We’ve recently booked our summer holiday to Thailand and Vietnam and I couldn’t be more excited. Weeks and weeks of sun, sand, exploring, experiencing cultures totally alien to our own. Plus spending quality time together away from the day to day distractions of everyday life. We really do thrive on long haul travel with kids.
This time we’re meeting friends over in Bangkok and we will be spending two blissful weeks traveling as two families. Piper with her best friend and 4 adults to do the carrying, carting and entertaining that comes with traveling with kids. I’ve been swotting up by reading Boy Eats Worlds fantastic blog on things to do in Bangkok with Kids and digging out our old holiday pictures.
On planning dates that would work for everyone, it became apparent that our friends were a little nervous about the trip. concerned about coping on flights, weather, jet lag, and strange foods. This surprised me, we’ve been to Thailand several times, Bali, Malaysia, South Africa and Singapore and think nothing about jumping on the cheapest flight we can find. No matter how long it takes. Embracing weird smells, foods and erratic weather but it struck me that most people don’t think this way.
I’ll definitely recommend my friend reads these fantastic Tips for Thailand with Kids by the wonderful Family Can Travel and have also tried to come up with some more general tips for travelling long haul of my own. So here are some of the hints and tips I’ve picked up over the years to make your first long haul with kids holiday as stress free as possible.
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In this blog I’ll talk about everything from booking your fight and hotel. How best to research your long haul destination. What travel admin and packing you might need to do before you set off. How to survive the long haul flight with kids and the dreaded jet lag. And how to avoid the melt downs when traveling long haul with kids.
Remember kids are adaptable.
Firstly, don’t tell yourself that you can’t go, just because you have kids in tow. You don’t need to stick to all-inclusive family resorts close to home. Not that I think these are bad, but sometimes be brave and head somewhere new. Long haul with kids can be an adventure to beat all other adventures.
Kids like holidays, they like spending time with you away from work, chores and day to day stress. They don’t care where they are as long as they are fed, watered and given time to play.
They will pick up on your stress levels and honestly, it’s hard to feel stressed sitting on a beanbag on a beach in Bali watching them play in the sand.
New sights, sounds and smells are a complete adventure for kids. They soak up new cultures like a sponge. Seeing these new things through the eyes of a child will have you noticing and appreciating the little things you never did pre-kids.
Traveling long haul with kids can mean new tastes. Don’t worry about unusual foods, watching you experiment with new things will encourage a sense of discovery in little ones. I’ve never been anywhere we couldn’t get a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese or plain rice if they’re really not keen on deep fried crickets!
Booking you long haul flight
Once your flight’s booked there’s no going back right? It’s also the most expensive part of long haul travel with kids so get this out of the way first.
Try using Skyscanner to check the cheapest prices within any given month. I particularly like that you can search your outward airport (i.e Manchester) to “Everywhere” to see which flights are particularly cheap. We’ve often planned our whole holiday around this.
I also prefer to fly to one destination and home from another. Meaning we don’t have to retrace our steps at the end of the holiday to get home. This summer Piper and I will be flying into Da Nang, Vietnam and home from Bangkok. Both with Qatar, meaning we can cram in as many destinations as possible. Obviously you may just prefer to stay in one place. Which in general will be a bit cheaper and easier to plan.
Don’t just book the cheapest you can find. Check layovers and overall flight times to make sure it can fit with your little ones schedules. I prefer night flights to start a long haul holiday. Yes it steals a night of your overall holiday. But it guarantees kids will eventually sleep on the flight and hopefully you will too.
Layovers can also present an issue. Too short and you’ll be stressed missing your connecting flight. This happened to Mr AWTYK in Kuala Lumpur (although mostly airlines will hold flights for you). Too long and you’ll be stuck in what feels like airport prison. I recommend between 1.5 and 3 hours. Long enough to grab a coffee, clean your teeth and find your gate but not too long that the kids will start to play up.
Airport Hotels and lounges
If you need a long connection to make your flights work then book an airport lounge. Yes, they add a bit to your budget but it will save your sanity. Rather than wandering airport shops or trying to sleep resting on your hand luggage. An airport lounge will probably set you back about £50. I could easily spend that getting dinner and drinks and magazines in an airport. So I say great value. We recently spent 7 hours at the Oryx Lounge at Doha airport and it was well worth the money. Just to be able to have a sleep and refresh for our on going flight.
