Skip to content

Top Ten Tips To Travelling with Under-5s

January 22, 2014

You’d think that being an ex-pat, which has in its very essence the whiff of travel,  when you go on holiday you’d want to stop.  Just stop.   Just stay in one place and let the world come to you. I know people who do that. They go ‘home’, being a rented house somewhere in the middle of their country of origin and play the numbers game: ‘We’ve travelled x thousand miles to get here, you can drive for 2 hours in your car to see us’ – that sort of thing.

We don’t do that. It’s our choice that we’re living in the middle of Islamabad, rather than in Harpenden. And so we travel, to see as many friends and family as we can in the time available.
We’ve just come back from our Christmas holiday in the UK. It was very lovely, but heavy on the old travel front (although we inevitably missed seeing some – you know who you are and I feel very sad about it. Will try harder in the summer).
In the past month I have spent: 16 hours in the air; 16 hours on a boat (8 hours at nighttime, mostly asleep; 8 hours during the day during which I spent 5 hours lying in my cabin in very stormy seas, mostly groaning); 8 hours at airports and more time in the car than is healthy, quite frankly. For all of the above I was accompanied by a 3 year old, a 1 year old and a husband.

I therefore feel qualified to compile a list on the grammatically dodgy but pleasingly alliterative ‘top tips to toddler travelling’. These are mostly geared towards flying, as that is generally the most restrictive form of travelling, but can be adapted to hideous ferry crossings (I’m still scarred) or epic car journeys.

1. Pack carefully.

You’ll need two bags. One with spare clothes and one with nappies, a limited number of toys (see no. 3 below), snacks and drinks and wipes.  Lots of wipes.  You really, really don’t want to run out of wipes.  And a couple of empty plastic bags. They’ll come in useful.    The one with spare clothes should contain as few clothes as you think you can get away with.  If you have two children, pack clothes that fit both, even if they fit them both badly.  For example, if he had had an accident on the aeroplane back to Islamabad, H would have stepped off the flight wearing pyjama bottoms which stop somewhere around the middle of his shin and a top which sported an elegant 3/4 length sleeve.  If the same had happened to little J, he’d have been seen wearing the same pyjamas with copious amounts of rolled up fabric.  However both would have been dressed (which is the aim here).  Which leads me on to my next point…

2. It’s all about survival

You may be the kind of mother who only allows her children wooden toys and organic mung beans.  Good on you. I salute your energy and ethos. However now is not the time.  Oh no.  Now is, in fact, the very time to indulge your children.   Buy that CBeebies magazine with the hideous and poorly made pink plastic fake phone on the front when you’re at the airport.  Do it.  I promise you won’t regret it.

I’m not a fan of computer games for children.  I let the boys play the odd game on my iPhone as a VERY special treat or if we’re waiting for the doctor.  That’s about it.  However on our flight over from Islamabad with Pakistan International Airlines, the entertainment system wasn’t working or, if it was, was showing Turkish soap operas.  We anticipated this might be the case, so hubby whipped out his Nintendo DS and H passed a very happy time playing Super Mario Cart. For hours.  About 6 hours in the end.  It was perfect.  So much so, that when I was having lunch with friends the next day who were bemoaning the fact that their 5 year old son wanted a computer game for Christmas which he wasn’t going to get, I started saying how brilliant I thought they were.  I was positively evangelistic.  They all stopped and looked at me.  We put it down to post-travel euphoria and moved swiftly on.

3. The Use Of Toys

I was once given some very good advice about travelling with little ones.  The wise woman said “Pack some toys and give your child a new one every half hour”.  I can see how this would work, in theory.  Or if you have an exemplary child who will sit and play nicely with a toy and then express surprise and delight as a new dinky car is produced from the handbag.  In reality my sons will play with one toy for hours, or not at all.  There is absolutely no point in packing a range of educational and fulfilling toys – they’ll just fill the space into which you could have squashed a few more Pringles (see no. 5 below) and your little darling will instead spend a happy hour folding and unfolding the tray table in front of them. (For this reason it’s always best to make sure there’s an empty seat in front, if at all possible.) I do recommend, however, the children’s magazines from the airport shops.  The toys seem to be designed to last about the length of the flight, and if they get bored of them they can entertain themselves decorating their living space with stickers.

