After 3 months on the road with two under-fives, it’s time to get honest. It’s time to admit that that family travel isn’t all frolicking on white-sand beaches and cuddling in hammocks. I want to tell you about the reality of family travel. The crazy, relentless things that will drive parents insane.
Family travel is as much about mosquitoes, delayed flights and temper tantrums as exploring new cultures.
Whether you are a regular traveller or contemplating your first big overseas trip with your kids you’ll definitely identify with some of these home truths about the realities of travelling with kids.
Honest family travel: The Reality of Travel with Kids
Here’s our tongue-in-cheek guide to the lowlights of travelling with children.
1. Your dreams of sunbathing in a tropical island (especially in Asia) are quashed as you spend most of your beach time trying to stop the kids from playing with pieces of rubbish that have been washed ashore.
2. You imagine travelling to exotic locations means you’ll see a whole array of unusual and magnificent wildlife. Instead, outside of zoos and aquariums, the most exotic animals you encounter are huge spiders, rats, ants, mosquitoes – most of them are in your hotel rooms!
3. Travelling might mean dodgy stomachs for the best of us. Travel with kids makes those tummy bugs harder to avoid with kids putting their hands (and tongues) in a wide variety of unsavoury places. Yep, I’ve caught my daughter licking the handrail at the train station! Gross.
4. Nappy changing and bum wiping in the grottiest of bathrooms which of course NEVER have soap or even running water.
5. Those dreams of visiting Las Vegas, Macau or Carnival by night disappear into smoke when you realise that keeping the kids out after 8 pm causes tantrums the size of Russia and completely writes off the next day. No more late nights.
6. Whether or not you travel with child car seats (that’s a debate for another time), getting in a car with young children overseas can cause serious anxiety attacks. Manic local drivers, motorbikes swerving in front of you, impatient taxi drivers seem even more horrendous when your kids are wrestling over the last cookie in the backseat or driving you to distraction with 1001 questions about budgies.
7. This is a huge one but travelling with kids is ridiculously expensive. Like seriously break-the-bank expensive. You can search for cheap flights, cheap deals and cheap food but in the end, those extra seats, snacks, baby equipment, swim nappies, bigger hotel rooms keep adding up and up. There are some travellers who manage budget travel with kids (pedalling across continents, camping in the wild and foraging for food) I commend them. Personally, I doubt I will ever manage that level of budget travel.
8. Travel as a couple or solo and you’ll find booking accommodation is a simple process of plugging your dates into a search engine and picking a nice, affordable double room. Travel with two kids and it takes days to find the exact right accommodation. Interconnecting rooms all sold out. Private apartments too cluttered with open staircases that a toddler could tumble down. You’ll need hours to research it all.
9. On the subject of hotels, however many reviews you read or research you do, you will always end up booking less than desirable accommodation at least once. Think ants eating dead cockroaches in the kitchen, walls that don’t reach the ceilings so the kids wake at any sound, broken air-conditioning and mushrooms growing on the bathroom ceiling. Then you spend that long first night desperately trying to stop the kids from touching anything and have to pack up and move the next morning.
10. This is one of those weird travel with kids truths. Kids roll around on airport floors. It’s strange but look around any airport and you will see at least one kid rolling on the floor of the departure or arrivals lounge. Us adults know airport floors must be one of the grossest surfaces in the manmade world. Kids, on the other hand, just think “roly-polys!”
Hands up anyone who’s ever seen a kid roll around on the floor of an airport.
11. Most days travelling with kids is mundane. That’s right, the majority of our travel days aren’t spent exploring world-famous ancient ruins or visiting internationally-renown museums. Whole days pass shopping for nappies (so hard to find in many places), waiting at soft play for the third hour in a row or simply in minimarkets trying to work out how to construct a healthy dinner for four from two cans of out-of-date tuna and some dry noodles.
11. Tantrums. However fantastic your parenting skills are at some point in the heat, noise and craziness of travel your kids will have tantrums. Tantrums suck for everyone involved but hop over to our post The Mother of all Tantrums; why you SHOULD travel with your toddler for some honest advice about why tantrums shouldn’t stop you from travelling.
12. Romantic dates and loving evenings of passion are out. There’s not much chance of intimacy when you’re sharing 1 room with your partner and 2 or 3 kids. Intimacy goes on hold.
13. This is a sad fact and fortunately, one that Rhino and I can help disprove. Some parents split up after long-travel travelling together. I know quite a few couples who found a few months in the sun with their families didn’t magically heal old wounds but shed light on deeper problems. Just something to be aware of. A family gap-year is not a Band-Aid for marriage problems.
14. Helping your tween-age daughter with her first period is never going to be a barrel of laughs but on the road, there are white linen hotel sheets and a lack of privacy to make it all that little bit more awkward.
15. So you think, you’re on a budget. Then you check your online bank. You see the debit card and credit card charges and realise that the ATM you had to use in an emergency the other day just cost you £20 in charges.