If you have an early morning flight then an airport hotel can save a lot of travel stress. And many will include parking in the deal making them great value. We loved the Sofitel at Gatwick or if you’re flying from Manchester, the Radisson Blu is perfect. You can walk to the terminal from both so don’t even have to worry about a shuttle bus.
Long Haul Travel Research
This is always my favourite part of the family travel planning process, working out where to stay. I obsessively read other family travel blogs (no surprise there!) to work out which neighborhood I want to set up base in first. Then I start looking for accommodation.
I love using tripadvisor to find the best prices for hotels, I don’t read all the reviews but its great to be able to flick through to see how other travelers have experienced a hotel. You can also filter by “families” meaning you’ll often pick up some great advice from other families who’ve visited.
I also use Trivago, another comparison site to double check I’ve got the best prices possible. I then list my top 10 and keep checking back to watch when prices fall.
Hotels are so cheap in Asia you’re bound to find a luxury 4 or 5 star within your budget.
For a two week trip to Malaysia for example I would expect to pay around £3,000. This is for my family of three, for flights and accommodation. Which is less than a 3 star in Spain during the summer holidays!
Most hotels will allow young children to stay for free or just a small additional fee. And will offer to set up an extra bed. Everywhere we’ve stayed, the beds have been huge so we don’t normally need this.
Check if breakfast is included in the price, it’s not a problem if you’re staying somewhere busy like Bangkok but if your hotel is in the middle of nowhere like this Westin in Langkawi, it’s best to book the breakfast buffet up front. We’ve always found the hotel breakfasts to be amazing. They’ll set you up for the day ahead, often meaning you don’t need lunch. And you can always smuggle out some bread and fruit to keep everyone going.
Sign up for hotel booking websites and if they have an awards program, join it. Hotels.com or Expedia regularly send out 10% off discount vouchers so find the cheapest site on Tripadvisor or trivago and then find a discount you can use.
When choosing your hotel a mini bar in the room is pretty essential. And not only for a chilled glass of wine! If you have little ones with you, milk can be kept cold, snacks can be stored and drinks chilled for when you can’t face heading out.
Check there’s a bath, if you will need one. If you are lucky enough to be staying somewhere with a washing machine, it cuts down on the amount of packing you need to do.
Planning your itinerary
Research, research, research and then do a bit more research. The internet has so much information available for pretty much every destination you could imagine, so embrace it.
Get the kids involved so they know what to expect when they arrive. Allow them to pick a few activities they want to try when they get there.
Getting ready for your trip
Have a “holiday” night a few weeks before you travel. If you’re going to Thailand you could treat them to a meal in a Thai restaurant and talk about what each of you are looking forward to on the holiday. Teach them a few basic words such as hello and thank you. Make sure they know where they are headed on a map and how long the journey will be.
If you prefer for someone else to plan your whole trip for you then adventure travel experts, Explore have some amazing family friendly experiences with everything planned and included.
Long haul travel admin
Make sure everyone visits the GP at least 8 weeks before you travel to check/get travel vaccinations; they will be able to advise you on antimalarials, food and drink issues and insect bites.
Make sure to check if you will need any visas. And that all your passports have at least six months left from your return home date. It’s a good idea to scan passports, visas and travel insurance information. Then email it to yourself so you have everything on hand should you need it. I also email my parents a copy just incase I lose my phone. It takes seconds and is totally worth the peace of mind.
Packing for your trip
I’m sure you can work out what to pack yourselves but a few things I’ve learnt along the way:
Remember that most places you visit will sell nappies and wipes. Don’t worry too much about taking enough to cover your whole holiday.
Make sure you save those little sachets of toiletries free with magazines to reduce the amount of bottles you need to take. And to avoid potential breakages!
Don’t forget any prescription medicine you need. Make sure you have enough to last the whole holiday. Put together a small first aid kit with bandages, plasters, rehydration sachets, hand sanitiser, allergy medicines and Calpol. Someone is bound to get ill so make sure you have all eventualities covered.
Find out what the weather will be like and pack accordingly. Whilst many far flung destinations enjoy scorching temperatures day and night (pack plenty of suncream!), most will have fearsome air con inside so don’t forget cover ups for all. Tropical locations will often experience violent but short lived downpours. So something waterproof can be handy.
If you’ll be taking internal flights during your holiday, remember to check baggage restrictions. Whilst most long haul flights will allow 30kg, for most domestic airlines you’ll have to pay extra for checked bags. Try to keep it to 20kg if possible.
