The unexpected joys of travelling overseas with a toddler

If you can overcome the challenges like carting all their gear around and losing a bit of freedom, holidaying with an 18-month-old doesn’t have to be a disaster.

Father With Little Child Outdoor In A Mountains

When my wife suggested an overseas holiday with our toddler I thought it was a brilliant idea. Damn the expense; who cares about destroying the routine the kid had finally settled into. If it meant our precious child could experience the joys of international travel. It wouldn’t be money down the drain.

Then I learnt she wanted me to go along as well. Suddenly it seemed like a terrible idea. Taking a toddler to the park is a production. Heading overseas with one would be a total shit show (sometimes literally).

My wife was pushing for a driving trip around Spain. We’d been there more than ten years ago: before our marriage, before the mortgage, before the baby. There were long nights in cosy bars, crushing hangovers, missed flights, and only a few arguments. In short, it was awesome.

I was sure returning with our 18-month-old son would be miserable by comparison. So for once I was glad to be in the wrong, as it turned out to be one of the best holidays we’ve ever had.

Of course it wasn’t all sangria and siestas. On the flight over I had one hand on the doorhandle of the emergency exit. Our teething toddler grizzled from take-off till landing and we spent hours walking the aisles trying (and failing) to settle him.

But once we landed in Madrid, he helped us see a side of the city we didn’t expect. When he woke before dawn, jetlagged and jumping out of his skin, he couldn’t be contained by his travel cot, so I took him out to the streets.

We walked through narrow cobbled lanes, where the last of the late-night revellers argued outside bars or exchanged kisses on corners. I envied their freedom but not their hangovers.

Plaza Mayor, usually crowded with tourists, was empty but for a few pigeons, which the kid chased in circles as the sun rose. We stopped for coffee and churros at a nearby cafe where shift workers and coppers shot the breeze about last night’s football.

Come evening we joined locals in the Parque del Buen Retiro, strolling through gardens that had just exploded into flower and down avenues where buskers and breakdancers entertained the crowds.

Travelling with a toddler who wouldn’t be holed up in a hotel room, we saw the life of the city with all its oddities – like an old man who stopped me in a market, asked if I spoke English, then handed me his mobile. “Tell her Hitler killed my parents,” he said. Unfortunately, he wanted me to tell “her” in Spanish.

Our toddler’s short attention span paid dividends in galleries and museums, too. “He’s getting a bit restless,” I would say, before escaping another Picasso exhibition to take him to a bar.

That’s one of the great things about a holiday in Spain: no one has a problem with a kid in a bar or restaurant. Most bar staff were keen to serve him a slice of cake or help settle him.

In a basement bar in Barcelona, where locals lingered and other tourists were given the bum’s rush, our kid was fussed over and fed croquetas de jamón so we could enjoy ourselves for a few hours.

In the white-walled town of Gaucin he won over a barmaid who kept him busy eating breadsticks while we downed beers and got the inside word on the local attractions.

Our toddler also slowed down the pace of our travel. On previous road trips we took pride in clocking up thousands of kays. All those hours stuck together in a car led to tensions – more than once I’d said, “If you want I can get out here and we can meet again at the airport”.

This time we planned the trip so our kid could nap in the car and we actually enjoyed the shorter drives along the coast, over mountain ranges and among olive groves.

Staying in small towns for a few days, we settled into the rhythm of the place. It was a more relaxing holiday than one where you tick off every tourist site and end up remembering none.

And if I’m honest, one unexpected bonus of travelling with my wife and kid was getting away from them both. Travelling with a partner, you can feel obliged to do every single thing together.

With a toddler it often made sense to fly solo while the other half held down the fort.

In Cordoba I looked after the kid while my wife wandered the ancient streets, then spent a few hours exploring the town myself.

I wound up having a cracking night, joining cheering Spaniards in a packed bar, where we watched Messi belt a few balls into the back of the net for Barcelona.

On every stop during our trip, our kid took in his new surrounds with a wide-eyed wonder that was infectious. Language was no barrier to kicking a ball with local kids or splashing in the shallows at the beach.

Once we got home it was weeks until he settled into his routine, but the more important thing is that my wife and I had broken free of our own parenting routine.

It helped us rediscover how much we enjoy travelling together – and reminded us that having a kid doesn’t mean completely sacrificing your independence.

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