Stay calm and look fabulous: Holiday hassle and how to avoid it

My holiday road rage is directed inward – at my own failures and miscalculations – although I accept it will not feel like that if you are sitting next to me. Sometimes these episodes are all I remember of the trips in question: running out of petrol halfway across a suspension bridge; the satnav voice that switched to Italian midway through a journey; that hyena I nearly hit in the middle of a hailstorm.

None of these crises justified the meltdowns they inspired, but holiday driving fills me with a particular kind of steering-wheel-pounding anxiety. I haven’t cured it, but over the years I’ve learned to avoid it. Here’s how:

Forget about arriving on time
The first moments of operating a hire car in a new place are the most confusing – exiting the car park with the rear windscreen wipers going for no reason, while your passenger screams at you about the third exit on the approaching roundabout. The stress will be much worse if you have promised to turn up in time for lunch. Get there when you get there.

Use congestion time to take stock
I always think: if we weren’t stuck, we’d probably be lost. I know it’s possible to be both, but I try not to dwell on that.

Don’t follow anyone
Driving in convoy is a nightmare, especially when the lead car isn’t you. Everyone has a phone, and every destination has a postcode – just agree to meet in the town square at an appointed hour, give or take 30 minutes.

Allow plenty of leaving time
My worst holiday driving experiences are invariably on the final day, against the clock: last-minute errands, terrible weather, desperate detours to buy petrol. Never listen to anyone who says you have time for a swim before setting off, or to stop for a nice meal halfway.

Hand over the keys
There’s one sure way to avoid stressful holiday driving, and that’s not to drive. These days my wife does most of it – for me, it’s like being on holiday.

It’s like the dirty secret of holidays, just how much of a nightmare it is going away with under-twos: it’s exactly like being at home, except you don’t have any of your stuff and there’s nobody to help you. I have precisely no wisdom on this, apart from “it passes”.

After that, in the under-five bracket: for the journey, make a playlist, alternating between songs they know and new ones. As they get older, you can build it into a theme: a Hamilton playlist for the journey, then a Hamilton quiz night while you’re away. This only works if you really like musicals. I can more or less guarantee that if one of your kids loves musicals, the other will hate them.

There’s a lot of untenanted time on a journey where the whole family defaults to mindless phone activity, one parent on Twitter, one on a news site, one kid on Subway Surfer, one on Animal Crossing. It’s unavoidable, but you can avoid games that put people in a bad mood (Pokémon Go).

I used to run endless sweepstakes – what minute will the bus arrive, whose bag will come out first, etc. That was great when 10p was a big deal. After that it got quite expensive.

Do a treasure hunt on the first day, most kids will say yes to this until they reach the age when they say no to everything. The disorientation of being in a new place can make kids regress a bit, or become truculent to regain some control, and that’s annoying. At the same time, some carnivalesque disruption – having your meals in reverse order, banning hair brushing for a day – is quite fun.

Introduce the world of card play in this order: four to eight, three card brag; eight to 12, black maria; 12 to 15, poker; 15+, bridge or, if they just don’t have the smarts, bezique.

If you haven’t been on holiday in two years, the temptation to channel your overexcitement into overpacking is very real. But there is nothing relaxing about a suitcase that threatens to split its seams at the station, and squashing a just-in-case bag of spare wellies on to a backseat along with three fractious children is not conducive to motorway harmony.

So if it’s your first beach trip in an age, streamline your wardrobe into neutral colours that all work together and can be worn several times. If, on the other hand, you had to swap your trip of a lifetime to the Maldives for a walking holiday in the Malverns, be realistic and leave the pool lilo for next year. Wherever you’re going, cross-check the weather forecast on different sites, and pack accordingly, remembering that evenings are almost always chillier than you expect.

If you are away for longer than five days, a linen shirt that looks nice crinkled is handy: you can rinse it out after first wear and wear it again. Much more bang for your buck than the go-anywhere white T-shirt which only looks smart for about 10 minutes when box-fresh and ironed. Instead of three different sweaters, take three light layers that can be worn together – a sweatshirt, a hoodie, and a lightweight casual blazer is perfect. (Wear two out of three on the journey, and pack the third.)

If you are sharing a villa or apartment with friends, then it’s polite to take pyjamas even if you would normally stroll to the kettle in your pants for your first cup of tea. On a campsite, plastic sliders for the showers are essential. For going-out-for-dinner dressy bits, a few different earrings is a smarter bet than a selection of shoes.

Don’t be tempted to take jeans – which are as useless on holiday as they are essential in real life – they are too hot in nice weather, too soggy in bad weather, and guaranteed to weigh down your case. And wherever you are going, leave the sweatpants at home.

