The truth is we are not super parents with amazing powers that let us travel effortlessly with our little ones. We just know a few family travel tips that seem to work for us.
Get everyone involved from the beginning.
Whenever we plan a trip, we get the kids involved from the very start. We ask their opinions on where they’d like to go, get them to help pick out a place to stay, and let them choose an activity or two that they’d like to do. Of course we always have final say, but we find involving the kids from day one keeps them excited about the trip and seems to really reduce any anxiety about travel.
Give them something concrete to look forward to.
It also helps them to have a goal our kids can visualize in mind. Small things like going to the beach when we get there, swimming in the pool, having some ice cream, going on a hike to a waterfall or searching for something cool like a local animal helps them stay focused on why we’re going there and the reward they’ll get once we get there.
In the same vein, we always prepare the kids for a day of travel by telling them what to expect. We’ll let them know that we’re driving to the airport, then waiting there a while, and even tell them what will happen during security screening, on board the flight, and that we’ll have to wait at customs when we land. It seems to really calm them to know what will happen.
Slow it down. Way down.
One of the fastest ways to make your trip miserable is to try to cram in too much. Kids (and adults) need some downtime to play and explore, or just have some quiet time. Instead of packing every second full of activities, budget some quiet time to help you all unwind. When kids get burnt out, no one is going to be happy so don’t push anyone past their breaking point.
Get a kid-friendly place to stay.
While you’re traveling, your accommodation can be a great refuge from the demands of travel. Make sure it’s somewhere you can all relax. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time there, consider upgrading to someplace with a nice pool or amenities that you and your kids will enjoy. As much as you wish the kids love the amazing cathedral or ruins you just walked through, there’s a better chance they’ll remember the pool.
Make sure your room is comfortable.
If you’re heading someplace hot, make sure there’s air conditioning or plenty of fans and opening windows. If it’s someplace colder, make sure there’s proper heat.
One of our first travel mistakes with kids was booking a room right after landing in a hot country and finding the only fan in the whole room was broken. Cole, who was two at the time, ended up with a large heat rash and was miserable for days. We had to find other lodgings and it took a few days out of the heat and sun for the rash to finally go away. The few dollars we saved by going with a cheaper option ended up costing us days of downtime.
As our trip progressed and we all acclimatized to the hot and humid weather we were able to stay in more a rustic place, but it took a while for us all to be comfortable in the heat. If you’re coming or going from one climate to another, make sure you stay someplace comfortable the first few days you get there. It might cost a few dollars more, however it’s worth it in the long run.
Get a place with a bathtub.
It’s much easier to wash a kid in a tub than a shower and putting the kids in the tub can give you a short break at the end of the day. Tubs also work as great places to wash a shirt or two. If you don’t have a tub, ensure there is a pail or jug for the kids to play with and wash off with in the shower. When Jordan was little she hated the shower, but after we threw in a couple of pails she never complained.
Make sure that your room is child safe.
Depending on your child’s age, this may include blocking off electrical sockets, and ensuring that there is nothing dangerous at kid level. Check the windows to make sure that they can’t be opened by small hands. We once stayed in a seventh floor hotel room that had windows that reached the floor and an opening window on the bottom. When we checked, the window was unlocked without a screen and the window easily opened.
Try to get cartoon channels on the TV.
Even if you’re staying in a country that speaks another language, kids will still love watching them. We speak from experience here. Our kids have enjoyed cartoons in Greek, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese and Arabic just to name a few. Sure, you’re not traveling to watch cartoons, but a cartoon can be a great way to buy a few minutes of peace and quiet at the end of a busy day. Your kids might even learn a few words in another language.
Make sure your place has easily accessible laundry.
Having kids equals having a mess. Having laundry (or laundry service) close by is a great perk. It’s not vital if you’re only traveling for a few days, however if you’re going away for over a week you’ll definitely want someplace handy to throw a few loads in.
If available, arrange for a mini fridge and a microwave in your room.
These are lifesavers for preparing impromptu meals if you’re staying in a hotel. You can also save a small fortune if you eat a yummy breakfast of fresh fruits, yogurt and warm or cold cereal, not to mention the occasional lunch in your room. It also gets you out of the hotel and into your next adventure faster than having to go sit down in a restaurant for the first hour when the kids and everyone is raring to go.
Consider renting a condo, apartment or house instead of a hotel room.
For any trip longer than two days, we almost always rent an apartment through Airbnb or a similar service.
