Road Lessons: Tips for long journeys with children

Kids and airplane Icelandair Kids and airplane Icelandair
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Tasting food in Samoa Tasting food in Samoa

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Kids love to travel

Tips for Travelling with Children 

Kirstie Profile Small Road Lessons: Tips for long journeys with childrenWhether it’s a day’s ride in a car, a long distance bus journey or a long haul flight, travelling long distances with children is a different prospect from going it alone. Let’s face it you’re probably not going to be relaxing with a novel or a glass of champagne while you travel. But it doesn’t have to be hard work or something to grin and bear. With a little planning, the right attitude and a lot of baby wipes, long distance travel can be fun, relaxing and enjoyable, even with young kids.  And the journey can be come part of the experience rather than something to dread.  

There’s lots of little things that make journeying easier and here we share a few or our tried and tested tips for travelling with children, based upon our years of experiences on bikes, boats, trains, planes and automobiles…

The Secrets of Long Journeys with Kids

1 Time it properly 

For us, taking off around the world has been a heady mix of fun, freedom and family bonding. But of course, it’s also involved tantrums, tiredness, teething and toddlers, most often when we’ve disrupted valued routines. If you’re travelling with young children, especially ones that like routine, then if you can accommodate their routines on the move, do it.

Let them sleep at the airport at the time they’d normally snooze at home, or have a playtime when they’d normally run around. And don’t rule out overnight buses, trains or planes; journeys go much quicker when you’re sleeping. And, assuming you all manage to sleep on the move, you’ll arrive fresh and with a whole day ahead to explore. But watch out for those difficult departure or arrival times; you know the ferries that arrive at 3am or flights that leave at midnight.  We once landed in Samoa in the very early hours of the morning and our rudely woken, overtired four year old screamed all the way off the plane, through customs, immigration, the baggage hall, the taxi and onto the boat that took us off to our island accommodation. I was surprised they let us in.

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Time it right and it’s smiles all round

2 Take only what you need

Pack your case. Now pack it again removing one outfit from every family member apart from the baby. Add an extra one for the baby, or maybe just some extra bibs, especially if they are just learning to feed themselves. Check the weather forecasts so you pack only items you need but always, always take baby wipes; someone always spills something at some point and it’s usually over you. Use rucksack style bags for luggage and hand baggage and you’ll always have two hands free – to hold onto little ones, wipe noses, use those baby wipes or maybe even enjoy a cup of coffee. Try giving each child a mini rucksack to carry on their back, with some of their things inside (the light ones!). It makes them feel grown up and takes some of the weight off you. Our children always liked to be involved this way, but don’t put the really important stuff in there, just in case it gets left behind. And, whatever you do, DO NOT agree to carry it for them AT ANY POINT or you’ll be stuck with it for the rest of the trip.

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Get everyone to carry something, no matter how young!

3 Watch the time

Getting places always seems to take us longer than we think. So, unless you’re the kind of person that gets off on stress, allow extra time to get to the airport, bus or train station, find your way to check-in and sort yourself and everyone else out. Avoid those last minute sprints and all that raised blood pressure.

Find out where your boarding gate, platform or terminal is, in advance and make your way there in plenty of time. If you’re boarding a train, try and find out where your carriage will be in advance. We found ourselves at the wrong end of an overnight train to Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and I thought Stuart was going to have a heart attack rushing all the bags and bikes down an endless platform to beat the whistle.

When you’re planning look for connections that aren’t too tight, like across the other side of the city in half an hours time. Check out in advance how far apart terminals are and allow plenty of time for transits and connections. Use those lifts, travellators, whizzy buses, electric golf carts, maglev trains and subways to have fun getting from one place to another. Or get in a taxi and let someone else take the strain. Sometimes, it’s worth every penny.

Airports can take ages to get through these days, so organise yourself in advance for all those checks you know you’ll face. Separate out your passports and documents, your technology, and re-bag your lipstick and toiletries. Check in online for flights so that all you have to do is drop your bags off. Or you could do what my sister in law did lately; pack everyone a small backpack instead of a joint family case and carry it on as hand luggage. Even her two year old was game for it and it saved charges on low cost airline luggage and time at the baggage counter.