The making of a holiday playlist becomes a serious business only for parents with children aged between six and 16. If your kids are very young you’re probably going to have to play whatever they want to keep the peace. When my eldest daughter was a toddler, every family driving holiday was accompanied by US singer-songwriter Jack Johnson’s soundtrack to the cartoon Curious George, on endless repeat.

It became quite a challenging listen after a few hours in the car, but in conjunction with an endless supply of Marmite sandwiches, Frubes and Pom-Bears, it kept her quiet and for that I will be forever in Jack Johnson’s debt.

My kids are now 11 and 15, and the only solid rule for a holiday playlist is democracy. Everyone takes it in turn to pick a track. No exceptions: the partner or child who feigns indifference now isn’t going to be so blithely laissez-faire about what you’re listening to when the traffic jam enters its second hour of stasis, or the rain bounces off the window of your Airbbnb for the fourth day on the trot.

When making your choices, rein your own tastes in. This isn’t the moment to introduce your family to Ascension by John Coltrane or Scott Walker’s latter-day work: think very carefully about what your more outre musical passions might sound like in the aforementioned traffic jam, when the sibling entente has broken down and warfare has erupted on the back seat.

If this all sounds like a miserable compromise, it won’t necessarily turn out that way. However much you may rue some of your kids’ decisions about what to play, its position as the soundtrack to some – hopefully – delightful family memories can subsequently lend the most unlikely music a lovely, rosy glow of nostalgia. Having spent the intervening decade avoiding Jack Johnson’s Curious George soundtrack at all costs, I heard it again a few weeks ago. It had nearly reduced me to tears in the past, and it nearly did so again, but in a completely different way.

A picnic is the first thing on my packing list; exciting as it is to be on the move again, I haven’t missed the frantic pre-boarding dash around the terminal that always terminates at an expensive sandwich. It’s also a good way to use up any last odds and ends in the fridge, though don’t be a martyr to this – if you wouldn’t fancy a vindaloo and pesto wrap at home, eating it in a warm car is unlikely to change your mind.

Banish pretty jars of salad from your mind – the key to success here is to keep it simple. Pick robust foods with minimal packaging that can be eaten with your hands.

Scotch eggs, individual pies (pasties, empanadas, samosas, etc), frittatas, sandwiches and rolls all fit the bill, though for a more balanced menu, whole carrots, baby courgettes and cherry tomatoes are much easier to eat on the go than a leafy salad, and hardy apples a safer bet than squishy berries or sticky stone or citrus fruits. (I once temporarily blinded the man opposite while peeling a particularly juicy tangerine on a train.)

Rather than faffing around with cool bags and ice packs, go for fillings that taste better at room temperature, such as cheese, cured meats, hummus and roasted vegetables; in warm weather you might replace butter or mayonnaise in sandwiches with a sauce or chutney. Avoid chocolate at all costs if there’s any possibility it might melt – substitute flapjacks, sweets or dried fruit.

And lastly, if you’re with kids (or messy eaters like me), don’t forget the biodegradable wet wipes.

A non-drying hand sanitiser is always important when travelling, but now more than ever. Many “natural sanitisers” from beauty brands have insufficient alcohol to be effective against bacteria and viruses, however, so my weapon of choice is Sterileeze, which packs a punch without stripping the skin, and is affordable.

Mosquito spray and a little clicker to help numb an associated itching are essentials – especially if, like me, you have a tendency to be ravaged by insects. Choose a spray containing Deet and bring plenty. The same is true of sunscreen – a single tube will not serve a family or even a couple for more than a few days (if it does, you’re not wearing enough). I take a broad spectrum factor 50 for my face, and a more liquid but equally high protection for my body. Aftersun isn’t necessary if you have a nice body lotion. Don’t forget your feet! I always spot burnt, bite-covered feet on holiday and they can ruin your time.

You will almost certainly wear the same four or five items of makeup, if anything at all, so don’t bother packing a full face worth of products that may melt and spoil. I’d take a high-factor tinted moisturiser like IT Cosmetics CC Cream SPF50 (available in a travel size) to apply over sunscreen, a multi-use cream bronzer like Fenty’s Cheeks Out Freestyle Cream Bronzer, which doubles up as an eyeshadow; a non-smudging mascara like Clinique Lash Power, and a 2-in-1 lip and cheek colour, like Tower28’s BeachPlease.

Nail polish will become thick and sticky and could smash in your case, so support your local beauty therapist by booking a mani and pedi ahead of your trip – a gel polish like Shellac should see you through a fortnight without chips.

It’s not just what you pack, of course – it’s the way you pack it. Stretch Sellotape over your shampoo and sunscreen caps and place in a wipe-clean toiletries case, to protect your clothing from leaks. Always have whatever you need for a day in a separate bag from your luggage, in case it gets lost. Mine includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, small cleanser, facial sunscreen, tampons and medication – that way, I can always get by and not waste a minute of my break.

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