Apartments and condos have a lot of advantages over hotel rooms, including private bedrooms, a kitchen for preparing meals, laundry facilities nearby and privacy. It’s usually also a much better deal the longer you stay and gets you living like a local.
Carry a supply of small gifts.
We always swing by our local dollar store (or the discount section at our local toy store) and pick up a few inexpensive items to give the kids during our trip. Our kids love things like sticky spiders, glow sticks, stickers, Pez dispensers, small stuffed animals, washable dry erase markers and boards, and small books.
Whenever we’re on the road or in a plane for extended times and the kids are getting restless, we magically provide a new distraction that usually keeps them happy for another hour or two. $10 worth of cheap toys can go a long way to making everyone’s journey much happier. We’ve also made the day for a lot of little boys and girls on our travels as we gave them the toys as we left the country.
We always try to keep the electronics to a minimum. It seems that the minute the electronics come out, our kids lose all interest in other activities. That said, after a few hours they’ll be bored and things can start to get ugly.
Instead, early in the trip, when our energy is higher, we play games like I Spy and sing songs. As our energy wanes, we break into the bag of small gifts or toys for the kids. We only give out one at a time and don’t ever let them have the whole bag. Hopefully one of these will spark their imagination and they’ll entertain themselves for hours.
When the novelty of a new toy starts fading, you can provide a snack, play a game or give another one. A few of the disposable toys we’ve given this way have lasted for years and still hold the kid’s attention on trips, so you never know which one might be a hit.
We save the electronics like phones, tablets, game systems or movies for last, when the kids and us are running out of steam. It’s also a reward they can look forward to if they behave.
Are we there yet?
Oh, the dreaded “are we there yet” questions. We’ve definitely had our share of those over the years, however we’ve gotten better at dealing with it. We’ve found that giving them a visual indication of how far we’ve already traveled and how far we have left goes a long way to settling there minds.
On the road we use the bottom of the rearview mirror as a gauge and show them where we are in relation to where we’re going. They love seeing how far we’ve progressed already and the fact that they can tell we’re getting closer to the edge of the mirror means that the ride is almost over.
We also explain trip lengths in language they can understand. Telling a young child it will take four hours to get somewhere is wasted on them, however when you tell them it’ll take the length of two Disney movies or from breakfast to lunch they can sort of wrap their heads around it.
Plan play breaks during long road trips.
We always make time to stop for play breaks while on the road. Whether we’re off the beaten path or in a busy city we’ll look for playgrounds, parks or a beach to stop and let the kids run around for a while or have a snack. The more energy they spend running and playing the more likely they’ll relax when they’re back in the car. On the rare occasion, our kids might even nap after an especially tiring stop.
In terms of snacks, make sure you always have snacks on hand to pass out to the kids. Ideally, the best snacks take a while to eat (think Cheerios or Goldfish crackers), so they’ll occupy the kids for a while. In the car, small fruit like grapes and strawberries are quick to serve as well as small veggies like cherry tomatos and mini carrots. If you have time before leaving you can cut up larger fruits and veggies and give them as well.
This brings us to the next tip:
Bring snacks. Everywhere. All the time.
A hungry kid (or adult!) is likely to melt down and make traveling that much more difficult. We usually carry large packages of multi-grain Cheerios and Goldfish crackers, and divvy them out in small resealable plastic sandwich bags. Just remember that you can’t bring drinks (or any liquids, except for a baby) on a plane, and it’s best to avoid unpackaged fruit or veggies when flying as well due to possible issues at customs.
Don’t forget the paperwork.
When you’re traveling internationally, all kids require a passport, regardless of age. Domestic travel requirements for kids differ between countries, so make sure you check what’s required and make sure the documents are current and up to date. If you share custody, bring a notarized letter from the other parent that gives you permission to travel. Bring adoption papers if your child is adopted, and be prepared for extra scrutiny if your child has a different last name than yours.
Remember why you’re doing this.
It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of travel, and start stressing over things like flight deadlines, restaurants that have a less than perfect menu, lines for your favorite attractions and crazed taxi drivers. If you can, take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to remember that one of the key benefits of travel can be to get you out of your routine and out of your comfort zone.
Taking to the skies.
We’ve taken a lot of flights, both domestic and international, short and long haul, and there are a few tips that hold true for every flight. We’ve flown nearly halfway around the world in a single leg with our kids and it was fine.
Consider booking seats together.
