5 Tips for traveling with kids

baby backpack

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 17 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

1. Start Early

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

2. Unplug 

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.  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!)

3. 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.

4. 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!

5, 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.

Reality Check:

  • 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.


Posted by | Comments (3)  | October 29, 2013
Category: Family Travel, Vagabonding Styles

3 Responses to “5 Tips for traveling with kids”

  1. Autumn la Boheme Says:

    This was VERY helpful. My kids did ok on our first International trip, but this next trip coming up requies 20 HOURS of flight and airport time. We will definitely be practicing. Can we reward with M&M’s? 🙂

  2. Barefoot Reading: This Week’s Recommended Stories and Insights from Around the World Says:

    […] 5 Tips for traveling with kids […]

  3. Jennifer Miller Says:

    Autumn, of course you can reward with M&M’s!! Just not too many or they’ll have a heckuva sugar high at 33,000 feet!!! Good luck!