You’re on the holiday of a lifetime, can’t wait to visit that must-see temple or historic building and best of all, you’ll be experiencing it with the little people you love most. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, as all parents know, sometimes the reality of travelling with toddlers doesn’t quite match the beautiful picture in your mind. Just sometimes, the vision you have of your perfect day is somewhat marred by your children having other ideas. Suddenly your dreams of developing the budding archaeologist in your precious child evaporate and the focus of the day becomes salvage.
So, with this in mind, what can you do to make the sightseeing fun for children? How can you ensure that everything goes smoothly? Here are our tried and tested tips for travelling with toddlers and young children and how to make sightseeing ‘less tantrum and more terrific’.
1. Dress up / Make-believe
One of the best ideas we’ve heard of is from a family who transformed their Bagan experience in Burma from a day spent sightseeing into a real-life action movie. Enter stage left, Indiana Jones (“all it took was a hat and his dad’s waistcoat”). Stage right; daughters dressed in local costumes they’d picked up at the local market. As the mum later reported to us, “this captured their imaginations so much that they hardy realised they were sightseeing, and of course everyone wanted to stop and talk to them, which kept them engaged for the whole day.” Brilliant.
Frequently the most fascinating experiences and interactions you’ll have happen quite unexpectedly. Our advice is that if you see something interesting, follow your curiosity even if it means ditching your carefully designed day plan. One of our families came across an archaeological dig near the Neolithic site of Petra, Jordan. When they approached, one of the archaeologists saw that the children were interested and welcomed them over. They put tools in their hands and let them ‘help out’ with the dig. Truth be told, of course, they were just scratching away at a bit of old dirt rather than potentially ruining someone’s life work, but the children loved it.
Similarly you may well find yourselves asked in for tea with a local family or perhaps spy an interesting looking festival as you’re driving through a village. If so, definitely join in. Often the most memorable experiences of a trip will result from just this kind of spontaneous activity.
No explanation required.
There’s no point being too ambitious with what you can achieve each day when travelling with toddlers and young children. Break the day down into bite sized chunks and if you have a morning sightseeing, make sure that there is something a bit more child friendly in the afternoon. This might be a visit to a local market, a swim in a waterfall, a cyclo ride through the backstreets or a fan-painting workshop. There is always something child friendly around if you know where to look.
Anyone with a toddler will appreciate the delight that can be found in even the most normal kind of public transport. If a bus or a train is exciting, imagine how much more so a tuk tuk, bicycle rickshaw, camel cart, ox cart or donkey will be? In many destinations, particularly Asia and Arabia, there are endless varieties of transport. You will find that a morning spent sightseeing in the crazy streets of Delhi will be a far more enticing prospect for a toddler or young child when they travel there by auto-rickshaw, then take a bicycle rickshaw to navigate around.
Or perhaps in Petra where the ruins are utterly fabulous but surprisingly spread-out. Avoid toddler meltdown by forking out for the (admittedly ruinously expensive) £25 horse-cart ride through the narrow siq and then hiring a donkey to carry little legs up to the monastery. It seems expensive at the time but you will enjoy your sightseeing far more and will be able to see all the far-flung corners of the site.
This one is a favourite even in the UK, where visits to castles can be much enlivened with a gory story about the previous inhabitants. Think Horrible Histories. Unfortunately this wonderful series is yet to provide a children’s guidebook to any of our destinations (hmm… is there a business opportunity there?) so it is down to parents to do a bit of research. It doesn’t have to be much, but if you spend a quick half an hour googling the more colourful history of a particular site, you can then keep the children enthralled by gruesome tales as you walk around.
Warring siblings will be silenced by stories of the two brothers of ancient Sri Lanka. Their arguments took on such monumental proportions that after one brother had murdered the father in a fit of pique, the other fled to South India. Fearing his return, the murdering brother decided to build his fortress on top of a massive rock for protection. Now, 1,500 years later, you can climb up the side of the rock and look out over the plains from where murdering brother kept a look out for nice brother. Sure enough, nice brother returned, vanquished him and took the throne. So, take that as the basics and embellish it a bit and you can keep the children spellbound for the whole climb up the rock. They won’t be bothered if the history is a little sketchy as long as it’s a good story.