If you haven’t flown recently, it may come as a shock that kids aren’t guaranteed a seat next to their parents on general boarding. Mare sure you book early enough or get into the front of the line if it’s open seating to ensure you can all sit close to each other.
We’ve had numerous times where one of us was in the back of the plane with the kids while the other parent was in the front. This can be a good thing if you’re allowed to swap seats and trade off halfway as you’ll each get a chance to relax for a bit. Just realize that sometimes you aren’t allowed to move seats at all. If possible, find out before booking.
Help children equalize the pressure in their ears.
Babies and little kids don’t know how to equalize pressure in their ears on takeoff and landing. It can be painful or scary for young ones, especially while landing. For older kids, suckers and chewing gum helps tremendously. Letting a baby suck milk does a great job as well. If one of the kids has a cold or is congested, talk to a pharmacist or doctor and consider giving them a decongestant for that portion of the flight.
Don’t count on in flight entertainment.
We’ve had in flight entertainment malfunction, and sometimes it’s just not available. Don’t expect to easily being able to throw on a movie for them to keep them busy. Have some sort of backup, even if it’s a fully charged iPad with some great kids’ drawing apps. You can also check out our post on flying with kids for other ideas.
Bring a change of clothes for the kids in your carry on.
Kids are prone to making a huge mess just when you don’t need it (like in the middle of a flight). Make sure you have a change of clothes for them in a carry on. The confined space of a plane makes it almost inevitable that something will happen. Ours have spilled juice all over themselves countless times. This tendency to spill brings us to our next item.
Bring a resealable cup wherever you go.
A sippy cup (or just a resealable water bottle) can save not only on messes, but it’s also a great way to cut down on the cost of drinks. One of our favorite tips for traveling as a family is to refill a child’s cup from water fountains or even just split large waters or juices with the kids. We now ask the flight attendants to just pour their drinks directly into their cup when they’re serving refreshments and avoid the hassle of spills altogether.
The fun stuff is almost always free.
Paid attractions can cost a small fortune, so consider checking out what’s free at your destination. We spend a lot of time walking when we’re traveling; it’s a great way to see the area and get some exercise in as well.
Trips to the local park or beach can be a great way to let the kids run off some energy, get some relaxing time in, and even check out some of the local atmosphere. We even love simple things like grocery shopping in a new destination; it can be a lot of fun to peruse the aisles and see what’s for sale somewhere new.
Don’t over pack.
After lugging far too many suitcases and two kids through four continents on our last trip, we both wholeheartedly agree that we should have carried less stuff. We made this mistake on our first trip as a new family, and we’re still working on keeping our luggage at bay. Remember, you can almost always buy whatever you need at your destination if you truly need it.
Remember what it’s like to be little.
It’s easy to get impatient with kids when they’re getting whiny in the line at customs or attempting to bolt around the restaurant after dinner. All the newness of travel can be overwhelming, so take a second to think of what it must be like from their point of view. You were little once too. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute and try to come up with something that works for everyone.
Parenting is challenging, no matter where you are.
Whether you’re at home or on the road, kids will at some point act out, refuse to eat their vegetables, cry because you asked them to wear their mittens, or any other of 10,000 little things that kids do every day. There really is no thing as stress-free family travel.
That said, we think of it this way: We could either be at home dealing with the unending tasks of being a parent, or we could be traveling somewhere new and interesting. Yes it’s a bit of work, however it’s work wherever we happen to be.
The perks of travel.
Remember there are perks to traveling as well. Not only do you get to see amazing new things, but you might also be getting away from regular meal making, cleaning the house, doing chores, running errands and the other thousand tiny things you have to deal with on a daily basis back home. It’s also a great way to spend one-on-one time with your family and try out something new.
Remember that it’s new to all of you so it might be the perfect time to try new foods or teach your kids new things that you can bring back to your everyday life and make it better. It’s also a great time to break bad habits and teach your kids responsibility.
Finally, take care of yourself.
It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done that a lot of time we don’t take the time we need for ourselves. The problem is that when we’re stressed and overtired, our kids can sense that, and it often brings out the worst in the entire family.
To help combat travel fatigue, take some me time (away from the kids if possible) and let yourself relax. Whether that’s going for a walk, soaking in a pool, getting a massage or just sipping a nice glass of wine or a delicious lager, travel should be enjoyable. Don’t push the kids or yourself too hard and learn to enjoy what your location has to offer.
It’s not about seeing everything, it’s about seeing things differently.
What are your favorite, helpful family travel tips? We’d love to hear.