Paltry Packing (Part 2): Our Personal Packing Plan

bag icon

As I mentioned in last week’s article – Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly – FreeToBeZ and I are shortly going to be heading to Morocco for a 10 day trip to visit FreeToBeB.

This visit includes the festivities of Eid El Fitr and invites to two weddings (not 100% confirmed; this is Morocco we’re talking about – “in two weeks” could just as easily mean “in two months”).

We’ll be going with just two small backpacks and a handbag.

I fully intend to have a Mary Poppins-style experience when removing my belongings from my bags at my destination, with much more than seems possible packed into our modest hand luggage. Yes, I’ve trimmed back a lot in order to travel lightly (so it won’t seem as if everything but the kitchen sink is in there) but what should be apparent is a sense of what is truly necessary for us.

We’re flying with Ryanair, who are notorious for being stingy with baggage allowances. Therefore, I decided on the backpack option rather than going for my usual cabin-sized suitcase – I’m not going to risk them charging me an arm and a leg for chucking my carefully crafted ‘hand luggage only’ trip into the plane’s hold just because a cabin bag’s wheels take me 5mm over the maximum allowed dimensions or something.

Having a backpack on my back is also a lot easier to handle than needing a spare hand to wheel/carry a small suitcase around.

On the plus side, Ryanair have recently made an allowance for an extra, small bag per passenger as well as the usual cabin bag allowance. The additional small bag allowance fits the dimensions of my usual handbag perfectly.

Both FreeToBeZ and I are each allowed to board the cabin with a 55x40x20cm bag and a 35x20x20cm bag.

FreeToBeZ’s toddler-sized backpack actually fits the dimensions of the latter, so for our return journey I’ve factored in the option of another bag (a fold-up one which will be taken, outbound, in my main bag). This will come within our hand luggage allowance yet ensure we have an appropriate carrier for our return journey for any gifts or other purchases we may wish to come home with.

Our spare, foldable bag that can function as FreeToBeZ's main hand luggage for our return journey if we need extra room for purchases we've made at our destination.
Our spare, foldable bag that can function as FreeToBeZ’s main hand luggage for our return journey if we need extra room for purchases we’ve made at our destination.

In the case of not having the option of the additional small bag, I usually take a small shoulder bag – big enough to fit the important and valuable possessions (e.g. passports, boarding passes, purse, phone, ipod, medication) yet small enough to discreetly tuck under a cardigan or coat so as not to be penalised for taking on extra items that won’t fit into my already crammed cabin bag.

 

So, here’s what we’re actually taking with us:

MY BACKPACK

luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My main luggage

This is a ‘laptop’ backpack (i.e. a slim backpack that has a compartment specifically to fit and pad a standard-sized laptop computer, plus a main compartment, a smaller compartment on the front, and two pockets). Its dimensions are 50x30x20cm.

Clothing and accessories:

  • Flip flops
  • 2x pairs of knickers
  • 1x pair of socks
  • 1x bra
  • 1x leggings
  • 1x thin, light summer dress
  • 1x thin, light long-sleeved kaftan-style top
  • 2x short-sleeved tops (for either under or outer wear)
  • Neck scarf
  • Maternity belt

Toiletry bag:

  • All-in-one shampoo/soap/body wash bar
  • Olive oil soap bar
  • Salt of the Earth travel-sized deodorant
  • 2x folding toothbrushes
  • 2x disposable razors
  • Electric shaver
  • Tweezers
  • Mini nail clippers
  • Spare glasses in case (that’s both ‘in a case’ and ‘just in case’! I’ve always been fearful of broken glasses whilst away from home as the extent of my short sightedness deems them an absolute necessity. FreeToBeZ once accidentally flung my prescription glasses overboard on a ferry from Motril to Al Hoceima after whipping her hand up to point at something. They RIP in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, this is definitely one of my more sensible packing policies.)

(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)

First Aid bag (small plastic bag stored inside toiletry bag):

  • Pregnancy multivitamins
  • 5x individually wrapped antibacterial wipes
  • Individually wrapped plasters of various sizes
  • Paracetamol (just a few to get by as these can be easily purchased at my destination)
  • 2 packs anti-diarrhoea tablets
  • 6x sachets rehydration treatment
  • Sterilising tablets
  • 2x wound dressing pads and first aid tape
  • Small roll cotton wool
  • First Aid guide leaflet

(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)

Miscellaneous:

  • NHS maternity notes
  • Pad of paper and pens
  • Travel towel
  • Hair towel
  • 3x muslin cloths (as quick-drying hand towels and also to use to cool down: drench in water and place over body if necessary).
  • Nightlight
  • Torch
  • 2x plug adaptors
  • Mini speaker (gift for FreeToBeB)
  • Old smartphone, charger and accessories (gift for FreeToBeB)
  • Spare, foldable bag (48x31x15) for the return journey (this will count as one of our main cabin bags on the way back if we decide/need to use it)

 

FREETOBEZ’S BACKPACK

luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My daughter’s main luggage

This is a small toddler backpack, dimensions approximately 31x25x16cm.

