t dish out all the books/toys/edibles too early, though: keep some back for when they get bored of the first (and second) lot. And don’t forget spare clothes for any of your offspring who get travelsick – and whichever parent is sitting next to them.
You can go easier on the hold luggage, however: there’s pretty much nowhere in the world you can’t buy whatever kiddie-kit you forgot. Even when we turned up to a bush safari camp without our cases on that Namibia trip, we were able to cobble together a loaned emergency wardrobe, and it turns out boys look quite cute in sarongs.
For my two pre-teens, nothing says “vacation’s started!” like that first dip in the sea or pool, so the swimsuits and factor 50 are always packed in our hand luggage for immediate use (arrive at a busy hotel and you can wait an hour for your bigger bags to get to your room). Daytime sunshine is also the best thing you can do for jetlag – it naturally starts to re-tune your body clock – so resist the temptation to nap, and keep your kids splashing around until dinnertime, and they’ll collapse happily into bed after.
No water to swim in? No worries. Going for a walk will do just as well, and is a great way to orient yourself to the immediate area around your accommodation before striking out on any bigger adventures.
Either way, start at the shallow end, with gentle exploration and easy logistics (begin with taxis, perhaps, before trying buses). Leading my boys straight into Muscat’s meat market (fly-blown decapitated sheep’s heads and all) on their first day in Oman was, on reflection, a mistake.
If travel were completely predictable, there’d be no point doing it. So, try to see those little glitches and hiccups as windows of serendipity.
The art gallery is shut on Mondays? Fine, there’s that museum you thought you wouldn’t have time for. Kids need to let off steam and won’t go near the museum? No problem, the park and playground are a great place to interact with locals and get under the city’s skin. Now it’s pouring? No biggie. Hot chocolate in a café over the local newspapers or magazines is a fun way for kids to pick up a few words of the language or research the next activity.
And if things go really wrong, bear in mind that brandishing your kids often gets you to the front of the line. In Brazil, with a two-year-old in tow, we were treated like VIPs everywhere from the ferry (suddenly, some seats were available) to the doctor’s surgery (even though it was me with the ear infection, not Junior).
Four days into our Yucatan Peninsula jaunt, and I hadn’t had so much as a sniff of tequila yet – is it any wonder I was yelling at my younglings? Fact is, spending every minute with your little explorers for a full week is too much, and it’s limiting. Remember, this is your vacation, too.
If you’re on the road with your other half, you can tag-team, taking turns with the time off – and those hours alone are often the most travel-rich of your trip: being alone means getting out of your comfort zone, means talking to strangers, means really noticing a place.
And if you’re one of those oddballs who still likes your partner, even after raising kids with them, you actually can do a date night on holiday: you just need to choose accommodation with a decent bar or restaurant and reliable Wi-Fi, and download yourself one of the many baby monitor apps available. Leave your tablet in the room (camera facing the kids!), and watch the video streaming reassuringly to your mobile while you sip your Palomas.
Who says mom or dad have to do all the work? Mucking in with the plans – pre-trip and on-the-hoof – is a real education for your offspring. It builds their confidence, equips them with new skills, gets them to engage with a destination and its people, and involves them in your trip in a much deeper way (harder for your teen to declare everything “boring” and start scrolling their phone when they’ve had a hand in choosing the itinerary).
Careful, though. My nine-year-old caught the travel-planning bug in Tuscany last year, so I let him start putting together our Venice trip for next spring. And we’re now booked into a rather splendid place on the Grand Canal. For 250 euros a night.
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