10 Tips for Traveling With Kids

It seems almost impossible to believe that I’ve been traveling with kids for nearly twenty years. From newborn babies to teens with one foot out the door. From local weekend getaways, to two week trips, to packing kids along on corporate “work” trips, to long-term slow travel over a number of years.

  • I’ve flown alone with three kids under six, pregnant with a fourth.
  • I’ve backpacked with a tribe.
  • I’ve done all night bus trips with a toddler and a nursling, solo.
  • I’ve road tripped with 11 kids under 15, tag team with a girlfriend.
  • We’ve bicycled, RV’d, flown, road tripped, camped, walked, bused, trained, ferried… you name it.

We’ve traveled alone, just our “little” family, we’ve traveled with grandparents, with friends, with a group of seven other large families to Washington DC for a week, with strangers, and on just about everything but a cruise ship or a packaged tour (we’ll add those this year!)

Over the past 19 years of (fairly intensive) travel, we’ve found our groove, weathered more than a couple of storm and discovered a few “tricks” that might help some other family as they test the waters and travel with their kids

Start Early

Take an extra lap around the block on your way home from the hospital with your little one and introduce the concept of “taking the scenic route!” The earlier you make a habit of traveling, even locally for day trips, the easier it will be for your child to take off on bigger adventures with an intrepid spirit. Ezra, our fourth, had his feet dipped in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the warm waters of the coast of two Hawaiian islands before he was seven months old.

If your babies get comfortable on the move, your toddlers and teens will take it in stride.

Unplug

One big concern a lot of parents seem to have is what they’ll “do” with their kids in the car, on the plane, or on the road (away from entertainment devices) I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you take what study after study is indicating regarding the detrimental effects of screen time on young children and unplug your kids. At home, and abroad, especially when they are little.

The ensuing development of the ability to self entertain, be creative and enjoy the simpler things will pay off in spades when you’re in Cambodia with a stick and a ball as the extent of the “entertainment” for your child. The other big benefit of making screen time a treat instead of the norm is that it works beautifully as a “Hail Mary” diversion when everything is going to hell in a hand basket at a particularly bad moment (on a plane, for example!)

I know people are going to leave fifteen exceptions and reasons why I’m wrong about this in the comments. Feel free; I’m open to discussion. I’m just saying that when we saw a kid playing his gameboy in the colosseum at Rome because he was so tethered to a device that he couldn’t “be” where he was and really see it, well, that’s a problem, and it’s not an isolated one. People have remarked on our kids’ contentment and ability to just be cool, and figure out how to have a good time anywhere and everywhere.

I really believe an unplugged early childhood is one of the keys.

Practice

Hannah acted like a complete fool once in a doctor’s office when she was about three. She was all over that room like a wild monkey: refused to sit, wanted to lick every germ covered toy, screamed like a little monster and I was completely freaked out. I could NOT control that kid to save my life. My mentor mom just giggled when I told her the story, completely at a loss as to what I could have done differently.

“Well,” she said, “Had you practiced for the doctor’s office? You can’t expect her to magically know what to do in that situation if you haven’t practiced at home.”

It was a “DUH!” moment. Obviously. So simple. Why didn’t I think of that.

A good 2/3 of what frustrates us as parents traveling with kids can be easily avoided by adhering to the 7 P’s (proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance) and practicing with our kids at home.

Things to practice:

  • Sitting quietly and enjoying a book
  • Playing finger games
  • Making a game out of holding feet very still (so as not to kick the seat ahead of you)
  • Verbal manners
  • Passing through an airport security check (use a door frame and a paper towel tube for a “wand”)
  • Sleeping in weird places (put a mattress on the floor in the living room, set up a tent in the back yard)
  • Taking a “no thank you bite” of weird looking food
  • Waiting with a happy heart

I’m sure you can think of other things… practice them in a stress free, fun environment instead of expecting them to magically know when you’re all under the gun.

Pack Less

Seriously. Pack. Less. Rent baby gear when you get there. Buy stuff at resale shops and donate it later. Anything you need for kids you can find anywhere that kids live… which is everywhere. Excess gear and the necessity of hauling it around is the biggest joy-sucker I know of in family travel.

If you have a pack rat, that’s okay, let him carry his own gear. It’s a self teaching moment!

Adjust Expectations

You’ve been reading blogs. You have this glossy magazine spread idea of what family travel is going to be like. Perpetual vacation. Everyone smiling. Endless relaxing family time. Non-stop adventure and joyful bonding moments. Deep philosophical conversations about the finer points of art, architecture and religion as you sweep through Europe on a cloud with an epic soundtrack of orchestral music playing in the background. Erm. No. Get a grip. Read this. And then this. Now this. Okay, now we can discuss the realities:

  • Traveling with kids is not like traveling alone in your twenties
  • Traveling with kids is not like that summer riding buses across the continent with your lover.
  • Traveling with kids is not like the Discovery Channel.