  • 8 disposable nappies
  • Pack of toilet-training wet wipes (smaller pack than standard wet wipes)
  • Small changing mat
  • Spare, lightweight shoes (plastic, slip-ons)
  • 3x thin short-sleeved tops
  • 1x thin long-sleeved top
  • 3x leggings
  • 2x socks
  • 3x knickers
  • Hair fasteners (bobbles and hairclips)
  • Small soft toy
  • Small toy
  • Paper, crayons and stickers
  • 4x mini board books
  • ‘Travelling treasure sack’ (a small bag which includes small trinkets found around our home such as old jewellery, crystals, coloured feathers, plastic rings, etc, to keep FreeToBeZ occupied with ‘new’ things).

MY HANDBAG

hand luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My handbag (additional allowed piece of hand luggage)

This has three compartments and three small pockets, which makes it really practical for staying organised. Its dimensions are 30x20x20cm.

  • See-through bag of liquids/creams for presenting at security – 3x inhalers (asthma treatment); 100ml toothpaste; 100ml children’s sun lotion; 30ml antiseptic cream; 20ml Arnica cream; 10ml patchouli essential oil (my ‘perfume‘); 10ml tea tree essential oil (for First Aid kit and general antibacterial use); 20ml Rescue Remedy; 2x 50ml hand sanitising gel; 100ml handcream; 10ml lipbalm; empty 100ml spray bottle (for spritzing ourselves with water in the North African heat)
  • Travel documents in a plastic wallet – in here I keep our passports, plane boarding passes, coach or train ticketsaccomodation documents (if applicable), EHIC cards, travel insurance documents, copies of our main passport ID pages, international driving permit, and a card of useful numbers in Morocco
  • Purse (emptied of loyalty cards and other such things that are useless on foreign soil; ideally restocked with cash)
  • Smartphone (including Kindle app full of potential reading material) and charger
  • Ipod, earphones and USB lead
  • Digital camera
  • Sunglasses (in their case)
  • USB stick (loaded with any work I need to do – in Morocco, I have the option of using an internet café or FreeToBeB’s notebook laptop)
  • Pen
  • Eyeliner
  • Lipstick
  • Tangle Teezer hairbrush
  • 2x packs of travel tissues
  • Plastic bags for rubbish, FreeToBeZ’s dirty clothes, etc.

PLASTIC CARRIER BAG

This will contain food and drink for the journey. It is certainly not packed 6 days in advance, but will consist of something like:

  • 2 x 500ml bottles of water
  • 2x small cartons fruit juice
  • Homemade sandwiches in sandwich bags (enough for lunch and a later snack)
  • 4x packets of crisps
  • 2x apples
  • 2x satsumas
  • Packs of dried fruit
  • Flapjack
  • 2x Kinder chocolate bars (FreeToBeZ’s favourite)

ON THE JOURNEY

To purchase in the departure lounge:

Mineral water for the plane journey – pricey, but not as pricey as on the plane!

I intend to bring enough snacks to take us right through the day, as we will be eating a main evening meal once we arrive in Marrakech (usually at a street-side restaurant in a suburban area where we eat a family-sized feast for all of about £4).

What I shall wear:

  • Underwear (this should go without saying, but you never know!)
  • Travel socks
  • Abdominal support band (3 pregnancies later . . . :-/ )
  • Leggings
  • Strappy top
  • Thin, light, ankle-length summer dress
  • 2x thin overtops / cardigans
  • Neck scarf
  • Sun hat
  • Ankle boots (slip-on Doc Martens – practical, comfortable and hard-wearing for any walks or scrambling in the mountains we do).
  • Pouch sling (if FreeToBeZ wants to be carried on my hip for any distance)

What FreeToBeZ will wear:

  • Short-sleeved dress
  • Long-sleeved top (under dress)
  • Leggings
  • Thin jumper or cardigan
  • Socks
  • Sunhat
  • Casual summer shoes (Clarks Doodles – nice and light but good for walking in due to being fastened up securely).
Travel clothes, travelling lightly, packing lightly
Our clothes and shoes for the journey – saving on luggage space by layering it up and wearing the bulky boots.

AT OUR DESTINATION

Shopping trip

To give you more of an idea of how I’ve managed to keep our packing to a minimum, here is also a list of the things we will purchase on our first day in Marrakech (just from a local hanout – a general shop found in both urban and rural areas selling everything from loose pasta to women’s sanitary products):

  • Disposable nappies
  • Wet wipes
  • Toilet roll
  • Tissues
  • Shower pouffe
  • Batteries (spares for camera, shaver, etc).

If you’re going to be somewhere that is inhabited by other people, there will always be a way to find most of what you need – or you’ll figure out the locals’ methods of surviving without the things we deem so ‘necessary’ in more privileged societies.

There are a number of other things that could be purchased at our destination if I wasn’t so principled (fussy?), and this includes toiletries such as sun lotion, toothpaste, shampoo and soap – you can find the standard brands of many of these things in many parts of the world, but you won’t necessarily find your favourite natural and/or eco-friendly products.

