Top 10 Survival Tips for Travel with Young Kids

We need to start with the cold, hard truth that the word "vacation" does not apply. Managing young children in travel and new environments is a feat of hard labor.

When I was 7 months pregnant with #3, we drove from Denver to Montana with our 4-year-old and 2-year-old. 600 miles and 12 hours. Our kids haven’t slept in cars since they were infants, so we didn’t even get that reprieve. I have a video that has become a family classic: both girls n the last 20 miles of our drive home with tears and snot streaming, wailing, “I’m so tired Mommy . . . I’m so tired.”

One of those things nobody tells you before you become a parent is that traveling with young kids is like flying the old, creaky commuter plane just waiting for something bad to happen. Say goodbye to the carefree enjoyment of drinks, peanuts, and magazines while you eagerly anticipate your vacation destination.

Pre-children, I was a seasoned and skilled traveler. That first trip with a first baby, however, is perhaps the most revealing of the truth that LIFE IS DIFFERENT NOW.

Of course, now a trip with just one little baby seems like a breeze because: A. Toddlers are SO hard; B. More kids is even harder; C. Parent amnesia. I learned that the travel tips I found in my google searches back then were aspirational, just adding to my new mom beliefs that I was somehow always failing. (I wish I had had this handy What To Pack list from thinkbaby.org, which I am happy to share with you to make your life easier.)

May your family trip this summer be full of realistic expectations, mediocre-but-not-terrible sleep, and many memories of all the great snack food and tablet time ‘vacation’ has to offer.

For years, I white-knuckled the family trip, from the time we started planning until the minute we came home. How many times has illness struck the day before a flight? Or mid-trip? Not following sleep routines = disaster. A 4-hour flight “holding” a wriggling toddler is a more intense workout than Orange Theory. The array of potential pitfalls would keep me up many nights before the trip.  

Thankfully, time is the best teacher and I have learned some valuable lessons along the way. For the benefit of all of us braving the frontier of traveling with young children, I share these tips with you from the REAL (not aspirational) world of parenting:

1.     Manage expectations: Nothing will go as planned. It’s okay, it’s not you -- it’s them. Roll with it and be surprised if anything actually works on schedule. Allow lots of extra time cushions – a good practice is to think about how much time each part of the process SHOULD take, and at least double it.

2.     Bring lots of snacks: What do kids love most? Snack food. Even better – NEW snack food. Our toddler daughter once went through a huge canister of craisins on a flight. Her tummy paid for it the next day, but we got through the return flight with significantly less wrestling than the first one.

3.     Novelty works . . . but not as long as you expect: We have done that whole surprising them with new toys in the car or plane so they are more excited to be occupied. Without fail, they have whipped through these items in under 20 minutes, so then we go back to #2. On road trips, we started to combine a shopping trip with a lunch break so they can each pick out one new toy for the second half of the drive (it works – even with our stingy $5 limit).

4.     Baby wipes: Even if you don’t do diapers anymore, you can’t have too many – they work on germs, snot, blood, food, and mysterious sticky substances for hands and all body parts, for all ages. And on leather car seats in the rental car.

5.     Sleep the first night: I don’t care how excited everyone is or how much the relatives want to play with the children, that first night of sleep is everything. Get them to bed. You can cheat later.

6.     Keep up naps: Even if it’s not as long as usual, or they don’t actually sleep but get some down time in a quiet room, this helps balance out all the extra stimulation. I messed with this one too many times and everyone was absolutely miserable, but especially me.

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7.     Ask for a break: Parenting while traveling can be even more taxing than the usual day-to-day of parenting. You need a break to also enjoy yourself. Figure out how you, or you and your partner, can sneak away for a couple hours (easier with relatives eager to babysit, but maybe also worth it to get a babysitter).

8.     Get the extra seat: If you are flying and your under-age-2 child is no longer an obedient, sleepy infant, do it. We have done it both ways, and by no means do we have money to burn on this luxury. But we learned that what seemed like a luxury was a necessity for us getting through a flight without a few stiff drinks that the unruly child would knock over anyways.

9.     Away with screen time limits: It’s okay. They are just sitting anyways. It’s one or two days of their lives during the actual travel part – brain damage takes longer than that.

10. Go to Hawaii: Everyone’s happy in Hawaii. It is our one family trip that TRULY felt like vacation.

May your family trip this summer be full of realistic expectations, mediocre-but-not-terrible sleep, and many memories of all the great snack food and tablet time “vacation” has to offer. Travel on road warriors!