Traveling with kids can seem daunting from the outside. Between the added expense and inevitable frustrations, even the most frequent road warriors can get scared out of continuing their travels once kids come along.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. After spending years traveling with our elementary school-aged kids, I’ve cobbled together a set of tips and tricks to keep traveling fun and smooth, whether you’ve got a months-old baby, toddlers, or kids in school.
But more importantly, the “why” – as in, why you should keep traveling with your children.
Tips for Traveling with Babies
Traveling with a baby can seem incredibly stressful and scary before you have kids. In reality, it’s one of the best ages to travel with your kids.
For one, they’re free! Infants and toddlers up to 2 years old can typically fly free on a parents’ lap – or for a small lap infant fee. There’s no reason to miss out on this window for free travel – if you’re a traveler, you’ll be paying for your kids’ own seats soon enough.
If you’re anxious, it could be worth paying a bit more for extra legroom (keep in mind infants on laps can’t be in exit rows). Or if you’ve got the points or want to pay to treat yourself, splurge for business or first class.
Try to time your flights with a baby around nap or bedtimes, or stretch it just a little past and keep baby awake until takeoff. Try wearing your baby and try to keep them asleep for shorter flights.
When it’s time to eat, time your feeding around takeoff – if they’re awake. This will help with your baby’s sensitive ear pressure if you can breastfeed or give your baby a bottle. If that doesn’t do the trick, use a pacifier – or a food pouch to suck on, if your baby is old enough.
And above all, remember: If your baby cries or screams, it’s OK.
Yes, you may get some looks. But they’ll more than likely be looks of compassion, not anger. And what does it matter – do what you need to do, and don’t worry so much about the others around you. You will make it through and so will your baby. The flight itself sounds a lot like white noise, and your baby will likely get some sleep.
Traveling with Toddlers and Young Kids
Our kids have traveled coast to coast, over oceans, to islands, to mountains and more. We’ve had overnight flights, early morning take-offs, and multiple stopovers en route to final destinations.
As your kids get older, there’s no denying this can be a trickier time to travel. But it’s definitely worth it.
Set expectations for how your kids should behave while traveling, and don’t be afraid to use bribes and prizes if needed. If your kid has meltdowns, cries, or kicks seats, it’s time to employ some distractions – sing songs, read books, walk the aisle, watch movies, play with gummy worms together, or open new activities or toys special for the trip. You could also get lucky and score a quick peek in the cockpit when boarding or landing or get wing pins.
Your in-flight personal item packing is crucial at this age. Try things like gel clings or dry erase markers for the windows. Or if your toddler likes putting things in containers and boxes, make a Tupperware container with holes in the lid to stuff puffs through. For kids a little older, bring a deck of cards to play Go Fish or play “I Spy.”
Make sure your kids are involved in the packing process. Have them pack their own carry-on backpack with some of their favorite things to travel with. I once saw a kid who packed a backpack full of bouncy balls!
Thrifty Tip: Even as your kids get older, it can be nice to have a stroller for the airport. Think about layovers and hauling everything between gates, or late nights and early mornings with sleeping kids. Bonus: You can board early and get settled in the families with young children group.
Planning a Trip with Kids
You can pull off a trip with your kids in one of two ways: Have them help in the planning, packing, and learning process; or pull off a total surprise tip.
We’ve done both successfully.
The Surprise Trip
For a trip to Disney, we completely surprised the kids. I’m talking suitcases fully packed and at the door with Mickey and Minnie on top. They were in a happy shock.
In addition to their delight, the element of surprise helped avoid the fights over what to pack, how to pack, and the agony over how many days are left. If your kid needs more prep time and is slower in new situations, you may want to try another strategy. But this can be a really fun way to reveal a trip!
Kids as Vacation Planners
For other vacations, we’ve included the kids in the planning process from the start. Sometimes we even talk about where we should travel to as a family, what types of things they want to see and do (while giving them examples and ideas).
Once we have flights booked, we’ll include them in planning activities and start learning about the culture, cities, weather, and more together. When we went to Iceland, the kids loved learning about puffins and glaciers. Before a trip to Italy, we tried to teach them a few phrases in Italian.
Why not do a hybrid of the surprise trip and a planned vacation with a longer reveal? Maybe a game or trivia?
A month before leaving for Hawaii, we posted a fact or question about Hawaii every few days on a wall for the kids to start guessing our destination. It was a fun way to have them start learning and prepare for the next trip while retaining the element of surprise.
Vacation reveals are also great for holidays, birthdays, or other special occasions. Instead of spending more money on toys, we’ve revealed a big vacation as part of a holiday present. We’ve also combined it with larger, multi-generation family trips, which are great for extra help with the kids or even nights out without the kids. One Christmas, each kid opened part of a sentence in a present, eventually spelling out where we were going on a big trip with our extended family.
Once You Land…
It’s tempting to hit the ground running. But if you can, build a slow and relaxing first day into your schedule.
By slowing things down, you can help your kids adjust to a time difference or a new destination. Sit by the pool or do a little shopping – just let them have some downtime to play.
For time changes, kids usually adjust better and more quickly than adults. And who says you need to actually completely adjust to local time? Sometimes it can work to your advantage: Sleep in, eat meals a little later, and let the kids stay up late if you’re traveling east. You could even miss the crowded times for reservations or tours.
Look up local family attractions or websites, and mix up your sightseeing and attractions with some kid-friendly activities. Some of the best stops and local connections have been local playgrounds. Talk to the local families there and get some tips and attraction ideas for kids. And be flexible.
Why Traveling with Kids is Important
People often ask this question – or use it as an excuse.
The answer is different for everyone, but it’s simple for me. I want my kids to have a perspective of the whole world. I want them to be challenged and learn about new cultures. I want them to know what it feels like to be an outsider abroad, so they’re inviting to outsiders at home. I want them to have the kind of grit in life that only mishaps and long journeys in foreign places can teach you. And it all starts young.
For me and for many other parents, this all vastly outweighs the additional work of traveling with kids. And you also gain so much traveling with your kids. You get to see places new and old through their eyes, discovering things you might have missed without them.
While gazing out at the mountains on the horizon in Switzerland, we would have missed a paraglider above our heads if not for our daughter looking to the sky. Seeing my kids bodyboard or horseback ride for the first time, watching them run from the waves on the beach and dip their toes into the ocean … it’s priceless. In those moments, the hard work and extra cost of traveling with kids melts away.
It doesn’t matter that they may not remember trips we took them on as babies and toddlers. It still shapes them. Maybe they’ll hold onto a feeling, or carry an impression of where they’ve been or who they’ve interacted with outside of home. Just as travel changes adults, it changes kids, too. Travel is ingrained in who my kids will become.
The time you spend and the memories you build while traveling with your children is worth more than anything. You can do it.
One last big tip: Respect those parents traveling with kids. Respect the parent that’s giving their kid candy or a treat to help them calm down. Respect the parent that’s not giving in to a screaming kid by teaching them a hard lesson.
You don’t know their stories, they are each doing their best. Give them space; just offer a hand or a smile.
What are your favorite tips and tricks to travel with the kids? Let us know in the comments!
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.