However, there are numerous natural body care shops and argan oil cooperatives in Morocco where I could potentially find many toiletries free from harsh chemicals, and this is something I hope to explore further on my next trip (watch this space!). For now, I will take my usual Green People suncare product and handmade, SLS-free shampoo/soap bar.

As for those wedding invites . . . FreeToBeB is encouraging me to purchase a takchita, (a traditional Moroccan dress) to wear to the weddings, of which there will be plenty to choose from in the Marrakchi souks. We can also purchase any wedding gifts over there too.

Things I’m doing without

There are some items of ‘utility’ equipment that I have to make do without when going down the ‘hand luggage only’ route, namely my nail scissors and my trusty multi-tool which includes a penknife.

My multi-tool usually resides in my handbag –  it usually comes everywhere with me (except on this trip!) and I feel quite lost without it. However, if it was truly necessary, I could always purchase another one over the other side.

I’ve also factored out swimwear and nightwear for this trip.

FreeToBeZ is young enough to get away with not being too modest if she wants to splash about in any water, and I’m not particularly bothered about donning my swimsuit whilst pregnant.

Full nightwear is rarely desirable during sweltering Moroccan summer nights, yet I’m taking daywear that can easily double up as nightwear, including a very thin but large neck scarf that can be used as a cover for FreeToBeZ if she is without clothing yet bothered by mosquitoes in the night (whilst Morocco isn’t a malaria risk zone and mosquito nets aren’t required, they can still be quite pesky for some people).

 

Obviously, we all have different preferences as to what we like and ‘need’ in our lives, and what feels necessary to our personal circumstances at the time, so these lists are just a guide to how I’m personally limiting our load. I can’t imagine many people need to be concerned with packing a maternity belt to ensure their comfort!

The important thing is that I look at these lists and can think of nothing I desperately need or want in addition to them – at least nothing that I won’t be going without anyway, irrespective of what I pack (I’m thinking of my bath and half of my usual kitchen equipment!).

My hope is that in sharing our personal packing plan, I’ve provided you with some ideas of how it is possible to travel with both a child and a truly light load.

Happy travelling lightly!

Please feel free to comment on this post below. Let me know if any of this has come in useful for you (or not!) or if perhaps there’s anything you’d cut back further or substitute?

Next week: depending on both inspiration and an internet connection, I will be blogging live from Morocco next week 🙂

Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly

It may seem hard to conceive, but my 2-year-old daughter and I are about to embark on a 10 day trip to Morocco with just a handbag and two small backpacks as our luggage (her toddler-sized backpack being particularly small!).

Our luggage for 10 days abroad: a 'laptop backpack', a toddler backpack and a handbag.
Our luggage for 10 days abroad: a ‘laptop backpack’, a toddler backpack and a handbag.

And, no, despite our family ties over there, we don’t keep a second home in Morocco stocked with belongings and necessities.

Whilst my confidence in our ability to travel this lightly stems from my knowledge of the country and the frequency of our visits, I believe a light load is possible for anyone with a little forward planning.

This time, for me, packing lightly is necessary thanks to my advancing pregnancy (I shall be nigh on 6 months pregnant) and the realities of travelling with a 26 month old whose preferred form of transport is to sit on mummy’s hip. Previously, a Mei Tai sling was our travelling carrier of choice, but the baby bump no longer allows for this.

I write this post from the perspective of my forthcoming trip, which includes a plane journey. This makes things all the less flexible. If your own trips don’t include such restrictions on baggage allowances, take from this what you will and adapt any of these ideas to the nature of your individual journeys.

You may have the luxury of your single backpack being a 35 litre hiking rucksack – for many, this could still be considered ‘travelling lightly’ (if the piles of suitcases on some airport trolleys are anything to go by).

So, without further ado, here are some of my tips for ensuring a jolly journey without all the baggage:

 

1) Head for the sun

Forget all the “Just in case it’s cold” wear!

Less clothing may not be so much of an option if you’re planning to trek around the Outer Hebrides or have Iceland as your destination. However, assuming that most people tend to head for warmer climes on their family travels, this tip sticks.

Thin and light clothing is a necessity for warmer weather, and it’s also a necessity for travelling lightly. Once these are neatly rolled up in the bottom of your backpack, there should remain more than enough room for the other items that you consider necessary for your trip. But perhaps only if you also follow rule number 2 . . .

2) 2 changes of clothes + some domestic duties = a light load

Based on rule number 1, this shouldn’t be too much of a feat – after all, the lighter the clothes, the easier they are to wash and dry.

In Morocco we usually have to handwash our clothes (I take very little credit for this – FreeToBeB tends to eagerly take on this responsibility), yet you may well have the luxury of staying somewhere with a washing machine or laundry service. Either way, the stress saved in not having to cart heavy bags around is worth a couple of hours of domestic labour.

