Sarah Tucker shows how you can still enjoy a jet setting lifestyle with a toddler in tow.
Start them travelling young. Very young, as in weeks old if they are healthy enough. That is what I’ve always believed even before I had my son Tom, who is now all of five foot five at only the age of twelve and coming into those hormonal teenage years just as I’m entering probably my midlife crisis ones. At the age of 34, literally and metaphorically in full swing as a travel journalist specialising in adventure travel (bungey jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, mountaineering) I was delighted to become pregnant but felt my days of travel were over and so was my career. Some of my friends who specialised in what is euphemistically called family travel, suggested I wait until my child was of school age, more malleable and manageable and kid’s clubbable. I couldn’t wait that long and despite slowing down, I continued to travel as much even when pregnant, filming a documentary ‘Trailblazers’ for the Discovery Channel where I had to white water raft and fly low in helicopters with pilots who liked to play aerobatics. (must admit I thought I was going to give birth mid flight with that one.)
And when Tom was born it didn’t stop. Initially I chose to travel to those countries I had visited when I was a journalist – with a baby in my arms, rather than a pad to take notes. I found without exception, the welcome that greeted me, to be friendlier and more helpful than what I found in my own country, or even my own street for that matter. And people I met were actually friendlier to me when I had Tom with me than they had been when I had been travelling by myself. I wrote about the experiences and what I learnt along the way, and was asked to write a book Have Baby Will Travel, on the journeys I took to places such as Canada, Australia and around Europe. I found myself becoming more adventurous and when I was asked to present for the BBC Holiday Program with Tom in New York, proving that this Big Apple of a City was not only a sophisticated hub but a place where children would be welcome as well. I became confident that as long as I had a toddler or child in tow, everyone would be more welcoming…except in the UK. I was also concerned that attractions, destinations and resorts sold themselves as ‘fun for all the family’ which they blatantly weren’t, and as families became increasingly fractured, with step mums and dads bringing in teenagers to a family where there were toddlers and vice versa, pleasing everyone became an impossibility. So I spent a year interviewing over a thousand parents and their four year olds identifying what they considered to be the best and worst bits of their holidays, which type of holiday they most enjoyed (camping amongst children won outright) and the elements they least enjoyed (being without their parents, not having a beach and long car journeys.) I wrote about the good, bad and ugly of tour operators, countries, safaris, ski resorts, airlines, airports, promoting themselves as family friendly and put my findings into my book. I discussed all health issues that was and still is key as having a happy family holiday. And then I got divorced, although the research and divorce I feel weren’t interconnected. But by becoming a single parent, I found travelling as a single mother had perks. I was better looked after when flying as cabin crew for some reason think when you have your husband in tow, there will be two adults to share the work. It doesn’t work that way, well it didn’t with me. I learnt the skill of travelling light, even with only hand luggage when I had a four year old and not a forty year old to manage as well. I took Tom to a ranch in Calgary to meet horse whisperers and take part in the annual Calgary Stampede. We visited Thailand where he learnt to be a mahout, a person who rides and trains elephants. He has seen the Northern Lights in the Northern Territories, trekked for tigers in Rathanbhore, been up and down and around live volcanoes in Equador, and learnt the importance of a dung beetle (fascinated that they eat poo) in South Africa on the Garden Route. He snorkelled with the turtles in the Galapagos swam with the dolphins off Tangalooma Island where Scooby Doo was filmed (I don’t know in truth which fact impressed him more), and swam amongst the stingrays off Belize. He’s done a lot, but not so much that he doesn’t appreciate everything new as utterly wonderful. And he’s taught me to see the places I visit with different eyes, be it in the questions I ask or the things I take for granted – simple things that he would notice but I didn’t. And he is a good tryer. He will try any food once to see if he likes it, and as a result is very easy to feed not only in this country but when overseas. He realised from a very young age that air travel is utterly dull and that airports are even duller. So he prepares for that knowing that there could be delays, and he needs to be patient because getting stressed and irritable isn’t useful. He talks to the locals, makes friends easily, but knows that he needs to be careful and when to stay close to his mother. He has cried when watching calves being branded and castrated (mind you that made me wince), and was mesmerised by the sound of African drums accompanied by a church choir singing Gregorian chants in the middle of a desert in Senegal. He is excellent company, even as he enters his teenage years, I look on him as someone who appreciates the journeys he has taken with his mother and how he wants to learn and build on them when he is travelling by himself, with his friends, girlfriend and even with his own children.