4. The Power Of The Comforter

J (4 months at the time) cried constantly on the way out to Islamabad.  I’d tried him with milk, to make sure his ears were ok (see no. 6) and I’d walked up and down the aeroplane with him to show him all the fun things we could see (the backs of people’s heads, their TV screens, that sort of thing) but nothing was working.  Then hubby tried.  Still no joy.  At the time we’d been putting a comforter in his cot, nicknamed ‘Tickly Sheep’ by H but J hadn’t seemed particularly interested.  However I suddenly remembered that I’d packed said Tickly Sheep in the spare clothes bag and so we got it out as a last ditch attempt to quieten him down.   It worked.   Immediately. We were so pleased, as were the people in the ten rows both front and back from us.  We now don’t travel without it.  However…

…A Cautionary Tale.  H used to have an equivalent of Tickly Sheep.  His was called Dumbo because it was, in fact, the head of Dumbo on a funny little bit of fleecy blanket.  Dumbo was well-loved.  His nose had been reduced to a thin bit of fabric and one of his ears was ragged, but H loved him.  (Can you see where this story is heading?   No?  Really?  Ok, I’ll continue.)  On the flight back to the UK in the summer H snuggled down with Dumbo and all passed peacefully.  As we were heading through Heathrow, hubby just happened to ask if I’d picked up Dumbo from the aeroplane?  “No,” I said.  It transpire that neither had he.  Despite calls to the airline and pleas with the customer service team to check with the cleaners, Dumbo was nowhere to be found.

H was distraught.  I managed to find a new Dumbo on eBay:


Look, there’s the little chap.  Big fat nose and both ears fully intact.  It was no contest really.

but H wasn’t fooled for one second.  Not even when I told him that Dumbo had been away on holiday to get his nose and ear repaired.  No.  This new Dumbo is a female, apparently, and despite still being cuddled at night, is not in the same league as smelly, disgusting, ‘I-have-my-own-ecosystems’ Dumbo Mark One.

In short, if you do take a comforter with you, make sure it is surgically attached to some part of your anatomy, or that you tell your partner that they are responsible for taking it off the aeroplane at the end of the flight. That way it’s Not Your Fault (which is obviously important).

5. Ditch The Diet

Journey Time is Survival Time.  My children will do almost anything for either Jaffa Cakes or Pringles.  J is the wriggliest toddler In The World which, combined with being ridiculously strong, makes it very hard for me to keep him contained in any seat, let alone the one he should be in, for take off and landing.  That is, unless you hold a Sour Cream and Chive Pringle in front of him.  For these alone he will sit quietly and, therefore, these are now an aeroplane staple. These, and jaffa cakes which have a similar effect once I decide that even in survival mode I can’t bear him eating any more Pringles. It used to be raisins and dried apricots which had the same effect and which still allowed me to consider myself a super mother.  How times have changed.

Oh, and an useful tip which is not particularly widely known, is that if you have children you can generally take any drinks you need through airport security.  The nice chap (am I alone in finding airport security staff generally very jolly?) will ask you to take a sip from a random selection of the drinks you are carrying, but you don’t have to empty them out.  This included two half-litre spiderman flasks of water I was carrying out this time which I thought would be a step too far.  Apparently not.

6. Take Off and Landing

Lollipops of the sticky candy variety are a very rare commodity in my house.  They are allowed on very specific occasions which are:

1. Haircuts. It’s amazing how still H used to sit if you promised him a lollipop.  Now he just sits still anyway.  My baby’s all grown up! Sigh.

2. Having injections.  Your arm may hurt, but here’s a sticky bit of bright pink goo. That’ll make it better.  And, apparently, it does.

3. Take Off and Landing.

Little ones have big problems clearing their ears and adjusting to the pressurised cabin of an aircraft. You’ll start to hear babies who have been peacefully sleeping during the flight, wake up and scream in agony when it comes to landing. They need to swallow, a lot, to allow them to clear their ears naturally.  Sucking on a lollipop is the best way that I’ve found to keep them doing it for the half hour or so that it can take from beginning to land to actually reaching the ground.  For little babies, give them bottles of milk with a little sip if they start to squawk.

7. Brits (in particular) – People Don’t Necessarily Hate Your Children

A friend of mine was travelling with her little baby on her own from Israel to Rome.  Now, you can say what you like about the Israelis (and many do) but they LOVE children.  They really do.  So there she was, just boarded and trying to put her bags in the overhead locker whilst still holding her child. Things were falling, people were backing up behind and it was all going a bit wrong so, in desperation, she asked “Does anyone mind holding my baby?”.  Ten hands immediately shot up and, for the rest of the flight, those around her took it in turns to have a cuddle whilst she enjoyed her flight far more than she thought she would.

In the UK the initial response to taking a flight with children is generally that everyone is going to hate you.  Not so.  I’ve had people on aeroplanes come up to me and say how much they admire my husband and I for travelling with children (which is slightly odd as we don’t really have a choice) and not to worry about the noise (which is very nice of them).  It seems to me that if people see that you are trying to keep your child entertained, busy and as un-annoying as possible, they are generally sympathetic.

And then you get the odd frustrated grandparent who is actively keen to have a stint at baby-sitting during the flight.  I was sitting next to one of these gems on a  flight I did on my own with H when he was a baby.  I got to eat my meal, go to the loo and even watch a bit of a film whilst he bounced little H around and took him on walks.  If it happens to you, feel free to take full advantage without fear of imposing – said Angel From Heaven will let you know when they’ve had enough!

8. Explore The Airport

I don’t know what has happened to regional UK airports, but they seem to me to be trail-blazers for kiddie-friendly travel.  East Midlands Airport has a little soft play and a telly showing CBeebies. It’s hidden upstairs in Departures behind Burger King and you have to know it’s there, but it’s worth seeking out.