3) Dress to undress

On your actual journey from home to your destination – assuming it’s not already too hot where you’re travelling from (easy for me to say, I’m in England) – make ample use of layering your clothing. Cardigans and jackets can easily be tied around waists or attached to a bag if you find your temperature rising, and they make good bolsters if you fancy a nap as you travel.

This makes rule number 2 somewhat easier to bear as well – you might find you actually have more changes of clothes than your meagre luggage would suggest.

4) Purchasing power

Wherever you’re going, you won’t (unless you’re attempting something like an Everest expedition or a trek into a rainforest) be existing in a vacuum away from other people who need to eat, drink, dress, wash and do pretty much all the things we all need to do in order to survive.

Even in many rural areas, there will be outlets where you can buy things that you’ve forgotten or that you hope to purchase at the other end to at least make your outbound journey lighter.

During my first trips travelling with FreeToBeZ as a young baby, half of my suitcase was taken up with eco-friendly nappies. On our very first trip with her, I even took a hefty, heavy stash of cotton washable nappies (plus their liners and covers) and a huge box of Ecover washing powder.

Nowadays, I compromise my eco-ideals for the sake of my health and sanity: I’d much rather purchase standard disposable nappies when I arrive at my destination than cart a supply of my favourite type through 3 train journeys, a bus to and from a hotel prior to an early flight, only to eventually get them checked in (with a huge sigh of mental and physical relief) at the check in gates.

Really, when you’re travelling with kids, short cuts are a good thing, even if you have to suspend your usual, ethical purchasing habits. It took me a while to realise that being a martyr over some nappies was not a sensible idea.

5) Minimalist mindset

OK, this one is best cultivated over time in accordance with ‘living it’ at home as well.

Sometimes a sense of spiritual ascetism can be good, at least until it gets you where you need to be. You can rage against it when you arrive at your destination and bemoan all the things you wish you’d brought (if only that damn woman on that blog hadn’t extolled the virtues of travelling lightly!).

Yet, seriously, it helps to try to take on a more minimalist approach to life. I’ve found that travelling has helped instil that in me anyway. From the realisation that so many people in this world can function with so little compared to our Western consumerist lifestyles, to the desire to rid myself of clutter in order to ultimately fit my life into a camper van; there have been many opportunities whilst travelling to appreciate a life of less.

Without the distraction of your possessions, you can tune in to your travelling. Perhaps leaving all those entertainment gadgets behind will encourage you to spend more time sitting and talking to the locals? Perhaps without a huge array of clothes and accessories to choose from, you get up and go with more speed in the mornings?

However it works for you, it’s true that we have to leave many home comforts behind when we travel anyway: between you and the neglected suitcase, what’s a few more?

6) Downsizing

Wherever possible, take the ‘mini’ option.

If there’s one thing my clutter-clearing has been wary of, it’s been my well-stocked bookcases. I’ve always loved having plenty of reading material whilst away from home too.  In the past, this would involve at least 5 books in my suitcase for a week’s holiday.

Thankfully, we’re now in the days of the e-reader. Yet we can go one better than that: there is no need to even waste space on a Kindle itself – I ensure I have plenty of reading material on my smartphone’s Kindle app and away I go!

The smartphone also technically works for music, although I personally prefer slipping my ipod into my bag due to the battery life limitations of my phone, and at least an ipod doesn’t even take up the room of a single book.

What else can we downsize on?

Toiletries are an obvious answer, but you’ll be restricted to 100ml containers of these anyway if you plan on taking a flight with hand-luggage only.

I like to take my own toiletries rather than purchase them at my destination, as this is one ‘ideal’ that I won’t compromise on: I only buy toiletries free from harsh chemicals such as SLS and parabens, and I cannot even buy these in British supermarkets let alone North African corner shops.

I tend to bypass both of these issues by purchasing organic shampoo bars from an online shop that triple up as shampoo, regular soap and body wash.

7) Child’s play

All this is well and good, you may be thinking, but have we forgotten someone here?

My little traveller, aged 3, 2011
My little traveller, aged 3, 2011

In most respects, all of these tips work for children as well as adults. You may find it more difficult if travelling with a young baby or toddler (no chance just 2 changes of clothes are going to last long there!), but there are some simple things you can do to ensure the kids are catered for without loading your luggage with kiddies’ paraphernalia.

The trick is in packing for the journey itself rather than the destination – I find it easy enough to keep the kids entertained on foreign soil without the need for too much ‘stuff’ (you can always purchase things whilst there which may be both local and educational – FreeToBeP was fascinated with our host’s Arabic newspapers and asked if he could go out and buy his own, which cost the equivalent of about 30p). However, keeping them entertained is not so easy to achieve when you have a few hours trapped aboard a plane or train.

Firstly, I plan to pack my kids’ things in my kids’ bags. In the case of older children (who will also be able to handle heavier loads), entertainment may be as simple as a handheld games console or a tablet computer.