We are fortunate to have a home in France which over the past ten years I have been slowly renovating where despite all the worldwide travels I’ve been on with Tom for work, we have returned diligently during the summer months to enjoy a family holiday with his friends – to somewhere he also considers home. Have I made him restless and given him a wanderlust by showing him too many places and igniting a curiosity and thirst for adventure that frequently dies out because children are told to be careful, trust nothing and no one on their travels and not to speak to strangers? My son spent much of the first ten years of his life talking, chatting, and listening to ‘strangers’ – albeit with his mother asking them most of the questions. I don’t think so. Given the choice now, Tom enjoys being at home. He’s an excellent travelling companion both to me and his father and any one who travels with him. He’s confident without being arrogant, and realises that every country has a culture innate to it’s own and that is to be respected. And that what is different should be celebrated. Yes, there have been some odd and unexpected moments and questions. Like the time we arrived in Sydney on the day of the Mardi Gras and after watching the colourful and flamboyant parade go by Tom asked me if everyone in Australia was gay. And the time when we visited the world’s largest toy shop in the world (Toys R Us) in Times Square New York and the director wanted several angles so we had to keep entering and re entering the shop to which my son, then four, looked at me at the seventh take and asked if we were ever going to see the toys. And when he got annoyed that the lassoing wasn’t as easy as the wrangler in Texas made it look and sulked for the rest of the day. It isn’t always sunshine and smiles. But then there are the moments when I took a photograph of his face rather than what he was watching. Seeing his first whale and staring into the eyes of Lonesome George, the last of his kind tortoise in the Galapagos, and the look in his eye having skied his first black run at seven (he skies better than me) and sail his first dinghy. He’s still got so much more to see and explore and that’s as it should be. He will go bungey jumping, sky diving, rock climbing, mountaineering hand gliding, and do all the things his mother did when he’s old and curious enough, but I don’t want to be a hippy (a high impact parent) who drags their children around when they would – especially during the teenage years – be happy to chill and get up at mid day and be all the more pleasant company for it. I know he’ll wake up at eighteen and be as curious as he was as a toddler, and probably even more adventurous than his mother. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to share my work and adventures with him in this way. It’s a rare window of opportunity in which to get to know your child – is travelling – and I have and still am loving every moment of it.
Planning your holiday
What pleases a 3 year old, won’t a 13 year old. This sounds obvious, but the blanket ‘fun for all the family’ banner across many travel brochures is misleading. Here’s a brief guide to getting it right for specific age groups, and ensuring everyone gets the most out of their holiday – together
Ages 3 – 7
At this age children want and need to be with you. This is a time to bond and develop your parenting skills, so if you do use a kids club, try to do it part time.
Young children are open to new experiences, so ignite their curiously. Plan activities that are outdoor and adventurous, whether camping in Spain or a natural trail in Devon.
Enjoy simple pleasures. I researched the 10 activities that young children enjoy on holiday, and the first five all involve the beach, playing on the beach, swimming the sea, preferably with other children around but always with their parents somewhere on the scene.
Ages 8 – 12
Your children will want to have contact with other children their age but also spend time with you, so anything involving small groups – trekking or skiing – is very popular.
Keep them outdoors. This is a rare break from computers and the TV, so encourage outdoor activities and get involved yourself. Horse riding, skiing or windsurfing – don’t just watch from the sidelines. Have fun with your children.
Check out their school syllabus, and take them places that will bring their studies alive. If they’re studying battles in history, visit a castle or a Roman amphitheatre, or try to find a beach that features the rock formations they’re studying in geography.
Ages 13 – 16
Make it a journey rather than a destination, travelling between different places, or find local activities such as white water rafting that have a semblance of danger and adventure.
They have a lot of energy to burn, but may need encouragement. A kayaking trip or a holiday on a ranch is exhilarating, and gives a sense of achievement.
Avoid romantic settings and enforced culture – your teenagers will rebel against it. They’ll have plenty of time to get into culture and romance later in life.