The ferry never changes.
The familiar smell of exhausts as engines are switched off and families squeeze between rows of roof-box-topped cars to reach the entry doors.
The staff with genuine smiles waiting to greet us and help tiny children clamber up the steep steps.
The sense of relief when we emerge on the fifth floor and spill out into the spacious foyer, armed with cabin keys and a giddy sense that the holiday has started.
For the last four years, we’ve taken the same ferry from Rosslare to France, and some journeys have been far more successful than others.
This isn’t down to the ferry – indeed the Oscar Wilde doesn’t change one little bit year to year, and thank goodness – I think we’d faint if everything wasn’t exactly as we’d left it the previous year. Imagine if the soft-play area became a library! Or the restaurant became a KFC!
But no, it never changes – it is we who change. Or at least the number of and ages of our children change, and that can have a big impact on the journey.
2012 was our first time travelling with three kids, and it was unexpectedly easy – the baby was only six months old, so feeding on the go, being carried everywhere in my trusty Ergo, not yet on solids, not yet able to climb down stairs on his own and split his lip, as he did a year later.
So yes, travelling by ferry with small kids can be challenging but with a bit of preparation and some planning it can be great – it really does become part of the holiday.
Here are my tips, gleaned from our eight trips on the ferry:
1. Cabin without a window
It costs a little more to get a cabin with a window, and it is lovely to be able to look out at the sea, but if you don’t want to pay the extra, one major advantage of a windowless room is how late the kids sleep the next morning – it feels like the middle of the night at 9am so even the earliest of early-birds do a little better than usual.
2. Water and snacks
We bring a bottle of water for the cabin and also snacks for the kids – food on board can be a little expensive. I went to the restaurant to buy some crackers for Sam on our last trip, to find that a pack of two Jacobs cream crackers was €1.15. That’s 75 cents a cracker. So maybe bring your own crackers. But to be fair, there’s plenty of choice on board if you don’t mind paying, and it’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food.
3. Dinner in the family restaurant
Like the snacks, dinner can be pricey, even in the not-so-posh restaurant. The eatery on the Oscar Wilde that most parents are familiar with is The Left Bank – it’s a self-service affair, ideal for families with small kids.
It’s not the kind of place that makes you feel uncomfortable if your child knocks over a chair or throws pasta on the floor or climbs up on the counter or plays a game of hide-and-seek under other guests’ tables (I can’t tell you how I know all of this…)
I would recommend asking for what you want even if that means looking for smaller portions or going off-menu. The children’s meals are large, so if your kids are small, just get one between two.
We grown-ups had pitta bread filled with chicken and salad the last time – they were €10.35 each and the kids shared two bowls of pasta between three. You could have your substantial meal earlier in the day before boarding (try Café Lily attached to Supervalue just before you reach the port in Rosslare – friendliest staff ever, who also don’t seem to mind the hide-and-seek games).
4. Disco kids
Check the times for the kids’ entertainment and do go along – on the Oscar Wilde, there’s a treasure hunt, a magician and a kid’s disco during Summer months. We had to fib about the whereabouts of the magician on our outgoing trip a few weeks ago (“I think he’s on holidays himself!”) after we arrived far too late to catch the show. Kids love the entertainment and hey, anything that tires them out is a good thing when everyone will be sleeping in such close quarters.
5. Staying up late (five get over-excited … )
After one disastrous trip where I let the girls drink a load of sugary drinks then tried to put them to bed at 8 o’clock, we now let them stay out late playing in the various kid-zones, after the kid’s entertainment has finished.
Once we’re sure they’re absolutely shattered, we whisk them down to the cabin and tell them they are allowed to read their books as late as they want as a special treat but they’re not allowed to talk, as we need the baby to go to sleep.
On our recent trip, the two girls played a silent game of Rock Paper Scissors across the room while I was getting the baby to sleep, and bless them, they did it without making a sound. They then fell fast asleep for ten hours straight – this never happens at home. I might start bringing them out to amusement arcades and discos every night.
6. Treat yourself to some wine
We usually get some quarter bottles of wine and glasses from the bar so that we can have a sneaky tipple in the cabin after the kids drop off to sleep. Well they say the holiday starts once you get on board.
And with small travelling companions, this glass of wine in a darkened cabin really is the extent of your night-life. So sip slowly, enjoy, and don’t topple off the ladder getting up to that top bunk.
All in all, it’s a super way to travel – bring what you like, eat, sleep and play as you wish, buy some duty free, watch a movie in the cinema, or go to the evening entertainment in the bar.
Or even go to the posh restaurant with the table-clothes and the menus – just make sure to come back and tell me what it’s like…
Lots of people have asked me if you can bring your own food on board: you can definitely bring food that you can eat in the common areas or your cabin. The bars have signs saying only food and drink bought on the premises can be consumed there. I haven’t seen a similar sign in the above-mentioned canteen-style restaurant, and we have in the past brought our own cereal for the kids, and bought breakfast for ourselves. This year, I brought my own Marks and Spencer salad and had it in the restaurant while the rest of the family had the food we bought there, and nobody paid any attention. We had paid €28 for a bowl of pasta, a small salad and one portion of lasagne. So, you know, bearing in mind it’s very average food and a self-service restaurant, I felt we’d paid our dues….
What I’m saying is, I’m not sure you’re allowed but I don’t think you get thrown off the boat for it 🙂