As for younger children, this is the chance to collect together all those little annoying plastic toys that have no real home. You know the ones? Originally the contents of a party bag or randomly accrued from some car boot sale or charity shop. Many of these toys fester in the bottom of the ‘miscellaneous’ toybox and by the time they see the light of day for your journey, your kids will either treat them as long-lost friends or as brand new acquisitions.

Either way, it’s a win.

I usually pack this odd assortment into something like a pencil case or small make-up bag, so they’re compact and contained, ready to get out when the restlessness starts kicking in.

8) Food glorious food

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s impossible to travel with children without thinking about how much food you might need to take for snacks.

Snacks also serve as good distractions even if the kids haven’t actually alerted you to any sense of hunger – many a train or bus journey has been calmed by the fortuitous arrival of a packet of crisps.

I’m very averse to paying the prices usually charged on trains, at stopover hotels, in the airport and on the plane for everyday food and drink items, thus tend to make at least one packed meal for the journey, as well as taking a variety of healthy and not-so-healthy treats to keep the kids sweet.

Rather than use my precious cabin baggage space on things that will have been consumed by the time we board the plane, I take a plastic bag full of the meals and goodies that I expect we might get through before arriving for our flight (and even on our flight if we’ll be travelling through our usual mealtime).

Some airlines allow each passenger to take on board a plastic bag of Duty Free purchases in addition to the usual hand luggage allowance. In this you can surreptitiously harbour your homemade lunch having restocked on overpriced bottled water in the departure lounge.

9) Compare the best deals on airlines

As well as their basic flight prices, check out how generous your prospective airlines are with hand luggage allowance.

If you’re finding it difficult to pack everything down yet are determined to avoid both a heavy suitcase and a heavy fee, it may be worth paying a few pounds more for the flight to go with the airline that has more generous hand luggage allowances, including the Duty Free bag allowance noted above.

Often, the ‘budget’ airlines will make up for their budget prices by charging a lot more for items that need to go in the hold or that require their own seat for the journey.

At the time of typing, Easyjet have a number of family-friendly policies in place, e.g. if you’re travelling with a child under the age of two, you can have two infant items put into the hold for free (such as a pushchair, car seat, travel cot, etc).

That said, I never used that service despite making 5 return trips with Easyjet whilst FreeToBeZ was an infant, as my own way of living lightly – which spills over into travelling lightly – is to make little use of all the baby paraphernalia we supposedly ‘need’.

Sling-wearing and co-sleeping are lifestyle choices that fit my travelling family perfectly, and do away with any sense of needing to lug buggies and travel cots around.

No waiting around at this thing the other end!
No waiting around at this thing the other end!

10) 1 adult, 2 children, 3 adult sized cabin bags

If need be, you can always go for maxing out everyone’s hand luggage allowance irrespective of whether each child needs that much luggage space and provided at least one of the children is capable of helping out with one of the bags. If you’re travelling as a couple, this obviously makes this option easier (depending on how many children of certain ages you’re juggling!).

Any child over the age of two will usually have their own seat on a plane and their own cabin baggage allowance to match an adult’s cabin baggage allowance. This means that you can feasibly take full-sized cabin bags for each passenger in your group – even if one of them is but a little shy of their 2nd birthday and is obviously incapable of carrying ‘their’ hand luggage.

 

To sum it all up, I love the following quote as I have learnt that it’s so true:

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” (Susan Heller, New York Times)

This fits my Paltry Packing philosophy perfectly – we invariably need a lot less than we think we’ll need, and anything we do need is best served by having the cash at the ready!

Next week: Paltry Packing (Part 2), in which I divulge our actual packing list and baggage restrictions for my upcoming trip and how I organise it ‘all’.

Do you have any other tips for travelling lightly? What do you find indispensable when it comes to travelling with kids? I’d also love to hear if you’ve managed to pare things back even more than me! Please feel welcome to leave your comments below.

10 Mind-Altering Family Travel Tips

New Eyes

If to be mind-altering something must change one’s mood and behaviour, then I hope the following post will live up to its title.

I would like to share some ways of doing and thinking that may allow your family more freedom, fun and flexibility as you journey to new horizons. My focus is on adopting an open and relaxed mental attitude to ensure you truly embrace the adventure of travelling with your children.

There are plenty of resources out there sharing information about practical matters such as documentation, transportation and sights to see, but little about actually nurturing yourself and your family to make the most of the travel experience.

If you travel with a genuinely positive and relaxed attitude, any obstacles and challenges can be experienced with a level of grace and acceptance that may be much harder to accomplish if you pressure yourself to stick to a predetermined plan shaped around ideals that work well at home but may not adapt so well to the spirit of travel.

This list has no particular hierarchy and can certainly be added to, but herein are 10 pieces of advice for anyone hoping or planning to take a family trip anywhere in the world (yes, even Skegness). Some of them may go against conventional parenting advice but I would like to suggest that your best ally as you travel is the ability to think outside the box . . .

 

1) Prepare Your Self

Body and mind are as important as bags and money (or, indeed, bags of money) when it comes to anticipating a trip with children.

