Vacations bring visions of beaches, breezes, reclining, and reading those books or magazines you just haven’t gotten to yet. Vacations with kids are often not at all as the brochure advertised. There is no brochure for a trip filled with barf, missing baggage, or panic over where the favorite toy has disappeared! But these are the realities sometimes traveling with kids.
We traveled on over 100 flights with our first kiddo – for work and for family trips – and many since adding to the family. We recently took an overseas trip with 20 people, including 10 children – many were teens and two toddlers. I have learned A LOT along the way and I’ve shared this with many friends traveling with their kiddos over the years. Travel with kids seems overwhelming, but the ability to expose your children to new places, people, experiences, bond with each other, and make memories is absolutely worth it. If you think back to your childhood, how many memories were made with parents and siblings or extended family road-tripping or somewhere away from home? These are special times, and you can increase the enjoyment and decrease the stress with a few no-fail tips for every trip.
Here are easy action items and suggestions to arrive sane there and back for any trip:
Manage expectations. True in work, life, parenting, coaching – but no more true than on a sweaty tram home to the parking lot after a long day at Disneyland with two over-tired, screaming kiddos and a stranger’s armpit in your face. Mickey was great but the ride home should have been one of Dante’s Circles. Start the trip with an honest admission that traveling with kids is hard work – away from routines, familiar places and things – naps may not happen on schedule or at all, people may puke, there may be delays. Start knowing these things may happen and promising to your tribe you will roll through it, don’t hide the fact that traveling has hiccups from your kids. Prepare them for waits and that problems may arise and we all have to be on the same team to get to the fun parts. It is worth it for lifelong memories, the bonding time, and for the adventure. I promise you will remember the crazy and fun decades after you have forgotten what spilled apple juice smells on pants after a 5 hour flight.
Make a list. Sit down and talk about the trip, ask for 2 must-dos or three priorities of EACH member of the family. Let them share without comment from others until the list is made. This works for 2 person or 20 person trips. Often some of the struggles on a trip can be totally avoided when we take time to figure out what matters most to those we are traveling with and plan around those priorities. This often will reveal if there are unrealistic expectations and help you prioritize your schedule while traveling and make choices on the fly when plans change. If you are traveling with a large group or small group, schedule it so that individuals or individual families have meals alone or everyone gets some down time EVERY DAY. This will save your sanity. And, take the list with you!
Simplify packing: Unless you are going to a third-world country, even overseas there are stores with diapers, wipes, mouthwash, etc. We all pack as if we were going to the deepest backwoods. Unless you are…. My take after so many trips, and especially now with bag fees nearing what ticket prices used to be, is to pack only what you need for the trip there plus a day, in consumable supplies, and plan to stop at (with a family member or in your rental car) a Target or Walmart on your way to your first stop. If you don’t plan to have transportation, it is hard to find a place that isn’t a block or a $3 Uber away from a Walgreens or grocery. You will have to buy supplies to replace what you take from home anyway, instead of lugging it all around and paying to do so, get the bulk of what you need where you are going. Diapers, wipes, baby food, formula, even toiletries are all on sale and take coupons in nearly every city in the U.S. Overseas it is harder, but I managed to find a pharmacy with the same over the counter meds we take at home, for less, and it only took 5 minutes out of my trek, instead of an hour to figure out what to pack and not. Then, you can also buy that full size shampoo in the brand you’d rather use, or save more room for souveniers. Pack your own medication, clothes, allergy-sensitive or special products, kids favorite toys (mine each get 2 small ones!), shoes, baby gear* (more on that below). For clothes, consider doing laundry halfway through the trip (if more than 4-5 days). Most hotels have laundry machines, some will do your laundry for a fee that is reasonable. In a pinch, there is always the sink for underwear and small things like bathing suits that get worn over and over. When we go see family, with their prior permission, we often borrow clothes so we don’t have to take much but shoes, underwear, and pjs. Sounds crazy, but it has made it so much easier to travel and get through airports with much less stuff, and reduce wait times for baggage.
