Travels with Mini-Me is a series by Fodor's contributor Rachel Felder that explores the special and, truth be told, unique relationship that her 11 year old daughter has with all-things-travel, from breezing through the airport to eating adventurously no matter what the destination.
Like many families, Mini-Me and I spend months excitedly planning our big summer holiday. That blissful time in late July or early August when we get out of dodge is often the focal point of our whole year.
I'm lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, so our summer vacations might sound a bit long. Sometimes we get away for 6 or more weeks, though I do end up working through some of it considering my job (travel writer, ahem).
The trip usually starts in London, since it's easy-to-navigate and English-speaking, plus Mini-Me loves it. It's a great way to ease into a longer holiday. Because from there we go in different directions each year. Sometimes we return to places we know and love (like a seriously charming town in Wales where friends with a daughter Mini-Me's age live), and sometimes we explore new terrain. But one rule to live by, learned after doing this trip for 8 consecutive years, is that it's important to factor in kid-with-kid time.
We mix up staying in hotels and with friends so that Mini-Me gets to hang out with kids her own age. And sometimes we try to coordinate rendezvous with other traveling families. But kid-with-kid time can also be as simple as finding a swimming pool or beach during the day when families are bound to be there. Kids make friends so easily, and with European budget airlines and train rides at such affordable rates, it's easy to be flexible.
Of course, the internet is the most indispensible travel planning tool. Mini-Me and I spend time buying tickets in advance online for as much as possible before we go—museum exhibits, theater, concerts, and even things like Heathrow Express. It saves so much time and hassle, and ensures that time spent abroad is not time spent asking the front desk for a WiFi password. I also make sure to use a card that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee, since overseas sites tend to bill in their local currency.
After we've got our tickets, we start to get excited about where we'll eat. We make reservations for our favorite places—like The Wolseley in London—online using Top Table (London's answer to OpenTable). And for nights I know we're spending in a hotel, I email the concierge ahead of time to ask for tips on where to eat with Mini-Me in tow. Taking the guesswork out helps avoid starving children looking at you while you pore over too many recommendations before succumbing to the closest and fastest option.
Then it comes time to pack. Here too, as you may have expected, we have a strategic routine. Mini-Me knows the joys of carry-on only, so we each bring a soft-sided carry-on wheelie with an extra tote bag tucked inside to bring any purchases home. Stuffed inside, we'll have two pairs of shoes (dressy flats and flip-slops, with a third pair of comfy shoes for the airplane), layer-friendly clothing, a bathing suit (just in case), a sweater, and a tiny folding umbrella. When it comes to clothes, we also favor hand-wash-able items we can clean in the hotel sink. Finally, I always pack a first-aid kit, with a list of our doctor's phone numbers inside. Because, no matter how carefully you plan, you never know when you might get a scrape or bump or bronchial infection (we've had them all). Having your own Band-Aids and being able to talk to your own doctor goes a long way in making you (and your little one) feel better, and safer.
We try to under pack a bit, leaving room in our luggage for souvenirs; Mini-Me likes to buy back-to-school notebooks and t-shirts at stores like Primark in England and France's Monoprix. Then, we've each got a laptop (Mini-Me Skypes her friends back home while we're away), noise-reducing headphones, and plenty of adapters. If we're headed to a foreign speaking country, we'll load up on downloaded movies, books, and episodes of our favorite TV shows so we can stay entertained in any hotel room. I also got a pay-as-you-go British cell phone. It costs £5, around $7.50, and you get to make local calls and send texts much less expensively than on a foreign phone.
Phew. Going over these hard-won strategies makes me wonder—how do you prep and pack for long-hauls with the kids? I hope my tips will make you feel more confident and ready than the opposite.
Photo credits: View out of an airplane via Shutterstock