Tips for happy long-distance travels with a two-year-old in tow
Megan Hawkins shares a story in issue 34 of OHbaby! Magazine of her sentimental journey to Ireland to scatter her father's ashes. Six countries, seven flights and one Eurostar journey later - Megan has some insightful tips for travelling abroad with a two-year-old in tow.
We ended up with two big suitcases along with a small carry case, a backpack, Nate's Trunki and the port-a-cot. The Trunki was fantastic for at the airports and on the plane - we filled it with Nate's stuff and he could ride it, tow it along or sit on it and be towed. It definitely saved us from some meltdowns. We took books, stickers, paper, colouring pencils and a new small toy for each long flight that I pre-wrapped as presents to give to him.
I did a lot of research on long haul flights with toddlers (the OHBaby! website was a huge help). We booked night flights wherever possible, and on the Air New Zealand flights we opted to pay the little bit extra for the Sky Couch seats. Talk about lifesaver! We would pop up Nate's couch and he could lie flat without needing to have his feet or head on us, which meant if we needed to get up and move we weren't disturbing him. On one of the flights he slept for 9 of the 12 hours. Bliss.
We took snacks on each flight, an change of clothes for us all, Nate's pj's and sleeping bag as well as his Bud Bunny. When they dimmed the lights we would settle him for the 'night'. I bought Nate his own pair of headphones (the airline's don't necessarily have child sized ones). We would pop these on and play Anika Moa's Songs for Bubbas, and on every flight he was asleep within minutes. We did get lucky, he isn't one of those kids that gets sore ears from the change in air pressure, though I had prepared for this with a stash of sugar free lollipops and those fruit pouches for him to suck on just in case.
At the time of booking, make sure you specify that you need a kids meal for each flight. Nate's didn't somehow and while thankfully he's not super fussy, he did end up with chilli noodles for dinner on one flight. Not ideal!
Stopovers are a necessity
We managed to go pretty well the whole trip without any of us suffering major jet lag, and I put that down to stopovers and leaving a good amount of time between the big flights. We had 24 hours in Singapore. We landed, ate, swam in the pool, slept and then went back to the airport. By the time we got to London we were tired from the second long haul flight in two days, but we would have been significantly worse had we not had the stop in the middle. At the other end of the trip, breaking up our two long flights home with a few days in Malibu was perfect. When we got home we were knackered, but not jet lagged.
One thing I will say about travelling the world, not everywhere can be relied upon for the same vehicle safety standards we have in New Zealand. We seriously considered taking Nate's car seat with us, especially given we would be hiring a rental car in Ireland and LA. But, it was either the seat or the port-a-cot. The port-a-cot won, because we wanted to keep some familiarity at bedtime for him and the B&B's in Ireland couldn't guarantee cots would be available. We knew we could hire taxi's or shuttles with car seats and I had been assured by the rental car companies of their car seats all meeting international safety standards. In Singapore we strapped Nate into the car seat, only to see him go flying onto the floor (seat and all) when the driver stopped suddenly. They had provided the seat we asked for but had not strapped it into the van. Luckily he came away unscathed and we got apologies from the shuttle company, but we learned a big lesson about his (and our) safety needing to be our number one responsibility.
One major thing I wish I had thought to do before we left was check what time we would likely arrive at the place we were staying, and what time their check-in was so I could request an early check-in if need be. We arrived at the apartment in London at around 11am. They didn't allow check in until 3pm, and unfortunately, they couldn't accommodate us with an early check in. Cue one grumpy two-year-old. We did, however, discover a very cool kids hairdresser up the road with a wall of fish tanks to look at while the kids get a haircut, so we grabbed the opportunity to give Nate a trim (the one thing I ran out of time to do before we left!).
The New Zealand hospitality industry could learn from the other side of the world when it comes to catering for children. Everywhere we went in London, Ireland and LA had kids menus and some form of entertainment. The best dining out experience we had was in the middle of London's financial district! We happened across Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen, where we were immediately welcomed with a kids' pack containing a menu that I would gladly have eaten anything from; a colouring book, pencils and a chef's hat. No chicken and chips in sight. Our waitress told Nate if he ate all of his pasta she had a surprise for him and when he did, she came back with a kid sized chef's apron and took him into the kitchen, where he got to make his very own dessert. It was a priceless and unexpected experience.
