How to survive journeys with children

Travelling with children can be a hard slog. Yes, it'll all be worth it once you get there. It just may not seem that way when you're a mere 40 minutes into the trip with an inconsolable four year old and only one wet wipe and half a packet of cheese-and-onion crisps left between you.

The secret of surviving journeys with children - by car, boat, train or plane - is to plan well ahead and have plenty of ideas up your sleeve. 
 

Cars | Boats | Trains | Planes | Top tips for plane journeys | Health advice

Going by car

First things first: if you have one, programme the satnav. Next on the list (satnav or no satnav, it's good to have a back-up): get a map and study it before you go. Write out explicit directions from Point A (home) to Point B (holiday home): glancing at these directions can be a lot easier than deciphering a map, especially when your attention is so easily drawn elsewhere. And if you do take a wrong turn, try not to swear/rant/sob too dramatically: it's amazing how stressed some children can get when they think that you're lost.

"Pack EVERYTHING a week before, then get the whole family in the car and set off. At the first argument (around 1 mile away), say to them all 'Right, if that's how you're going to behave, we're not going.' Then drive home and unpack!" StarlightMcKenzie

Plan to use motorways wherever you can. They're faster, less likely to cause travel sickness and the constant movement will keep your children drowsy. And when you do have to stop, at least motorway service stations generally have a range of kid-friendly facilities.

If your holiday's starting with a long car journey, consider starting off at night (or before the crack of dawn), so the children sleep though (most of) it. Put sleeping children in the car still in their PJs and wrapped in their duvets and, hopefully, you'll be a good few hours down the road before they even start to stir. If you're travelling with a baby, putting a folded blanket under his knees, so they're slightly bent, will make his car seat more comfortable.

Hire cars and car seats
Make sure you've done your homework about car seat standards and regulations in your destination country before you go.

Always phone the hire company before your holiday to make sure they're supplying the right number and type of car seats. It could save a lot of ugly argument when you finally reach the front of the queue at the car hire desk.

If you're staying with friends/relatives who can ferry you around, see if they can borrow a car seat for the duration of your stay, or ask them to find out how much car seats cost to buy/hire locally.

The days when you and your siblings were cheerily bundled into the boot of your dad's Ford Escort and told to play I-Spy are long gone. But, wise though it may be to pay some attention to your progeny en route, a long car journey is not a test of your alpha-parenting skills. Of course, you can spend the 15 hours between here and the south of France teaching them how to pronounce Norbert Dentressangle if you really want to but most of us would rather take the easy route and buy some mobile technology.

Portable DVD players are perfect for car journeys – you can get ones that hook over the back of the front seats, and even dual ones so that two children can view a screen each. Take a stash of their favourite DVDs and you're good to go.

MP3 players and iPods are a good investment, too, and can either be listened to via suitable headphones (if you have exhausted your tolerance for Kipper stories on a loop), transmitted via the car radio or plugged into a set of speakers.

If you have more than one child in the back of the car, alternating their seats can help break both the monotony and the bickering. The intensity of squabbling usually rises in direct proportion to just how close kids sit to one another. Try to provide enough space so your kids can happily co-exist. A goody box each in between them works a treat.

Fuel for the journey
Regular snacks are an essential part of your travelling kit. It's bad enough travelling with a bored child, but travelling with a bored and hungry child is best avoided at all costs. Small pieces of preferably not-too-sticky foods are best.

If you're travelling with a toddler, cut down on panic-stricken, unscheduled breaks by taking along a portable travel potty. The best kind have absorbent, throw-away liners.

Take a change of clothing, too, and don't, whatever you do, dress your kids up in anticipation of your arrival. Sticky fingers, spilt food and felt-tip pens all have fewer places to go in confined spaces.

"We found a map of the route helpful from about the age of four. I covered it in clear plastic and did drawings on it of landmarks (like Stonehenge) and gave her a sheet of small stickers. She stuck the stickers along the route showing how far we'd gone. It gave her a good idea of our rate of progress. She still loves doing it at eight!" eemie

Car sickness

This is caused because the brain's getting mixed messages - the eyes are sending signals about the position of the body, but inner ear balance mechanisms are reporting something different. Travel sickness is generally worse for children but, thankfully, many of them grow out of it.

If your child does habitually feel sick on car journeys, you could ask your GP/pharmacist if there are any medicines they can safely take, but you may have to accept you're in for many miles of Eddie Stobart spotting, because the trick is to keep your child focusing on things outside the car, rather than a book or screen.

