Travelling with kids is arguably a little harder than the freedom many of us are used to as young adults, but Jen Williams decided not to let her two young’uns become a barrier, and packed their bags to go chase a far off dream.
Back in our twenties, we both (separately) did the whole backpacking thing - no ties, no planning ahead, beers at breakfast time, tiny rucksacks, partying until the sun came up – and we had a brilliant time! Since then, we’ve lived overseas and travelled a decent amount for work but I’ve always kind of dreamt of packing it all in and going backpacking again for a while. However, living just outside London in full on suburbia and having a three year old made that seem a bit of a distant possibility!
And then I got pregnant again and maternity leave loomed in the future – a time which I did enjoy the first time but also perhaps found a tiny weeny bit mind numbingly boring. Babies really don’t do very much and, whilst they’re very cute, days can definitely drag in the feed, wind, sleep, play routine (I’m not even sure if that’s the order it’s meant to be to be honest, something like that!) That’s when an idea started to hatch – Sam, our then two year old, was not yet in school and babies are pretty mobile – could we perhaps pack all of their stuff into a backpack and disappear across the world on an adventure? How would we afford it? Would we cope? Would the kids cope? Was it safe? Were we mad?
Well, here we are! I’m writing this from Hoi An in Vietnam with our three year old and seven month old - half way through our trip and our third country to date. We arrived in Hoi An from Mui Ne on the night train yesterday and have spent the day dodging motorbikes as we explored the old town before heading to a traditional puppet show which both kids were enthralled by. Next country will probably be Indonesia or possibly Myanmar – we aren’t planning ahead very far.
So, how have we made this happen and what tips do we have for any other parents wanting to go off on an adventure with their babies/kids? I’ve tried to think about some of the key questions that we had before setting off and that we now have some vague answers to!
1. How are we affording it all?
We were lucky in that we both managed to get some (at least partially) paid parental leave that we could take at the same time. We also managed to rent out our house for 5 months through Facebook to a local family who needed some short term accommodation – this was key to making the trip happen as monthly mortgage payments would have made it impossible. Renting out the house was actually super easy – we left it furnished, we found a draft contract online, we told our mortgage provider, redirected our post and that was pretty much it! Flight cost wise, we managed to get super cheap flights in the January sales to Australia via Singapore – with the stop over in Singapore being 6 weeks long! From there, short haul flights to the rest of South East Asia are super cheap (Ryanair esque) making the travel side of things much more affordable than originally envisaged. We knew Australia would be the expensive part but we’re extremely lucky to have friends and family there who could help us out and put us up, and we lived on a diet of picnics and cans of beer from the local bottle shop! As I’m still largely breastfeeding, the baby side of things didn’t cost too much either. We are excited as we move into South East Asia to realise that we can find accommodation for £20 per night and noodles from street vendors for a couple of pounds. We’ve managed to convince the three year old to like fried rice so he’s being fed if not in the healthiest of ways! We’ve also cracked the travel side of things by taking super cheap night trains up the country which also mean we save on a night of accommodation each time.
2. How do you pack enough for two adults and two children in 3 backpacks?!
Well, it’s super hard! Our bags are literally bursting at the seams and trying to get everything in before a flight/train/boat feels completely impossible – especially as we acquire random toys and buckets and spades along the way! But we’re somehow doing it. We have a blow up mattress for our toddler and a LittleLife tent contraption for the baby (which has been amazing) – and they both actually sleep in them so that’s been a huge relief! We have one car seat and one travel vest, one play mat/tent thing, a portable high chair and one tiny bag of the most precious toys that couldn’t possibly be left behind. We still struggle to be very mobile though to be honest – 3 big bags, a car seat, a baby change bag , a travel cot tent and two little rucksacks don’t exactly mean we’re travelling light. BUT we can, between us, carry it all and move down the road as a unit between train stations, looking for hotels/Airbnbs etc if we absolutely have to. The biggest challenge has been getting us and all of our bags on and off the Vietnamese trains when they stop for a brief time at the station – lifting the kids up the steep steps, throwing the bags on after them and then manoeuvring down narrow train corridors whilst the train lurches from side to side!
