I met a dad in Coles, his child-travel tip changed my life
The death clutch of a desperate man came one afternoon in the middle of a supermarket. "Take as many holidays as you can now," the tired-looked father holding a cranky tot pleaded with me as he looked over my pregnant belly. "Go far and wide and go hard, but JUST. GO."
I've thought about this man often over the years; I've thought about him when I popped my eight-month-old into a carrier and wandered the streets of Las Vegas and I've pondered his message while I've snorkelled with my four-year-old in Tahiti and now, more than anything, I'd love to find him so I could grab him right back to say, "Going on holiday is great, but going with your kids is even better if you know exactly how to execute it."
Mystery shopper dad, this one's for you:
MILITARY PRECISION PLANNING
Gone are the days of throwing a couple of T-shirts into a bag; now you must plan with the kind of detail that will leave future historians breathless with wonder at how the McKenzie family conquered South America in the summer of '19.
Sound suspiciously like work? Studies show that the holiday planning stage is the part that makes people the happiest so treat it like an occasion to be celebrated, buying books and maps to pore over with your kids to get them excited about your upcoming adventure together.
Obviously island holidays such as Fiji, the Cook Islands, Hawaii and Bali remain the easiest and most affordable option for young families, but Kerry Cleasby, TravelManagers' personal travel manager and mother of two is a fan of snow-covered getaways - particularly in Canada. "Ski holidays are great because ski schools cater for even the littlest ones which means mum and dad get some free time to ski themselves," she says, adding that Ski Canada Early Bird specials are currently in place.
Those looking to venture further afield could do as supermarket dad suggested and 'just go', but another option is family friendly touring. Trafalgar's Family Experiences Program covers four continents with each tour designed to open young minds to new cultures in a safe and simple way, while Intrepid Travel Family Holidays has something for everyone from safaris in Botswana to culture-heavy Northern Italy.
And of course, booking a holiday where you can effectively 'fence' your wandering meteors within a kid-friendly, all-inclusive resort such as Club Med, or a cruise means mum and dad get to relax too. As vice-president and managing director of RCL Cruises Australia and New Zealand, it's no surprise mother of one, Susan Bonner is a fan. "You only unpack once yet wake up in a new destination nearly every day and this absolutely beats racing from airport to airport and hotel to hotel on a land holiday - especially if you're keen to open the kids' eyes to new signs and places," she explains.
Regardless of how you choose to holiday, remember to pre-book all accommodation, transfers and activities well in advance to minimise the possibility to missing out and always leave plenty of time for delays and ten calls of 'Get your shoes on!'. One free day before the start of any tour is ideal, as is 30 minutes before everything else.
Finally, check out Smartraveller.gov.au to get the latest updates on your destination and whether visas and vaccinations are required, check all passports are valid for at least a further six months from your date of return, and then descend on your local shops like a first-timer at Costco, buying more nappies, snacks, activities, and medication than you think you'll ever need.
ROOM TO BREATHE
It was only after a week of reading by torchlight in the bathroom as my babies slept in the one 'family' room that I became a huge believer in 'interconnecting rooms or private rentals' or no holiday at all. Sure, rentals through Airbnb might not have the flair of big name resorts, but you know what they do have? Washing machines, full kitchens, large living spaces for everyone to enjoy and often, a quiet space on which to reflect on the person you've now become.
Intrepid Travel's family travel expert, Dyan McKie says she opts for local homestays wherever possible. "It's a great alternative because my daughter gets a clear understanding of local life," she explains. "For example, in Morocco, we stayed overnight in a gite (local home) where the owner introduced us to his own family and in no time, the children were all huddled around the dining table doing craft."
This doesn't mean hotels and resorts are off limits, but it pays to speak to other families with kids of similar ages, read family reviews on TripAdvisor and look carefully on Google Maps at a property's exact location. Is it in a central location within walking distance to attractions? Do you have inexpensive eateries nearby so you're not confined to eating on-site?
"Apartments can be great, but resorts often include pools, tennis courts and kids playgrounds, making up hours of entertainment," Wotif travel expert, Amanda Beher says. "In an apartment, kids may get restless, leading you to spend more money on activities in the town or city you're visiting."
Once you decide on a property, pay close attention to lifts, advises Nina Henderson, destination manager - South Pacific of Hoot Holidays and mother of 11-year-old twins. "If your room is near a lift, people coming in and out all day will keep the kids awake," she says. "And some properties in the Pacific in particular don't have lifts at all so avoid booking rooms on higher level floors if you have young children with prams and various bags."
Depending on the age of your children, many hotels provide baby items and kids welcome backs (I always travel with a Gro clock to help my girls quickly adapt to a new time zone), but don't be afraid to speak openly with staff from the get-go, asking whether they have any 'kids stay free' deals, offer free meals or whether they can magically upgrade you, free of charge.
