Our daughter was 7 months old when we decided to book our first family long-haul holiday. We live in Eastbourne and the furthest we’d travelled with her was Southampton, so it felt like a huge decision! We went back and forth deciding whether to book it, asking ourselves all kinds of questions.
Was Freya too young for a long haul flight? How would we cope with her on the flight and in the heat? What would a holiday with a 9-month-old baby look like? In the end, we decided to be brave and just book something.
We wanted some winter sun and were planning the trip for February, but this meant we had limited long-haul destinations to choose from. We decided on the USA, mainly due to the fact we didn’t have to worry about vaccinations for infections not common in the UK, we knew it was safe regarding access to hospitals and there were no language barriers to break down.
We sound like such overly cautious parents, but having been parents for just seven months, everything was brand new. We were still getting used to managing parenthood in our familiar surroundings, never mind a whole different country!
Florida seemed like the perfect choice for us because the average temperature in February is around 22C. We weren't going to head to the theme parks, as Freya would be far too young to appreciate them. After doing lots of research, we settled on the West Coast of Florida - Clearwater Beach.
We usually do road trip-style holidays, packing in as much as possible and rarely staying somewhere for more than a couple of nights. We knew this was still possible, but it would have meant a lot of time spent packing, unpacking and settling into each new hotel. In the end, we decided to go slower, staying in Clearwater Beach for 7 nights, but spending the arrival and departure nights close to the airport in Orlando.
All the thinking and planning for the trip worked out perfectly for us. We loved having a home-from-home in Clearwater Beach, settling into a mini holiday routine for those seven nights. We made lots of trips out to explore the area, but we never travelled too far in the car. We had plenty of time by the hotel pool and enjoyed all sorts of walks along the beach and down to the marina. It was a very relaxing holiday for both of us, even though we were caring for our little one.
We booked direct flights from London Gatwick to Orlando, so that we didn’t have to worry about chopping and changing with a baby. After a bit of research, we chose Virgin Atlantic. They weren’t the cheapest flights on offer, but they offer excellent services for children and infants – and this made all the difference. The consultants at Travel Nation can tell you what services each airline provides for infants and children - it’s well worth it.
At the time of booking, we asked for a bassinet for Freya, so that she had somewhere to sleep. We also requested baby meals. These are all requests that you need to make to your travel agent when you're booking your flights. It’s important to note that you aren’t 100% guaranteed a bassinet, even if it this is confirmed at point of booking. At check-in, the bassinets are allocated on a first come first serve basis, and they take the infant's age into account.
We didn’t check in online, so we got to the airport early, and our bassinet was confirmed when we checked in (phew). This was the case for both our flights out to Florida and home again. The outbound flight to Florida from the UK is usually a day flight, and it worked like a dream with Freya’s napping schedule. She napped en route to the airport and then we took advantage of Gatwick Airport’s children's play area so that she could have a crawl before we boarded. She then napped after take-off, so we managed to eat our meal without interruption. When she woke up, she was in good spirits and entertaining our fellow passengers - we were really counting our blessings!
On the way back from the USA, you will find it is normally a night flight. Again, this worked well for Freya and for us. We gave her dinner before boarding and got her all ready for bed, so once we had taken off, we put her straight down to sleep. She slept for most of the flight, and we managed to sneak in some shut-eye too. Perfect.
We landed in Orlando at about 6pm and we'd pre-booked a rental car to collect from the terminal. Remember that you'll need to request an infant seat at the time of booking your rental car. There’s usually a charge for this, but it will depend on your car hire company, so it's worth asking when you make your reservation.
We did need a hand putting the car seat in properly, but the Avis rep was really helpful. Also, be sure you have a Sat Nav organised in advance - it makes life so much easier (and safer) when you arrive after a long-haul flight and need to navigate the road in the dark.
Our hotel was just a 5-minute drive from the airport terminal. By the time we got Freya settled into the car seat, she was fast asleep. She did wake very early the next morning, we but we managed to keep her night and day routine under wraps, so the jet lag wasn’t too bad for any of us.
The bright side to early wake-up calls from your little one is that you get out and about before the crowds! Our first stop was IHOP (International House of Pancakes) for some classic American eggs, bacon and pancakes. Freya loved all the attention from the waitresses.
Clearwater Beach is about a 3-hour drive from Orlando. For us, the trip was relatively easy, with few hold-ups along the way. We got lucky because Freya slept for most of the journey, catching up on her short night’s sleep.
The hotel in Clearwater was great and we chose a suite so that we had a kitchen and lounge area all to ourselves. This isn’t something we wouldn’t have thought about pre-Freya, but we wanted space away from the bedroom so that we could enjoy an evening together whilst she was asleep. It meant that we could buy food and cook breakfast or lunch, depending on when we were hanging around the hotel. I would definitely recommend trying to find this type of accommodation when taking a baby on holiday. It means that you don’t have to whisper and tip-toe around, so you get a holiday of your own too.
We set off quite early from Clearwater Beach to visit the Kennedy Space Centre. It’s about an hour from Orlando, so we had a good 3-4 hour drive to get there from Clearwater. It’s definitely worth a visit and very easy to do with a baby. Everything is easily accessible with a pram and Freya loved the bus tour out to the various launch pads.
After a full day at the Space Centre, we headed for our hotel on international drive. We did think about booking a late checkout, as our flight home wasn’t until 8pm but in the end, we decided to take advantage of our last day. We went to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum (a bit of fun to kill some time) and had a long, lazy lunch before heading to the airport.
1. When booking the hotels make sure you request a cot in the room. This can be called a pack’n’play (same as a UK travel cot). You may need to remind reception at check-in that this was a request, as the cot wasn’t always in the room ready for us.
2. Also, consider getting to and from the airport. We drove the car from the airport and back again and we did a valet parking service so that we were right in the terminal. It was brilliant, it didn’t add too much cost to the parking and it meant we didn’t have to lug both our baggage and the pram onto buses or trains.
3. Take out travel insurance out as soon as you make any arrangements. This is really important. The cancellation part of your travel insurance cover starts as soon as you purchase the insurance policy, so if chicken pox (or anything else that might prevent you from travelling) should strike, at least your money is protected.
Take a look through our long-haul family holidays ideas, all geared towards making life easy and fun for both you and the kids. These trips are all totally customisable and based on holidays that our consultants have taken with their own families.
For more, give us a call on +44 1273320580 or contact us by email and we'll get straight back to you.