Family Travel Lessons from Life in London

The rest of the pod, running to another adventure.

The rest of the pod, running to another adventure.

By the time this post is published on Monday, our wandering pod will be somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, well on our way back to California after four months in London.

If you’ve read this blog during our visit, you know we’ve had some pretty spectacular experiences. If you haven’t read it, allow me to summarize: The last four months undoubtedly have changed our lives, and also have given us a new appreciation for a variety of aspects of traveling as a unit.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Family travel isn’t always rainbows and unicorns
So many blogs like this one focus only on the positives. And there are thousands of positives to traveling with kids. That said, allow me to be the first to tell you: Sometimes, traveling with kids REALLY SUCKS. The kids get cranky. You get stressed. You fight with your spouse. The cycle starts again. We had our fair share of miserable moments during our stint overseas. My advice: Focus on the good stuff; keep perspective on the bad stuff and you’ll survive.

Discipline is hard on the road
All parents know that when kids act up, they need to be disciplined. The challenge? Disciplining them is harder when you’re away from home. How do you give a time-out without the time-out corner? How do you roll when the kid throws a temper tantrum in public? How constructive is it to deprive them of their favorite things in a new place? Answers to each of these questions will differ for each family. But the questions themselves prove there is no easy way to tackle these issues.

Sleep is relative
At home, each of our daughters has her own room. At our flat in London, the kids shared a room. This meant that at some point every night, R would cry and wake up her sister, who would come and sleep with us. We always were hesitant to send L back to her bed for fear of further disrupting R. The bottom line: All bets are off when it comes to kids’ sleep schedules on the road. It doesn’t really matter when they sleep or where they get their REM cycles. So long as they do.

‘Eating well’ is subjective
Powerwoman and I consider ourselves proponents of healthy eating. We push vegetables. We try to limit sweets. During our stint in London, where food options were limited and the kids were pickier than they are at home, we lowered our standards. Suddenly slices of raw pepper qualified as “vegetable,” and frankfurters qualified as “protein.” We rationalized these decisions by acknowledging that the moves were only temporary. Our reasoning: On the road, the No. 1 goal should be just making sure your kids eat.

Public transportation is your friend
Buses and trains did much more than shuttle our family from Point A to Point B; on days when one or both of the girls had trouble behaving, public transportation vehicles served as the ultimate distractors, quashing tantrums before they even began. L was mesmerized by the Tube, while R preferred the “double-bus.” In both cases, the girls reacted to the public vehicles as if they were rides at an amusement park. No, this won’t work for every kid. But it certainly is worth a shot.

Overplanning is for amateurs
There were days during our 4-month visit when I had lofty goals of hitting two or three different tourist destinations/attractions in an afternoon. Not surprisingly, I failed to meet my objectives every single time. The reality: Moving around a city with two children takes a lot longer than you think it will. They’re slow. They eat a lot. They like to go off-script and explore things you never suspected they’d want to explore. The best way to prepare for this dillydallying is to resist the urge to over-plan, and focus on one thing for each day.

The last lesson we learned in London pertained to how we parents judge ourselves. The gist: We need to cut ourselves some slack. Yes, there were days when our kids were the loudest kids on public transit. And, yes, there were other days when we were too tired after a week of schlepping to bring the kids to the local playground or museum. Neither case was cause for the suspension of our licenses as mom and dad. We learned that making ourselves crazy about apparent failures as parents only sapped our energy to parent the way we should. Furthermore, in the scheme of things (at least from our experiences), we weren’t failing as badly as we thought.

What practical lessons have you learned about family travel over the years?

Baby Steps with Behavior on Planes

R, during happier times en route.

R, during happier times en route.

The meltdown came with about 75 minutes left in our flight home. Somewhere over the Pacific, thousands of miles east of Honolulu, where the flight began, R, our baby, went berserk.

We weren’t entirely sure what set her off. Perhaps it was exhaustion. Perhaps it was a slight-but-noticeable change in cabin pressure. Perhaps it was the sight of the setting sun from above the clouds, a beautiful-but-blinding spectacle that, to her 20-month-old eyes, must have been bright and shiny and cool and scary all at the same time.

Whatever triggered the freak-out, the poor girl went nuts. I mean, NUTS.

Shrieks. Tears. Kicks. Slaps. At one point, she was crying so hard we thought she might puke. At another point, she “went boneless” in the middle of the aisle like only babies can. (Some of you might call this “pancaking.” If you’re David Stern, perhaps you prefer the term, “flopping.”)

For 15 minutes, we were that family—the one with the wailing kid, the one that family travel-haters love to hate.

In the middle of the insanity, I looked up to count dirty looks. I lost track after 16.

And they were all unjustified. It’s not like we were just sitting there drinking free Mai-Tais, blatantly abrogating our responsibility as parents. I tried shushing R first, and when it became evident she didn’t want Daddy, I handed her to Powerwoman and tended to L (who was having a psychosomatic/jealousy freak-out of her own). My wife took the baby and walked to the rear of the airplane, where she bopped her in the galley until calmness returned.

Yes, my baby was a raving lunatic for 15 minutes during our flight home from Hawaii. You know why? BECAUSE SHE IS A BABY. As I’ve written previously, when you fly with children, it almost a given that, at some point during the flight, they will act like children. This is not a catastrophe. It’s biology. It’s reality.

It’s also a perfect reason to focus on the positives. Little R, the object of 15 minutes of ire, also was a little angel for 4 hours and 15 minutes of that same flight. By my math, this means she cried for 5.5 percent of the trip home.

For any parent, this kind of performance is a resounding success. And until the kiddos are old enough to know better, we’ll take all the forward progress we can get.

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