I tend to get the packing and paperwork sorted well in advance of travelling – not because I’m super organised, but because I’m super excited! This gives me a bit of space and time to ensure I’m well-rested before embarking on our journey (or at least as well-rested as a restless single mother to two young children can be).

I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to ensure you have some well-sharpened relaxation tools in your metaphorical toolbox before you go, whether that be a well-tuned meditation practice or merely the awareness of a need to take some time out and have a drink.

I’ve heard many stories of family holidays being the absolute opposite of the relaxing and bonding experience that was hoped for, and I’ve wondered how many of these families have well-established mental anchors when the stress levels start to rise. My own anchor isn’t always heavy enough to keep me from allowing the anxieties to get the better of me at times, but I generally avoid being too buffeted by the ocean of emotion when I remember the many relaxation techniques at my disposal.

If all else fails – keep quiet and just breathe!

Before I embark on my journey, I also take some time to reflect on what I’m hoping to get out of the trip, yet also how I can be mindful and accepting of whatever comes our way.

Whilst the logistics and practical concerns of travelling as a family take precedent, we make ourselves better able to deal with any strains or unforeseen events if we are mentally prepared to accept that:
a) we can never be 100% prepared; and
b) in choosing to go beyond our usual environments and comfort zones with our little ones, poo happens (sometimes quite literally).

2) The Group Mind

Travel as a group.

Taking your own community of friends or extended family with you is a big bonus. Though perhaps not the norm, it is a set-up I would recommend whenever it is possible. I suggest that you and your travel companions speak in advance about what might be expected of each other, the details of which may be dictated by whether or not they also have children with them.

The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems somehow all the more appropriate when you’re in strange new places and in need of that extra support when the kids go hyper just as you’re queuing at passport control or involved in some other such non-negotiable event.

Sharing your trip with others also serves as a home base for everyone. You don’t have to agree on what to do each day and you may separate to pursue different outings or activities, yet it is comforting to know you will be seeing a familiar face for dinner or evening drinks.

3) Be Spontaneous

Whilst preparation is the key to making a smooth getaway and in ensuring you have everything you need for the duration of your stay, spontaneity is a good trait to practice during your actual holiday.

I generally have some idea of things that I’d “quite like to do” in a particular location, yet I do my best to avoid setting in stone what will happen when. Keeping a loose agenda takes the pressure off and, if you do have a day where it feels better to stay close to your accommodation for easy rest or if the kids seems a little off-colour, this can result in a fresh burst of energy the following day when – feeling rejuvenated – you may end up packing lots of activities into a single day.

Be dictated by the needs and feelings of your family rather than by a schedule.

4) I Repeat – Forget the Schedule!

I once spoke to a family whom had hosted another family in their Mediterranean home during the summer. Just envisage those balmy summertime evenings following siesta time, families gathered around for late evening meals and socialising…

Well, they were rather bemused when the visiting family told them that their children would be going to bed as per their usual early evening bedtime – and that the visitors also expected the hosts to impose the same bedtime on their own child!

Even if you don’t intend to tell a host family what to do with their own children (perish the thought!), I would also encourage you not to tell yourself that you must adhere to what is actually an arbitrary, culturally-prescribed set of expectations. What works on a school night is not necessarily the best rule for other nights. The sense of time passing and the sense of what is necessary to get done changes from country to country and culture to culture. And, as they say, when in Rome…

Many would argue that adherence to as close a routine as you have at home is desirable. Whilst this is true, particularly for young children, with regards to keeping things familiar and consistent (e.g. retaining the same comforting bedtime routine, whatever time bedtime actually falls), being too focused on this can be a stress in itself – especially if there have been delays during the course of the day (be it problems with transport or the need to accept some countries’ more ‘mañana’ attitude).

Here we must make the distinction between a ‘routine’ and a ‘schedule’.

If you’ve passed the usual 7pm wind-down time and everyone is still waiting on an evening meal, you’ll do yourself no favours by worrying about it. You all need to eat and you’ll all get to bed eventually. As long as you respond to (and, ideally, premeditate) your children’s needs for food, drink, toilet stops and sleep/rest throughout the day, kids themselves are incredibly adaptable and accepting beings who, depending on their age, aren’t that conscious of the actual time. As long as they’re with a loved and trusted caregiver who doesn’t berate them for behaviour that results from any tiredness, they can feel ‘at home’ in themselves.

By all means resume your scheduling when you return home, but embrace the spirit of adventure whilst you’re away – take a risk and see what happens!

Eat when you feel like eating, sleep when you feel like sleeping, and build your usual little rituals and routines around that. If all hell breaks loose and the kids start pushing for tighter boundaries on their time, rein it in again. But you could be pleasantly surprised by the opportunities it gives you and how liberating it feels to fall into natural rhythms.

5) Must have a GSOH

I find that remembering one’s sense of humour is most useful when around the inevitable grumpy old men you will cross on your travels (I can count at least three) who will invariably find a reason to audibly complain about your children, even when your little sweethearts are actually being on their best behaviour. Some people just aren’t child-friendly. Don’t take this personally.

