Summer break means travel for many families, and we know so many of you are eager to visit friends and family and take those trips that were postponed during the pandemic. Traveling with young children comes with its own set of challenges, so we’ve put together this list of tips for traveling with small children.
Tell Kids What to Expect
In almost all situations, children do better when they know what to expect beforehand. Just be sure to time it right: a third grader might spend months reading about your travel destination, but a 2-year-old will do better learning about the airport a few days in advance.
Whether you’re driving or flying, you can walk children through what to expect. What time will you be leaving? What do they need to know about car etiquette, or going through airport security? What things are appropriate for them to do, and not do?
Books, short videos, movies, and toys are all great ways to show children what to expect while traveling. Take this time to get kids excited for what they will see and experience on the trip!
Adjust Your Own Expectations
If you traveled on your own or as a couple before having children, be prepared for things to be different. Long hikes or a day at an art museum will be too demanding (and probably boring) for young children. Don’t plan activities that require long periods of silence, sitting still, or not touching – these situations will be stressful for you and your kids.
Instead, think about how you can explore a new area in kid-friendly ways. Parks are a great way to experience local culture with other families. Theme parks are always a hit. Most children are enthralled by animals, so consider a petting zoo, city zoo or aquarium, or even watching ducks at the park. Find ways for kids to move and play!
Plan, Plan, Plan Ahead
With kids in tow, you’ll have a lot more to consider, particularly if you’re flying. Keep items that will need to be removed during the security check easily accessible. If you’re traveling with lots of extra snacks, the security process may take longer. Have kids wear comfortable, easily removable shoes and layers. A good airport rule is to avoid anything with buttons, laces, or zippers if kids can’t undo them on their own.
Think about how you’ll entertain children in the airport, whether you’ll need to allocate time for meals while waiting for your flight, and how you’ll deal with changes in air pressure that can cause ear discomfort. Arrive early for your flight to avoid a stressful rush through the airport with overexcited kids in tow.
Will you need to check a stroller? Car seat? Will it cost you extra? Brush up on your airline’s rules to avoid unpleasant surprises at the airport.
“Kids” and “packing light” may sound like an oxymoron, but you can be smart about packing everything you need. Consider borrowing or purchasing smaller versions of essential items, like a stroller that can fit through narrow doorways and into small elevators.
If you’ll be staying somewhere you can do laundry, pack fewer outfits and wash a load or two during your trip. Unless you’re traveling somewhere remote, you can purchase toiletries when you arrive or use complimentary items at a hotel. Remember that you may end up carrying your child and/or their luggage through the airport, and ask yourself how much you want to haul around.
On the other hand, you’ll want to be sure to pack these essentials:
- Extra clothes for children of all ages in case of accidents, spills, etc.
- Small-space entertainment (It’s okay to break your screen-time rules on an airplane! Make sure to download games or movies ahead of time, since you won’t have Internet access.)
- Wipes and hand sanitizer, for small messes and germs
- Old books or coloring books that can be used while traveling, then left behind
- Comfort items, like a small blanket or stuffed animal, for sleeping on the plane or in the car
- Plenty of snacks (even airlines that serve food generally don’t have offerings that appeal to children)
- Plastic bags to collect trash
- Diapers and/or pull-ups
Opt for Convenience
If you normally opt for cloth diapers and reusable towels for spills, or you’ve been trying to stop relying on pull-ups during the night, kudos to you – but now is the time to give yourself some leniency. Traveling with young children is stressful enough on its own, so consider what will be most convenient for your family.
Disposable diapers are lightweight, and you certainly don’t want to be carrying smelly luggage through the airport. If you’re still working on potty training, or even if your child is fully potty trained but still young enough to wear Pull-Ups, now is the time to use them. Not only will you avoid being up and down the entire flight or spending most of your drive at rest stops, but there are times when you simply won’t have access to a bathroom.
Time Your Departure Carefully
If you’re driving, consider if you’d rather drive through the night while your little ones sleep then catch up on your own Z’s the next day, or if driving during the day and sleeping at a hotel together for the night works better for your family.
If you’re flying, morning departures are a great option. Early morning flights are least likely to be delayed or canceled and tend to be less crowded. You’re more likely to be seated next to other parents who will be understanding of mid-flight tantrums and frequent bathroom trips. Getting to the airport in time for an early morning flight requires getting up in the wee hours, so kids are more likely to nap en route.
Plan for Kid-Friendly Activities Wherever You Are
Part of this means planning ahead, and part of it is being flexible. Make sure you’ve set aside time in your itinerary for kid-focused excursions, like a theme park or children’s museum.
Alternate more adult activities with opportunities for children to run, play, and make noise. If you’re walking the streets of an ancient city and admiring the architecture, prepare to also stop when your child sees a park with a swing set. Incorporate animals, time in nature, and fun food experiences whenever you can.
Find opportunities for fun even while traveling to your destination. Does your airport have an indoor playground? An airplane museum or decorative light displays? Some airlines even offer kid-friendly perks in-flight, like activity books, coloring materials, or plastic wing badges.
Don’t Forget the Entertainment
Did we mention screen time rules don’t apply when you’re traveling with young children? You know your kids, and you know what it takes to keep them entertained. Long drives are boring, and it can be difficult for children to stay seated on flights when there’s an airplane to explore.
Have some tricks up your sleeve, like a tablet loaded with their favorite games and shows, a coloring book, or a list of games that don’t require many materials to play. Never underestimate the element of surprise: A new (to them) toy or book is more exciting than one that’s been seen many times, and for toddlers, unwrapping an item is half the fun!
Book the Right Hotel
If you’ll be staying in hotels, consider making reservations in advance unless you have time and patience to shop around. This summer, as more families are traveling again, it can be difficult to find available hotel rooms large enough for a family of four or more. You may arrive at a hotel to find there are no rooms left, or only the most expensive suites are available. Save yourself the headache by booking in advance.
If you’ll be staying in a hotel for the duration of your trip, look for amenities that are kid- and budget-friendly. A room with a kitchenette will save you tons of money and allow you to make healthier food choices. A hotel with a swimming pool is a huge draw for kids and will keep them entertained and active during your stay.
As much as possible, retain elements of your daily routine at home while traveling. This creates a feeling of safety and familiarity, especially for young children. Bedtime routines are most important and will ensure you and your kids get the rest they need while traveling.
If you eat dinner together, bathe your kids, and read to them before bed at home, do these things when you travel. These rituals are soothing and help young children know what to expect. Following bedtime routines can also help with jet lag and falling asleep in different time zones.