My daughter Tali, who is now nine, made her first plane journey when she was less than six months old. Her younger sister, Orli, began flying at five months, and the youngest of my kids, Rafi, began flying even earlier than that.
From well before they could walk my kids have all been frequent flyers. This is due to the fact that we lived in Singapore but have family and friends scattered all over the world. This is also due to the fact that they were borne to parents who were well and truly bitten by the travel bug. Whatever the reason, the fact is that travel is part of my kids’ DNA. In their short lives they have already packed in more travel than many adults I know. Indeed, as Tali pointed out to me the other day (while on a four-hour flight to remote Broome, in Western Australia) she has so far visited almost a dozen countries on four different continents.
From time to time, some of my blog posts get republished, including on Bucket List, a web-site / blog devoted to travel. The other day they ran a piece called “Ten Tips for Travelling with Toddlers”. Given the extent of travel over the years with the kids, both as toddlers and now as youngsters, this is a subject near and dear to my heart.
So I read the Bucket List article, and was bitterly disappointed. The “tips” offered were useless – the kind of bullshit advice designed to make you feel like a caring sharing new-age kind of parent, but that in practice will do nothing to make travel with kids any more pleasant.
Some of these “tips” included “bring lot of toys” (yeah, right – like you want your kids trying to race little cars down the aisle of a plane) and the utterly moronic “at the airport, let your child burn energy before you board”. I mean, come on – everyone who actually has children will know that it is impossible to tire them out this way, as all the pre-trip excitement at an airport has the opposite effect, and positively energizes young children, no matter how much you allow them to run wild. Following this advice will do nothing to calm your amped up kids, and all you’ll achieve chasing them around the departure hall is exhausting yourself before your journey even starts.
Not to mention Bucket List’s Number One tip for travelling with toddlers, the totally pathetic “arrive at the gate early and talk with the flight attendant” to make a flight plan for your kiddies. Seriously, whoever came up with this particular piece of advice can only be a childless eunuch who has been in a cave for at least the last decade. Because if they were anything other than this, they would know that modern-day flight attendants (especially on budget airlines, which are often how you wind up flying when travelling with children) generally couldn’t gives a toss about you and your problems.
Not to mention that just prior to departure is when flight attendants are in their most harried, and therefore most unhelpful, state. Trust me, the absolute last thing they want to be doing is chit-chatting about some random kids’ in-flight entertainment schedule. In fact, all you’ll have done is alert staff to the prospect of a B.O.B (“brat on board”), meaning from then on you’ll be avoided like the plague. If you go too far and make your kids sound like complete nightmares you might even find yourself mysteriously removed from the passenger list. (Really, they have the power to do this – it is called “unboarding” and I’ve had it happen to me once, albeit when travelling solo, just in case you think I’m kidding).
All of this led me to thinking of the various means we’ve employed over the years to make travelling with the children more bearable – whether in the air or on the ground. Some of these methods have been devious, others inventive, some just plain common sense. Still, here they are, my Ten Tips for Travelling with Toddlers (and young children) that actually have some relevance in the Real World.
Tip Ten: Phenurgen is your Friend.
This wonderful medicine (chemical name: promethazine) is a popular antihistamine for children, that is also often used to treat motion sickness. With young kids (although not for those under the age of two), it has a most fortuitous side-effect, which is that it makes little ones drowsy and sleepy, and if you get the dose right, it can knock them out completely, for hours (although too much can have a counter-effect, and make them hyperactive, which is not what you want…). OK, I know, you’re immediately thinking “what kind of monstrous parent would actually do this to their child?” Please. Put away your righteous indignation for a second, and listen up: the stuff works like nothing else, and is safe. A pediatric doctor was the one who put us onto this miracle travel juice in the first place. So next time you are standing in the galley of the plane, desperately trying to placate an uncontrollably hysterical child, while fellow passengers cast murderous looks your way, remember that there is an easier way. Drug them.
Tip Nine: Vive la France.
Apart from wine, cheese and bicycle races, there isn’t much to thank the French for. Except if travelling with little kids, and then you can add Club Med to that list. Now, before you break out into a chorus of objections, remember that I am the ultimate travel snob, and pre-fatherhood I swore that I would sooner stick pins in my own eyes than set foot in a Club Med. So for me to actually recommend it is a big, big deal. I first began reconsidering my views on Club Med and their all-inclusive offering after ordering a room-service schnitzel in Vienna once, for a child who ate two mouthfuls in total, only to then discover that the schnitzel in question cost a mere $85 bucks. Now, I am a Club Med convert. Children can eat whatever they want, whenever they want. There is a Kids’ Club to keep them busy all the time, there are endless fun activities, shows and parties, and there is a small army of overly-happy GOs whose whole purpose in life is to look after your kids for you. If you’re lucky, you might not even see the little ones for days. It is a simple but beautiful equation: Club Med = happy kids, and happy kids = happy parents.