Make sure you take everything you might need for your first day in your hand luggage. PJs, spare clothes, medication, toothbrush and chargers are all a must. It means you’ll be all sorted incase the airline forgets your luggage (as happened to us in Bali). But even better, you don’t have to worry about unpacking if you’re exhausted on arrival.
Flying Long Haul with Kids
It’s never going to be easy but it can be part of the adventure . Remember flying is fun for kids. From checking out the planes at the departure gate to gazing down on tiny roads and houses, it’s all part of the experience. So use it to your full advantage and let them get excited.
Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and through security. No one needs the additional stress of congestion or long queues when you’re just about to start your holiday.
Check in online before you get to the airport. Do this as early as possible if you’re travelling in a big group to ensure everyone can sit together. Have a look at what entertainment is available on the flight (via the airlines websites) so the kids can pick out a film they may want to see. Remember nothing is rushed on a long haul flight and it may take a while to bring food out. So make sure you have plenty of snacks and water to keep growling tummies quiet. I think long haul travel with kids always feels the hardest actually on the plane.
Take-off and landing can be particularly tough on little ears. A bottle (if still being used) or some boiled sweets to suck on can really help to equalise the pressure and offer a bit of relief. If you book an overnight flight, and we really recommend this so there is at least a chance of some sleep, take favourite PJs to change into at the airport or on the plane. This way kids can understand that now it is time to settle down to sleep. A favourite soft toy or cosy pillow may also help.
Pack extra clothes in your hand luggage. Most parents have been caught out by sickness or worse on a flight. Even if someone just knocks over their water, there’s little chance of a happy traveler in cold, wet clothes.
If the kids aren’t sleeping, they will need entertaining. It’s a big ask for them to stay quiet and seated for over six hours. Take plenty of trips to the toilet to get the blood circulating and walk up and down the aisles if possible. Most long haul airlines will provide you with an activity pack which will make your kids feel extra special. But pack plenty of stickers, books, pens, a favourite toy and bring the tablets/ipads full of films, TV episodes and games to help everyone through it. Flying long haul with kids is not the time to worry about screen time. Just don’t forget your charger for the return flight.
You can check out the best travel games for kids here to help make your long flight and time at airports more bearable. I agree with Tavia from Big Brave Nomad that it isn’t about quantity but quality when entertaining the kids with technology, there are some fantastic apps out there which are both fun and educational, make sure you read her post on the Best Travel Apps for Toddlers & Preschoolers for some guilt free child friendly screen time.
If in doubt, a little bribery helps so stash some of their favourite treats in your hand luggage for any major meltdowns, you are on holiday after all!When you arrive at your destination try to accept that everyone will be a bit grumpy and overtired.
Don’t try to rush kids through security or baggage collection, let them go at their own pace. Try to make sure you have planned how you are going to get to your accommodation before you leave and have local currency and your address ready for taxis. If it’s a long way to where you are staying, it’s worth booking an airport hotel so everyone can acclimatise and let off some steam before starting the next leg of the journey.
Coping with Jet Lag
Jet lag sucks, there’s no escaping it. It affects everyone differently and can ruin those first few days you had planned to go exploring. Everyone might be wide awake when they should be asleep and grouchy when they should be excited. Try to accept it and plan to do as little as possible following your flights there and back. Flying East from the UK (to Singapore for example) seems to have more impact when you arrive than on your return and it’s opposite when flying west to the States.
Arriving in daylight always helps reduce jet lag and sunshine can re-set your body clock so a quick walk around your new destination may be beneficial, and hotel black out blinds are a dream when you all need to crash.
How to make the most of your final destination
Dealing with a new climate
Remember, if you’re going somewhere hot, kids will get tired very quickly. It’s essential to drink loads of water, apply suncream liberally, wear sunhats and find shaded areas as much as possible. Don’t try to cram too much in each day, it will only end in tantrums and tears.
Welcome new friendships
If you’re traveling with an only child like we do then hotel pools are absolutely amazing for making new friends (both kids and adults). We have been lucky enough to become super close to families we’ve met on our travels, we met some Australians in Bali who stayed with us in the UK last Christmas and we’re planning on meeting up with them again in Thailand. Their girls are a similar age to Piper and I know this will be a lifelong friendship.
Travel at your kids pace
Be led by your kids’ energy levels – one night they may want to mooch around a street market till late, the next they may want to crash out with room service and the iPad. Have an idea of what you want to do with your day when you leave the hotel in the morning, but be flexible, patient and remember it’s all part of the holiday!
Embrace new cultures
If you’re heading to Asia your kids may get photographed, Piper didn’t seem to mind so much but if you or your children are not comfortable with it a firm no should suffice.
