For many parents, the summer of 2022 represents the first real opportunity to go on a family holiday abroad since the Covid-19 pandemic. For some newer parents, it represents the very first chance.
You might have mastered days out, or even a short staycation, but a family holiday abroad brings with it a whole new set of challenges - most notably the act of actually getting to your destination! Some adults find airports a daunting prospect, let alone adding a couple of young children into the mix for the first time.
Flying from Gatwick with easyJet was basically ground zero for the flight cancellations in the weeks leading up to our holiday, so that didn’t help our stress levels. With friends and colleagues reporting being on the plane when their flight was cancelled, we had no confidence we were actually going until we were in the air!
But we made it - only a 90 minute delay on the way out to Malta.
Over the course of this guide, I’ll be drawing on our experiences and learnings from our recent first family trip abroad with our four-year old son, Raife, and near-two-year old daughter, Eden. It’s not going to be a checklist of all the things you need to take; there are plenty of those on the internet. Instead it’s a look back on the key stages of our holiday with some useful advice and guidance along the way.
At the airport
We went into the entire holiday, but especially the airport, with zero expectations. We set the bar as low as possible, ensuring that anything other than a few hours of bored, tired, whining children queuing-induced hellfest was a bonus.
I’m going to level with you, they’re going to complain and it’s going to be stressful. If it’s not, you’re lying. BUT, there are some things to help smooth the process a little, especially for the older children.
Lesson 1 - Tell them everything step of the process
The bus from the car park, getting the trolley for your suitcases, having to queue, dropping your bags off, getting your luggage tags, taking the car seat* to the oversized luggage drop-off, heading to security, having to put all your things through the scanner, having to walk through the metal detector, when you’ll be able to sit down and have some food, which flight to look out for on the departure board, where your gate is…
Everything. Obviously Eden is too young to understand, but everything we could tell Raife about the process helped to make it more of an adventure for him. He was excited for the next step instead of asking ‘Why are we waiting here? Why are we putting our things in that box? Why are you taking off your belt, Daddy? Where are we going now?’.
It makes a really long and boring set of tasks much more engaging, and takes away some of the stress for you.
*When travelling with under two-year-olds, you’re allowed two extra pieces of hold luggage for free for things like car seats, pushchairs etc. Check with your travel agent or booking platform if you need a car seat. Some organised transfers will provide them for free, others will charge you, while others will require you to bring your own. We booked a car transfer and Emma paid extra for a car seat…which she forgot about. Cue our Bulgarian taxi driver looking flummoxed as we rocked up to his car with a car seat in tow!
On the flight
After the stress of a busy airport, two extremely tired children and a 90 minute delay (after we arrived at the gate, by the way. They couldn’t have even let us stay in the departure lounge for a bit!), the flight was quite frankly a dream.
Eden fell asleep straight after take-off and slept nearly the whole way.
Lesson 2 - Let them pack their carry-on
Arguably our best investment for the whole trip was a Trunki each for the children. If you’re not familiar, they are funky ride-on suitcases for children. They’re small enough to comply with hand luggage size restrictions* and help to store plenty of fun things to keep them occupied at the airport and on the flight.
They’re also great for killing some time in the departure lounge or at the gate, pulling your little ones around the place. The wheels are rigid, though, so turning isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world.
The children picked a couple of books, a few toys, some small games, and a cuddly toy to pack into their Trunki - all great stuff to keep them entertained on a three-hour flight.
Much like the airport, we tried to explain everything to Raife to make it more of an adventure for him and give him an idea of what was coming next. While he’s a very grown up four-year old, he can be quite sensitive to things he’s not familiar with. So we figured telling him about the sudden acceleration, the takeoff, the bump of the landing and hard braking would help him to cope with it all.
Thankfully, it worked. He took it all in his stride and seemed to genuinely love the whole experience. He even declared his love for easyJet as we sat on the runway for the return flight… probably their only fan!
*Be aware, under 2s don’t get any hand luggage allowance. It meant Emma and I had to share a bag because Eden effectively took one of our allowance, which was totally fine - we didn’t have much to take anyway. To be honest, no one ever really checked whether or not Emma and I both had hand luggage, but it’s good to be aware just in case.
Lesson 3 - No signal, no problem
As much as we try not to day-to-day, we did succumb to tech. Both Em and I downloaded a few things on Disney+ so they could watch during flight mode. Disney Cars, Bluey and Spidey and his Amazing Friends all came in handy even if for a short time over the course of the flight and the rest of the holiday.
During the day
With a four-year old obsessed with swimming pools and very little near the hotel other than a small beach and a ferry port, we went into the holiday expecting to spend the entire time at the hotel. As much as Emma and I love exploring new places and absorbing the architecture and culture, we knew it wouldn’t be any fun for the children.
Lesson 4 - Let them take the lead
We loosely agreed that we would let the children (Raife) decide what we did. That usually meant going to the swimming pool, but he really seemed to enjoy the control he had over the day, and helped build excitement for each part.
Unfortunately, all four of the hotel’s pools were salt water, which burned Eden’s eczema and left her screaming. Even though it would be good for her skin in the long-run, she couldn’t cope in the short-term and it meant we had to spend most of the holiday separately - one of us with Raife, one of us with Eden, swapping every so often.
Not being able to spend much time together as a family was definitely the biggest disappointment, and presented its own challenges. But thanks to her age, Eden was pretty content being entertained on the sun loungers and was able to nap regularly.