16. Yes, it is entirely possible that your children will eat chips once a day for the entire 3 months/ one year that you’re travelling. During our extended stay in Asia, the kids’ diet boiled down to something like this: one meal of chicken and rice, one meal of fish and chips with lots of fresh fruit thrown in at snack times. Unless your kids love spicy and strange new foods, except that your ‘healthy, organic’ diet might need to go on hold. Especially if self-catering facilities are minimal.
17. Travelling in the 21st century equals crowds. Everywhere from tiny Liechtenstein to hyped-up Vietnam, there are crowds. Everyone wants to see the world – not just your family. Pushing, shoving, clambering hordes of tourists. Crowds can be really tricky with young children: the noise, the smells, the attention, the fear of losing each other. Plan downtime, try to find quiet corners and try to empathise with your small children dwarfed by swarms of passers-by.
18. Hard fact: there are people who will be rude to your kids. You love your kids, I love my kids, we probably have loads of time and patience for each other’s kids. But… there are so many people who will hate your children at first sight. Bring your noisy, snotty toddler on an aeroplane – outrageous. Take your kids to a quiet art gallery – be gone with them. Dine with your children in a fancy restaurant – you anti-social baffoon. Some people WILL be very rude to your children – and you!
19. On the flipside of the coin, other people will LOVE your children. Really LOVE them almost to the point of harassment. In Thailand and Myanmar, our kids were grabbed (literally) and pulled into photos hundreds of times a day. Their faces were molested and stroked by strangers. Huge groups of teenage girls would descend on them like mother hens, clucking and coo-ing. It is an understatement to say that our kids found the experience overwhelming.
20. If you think you sweat in the tropics. Try wearing a baby-carrying sling in a humid, hot country. Now come and tell me what sweat is!
21. Even at home, I spend ten minutes tracking down the kids’ toothbrushes every day. Living out of bags, unpacking and repacking. Stuff goes missing every day. Other things get broken. Is that suitcase really strong enough to sit on? Oops. Where did you last see your doll? On the aeroplane? Oh. Get used to fruitless searches- and get good insurance.
22. There will be those days when you’re travelling when it all goes wrong and you feel like giving up. Yep. There will be down-days and sad-days and more-stressful-than-work-days. But are the good, running in the sand, climbing mountains, gazing at the stars days enough to cancel those days out? We think so.
23. As much as your toddlers love you, they will run away. Z ran away from us down a busy street in Hanoi. Just for fun. It was panic-inducing. Luckily, a security guard stopped her running into the road (which in Hanoi is a deathwish). Sometimes, toddlers just feel the need to run. Be prepared. I recount this story among others in my post I love Hanoi, But Hanoi with toddlers left me ripping my hair out!!
24. We used to love the idea of exploring Bangkok in a tuk-tuk. A real authentic Thai experience. Until we got in a tuk-tuk with the kids and realised that we were all at exhaust pipe level. Sadly, the world is a polluted place – and it’s not just your own lungs that parents have to think about.
25. If you’re anything like me, the idea of warming yourself by a glowing log fire or in front of a bonfire after a long day sightseeing or exploring the wilderness sounds amazing. In reality, this means all your clothes stinking of stale smoke for days afterwards and the kids hacking up black phlegm.
26. Stray dogs. Fierce, barking, aggressive stray dogs. From Chile to Malaysia, you will encounter stray dogs in all areas. Urban and rural. Beaches and parks. In fact, all those places that you want to take your kids to.
27. Don’t be a mug and think that travelling with kids will mean that thieves and pickpockets will be too kind (and overawed by the cuteness of your adorable kids) to mug you. Hell no, they’re desperate. Possibly high too. Two whining little toddlers make you an easy and already distracted target. Frazzled parents are a soft-target for street crime.
28. White, sandy beaches. Everyone’s dream exotic location. Until you’ve tried rinsing fine sand out of a screaming toddler’s eyes. Enough said.
29. Family road-trips into the mountains and along winding coastal roads are the stuff of family travel dreams. Along comes motion sickness. The view is never the same with the scent of fresh vomit in the air.
30. Sometimes you’re so hungry that you sit down at the closest restaurant or cafe. Occasionally, this spontaneous meal turns into a veritable feast. A lot of the time, the meal will be dreadful. The service awful and slow (not great with hangry toddlers), hairs in the food (my pet hate) and processed cheese sandwiches for 10 euros.
31. Running late is never fun. Especially when you have a flight to catch. Or a once-a-week train. Especially when you have 3 suitcases, 2 daypacks, your toddler needs a wee and the baby is screaming.
32. The sea may look alluring and magical glittering the sunshine but waves can be rough and riptides life-threatening.
33. The simple act of applying sunscreen and bug spray to toddlers and young children is a memorable experience. Somewhere between being thrown into a professional wrestling ring mid-match whilst listening to death metal at full volume.
34. You sit down in a restaurant and spend a while perusing the menu and choosing just the right dish for the little ones. Twenty minutes later, exactly the wrong dish appears. You query this mistake with the waiter. Turns out that he definitely heard you say ‘sambal’ and not a club sandwich. Hope the kids enjoy fermented prawn paste. Currently, we live in Malaysia and this one is a weekly occurrence for us.