"For motorway/busy roads, play car snooker. First child to spot red car gets a point, then needs to spot yellow, green, brown, blue, pink or black then back to red until all the colours of the snooker table are potted finishing with the black (they'll get stuck on pink for ages, which is always a bonus)." Lizzer

"Car trip tip: play roadkill bingo. Gruesome but fun. The rarer the animal, the higher the score: a muntjac deer gets 10 points, a badger 6 points, fox 4 points, pheasant 3 points (as it's seasonal, it scores higher than rabbits), rabbits 2 points, any bird 1 point." helpivegottogivebirth

Even if your child isn't usually sick, on long, 'exciting' journeys it's worth being prepared. Keep a plastic bag in the glove compartment to hand over to anyone who's feeling a bit queasy. And if sick does hit bag, a sprinkling of cat litter (another must for the glove compartment) will help absorb unpleasant spills and smells.

"Keep binbags in the car. Good for chucking rubbish in, of course, but also good as a makeshift carseat cover when your little darling has hurled all over it and you still have four hours to go. Ditto, if child starts to say they feel sick, make a plastic poncho out of the binbag, then they can hurl on that!" littlelapin

If your car journey has a deadline - a specific ferry crossing or flight, for example - allow plenty of extra time. Kids are happier travellers if you let them blow off some steam between periods of being strapped in.

"The holiday part for me is easy; my son just 'is' wherever we are. We bring a few toy cars and he's right at home. It's the journey that's the tricky bit." Kitbit

And if the long and whining road gets too much, there's always bribery:

"A sponsored silence is my top tip." scienceteacher

"Give them a pile of 10p bits. Every time they say, 'Are we there yet?', they have to give one back." Clary

Going by boat

Most children regard ferries as a floating fun/treasure palace and it's true that the beauty of going by boat instead of plane is that your children can maraud around without upsetting other passengers. Well, not quite as much, anyway.

Yo, heave-ho: dealing with seasickness

  • Make sure you take any anti-motion sickness medicine before you leave dry land - you usually have to take them a set amount of time beforehand.
  • It's generally better to be outside on deck than inside - but focus on the horizon, not the waves.
  • If that doesn't work, lying down with eyes shut helps the brain to unscramble the mixed messages it's getting.
  • If lying down isn't an option, and it's too cold to be on deck, find a seat on a lower deck in the middle of the boat where there's the least motion.
  • Salty snacks in small quantities may help.
  • Some people swear by elastic wristbands that use acupressure to stimulate the median nerve; alternatively press against the middle of the inner wrist about three finger widths above the crease.

"The ferry gives you a break from the car and lets you stretch your legs and have a meal." Leslaki

As well as the sheer novelty of being at sea, there are usually lots of other children around, loads of stairs to go up and down, play areas and, sometimes, even a cinema.

The dilemma for parents is: long car journey plus short ferry journey or short car journey plus long ferry journey.

"We have done the overnight ones. It does work out more expensive because you have to have a cabin, but it is soooo much less stress." gigglewitch

Your take on this will depend on your own sea legs and whether your children suffer from motion sickness. If it's a longish crossing, booking a cabin will mean there's somewhere to lie down, which helps with the nausea.

"We've usually done the overnight crossings. I'm not overly keen on ferries, so would rather be lying down/sleeping." BettySpaghetti

"As soon as we got on board, a member of staff spotted us (with small people) and asked us if we wanted travel cots put up in our cabin. We obviously said yes please and they were installed about two minutes after we got into the cabin. They do end up stuck right between the two bunks and take up all the floor space but the dc were delighted with the whole thing!" Apatosaurus

Whether you have a swell time depends, largely, on the elements. As one mum puts it: "On our crossing from Portsmouth to Santander around Easter, we had a force 10 gale through the Bay of Biscay. One DD was so ill she had to be sedated by the ship's doctor but the other one literally scampered around, singing My Heart Will Go On. Dreaded return trip for entire holiday and then it was as calm as the proverbial millpond."

But holidays are an adventure and epic journeys on the ocean waves - OK, Dover to Calais - tend to make for more vivid holiday memories than interminable car journeys. Oh, and how you'll laugh once the children are older and they recall vomiting on the poop deck.

Going by train

There's a lot to be said for letting the train take the strain. "On the train, there's more space and interesting things to see," points out one mum, "and no need to be strapped in all the time."

