Is international travel with small kids worth it?

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 Photo: Getty Images

Anyone who's been brave enough to embark on an overseas holiday with young kids will know this experience comes with its share of challenges. When routines are suddenly out of whack, sleep is in short supply and their regular diet is compromised, it can be a recipe for a series of monumental toddler meltdowns – all in the comfort of your tiny holiday apartment or a confined plane. It's fair to ask yourself then, is international travel actually worth the expense and stress which comes with it?

Our recent flight home from Hawaii with our six-year-old and two-year-old made me ponder this question. We had enjoyed a fabulous family holiday, but the pay off was brewing. Eight days of over-stimulation soon collided with my over-tired little lady who successfully fought (thrashed!) off sleep until we were 20 minutes from landing in Brisbane. It was the longest 10 hours of my life and I vowed I'd shelve my daughter's passport until she was old enough to apply for one herself.

However, there are some people who make international travel with small children look like a walk in Central Park. Take my friend Jo, who not only survived a six week stint travelling to 22 different towns and cities in eight countries (including 13 hotels, eight flights, numerous boats, trains and taxis) with her sons Sam, six months, and Jacob, 2, as well as her husband and mother-in-law, but she says she'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Jo with her husband and their toddler and baby on their recent trip.
Jo with her husband and their toddler and baby on their recent trip. Photo: Supplied

"Kids see no barriers. They don't see race, they never worry about language differences. They help you see the world differently. They notice things that we would have missed," she recalls. "Adults get excited by the new experiences of overseas travel but children take it further than that. It's not just significant monuments to them; it's the people in the park, how the slimy eel feels on their tongue, the wind from the bullet train rolling in or the smallest statue of a dragon I missed because I was looking at the larger monument."

Jo and her family, who were travelling overseas for a friend's wedding, brainstormed in advance what potential difficulties they might encounter so they could be ready to combat any challenge.

"We focused on what we could do to be prepared and make it as stress-free as possible," she says. "We never considered not taking the kids. They were both very young and we wouldn't leave them for that period of time."

"I'd be lying if I said it was smooth sailing, and I think most days there was some sort of spanner in the works somewhere," she admits. "Jacob got sick just before we left and one GP actually told us that he wasn't able to fly. This was obviously distressing, but after seeing two other doctors we got a clearance letter. He was covered in a rash that looked like measles and the flight attendant pulled us aside while boarding – without that letter we wouldn't have gone anywhere."

So even though kids and international travel equals a "ridiculous" amount of luggage, and being stuck on an aeroplane can test the patience of even a saintly child, Jo says it was absolutely worth the extra stress and every precious penny spent.

"Jacob picked up numerous words in seven different languages and still remembers them today," she says. "Kids are extremely adaptable – you just have to allow them be. Yes, sleep comes fleetingly and they eat more junk food than ever, but the looks on their faces and the experiences you share far outweigh the hurdles along the way."

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Tom Walley, Head of Leisure Travel at Flight Centre, offers this advice for those who are considering international travel with small children.

1. Choose your airline carefully

Speak to your travel agent about the in-flight entertainment options and any services provided for kids. Some airlines have in-flight nannies and most will also have activity packs on hand. Most importantly, look into what options they have for kids' meals.

2. Allow extra time

Most airlines will board families with small children first, so take advantage of the fast-track access and get everyone seated and ready for takeoff. 

3. Pack an on-board kit

For each child, have a backpack with a change of clothes, lots of (non-greasy, non-smelly) snacks, a mobile device and a book or two. Give younger kids colouring-in books, with journals for older kids.  

4.  Have your electronics prepped and ready to go

Make sure everything is fully charged, and invest in a portable charger in case you need to recharge during the flight.

5. Layer up

Focus on comfort and dress your kids in layers to help combat the changes in temperatures. This is very useful when you're onboard, and also when you land at your final destination. And always bring a spare set of clothes for kids for that inevitable spillage. 

6. Re-think the nappy bag

Aeroplane bathrooms are pokey, so streamline the process. Pack a smaller pouch with one nappy, a travel pack of wipes, a nappy bag and rash cream and store it in the pocket it front of you. You can then re-stock after the baby is changed when you're back in your seat. 

7. Stick to your normal sleep routine

If travelling overnight, change the kids into pyjamas to help with the in-flight sleeping routine. Just as you would at home, brush their teeth after dinner and then tuck them in with a pillow and blanket. And good luck!