Tip Eight: Bring Help.
There are lots of people for whom the promise of “free” travel is irresistible. Hook them on the idea of getting to go overseas at no apparent cost, and they will almost always overlook the true “price” to be paid in helping to supervise a herd of hyped-up juniors. So if you can find someone who fits the bill – that is, known to your kids, keen to travel, and stupid enough not to know that what you are proposing is work, not play – then give it a go. Casually suggest that maybe, if they were interested in accompanying you on a trip and “helping out” with the kids, you’d be willing to pay for their flight and expenses. You’ll be staggered at how quickly they bite your arm off to take up this fabulous “offer”. Prime candidate for this role: your kids’ regular babysitter, especially if he or she is an impoverished university student. But we’ve also successfully used this gambit to entrap professional nannies, grand-parents, aunts and uncles, and even random friends. Although, beware: poor candidate selection can mean that not only do you wind up with someone totally useless at helping with children, but you have what amounts to another child to take care of.
Tip Seven: Front of the Bus.
Airlines make all of their money from premium passengers, those that sit in the First and Business Class cabins. Not surprisingly then, the nicest most helpful of the Flight Attendants get assigned to servicing these passengers, and unlike their colleagues back with the plebs in Economy, these attendants will actually go out of their way to help you. Not to mention that Business Class is so much better for kids: more entertainment options, good food, and dedicated bathrooms, meaning shorter queues, a life-saver when you need to quickly attend to one kid who has thrown up on themselves, before the other two have enough time to try on the life-jackets under their seats. Most importantly, however, Business Class normally means each child will get their own spacious seat that converts into a bed. They will actually sleep, and you will be spared from trying to get them to nod off while curled up in the foetal position, their head on your lap and their feet dangling in the aisles. So if you can afford it, make the investment and upgrade to the Front of the Bus – it will be repaid in spades. Even better, combine Tip Eight (Bring Help) and put yourself up front while the kids are back in cattle-class with an unsuspecting helper. Only don’t try this if the unsuspecting helper is your wife – it probably won’t be appreciated, even if you do get the Business Class Flight Attendant to take her a complementary glass of champagne….
Tip Six: Keep them Apart.
Why, oh why, do so many idiotic parents insist on seating their children alongside each other on long journeys? Haven’t they ever seen those shows on TV where starved rats, if kept in a cage together for too long, wind up eating each other? Not that I’m calling your kids rats, but it is a golden rule of travel that even the most amicable of siblings will, in close confinement on a long journey, wind up tearing each other’s throats out by the time it is over. Honestly, a long flight is not the time or place to engage in family team-building. Just separate the kids early on in the voyage, and then keep them that way until you arrive. Put them in different rows, or place yourself between them if you have to. Whatever it takes, just get them the hell away from each other. You’ll be all the better for it.
Tip Five: Make Apple’s Shareholders even Richer.
Forget the toys. Forget the educationally friendly colouring-in books and “plane activity packs”. We live in a modern world, and if you want to keep your kids busy, quiet and compliant for hours, let them loose on an iPad. And forget all this “I’m opposed to Disney” moralistic crap. Load the iPad up with cartoons where mice blow up cats, TV shows where young girls dress like tarts and enter dance contests, and movies packed with aliens, robots, and explosions. That’s what your kids really want to watch, so give it to them in the name of travel nirvana. The Transformer movies are especially brilliant for this purpose – three of them, meeting all these criteria, and each 2 hours 30 minutes long. If watched back-to-back, this gives you seven and a half hours, enough time to get from Australia to Singapore. I hear they are currently filming Transformers 4, which will extend the travel range even further. Only don’t forget to pack a charger – once you take the plunge and give a travelling kid Apple Cocaine, you need to keep up the supply, or you will get the mother of all withdrawal-symptom tantrums. Oh, and make sure you take one iPad per child – see Tip Six: Keep them Apart.