Changing trains with young children
Give some thought to logistics if you need to change trains. Carrying bags, a buggy and a fractious toddler over a bridge to another platform will make you want to cry. Rucksacks are better than bags or, better still, put your smallest in a backpack – this leaves you the buggy to pile all the bags into and a hand free to hold onto an older sibling.

Another plus is that it's unlikely your child will suffer from travel sickness.

You need to bring your own entertainment, but many trains now have power and headphone sockets, WiFi etc, which increases the possibilities for older children, and at least there are tables on trains for younger ones' activities.

"Be reassured that a long train journey is a hundred times more fun and easier than a long car journey," encourages one Mumsnetter. "Just do make sure he doesn't press the 'open' button when you are on the loo."

If you're travelling with a buggy-age child, try to book a space next to the disabled area so that, if no one needs to use the space assigned for wheelchair users and on the off-chance that he/she falls asleep, your toddler can sleep in their buggy.

If you're going to be sleeping on the train (a highly exciting prospect for any child old enough to grasp the concept) make sure you have your own cabin if possible, and then clip-on lights for you and your partner to read by once the kids are sleep, drinks for you and DP, emergency rations for the kids and realistic expectations about how much sleep you'll get.

"We've just travelled to Florence and back with two small dds (aged 3 and 1) it was great. We booked a double-berth sleeper and had one child each. The beds were same width as a single bed, made up properly with clean linen and blankets. We did take a Samsonite bubble with us, but, in the first train, there wasn't enough space, and the beds were wide enough to co-sleep. Although neither dh or I had a solid night's sleep, the girls slept great and we really enjoyed it. Would defintely do it again - loads better than flying. But make sure to book a sleeper and not a couchette (much cheaper) as they are really narrow and the top ones are high. You'll also have other people in your carriage." Avs1

Going by plane

Taking children, particularly toddlers, on a plane can be a terrifying prospect. Every parent's worst nightmare is having their unpredictable offspring confined in a small space with 100 pairs of eyes waiting for a shout or thrown toy, so that they can begin a synchronised chorus of tutting.

Remember both the airline and the timing of your flight can have a significant bearing on your stress levels. Charter flights, though cheaper, often depart later in the day and the later you fly, the more likely you are to be delayed. Scheduled flights are more expensive for a reason.

Top tips for surviving plane journeys

  • Get them sucking on you or their bottle or whatever they like for the ascent and descent.
  • Try and fly as close to their nap/bedtime as possible.
  • Take stickers and new toys, and whatever they have been nagging you for recently.
  • Get the other passengers on your side: smile and say hello and make contact before you take off. That way, if your child kicks up and makes a noise, they will be less likely to tut and make things hard for you.
  • Take lots of cartons of juice.
  • Only travel with a baby after he has had all his jabs.
  • Always ask for the bulkhead seat and get a bassinet - even if you know your child won't sleep in it, you can store all your stuff in it.
  • Expect the worst - that way the sheer relief will perk you all up if things go well. In my experience, it's the faffing about at Heathrow for two hours before check-in that's the really draining part. suzywong

Before you board

A few airports have crèches equipped with toys, books and rest rooms. Check this out before you travel; there's nothing worse than wilting through a three-hour delay with bored children, only to find the 'children's centre' just as your flight is announced.

Ask if you can take your buggy to the gate. This will mean you can keep it with you until you're actually at the steps of the plane, when the cabin staff will take it onto the plane and put it in the hold for you. You then have somewhere to hang your bags and a place for your toddler to nap if there are delays or if she's tired.

Where you sit

Under-twos can usually travel free, but this will mean you're supposed to juggle them on your lap for the entire flight. It is generally easier to pay the (often discounted) fare, if your budget will stretch to this, so that you have an extra seat.

If you don't, there are some techniques to ensure you can sneakily secure yourself an extra seat, as long as your flight isn't full.

Every traveller's worst nightmare is the torture of being stuck in front of a screaming, kicking toddler for a long flight. Bear this in mind and use your fellow travellers' natural repulsion to your advantage.

"Here's a trick: Get on the plane, sit down and plonk your son in the seat next to you – between you and your husband. Then wait for everyone else to get on board. If the plane is not completely full, NO ONE will want to sit in a row of three that includes a toddler. And you'll get an extra seat for him to crawl around on." Squeaver

"If seats aren't allocated in advance, then get to the front and bagsy a row of seats. Open a packet of Wotsits and spread them over your child's face, then let him grin at everyone – they will avoid you like the plague. Fake sick will have the same effect, but remove once everyone is seated, so the flight attendants don't twig." Scramble

Generally, aisle seats are useful on larger planes because you don't have to ask anyone to move for you if you need the loo – and, if the aisle is free, children can have a little wander.

