Traveling with children in India – and outside, can be fun, says this Indian mom and travel buff. Read and share your traveling tips!
By Malathi Srinivasan
When my husband and I explored the magnificent ruins of Hampi, our first child, Takshila was inside me. When we walked among the clouds of Shillong and Chirapunjee, she had been outside me for 18 months. By the time we admired the Ming palaces in Beijing, Takshila was three and there was another one inside me. Finally in 2009, we did a Mughal trail in North India with a daughter of four and a son, Kanishka, who was about to turn one.
Our love of heritage tourism started just after marriage, and young children didn’t seem like reason to stop travelling. We have been on a dozen holidays in five years – with every conceivable (pardon the pun) combination of children inside and outside me.
Children are far tougher than they look. They function quite well with a mildly running nose or tummy, their moods don’t depend on the weather and most importantly, their injuries heal fast. We should know: on our trip to Ajanta+Ellora, Takshila sprained her arm and was in agony. But after a night’s TLC on a train, and a morning visit to an orthopedic, she was back to giggling even though her arm was in a sling.
With that in mind, here are my tips for traveling with children.
1. Pick a place that’s welcoming to children. We have been exceptionally lucky in that every single place we’ve been to, the locals have indulged our children. Especially Beijing. Maybe it’s because of China’s one-child policy or because of how exotic and different Takshila looked to the locals, but everywhere we went, young ladies queued up to cradle her and mothers told their children to make friends with her.
Now imagine if you found yourself in a place where children couldn’t be themselves. What if the local hotels frown upon children making too much noise in the lobby? What if the cinemas or theatre have a “no young children” policy? Do your research (buy a Lonely Planet guide, if in doubt) before you settle on a place.
2. Travel with another family (one with young kids too). The more children there are, the more fun it is for them. And the more adults there are, the easier it gets for all concerned. When you travel as a large group, there are other obvious advantages too, such as bulk discounts at hotels. So go ahead, propose a joint holiday to your sister or best friend.
We’ve never actually taken a full holiday with another family, but our Delhi holiday was all the more memorable because we hooked up with another family with two children. All four children had a brilliant time, and my husband got quality time with a college friend he met after a decade and a half.
3. Travel in the highest class you can afford. Let’s face it; you can plan all you want, but travelling with children for longer than a couple of hours can be stressful. Which is why you should buy the most travel comfort your money can buy (scrimp on the hotel, if you want to). In our case, that means 2nd A/C train tickets. We even book a berth for Takshila (there is a 50% discount for children) though she’s only five and can travel ticket-less if she slept on one of our berths. We find the extra space very useful; in fact our 36-hour ride from Bangalore to Agra, far from being stressful, was quite pleasurable.
An aside: we love travelling by train. No motion-sickness, no hole in the wallet and most importantly, a perfect antidote to the hectic pace of modern life.
4. Carry a favourite toy or colouring book. How else are your children going to pass long hours in the car or train? The point is not to carry a whole playpen – you will not use most of it. If you need more toys you can always buy or improvise (e.g. shells from a beach). One of the most delightful toys we’ve ever picked up was a funny little massage comb in Delhi. It kept both our children in splits throughout a 3-hour car ride to Agra. The novelty wore off soon after but hey, it cost us only Rs. 30.
5. Carry a small electric stove. Especially if you have a child under two. There isn’t a restaurant in India (however basic or luxurious) that will not prepare a little meal (a glass of hot milk, khichdi) for your child. But that’s once you have hit the road. What of early morning and late evening grub? I carry ragi porridge powder and make Kanishka’s cereal every morning – wonderfully nutritious, homely and easy to make with a small stove.
6. Have their regular doctor’s number handy, and carry some basic medicines. I already mentioned the time we had to travel on a train minutes after Takshila sprained her hand. The entire compartment rallied around to help and eventually found a duty doctor at a small station in Andhra Pradesh. We might have eased her agony a little earlier if we had been carrying some painkillers and ointment. Lesson learnt!