Carry On EVERYTHING: On all but maybe 10 of those flights… we carried on everything. I know you think I am nuts, but this decreases the time we are in the airport (germs, hassles, lines, stress) by at least two hours every trip, we don’t have to arrive as early and we can go straight to our car/transportation getting off the plane, usually skip baggage claim and bypass everyone waiting. Even when the baby was little, even when I traveled alone, even when we went on long trips. We roll our clothes, use space saving bags, and Dad gets the bags, I get the kids. If I’m traveling alone, I usually identify someone in the security line that looks like a mom, dad, grandma or grandpa and ask for help with my bags getting on the belt or on the plane. Usually I don’t need help if I have a roller bag and stroller and a backpack. The stroller carries a LOT and you can bungee a carseat to a roller bag. Older kids can also take a bag or two. Our 3 year old did an entire trip recently with no stroller and dragging his own bag. Mostly because he didn’t want his sister touching his bag, but, you know. He did it. I usually try to consolidate the kids into one suitcase for their clothes and the toy they sleep with, we share a suitcase, and then we and they each get a bag they promise to carry (backpack!) with their books/tablet/coloring stickers/snacks for the plane.
Essentials: Your kids are going to be bored once you reach 10,000 feet or 30 miles from home in a car. I promise. If you are tech free family, all power to you. Bring thin/light books, a coloring book they haven’t seen, crayons (plan to lose some on the floor at landing), snacks like granola bars, fruit leather/snacks, pouches if you are brave. Window clings and those wixisticks are for whatever reason at least 15 minutes of fun. Stickers/sticker books. If you are a tech family, PRELOAD and don’t expect working wifi, most won’t stream video. Make sure the tablet/phone has games and at least one movie that will work if there is no WIFI. Plan to pay for wifi. Southwest has a lot of free video content if you just connect to their WIFI. And, plane trays and seat pockets are dirtier than most public restroom toilets. I always – ALWAYS – wipe the entire tray, armrest, window down with a Wet One. I don’t mind looking like the crazy mom if my kid avoids Influenza A the first two days into our Disney vacation.
Baby Gear: I may not offer a popular opinion here, but we found most of the baby gear (we tried A LOT and regret it) to be totally useless. Under 3 (probably 4) a stroller is essential. Beware if you take your nice one…. When you gate check it, it will come off the plane with something bent or broken, possibly beyond repair. Happened every flight. We finally bought a $20 travel system on Craigslist, Evenflo, that lasted us through two years of travel. It was a lightweight seat/car seat too, and worked great, had a big basket. Graco’s wheels are too big for security belts at TSA… and will lead you to screenings you don’t want. An umbrella stroller is better than no stroller, you can hang stuff on it. Bring your booster seat (they can’t use these on the plane if no back). And for a car seat between bucket and booster, we got a Cosco (not Costco) Scenera for $30 we use for any travel or we used to borrow one from a friend. We now have an extra to loan to friends. TAKE YOUR CAR SEAT if you can. Kids under 3 will often sleep if in a seat, and if not, they want to get down which is often not possible. If kiddo is under two and you didn’t buy a seat and you are on any airline but especially Southwest, ask if it’s a full flight – really full – and bring it on anyway. 9/10 times we choose the last row, and no one wants to sit by two people and a baby. If there was a seat, we got the open one and if not, they will gate check your seat (bring a bag even a garbage bag or sports bag to put it in). Get tags for your bag and stroller BEFORE boarding is called. Baby seats MUST go in a window seat. So consider that when booking, it is an FAA regulation for safety and non-negotiable. Don’t pay for seats, they must seat a parent with a child and a baby in a window. So unless you want to be sure you all sit in a row, you do not have to pay ahead for seat selection. With the four of us we usually take two seat in two rows. When you buckle a baby seat in make sure the buckle is facing away from the seat or into a space you can lift to release it. We once had our seat stuck on a plane for a bit because we had buckled it facing the hard side of the seat and could not lift the tab to unbuckle it. Ask for an extender if you need it. And check to see where the buckle lies, in case kiddo is sitting on it. Often there is nothing you can do but you can pad it with a diaper. Take a bag that is a tote, zippered, on the top so you can reach into it easily while seated. Or a backpack with easy front pockets. I pre-filled bottles with toddler formula and breastmilk, so all I had to do was add water or open them. TSA will likely screen breastmilk and bottles. It’s annoying. Be prepared to have to go to a different area with all your junk and have them swab them. Buy water for bottles past security don’t take it through, even though it’s allowed, they are usually difficult about it.