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On the Budapest Underground Railway

4 Be healthily prepared

Things always go more smoothly if everyone’s feeling at the top of their game. But kids being kids usually bring home a cold the day before travel. So it’s as well to be prepared to deal with these little health issues as it is the bigger ones we all pray don’t happen. Of course considerations vary depending upon where you’re heading and the unique health history of your family, but needless to say you should sort out appropriate vaccinations, medication and health insurance well in advance.  If like us you’re UK citizens travelling in Europe, sort out a European Health Insurance Card for every member of the family in advance of travel as this will help you access free treatment in Europe should you need it. Make sure your medical travel insurance covers all the family and do your research well beforehand especially if you or your children need pre-existing medical travel insurance.

At a practical level be prepared to deal with the small stuff and make sure you have enough supplies of any regular medication with you and details of what it is and dosages in case you need to get more while away. Take a small first aid kit, keep it accessible and make sure you’ve got some age appropriate sachets of favoured remedies or medicines for dealing with common problems like cuts, grazes, colds, aches, pains, headaches or diarrhea.  Of course you can usually buy similar products while away but it can be inconvenient or expensive and some kids have a habit of not agreeing to swallow anything unfamiliar!  Our medical kit is often one of the biggest items we carry; in my view you can never have too many Disney plasters if you have toddlers. And make sure you have all relevant jabs way beforehand to avoid a flat refusal from a child to enter the surgery the week before you are due to travel.   Have a sachet of medicine in your pocket at all times of travel in case of teething/bumped heads etc.

 5 Never leave home without a picnic

One of the most valuable things I learnt from my mother was not to step out of the door without a giant picnic in my handbag. And it still holds good to this day. Food is not only fuel; it can calm, comfort and reward. And divert an approaching tantrum. Maybe I have food issues but I seriously think a picnic can save your life. You can have one almost anywhere, save a ton of money and have something in your bag that provides a comforting reminder of home if needed. I feed them when they are hungry, feed them before they are hungry and stock up on things to feed them whenever I can, especially if we’re heading somewhere where food might be expensive or in limited supply. Like a train, bus or plane.  You can call me obsessed but I’m not stupid, I steer clear of the messy stuff, am careful not to feed them too many blue sweets and always include a pack of baby wipes.

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Food can present all kinds of issues while travelling

6 Get comfy and keep moving

Kids weren’t made to stay still. And nor were you. And a comfort break isn’t about going to the loo; it’s about moving around. Use opportunities to get up, move around, have a change of scene, expend a little energy. Get off the bus when it stops, leave the plane if you can at a refuelling stop, take a moment on the platform when the train pulls in. But just remember to get back on before it leaves. When on board use opportunities to get up and walk around, go visit the buffet car, the viewing deck, other carriages or, if you must, the toilets. Swap seats, do some chair exercises and don’t worry about the other passengers. Everyone needs a little entertainment or someone else to talk about.

When you’re in your seats, make yourself comfy and at home there. Pack a Buff scarf and stuff it with a spare jumper to make an emergency pillow for a train or bus. If they’ve got a favourite small toy, book or game, put it in the hand luggage so it’s to hand if or when boredom sets in. And if you’re with smaller kids who have a favourite dummy, bear or comfort blanket, think about taking an identikit spare, just in case the original gets lost. It’s so much easier and less stressful to source one at home than in a Moroccan souk or in the middle of a transatlantic flight.

7 Bring an anti-boredom pack

Travel is supposed to be stimulating isn’t it. But let’s face it sometimes on a long journey, it can veer towards boring. So it helps to have a few anti-boredom strategies up your sleeve. We’ve found the simplest and most effective is often just giving attention and talking; something we can’t always find enough time for at home. Talk about the journey, where you’re going, what you’ll do when you get there, what it will be like. Talk about what’s out the window. Trace the journey on a map, count or check off the towns, stations or states.  Read a book or guide together. Have a competition. Do some puzzles. Play a game. Listen to some music together. Boredom is not a reality, it’s an attitude, a state of mind that disappears when interest is awakened. Get the kids involved, make things interesting and fun and you may never have to face it again.