"Beg and plead for an empty plane seat next to yours – it is a huge help. Your child will still have to sit on your lap for take off and landing but, in between, he will have much more space. If check-in won't give you the seat, then ask again at the boarding gate and then again loudly when you get on the plane (so that other passengers hear you and hopefully offer to move)." Halster

Alternatively, a seat near the bulkhead (where there is a 'wall' in front of you) may have a bit of extra room, so your toddler could play on the floor.

"I so agree with the bulkhead idea. I did a 22-hour flight with DD, who's one, and DS, five, on my own. They could play in front of the seats and were close to the loos and stewardesses for drinks etc." littlemadam

Take off and landing

Small babies are much more sensitive to air pressure as the plane climbs and descends. Crying helps to clear their ears, though you may prefer to give them a feed, as swallowing has the same calming effect (and is slightly easier on other people's eardrums).

Sucking - be that breast, bottle, dummy, sweet or lollipop - and yawning and swallowing all help to equalise ear pressure and reduce inner ear pain.

In-flight entertainment

A good rule of thumb is that if whatever is keeping your child entertained is quieter than the roar of the engines and doesn't involve irritating your fellow-passengers, then let them do it.

"Reusable stickers, the sort you get on a folding picture/scene, are great to keep in your hand luggage when travelling. Our two-year-old spent about 30 minutes arranging them on the window of the aeroplane and we also used them on the big sliding windows of our villa to 'act out' numerous stories." MotherofOne

Have a rucksack packed with tiny toys and small snacks, and produce something new on a regular basis. (And make sure you've got a spare outfit in there, too – including a spare top for you.)

"I buy a new toy specifically for long journeys," says one mum. "I use the usual distractions first until my son's patience runs out, then out comes the new toy and the world seems a better place to him all of a sudden."

Don't mess with an established nap schedule. You may think that by keeping your little one up, they'll sleep on the plane, but you'd be wrong. You'll just wind up with an overtired monster.

If you're travelling with a toddler, where possible time your flight to coincide with naps, and encourage him to sleep as soon as the plane takes off by offering his dummy, milk or favourite comforter.

The sheer relief, gratitude and joy of being the parent of a sleeping toddler on a flight is indescribable. If you've booked a seat for your toddler and you think your child will sleep best, or just be more comfy in a car seat, ask in advance if you can take one with you. Most long-haul airlines should be fine with this. You can secure it with the regular seatbelt.

Day versus night flights

Obviously, this depends on your destination and airline. Night flights have the allure that your DC may sleep through some of it, but the best-laid plans have a habit of going awry in pressurised cabins when you can't get off:

"Dh and I flew to South Africa a few years ago and dd (then 2) was an angel but ds (1) was the child from hell. It was a 12-hour flight and he wailed the whole way there. He probably slept for 10 minutes in every hour but for the other 50 minutes, he screamed blue murder. It was an overnight flight so he woke up every other (sleeping) baby on the plane, the stewardesses gave up on us, two passengers tried to help but gave up when he screamed even louder as they picked him up. I don't know what happened but he absolutely hated it. We tried to drug him on the way back. It worked for three hours and then he woke up refreshed and screamed the other nine hours. When we landed the air stewardesses gave sweets to all the children who had been well behaved and our kids were deliberately missed out. If they're going to scream, a daytime flight is better than a nighttime one! We still have not got back on a plane!" foxinsocks

Long-haul operators have a variety of 'sky cots', bassinets and special seats available for babies and young children, but you'll probably need seats next to the bulkhead to use these, so check this when you book.

"I found the sky cot fab. I didn't actually put DD in it but it was a great place for storing all the baby crap!" littlemadam

Make sure you check and then re-check on-board facilities for little ones, including meals and changing facilities, before you travel, and find out whether they're free or cost extra.

"Pre-book children's meals on flights. They get served first and you'll avoid the endless wait for food. Or better still, if your toddler's at all fussy – take your own. Some airlines have a rather strange view on what constitutes a children's meal." Stephanie1974

"If you fly long haul with two under two, ensure both adults are seated together, that one child has her/his own seat (damn the expense), book a night-time flight (we did this going and it was much, much easier). If all else fails, repeat. 'It's just a phase, it's just a phase, it's just a phase...'" fuzzywuzzy

Long flights are just that - long. You need to be prepared, and then some.

