My daughter, Waimea, has set foot on 4 countries in 2 continents. Not bad for a 14 month old who is still technically a baby. Upon landing aboard one flight, we even received compliments for Waimea’s exemplary behaviour. I imagine they must have been fearing the worst when they spotted the hyperactive baby settle down in their audible vicinity during boarding… Was it wrong that I felt like we just won the Parents of the Year award….?! Nevertheless cue proud parent face!
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious when we recently embarked on our first long-haul family trip to the South Africa and Namibia. Travelling with babies/young children is far from relaxing but it’s rewarding because it underlines that travelling and babies do not have to be mutually exclusive. No matter how difficult I think travelling with Waimea may become, I force myself to reminisce about the time I was walking along Nyaungshwe, a remote village in Burma (so remote I don’t even know how to pronounce it!). To my disbelief, I saw a father carrying what looked like their 1 year old in a backpack child carrier. I took my hat off to him!
Having spent most my childless travelling years lamenting the prospect of a seat adjacent to a potential time bomb (i.e. a baby), I refused to be one of those inattentive parents. I knew I had to go over and beyond by call of duty as a father by starting with reluctantly combing through Netmums for handy hints on travelling with your LO (a Netmums acronym for “little one”)! Prior to our epic tour of South Africa and Namibia, my wife and I did some “trial” city breaks to Bruges and Prague (any excuse to travel!). These relatively short trips were not only cost effective but also honed our travelling with a baby strategy to military precision! A word of caution if you plan these city breaks with just hand luggage – Waimea’s gear had monopolised my one and only carry-on for her inaugural flight to Prague. It was a miracle that I even managed to squeeze in a couple of briefs and some socks! It goes without saying that certain sacrifices have to be made when travelling with kids….
I am not infallible. I have made mistakes along the way and sometimes you learn the hard way. The hardest lesson was recently given in Namibia. Never had the phrase “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” become so pertinent. I had persuaded my wife to go on a road trip to the surreal Namib Desert which according to Google Maps is a leisurely 4 hour drive. We would time this drive to coincide with Waimea’s slightly extended lunchtime nap. After landing we picked up our rental car, set the satnav to our desert outpost and off we went. After about an hour smoothly driving over tarmac, the satnav tells me to turn off onto what started off as a dirt track but quickly deteriorated into a stretch of mud…..the car was sliding side to side and losing traction. Thoughts and doubts began to circle in my head: Why did I naively hire the cheaper saloon car and not the big 4x4 with the high clearance? Why did I only buy two small bottles of mineral water prior to driving through an actual desert? Why didn’t I choose the longer tarmac route? And where the hell are the other cars/people?! Having driven round Cape Town comfortably, I don’t think the reality of driving in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa had really hit home….. I persevered recklessly in retrospect.
We continued driving a further 4 hours over dirt track and around mountains without passing a single car and miles away from civilisation. If I had done this with friends, it would have made a great anecdote to fondly recount over dinner. At this point I couldn’t tell if my palms were profusely sweating from the desert heat or from the intimidating scowl on my wife’s face in the rear view mirror. I gripped the steering wheel like a rally driver on steroids but with every bump, knock and ravine crossing, I feared the worst. If the car couldn’t take the stress and broke down with our limited provisions and in the heat of the desert, the situation would’ve deteriorated quickly. I decided due to my recklessness, I would forgo any water during the next excruciating 4 hours in case the worst did happen. That was my self-imposed punishment and this as I admitted to my wife was not my finest hour. So after my trials and tribulations, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve managed to refine the art of travelling with young children and I’d like to share some wisdom we’ve acquired along the way.
1. Meet and Greet. Take advantage of the valet service at the airport. The service is actually cheaper than the long term airport car park if you book in advance with the benefit of being able to drive straight up to the departure terminal drop off point. This means no more trying to carry the baby, folded buggy and your carry on in your mouth…. whilst boarding a bus to the terminal (which in my opinion defeats the object of driving to the airport). You can also collect the car right outside the arrivals terminal on your return.
2. Invest in a good travel system. We went for a Mountain Buggy “Nano” which was not only a breeze to fold but can also be slung on your shoulder and compacted to carry on size. This proved to be invaluable when impatient passengers were tapping their feet behind you to get on the plane.
3. Toy Bag. Along with my treasured professional DSLR, Go Pro and important travel documents, I also carry a rainbow patterned pouch full of an eclectic mix of toys including a spoon and a toothbrush (Waimea is obsessed with holding things with handles for some reason!). Be prepared for toy rotation!
4. Choosing Seats. It doesn’t take rocket scientist to work out that travelling business class is one of the best ways to travel with babies. Having Waimea’s bassinet above our fully reclining seats was a cosy set up. There was even enough room for a small corner play area when one of the seats was in the upright position. Alternatively, if I travel economy class then depending on the configuration of the plane seats, I choose the aisle and window seat and hope that it’s not a full flight and the other passengers are deterred from selecting the middle seat. That way you can sneakily but legitimately use this seat for your baby! If someone has chosen that seat I’m sure he/she would be glad to switch to avoid sitting next to a potential time bomb!
5. Pre-flight and In-flight Rituals. Feed the little one some Nurofen to prevent earache and to make them a bit drowsy at the gate. As a contingency I also feed Waimea a bottle of water upon take-off and landing to ensure that her little sensitive ears are equalised.
6. TABLET. It’s in uppercase for a reason! I cannot stress the value of this source of entertainment/distraction. I don’t think the late Steve Jobs realised how many blushes he has saved me and my wife! Before each trip I ask my wife what programmes Waimea has been engrossed by that week and download them on to the iPad along with some educational ones too. There’s only so much toy rotation you can do on a plane to keep a child entertained!
7. Baby Carrier. For babies who are still small enough to fit into a baby carrier, using it on the flight is great to stop babies from fidgeting whilst still being able to keep the baby seat belt extension around them.
8. Portable High Chair. If you’re planning to travel to a lesser developed country then I would strongly encourage you to buy a portable high chair. When we were in South Africa, no matter how nice the restaurant, we would always take the portable high chair. It’s surprising the number of restaurants who do not cater for families with young children.
Feel free to add to the list and share your own thoughts and experiences.