Have child, will travel
7th September 2019
Most new parents wouldn’t even consider boarding a flight let alone globetrotting around the world with their young offspring but Tonbridge-based travellers Sam and Paul Roberts took it all in their stride when they took their young daughter Francesca on a world trip…
TRAVEL AS A TRIO
Paul and I are pretty similar, we both love being outdoors and would rather spend money on a festival ticket than the latest TV! We have both lived in and around Kent most of our lives with short stints in London but decided the countryside is where we wanted to be. I’m a chartered environmentalist and Paul is an arboricultural consultant so our career paths have also been pretty similar, working as consultants on construction projects.
We also love to travel! I studied earth sciences at university so have always had a passion to visit the amazing places I read about and get a feel for local culture. I have been fortunate to travel quite a bit over the years, alone or with friends – and more recently with Paul. Although Paul loves to travel, he really isn’t that keen on flying so he took a bit of convincing that flying round the world was a good idea!
On our first holiday together we travelled from Bangkok through Cambodia and up the coast of Vietnam. We were on a tight budget so travelled a lot by night train sharing cabins with other travellers. On one of these night trains we shared a cabin with a Spanish couple and their lovely four year old daughter. They were travelling a similar route so we saw them a few times in various cities, and every time they just looked to be having fun! We realised backpacking with little people was possible. So when our daughter Francesca came along it was always in the back of our minds to do the same before she started school.
The biggest hurdle was saving enough money to cover the mortgage whilst we weren’t being paid and to cover our travel costs. Based on my previous travel experience I compiled a holiday budget for food, hotels, travel and entertainment so we had a pretty good idea how much money we needed. It took about 18 months to save but we made some serious sacrifices on our outgoings to ensure we had enough money to do everything we wanted.
We decided this time together as a family was really important to us so we worked out that as long as one of us had a job to come back to we could just about scrape by for a few months when we returned on one salary. We have a sabbatical policy at my company and I had supported a colleague through the process the previous year so I had a good idea how the system works and got the approval pretty quickly. Paul works at a family-run company heading up a small team. He was slightly anxious ahead of his meeting with the company owner as he knew if the answer was a no he would have to resign. After a week’s deliberation happily Paul also received his approval, meaning it was all systems go for planning!
We had a long think about places we wanted to visit and came up with a very long, impractical list. In the past we would have been happy travelling anywhere, however with our little lady in tow we didn’t want to go too far off the beaten track and definitely wanted to avoid countries that needed malaria pills or vaccinations. We talked a lot about going on safari, however in most cases children needed to be at least eight years old. We also looked at cruises in South America but these were incredibly expensive.
We were also conscious we only had four months and didn’t want to feel rushed so we shortened the list down to those places we felt were safe for children and that we both really wanted to visit. Initially this was Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Being a fan of trees Paul really wanted to see the giant sequoias and redwoods on the west coast of America and I longed to visit Fiji, so we added those to our itinerary too.
The airline ticket helped dictate where we went and when, as you can be limited on your direction of travel. Also we wanted to be at home for Francesca’s fourth birthday, which was in March, so we had her party on the Saturday and left the following Monday. This meant we headed east to catch the end of summer in New Zealand, as it can get chilly in the South Island at the start of autumn, and if we did that we would end up on the west coast of America in spring.
'One day we were relaxing in a hammock between some palm trees and a gardener asked if we would like fresh coconuts. He knocked them out of the tree and cut them open with a huge machete – they were absolutely delicious!'
These timings coincided with the shoulder seasons (the period between peak and off-peak travel) in both countries so the weather would be reasonable, the attractions quieter and hotels a bit cheaper. Leaving at the start of March also had the additional benefit of us arriving back in the UK for mid-summer and giving Francesca time to settle back into a nursery routine ready to start school.
Once we had countries and dates I started researching places to stay and visit. This included family travel blogs, scouring charity shops for travel books, talking to family, friends, and of course the internet. The newzealand.com website was brilliant for route ideas and itineraries and if we were offered anywhere to stay with distant friends or relatives of friends we always said yes!
We broke the time up into sections of rest and travel. A few days sightseeing in Singapore, followed by a 10-day rest in Sydney, travelling to the South and North islands of New Zealand, then two weeks’ rest in Fiji before travelling in the USA, that kind of thing. I prebooked the resting elements well in advance and made some good savings on hotels and guaranteed Airbnbs. I also booked the first two weeks’ travel in New Zealand up to and over the Easter holiday. Leaving the rest free meant we could see how Francesca took to constantly moving and be flexible if we decided to change route.
