I’m here to dispel a myth. Contrary to popular belief, travel and kids are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I’ve found that traveling with small children is one of the best adventures life has to offer. Most kids are natural travelers. They are inherently curious, adaptable, and open to new experiences. They are enthusiastic and less inhibited, and have opened more cultural doors and conversations than I ever could have on my own. Yes, it’s a little more work, but the payoff is absolutely worth the effort.
Travel is one of our family’s core values. My 5-year-old went on his first flight at 6 weeks; by age 3, he had flown 30 times; by age 4, he visited his 15th country. I’ve flown transatlantic flights with two kids by myself, and domestically with three kids by myself. I’ve had a lot of practice, and while I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, I have learned a couple things along the way.
Part I: Getting there
- Do a mental dress rehearsal of the trip. Run through different scenarios and options to get a better picture of what your priorities are. I did this before my son’s first flight, and realized I’d rather use the Ergo than deal with collapsing and gate-checking my stroller. Be sure to see the trip through your child’s eyes as well. Will you be cruising at 39,000 feet in the air during their normal snack time? Be sure to pack their favorite snacks and drink in your diaper bag. (The 3 oz liquid restriction doesn’t apply to children’s cups or bottles; it just requires special testing at security.)
- Prepare as much as humanly possible. Have the bottles preloaded with formula so that you only need to add water. Put your nursing cover in the outermost pocket of your diaper bag for easy access. Wear slip-on shoes instead of sneakers. Download a couple episodes of your kids’ favorite show on your iPad or phone. Do everything that you can ahead of time, so that when the stressful moments come, you’re ready for them.
- Don’t be shy about asking for help. Most airports in Europe, and some in the US, have designated lines at security for families with small children. If you don’t see one, ask. When you reach the gate, give the gate agents a heads up that you’re traveling with kids and will need special assistance getting on the plane. They will let you board first and help you get settled into your seat. (One caveat: if you don’t require special assistance getting seated, then wait as long as you possibly can and board the plane last. This cuts down on the time your toddler has to sit still and wait.)
- Bring high-value distractions. At home, I am absolutely a believer in “engage rather than distract.” However, when it comes to travel, I like to keep a few special snacks and a couple of new (small) toys in my diaper bag for those “perfect storm” moments when your child is melting down and there’s no escaping the situation.
Part II: At your destination
- Prime the pump. It’s impossible to be curious about something that’s completely unknown to you. Prepare your child by introducing them to various aspects of the trip, including the method of travel and the things you’ll encounter at the destination. You can tailor this to the age of your child. For young kids, focus on the novelties of day-to-day life: different types of buildings, vehicles, animals, foods, etc. For example, before taking a trip to Venice, we read book after book about boats. When we arrived, my son was so fascinated by all the different kinds of boats that he begged us to stop on a bridge for 15 minutes to watch a garbage-boat collecting trash from the houses along the canal. For an older child who has a handle on the concepts of time and space, you can discuss the history (“We’re going to a castle that was built over 900 years ago!”) and geography (“Did you know that the builders of Stonehenge transported the stones from Wales? Let’s find Wales on the map.”).
- Rethink your lodging. I have two opposite ideas that you can choose from, depending on your situation: city center, or country.
- City center: book a hotel very close to all the sights and attractions you’re going to visit, especially if you will be walking or taking public transit to get around. We discovered this tactic in Nuremburg, Germany, where our hotel was in the heart of the city, literally just off the historic main square. When our son started melting down inside the cathedral, we were just a short walk away from our room and a quick nap. When he woke up and needed a snack, we ran down to the market stalls for some fresh fruit and cheese.
- Country: book an agritourism house outside the city. This is ideal if you are getting around by car. We have had wonderful experiences in Italy and Croatia with guesthouses a few miles outside the city. It’s great to have an entire house to yourselves, and the kids have plenty of outdoor space to run around before and after a day of being confined to a stroller.
- Consider booking an Airbnb apartment rather than a hotel room. You can usually find an entire home with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, maybe even a laundry machine for less than you’d spend on a hotel room. If your kids nap, or are prone to diaper accidents, having the extra space and appliances can be a life-saver. What’s more, your Airbnb host will be a local who can give you recommendations for good restaurants, instructions on navigating public transit, and sightseeing tips.
Part III: Invest in Good Gear
If you’re like us, travel isn’t an occasional thing; it’s a way of life. It’s worth investing in travel gear that you know you will use over and over again. Here are some of my favorite finds:
Brica Smart Move Car Seat Transporter: If I need to fly with my child’s car seat – either to use on the plane or in the car at the destination – this is a life-saver at the airport.
Jeep Perfect Pockets Back Pack: I have traveled with every kind of diaper bag imaginable. This is my favorite. It has a ton of exterior pockets to hold the essentials so you don’t have to dig through the main compartment to find what you need, and the backpack design is a lot easier to deal with than a bag or satchel.
Munchkin Arm and Hammer Diaper disposal bag: Not just for diapers, these are very handy if you are stuck in a seat and need a place to stash a snotty tissue or a grimy hand wipe until you can get to a trash can.
CamelBak Kids Eddy Water Bottle: The last thing you want when you’re traveling is a spill. I’ve road-tested dozens of kids cups, and these water bottles are the best.
Brica By-My-Side Safety Harness Backpack: I know, I know. It’s a leash. But it works. Great for active 2-year-olds who like to bolt away in airports and crowded cities. Plus, the backpack compartment is nice for storing snacks and toys.
Dover Little Activity Sticker Books: These weigh nothing and take up no space in your carry-on or diaper bag, but have entertained my kids for hours on flights and car rides.
Crayola Color Wonder Stow & Go Studio: No having to worry about your toddler “decorating” the seatback in front of him. (Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything.)
Munchkin Arm and Hammer Pacifier Wipes: Because Murphy’s Law dictates that your baby WILL spit out her pacifier on the airplane floor.
One final tip: No matter how well-prepared you are or how good your gear is, there will be stressful moments. Expect them, and don’t blame yourself or your child for them. Your child will scream on the plane. Your toddler will throw a fit in the restaurant. You will have to breastfeed your teething baby in the middle of a museum. Remember, pain = suffering x resistance. When stressful moments come, try not to worry too much about being despised by the people around you. Most of them are glad that it’s you and not them having to deal with whatever situation it is. And remember, most of them have been in your shoes and are sympathizing, not judging. Traveling with small children never fails to restore my faith in humanity. In five years and 40+ flights with my kids, I’ve only encountered one curmudgeon who complained; the vast majority of people are extremely kind and encouraging.
Even though it may be a little more work, travel is one of the best experiences you can give your kids. It is an education unlike any other. It fuels their curiosity, their resilience, their openness, and their empathy. It fosters self-confidence, friendships with others, and a strong bond between family members. It forms their character and gives them memories to last a lifetime. I can’t think of a better gift that parents can give their children.
Do you have any tips or tricks to make traveling with toddlers easier, or perhaps a funny story of when things DIDN’T go so well (we love funny stories!)? Pop down to the comments and share with us!