Some parents may dread the thought of travelling with children. But it can be rewarding. Really. It just demands proper prep work.
Where to start?
“Parents should certainly consider their children's likes and dislikes when booking a vacation,” says Candyce Stapen, the author of 27 books on family travel including National Geographic's Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.
It may sound obvious, but sometimes parents forget that there's little point in travelling to a rain forest with a child who is terrified of bugs or forcing a teenage fan of the Lascivious Biddies to attend a Wagner opera at the Bayreuth Festival.
After that.... Well, like most ventures, the successful family trip is all in the details:
Research hotels Ideal hotels for family travel are near green spaces, have rates that include breakfast and have a swimming pool. “You can't beat a good hotel pool for letting kids let off steam,” says Kate Pocock, co-author of National Geographic Guide to Family Adventure Vacations.
Pick the right airline Think twice about budget airlines, especially with small children. A poll conducted by Rough Guides showed that parents worried most about packing and carrying all they needed. And airlines such as Ryanair charge more for extra and overweight luggage. They also tend to be located at inconvenient gates at airports, involving long walks, stairs, even buses.
Get the right documents A parent travelling alone with a child under 18 should have a notarized consent letter to prove that the child has the permission of the absent parent or guardian to travel. The Department of Foreign Affairs says the document should be specific to each trip. All children who travel outside the country need a passport.
Invite participation “Let each child pick an outing of their choice in each city you will be visiting after research on the Internet or in guidebooks,” Pocock suggests. “Everyone must abide, although the parent should retain the right to veto.”
Bring a friend Consider bringing a buddy along for children travelling without siblings – especially teens. “Teens need other teens, even if they are just going to hang out wired up to iPods,” says Stapen. She adds that for trips with teens it's a good idea to choose somewhere with lots of activities – though nothing too structured. “Most 15-to-18-year-olds wouldn't be caught dead in an organized program.”
Find a guide “In cities, look for high views, short rides along canals, rivers and streams or tours of the city with knowledgeable guides,” Pocock says. She adds that many large cities such as Melbourne, Buenos Aires and Toronto offer free neighbourhood tours by resident parents with age-related facts and activities (in Toronto, visit toronto.ca/tapto).
Keep itineraries loose Allow time for the serendipitous, plan a slower pace than you might usually attempt, and meet the needs of the youngest child in the group.
“The less you feel you have to pack in, the more enjoyable and stress-free the holiday,” Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco, author of the new Rough Guide to Travel with Babies & Young Children, said in a recent article in The Observer. “And you'll be better able to take the odd day indoors in your stride if the weather is bad or the kids need rest.”
And if you're travelling with teens? Stapen suggests planning major activities for the afternoon: Face it, teens like to sleep late. She also notes the benefits of the all-inclusive or package plan. They offer teens unlimited access to their favourite activities – at whatever time of day – and mean parents don't have to play “the bad guy,” constantly saying no to another round of tennis or golf because of the cost.
Money If you're travelling with teens, establish before the trip how much money you will give them toward extras such as souvenir T-shirts and gifts for friends back home. This helps to eliminate constant haggling.
Hoard a stash of candy Sure, it's bribery. But when the entire bus is waiting and your child is poised to have a screaming fit, a lollipop can save the situation.
Health matters If you're travelling with infants or small children, you may need to arrange an alternative or accelerated childhood immunization schedule. Kids 16 and over should receive appropriate vaccination.
Talk to your pediatrician, family doctor or travel medicine clinic. If your child has a pre-existing medical condition, ask your doctor to recommend a medical contact at your destination in case of an emergency.
And if you're travelling to a hot, humid destination with the possibility of collecting itchy insect bites, be sure to pack antihistamines such as Chlortriplon or Benadryl.
Take precautions Make sure that kids know the name of your hotel and its street address in case they get lost. “For little ones not in a stroller,” Pocock says, “pin their name and hotel address and cellphone number into the inside of their clothing with a safety pin.”
Food and drink In countries with poor sanitation, avoid buffets, boil or purify water and drink out of cans or bottles with a straw. Food is usually safest in a restaurant with high customer turnover.
able than a stroller.
Research, research Did we mention the importance of doing your homework before you go on holiday? There are endless resources online (we like www.travelforkids.com) and a growing list of guides aimed at families.
Laugh a little Attractions get crowded, cars break down and kids spit up. Remember why you came on vacation in the first place – to have fun with your children.
Okay, you really want to share the sound of a glacier calving with your daughter. And wouldn't it be educational to see the Pyramids your son has been learning about in school first-hand? But once kids come into the picture even intrepid travellers may want to consider organized tours to farther-flung destinations.
Aside from the two obviously kid-friendly Disney ships cruising the waters of the Caribbean and Bahamas, other cruise lines have begun attracting parents travelling with children. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, has recently expanded a partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Future Society. The society offers a series of active onboard environmental programs for children on Regent sailing in Alaska, South America, Tahiti and elsewhere.
One of the best travel experiences with children 8 and older is a soft adventure organized by specialists in family travel. Guides are trained to be kid-friendly and they handle the annoying chores – leaving more time for parents or grandparents to spend with the family:
Butterfield & Robinson: 1-866-551-9090; www.butterfield.com. Trips range from tramping glaciers in New Zealand to biking in Puglia. Most importantly, the company groups trips by age to ensure that kids are matched with children they can relate to while they travel.
Black Feather: 705-746-1372; www.blackfeather.com. This tour company offers trips ranging from winter sea-kayaking in the Sea of Cortez to custom summer canoeing in Canada.
Nahanni River Adventures/Canadian River Expeditions: 1-800-898-7238; www.nahanni.com. Show Canada off from a canoe, raft or during a hiking expedition along one of 20 northern rivers in Canada and Alaska. Kids 8 and older are welcome on most trips.
Backroads: 510-527-1555; www.backroads.com. Trips at this company include hiking in Italy's Dolomites and rafting and snorkelling in Bali.
Austin-Lehman: 1-800-575-1540; www.austinlehman.com. This company specializes in family adventure vacations from the Galapagos to the Grand Canyon.
Thomson Family Adventures: 1-800-262-6255; www.familyadventures.com. Family-oriented vacations in places such as Ecuador and Egypt.