Tip Four: Bribery.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with appealing to a child’s capitalist side through a bit of good old-fashioned bribery. Offer them rewards for good behaviour. But don’t be a shmuck and promise grand rewards at some indeterminate future time (“if you sit still we’ll go to Disneyland”). Your kids are way smarter than that, and they will understand intuitively there is no real quid pro quo in what you are offering. Plus, they have the attention span of small sparrows, and anything that does not involve instant gratification will quickly be forgotten. Rather, your children will respond well to small rewards, delivered in measured doses along the way. No different really to throwing bits of fish to performing seals in the aquarium after each trick. So have your bits of fish lined up in advance (not literally, of course) and from time to time, use them shamelessly to get what you want.
Tip Three: Lollies and Gum.
If you’re a good parent you will take the time to be well prepared for a trip. Your hand luggage will include wholesome snacks for your little ones en-route. Things like fruit slices, vegetable sticks, and rice crackers. Sugary stuff will be banished entirely, on the basis that not only is it is bad for them, but it will make them hyperactive as well. All of which is plain old wrong, wrong, wrong, you poor misguided fool. The correct course of action is to pack everything that your kids should never eat. Like Oreo cookies, sweets, lollipops, packets of crisps, and most important of all, rainbow coloured bubblegum (perfect for blocked sore ears on take-off and landing, plus trying to figure out how to blow bubbles will keep a child amused for hours). Contrary to everything you think you know, when travelling this sugary crap keeps them remarkably calm. First, they will be so busy enjoying all these normally forbidden pleasures, they will have no time to become difficult. And second, if they see your stash of goodies, and know they’ll get some if they behave, they probably will (see Tip Four above: Bribery).
Tip Two: MISEP.
For those not in the know, that stands for “Make It Someone Else’s Problem”. No matter what you do, there will be times when you are at your wit’s end, the kids will be crying and moaning and fighting, and you will have tried everything, yet nothing works. At times like this the best thing to do is to find someone else, and make it their problem. Wives – this is usually where a husband comes in useful, as long as he takes off the ear-phones, or get up from the couch, and earns his parenting stripes. But there are lots of other options here: dump the kids for a morning in a play centre; send them on an errand to the back of a plane; swap seats so they are sitting next to a complete stranger. And if all else fails, take a double dose of Xanax. The kids might go utterly mental during your snooze, but you’ll never know what really went on. And chances are that your fellow travellers, having unwittingly borne the brunt of the kids’ screaming and seat-kicking and general misbehaviour while you were dozing, will be far too polite to say anything….
Tip One: Leave the Kids at Home.
I know you probably want to give your kids the gift of travel. You want them to see the world, experience different cultures, learn about tolerance, peace, and all that stuff. You love them and miss them terribly, and being totally honest, you’d probably feel a smidge guilty heading off on an exotic trip and leaving them behind. So let me tell you what my kid’s remember most from their time in London: not Buckingham Palace, not London Bridge or Hyde Park or three trips to the theatre or any one of the myriad London icons we visited. No, my kids most enjoyed Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, closely followed by Legoland. Ditto Paris (Disneyland); ditto Hong Kong (Disneyland); ditto America (Disneyland, Universal Studios, Santa Monica Beach). The truth is that until kids are twelve or so, they are the travelling equivalent of gutter drunks, unable to tell the difference between a fine Chateau Margaux and a cheap cask wine. So save your holidays for you, and leave the kids at home. And when you do fly with them try to keep travel times short, and go somewhere with a beach, a Kids Club or an amusement park, which you know they will really enjoy.
Bonus Tip: RIBSEP
Again, for those not in the know, this stands for “Rely on It Being Someone Else’s Problem”. After writing this post, I emailed a draft to Linda to ask her opinion, seeing that almost all of the travel with the kids was a joint effort over the years. She was quick to point out I had missed out on what should have been the Number 1 Tip: “Leave everything to your highly organised wife and follow her specific instructions (whilst you snore most of the way)“. I might leave it at that.
So there you have them, my Top Ten Tips for Travelling with Toddlers, real-world style. None of this “kumbaya let’s all hold hands” nonsense; just practical advice to get you from Point A to Point B with as little fuss as possible, and with your sanity intact. Sure, you won’t win any parenting awards. But, the important thing is that these techniques work: keeping toddlers under control and making long vacations with kids more pleasant. Plus, when your nerves are frayed to breaking point on an extended plane flight, these tips might be the only things standing between you and a desire to try out parachute-free sky-diving. And where would your kids be then, huh?
So take my advice, and do what is needed. You can deal with the ethical dilemma some other time.