Dad packing isn’t pretty. In fact, it can be brutal: enforcing teddy quotas and doll embargoes is never going to endear you to your kids, but — as when dealing with bedtime curfew breaches or the fourth consecutive hour of CBeebies — you have to be ruthless.
I don’t like to boast, but when it comes to ‘dad packing’, I’m the equivalent of a black belt. After an intensive, five-year training course I’m now almost at the stage where we can go on a trip without forgetting something — you always forget something.
Of course, some trips are easier to pack for than others — the staycation is the beginner slope. The arrival of children in your life tends to coincide with the exchange of the sleek, sporty car you always wanted for an oversized MPV. Once you’ve swallowed your pride and embraced your dadmobile, you begin to appreciate its packing potential. The only luggage restriction is how good you are at cramming. Say goodbye to matching look-at-me luggage and hello to the shapeless holdall. Still not enough space? Top up with plastic carriers — I’m fond of Ocado’s. If mum has an extended footwear selection to accommodate, or the kids have a Power Rangers army (supported by a Hello Kitty division) to garrison, I’ll merrily sling it all into as many bags as the car can carry.
For me, the greatest advantage of the iPad is its versatility as a portable child-entertainment device. Plus, you can now get hold of an invaluable contraption that fixes your tablet to the back of the headrest and — voila! — the back seat is a mobile cinema. Not only does it keep them quiet, but, since watching TV at eye level supposedly stops car sickness, you protect the upholstery as well. OK, so there’s a shade of parental irresponsibility in massively exceeding the government’s recommended TV viewing guidelines, but it’s worth it: you can ditch the earplugs (previously an antidote to in-car tantrums), and bin that grotty towel you didn’t mind getting covered in sick.
If your kids are under three (optimum iPad starting age, as they’re now capable of wearing headphones without eating them), hang in there; I promise you’ll make it through and road trips will become less like being trapped in a tank with a vomiting parrot. My wife and I now see car journeys as quality time together. We can talk, admire the scenery and listen to our music instead of DJ Peppa Pig’s playlist. Throw in a heated seat, and I’d go so far as to say that family road travel has become indulgent.
Air travel is a whole other world of pain. Packing has to get smarter, leaner and — your ultimate goal — lighter. For starters, there are those excess-luggage charges certain fluorescent-coloured airlines inflict on you if you slip even half an ounce over the limit. Tip: buy digital luggage scales so you don’t have to hold up the check-in queue, unzip in public, and make your kids watch while you bin their Lego train set. But it’s not just to save money, it’s also to save you muscle strain. It’s one of the unwritten rules of parenting: dads must carry everything. So, unless you’re a seasoned Sherpa, ensure everything has wheels.
Trust me, the only system that works for plane packing is ruthless dictatorship. My advice is to explain to your wife and kids your word is law and all dissent will be crushed without mercy. After all, you’re the luggage-laden human camel who will be taking on even more freight when the little darlings ditch their Trunkis and throw a small tantrum. Hell, you’ll probably have to carry the kids too.
Hand luggage is a different story. This should be 80% distractions, diversions, entertainments — anything that makes withering glances from your fellow passengers less likely: stickers, books, sticker-books, toys, games that can be played on a fold-down table the size of a hankie. The other 20% comprises wipes, spare clothes for the inevitable spillages, and more wipes. Tip: if you’ve children of similar sizes and different genders, make sure they’re unisex.
Air pressure is the enemy here, so stash boiled sweets to quell the ear-popping screams. My four-year-old must suffer badly — he requires five or six sweets to relieve the symptoms. At least that’s what he says, but I don’t mind being manipulated by a pre-schooler if it means a peaceful flight.
On arrival, it’s shades and flip-flops (Crocs for the kids) that get everyone in the holiday mood before you tackle the rental-car queue. Packing Dad’s job is now over; if the kids kick off during our trip, well — I’m on holiday; I can always pretend they’re someone else’s.
Published in the Summer 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family