7. Have a schedule, but be flexible. And trust your gut. Our trip to the picturesque Pichavaram lake in Tamil Nadu, was a long-awaited one. When we got there on a gorgeous if cloudy afternoon, we had to decide – stick to our plan of taking a raft into the lake or hire a more prosaic motor boat?
The lake looked ominously rough, but the raft man convinced us to go along. Two minutes into the ride, the raft, barely an inch over the water, wobbled a bit. Visions of the boat capsizing flashed before my eyes, as I glanced around nervously at my family, none of whom is a strong enough swimmer to negotiate turbulent waters. I was starting to compose myself, when I remembered we were in an area ravaged by the 2004 Tsunami.
I slammed the panic button and practically screamed at the disbelieving raft man to return ashore. Despite his protestations, we took the decidedly less macho option of a motor boat. In the event, we had a perfectly nice ride amidst the Thillai mangroves.
Chicken or not, I’m glad I trusted my woman’s instinct. The lesson here is that you should not be afraid to change your plans. Even if your circumstances are somewhat less dramatic than ours in Pichavaram.
8. It’s okay to not see everything a place has to offer. What is important is that you have a good time. When we went to Beijing, we left a lot of things unseen – including the famous Qing tombs. But who cares? Beijing was the best holiday of our lives. We will go back to China when the children are older, so what’s the problem anyway?
9. Every day, budget an hour to do what the children find interesting. During our visit to Agra last year, the children were completely oblivious to the charms of the Taj, but were keen to play in the spacious Charbagh (the lawns around the Taj). We let them be for an hour. As they ran around, Mum and Dad pretended they were watching a Mughal prince and princess, and clicked a couple of nice pictures.
Remember, it’s their holiday as much as it’s yours – and they probably did not vote on the place. So you owe them an hour’s entertainment a day. Of course, there is no telling what children find amusing. It’s not necessary to take them to a theme park or pool every day – just be alert to what catches their fancy and indulge them.
10. When in a hot place, start really early. And rest during the day. Last Sept-Oct, it was unseasonably hot in Agra – almost 39 degrees during the day and the children wilted heartbreakingly. So what did we do? Rise really early (often as early as 5 a.m.) and take in the sights before the sun rises. One early morning visit stands out in the mind – to Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra. At 7 a.m., it was just the four of us amidst peacocks, squirrels, deer and some of the most gorgeous architecture known to man. Wow!
Once you’ve had a really early morning, the rest of the day practically arranges itself. By the time you return to your hotel and have a big breakfast (eat well, you’ll need it) the children will be ready to nod off. Join them in bed (sleep well, you’ll need it) and then head out to a nice lunch somewhere. Now you’re ready to explore the place. Bonus: the light during early mornings and late afternoons is the best for your photographs.
11. Carry a sweater and change of clothes for the children. Especially if you think they won’t be needed. When we started for Beijing’s Llama temple from our hotel, it was warm and sunny under a cloudless sky. When we got there (in 20 minutes) the temperature had dropped to 17 degrees, and it began raining. We somehow located a raincoat in our bags. If we hadn’t, Takshila could easily have come down with a cold.
Some cities (like Beijing, Bangalore, London and Melbourne) are notorious for having multiple seasons in one day. Prepare accordingly. And while you are at it, chuck a hand sanitizer and several tissue rolls into your backpack.
And most importantly…
Pack in a sense of humour and remember that you cannot be the best mum at all times! Things will not go the way you planned. Children will refuse to eat, throw tantrums… but it’s not bad all the time. Atleast for mine, the prospect of being out of home at all times is super exciting and they behave like angels!
Like with everything in life, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. If you’ve been scared into not taking your children on long holidays, start small – may be a weekend getaway. Do it a few times, and you won’t, I guarantee, ever consider leaving them behind. In any case, there will soon come a time when they will be embarrassed to be seen with you, never mind go on a holiday. Enjoy it while you can!
PS: Travelling with two young children may be easy as pie, but writing about it sure isn’t. Hence, I outsourced parts of this article to my husband, Nag. When not travelling (and not having babies) I work at an MNC IT giant in Bangalore.