35. Like pickpockets, con-artists make a bee-line for frazzled parents. Sure, they can convince your curious five-year to try a cup of ‘speciality tea’. Then they turn to the distracted parents and that’ll be $20 please.
36. Kids wreak stuff. In hotel rooms. In restaurants. On aeroplanes. In hire cars. Many things will be broken. Hint: we never travel with felt-tip pens.
37. Our kids eat dinner early. They go to bed early. In the US, at 5 pm restaurants are busy. In Spain, at 5 pm the restaurants are still shuttered. In Northern Spain with a toddler, we spent more time in our hotel room ‘picnicking’ than eating out.
38. A simple meal out can be challenging. Child A is having a tantrum. Child B needs the toilet. The food has arrived and is getting cold. Mum doesn’t even get a mouthful as she has to take A back to the hotel room. Child B wants to go back too. Dad ends up eating cold food alone in a restaurant. We’ve all been there.
39. There is a lot of poverty in the world. There is also a lot of sex-tourism like in Pattaya, Thailand. Your kids will ask difficult questions. Be prepared to answer them.
40. Kids sleep anywhere. Do they? Not my kids. Most kids are really picky about where they sleep. Sleeplessness is a hazard of family travel. You will share beds with your kids. You will wake up with a toe in your nose.
41. On average it can take up to a week for a child to readjust their body clock to a new time zone. Don’t forget you can’t get over your jetlag until they do.
42. Protest poos. Yes, they really happen. Our eldest once did a number 2 in the shower. he didn’t like the hotel room. He blamed it on the cleaner!
43. What to travel to world-famous cities with your children? Well, you’ll need to pay the price. Often living spaces are tiny. In Hong Kong, there wasn’t room to swing a cat in our $150 a night apartment. There definitely wasn’t room to have a tantrum.
44. Even last minute checks won’t stop frazzled sleep-deprived parents from making rooky mistakes. Ever turned up at the airport and seen that your flight is the same date but in 12 months time? (We have)
45. Getting separate seats on flights. Even rushing on to low-cost airline flights won’t guarantee that your whole family always gets to sit together on a flight. Whilst I love the 3 in a row, one at the back of the plane strategy if it’s me at the back. It’s not so great when I’m with the kids and Rhino is downing beers and chillaxing twelve seats behind.
46. My kids fight everywhere. But especially in hotel rooms. Nothing is more fun for small children than bouncing on a hotel bed until they fall into a heap and start wrestling… Nothing.
47. Nothing days. The days that your toddler or teenager gets out of bed the wrong side. The day nothing will make things better. The day old favourites fail. They refuse Nutella. Throw the i-pad on the floor.
48. I mentioned stray dogs before but wild monkeys are not your best friends when travelling either. Toddlers get hungry… all the time. The only way to preserve your sanity is to keep a day pack full of snacks and nibbles. Monkeys like food. Monkeys love snacks and nibbles. Alpha monkeys in touristy areas will happily steal food straight from your toddlers’ hand. It does happen; we live in Asia. We’ve seen it happen.
49. Mosquitoes get everywhere. In cars. In tents. Inside mosquito nets. They bite. They buzz. And they carry diseases against which there are no vaccines. Most of which are very dangerous for young children. Insect repellent contains a lot of not so nice chemicals too. Be prepared to worry… a lot.
50. Most old towns and cities around the world are not designed for strollers. Cobblestones and potholes make navigating the pavement an adventure sport. So you carry your children instead. Babies fit snuggly in ergonomic slings but older children? Let’s just say that you may end up spending a lot of their future inheritance on chiropractors and osteopaths!
51. Clambering up mountains and splashing through streams equals one thing smelly shoes. Smelly shoes mean stinky feet. It also means carrying around disgustingly smelly footwear. The smell being such that you have to leave them on the balcony.
52. Camping in the wild or even hanging your clothes up outside at nighttime will lead to moth holes in all your clothes. All of our clothes were wreaked by the end of 3 months travelling. Holes, stains and tears.
53. So you give in and pay outrageously expensively prices for entrance into a theme park. Just to get in and discover that every ride has age and height restrictions and that the only ride your toddler can go on is the tea-cups. This pretty much happened to us at Ocean Park when we visited Hong Kong with toddlers. Next time, we’ll do our research.
54. If you’re on the move with young children, you will ALWAYS have a bag of stinky/wet/soiled clothes with you. Stuffed in your suitcase or daypack. There will be spillages and accidents and impromptu dashes into the sea. Multiple changes of clothes a day and when you’re staying somewhere without washing facilities you will find that you always have this plastic bag of wet, musky, festering clothes among your luggage.
55. It’s a well-known fact that people pee in swimming pools. Not me. But I hear people do. And the shame if my own children peed in a pool.
56. I used to love long-haul flights. Free booze, blockbuster movies and the chance of a kip. Post-kids, international flights are no longer a marathon of movies and tiny G and Ts but of snacks, vomiting, toilet trips and trying to stop our kids from kicking the seats in front.
These are our 56 honest family travel truths. We hope that they opened your eyes to the reality of travel with kids. I certainly hope that a few made you laugh out loud.
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