Tips for Travelling With Children

Travelling with children can be an exciting adventure – or a nerve-jangling endurance test
By Siviwe Minyi

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I am father of two children and I travel a lot. It’s worth mentioning, too, that I am a Xhosa-speaking man. I come from a culture that taught me to believe that men do not engage in activities with children. This is normally left to mothers. Conventional belief says that men who are in the constant company of children – feeding them, changing nappies and taking charge of them while travelling – are “dull”. This is not a compliment; it’s an insult, one that is not swayed by being in possession of a clearly contradictory personality. It’s a label that sticks.
But I’m not bothered by insults. I’ve learnt a lot through travelling with my children, and it has strengthened my relationship with both of them. Over the past 10 years, I have had frequent opportunities to explore this country’s airports and national roads with my son and daughter.
Travelling with young ones can be an adventure. I have learnt a few tricks en route, tips that should be of benefit to any dad travelling with small children.
Don’t Worry About What Other People Are Thinking
It was my first flight with my then two-year-old daughter (she’s now 12). We were travelling to Johannesburg. On taking our seats, I noticed there was a well-dressed executive type seated opposite us. He was visibly annoyed that my daughter was being chatty and looking for some attention. She had started reciting one of her favourite songs loudly. At first I began to panic. Then I had an idea: I’d involve Mr Exec and others in a sing-along. I called out, “Come on everybody, let’s all sing together!” This was followed by an outburst of laughter. Happily the story ends well. The gentleman leaned over to say hello to my daughter and the two of them chatted for a short while until she lost interest, which brings me to my second tip.
Stash a Surprise Bag of Toys in Your On-Board Luggage
Children want to be kept entertained and, let’s face it, a sing-along will get tedious after a while and irritate you (and the other passengers). I like to put together a bag of new toys (these don’t need to be expensive things: think notebook and coloured pen, comic book, even last Christmas’s cracker fillers will work). The trick is to reveal the bag’s contents slowly, bringing out the toys one at a time. This makes things more fun and fills children with anticipation for what might be hauled out next.
Be Prepared for Ear Pain
One of the challenges of travelling with my son in particular is that he suffers from earache when flying. My first air-travel experience with him was not good. He screamed and yelled for what felt like most of the journey. Some passengers were clearly not happy with me. One even shouted: “Take your child outside!”. All very well if you’re in a restaurant but not so if you’re mid-air, 1 000 feet or so above ground level. Before our return flight, I made some enquiries at a pharmacy. Within 15 minutes of take-off on our homeward-bound leg, I’d persuaded him to take a dose of Calpol, which worked like magic. Now it’s a standard in my hand luggage.
Give Them Something Fascinating to Figure Out En Route
My father used to enjoy driving us to faraway holiday destinations. He was not the sing-along type. To keep us entertained, he’d have collected a number of gadgets – such as a torch or a lock and key – and he’d set us the assignment of figuring out how the devices worked. I remember loving the challenge. I have used this on a number of occasions when driving with my children, and it has worked very well. A note to dads: be prepared to deal with the questions that come later – brace yourself, so to speak.
Be Factual, or At Least Attempt to be Precise
When my son was five years old, he seemed to live in a world of numbers. To him everything needed to be quantified. His questions included things like: “How many blue cars are on the road today?”. As someone who is arithmetically challenged, I found some of his questions difficult to answer.
Once, while driving back from the Southern Cape, my son asked: “So, how long will it take for us to get home?”. I responded too quickly, “About an hour but you can start counting now because I am not sure,” which is exactly what he did, in seconds. The problem was that the rest of us were not aware of his mission. Well into his countdown, his older and taller sister asked him to shift a little so that she could create a little legroom for herself. This interrupted his rhythm and all hell broke loose. It took a good 10 minutes to bring about peace in our war-ravaged backseat. But I had learnt a valuable lesson: as a dad, I need to answer questions more carefully and accurately.    
Mind Your Language
I enjoy talking to people. I do this all the time. On one of my trips with my son, then five, I started up a light-hearted conversation with the petrol attendant while he was filling my tank. As soon as we’d pulled away from the garage, my son started to use words like “chappie” and “my brother”. He wanted to know what chappie meant and whether I was related to the man at the garage.
Consult the Gang in the Planning Stages
My children are getting older, and planning trips has become more consultative. We have now resorted to convening a household parliament where I preside as the president and I have veto powers. After all, we live in a democracy. A 12-year-old girl has developed her own set of ideas of places to visit while a nine-year-old boy, if he’s anything like mine, is more obsessed with cricket and other sporting activities.
On one of our trips, the siblings fought endlessly, arguing over preferred radio stations, what to see, and where to visit first. We have now learnt to involve the children in our trips. Prior to departure we give full details of where we’re going and what we might be able to do. We listen to them and get a sense of what they might like or dislike. We have found that listening to them makes travelling more enjoyable for all of us.

Happy travelling!

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