Transporting a game which your kids know well to a location they don’t can really boost their attention span. Hide and seek is perfect as it enables you to have a good rummage around a site whilst simultaneously persuading the children that you are playing a game with them. You’re happy, they’re happy, it’s all good. Just make sure there are some strict instructions about exactly how far away they can roam. You don’t want to find yourselves in the middle of the Cambodian jungle searching for a toddler who has found that perfect hiding place.
This is one of our favourite tricks when travelling with toddlers and can keep younger ones amused for hours. Or minutes, which is sometimes a more realistic expectation…
So, first up you need to put together a list of things that you might conceivably come across or see during the day. It might be a bowl of frogs, a black stone from a riverbed, a woman pushing a cart of bananas, a howler monkey in the Costa Rican rainforest, a motorbike with five or more people on the back of it…anything. A guide can help you with this.
Then you put this list in a special clear plastic bag that you have remembered to bring with you for exactly this purpose. Preferably with a Ziploc top because of course as far as children are concerned these are vastly superior. Add a pencil and a rubber and you’re ready. During the course of the day the children have to either collect a specimen of each of the items on the list, or tick off that they have seen them.
We have known children spend ages… really, really ages… a little bit too long in truth… combing the forest for a leaf shaped like a heart which the guide had readily assured the parents would be very easy to find. However, it did keep the interest levels up during a long hike through the jungle.
This works particularly well with toddlers and younger children but if you make it a little more difficult, that pre-teen competitive spirit will kick in, we promise.
The red mist of low blood sugars can descend at any moment – and that’s just for adults. Make sure you have a stash of snacks that you can whip out when the moment requires. Just make sure that they are things that travel well – a kit-kat might do the trick at home but after an inter-continental flight and several hours in a backpack in the heat, it may be a less enticing prospect for irate children. Muesli bars, packets of polos and dried fruit all work a treat and don’t weigh much.
10. Remember to consider the climate
It sounds obvious but when travelling with toddlers and small children it is vital to take into account the climate. A long walk in the UK might not be a child’s idea of fun, but it is probably manageable. Factor in the climate of a Central American jungle or an Asian monsoon and this takes on a whole new aspect. Be realistic about what you can and can’t do and make sure that you schedule in plenty of downtime. This might be back at the hotel, hopefully in a pool if the budget allows. Or it might just be in the shade somewhere. Many younger children are perfectly happy playing in the dust with a stick under a tree for an hour or so (whilst Mum and Dad enjoy a cool beer?). Allow them time to do so and you’ll probably then be able to carry on with the sightseeing for a little longer.
Maybe it’s just us, but it seems that kids’ collective desire to acquire cheap, plastic tat seems to increase in direct proportion to the miles you’ve journeyed from home. Try to distract them from this by giving everyone in the family a small sum and competing to find the most interesting locally made product, or maybe the funniest item. You may find you return home with an alarm clock that rings with the call to prayer, a bottle of rice wine with a snake curled on the inside or a singing Buddha but it will keep everyone occupied whilst you browse the markets!
This is also the perfect time to teach the children to haggle. In many destinations haggling is a key life skill. In the souqs of Morocco, it’s practically an art form, as part and parcel of the culture as mint tea and couscous. Make it a competition to see who can get the best price for an item and watch the sibling rivalries play out in full Technicolor.
13. When in doubt?
Stop for ice cream. You’re on holiday!
You can find out more about the countries we recommend for child-friendly holidays by visiting our destinations page, which also enables you to choose countries by school holidays if you have older kids as well.
Liddy Pleasants, MD Stubborn Mule Travel
I’d love to hear about your experiences of travelling with toddlers and young children, so do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.