Both children loved the buffet style of the restaurant, coming along with us to see what food was on offer and picking what they wanted. And under 6s ate for free, which was a very welcome bonus! There wasn’t a great deal in the way of food choices specifically aimed at children, though - while Raife and Eden will usually eat the same meals as us, the options in the restaurant were quite rich in ingredients and flavour.
Understandably, many parents’ choice of destination is going to be restricted by budget, but I’d certainly recommend doing your research around provision for children and paying that bit extra to ensure there is plenty on offer.
Yes, those basic boxes around pools, playroom were ticked, but had we done our research, we’d have known that the outdoor play area sits in the sun without shade for about 75% of the day and is too hot to play on. We’d have known that there’s very little in the playroom, and that the air con rarely works, or that the restaurant didn’t provide much choice for children.
In the evenings
Holidays are often a time when parents will happily allow their children to have a few late nights and come along for the ride in the evenings. But that’s probably not the case for parents of four and (nearly) two-year olds.
So, the evenings were quite a strange experience for us. Instead of sampling the open-air dining of local restaurants or enjoying the evening entertainment, we were in our hotel room with two sleeping children by 8pm.
Lesson 5 - Split bedtimes
At home, Raife and Eden go to bed pretty much at the same time. But with all four beds (Emma and I were given two singles for some reason) in one room, we knew that putting them down together would be a recipe for disaster. They’d be getting each other’s attention and chatting away until the cows came home.
Instead, one of us would put Eden to bed while the other took Raife out onto the balcony or to the lobby to play a few games of Disney Top Trumps. We treated it as a bit of a holiday treat for him because ‘he’s becoming a big, grown up boy now’. He seemed to enjoy the one-on-one time, and that extra time staying up meant he was that little bit more tired, making bedtime an absolute breeze.
Lesson 6 - Pack activities for you
The kids are asleep by 8pm but you’ve got a few hours to kill before you go to sleep. You can get so wrapped up in making sure the kids have got plenty to keep them entertained, it’s so easy to forget about you.
We didn’t want to take books, partly because of adding extra weight, but also because we wanted to make sure we spent that time doing something together. Emma made the (and I can’t stress this enough) genius purchasing of Monopoly Deal. It’s essentially a card version of the game we all know with a couple of fresh twists. It doesn’t take up plenty of room in your luggage and it’s got plenty of replay value. Don’t worry - games don’t last anywhere near as long as the full board game!
So, we spent our evenings sitting on the balcony, playing Monopoly Deal with a few snacks, watching the sun go down. After a few long days running around after the children in the sweltering heat, it was a great way to unwind together.
I’ve put this section last because it’s more of a reflection on things after returning. Emma actually booked this holiday for us as a Christmas present. She booked it on a little bit of a whim, too, so there wasn’t much “planning”. It was a good deal, decent looking hotel, kids pool, indoor pool, play area - all the basic boxes ticked for a holiday with two young children.
There are definitely some lessons we’ve taken from it all, though.
Lesson 7 - Four nights is perfect
We went for four nights, and I can honestly say it was the perfect length of time. Long enough to make it feel like a ‘real’ holiday rather than a long weekend, but not too long that we were struggling for things to do and risk going stir crazy in the hotel.
Lesson 8 - Convenient flights are worth paying for
Living in the south of Wales, we had a three-hour drive to Gatwick to contend with first. Our initial assumption was that we’d get a hotel and stay the night before, but a wedding at 2pm the day before over an hour away in the opposite direction put a stop to that. Instead, I had a genius plan!
Let the children sleep in their beds
Emma and I could get a few hours sleep
Wake up at midnight
Pack the car
Put the children straight in their car seats
They’d fall straight back asleep and sleep for the whole journey
Do you think that worked? No. Of course it didn’t. Do you think I could sleep? No. Of course I didn’t. Did that mean I had to pull an all-nighter? Yes. Of course it did. Do you think the children fell straight back asleep? No. Of course they didn’t.
Raife didn’t sleep at all…THE ENTIRE JOURNEY!!!
Eden did drop off eventually. I tried putting on some heavy rock music (Rammstein, if you’re interested!) - for some reason heavy music tends to help them drop off. Don’t ask me why. They’re strange kids. Anyway, I turned around to see Eden sleeping. Put the music on. Turned around again a minute later to not only find her awake, but HEADBANGING!!!
Emma and I flew from Gatwick in the middle of the day two months previously to go to Croatia. It was relatively quiet, so we figured that the airport was bound to be quieter at 3:30am. That makes sense, right? Nope. It was heaving. Absolutely heaving. It turns out that the mornings are actually an airport’s busiest time of day.
So yeah, if you can afford it, book a flight closer to home and not at the crack of dawn. It’ll save you a world of stress.
‘Would you do it again?’
It’s a question we’ve been asked quite a lot since we’ve come home - people wondering how stressful it was, and if we’d be willing to do it any time soon.
When your kids look this happy, how could you resist taking them on holiday again?!
Well, we’re booked to go to Disneyland Paris in October on a coach. At least eight hours on a coach with a near-five-year old and a two year old. I might need to revisit this post closer to the time, but it’ll definitely present its own challenges. EIGHT HOURS ON A COACH WITH TWO YOUNG CHILDREN!
I’d be lying if I said our holiday in Malta was free of challenges, but on the whole we were really pleased with how it went. And we might just have started planning next summer’s holiday.