Thinking a cruise might be more your speed? It pays to book early as family rooms get snapped up quickly - particularly during school holiday sailings, says Bonner. "For the ultimate family cruise experience, we have the ultimate Family Suite on Symphony of the Seas and features include an in-room slide, a private cinema with an 85-inch HD TV, a floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall, a 20-square-metre balcony complete with table tennis and a full size whirlpool," she says, discounting the fact that the biggest in-room feature of my own childhood holidays were cockroaches the size of $5 note. "Oh, plus a Royal Genie who caters to your every whim."
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
It is often said it's the journey, not the destination that matters, but I think we can safely assume anyone who quotes this is not a parent themselves. For everyone else looking to just make it through a long-haul flight (or at the very least, be able to give a satisfactory 'I told you so' nod to fellow passengers initially alarmed at the sight of your brood pre-flight), you'll need to be equal measures bold, patient and deathly frightening.
Many travel writers with young children swear by flying direct wherever possible, explaining 'when you're going through hell, keep going', but I'm convinced breaking up long flights with two-day stopovers in fun, family friendly cities such as Singapore and Dubai make this easier for everyone. What's best for you will ultimately depend on how much leave and money you have up your sleeve.
When it comes to flights, it's easy to be tempted by the significantly cheaper, 'no-frills' option but before you hit that 'book now' button, it's worth asking yourself exactly what price you'd pay for 21 hours of captivation? Emirates for example, are famous for its superior in-flight entertainment system and kids meals, while those with tots prefer Etihad for their on-board nanny service.
Pre-book childrens meals and bassinets for babies before your departure date and check in online from the comfort of your couch, paying close attention to your seat selection. Assuming you're not ensconced in business or first class, McKie recommends booking within a row of three seats with you and your child at either end. "The chances are that most people won't book that middle seat if the plane isn't full," she explains. "It's worked most times and if it doesn't, one of us moves to the middle." It's a strategy that can work with all sorts of numbers, often giving you an extra seat to stretch out on so follows suit and look for a row located near the toilets.
On the off-chance an entertainment system isn't available, isn't working or is genuinely rubbish, always have fully charged iPads, and phones with entertainment apps download ready to go, as well as Kindles and analog books should everything else fail. That said, Matthew Cameron-Smith, managing director at Trafalgar and father of three, recommends managing usage carefully. "I've found if they have too much stimulation, they won't be able to sleep when you need them to."
Pack also enough snacks to be able to survive two weeks in an underground bomb shelter, an extra set of clothes for every member of the family (bad things happen in confined spaces) and load up on small toys and arts and crafts from Kmart, relying on the 'one new thing an hour' rule to keep them entertained throughout the duration of your journey. Remember that these rules apply not only to flights, but across every mode of transport.
And always, always remember to make sure everyone has been fed and gone to the toilet before you disembark from the plane because you just know your child will start doing the jumpy dance 50 minutes into an hour-long customs queue.
Leave the term 'hit the ground running' for fitspo influencers and instead give your family a day or two to get over jet lag and relax into your new environment, free of expectation and time constraints. Once recovered, Cleasby recommends booking a private tour - a smart way of introducing the family to a new city. "Usually around three hours in length, a private guide can give you a really good look around the city and tailor their content to hold the interest of the children," she says. "In New York, you can tour the Met with a private guide who will show you the art from a Harry Potter perspective, or for older kids, you can do a walking tour with a photographer who'll show you how to get the Instagram shots with your iPhone as you walk over the Brooklyn Bridge."
Private tour or not, we've covered the importance of booking online in advance, but if you're looking to save on these, most cities offer joint attraction passes providing admission to location activities and landmarks at reduced cost, says Beher. "For example on Wotif, the Go Oahu Card provides access to over 34 attractions in Honolulu and offers savings of up to 40%, plus you can skip the queue entirely at many of the key attractions."
Travelling with kids comes with many highs, but one downside is that you must pack - and behave - like a sherpa, carting one cooler bag (minimum) packed with water, fruit, nuts, muesli bars and the odd treat for when you desperately need compliance. In a separate bag, throw in hats, vomit bags, travel sickness pills, sunscreen, sunglasses, cardigans, the lost city of Atlantis and miniature colouring kids and activities for peaceful mealtimes. I personally also like to ensure my kids are dressed in bright 'MY EYES!' colours so that they're easy to spot in crowds, and insist my youngest wears my contact details on her wrist for peace of mind.
Supermarket dad may not quite believe it, but I kinda want my kids to stick around so we can plan our next adventure together.
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