I have fond memories of Spain, thanks to a girls’ weekend to Barcelona for my 30th birthday. Lazy days and late nights... We’d head out for the night at 11pm – eating, drinking and dancing until the sun came up, then sleeping until mid-afternoon.
Fast-forward six years and my husband and I are sitting on the bathroom floor of our Madrid hotel room at 8pm, eating tapas on towels as our one-year-old sleeps in the adjoining bedroom. After we’ve finished our makeshift picnic, we quietly slip into the bed we’re sharing with her, where we spend the next few hours scrolling through our phones rather than risk waking her with conversation or the television. Outside of our window, in one of the world’s greatest after-dark destinations, the night hasn’t even begun. It’s a good thing we turned in so early, though. At 5am, our jet-lagged toddler is up for the day and, rather than battle to get her back to sleep, we turn to our phones again and discover that Chocolatería San Ginés, a legendary churros café, is just a short stroll away… and it’s open 24 hours a day. The vintage café is filled with partygoers on their way home as our trio huddles around an antique marble table, sipping heartstarting espressos and dipping the long Spanish doughnuts into cups of molten chocolate. It’s an iconic Madrid experience – we’ve just tackled it a little differently.
As a food and travel writer, I spent much of my twenties and early thirties on the go. I’d mastered the art of travelling with cabin baggage only and could mobilise for a trip at a moment’s notice. When we got married, my husband and I swore we wouldn’t let children dampen our wanderlust. We packed up our home and moved to Dubai when Frankie was six months old and now, at 21 months of age, she has more stamps in her passport than I did when I was 21. That’s not to say it’s all been smooth sailing… we’ve spent hours walking the aisles of planes, swearing we’d never fly again, cancelled meals at Michelin-starred restaurants in favour of takeaway pizza, and practically redesigned the interiors of Airbnbs in an attempt to make them child-safe. But with some adjustments to our plans and expectations, we’ve made the biggest discovery of all: that travelling with children is far richer and more rewarding than we ever could have imagined.
Here are a few tips we’ve picked up along the way:
Choose 'practical' over 'pretty'
Your choice of accommodation can make or break a holiday. Following the Madrid trip, we’ve decided not to book a standard hotel room again. A second bedroom or living space is a must in order to preserve your sanity and their sleep. Airbnb apartments and houses have become our go-tos, delivering extra rooms and home-from-home comforts like a kitchen and laundry, but we’ve had to become much savvier in our selections. What looked like the ideal abode pre-kids is now an accident waiting to happen. That villa in Menorca with an unfenced pool and steep staircase was, in hindsight, not the best destination for our newly toddling tot. Then there was the stunning apartment in Istanbul, where we spent the first day of our trip rearranging furniture and moving expensive sculptures and trinkets to higher shelves. And its balcony with views over the Bosphorus, where we’d envisioned ourselves sharing breakfast and sundowners, had balusters that were perfectly spaced to allow a toddler to slip
Don't try to live like a local
The hardest thing for me to shake has been the notion of no longer having an ‘authentic’ travel experience. On a recent trip to San Sebastian, we’d find ourselves eating dinner while the locals finished their lunch. In Turkey, we visited the same kebab shop every night, knowing Frankie would at least eat their pide. We’veshunned public transport in favour of hire cars and forgone the exuberance of open-air markets over the sterility and convenience of the nearest hypermarket. Instead of ‘do as the locals do’ our new motto is ‘whatever gets you through’.
Be open to changing plans
Before arriving in Sicily, we’d mapped out a week’s worth of road trips across the island. On holidays past, we’d have thought nothing of making a four-hour round trip for the world’s best gelato at Caffe Sicilia, but Frankie had other ideas. She’d scream the minute we put her in the car seat in the hire car, so instead of venturing to Noto, Marsala and Syracuse, we spent our week on foot, exploring the postcard-perfect town of Taormina. In Istanbul, our travel stroller was no match for the cobbled streets and steep inclines, so we bundled Frankie into the ErgoBaby for walks from Galata Tower to the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. During our early morning strolls, we shared the laneways with street sweepers and stray cats, soaking up the stillness in this bustling city.
Everything but the kitchen sink
Those days of travelling with a carry-on case have well and truly passed me by. Now, we fill two airport trolleys with our kit. The essentials’ list has evolved over time, but currently includes Frankie’s car seat (bulky, but the key to tear-free travel), a booster seat for dining (so we can all eat in peace), her travel pram and the carrier. We’ve ditched the travel cot, knowing full well she’ll end up in our bed anyway. Who knows how many trolleys we’ll need once our second child comes along…
Embrace the mini-break
We’ve come to realise that travel is significantly less stressful when we don’t have to take a plane. And we’re lucky here in the UAE to have incredible destinations within driving distance, from Muscat to the Musandam Peninsula. One of our favourite holidays was also our shortest – an overnight stay at the Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert. Frankie was just seven months old and she woke us before dawn, flapping her arms to tell us that she wanted to go for a swim. The three of us sat there in our private pool as the sun rose across the desert. The ghaf trees surrounding the villa were shrouded in mist and, suddenly, they came alive with bird song. It was a surreal and sublime moment that would have passed us by if Frankie hadn’t woken us, showing us that while travelling with children has it’s hindrances, it also has it’s gifts.
1) Easy access
Though older apartments have charm in spades, they may not be the easiest with pushchairs and lots of luggage. Look for buildings that have elevators, rather than countless flights of stairs.
2) Room to move
If possible, book accommodation that has more than just a bedroom and bathroom. Extra space, especially kitchen and laundry facilities, are game-changers.
3) Avoid gallery-worthy décor
If it’s stylish enough to appear in an interiors magazine, consider how it will look once your little one has given it a mini makeover.
4) Safety first
Standards vary greatly, so when your kids are young watch out for places with unfenced pools and open staircases.
5) Flexible timings
If you’re arriving on a morning flight, enquire about an early check-in, or consider booking the night before so you can get into your room straight away. And for late departures, find out if there’s somewhere to stow all that luggage.