3. How is travelling with kids different to backpacking on your own?
This one is kind of obvious! All the stuff is the main one – I do miss having just one small backpack and perhaps a tent flung over my shoulder, rather than resembling a packhorse as we move from place to place. We have had taxis refuse to take us because of the amount of stuff until we’ve stubbornly insisted and squeezed the car to the rafters with determination. The other key difference is you just can’t go with the flow. You can’t just eat when you stumble across somewhere; you can’t spontaneously decide to sit at a beach bar for a few beers; you can’t rock up in a new town and just wander around looking for a hostel bed. You have to PLAN. And it seems every evening, once the kids are in bed (we can’t stay out drinking as we did back in the day!), we sit in whatever room we’re in with a tiny torch so as not to wake them up, and google about train times, accommodation options, shops etc. We can’t take buses/coaches on long journeys due to safety with car seats etc so we’re booking trains ahead of time; we need to make packed lunches before we set off each day in case we can’t find any shops or cafes; we miss out places without electricity because we want to be able to sterilise dummies/bottles and plug in our baby monitor; we always know the sunset time so we don’t get stranded in the dark during a rainforest walk, halfway up a hill or in a dodgy part of town; and we pack at least three changes of clothes every time we leave the house in case of toilet accidents, vomiting, rain, food spillages etc etc!. There’s a lot of admin involved in travelling with kids! Also, crossing roads and dealing with taxis with kids is definitely more anxiety inducing – we’re having to get out of taxis without seatbelts because we can’t strap our baby car seat in and some of the driving we’ve experienced means we feel this is pretty much essential. Finally, from a health side of things, we’re being super careful about antiseptic handwash, sterilising of spoons and bottles, and insect repellent as dengue fever is big in Vietnam and is something that makes me pretty anxious.
4. Finally, how are the kids coping?
Well, it seems backpacking with a baby is actually pretty easy! Our baby is delighted to be in his carrier on my front looking at the world around him. He loves all of the many, many random people that come up to admire him and take photos, smiling away with no fear whatsoever – he seems to be something of a celebrity in Vietnam! He loves the beach and the sea and, amazingly, seems to sleep MUCH better without a routine and even on a night train (we use a blow up airbed wedged next to the bed to make a sort of cot contraption and then I sit up all night to check he’s ok and not rolling off!). In the UK, I spent the first few months after he was born with severe post-natal anxiety and I was destroying myself trying to get nap times and feed times exactly right and using ‘controlled crying’ techniques etc – but, since we’ve been away, he’s almost entirely stopped napping because he’s so excited during the day and then seems to crash out brilliantly at night (I don’t want to speak too soon about this!). I do think he might end up developing slightly more slowly because he doesn’t have as much time on a play mat and in a jumperoo etc to practise crawling and standing, but I figure that the sensory overload of the trip will be helping him to develop in other ways so I’m not too worried.
Sam, our three year old, was the one I was worried about. He has a lovely group of little friends at home, both in nursery and through baby classes, and he’s pretty attached to them. He’s also completely in love with our dog, his grandparents and our little house. We did a lot of work to prepare for the trip. We watched films and TV shows about travelling (GoJetters, Thomas the Tank Engine Big World Big Adventures etc) and showed him the places we were going on maps and on YouTube. We told him that people were coming to look after our house and our dog was going on an exciting holiday to my parents’ house – and we made sure we emphasised that we would definitely be coming home again.
I was still a bit worried though about the break in routine and the instability he might feel moving from place to place every couple of days. But he has coped marvellously. I mean, he clearly hugely misses his friends and basically chases random kids around playgrounds to try to chat and play with them – which is generally cute but a little bit heartbreaking if he gets ignored – and, every now and again, he has a little moan and says ‘I just really want to stroke Boda’. But, other than that, he really has loved almost every second. He’s coped incredibly well with only about 5 toys because he’s out every day exploring, studying maps, climbing up to look out points, spotting wildlife, riding on long boats, exploring crazy motorbike filled streets, taking night trains, eating ice cream, watching sunsets and going to bed far later than he really should be. He is wonder at the world around him every single day. He has hugely enriched the experience for us by noticing things that we would simply overlook – birds singing, tiny flowers along our paths, funny shaped clouds in the sky, footprints on the sand. Seeing these amazing countries through a toddler’s eyes just makes it all the more magical and this quality time spent with him is something I’m so grateful to have and will treasure forever.
So, if you are lucky to have the opportunity to go off backpacking with your kids, for one week or a few months, we very much recommend saying yes! It has been such an enriching experience both for our children and us and has given a very different, yet welcome, perspective of the incredible planet we get to call home.