Summer is here and families are on the move. Ever hopeful parents will again strap on their baby carriers, collapse their strollers, rig-up a toddler harness and take to the road (or sky). Our travels will certainly involve tears, probably some vomit, maybe an airport delay, definitely a frantic U-turn on a badly lit road with no signposts and the inevitable question asked through gritted teeth, “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?”
One million visitors from North America will visit Ireland this year and chances are many will visit with children. Many Irish families will return home with grandbabies to show-off and many American families will travel to reconnect with family or just to experience the country of their heritage. The good news is that Ireland is a very friendly family tourist destination. County Kerry was voted the second best family holiday destination in Europe by Lonely Planet last year.
The bad news is you can’t get to Ireland without flying over the Atlantic so, unless you want to bubble wrap your children and ship them via the sort of reliable U.S. Postal Service, they will be with you in airports, on airplanes, in rental cars and probably small hotel rooms.
I am planning a two week trip to Ireland. This means a two hour drive to Boston, hours in the airport, a six hour flight to Shannon and then a two hour drive to our house in Kerry if all goes according to plan (impossible). The trip for us is routine. I am from Maine but spent the last ten years in Ireland and have flown many times with a newborn, a toddler, a newborn and a toddler and then two toddlers. This year’s trip with a six and four-year-old and my husband seems straightforward compared to past journeys, but I am confident Aer Lingus will do something to complicate it.
I have put together some advice based on years of traveling to, from and around Ireland with young children that hopefully might help a few parents this summer so here is my list of sanity-saving rules for parents traveling with babies and toddlers.
Travel light – Nothing you bring will make the trip easier
Not only will accepting this motto save your wallet and your back, but it might save you from an ugly breakdown mid-flight. In my experience the amount of time you spend packing gear – the higher your anxiety levels. Millions of advertising dollars disagree with me, but I maintain the struggle to find the elusive gadget or toy that makes flying so much easier is part of what makes traveling with kids so stressful.
Rummaging through overstuffed bags while a baby or toddler is screaming is awful and worrying about what to bring for whom in what bag is self-inflicted torture. Despite what the massive baby and child gadget market will have you believe, there are no travel essentials that you can’t live without. So accept this and relieve yourself from chasing it.
I researched travel car seats, bringing my own car seats, plane harnesses, fabric portable high chairs, pop-up travel cots, bottle carriers, strollers, etc. I tried buying pocket-sized books, coloring sets and cars and hiding them until we were on the plane and then revealing each one when my son's patience was running out. End result – lots of packing stuff into the front seat and about 3.5 minutes of distraction time until crayons, cars and books fall and are lost forever.
I remember one website reminding we mothers pack a change of clothes in our carry-on bag so we wouldn't have to get off the plane covered in spit-up, food or pee. Who cares? You're getting off the plane. You will look like shit even with a fresh shirt so save yourself the hassle of carrying it.
Buy a very cheap collapsible stroller for the airport. Make sure you can push it with one hand. If you are traveling alone and outnumbered by kids, then consider your double stroller (never a side by side one) for restraining toddlers in the airport, but check it at the gate at the last minute and make sure you will get it at the door of the plane. This was critical for me on solo trips with two children under 3. Leave your car seats in the car and rent what you need on the other side. I have even ordered car seats and had them delivered to my parent's rather than deal with bringing them. The price is the same as renting one.
Most places you will stay or rent can provide some baby equipment so just ask in advance and when booking booster seats or car seats in Ireland, I recommend contacting the car rental company (on the Irish side) before traveling to confirm you will have car seats.
Irish car rental companies are notorious gangsters so be prepared to pay for a BMW and end up crammed into a Fiat Punto. At Shannon Airport I have observed the American tendency to pack just a smidgen too much for a week’s holiday, so try to keep in mind your rental car will smaller than expected.
Don't fly with babies between 8 months and 24 months…Seriously
Clearly this is unavoidable if your grandmother dies in Tipperary, but I highly advise planning your Irish holiday outside of these time-frames. These ages are estimates based on physical development and craziness. Once your child can move but before he or she is able to be somewhat rational and sit and listen to you, don't fly. It's torture. You've all seen the poor haggard dad trying to smile while following a crazed two-year-old up and down the aisles until one of them eventually ping pongs into the wrong person while the mom up front necks a mini bottle of wine. This same stage is torture in cars, at restaurants, in hotel rooms, in strollers for long periods of time, at night…you get the picture.
Traveling with a newborn who can't move and whose cry can barely be heard above the engine is easy. A nursing newborn is even easier. I've flown while nursing and while bottle-feeding and nursing was so much easier.
For some reason I had never heard of pre-made bottles (they mightn't have existed in Ireland at the time) so I had one bag with enough sanitized bottles and cartons of formula to last the trip (about 12 hours door to door) and then another bag with dirty bottles so there could be no cross contamination. I also spent hours researching a comparable formula to the one my son drank in Ireland before we went and made my mom scour the aisles of CVS for the right brand. The horror.
If you need to visit family overseas definitely try to do that while your baby is at its most portable and if you are traveling to Ireland with a baby drinking bottles – rest assured there are premade formula cartons available to purchase in every shop and electric kettles everywhere, which makes washing bottles and preparing formula relatively easy.
Fight for the designated baby seats on long flights
What's worse than being on a five-hour flight with a crying baby? Being on a five-hour flight crammed behind someone with their seat reclined before take-off which puts their head four inches from your baby's face and makes it impossible to get in or out of your seat while holding said screaming baby.
That stupid cardboard bassinet is invaluable because it means you have seats with no one in front of you and a place to put the baby down if you have to go the bathroom or the baby does fall asleep. It's also much easier to change a not very smelly baby in that than in the broom cupboard bathroom with the changing table down. Reserve it online, call the airline, call them again the day of the flight, ask at check-in for the seat, ask again at the gate and then kick-up a fuss when you get on the plane and get booted to row 34 while a 25 lb 'baby' and his parents get seated in the bassinet row.
When none of the above works, get a drink. The flight attendants are also much nicer and more helpful when you are sitting here and when they aren’t hawking perfume and cigarettes will sometimes rock your baby so you can have a few bites of dinner or use the bathroom. They are not nice when you are back in the sticks complaining about getting booted out of the baby seats.
Stick to self-catering accommodation
Avoid hotels or other close quarters with civilized travelers as this exponentially increases everyone's stress levels when you are trying to blend in with romantic couples on city breaks. Irish hotels are filled with children and accommodate babies and children very well, but they are also inevitably filled with weddings, baptisms, leaving dos (graduation parties), stag nights, First Communions, wakes, 21st birthday parties and other heavy drinking/singing/dancing events.
There is a good chance that if you're children sleep for one night that you will be all woken up by drunken (non-civilized) thugs stomping through the hotel corridors crashing into doors and wall and singing. The drunks will eventually pass out and you will be left trapped in a room shushing a screeching child all night.
Staying somewhere with a separate bedrooms and a kitchen is usually the less luxurious and appealing option since you want to avoid cooking and cleaning while on vacation but trying to put young children to sleep in a crib with the TV and lights on is hard.
Turning off the lights and TV and then drinking wine in the bathroom of your hotel room is not much fun either. Putting crazed toddlers who won't go to bed in the hall of the hotel as punishment and watching them through the peephole doesn't work either, but I guarantee you will end up doing it – so avoid the hotel. Many Irish hotels now have self-catering apartments on the hotel grounds so you have the option of using the hotel facilities but also the ability to cook breakfast and shout at your husband in peace.
Avoid city breaks…Sorry Dublin
Yes, I realize millions of people with children live in cities and navigate them with ease and confidence, but I am talking about flying to another city for a sight-seeing walking-filled weekend in a hotel with small children. Even without children these trips are exhausting because you cram so much walking and navigating new public transport into one day (in your practical shiny sneakers if you're American) and there is inevitably a fight about a map and shopping.
Think about your regular evening/night time routines and activities when at home with your children. If involves strolling along city sidewalks and sampling tapas and cocktails with a stylishly Zara-clad toddler on a scooter who loves marinated octopus then, by all means, plan a city break (I am clearly jealous of Spanish parents).
If your children go to bed around 7 pm and you change into your pajamas BEFORE dinner as I do, then be realistic. By 6 o'clock you will face finding a place to eat dinner, getting there by walking again or taking a taxi/bus and navigating car seats and folding strollers with tired and cranky children and parents. Then you have to get home. Young children don't have a vacation mode. They can't just go with the flow, stay up a couple hours later, behave and recuperate with a few extra hours in bed in the morning. Ha! The later they stay up the EARLIER my children get up.
Read more: Top places to bring your kids to in Dublin
The good news outside of the major busy cities, you will generally be able to walk to a local pub, eat, have a few drinks and then head home and your children will be welcome and not out of place. Just do everyone a favor and bring them home well before nine p.m.
Try to remember how the words ‘family friendly’ sent shivers down your spine and made your crinkle your nose up in disgust when you were childless and looking for a holiday. This is how couples feel when they see you and your brood tromping towards them at the pool, restaurant, beach, and plane. Do everyone a favor and accept your new reality. One-pieces, fanny packs and camp sites are the new you.
Be picky about the travel advice you allow to influence your plans
This mainly applies to social media and online resources where parents LOVE to give unhelpful advice (this list is different because my advice is helpful – duh.) Just because someone you know from a mother and toddler group tells you her train journey across India with her twin babies strapped to her front and back with colorful fabric was great, doesn't mean you have to believe them.
You also don't need to listen to someone who flew an hour to visit their mother with one three-year-old and her husband once. They don't know anything.
Be selective when seeking or entertaining parenting advice in general but especially when planning trips with children. Tourists tend to be overly ambitious in their plans when heading to Ireland. I get it, once in a lifetime trip means you want to see everything.
If you are alone and love white knuckling for five-six hours at a stretch in the car, then by all means travel the whole island in a week but if you have young children, be realistic. Pick a destination like County Kerry, rent a house, explore and take day trips. Traveling 90 miles on the free-way in the U.S. is not the same as traveling 90 miles in Ireland.
I ask myself these questions when listening to or reading parenting advice and urge you to apply them to any travel advice you are given:
How full of crap are you normally? If you've tried to convince me your baby was potty trained at six months or that your toddler just isn’t tired at 10 o’clock at night, then I can easily rule out your advice. It amazes me how otherwise intelligent women choose to listen to biggest crackpots when it comes to parenting instead of maybe a doctor or at least an experienced sensible parent.
The number one piece of ridiculously BS I’ve read on the internet is a bogus story about a mother making and distributing goody bags to her fellow passengers for her baby’s first flight. The goody bags supposedly included a cheesy rhyme about being patient with her new baby on the flight. Ugh. I am 99% sure this is untrue, but if you are people-pleasing and psychotic enough to buy, make and bring 40 goody bags onto the airplane along with small children then you deserve the meltdown you will eventually have on your vacation.
Throw your rules out the emergency exit (no, not your child)
I apply the "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" rule to vacations and airline travel of the “Taytos and Club Orange” rule of parenting. Do I usually let a toddler drink soda and binge on junk food and videos for hours? No. Do I when we are in transit and there is absolutely no hope of modifying their behavior without torturing everyone around us? Hell yes.
Same concept in a pub – is a bag of Taytos and an orange soda an appropriate snack for your two-year-old at home? No. Is it a completely acceptable way to enjoy a pint in the afternoon while in Ireland? Yes – call it cultural and shut up.
Candy, Pringles, pretzels and anything else you can get your hands on (avoiding Coke is still a good idea) on a flight will be your only hope for bribing or silencing overtired and bored toddlers. Who cares about your usual 'screen time' or nutrition rules? No one. Just give them whatever they want to shut them up. The only thing more aggravating to the innocent bystander in the row ahead of you than hours of a screeching child is hours of listening to you negotiate with said child. Or listening to you outlines their rules, routine and ideology on sugar. Or listening to you loudly narrate "Peppa Pig" to a two-year old.
Be prepared to lose a few baby socks
On my first transatlantic flight with my son I lost a tiny white sock. I spent fifteen minutes searching for one teeny tiny newborn sock on the plane. I searched under the seats, in our seats, in the seat pockets, emptied out carry-on bags and repacked them and became hysterical at the idea that my perfectly (obsessively anxiety fueled) packing and planning was going to be thrown into chaos by the loss of one sock.
Organization, routines and plans are critical elements to being in control as a parent of young children but it’s very easy to cross over into controlling and obsessive. I have tried to learn that letting the little things (physical and symbolic) go once in a while is a big part of being a mother and you won’t be able to survive traveling with children if you aren’t prepared to leave a few socks behind.
* Colleen Hennessy is a freelance writer from Maine who spent ten years living and working in Ireland before returning to Maine with her family. She managed a government urban regeneration program in Ireland and is now reinventing herself in the world of e-commerce until she can make enough writing to keep her kids in Taytos and Club Orange. You can read her writing at colleenhennessy.com.