“My toddler is being chased through the airport by two heavily armed men!”Me, September 2017, Abu Dhabi Airport, UAE
But first, let me start at the beginning. As a Canadian parent living in Australia, travel is no longer a luxury hobby. Travel used to be about adventure, exploration, experiencing new places and cultures. It still is. However when you live overseas (or even interstate) from your family and loved ones, it changes. And if you start a family, travel is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity.
Which is how I found myself solo with my two young children, at the time aged seven months and two and a half years. We were travelling from Toronto to Perth, Western Australia. Interesting tidbit – Toronto and Perth are the furthest apart major cities in the world! Something that was very clear to me during our connecting flights of 10 and 14 hours.
We had decided to travel via Abu Dhabi. The airline we used was well reviewed for travelling with kids. It provided a lovely hotel accommodation for the layover. The plan was perfect. And yet. My son was two and a half years old. Long flights. Layovers. Leaving family. Jet-lag. And in case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of rules in airports. And waiting. A LOT of waiting!
Half way home, my son reached a point where he was done. Completely over-it. In the swings of a tantrum he went running through security, under a barrier and out of the waiting area. With the speed and agility only a two year old could manage. As I was breastfeeding the baby at the time, my reflexes were a bit slow. I will always remember the looks on the faces of the two military looking security officers standing there staring at me when I yelled ‘GO STOP HIM ALREADY!”. Which is how I ended up with two heavily armed men chasing my son through the airport. Thankfully he didn’t get far before he was returned to me.
You know that parenting moment where you’ve reached a degree of panic that presents as an eerie sort of calm? Yep, that was me. That mix of fear, frustration, and exhaustion. I was furious as well, with no one to direct it at. Kids behaving ‘badly’ in airports or airplanes; it’s not their fault. I see adults behaving badly in in stressful situations like travel all the time. And we have significantly more developed coping mechanisms.
Who doesn’t want to throw themselves on the floor and scream after three hours waiting in a line?
Travelling solo with kids taught me a lot about travel. And about myself. Like the way ‘extreme’ adventure activities teach about how we respond under pressure! I learned that when travelling overseas with kids, everything was amplified. Previously stressful situations were more stressful. The flexibility to wing it with many aspects of travel disappeared. When something went wrong, it was harder to transition smoothly into a back up plan. It was difficult to quickly move from one place to the next. And the biggest challenge? Using the airplane toilet with the company of a toddler and a baby! While changing a diaper. And keeping the toddler from falling into the toilet.
OK, I’m still laughing at that one.
Regardless of how many kids you have or how far you travel, when children are in the mix more planning is required. And for most of us, a bit of additional mindset work is an asset.
The following seven tips are key tools I’ve learned about travel and mindset with kids. Specifically planning for air travel with small children. The full version of the ‘what I’ve learned’ list is far too long to read in one sitting, so here are the highlights:
1.Booking your flight.
When it was my husband and I, we could book flights at the last minute. We liked inexpensive and quick, and were less worried about our seats or the time of the flight. However with kids, how you travel to your destination can set up your first few days or even entire first week. This change in travel expectation was a struggle at first. But through trial and error we learned a few things. Night flights can help keep kids in a natural sleeping routine (and less need to entertain them!). Layovers might be worth it for a good night’s sleep between flights. It might take longer to get to your destination this way. And feel like it’s eating into your vacation time. But it might make the entire experience more enjoyable for everyone. Adapting how you get to your destination can set the tone for the rest of the trip.
2. Know what the airline and airport provides (and doesn’t provide).
While a lot about air travel is standardized these days, not all airlines are the same regarding kids. Questions I like to ask include;
3. Be as minimal as possible.
This is a bit of a controversial point. Every time I travel back to North America I am shocked at the size of ‘carry-on’ people try to bring onto the planes. And I agree, before having kids I liked to travel with carry-on only as well. When travelling with kids, and especially if you are travelling alone with kids, I strongly suggest the following: Bring as little as you can onto the plane. This is why point #2 is so important. Use what you can from the airport and airline, and bring only what you need onto the plane. Why? Because everything extra will add to the clutter and chaos. It will.
I was reading a popular travel blog that suggested bringing a new activity for every 15 minutes of the travel time. Every 15 minutes! For 24 hours of air travel! My advice is exactly the opposite. Kids are creative. The experience of travel is exciting. Bring a few basics and then let them play with what’s there. As for food – the same rule applies. Bring food, but utilize what the airline can provide as well. The less extras you have to carry, the easier it will be physically and mentally.
4. Stroller or no stroller?
Before deciding if you are bringing a stroller, consider when you plan to use it. If you want to use it between flights at the airport or on layovers consider what the stroller policy is with your particular airport or airline. Not all allow checking at the gate and many will not give access during layovers. Checking it as luggage gives you the opportunity to ensure it is safely packaged so you don’t arrive at your destination with a broken stroller. Many airports have courtesy strollers to use while at the airport.
I have always worked with the philosophy that I only bring as carry on what I can actually carry on. That includes my kids. Until they reached competent walking age – the skill and stamina to walk the terminal unassisted. Until then, I had to be able to carry them if necessary. And more then once, it was necessary. Two tools I found more helpful than strollers where baby carriers/baby wearing and a Trunki (tow-able luggage). Both of those were worth their weight in gold!
If you know you can’t carry your kids plus what you will need on the place, that is absolutely not a barrier. It’s covered in the point below.
5. Ask for Help.
It doesn’t matter if you are travelling solo with kids, with your partner, or with extended family. Ask for help. We have unwittingly created a parenting culture where it’s a sign of weakness or incompetence to ask for help. Hear me when I say this – that could not be further from the truth. Travelling with young children is hard work. But don’t let that discourage you! What’s amazing about travel is that there are so many people around who can help. Other travellers. Airport personnel – many who are employed to do exactly that – help passengers. I once had an Australian customs official carry all of my hand luggage to the baggage carousel while I carried both my baby and toddler. Behind the uniforms, titles, duties, and destinations, we are all just people. And most people want to help.
6. What other people might be thinking is not your concern.
Travelling with small children puts your parenting on display in a very public way. It can be stressful, and it’s easy to let that stress get the better of you. Don’t waste a hot second worrying what other people think. If you need to breastfeed your baby on the plane, do it. Screen time for the kids? I recommend it. Snacks you would never give them at home? Absolutely. Your job is to get through this with as little stress and overwhelm as possible. To allow you to get to the making-fabulous-memories part. Don’t worry what other people think.
However, you might be surprised to realize that the other parents out there watching? They’re giving you a silent high-five, and the only thing they are wondering is if there is anything they can do to help.
7. And the hardest but most rewarding step is…
And remember, at all costs, maintain your sense of humour. You might find yourself one day telling a hilarious story that starts with something like; “my child was being chased through the airport by two heavily armed men…” I’m saving the rest of that story for his twenty-first birthday, or maybe his wedding!
Travelling with my children has changed my perspective on travel. I have had to change my expectations, be more flexible, and spend a lot more time planning. Is it worth it? Absolutely.