Birmingham Airport has an area they call ‘Skyliner’ or ‘Sky Zone’ or maybe even ‘Skyzone’ or something and it’s fabulous.  It has two cave-like structures with floors that change according to how you step on the lights, and various computer games which involve you stamping on bugs and butterflies.  The result is that your children run around like loons in a very safe and limited area just before you get on the flight.  I don’t know who designed it but they deserve recognition of absolute genius.

No such joy in Heathrow.  Come on chaps – up the game!

9. Use A Car-Seat Bag

This is a car seat bag:


It can be purchased here and is, quite frankly, worth its weight in gold. 

The great things about car seat bags is not that they keep your car seat all clean and lovely.  Once you’ve had a toddler sitting in  a car seat eating a breadstick you’ve pretty much given up on that I reckon.  No, it’s that no one checks inside them.  Once you’ve placed your car seat in, you have space for extra clothes, toys and (which is especially useful if you’re going from hot to cold countries or vice versa) big bulky coats.  It’s like have an extra suitcase.  Buy one now – you won’t regret it.

10.  The Journey’s Not Over When the Aeroplane Lands

So the aeroplane rolls to a stop. The ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign switches off and the clamour begins to get hand luggage out seconds faster than anyone else.  However don’t be thinking that just because you can finally release your toddler into the aisle that the pain is over. No.  The worst part is yet to come and that is…The Baggage Hall.

Baggage conveyer belts are like crack cocaine to toddlers.  They can’t get enough of them.  You can kind of see it – they go round and they’ve got funny overlapping bits and they make a little beeping sound and, well, it’s all gravy. Touching them would be cool.  Climbing on them and having a little ride, however, is what they really want to do and all the while you’re there trying to keep them distracted and entertained because you know just how dangerous the belts are.   If they’re not climbing on the belts they want to run around like crazy because they’ve just been penned up for 9 hours in a metal tube and they want to goooooo.  It’s a nightmare.  It’s moments like this when I pull out the iPhone and thank God that I’ve fought the fight of refusing access in the past. Suddenly it’s the coolest thing in the world and I have two children sitting on seats nicely and I look as though I’m in control.

And only I know the truth.

And then, when you’ve finally picked up the suitcases and pushchairs and car seat bags and remembered your children and their comforters and your hand luggage and you’ve stumbled through customs, if you’re really lucky you can see the grandparents on the other side of the barrier at Arrivals.  At that point you can lean down and whisper “Run to Grandpa!” to your darling little ones, watch them sprint off across the tiles, and know that you’ve just bought yourself about 24 hours of peace and quiet.

Journey’s End.

  1. Len permalink

    Lovely advice. Entertaining, true and relevant.


  2. Except on the way home right. No grandparents at that end!

    On our way back for the last time from Sydney, I let my oldest (then 5) watch as much tv as she liked. Friends of mine had said they did this so I thought I’d give it a go. Well she wasn’t used to so much screen time that she couldn’t sleep. She was up for the entire 14 hour flight! I decided never to do that again. Needless to say I am glad we’re not doing that long haul on a regular basis now 🙂

    BTW not sure if you meant to do it but you used your little guy’s full name in point number 1. I’ve always loved that name – but I’m not sure if you intended to share it with us…


    • Thanks for that – now edited out. It’s so easy to do!
      I know the feeling about TV. The first time we flew PIA it was overnight. H got on and immediately asked where the telly was. It was actually very nice (for us, not so much for him) to be able to tell him that there wasn’t any telly and that he should try to sleep. Both boys slept for nearly 7 hours on that flight.


  3. To which I would add:

    Always take spare clothes for yourself/other half (the same one size doesn’t fit anyone approach can apply here as for the children…). Otherwise you find yourself:

    1. Arriving in Vancouver at midnight in January wearing your husband’s jersey (fortunately quite long) and your pants (everything else covered in vomit (A) – she had lovely clean clothes. I didn’t.)
    Or 2. Arriving at Heathrow in just your boxers (my bro-in-law) after a leaky nappy incident while the seatbelt signs were switched off….

    Be warned. Learn from our mistakes….

    Ps I also find that the preemptive apology can be very helpful at getting people on side when you arrive on a plane. I’m hoping it will stand me in good stead next weekend when I take four under sevens to Luton on my own. It’s only an hour or so. I expect it to feel like more…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Itchen Valley Churches

The Parish of the Itchen Valley

The Mom In Me

happy to be me

No, Strike That

Fatherhood, Parenthood, and Profanity.

The Snail on the Wall

Perspectives on Literature and Life, by Lady Vowell Smith

Smitten by Britain

For People Who Love Great Britain

Vantage Points

A Husband and Wife Perspective on Teaching, Living, and Traveling Abroad

Russellings in Gainford

News and Views from Gainford in Teesdale

Highly Irritable

Just another failed attempt at hilarity

Waxing NYrical

Exploring The Big Abbple

%d bloggers like this: