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Trip Report Travelling to Europe with a small child – warning – long!

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We found that it is very possible to travel with your child. It’s not hard, just quite labour-intensive. I can understand people who don’t want to travel with their child; you can’t just sit back and enjoy the ride, although we felt that we had great benefits in travelling and the work I had to do to keep M (our daughter) happy was completely justified. I would travel long distances with her again any day, and I think by just persisting with the travel she will gradually become accustomed to it, even if it is rough going at times. We already do regular two-hour trips within our own country to see relatives and she is accepting of these. I thought I would tell you all in some detail what our experiences were with the car and plane trips we made. We flew from Sydney – Singapore – Frankfurt – Bremen, then Frankfurt – Singapore – Sydney, and took trips by car from Bremen to Groningen, Bremen to Cuxhaven, Bremen to Göttingen, and Göttingen to the Frankfurt area, and ultimately to the airport. You can find our trip report on these trips by clicking on my screen name.

I might just add that our journey was a work-related one for me. M spent her days with her dad, who very kindly looked after her while I worked during the week. We had a holiday apartment in Bremen, so were able to structure days around our normal routine of meals, sleeps and snacks. M slept in the morning, and after lunch M and DH would go out for small excursions with her stroller, which she adores. These excursions were to the shops and the local parks, much as we’d do at home. It was only on weekends and at the end of the trip that we attempted longer trips.

Car trips
This is what we found useful when travelling with M (who is a 16 month old girl).
Every child will be different; M doesn’t like car trips. You can just keep her amused or asleep for most of a two-hour trip and that’s about it. We recognize these limits and don’t push it. What we found helped with the car trips:

1. If it’s a long trip or if we suspect it’s going to be difficult, I sit next to M while my husband drives. Mostly this wasn’t necessary but sometimes we found this beneficial.
2. Talking to M and paying her a lot of attention helps. You can do this and still navigate from the back seat, although it makes changing CDs or radio stations hard. More about that later.
3. Food. We discovered M likes smoked sausage, a new food for her in Europe, and was willing to eat lots of it. You obviously know what your child likes. Small packets of crackers are also quite good because they last a long time and you can feed them cracker by cracker. It seems to me that this is more about the interaction and less about the food (although it certainly helps if it’s something they don’t get very often).
4. Small toys, introduced at regular intervals; when the novelty wears off and the toy is hoiked to the floor, it’s time for a new one. More on toys below.
5. Songs sung by me, likewise rhymes that involve body parts (‘This little piggy”, “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”, etc). Anything where M has to interact.
6. M has a favourite CD for car trips (long and short). We do vary the CDs a bit but she never gets bored of hearing the same one over and over. We do, but if it’s to keep the peace, you can cope with it. If you are in the back with the child, the driver would obviously find it difficult to change the CD while driving, much less at the high speeds the Autobahn demands! If you have a rental car be sure not to leave it in the player – we almost did and had to rush back to the drop-off point in the car park to collect it. Phew! Disaster averted!
7. Looking at what is outside the window is almost pointless on the Autobahn; M is simply too young and there isn’t much to see on major roads except for the wind turbines (which actually fascinate me). Back roads have more sights for children, like cows, but for us, what was happening in the car was more important. We also were not travelling through terribly scenic regions most of the time, and we are quite used to Germany, so I didn’t at all feel I was frustrated in my sightseeing. You would probably have to weigh this up for yourselves, because if your major goal were to drive through picturesque mountain regions and you had a child like M, this would be hard on you. We made the destinations the more important part of the trip.

Plane Trips
Plane trips are a different story. If you have never taken a small child on a plane before, this was our experience:

Safety
If your child is sharing their seat with you and not in a seat or car seat of their own: at the outset of the plane trip you are given a special small length of seat belt which loops through your belt and fastens like a regular seat belt around the baby’s waist. This is flexible enough to allow the baby to turn around and breastfeed but obviously has to be done up when the seatbelt sign is lit up. M was unhappy being restricted like this (she has done it on 7 separate journeys now and still reacts badly at the beginning), but settles down quickly when you feed her. I hear it’s a good idea to feed your baby on take-off and landing because of the air pressure. We tried this but inevitably found M didn’t comply at exactly the right times but still coped quite well. I imagine it’s worse when babies have colds.

We were lent a harness – a kind of vest which you put on the baby and attach to your own belt. Our relatives bought this in Canada for their daughter. I thought it was a good idea but in the end we didn’t take it as our bags were stuffed full. It apparently can’t legally be used on take-offs and landings but is supposed to be used during the flight, as a safety precaution in case of turbulence.

Timing of flight, rest periods
Both times we had a 24-hour stopover in Singapore, and were able to get a late check-out at our hotel, allowing us to observe the ritual of a bath at night and get into a tracksuit for the flight (we thought it was important to try to observe some of the same routines as at home; we also use sleeping bags for M and put her in one on the plane to encourage the sleep mentality and to keep her warm as the flights are quite cold). We deliberately took flights where the bulk of the flight was at night, so that M would sleep through the journey. This worked quite well on the way to Europe. The SYD – SIN leg was a late afternoon flight and very successful, arriving close to midnight. Although M woke up, she was easy to get back to sleep when we got to our hotel. We found that the very late flights were a bit hard on M – Lufthansa only flies from Singapore after 11pm at night, so M was asleep in our arms by the time we boarded. Even the leg FRA- SIN wasn’t too bad, although M was tired on the very last leg and a bit difficult (also teething – 2 fangs, 2 molars, so out of sorts). We found Singapore to be a very good stopover destination for families – the airport has play zones for children, one of the terminals has a butterfly house, and one of the terminals has a car boot sale in the car park every third weekend of the month. Plus there are small supermarkets in the terminals – this was very useful to us, especially as our hotel charged $12 for a bottle of water!!
(If water inflight is an issue for you, Qantas distributes bottles of water at the beginning of the flight, which is quite nice.)

Toys
I read somewhere on the internet that a new toy has great novelty value for kids on planes and five small toys are better than one big one. The recommendation was also to wrap each toy to increase the novelty value but we didn’t bother doing this. However, I internalized this information and went to our local Chinatown and bought a number of small cheap packable toys for each leg of the journey. Here are some of the things we bought, to give you some ideas:
- small boxed sets of books (11cm X 11cm) (Peppa Pig, Mr. Men, Peter Rabbit). In Australia you can get these from the ABC Shop. 6 books together make a jigsaw puzzle picture when laid out together. You either have the option of six stories or the amusement of taking the books out of the box and putting them back in (or throwing them individually on the floor!).
- finger puppets, including a small book with a finger puppet giraffe integrated into the pages;
- 2 teeny cars that drive forwards or backwards when you power the wheels when you drag them on the floor;
- a purple rubbery gonk on a bouncy strap, with ‘spikes’ all over it; when you squish it, it balloons out through your fingers (this was particularly successful);
- a tiny mechanical butterfly that flaps its wings and rolls across the table;
- a tiny rubbery Mickey Mouse face that flashes 3 different coloured lights, with a switch in the back of its head;
- some small dolls ( I guess it depends on your child but I didn’t think these were as successful because they are less interactive);
- small colour pencils and a small notepad (not so good in the plane, we thought, because of the tendency to drop things – hard to retrieve, so we used them in the apartment).
- a flip-open Hello Kitty calculator – it looks like a flip-phone so was very appealing to M. Also doubles as a calculator for you if you don’t have one in your phone.
- we also acquired a mini bead roller-coaster, which was quite good in the car for a while.
- A number of small bags, zip-up containers, colourful tins, good for put-and-take play and containing small objects.
- A flat fold-out magnetic board with a Sesame Street scene and magnetic characters for telling stories. Can slip in the outside pocket of your suitcase. One drawback – meant for an older child, I’m sure, because the magnets are easily bent and torn! Otherwise quite good.
We put 5 of these in the cabin bag and kept the rest for later (different legs of flight, car trips, general life in the apartment). We pulled out the toys gradually, as required. We also had 2 small teddies (old toys) that are cuddle favourites, so there was something familiar for M. All this sounds like a lot but it packed down to nothing. Also there was something for M to play with over the three-week period (although she got a lot of mileage out of exploring the kitchen cupboards in the apartment we rented). We didn’t use all the toys in the end. I would certainly think about what keeps your child (and you) interacting with the toy as a criterion for usefulness.

We also spied on the other parents in the plane and saw one family who had ink stamps and they were making stamps for their child on a writing pad. I liked this idea, not sure how the ink goes if the child grabs the stamp. May depend on the age of the child. Certainly very packable!

Lufthansa were also very kind and did a lot for children – they gave us small cardboard jigsaw puzzles (actually meant for age 3+, but which was quite amusing for M). On another leg of the trip they gave us a small aeroplane cuddle toy with long eyelashes – we call him ‘Lufty’. This time we didn’t get anything from Qantas in the way of amusements but when we flew to Melbourne in February they gave us some Mr Bump colour pencils and paper. Meant for an older child but still good for M.


Experiences of staff with food and bassinette

We found that the attentiveness of the FAs varied widely, not by airline, but by flight. Mostly they were great and very obliging. However, on some flights they were very busy and didn’t bring us food, so we had to ask. We weren’t sure M would eat it anyway as she has started to reject jars of baby food, and that’s what the children’s meals consist of. We had some of our own but were sort of successful in letting M share our meals. We also had a number of favourite snacks, rice cakes, Vegemite sandwiches, chocolate milk in Tetra Paks, etc. This is obviously up to you what you bring, depending on what your kids eat. What we did find is that if you are a parent you have a lot more leeway in what you can bring onto the flight in the way of liquids or semi-solids, as long as you are upfront about what you have brought. Sydney Airport was stricter than Frankfurt and wanted to see everything. Even Singapore was happy for us to bring in water; they check this at the gate, and normally you are not permitted to bring in bottles of water that you buy in the transit area. Frankfurt didn’t make a fuss, although they performed the usual scans and frisk searches.

The FAs were also quite good in setting up the bassinette for us quickly after take-off and after the seatbelt sign went off (you can’t set them up before this). The weight limit seems to be about 11kg-11.5kg, and a height limit of around 71cm, so M just made it within the height limit. If you are concerned about the turbulence issue, there are a couple of straps which you do up across your child when s/he is asleep. The bassinette arrangements were different for Lufthansa and Qantas. Qantas has a bed mounted high on the wall at the bulkhead which just pulls down. On the one hand it is hard to stand and put your sleeping child in the bassinette without assistance – it helps if your partner is standing and you can give the child to him / her and they can do it. On the other hand, the Qantas bassinettes are clear of the pull-out screens for each seat. This was not the case for Lufthansa, because the bassinettes are much lower; the crew stow the baskets in the galley and mount them on request. When you are sitting you can relatively easily place your sleeping child in the basket and pull the safety straps across. However, we found that on one Lufthansa flight the screens for each seat were not able to be pulled out of storage because the basket was in the way, so we were without visual entertainment for that leg of the journey. This may not be the case for all flights, as there is a fair bit of variance between planes. So you take the good with the bad. Overall I’d say that the Lufthansa baskets looked more comfortable but were a little smaller than Qantas. The Lufthansa baby blankets were snugger. If you want to take advantage of the bassinette you have to say so at the time of booking, likewise with baby meals. There is evidently a lot of competition for the seats at the bulkhead because of the leg room, and they don’t guarantee you’ll get the bassinettes on Lufthansa, whereas on Qantas if you get the right seats, you get the bassinette.

Other benefits

Being a parent also has the benefits of better seating (the bulkhead has more room), although you are near all the other babies, which may affect your own munchkin’s sleep, and you are generally boarded earlier than everyone else. We were also allowed to take our stroller (a very cheap, light umbrella stroller) right up to the door of the plane. This was the case in Frankfurt, Singapore and Sydney and was very helpful. Mostly you collect your stroller from the luggage conveyor belt at the end of the flight, although on one leg, when we arrived in Singapore the stroller was at the door of the plane when we disembarked.

I hope our experiences were helpful for you. Your child is obviously going to be different, and your trip itinerary will be, too, but maybe we have given you some good ideas to make your trip easier.

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