The 'Four Ages' of family travel and how to cope with each one

The age of your child has a major bearing on how you travel with them. Melanie Gow explains the changes you need to take into account at different ages

8 mins

One day, you are flinging a few things in the nearest rucksack and heading out to any horizon, and the next day, you're emerging from under a mountain of nappies in a stupor of sleep deprivation and it feels like you made an unavoidable choice between two alternatives.

But the day you sit your eleven-month-old on the top of a rental car just 20 feet from a herd of elephants at a waterhole somewhere in South Africa, you realise it’s just about figuring out how to have it all.

You need to remember that everywhere you go there are babies, toddlers, children and teens, accompanied by their parents, full of local advice and helping hands. If they are surviving, you will too. 

I found that transport was the key, and figuring out age-appropriate destinations made it all possible.


1: The foundation work of zero to toddling

(Melanie Gow)

As a single traveller, you can carry everything you need for a month in one bag. With a baby, you need a small army of porters just to go to the corner shop.

By loading our three-month-old into a car with everything that would support us, we took to the road again. The end of our new world was the West Highlands of Scotland. It was practically around the corner but that was the point, and there is nothing like gliding in and out of silent March mists while skirting a wild and solitary ancient coast. Your stress is dispersed in a huge empty landscape formed by tectonic shifting, polar ice sheets and wind.

When life revolves around a two-hour sleep pattern, you can stop and start when you need. You need to keep most necessary things to hand and to be self-reliant, while the necessary car seat will double as a portable bed for a baby. This means you can drop down to that fishing village in a remote cove, hewn from the rock by winter storms, and roll into the local pub for dinner, all while your baby sleeps.

There is nothing like eating free-range lamb fed on seaweed by a fireside, while rocking your little one at your feet. With luck, you’ll end up in a friendly game of pool until midnight, when it will be feeding time again.

Your day depends on the health and happiness of someone who totally depends on you. Hiring a car and choosing destinations with some infrastructure meant that we could travel independently with babies and baggage through East and South Africa, Greece and Australia.


2. The build-up years of the new walkers

Elk watching (Melanie Gow)

For the years when there is a fully-mobile, excitable, impulsive and yet intractable 'will', the trick is the counter-intuitive move of reducing the activities, while adding more room to move about.

Walkers don’t always care about where you are going. Wherever you are is incredibly fascinating, so anything that gets you there but has space for exploring on the way will do the trick.

This is where trains come into their own. By this point, you could be down to a mere two 50kg backpacks of stuff. There’s space to wander around, ever-changing scenery outside, and a chance to form connections with other people in a very different way.

Taking a train in a country that speaks your language, the language your children are now talking, helps them to enjoy independent interaction with other people around them.

My two boys rode 96 hours on trains zigzagging north to south in India at the ages of four and seven, exploring from the tiger areas in Rajasthan to the houseboats on the Malabar Coast, via Pushkar, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Mumbai. We only did one key activity in each destination but travelling between them really was as much a part of the experience.

We heard stories from other passengers about their lives, made toys out of napkins and shared naan in the middle of the night. My sons still talk about the tea sellers on the platforms hopping on and serving in cups made from baked mud. Everyone finished drinking long after we pulled out of the stations and threw the cups out of the window to crumble back to dust.


3. The pay-off years of 7 to 11

Blue Ridge waterfall (Melanie Gow)

Once the youngest can shoulder their own mini-pack, you’re down to one big bag and you can throw them on any transport as part of the adventure. We crossed America in seven weeks by bus, RV, plane, rail and car. We swam in Canyon Lake in the shadow of Superstition Mountain at the gateway to the Apache Trail, canoed the Au Sable River in the Lower Peninsular in Michigan, line-danced in Nashville and surfed off the coast of Belmar, New Jersey.

By now, they can entertain themselves by looking out of the window, sleep anywhere, are interested in people, notice details around them and don’t sweat the small stuff. Now, you can step off a Greyhound bus in 107-degree heat in Love’s Travel Stop, Quartzsite, on the i10 and still think it’s fun.

You may find yourself eating at a chain restaurant and watching a movie in Knoxville, Tennessee, but that’ll be just after you hiked a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains and climbed a waterfall.


4. The In-and-In years of 12 to 17

Melanie and her sons at the end of the Camino de Santiago (Melanie Gow)

Suddenly, you realise you have grown your own porters. The kids can pack for themselves with little more than a cursory once-over. You can go anywhere, using any form of transport, change your mind and bend with the road.

There is one more top tip that matters: grab at whatever crutch you need. I wrote lists, always had two days of stuff on-hand, packed favourite food, paid far too much attention to water quality and mosquito repellent, and staggered imperfectly through all of it. 

You may do it all so much more gracefully and more adventurously. You may cycle across the salt plains of Bolivia or drink yak milk in Mongolia, but, whatever you do, the trick is to give up being perfect and get on with the far more interesting job of just doing it.

Back in that time before children, when you think you had to choose between travelling and kids, it turned out you really do have a choice: between adding things to your Bucket List or figuring out how to keep travelling adventurously with your kids.

Important note:  Wherever you go, the same approach to general safety applies as it does at home, but make sure you consult with your health practitioner on specific precautions for your destinations.


Walking With Angels (Melanie Gow)Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website,

Main image: Family on a beach at sunset (Dreamstime)

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