Has JetBlue rid the world of crying-baby anxiety on flights? How can a rubber ball save you during a six-hour layover with kids? We spoke with Sally Webb, the Sydney-based family travel expert who founded the site Travel Without Tears, for these answers and more…
What’s the worst travelling-with-kids horror story you’ve heard, and how would you suggest handling the situation?
What a way to start an article on family travel! What’s really interesting about this question is that any examples I can think of – the child who projectile vomited for hours, including over the neighbouring passenger; the baby whose ears would not equalize and screamed the entire flight from Sydney to London; the little boy who wet himself twice in the airport before boarding and once on the plane and had to wear his baby sister’s ill-fitting clothes; the family whose luggage flew off the roof of the car and the kid who witnessed it but didn’t say anything for 20-odd miles; the family who had to ski from the top of a chairlift in Austria to get to their mountain accommodation, in a blizzard, having never skied before – are now firmly parked in the annals of history for each family involved. The simple answer is that you cope as best you can at the time and you laugh about it for years afterwards.
Do you think JetBlue’s recent baby stunt will inspire traveller’s to be more forgiving when it comes to kids on flights?
I certainly hope so. I just loved what they did with this. It completely flips the negative ‘Oh damn, I’m sitting next to the mum/dad with the baby; this flight is going to be interminable’ mentality firmly on its head, and sometimes we just need a prompt to shift our attitude.
Any child can have a meltdown on a plane – the cabin pressure wreaks havoc on their ears and they are too young to understand. Yes, JetBlue had to pay – ultimately with free tickets – for the empathy, but the feel good factor and goodwill is enormous.
Picture it: you’re stranded in an airport for six hours with multiple kids under age 10. What are the most important things to have in your carry-on bag?
- Local currency or a credit/debit card so you can buy food and drink
- A small rubber ball – airport ‘fetch’ can use up hours and kids need to run around
- Two small plastic fly swats and a balloon that you can inflate for impromptu airport badminton
- At least one book for each of the kids
- A pack of cards or a game such as Uno
You’ll note I haven’t said phones, iPods or tablets. The thing is, unless you’ve got an international adaptor and can find a power outlet, in six hours you’ll run out of charge. And given the kids are likely to spend the next flight, if you ever get on it, glued to screens and immobile in their seats, it’s better to keep them moving right now.
Pulling kids out of school to travel has become a hot-button topic. What’s your stance?
This is such an interesting debate. I know in the US these actions have been deemed ‘illegal’ in some states, and in the UK the education department is really strict about it, occasionally fining parents who do it.
We haven’t reached that point yet in Australia, but the policies have tightened up over the past few years. State schools (where my kids go) now require a raft of paperwork to be completed, and private schools have long frowned upon it.
My take on it is that kids can learn more through travel than they ever can through education, but you still need to be respectful of your school’s position. It can be difficult for teachers to help students catch up to the rest of the class after a prolonged absence. But equally, a child who struggles at school might have his imagination ignited by an incredible travel experience, and his or her entire learning journey can change as a direct result.
What are three things a truly child-friendly hotel must offer?
A positive and friendly attitude toward children. Flexibility – families are full of surprises and last-minute demands, which are not always within their control. And last, spaces (such as a great pool) where families can be comfortable letting the kids run just a little bit wild without worrying that they’re disturbing other guests.
(My kids would add a breakfast buffet with pancakes to the list).
Are there any adult-safe destinations that are absolutely a no-go for kids?
I have images of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the childless kingdom in my head right now! I really can’t think of any. We went to India a couple of years ago and I was astounded by how many people told me I was mad to take the kids, saying they would get ill. They didn’t and it was a superb destination for a family trip.
Are there any destinations that are better with kids?
I can’t help thinking all of them are.
The wonderful thing about travelling with kids, especially if you take them somewhere you’ve been before but they haven’t, is that you get a second chance for first impressions. You see the wonderment of a place through their eyes.
My husband and I went to South Africa about seven years ago for a wedding, but didn’t take the kids, and I promised myself then that we’d return with them when they were old enough to ‘get’ it. We did, last January, and it was the most extraordinary family trip you can imagine. Ten times better with kids. Seeing Archie spot a cheetah, his all-time favourite animal, in the wild was a moment I’ll never forget.
Obviously theme parks are great for kids. I was bored at Disneyland Paris when I went as an adult (pre-kids), but Hong Kong Disneyland with my own was a different experience.
If there were a battle cry for intrepid parents who travel with their kids overseas, what would it sound like?
With apologies to Dr Seuss, ‘You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!’
And with apologies to Nike, ‘Just do it.’
What’s more valuable: establishing tradition by travelling with kids to the same place year after year, or fueling curiosity by going somewhere new each trip?
The perfect scenario probably involves a bit of both. The former is simpler, involves less planning and few surprises, with a wonderful record of growth and development over many years. The latter is more challenging, but can open up the world in extraordinary ways. Kids grow up so quickly so your opportunities to travel with them and explore the world together are limited by time. I say make the most of it while you can.
Creepy or cool to put emergency contact temporary tattoos on kiddos?
It’s creepy to think they might be needed but not a bad idea. I know people who’ve written phone numbers in permanent marker on their kids’ arms. I used to put a hotel business card and my own business card in my kids’ jacket pockets when they were younger.
Is it ever okay to bribe kids with souvenirs/gifts during extended car or plane rides?
Isn’t bribery just a part of parenthood? I’ve long advocated giving toddlers and pre-schoolers inexpensive wrapped gifts every couple of hours on long plane flights. The wrapping takes a while to get off and the novelty of the gift should occupy them for a while. And my favourite roadtrip bribe is jelly snakes (gummi bears are probably the US equivalent) on the car dashboard. Every time a child is out of line, throw a snake out the window (or eat it yourself). Whether you give them one at the end is up to you.
Since you’re based in Sydney, what are a few must-dos for a family trip there?
With its spectacular harbour, impressive beaches and gorgeous weather, Sydney is wonderful for families at any time of year. Explore the harbour by ferry (inexpensive and fun). Climb the Harbour Bridge with Bridgeclimb (vertigo sufferers need not apply). Camp overnight at Taronga Zoo with the Roar and Snore package, which gives you dinner, a nighttime safari and privileged access to animal enclosures. Do a kid-friendly behind-the-scenes tour of the Sydney Opera House or catch one of the regular family-focussed shows. And eat fish and chips after your family surfing lesson on Bondi Beach.