We spent our fair share of evenings sitting on the floor outside our room, whispering, reading our books or emailing home about our adventures that day; so we were grateful whenever we had a break out space. If you are planning a big trip like this, wherever possible I would recommend booking somewhere that gives you some space for much needed adult time! Look for apartments with separate lounges or hotels/B&Bs with lobbies and comfy seats.
Speaking of adult time . . .
In London we decided to have a night out with our friends, but we had the minor problem of a babysitter to arrange. I looked online and found sitter.co.uk, which had thousands of babysitters who were all thoroughly police and reference checked before they could be registered with them. Right on time our lovely sitter turned up, and after chatting we worked out she grew up in the next town over in Ireland from where my Grandma grew up! Nate loved her. By the time we went out for the night, he was calling her Granny. I highly recommend using this service if you find yourself needing a sitter in London.
Washing was more of a problem than I anticipated. Obviously you can't take a month’s worth of clothes away so you have to grab any and every opportunity to get washing done. This is not that easy when hotels charge mega bucks for their laundry services and when some apartments don’t have washing machines. We ended up doing a fair amount of hand washing and drying over shower rails. We also drove for 40 minutes around Galway to find a Laundromat. Needs, must!
In sickness and health
In Sligo the inevitable happened - both Cliff and Nate got sick. Despite preventative measures like multivitamins and probiotic tablets, I had figured it would happen at some point thanks to the amount of travel, lack of sleep and not eating as well as we would at home. Luckily we were in Sligo for four days so they had plenty of time to lay low, watch movies together and sleep. If you have a go-to medicine/remedy, I would recommend taking a stash with you just in case. We couldn't find any kids cough syrup that worked… how I wished we had our Kiwiherb Chesty for Kids!
Thank goodness for Google Maps. Not only was it invaluable for planning our trip around Ireland before we left, it navigated us from one side of Ireland to the other, with only one marital dispute.
We learned some lessons about pushing our darling two year old too far in those first few days in London. We tried to do way too much and learned that wherever possible, we still had to prioritise his day sleep - for all our sanity's sake. In Paris I had my one and only moment of annoyance that we were travelling with a toddler. I believe my exact words to Cliff were "I am in Paris, the sun is out and all I'm doing is sitting on this dumb couch!" (Nate was asleep). We decided to divide and conquer. I went out and wandered the streets while Cliff stayed at the apartment and then we swapped. Problem solved. After that, I went straight back to appreciating getting to see the world through my son's eyes.
Give the kid a break
We had our hardest day of the trip in Dublin. We kept Nate on a pretty tight rein through London and Paris - the crowds were sometimes overwhelming and we had chosen not to bring a stroller. By the time we got to Dublin, our usually bare-footed outdoorsy Kiwi kid was desperate for some open space to run around in. We had thought Dublin Zoo would give him this, but we happened to be there on the first sunny day in months and
all of Dublin had the same idea. There were too many people for him to be let completely loose, and boy was he filthy about it.
We learned another lesson that day. While safety is of course paramount, we had to strike a balance between keeping him safe and giving him freedom.
Travelling with ashes
If you haven't travelled on a plane with ashes, there are certain requirements you must meet. You need the death certificate and a letter from the funeral home confirming the cremation. The ashes container also had to be hermetically sealed. This basically means the container body and lid are melted together so it is impossible to just pop the top off. We didn't know this until it came time to scatter the ashes, so we reverted to cavemen and tried to prise the top off with rocks, bashed the sides and broke a few fingernails in the process. We must have looked hilarious - Dad got the last laugh!
Megan's father, Peter Murphy, with her son Nate at three days old.
Read Megan's full account of the trip in Return to the Emerald Isle, issue 34 of OHbaby! Magazine.