Although I have travelled many times to conferences and for work, my trip with Oliver to Europe was the first time one of my children accompanied me. Now that Oliver and I are well and truly home, here are my top tips for a great work or holiday travel experience with a kid (with the caveat that I travelled with just one kid; a pretty easy going 8-year-old kid at that). These things worked for us:
1. Maintain bedtime
In England, Denmark and the Netherlands, the sun didn't go down until very late; after 9pm. In fact, we travelled just before and after the summer solstice, so during the longest days of the year. It was tempting to make use of these long days. But on the advice of my friend Jennie (who recently travelled to London with her similarly aged daughter), I mostly maintained Oliver's usual bedtime; around 7-8pm with only a few exceptions. When we first arrived in London, jet lag meant Oliver was ready for bed even earlier. But after he was mostly over his jet lag, I still tried to stick with early nights. This became difficult in Rotterdam where conference activities finished late and everyone then headed to dinner. We stayed out late our first night in Rotterdam (bed at 10.30pm) but on subsequent nights we skipped these dinners and ordered room service. In return, Oliver was fairly well rested for the busy days and the cumulative stress and exhaustion of travelling. Lights out at 8 o'clock was a little boring for me once I was over the jet lag, but I just wrote our blog or watched TV on my iPad (Season 1 of House of Cards!).
2. Let the kid decide
Whenever possible I let Oliver decide what we would do and see. In London there were a couple of things I definitely wanted to do, such as the Tower of London. But otherwise, I suggested options to Oliver and let him choose. For instance, in London we went to the London Zoo two afternoons in a row. Oliver loved it and wanted to go back. Once in the zoo, he cycled over and over between visits to the gorillas, monkeys, and meerkats, with a little of the tigers, african hunting dogs, aquarium, and reptiles. This is what he wanted to do and I let him, rather than pressure him to go to new places I thought he would like. He's still talking about the meerkats! A similar thing happened in Rotterdam. One morning he went with Nina, John and Doris to an architecture museum. The next morning when I had free time he didn't want to go somewhere else, but back to the same museum to show me what he had seen.
3. Don't crowd the days
When travelling to new places it is tempting to squeeze in lots of sights and activities; after all, how soon will we be back in Denmark? But a string of long days wears everyone out. We tried not to do too many things in one day and tried not to feel obligated to stay at any one place. For example, one morning in London Oliver and I visited the British Museum. You could spend days there. But Oliver was ready to leave after 90 minutes; so we left. We missed things, but when I abandoned any idea of a list of “must do” sights, it didn't matter. Given this is what worked best for us, next time I wouldn't buy the London Pass. It's really only value for money when you do a number of things each day.
4. Allow plans to change
Some days I made plans in my head of our likely itinerary. But then it didn't pan out. In London we abandoned our plan to go to Legoland Windsor after I read terrible reviews on TripAdvisor. Another day we planned to go to the Tower of London but my day pass for the train was off peak, meaning I couldn't use it until after 9.30am. So instead we wandered to Buckingham Palace and got sidetracked by Churchill's War Rooms. We also planned to take a tour of Chelsea Football Stadium, but then Oliver realised the football season was over and a tour meant just seeing the stadium not the team. Our plans changed again. I realised that as long as we were having fun it didn't matter if we missed some things I originally planned.
A somewhat related issue was money spent on unfamiliar food or drinks. In Aarhus, for instance, Oliver and I took a break in a cafe and ordered a skim milk hot chocolate and a smoothie (or so we thought). But things are made and taste differently in different countries and Oliver didn't like his drink. He tried it but didn't want to finish it. I learned not to sweat money “wasted” on such things (see point 9 below).
5. Remember “trival” things can be just as fun
Amidst our busy travel and conference schedule, Oliver enjoyed many simple things. One morning in London he asked to go feed the ducks in Hyde Park. All this cost us was a half a loaf of bread we didn't plan to eat anyway. In return Oliver spent a wonderful hour in the park. He also enjoyed learning the London Underground, meeting and patting people's dogs in the various parks, kicking a cobblestone around the streets of Aarhus, and sitting in cafe windows and watching people go by (noticing differences between them and people at home). Unplanned, seemingly trivial activities often were just as fun as the big outings and sights. They certainly were a lot cheaper.
6. Your company and attention are worth as much as the sights you will see
Oliver was four when his sister, Louisa, was born. Since she was born he has fought to focus some attention away from her — she has been quite demanding — and back to him. To my mind, one of the very best parts of our trip was the one-on-one time that Oliver and I spent together. I know he enjoyed almost everything we saw and did together but I'm pretty sure he enjoyed as much the fact that he had (almost) my undivided attention. I loved when he said to me after our trip to the Natural History Museum in London that his favourite part of the day was spending it with me!
7. Schedule a rest day
I think it is really important to schedule down time. In London, between morning and afternoon activities we often went back to the hotel for an hour or so rest. I find travelling exhausting and I've travelled a great deal. It must be incredibly overwhelming and tiring for kids. In Aarhus we spent an entire day — the Sunday — doing almost nothing. This allowed us to recharge before we raced off the next day to Legoland and then on to Rotterdam for our last, hectic leg of the trip.
8. Watch for signs of jet lag meltdown (tired, hungry)
Both from Sydney to London and from Rotterdam to Sydney, we travelled approximately 30 hours door to door and crossed many, many time zones. This is hard enough on an adult, let alone on a kid. During the trip I was vigilant for signs of “jet lag meltdown”. Sometimes Oliver didn't realise that he was hungry or tired because his body clock was so out of whack (although he slept brillantly). He just felt unhappy. So we made a pact to be patient with one another when we were feeling a bit cranky; I made sure Oliver got as much sleep as possible; and I encouraged him to eat when he might be hungry. For breakfasts, I bought simple food from the corner store to eat when he first woke up (which in London was quite early) then we had a second, later breakfast when we were out and about. So my advice is to plan for the hunger and tiredness and count to ten!
9. Find familiar foods
Oliver was happy to try new foods. He especially enjoyed the Dutch pancakes that the breakfast chef (who took a bit of a shine to Oliver) made for him in Rotterdam. But he also appreciated familiar foods, particularly since his eating schedule was thrown entirely off kilter by jetlag. In London, in Marks and Spencer, Boots or Pret a Manger, we easily found ham and cheese sandwiches and apples (two favourites), which helped his transition to the new time and environment.
10. Choose hotels with wi-fi (and bring a device or two)
We spent a lot of time in transit and Oliver spent a lot of time in conference venues. He maintained his good humour in part by listening to music, reading on, or playing on his iPad mini. Occasionally he wanted to download new things or to play online. In Aarhus, he was lucky to find another boy at the conference and they played side by side on their iPads while I was giving my talk. So I was pleased and mildly surprised to find that every hotel we stayed in and the conference venues all had free wi-fi for an unlimited number of devices. This contrasts with my most recent stay in the US, where wi-fi cost me $16 a day for one device. Free wi-fi also made my blogging much easier. Many European hotels include free wi-fi. It is worth looking out for it when booking accommodation.
So those are my top tips. What are your best tips for a great trip with kids?