As we travelled we recorded our trip on Polarsteps. It is a brilliant app that friends and family can also follow to see where you are in the world with a map, pictures and text. When the trip is complete a travel journal can be printed out for a fee, which is something we still need to do as we struggled to reduce our pictures!
We started off with a few nights in Singapore, which was amazing as it’s such a beautiful city but we had very little sleep due to the jetlag.
We then flew into Sydney. We had booked an Airbnb there, which was to prove a life-saver as we were all exhausted from the build-up to leaving and the jetlag for our daughter was pretty difficult. Having our own apartment complete with garden, toys and a trampoline was really helpful and we could start relaxing and enjoying ourselves. After a few days’ rest Francesca was adjusted and we managed to get out and see Sydney and the surrounding areas.
Christchurch in New Zealand was our next stop. We travelled around the South Island, crossing the water at Picton to Wellington and slowly headed to Auckland and the Bay of Islands
in the North Island.
From Auckland we flew into Nadi in Fiji. The plan for Fiji was to have a holiday within a holiday, to allow us to have a rest between travelling around New Zealand.
We then headed up the west coast of America from Los Angeles to Seattle. Some our favourite times on the trip were the unexpected, unplanned events which just happened; this really made us realise the joy of just having some spare time for flexibility in our plans.
CHILD FRIENDLY TRAVEL
Francesca loved the travelling and quickly adapted to the constant changing of locations and just became excited at the prospect of a new bedroom with different drawers and cupboards to hide in, places to visit or people to meet.
She has always been into making things but the trip really brought this out in her and so she would be on the lookout for things she could use to craft – toilet roll inner tubes were always useful!
For flights we formed a little airport routine where we passed the time buying a magazine in the terminal to keep Francesca occupied on the flight.
When we booked Airbnbs we always checked they came with toys, which was great for her to have new things to play with, or books to read. We also picked up children’s books along the way about local areas which are great to reminisce on now we are home.
Francesca was always quite shy and the trip really improved her confidence in new situations and meeting new people.
One day Francesca started to cry and was inconsolable, saying she really missed her Granny Rose. For a moment I felt terrible and did think, why I am doing this with a four year old? But an hour later we had FaceTimed her Granny and all was well again. After that we made a point of regular contact with friends and family.
She also learnt so much about the world and places she visited, which has shown through in her schooling – she has so many stories to tell.
We had little safety plans in place such as if Francesca didn’t get out of the lift quick enough and the door closed she was to stay where she was and we would find her. It’s something that has stayed with her.
We were really sad boarding our final flight from Seattle. We had loved being in our little family bubble and I was dreading going back to the daily grind and not spending every day together. It was nice to get home, though, and see friends and family. Having said that, we definitely could have travelled for even longer! A few days after we landed back home there was a fête at Francesca’s new school, so it was lovely seeing her meeting up with her friends and running round the school field.
Since returning home we’ve learnt to slow down and enjoy the now. Before our trip we were always rushing around. However, we learned to be more mindful of where we were and savour the moment together. This is something we talked to Francesca a lot about in the hope she would remember some of the trip.
We have so many places we’d love to visit, in the short term I’d love to see more of Italy and Scandinavia, and Iceland for the Northern lights but longer term I’d happily travel to Japan for the culture and cherry blossom, Africa for a safari and Easter Island.
People will say you are mad to travel with a child but don’t let them put you off! It’s a different type of travelling but it’s still amazing as it forces you to slow down and to get a better experience. We also grew so much together as a family and had the time to really bond with Francesca, which is something we are so grateful for.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH A TODDLER
Plan: Think about what you want to do and halve it, things are a lot slower with little people in tow. Include them in the planning and show them where you’re going to visit. Always try and plan in a visit to a park to break up long journeys. If this isn’t possible book a hotel with a pool so everyone can have some fun at the end of the day. Don’t be afraid to change the plan and adapt to how your child travels. Remember to plan rest days, constant travelling can be exhausting as an adult so even more as a child. It’s okay to spend the day colouring, watching movies, playing games or doing the washing, this can be really fun when done together.
Prep: We found the better prepared Francesca was for the day ahead the better she adapted to situations. Talk about long flights and say if a long driving day is coming. Also prepare them for the food you might encounter, and get them eating different foods before you leave. That way it’ll be a breeze when food options may be limited.
Rest: Keep a bedtime routine. This can be tricky, particularly when you’re sharing a bedroom, but as any parent knows a well-rested child is so much more fun and engaging than one that’s over tired. Many campsites and hostels we stayed in didn’t have a bath so if your bedtime routine includes a bath start getting them used to a shower before you leave home.
Art Direction: Lee Smith | Photography: Craig Matthews