In the run-up to Mother’s Day on Sunday 31 March, we asked writer, editor and mum-of-two Helen Bowman to share her tips on travelling with young children in tow – and why having little ones shouldn’t mean putting your wanderlust on hold
Travel has been my main passion since long before I became a parent, and I've been fortunate enough to visit quite a few places through my job as an editor and writer. When I fell pregnant with my first daughter, it never crossed my mind that travel would take a back seat. After all, she would fit right in to our lifestyle, right? Wrong. She was a sensitive baby; never more than a few minutes from a grumble or – if the grumble wasn't met with whatever it was intended to procure – an ear-splitting wail.
As I imagine with so many first-time parents, it took my husband and I longer to find our footing than we'd expected, and for a time we seemed to agree, even if only tacitly, that travelling anywhere further than the South Bank would be too exhausting and not worth the effort. But the non-stop pace of London and the non-stop grey of British winter soon saw me re-appraising our unspoken consensus. By the time our first was six months old, we were headed to Marseille for a trip that would see us bouncing between a trendy city-centre hotel and an exclusive Provençal chateau. It was crazy hot, the baby was heavy but not yet mobile (ie frustrated) and we were still tied to a demanding breast-pump-and-bottles feeding regime.
I vividly remember the physical stress of forcing a large stroller up and down the hilly, uneven streets of Marseille. I recall a morning at the chateau's pool, in close proximity to a handful of well-heeled fellow guests, when our daughter seemed intent on shrieking wildly at every stimulus that presented itself. I remember a meal at the Provence hotel's tiny, romantic bistro when she refused to go to sleep until my husband wheeled her up and down the village lanes for half an hour. I ate dinner alone.
We still had a lot of fun on that trip, but there was a lot of stress to boot. Yet there can be much to learn in suffering, and we came home with several new resolutions about how we would travel with a child in future. And refusing to be cowed, we soon put them to the test. Since that trip, we've been to Paris, Puglia (twice), the Languedoc, Sicily, Morocco, Los Angeles and, most recently, Barbados – not to mention lots of places around the UK. Along the way, we added a second daughter and a slew of supplementary resolutions. I'm not saying travel with kids has become straightforward, but we are a lot more considered, organised and efficient now than we were back in our parenting salad days. So with that in mind, here's what we learned:
- Buy a giant wash-bag and doubles of all the family's essential toiletries. It makes packing much easier (you don't have to wait until just before you leave the house to pack toothbrushes etc.) and means you won't forget that special coconut shampoo that helps calm your little one's manic curls.
- For longer trips, stay in private villas or apartments with laundry facilities: kids are insanely messy and as a bonus, you're less likely to impinge on other traveller's enjoyment.
- If you go for a hotel, try to find one with a kids’ club and/or babysitting services. Some resorts offer mind-boggling family amenities nowadays – like the ability to pre-book baby kit so you don't have to fill an entire suitcase with nappies, bottle warmers and the like. Also, and this applies even when you're visiting a paradise island full of stunning beaches, a pool is always a good idea.
- Get one of the many super-light travel buggies now on the market. We use the BabyZen YoYo with its handy scooter attachment, so both kids can ride on one stroller. It folds to cabin luggage size, so you don't have to wait for it at the baggage carousel.
- Accept limitations: it's that simple. Where once you and your partner could explore entire cities in a single day, chances are your kids won't let you walk ten metres without delving into the snack bag. You can still see (almost) everything, do (almost) everything – but it's time to embrace a slower pace.
- Don’t be afraid to fly long-haul. Babies always do better on long flights than parents expect, and even if your kids are mobile and more demanding, snacks and screens will get you through. Our happiest, least stressful family trip was to Barbados, which proved to be the ideal family destination, despite the flight duration.
What are your top three essentials to keep the kids entertained?
An iPad with downloaded films they love. Wrap up a couple of little toys and games, activity and sticker books as gifts for them to open on the flight. Pack the most snacks your hand luggage will allow. Consider a night flight. Or the New Zealand Skycouch.
What do you personally never leave the house without?
I feel anxious if I'm without my phone!
What's the best hotel you've ever stayed in?
That's tough! For sheer impressiveness I'll say Jade Mountain in St Lucia – we had our own pool, our room was open – we faced the mountains and birds would fly in and out. Also loved our recent stay at Fairmont in Barbados, we had such a magical time with our kids.
What's the best meal you've had abroad?
Good old pizza and pasta in Florence. The restaurant at the Fairmont did an amazing veggie curry. I also love Plant Food and Wine in LA.
Where's next on your travel bucket list?
I've got an ever-expanding list of surf destinations I'd like to try. I'm a complete beginner but hooked. Sri Lanka would be nice. The Maldives. Plus, I'm keen to revisit places we've loved, so we can explore them more.