"We brought lots of snacks, her favourite toys and lots of new 'presents' (things from the pound shop) that could be brought out frequently! I'd even wrapped them to make it more exciting! I had either a present or a new snack for each 1/2 hour of the journey. Obviously since she slept for about seven hours I didn't use a lot of them - so then they got used on the way back!" unfitmummy

Even with just one piece of hand luggage, most of your things will need to be stored in an overhead locker that's hard to get at if you've got a child on your lap. Keep the paraphernalia you know you're going to need in one small accessible bag that fits just under your seat.

"Just keep at the back of your mind that it's only X hours and you have a fantastic holiday waiting for you at the other end. I have had the most fantastic flights. I have also had flights when I would have freely given my children up for adoption at the end." sibble

Sedatives

If you're considering sedatives for a long flight, be prepared for the fact these can have the opposite effect, creating more of a grizzle than a snooze. Be sure to take proper medical advice about the merits (or otherwise) of sedatives and, if you still feel the need, try out the right dosage before you fly.

"Sedating children isn't considered to be very good practice, BUT it is occasionally done. For an adult with flight anxiety, I would prescribe a small dose of Diazepam (2mg); for children, a small dose of sedating antihistamine (Phenergan/Piriton). It is important to take a 'test' dose a few days before you fly to see how it affects you. The last thing you want to discover on a flight is that Diazepam makes you comatose and antihistamine makes your child wildly hyperactive!" emma1977

Fellow passengers

There's nothing quite like being stuck in what is essentially a glorified tin can, with barely room to swing a mouse let alone a cat, to bring out the worst in human nature - your own and other people's.

"We were on a flight once where some grumbly old codger said, 'Your children need to quieten down.' This was at 2pm on a flight to the US. I went back to my seat (had been en route to the loo) and fished out the ear plugs which had been thoughtfully provided. Walked back to him, handed him the ear plugs and said, 'I think these are supposed to go in your ears but, in your case, I think your arse would be a more suitable receptacle.'" soapbox

For better or worse (much, much worse), you're all stuck with each other till you land. So, you have to at least start by trying to empathise with fellow travellers who are less than sympathetic to your parenting plight.

"I tend to approach the passive-aggressive tuts and sighs with a false smile, gritted teeth, and a very polite (but slightly edgy), 'I'm sorry, is there some kind of problem?' It usually stops them because they are generally afraid of confrontation (hence the sighing and tutting, rather than saying anything) and they don't want to become involved with the (possibly unhinged) mother of the children. If they do moan about your kids, though, then you have the green light to let rip." WigWamBam

Travel vaccinations and medicines

If you're going overseas, particularly to longhaul destinations, it's a good idea to see your doctor at least a couple of months before you leave to ask about any necessary jabs. Take everybody's vaccination records when you go to speed things up.

If anyone in the family has a pre-existing medical condition, make sure you've got enough medicines to cover the whole trip and that you've got the generic name of the medicine noted down in case you have to get more while you're away.

To put your mind at rest, you could ask your child's specialist for help to find the name of a doctor near your destination who specialises in the same condition.

If you're travelling to a country in which malaria is endemic (check the list of affected countries at who.int/ith/en), get specialist advice on the appropriate antimalarial medication. Make sure you take:

  • Ample supplies of insect repellent
  • Suitable clothes to cover everyone up in the evenings
  • Bed-nets impregnated with insecticide

If your child has special needs, make sure he or she has an identity bracelet with details of their medical condition, treatment and their doctor's name (useful in case of emergencies).

Similarly, if anyone has serious, life-threatening allergies, it's good to know the names of things they're allergic to in the language of your destination, and to list what they're allergic to and how serious the condition is. 

Thankfully, Mumsnet is full of parents who've already travelled to all sorts of places with children in tow, (more or less) survived – and maybe even enjoyed it. If you check out our Travel board, you'll find masses of helpful advice on shorthaul, longhaul and UK holidays, as well as weekend breaks, skiing, camping and cruising – not to mention some very useful General travel advice/tips. Don't even think about booking anything without having a read and/or post first.

Choosing a holiday | Surviving the holiday | Camping | Packing checklists | Mumsnet travel reviews

Last updated: 19-Sep-2013 at 5:24 PM