Traveling with kids is hard work.

It’s very worth it, but it’s work. Accept that. You might get to see the L’Ouvre, but you won’t be spending 8 hours in blissful silence with your head bowed at the feet of the masters.

You’ll be trying to find a place to have your picnic, scoping out where the toilets are, reminding Jr. fifty times not to stamp his feet so loud that the whole danged Egyptian room echos, and repeating, ad nauseum, the admonition not to touch the Monets, no matter how enraptured he is with the colours and style. You’ll need to take nap time and bed time and dietary patterns into consideration. You won’t be out at Parisian restaurants until the wee hours too often, and you’ll be considerably more focused on locating the city parks than you ever have been in your life.

These aren’t bad things, they’re just different things and the parent who enjoys the journey most is the one who learns to let go of *her* expectations and go with the flow. This takes practice. Be gentle with yourself.

Slow Down

Please, for the love of your children, slow down. Toddlers do not like to be dragged through three museums in one day and sleep in a different hotel bed every night. They get cranky. (Heck, I get cranky!) If all you have is two weeks, then see two cities in Europe, not six and four countries. Plan a really fun train ride between them.

Don’t take off on a one year “round the world” with a plan for 20 countries and five continents.

Just don’t. Be where you are. Spend enough time to really see. Look through your children’s eyes. Find parks to be as much a cultural experience as museum halls. Spend many days, to weeks, to months even in one place. Give your kids time to adjust, to absorb, to enjoy. Kids can’t turn that on at the flip of a switch. They enjoy when they are safe and secure feeling, when their world is ordered well, when they are well rested, when they sense that you’re settled in your soul, when all of their needs are met and they’re not being pushed too much. It’s hard to attend to all of that when you’re rushing.

Apply Strategy

My Dad is famous for saying, when we come up against a brick wall, “Well, we’ll just have to apply strategy to the situation.” When traveling with kids, applying strategy means outsmarting the system and working around the margins.

When our kids were tiny this meant road tripping the 12 hours to Canada overnight instead of during the day when it was harder on them. We never booked a flight that would interfere with nap time (the other fliers would not have appreciated our presence).

Even now with teens who are incredibly travel savvy we order our days with our family routines in mind: Meal times remain consistent, we rarely push for an early morning start, mornings are for work and school, afternoons are for touring and adventures. Ezra really needs to be in bed by 8:30 or by day three he’s less capable of being cool under pressure. Hannah needs a little daily personal space (little wonder!) Gabe needs time to get his feet under him in the morning. Elisha needs plenty of fair warning to be prepared and ready to roll. Ezra appreciates having tomorrow’s plan laid out (in detail) the night before so that he knows what to expect.

Know your kids, know style and respect your family patterns. Apply strategy to the situation.

Ziploc Bags

Pack them. Someone is going to vomit. Someone else is going to pee their pants. There will be a banana peel when there is no trash can in site. It’s going to rain frogs on the day you have to walk and you’ll be able to put the things you need to stay dry in them.

These are non-optional. Ziploc bags. Trust me.

Pack a Secret Weapon

What’s a secret weapon? A bag of tricks you deploy just moments before you kid completely loses it. It’s a boredom buster, a “five more minutes” burner, a sanity saver, and a gift to your fellow travelers (in silence!) Pack a little stash of quiet diversions to get you through a pinch and keep the kids happy. It doesn’t have to be big, it shouldn’t be expensive, and each item should be chosen with your child’s particular bent in mind.

What’s been in mine over the years:

  • Stickers (and paper to stick them on)
  • Maze books (coloring books, activity books)
  • Wikki Stix
  • Modeling clay
  • New action figures
  • Matchbox cars
  • Balloons
  • New story books
  • Pencil crayons (and paper, of course)
  • Gum
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Kaleidoscopes
  • Rubber bands

Among other things

Try Again

If at first you don’t succeed, if you have the family vacation from hell, if the last road trip was an epic failure, try, try again. Assess the damage. Take stock. Go at it from a different angle. Try again.

There’s a learning curve to family travel and there’s no “recipe” for guaranteed success.

You have to work with the circus you’ve got and make the best of the good, the bad and the ugly. Perhaps one type of travel won’t be a good fit for you, but another will. Maybe you can’t camp with your crew without it turning into a horror story, fine, no problem, so rent a holiday home instead. Keep trying.

Find what works. Go with that.

Bonus: Do it your way

We do it our way. You should do it your way. You’ll find what works for your family and that’s a good thing. Don’t let anyone else tell you different. It’s all well and good to read “10 Tips for Traveling With Kids” but if they don’t work for you, that’s not a failure on your part, or ours, just a difference. Do what works. Cut yourself (and others) some slack. Make it fun.

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