Giving responsibility can be a great antidote to boredom. Our older kids love swiping passports, checking tickets, finding seats, entering flight numbers on the automatic check in and going off to shop at the buffet. Our younger kids love racing man vs travelator, making up stories about who’s in the queue in front of us, wheeling or riding on the baggage trollies. But most of all they look forward to discussing what they’re going to watch on the in-flight or on-board entertainment systems.

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Kids watching DVD on train

8 Embrace technology

These days technology offers all kinds entertainment possibilities while travelling, often in one tiny package. I’m not a great fan of not noticing where you’re going because your head is in an iPod, but I’m also a pragmatist and know kids love tech, it helps keeps them entertained, can be educational and gives me a break. At least until it breaks. I’m all for managing kids access to technology, but don’t think long distance travelling is the best time for that screen ban. These days small smart phones, tablets and portable games devices act are incredibly sophisticated portable personal entertainment centres, so embrace them! And if you don’t understand them get your kids to teach you. Technology doesn’t have to be isolating, it can be something you do together and can add to the travel experience.

Our three children love taking photos and a small, inexpensive camera is always a good distraction and an interesting way to find out what they notice around them. Send them off on a photo assignment, set up a photo scavenger hunt or organise a prize winning photo competition.  Sharing music and stories can be fun and bonding too and provide material for later conversations.  Instead of everyone plugging into their own headphones why not use a portable speaker or headphone splitters and listen together? Why not let everyone download their favourite CD, audio book or movie onto an iPod or media player and take turns to choose what to watch or listen to as a family. It can be fun singing along to Bruno Mars together, honestly. Although perhaps that’s one for the privacy of your own car. Audio books have been an absolute godsend for our travels, and not just for the little ones. One Alex Rider spy book can take you many miles and the Harry Potter collection could get you around the world in 80 days.  But it doesn’t have to be pure entertainment, if you’re going to a foreign country why not do a little language learning on the way or download a guidebook or story about your destination. There are loads of apps and downloadable resources to help with this.

But beware overreliance on technology for sooner or later the batteries will run out. Of course you can take a selection of chargers and top-up devices with you for this eventuality, but a little old tech can help too.  Books and magazines may get battered and dog-eared but they’ll never run out of charge. And if you give everyone some spare change and an hour in the bookshop you can kill time, start a family book, magazine or puzzle club and make sure everyone knows everything will be alright when the battery runs dry.

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Make sure you know where your carriage is

Over to you

Have you got any favourite tips for long journeys with kids. We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

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Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of the project, the misadventure magnet part of the partnership and a busy mum.

3 Responses to “Road Lessons: Tips for long journeys with children” Subscribe

  1. Cheyenne October 31, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Great ideas Kirstie. We have recently taken to playing Simon Says on the train. I never thought this would come back to be so much fun as the kids got older. Standing on 1 foot, pulling your ears and your tongue sticking out is always entertaining for you and the other riders. I also agree food is very KEY to successful traveling. I carry an insulated bag on every trip with favorite foods. When we kayaked for long days I provided the boys with “feed bags”. Each of our kiddos has a camera and they like taking pics and sharing later. Something I found that they love is Extreme Dot to Dots – great for trips. Thanks for a good post with real life affective ways to travel successfully with kiddos – it is so worth it!!!!!!
    Cheyenne

  2. Fiona November 7, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Been loving exploring your blog this week – I kinda knew it was there but hadn’t got round to having a proper look – I want to start planning an adventure now!

    I’ve got a few tips on train travel with young kids on my blog here: http://bikelightsinthefruitbowl.typepad.com/blog/2012/08/this-month-ill-mostly-bevisiting-by-train.html
    Lots in agreement with you!

    • Stuart November 7, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      Hey Fiona, Thanks for stopping by, exploring and commenting :-) Great idea to add your link and tips here too. I like your commitment to embrace travelling by train like that! And I so know what you mean about bike lights in the fruit bowl! I mean that’s what it’s for isn’t it?

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