I vividly recall standing in the queue for passport control when returning to the UK and both kids were tired and in need of a trip to the toilets. They were complaining very noisily. A couple in front of me did much staring and tut-tut-ing before the woman loudly announced to the queue “This is why I’m glad I never had children!”.

I actually felt quite sorry for her. Reflecting on this, I could just as easily have felt sorry for myself. Thankfully, I was quite seasoned at travelling with the kids by then and was able to shrug it off and even snigger about it when an airport official then let us jump the long queue precisely because I did have children.

I’ve also employed humour to get me out of many an argumentative situation with FreeToBeB. We don’t have the luxury of living together full-time in order to create a stable basis for our relationship before we’re travelling around Morocco together and dealing with the usual family travel gripes. It can make our time together as a family fairly intense.

Mid-disagreement I will remember to think about how ridiculous our concerns are in the great scheme of things, and I will break into a smile and laugh (if you want a reminder of how ultimately insignificant all our worries are, check out this link ). My giggles aren’t always met with a matching reaction, but at least my own tension is released, which means there is no animosity left for the other party to feed on other than whatever they still choose to dwell on.

I’ve also employed the method of making fun of our previous fallings-out to lighten the mood and remind us that we always make up in the end, so better to make it sooner than later.

Emotions are often heightened for couples during travelling, so I imagine these techniques could work for anyone – including with our children, whose own moods can only be calmed if we ourselves are calm.

6) Blue Sky Thinking

Turn holiday time into adventure time!

For some, the words ‘family holiday’ may conjure up images of all-inclusive excursions to busy holiday resorts.

I’ve never taken a package holiday with my kids (unless a night in Legoland counts), although I can certainly see the appeal in the apparent ease of this. Yet I’m not satisfied with run-of-the-mill ‘family entertainment’ (i.e. I tend to find it downright cringe-worthy) and tend to think there are so many more activities ‘out there’ that can open their minds, hearts and souls to all that is beautiful and diverse and possible in this world.

Some people may feel less able to think creatively when they have children to consider and perhaps assume more ‘outside the box’ activities just aren’t possible for families. This makes a good excuse for taking the easier option.

However, the easier option is rarely the one that develops us as individuals, and I heartily recommend going outside one’s comfort zone when it comes to planning a family break.

There are many other ways to ‘do’ family travel which allow us to introduce our children to new and exciting aspects of life which may not otherwise be easily available to them. Whatever your interests or ambitions, there will be someone out there catering to families or at least making provisions for adults who will be accompanied by children. And if there isn’t? Well, there’s that niche business idea you’ve always been after!

Volunteer programmes such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offer families the chance to work and learn whilst experiencing different countries and cultures.

CouchSurfing is also a popular way to go out and experience the world. You are accommodated for the price of a gift or favour to the host (which itself isn’t obligatory but certainly good social etiquette) and you also benefit from experiencing the destination from the point of view of a local, including the added bonus that you might have a free walking, talking guidebook. CouchSurfing is great for people genuinely interested in cultural exchange, including language exchange. You may feel more comfortable staying with another family who are familiar with the ways of children, yet there are many couchsurfers without children who are more than willing to host entire families.

Backpacking is also an option. I successfully spent 5 days backpacking and CouchSurfing around Andalusia with a 25kg rucksack, FreeToBeP (then 5 years old) carrying his small backpack, FreeToBeZ (then 15 months old) on me in a front-carrying sling, as I hobbled along on an injured foot (brave or crazy? You decide!).

Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was extremely satisfying and life-affirming.

I have even heard of families successfully being able to take their children on meditation retreats, with lovely tales of their offspring tuning in and peace-ing out amidst the calmness of the community. I’m yet to test this theory on my own kids and think this is the point at which I would really be pushing my comfort zone – given the way all hell has a tendency to break loose when I instigate our nightly bedtime routine (which often includes meditation), I’m not sure I’m quite ready to let them loose amidst a group of Buddhists. That said, we could be a good test for other attendees’ true level of enlightenment and Zen-ness 😉

7) Luggage That Fits Into The Kitchen Sink

I will be covering the topic of packing lightly in much more detail in a couple of weeks’ time.

However, many of us have a tendency to over-pack, and this can be an additional and unnecessary burden in an already challenging situation. There are also many lessons in doing the exact opposite and taking as little as you can get away with.

I try to pare things back by thinking about what I really need for survival and comfort, and about what I can do at my destination. Perhaps there are things you can purchase at your destination instead of lugging it around in your luggage? Maybe you could do a little washing every couple of days instead of packing more changes of clothes? This also does away with the mammoth laundry task when you return home.

Travelling has also truly alerted me to how much we have in this country compared to many places in the world and how bizarre some of our ‘necessities’ are. That’s consumer society for you!

It was very humbling (and somewhat embarrassing) to realise that I often take more personal possessions in a single suitcase than many Amazigh women have in their entire homes. FreeToBeP takes more toys in a couple of pencil cases than a whole family of young boys may own in the Atlas Mountains.

