How to Travel Australia with Kids

This month sees the publication of 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go).    You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, moving at a frenetic pace that very nearly did all of us in.  Family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast.   But we discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two.   To celebrate the launch of the new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them.

75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (Published by Affirm Press)
  • There Are No Gurus

With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper).   Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Flying

If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.

  • Driving

We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?”   Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.

  • Packing

Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.

  • Eating

The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips.   Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get.    Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.

  • Accommodation

Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do.   Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.

  • Activities

I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences.   You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia.   Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT),   being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis).   But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.

Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.

You can buy 75 Must-See Places To Take The Kids at Booktopia and Dymocks. 


Welcome to The Great Australian Bucket List

Western Australia, 2005

Hello, G’Day!

After so many miles, misadventures and meat pies, I’m delighted to be launching The Great Australian Bucket List at last. If you’re reading this blog post, you might be wondering what on Earth this is all about, so I thought it best to use this opportunity to explain:

  • it is a beautiful and inspiring book (yes, an actual book printed on actual paper) about my personal journey to discover and tick off the most unique experiences Down Under.
  • it is a website to support that book with the kind of information books used to be good for but that websites do so much better, such as updated practical information, videos, interactive features and galleries.
  • it is not a travel agency.
  • it is not a dating site.
  • it is not trying to sell you anything, other than a more enjoyable existence, and perhaps, a laugh or two.

It all began way back in 2005, when I set off around the world on a backpacking adventure funded by a $20,000 insurance settlement, the result of a broken kneecap and the decision of an unlicensed driver to not pay attention to big red signs that say STOP.  I learned many amazing things on this journey, and you can watch me talk about some of them here:

You see, you can’t do that in print. But you know what you can do in a book?
Tell stories. Inspire. Capture imaginations. And that’s what I started to do, writing long-form essays about my crazy trip to five continents. These were condensed into shorter essays for a local newspaper in Vancouver (where I live) and apparently, lots of people liked it. This led to stories being published in newspapers all over the world, and assignments to keep travelling. I never set out to become a travel writer, but I was rather pleased that I did.

The biggest misconception is that travel writing is a living, when in fact, it is a lifestyle. Low pay, long hours, crazy deadlines, crazier editors feeling the squeeze, constant change, relationship difficulties, sleep deprivation…all worth it, of course, but not quite the dream job everyone thinks it is. They were making TV shows about weird professions, and I thought travel writing is one of them, so I pitched an idea, and 7 months later found myself in front of the camera filming a 40 part series in 36 countries that was broadcast by National Geographic and Travel Channel in over 100 countries and 21 languages.

Using the wonders of digital technology, you can see what Word Travels was all about here. And yes, I am about to violate a cow.

This is when I first started thinking about bucket lists, because mine was flowing over. Tick one item off, another six more popped up. When the show wrapped, I decided to focus on my adopted home of Canada, and spent 3 years travelling everywhere to discover The Great Canadian Bucket List. The resulting book smashed it like an avocado in a hipster cafe. So I wrote another, The Great Global Bucket List, which didn’t do too badly either. And then I was approached to bring my fevered curiosity to Australia (along with my young kids, just plain fevered). And here we are.

I first visited Australia on my first big journey in 2005. I spent a month visiting relatives in Sydney, chasing romance in Western Australia, drinking with friends in Melbourne, and dodging roadkill along the east coast of Tasmania. There was so much to see and do, and too little time and money to see or do it. I have revisited the country several times since, to dive the Barrier Reef, to tick off my first 10K at the Melbourne Marathon. Even if you live in a country, very few people get the opportunity to fully explore it, to take on the Big Lap. Australia has a bounty of nature and history, culture and adventure, sport and food. I focused on the experiences you simply cannot do anywhere else in the world, the unique, the one-of-a-kind, and while I’m proud of how much we managed to do, I’m fully aware there’s still so much I didn’t get to. That’s OK. Travel is a intensely personal, life is not a race, and nobody should be judging your interests and accomplishments. There’s still time. Until one day, there isn’t. In the meantime, I hope readers and visitors recognize the purpose of The Great Australian Bucket List: it’s simply a platform to inspire, inform and entertain travellers about Australia, and a celebration of the very best experiences Down Under.

On that note, take a look around. Every month I’ll be updating the Bucket List with new stories, and if you have some of your own and don’t mind sharing them, send them along so I can post them here too. This is, after all, a national bucket list, one that is eager to enlighten everyone from kids to grey nomads. Thanks for joining me on yet another ride-of-a-lifetime.