Embrace and respect the new culture, a great lesson to teach kids. Make sure you cover up when visiting temples (from shoulders to knees), remove shoes if required (no they won’t get stolen) and never walk infront of someone who is praying. And remember that people are not tourist attractions, ALWAYS ask before taking someone’s picture.
Respect the Wildlife
Enjoy the wildlife but be aware of any safety or ethical constraints. Yes, you may want to ride an elephant in Chiang Mai but this is no good for the elephants. Do your research and find an ethical one and settle for bathing or feeding these creatures.
Don’t be scared of the various animals you’ll see but it’s always best not to approach them. We’ve seen monkeys in various hotels, huge lizards and even a snake curled on someone’s balcony!
You will see crazy sized insects and maybe a cockroach or two. Most hotels will be spotless so don’t worry about that but when you’re out and about, just ignore them.
If you’re headed Africa way then obviously you’ll see a lot. Follow the rules, they’re there for your safety, we once saw a couple feeding baboons from their car window in South Africa, somehow the monkey got in the car to search for more food and the couple had to run away. We also once got stalked by a pack of hyenas at a safari camp near Durban, but that’s a story for another day!
Eating in your destination
Take all the usual precautions when it comes to food and water. Only drink bottled water, we also clean our teeth with it and mainly steer clear of ice cubes unless we’re sure they’re OK. Street food is mainly safe, it’s freshly cooked, often at a very high heat, just choose a stall which is busy with locals and sample what you like. We found some of the best food we’ve ever eaten at the hawker centres in Singapore and it’s always such good value.
Most areas you visit will also have western restaurants if you want to ease yourself in slowly and you can always find a Hard Rock café to make you feel at home.We have experienced poorly tummies a couple of times when travelling in Asia, be sensible, take medications with you and drink more water than you thought possible. A combination of the heat, humidity and new food flavours can be tough for little ones, just find them something plain and stay somewhere air conditioned for a while. Fresh coconut can also help.
Try out the kids clubs
Many hotels will have kids club, often included in the price of your room, they range from pretty boring to amazing with kids activities like yoga and fishing on the schedule. Sometimes Piper loves them, sometimes she doesn’t want to go, see what you think when you arrive, they’ve always been extremely safe and may buy you a couple of hours peace by the pool.
What to do when melt downs hit
Long haul travel with kids means one thing’s for sure. There will be a case of the grumps at some point. If you sense a meltdown coming on that isn’t related to tiredness or hunger then the best thing to do is find a play park. Most cities will have several, often in awesome locations so kids can burn off some steam having a climb or a swing while you take in the surroundings. This one is the KLCC park in Kuala Lumpur at the base of the Petronas towers, it also has a child only play pool and a few nice walks. Reading other family travel blogs before you travel will help you work out where to find one in your destination.
Make sure to take it slow, if kids are having fun rushing from one activity to another, they may not realise they are tired, resulting in epic meltdowns when it’s too late.
I took this pic after a busy day rushing from one sight to the next, it was super hot and crazy busy and Piper simply refused to go any further, literally! We were half an hour away from the hotel and it was just the two of us, utter panic! We simply stopped for an hour, sat in a cool food hall and grabbed a lemonade.And if all else fails, remember, an ice cream fixes most things!
Find some time to switch off
Asia is the place to indulge in a bit of pampering, it’s so very cheap and so very good. I’ll always start the holiday by finding somewhere to take Piper to get her nails painted.
We also have almost daily massages, these range from a quick foot massage in a walk in on the street or beach to mid range day spas all the way up to hotel spas which are always the most expensive. Therapists will always love looking after your children and will chat away while they rub their feet. Plus I find it really helps with jet lag. Make sure you ask them to massage soft, not use a stick and obviously if you’re in a private room, insist on being in a joint one with your child.
After Long Haul Travel with kids
So you’ve enjoyed (survived) the trip of a lifetime but how can you ensure the memories live on in little minds? Why not encourage the kids to start a diary while they’re away listing new sights, foods and friends they meet. Make sure you print your favourite photos, and ask them to save all their tickets and buy a postcard from each location to make a scrapbook on their return (perfect for show and tell!). Make sure you talk about your adventure often; the stress of the flights and the pain of the jet lag quickly vanish, whilst happy memories of time spent as a family will last a lifetime.
More than anything have a really fabulous time on your next long haul travel with kids adventure. And don’t forget your passport!
Read next: Visiting Asia with kids
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