Travel with kids. Three words that strike fear into the heart of every parent, not to mention other travelers. Our family has always lived far enough away from our relatives that visiting usually entails a full day’s drive or plane flight. My oldest child has been flying cross-country since he was four months old, so I’ve come up with a few travel tips over the years, based on personal experience and suggestions from experts and friends. Here are my top ten recommendations for successful travel with kids, especially during stressful travel periods like spring break, summer vacation, or the holiday season.
1. Aim for off-peak travel days
It’s hard to avoid the crunch during peak travel periods, but if you can, try to book less popular travel days. If you’re driving, consider leaving mid-day, when the roads will be just a tiny bit less congested.
2. Pack strategically
I always pack about three times the number of diapers I think I’ll need in my carry-on or diaper bag, along with wipes (useful for quick clean-ups of all types), multiple extra outfits (including extra clothes for me, in case of spills or messes), diaper ointment, tons of snacks and some little surprise toys. My older child can usually get through an air travel day with a movie or some videos (don’t forget headphones), a few favorite books and some toys. The thrill of being on an airplane and at the airport fills the hours surprisingly well, and some airports even have kids’ play areas.
It’s probably best to pack as if you might be delayed or even stuck overnight, so that you’re truly prepared if it happens.
If you have an infant drinking formula, it can be helpful to fill bottles with powdered formula and add water en route. We’ve also brought pre-made bottles of formula in the past. When flying, allow extra time to clear security, because TSA will need to check the formula.
Bring luggage and transportation devices that will help, not hinder you. Maybe it’s your infant travel system or a toddler backpack. Rolling luggage is key. You can check children’s car and booster seats, or in our family, the grandparents pick us up in their car, which is already outfitted with the car seats they own.
3. Smooth the transition to your destination
If you’ll be somewhere for a while, you can often order diapers, wipes and other essentials and send them to your destination. We’ve even mailed a box of clothes, shoes, toiletries and toys, which we then sent back home at the end of the trip. Our families often ask for a shopping list and stock up with the kids’ favorite foods before we arrive.
4. Choose flights—and airports—carefully
Nonstop flights may make your trip smoother—missed or delayed connections with small children can threaten to derail an entire trip. We always attempt to book flights around bedtimes and naptimes, but delayed flights can force you to toss that careful planning out the window.
Expect to pay extra for more legroom and seats together, unless you’re flying an airline like Southwest. Several times, we’ve booked seats together, only to have them switched at the last minute, leaving our children sitting alone among strangers. We’ve either ponied up extra money to guarantee seats together, gotten lucky with an airline that was willing to put us back together or relied upon the goodwill of other travelers.
If you’re nursing a baby, it can be helpful to identify which airports have family areas and nursing rooms.
5. Bring ID for air travel
Bring your child’s birth certificate or passport, if he or she has one, along for plane flights, and familiarize yourself with your airline’s policies on children traveling.
6. Break up the drive
Identify places to stop before you head out. My kids hated facing backwards as babies and would pitch a fit every time we were in the car more than 15 minutes. Even today, neither of them can stand more than a couple hours in the car, so we often break up the trip and make frequent stops, sometimes as often as every half hour. Before we depart, I always map out our route, identifying restaurants, parks, shopping centers, libraries—any kid-friendly place with restrooms and something interesting to take their minds off the journey.
7. Sing in the car
Sing! The one thing that keeps my kids mildly content in the car is music, so we bring our favorite CDs along. Singing along to familiar songs keep things positive.
8. Recognize that you’re only in control of yourself
Weather, mechanical issues, illness and even other travelers’ bad moods can conspire to make even the simplest travel itinerary challenging. As with so many things in life, the only thing you can truly control is your response to stress. Consider using a mantra, deep breathing, meditation or yoga to keep your mind and body calm and flexible. I’ve been a nervous traveler for years but don’t like to take medication when I travel with my kids, so I employ a mantra and breathing exercises to keep the focus on my family.
9. Make it special
Even though traveling with kids can be a headache (literally—remember to keep yourself hydrated and to pack backup pain and motion sickness remedies), it’s meaningful for them to have the experience of traveling to new places and visiting friends and family. Keeping your attitude as positive as possible will provide a model for your children, not to mention other travelers.
10. Have fun!
For me, traveling with my kids actually makes trips more enjoyable. Have fun!