Transportation: Car rentals are cheapest in the US usually weekend day to weekend day, weekdays are more. I like carrrentals.com the best. Go there, check the price, then check the cheapest company’s price on their website. We have found more and more that Uber and Lyft are cheaper in most places (even Hawaii and overseas) than renting or even than some public transportation. Obviously, be cautious and you must feel comfortable using these services. We would send screenshots of the driver and car to whomever wasn’t riding with us for safety. I even do this now in the US when I use it locally. If you decide to venture into public transportation, ask for help from your hotel/someone that works at the train station, especially if you are in an unfamiliar place, before you set foot on the bus/train. TRUST ME it will save you a lot of time and headache, and scary experiences.
Other People: Do not make gift bags for people flying on your plane with your baby. If you have to fly with a tuna sandwich your neighbor is eating, or their B.O…. you do not need to make apologies for procreating and traveling with your family. There is a terrible truth in travel that upsets me every time I enter an airport. Take a 30 something women, do her hair, put her in a suit and people will fall over themselves to help her on a plane or help her with bags. Take the same woman, put her in yoga pants, a shirt with spit up, baby on hip, and give her a stroller and people will literally part waters around her in an airport to avoid helping her. My family has taken to seeking out moms traveling alone in airports just to offer a hand to get on the plane, or help with gate checking, ANYTHING, after so many terrible experiences seeing how parents are treated. It is nearly the inverse for fathers traveling…. But that’s a whole other blogpost for another day. 😊 ASK FOR HELP IF YOU NEED IT. From airport gate staff, or friendly-grandparent types. Usually they are just thrilled to offer help carrying a bag or just helping get situated on a plane. Obviously do not leave your kid or stuff with them, but they can be a hand to get through security or on the plane. And OFFER THIS HELP even if it seems weird when you see a parent struggling traveling alone. That one act of kindness can change an entire day/trip/memory. Our youngest got seriously hurt when he tripped in the gate area on a trip last year, he cut his lip on the charging station on a seat, and was bleeding profusely, EMS were called and it scared him and us. We were all shaken, including our older child. A mother and her son ran to the nearest store, bought each kid a small toy and asked if they could give them to them. (Don’t assume – ask…) This distraction of them coming to ask and the toy calmed our son down enough to be examined. He was fine, we were able to calm down, take a breath, and managed to make the flight. The whole thing could have been much different and we may have been refused boarding, if he had not been able to stop hyperventilating-crying long enough to be looked at. He was fine, we were fine, and those two happened to be sitting next to us on the flight. Both kids – even the little one – made them thank you notes on take off. Today, it is a sweet memory of the kindness of strangers instead of a traumatic memory. Be that person. We try to pay it forward every trip to other families with kiddos.
Drivealogue: If you haven’t seen these cards, they are conversation cards for families, for the car ride home from school, dinner table, etc. THESE ARE AWESOME FOR CAR TRIPS AND PLANE TRIPS and they make them in different age ranges. Even great for couples! I have a friend that sells them locally if you want some or you can buy them online.
YOUR TRIP: Finally, these are all musings from my experiences traveling as a mom and in business travel. I am an admitted over-organized, overthinking, germaphobe and plan ahead for even the relaxing trips. Your style may be totally different (and, frankly, better)! Set your expectations and then make sure what you do around housing, activities, packing, and schedules on your trip mirrors those must-dos and what you really want to get out of the trip. There is no wrong way to travel with kids, just easier and harder ways. Try to do it in the way that mirrors your family’s day-to-day needs and focus on the goal of time together and memories.
I wish you an amazing Spring Break whether you are staying home or traveling far, and pray that all your travels are safe and full of less stress and great memories! If you have questions, feel free to email me or message me.
by: Liz D, Tempe Mom