Yet every place has its pros and cons. In the mountains, nature is their playground. FreeToBeP can forget all about Lego for an entire day when he has tree-climbing, rock-scrambling, bug-hunting friends to explore with, with the required trees, rocks and bugs right on the doorstep. In urban landscapes, we make up for that lack of natural freedom by filling rooms full of toys.

The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The boys in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

I’ve found that the less you take, the more you are forced to really take in and take on what is around you. Ergo, you go from a sight-seeing tourist to an all-seeing traveller.

8) Be a Cheapskate

Don’t be afraid to do things on the cheap if you need to. Having a low budget does not prevent you from travelling – but it does make you more resourceful.

Most of the things we think we ‘need’ as families are actually things we’ve just become used to and dependent upon as adults in a highly commercialised, consumerist society, whereas children are naturally quite adaptable in new and different situations.

Indeed, as with the examples above about packing, this can help to highlight different cultural and societal norms that your children may not experience if you partake in a holiday resort experience in a country where the typical activities and living standards of a resort are not the embodied experience of the families who actually live in that country.

Depending on the age of your children, you may all be comfortable sharing a double room (or even one bed) for your travels. I once booked a single room for myself and the two kids in Spain with camping mats as our second bed; the hotel owners actually provided a second single mattress for the floor at a cost of 6 Euros (their standard charge per child), which still ensured the single room remained cheaper than the double, and much cheaper than a family-sized room.

Provided you are capable of doing a quick risk assessment upon entering a hostel room, there is nothing wrong with booking a low budget room for your family and doing your own safety-proofing where necessary and possible. Ultimately, you – and no amount of health and safety legislation – bears the responsibility for keeping your children safe. If anything, taking the cheaper and apparently less ‘child friendly’ option can make us all the more attentive and responsive as parents (by which I mean being more present for them opposed to wrapping them in cotton wool).

As with all things, trust your intuition.

That said, I’ve stayed in some really grotty places that I would never recommend to anyone. It has made me really aware of what I’m prepared to compromise and what I’m prepared to pay for. And, also, how clean my home actually is despite housework not being one of my strong points (for I’ve never entered my own home wondering what that awful smell is only to discover a decomposing toad lying under my bed, maggots and all. That’ll serve me right for staying in the cheapest place in town).

Again, I would heartily recommend options such as CouchSurfing to families on a budget. One of our big joys as a CouchSurfing family is hosting and meeting other families in our own home. I also know of families who have arranged home swaps via CouchSurfing for the purpose of taking a cheap holiday.

If cheap equals simple, I like to think simple is the blank canvas required for further blue sky thinking. A room without a TV and a hostel without family entertainment will force you to spend more time bonding as a family and to get out exploring as much as possible.

I know that my truly budget travels have been the times that have resulted in the greatest challenges yet also the greatest learning.

9) Slow Down

Going at a child’s pace may be something we’re happy to do on a leisurely wander up to the local shops, but compile an itinerary for a journey (particularly by public transport) and we suddenly see a list of strict deadlines which we will make our children adhere to.

Provided you factor it in before you’re due to make your trip, it is possible to take your time. The journey to your destination need not be one fraught with panicking parents and cranky kids as everyone gets hurridly ferried between connections.

If need be, book a pre-flight hotel stay. When booking in advance, I’ve been able to book a well-equipped, en suite family room complete with king size bed for as little as £18 a night at Gatwick, with kids eating for free in the morning.

I find this extra expense a good investment for a payback of reduced stress levels, well-rested children and an extra day of travelling adventure. I will often do this even if my flight isn’t particularly early, as the peace of mind experienced from knowing I’m already ‘at’ the airport when I wake up in the morning is invaluable.

I actually find it much easier when I’m away somewhere to factor in all the dawdling, fussing, staring and general messing about time that young children must do. At home I’m much more likely to be preoccupied by a to do list or the need to be somewhere at a specific time, yet the nature of taking holidays should enable us to stop clock watching, be more mindful of the present moment, and ungrudgingly take things at the pace of the slowest members of the group.

Yes: slow down, lest all the speed just blurs the scenery.

10) Through The Eyes of a Child . . .

. . . is an amazing way to view the world!

Taking this view allows us a greater understanding of children’s needs as young travellers, yet also allows one to be the most open, non-judgemental person possible in a new environment.

Zen Buddhists (yes, them again) talk of seeing the world afresh in every moment, and this is all the more apt as travellers – to leave behind our own cultural conditioning and experience a place for what it is rather than what we feel it ought to be. And, in meeting them in empathy, truly allowing our children to do the same.

 

Please feel free to feedback in the comments below. Do these tips have the capability to alter your mind? Which of them resonated for you and which didn’t? Do you already have success in utilising some of these things?

Keep following Free To Be for my top tips on travelling as a single parent, travelling with a baby and travelling whilst pregnant.

Next week: The Quiet Zone: Travelling with a High Spirited Child