Have kids, will travel

2013-08-05 00:00

IT wasn’t quite the Grand Old Duke of York, but the children will probably tell you it was just as bad.

On our first day in Athens, we marched them up to the top of the Acropolis and down again — around the Acropolis museum and up and down the streets of the Plaka, all in 33º Celsius heat. After all, summer in Europe means it stays light till late and you have to make the most of every minute. Or not.

Since we had only ever travelled alone or with other adults, we were familiar with the script of overseas holidays for adults: pack as much as you can into every waking moment. However, on a recent month-long visit to Greece, it took only two days of adult-paced sightseeing for us to realise that travelling overseas with children requires another script — the “or not” option.

Of course, we knew we couldn’t subject two 12-year-old children to an adult programme of museums, churches, galleries, gardens, architectural and historical sites. We knew it, but we didn’t actually know it — that’s the difference between intellectual and experiential knowing. Travelling with children requires a rewrite of the adult script because, as we were unceremoniously reminded, “children are not just small-sized adults”.

What really matters?

Given the choice, our children would probably have done little or none of the kind of sightseeing that we thought was important. We learnt fast that once they had seen the essential sights, it really was okay to let them stay behind and enjoy their first choices: watching foreign TV, playing on the iPod/laptop/tablet and reading. Ask them what the highlight of our trip was, and they both say: “the beaches”. Therein is another lesson: alternate days of adult sightseeing activities with children’s stuff — shopping of the window and real varieties, swimming, hanging around the hotel or holiday house, and just “chilling”.

Essential to keeping them happy and occupied were things they really enjoy: electronic games, toys, board games and books — lots of them if your children are readers, or get an e-book of some kind.

Electronic gadgets are useful not only for diversion; they can also be the modern equivalent of the old-fashioned travel journal. We encouraged the children to reflect on their experiences and to keep a diary, so they’ll have a record to look back at in future. It was also the children who took some of our most memorable photographs. If we ever did it again, I’d make sure they each had their own camera to capture whatever they wanted. While I focused on family moments and visually appealing images, they had an eye for the funny — “funny weird”, as well as “funny ha-ha”.


Backpacks are standard travel gear for people of all ages today, and they’re a godsend for children. Into those backpacks went their essential luggage like costumes and towels, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, games, books, snack food and drinks.

Another must-have is a travel pillow: one of those U-shaped neck pillows that now hang from every second traveller’s backpack. They’re useful for napping in the car, and on the metro, boat, bus or plane.


Although it may elicit opposition, here’s exactly what to do: put out everything the children think they will need, reduce the clothing by half and then reduce it again. In the European summer, shorts and T-shirts were sufficient and they bought shirts as souvenirs, so several from home were never even worn. They also spent many days in bathing costumes, going between the beach and the swimming pool, which also saved on the washing.

The steward at the airport check-in counter could not quite believe that between the four of us, we had less than half our baggage allowance. We limited our luggage to one medium-sized suitcase and one backpack each. This made negotiating airports, ferries, taxis and docks a breeze compared to the many tourists we saw struggling under precarious mountains of luggage. It also meant we could make the children responsible for their own bags, which did result in some mislaid items, but fortunately nothing critical.

If there’s ever a next time, I will know from the start what it took me a while to accept: that on holiday overseas, many of the rules from home can be relaxed. It’s okay if the children stay up till 11 pm and sleep till 10 am, talk to strangers on public transport, and eat ice cream and drink sugar drinks bought by doting aunts and uncles before, during and after meals.

What’s more, in a country where violent crime is almost unknown, you can let them do things you’d never allow them at home without an accompanying adult. For example, stay in the hotel room, cycle around the island, walk back to the house in the dark, or go to the beach and swim in the placid Mediterranean Sea. Not only were the children fine (and their parents), all those forbidden freedoms and unusual pleasures are probably what they’ll remember most, long after they lose their Greek summer tans.

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