Travelling with children does not have to be hell: Top 10 tips

Does the thought of travelling with the kids give you an instant migraine? Kavitha Rao, mother of two, shares her 10 tips about how to not just survive, but have fun. Really.

Kavitha August 17, 2011 20:15:13 IST
Travelling with children does not have to be hell: Top 10 tips

Conventional wisdom has it that the minute you have children, you must chuck away that copy of Lonely Planet and pick up guides to Disneyland. Before I had my own, I was constantly told that travelling with kids is hell on earth — unless you dump them in kids’ clubs or take an entourage of maids along — and that family holidays are about as much fun as having a root canal. In a recent rant in The Guardian, travel writer Emma Kennedy went so far as saying that she didn't want to have kids, specifically because she thought they would get in the way of her fabulous, bohemian travels.

Clearly I didn't get this memo. I have travelled with my kids, now 11 and 7, from the time they were six months old. I don't do theme parks, shopping malls, kids clubs or Disneyland. I do historical ruins, temples, museums, galleries and all the other things that kids are supposed to detest — but I love— along with more conventional stints in beaches and parks. My best family memories are of walking through the fantastical Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona with an excited toddler, scaring ourselves with the creepy mummies in the British museum, shushing each other while trying to spot elusive tigers on safari in Ranthambore, or nibbling on seaweed crackers while walking through the stunning Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto.

Travelling with children does not have to be hell Top 10 tips

I would love to say travelling with kids is a wonderful, fulfilling experience. The truth is sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, especially when they are tiny. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Of course, it's not always like that. I would love to say travelling with kids is a wonderful, fulfilling experience. The truth is sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, especially when they are tiny. I remember one hellish restaurant outing in Barcelona where my son yelled and threw spaghetti on the floor for what seemed like hours, while a crowd of disapproving Spanish mamas stared at me. I remember doing contortions to change diapers in a tiny airplane loo at the tail end of a 14-hour long flight, while impatient passengers hammered on the door outside. I remember an airdash back home because of suspected malaria, which turned out to be ordinary flu, in Koh Samui.

But here's the thing: these ups and downs are part of the rich tapestry of family holidays, if not of life itself. I firmly believe that the notion that kids make for poor travellers is a self fulfilling prophecy; like the one that kids don't like vegetables, or that modern children don't like to read. After all, only boring people are bored. If you believe that temples and galleries are tedious for kids and that only theme parks, Xbox and McDonalds are fun, then don't be surprised if you end up with a sullen teenager who refuses to go anywhere but the mall. We are especially lucky in India, where most people on the road — air hostesses, waiters, busboys — love children and are tolerant of leaky diapers, spilled food and loud voices.

The more kids are stuck on long, sometimes boring journeys, the better they realise that the world does not revolve around them. Admittedly, this is hard to convey to a tiny baby, but after those tough early years training them, I now know that I can take my kids anywhere, maybe not trekking in the Himalayas or riding with the bulls in Pamplona, but practically anywhere else.  Like so much else in parenting, don't make travelling a chore. Make history kid-friendly and you may be surprised. I still remember taking my kids, then nine and six, to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, expecting them to be bored. My mistake: it turned out that my daughter had learnt about slavery in school and was thrilled to see the statue of the man partly responsible for abolishing it. We read the Gettysberg address engraved on the statue, discussed how tall Lincoln was, and talked about the slaves in Tom Sawyer, which she had just read. Or the time we were on a rather dull tour of Coorg, when we got the idea of keeping our then five-year-old amused by writing a list of animals we saw.  It began rather tamely with dog, cat and “PIGUN”, went on excitedly to elephants and horses and ended with 'GRAS SNAK'!!!!! I still have that list.

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The single most important thing to remember about travelling with kids: it really is about the journey, not the destination. That may sound like the worst kind of Deepak Chopra-ish psychobabble, but it's true. If you get hung up on making every moment educational and memorable, you are heading for a fall. I remember taking my toddler daughter on a long journey to a zoo, all ready for some heavy duty learning with a capital L. (In my defence, she was my first child; I know better now.) The thing she was most fascinated by, not the giraffes, gorillas or lions, but the ant hill outside.

My top 10 tips for travelling with kids:

1. When your kids are very young, set low expectations. If you have a young baby or toddler, you need to roll with the punches and accept that most of your day will be spent changing diapers, feeding and soothing. Alternate with your husband for some 'me' time or it won't be a holiday. Each parent gets some free time for outings, a spa break or simply to go for a solitary walk. Beaches are very good for young kids; mine can spend hours making sandcastles while I read magazines.

Travelling with children does not have to be hell Top 10 tips

When your kids are very young, set low expectations. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

2. By all means do anything and everything to stop your child behaving badly, but once you have done that, learn to ignore the haters. There will be some trips when no matter what you do your child will howl, especially on long flights. Remember, those rolling their eyes were once kids themselves, and unless their parents never took them anywhere, they were probably worse than yours.

3. My long flight sanity saver for tinies: a goody bag filled with treats such as Etch a Sketch, cheap toy cars, dress up dolls, activity books, stickers and colouring kits. Don't take anything with many small pieces, like Lego, puzzles or a bumper pack of crayons. The last thing you want to do in a flight is to scrabble around on a plane floor looking for missing Lego bits. A pack of cards, or Uno, is worth its weight in gold, as is a bag of small balls for games of catch.

4. Don't put up with fussy eaters. I don't care how picky your child is: every child should be able to eat a sandwich, rice and pasta of any kind, plus rotis, idlis, dosas, bananas and apples. Indian parents have this notion that they need to take mountains of desi food with them. If your child is really hungry, they will eat anything from risotto to khow suey.

5. When on the go, go for unhealthy, tasty snacks; now is not the time to cut down on sugar and junk food. Many is the time I have got a toddler to sit still in his/her stroller by sticking a lollipop or mini pack of raisins in his/her hands. By the time they got through a pack, I was able to dash through the National Gallery.

6. Get older kids to keep a diary or scrapbook, not just because it's educational but because they will then leave you in peace. Children love to keep lists of things they have seen. Make long guided tours fun by playing spot the historical sight or animal and having a prize for the one who spots the most.

7. I am not a fan of electronic games because I despise the sight of young kids glued to Nintendo when there's so much else going on around them. But I did invest in a portable TV for long car trips to the hills, and it's been a godsend.

8. Do deals with them: if they get to go to the zoo in the morning, you get to go to a spa in the afternoon. Go with the flow; one big trip a day is usually enough. Don't try to do everything in one day or you will regret it.

9. After you have done all of the above, learn to ignore them. If your kids complain about being bored, do what your parents did: remind them that boredom never killed anybody. It is not your responsibility to entertain them.

10. No matter what you do, there will be one holiday from hell when the kids get sick, or end up throwing tantrums, or hate everything. Suck it up and don't overreact. One bad holiday does not a lifetime of bad holidays make. Try, try again and you will succeed.

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