Sell: The downside of living overseas is spending your holidays traveling home – especially with toddlers in tow. Katie Brown offers advice for what to do (and what not to do) to help you survive the trip
Sitting in the hairdressers I had a sense of being in the eye of a storm – this was my final treat before boarding a 24-hour flight from Sydney to London with my husband and two children. It really wasn’t my idea of a holiday, paying $7,000 to be squashed on a 747 with my three-year-old son, Lucas and nine-month-old daughter, Indi. But my grandma had just been diagnosed with cancer and I wanted to be with her.
Of course a trip like this means you have to see everyone else too – so my husband Alec and I had agreed on a four-week visit and I’d planned it with military precision. Every day was accounted for and the program was sent via email so friends could let us know when they were around. Every other minute was spent writing (then rewriting), lists and packing – it would be late spring in the UK, which could mean anything, so into our bags went jumpers and swimmers.
Finally the big day arrived and with the kids dispatched to day care it was time to empty bins, say goodbye to Buster our rabbit and of course, most importantly, get my hair highlighted!
Typically the day seemed to be on fast forward and before we knew it we were pulling up at the long term car park at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport.
We’d travelled to the UK two years earlier and had parked here then – it had been a maximum fee of $99 for seven days. But as we took our ticket we noticed an extra charge – $10 for every additional day. ‘I thought you’d checked,’ I wailed to Alec. ‘I didn’t get round to it,’ he answered sheepishly. We did a rough calculation and worked out it would cost us $280 just for parking. Of course by now it was too late to drive home and get a cab, so grimly we loaded our cases onto the car park shuttle bus and drove in silence to the terminal.
It doesn’t seem to matter how much time we have, Alec and I are always running late. And by the time we’d wrestled with passport control, endured the 10km hike to our departure gate, we were the last to board the flight. Any hopes of an empty plane were soon dashed as we stepped inside the cabin. I shoe-horned myself into my seat and smiled apologetically at the woman beside me as Alec and I began to unpack what felt like a hundred bags.
Within minutes we were surrounded by bears, nappies and bottles and I strapped my indignant daughter into the seat belt. When Indi realised she could no longer crawl around she let out a blood curdling scream and the woman beside me lent over. I braced myself for a lecture, but instead she uttered the most amazing words: ‘I’m Vera. I’m an ex school teacher, would you like me to play with your children?’
And so it began our 23-hour flight via Bangkok. Thanks to Vera and countless episodes of The Simpsons, we managed to arrive in one piece.
Naively I believed the worst part of the journey was over, but I didn’t factor in the jet lag. We arrived at 6am, and we all managed to make it through the day with just a short snooze. Of course we were to enjoy the delights of sleeping en-masse and Alec and I spent ages hanging towels and sheets across the windows to block out the sunlight – which was still streaming into our room at 9pm.
For some reason people in the UK don’t seem to have heard of black-outs and have transparent blinds – I guess it’s because they’re so sun starved, but for us it was a total pain. Lucas has yet to grasp the concept that he can actually sleep when the sun is up. What felt like two minutes after falling asleep we were rudely woken by our son. Although we’d managed to shield the sun, the birds were chirping merrily outside and the church clock was chiming. ‘The sun come up,’ declared Lucas. ‘I wake up.’ It was 4am. ‘It’s too early to get up,’ Alec muttered. But it was too late – Lucas had roused Indi and the pair of them were ready for action. So we found ourselves going for a dawn walk so we wouldn’t disturb my in-laws.
Sadly this pattern carried on for three more days – although it was a half-hour later every day. But by the time we visited my grandma, we were the ones who looked as if we should be admitted to hospital. Thankfully a chat with Gran’s doctor revealed her cancer was slow growing and hadn’t spread. We spent a lovely week with her, but after we said goodbye the tempo changed. We whizzed around the country, ensuring Lucas and Indi didn’t kill each other in the back of the car, we even had some moments of happiness. Like the time we discovered the Next Clearance store or when Lucas found a vast playground like a wooden castle with a network of ramps and towers, complete with squirrels racing around the turrets.
We spent time in Bournemouth and even got sunburnt as we strolled down the pier and Alec and I managed to have two nights away – our first trip alone since Lucas had been born. We went to Bruges and got drunk on wheat beer and fat on waffles. But all too soon it was time to come home and we waved a teary farewell to everyone at the airport.
The flight home
Lucas literally jumped up and down when he realised there were two children behind us. Just as we took off, their parents offered to let Lucas sit beside their kids. They’d found spare seats in another section of the plane. I was delighted, until I realised they’d run off – leaving us in charge of four children. Lucas sat with his new found friends and Indi decided to stay awake to enjoy every moment. Lucas and his mate thought it was great fun to charge up and down the aisles and one time when Alec was in the bathroom and I was desperately rocking a screaming Indi the flight attendant marched Lucas back to his seat. ‘He ran into First Class,’ she told me. ‘He even tried to climb into a passenger’s bed.’ I was told to keep a closer eye on my son, but secretly I thought he had the right idea.
Minutes dragged and I tried not to look at the screen showing the hours left of our journey. When we finally touched down in Sydney the airport there were longer queues than on the M25. It took hours to collect our bags and then wait in the goods to declare line.
I’d packed a few jars of Marmite and bars of chocolate in our bags, but I guess we looked suspicious, as customs officers decided to search every single one of our cases. Indi sat in her pram screaming her head off, and one of the officers helpfully advised we put something in her mouth to suck. I didn’t trust myself to reply. Finally they discovered a box of Austrian chocolates my Uncle had given us. They were milk chocolates with a picture of kittens. ‘Is this pet food?’ one the officers growled. I laughed and then realised he wasn’t joking. He called someone else over and together they read the list of ingredients – suker, chocolat… and eventually two hours after we’d landed they waved us through customs.
Indi was still screaming so I unstrapped her and sat her on my lap. At that point I felt something warm on my trousers and a very bad smell. That’s when I discovered her daddy hadn’t put her nappy on properly and I was covered in poo – a fitting end to our trip!
Back home we’re a bit jaded – Lucas and Indi are bouncing off the ceiling all night and sleepy during the day – Alec picked up a stomach bug on the flight, so has taken a few days off work.
Our Buster bunny decided to dig himself a myriad of tunnels in our back garden. we let him in the house and he promptly left a few poos to register his disgust with our leaving him. He’s fine now. And I think we are.
- Set aside a specific time to pack – and then ask family and friends to babysit, so you can organise without distractions!
- Pack as little as you can so you don’t bust your baggage allowance on the return journey. You’re bound to be given gifts and you’ll want space for UK essentials such as “Marmite”.
- Make sure you pack enough jars of baby food and formula. Bring extra nappies, extra sets of clothes and as many wipes as you can pack into your hand luggage.
- Pack one bag for each child – and count your bags during your journey to make sure you haven’t left one behind (or a child!).
- Suss out your parking options beforehand – if possible ask a friend or family member to drop you off at the airport or book an airport shuttle bus
- Leave plenty of time to recover when you return home.