It’s been exactly one month since we got back from our South African adventure and we have only just readjusted to normality (and caught up with the mountain of laundry). We had a fantastic holiday, but it was the first time we had taken our two boys abroad (the longest holiday we had had up until last month was 5 days in North Yorkshire). Two and a half weeks in South Africa with a 3.5 year old and a 20 month old was a bit of a challenge; a lot of friends told us we were brave, which I think is code for ‘totally, certifiably insane’. So here are my top ten tips for travelling with wee ones, written in the hope that they will help fellow crazy parents embarking on a family adventure:
1. Don’t be over-ambitious! Before children, we were adventurous travellers: we stayed in a primitive gite in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains; road-tripped our way around California and Italy; took solo trips to Australia, New Zealand and Iceland. We didn’t do anything by halves and we certainly didn’t sit still on holiday! The flights to SA weren’t cheap and it didn’t seem worth the stress of taking two young boys on a 12 hour flight to stay for only one week. So we booked for two and a half weeks and then set about filling our precious holiday time with must-see places and must-do experiences. This involved staying in 7 different hotels/self-catering accommodation, sometimes for just 1 night, and 2 days of long drives in warm weather. In hindsight, we packed far too much in and, although the boys coped really well with the fast pace, they were most definitely ready to come home after 2 weeks! So my tip is to scale down your plans, stay in a max of 3 different places for at least 3 nights each, and don’t be over-ambitious. The last thing you want is to wear out yourself and your kiddos with trying to fit everything in.
2. Never underestimate the power of a good playground. I remember reading somewhere that boys are like dogs: they need exercising regularly! Our holiday centred mostly around playgrounds and beaches, where the boys could run off their energy and we had the faint chance of 10 minutes to relax. SA is really kid-friendly and we were very lucky that everywhere we went there were fab playgrounds and beaches that were clean and safe.
3. Don’t sweat it if all they eat is chips and cake. Because frankly this is all they will eat! And at the end of the day, if they can’t do this on holiday, when can they?!
4. Don’t expect to sleep on your own (and not in a sexy kinda way). You can pretty much forget about any dreams of romantic nights with just the two of you sitting out and watching the stars from your balcony. I think we managed a grand total of 3 evenings when we stayed up until 11pm and got through a whole movie uninterrupted. The rest of the time we spent a few hours encouraging our boys to sleep, before giving in at 9 or 10pm and letting them come to bed with us. And even on the good nights they snuck in at some point, meaning that we had elbows in our ribs and slept on approx 1cm of mattress. Sleep is for the weak when you’re on holiday with toddlers!
5. Forget the routine. Yes, you might not get much sleep and no, they might not eat many veggies or go to bed a reasonable hour. But, as much as you can, try to forget the routine you have at home, it will only make you feel homesick! Instead, try to ’embrace the chaos’ (my favourite quote from a friend who has 4 boys under 8) and ditch the routine while you’re away. It’s your holiday too so cut yourself some slack and go with the flow! They will sleep when they’re tired, and eat when they’re hungry. It will all be fine!
6. Let them choose the activities. Actually, this is a tip for parenting in general, not just on holiday! My boys can be little dictators and can throw the most magnificent tantrums if they don’t get their way. So in an attempt to preempt any toddler angst, let them have a say in what you do and where you go. Obviously this might not always be possible, but where you can give them options and let them lead the day’s activities. I’ve learnt the hard way not to push it if my 3 year old doesn’t want to go out!
7. Don’t expect them to pose for photos! You might be in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with the most spectacular photo opps, but your children will not always co-operate. Oh well, we can always go back some day!
8. Pack smart. I wrote a whole other post on this minefield!
9. Keep a travel journal. With my boys being so young, I wanted to have something that would record our fantastic adventure that they could share with friends at nursery and look at when they’re older. A couple of weeks before we flew, I raided Paperchase and came out with a fab vinyl covered A5 notebook with giraffes and elephants on the cover (very on-theme!), some glittery pens, a glue stick and some stickers. My 3 year old loved collecting leaflets and postcards everywhere we went and sticking them in the book. I also wrote a page or two on what we’d done each day and he drew pictures to go along with words. This was a relatively cheap addition to my packing list and was worth every penny!
10. You will want to feed them to the tigers… Unless you’re a SAHM, you won’t be used to spending so much time with your beloved children. And yes, you will have days where you want to tear your hair out, run away with the campervan-driving boho surfers down at the beach, or feed your children to the tigers…
But ultimately you will have a fantastic holiday and your wee ones will develop so much through spending so much time with you. So go for it: book that flight, chuck out the routine for a week or so, and try to embrace life at a toddler’s pace.
As we touched down at Birmingham Airport, J and I turned to each other in our delirious, exhausted state and high-fived the fact that we had survived. And you will too! And along the way, you might just enjoy yourself!