Tips for Traveling with Kids
Traveling with kids for most parents is as scary as a trek in the arctic tundra: complicated, long, and potentially dangerous. Kids need a lot of crap when they travel. Whether you are going two hours away or crossing continents with wiggly kids, for mom it always feels like an epic trip. You never know what their mood will be.You have to battle poop explosions, meltdowns, aside from the evil stares of your fellow travelers. Yep, scary.
I started traveling with my little munchkin when she was four months old. That first year we took a crazy road trip from Alsace in the north of France to Mediterranean Marseille, then Italy and Switzerland. A few months later I took her to New York and then another road trip across Texas. That was all from four to eight months. She is nearly three years old now and has been on countless train, plane, and car trips all over Europe and America. I dragged her around on my book tour last fall and we are planning a trip to Asia soon.
As expats we have to travel a lot to visit our families back home. We also travel plenty just because we are so lucky to live in Europe. So easy to visit Spain, Germany, Greece, Italy—everything is so close and budget airlines make travel affordable. Yes traveling with the kid seemed scary for me at first but I quickly figured out how to survive it and I would love to share some tips and tricks.
First off my number one tip above everything else: be prepared and be on time. When traveling with kids, do not, I repeat, do not leave anything to the last minute. Plan early, pack early, arrive at the airport or train station early.
Below is a list of things I believe are absolutely essential when traveling with kids. Call me crazy if you want but this stuff really really keeps the trip smooth and organized.
Checklist- The checklist is my number one essential item for traveling with kids. This is always my starting point. The few times I foolishly packed and planned without my trusty list were a disaster. Without that list I have forgotten mes lunettes, gifts, important documents, phone chargers, and feeding bottles.
*check back tomorrow when we share a download of our checklist!
Backpack- I know I know, a backpack doesn’t sound chic at all to this stylish mom and those moms who love the art and accoutrements of travel. Listen, I was dead against a backpack at first, but the first time I left my chic carryon at home in favor of the backpack changed my life. Well at least it made things lighter and gave me two hands. Find a backpack you like and make sure there are compartments to organize things in ziplocks. Nothing worse than putting your hand into the abyss that is your bag in search for something.
Little Backpack- With a toddler, a little backpack full of toys, games, and snacks will save your sanity. Pack ahead of time, build up the excitement that they will get to wear it when they go on the big train or the big airplane. I know the little wheely carryons are adorable but expecting a toddler to manage their suitcase without running over other people’s feet and all that is unrealistic. My basic rule of thumb is to pack a new activity for every 30 minutes of travel. (And for the younger ones with shorter attention span go with every 15-20 minutes.) Add a few old trusty toys they love and then buy or make some new stuff they have never seen before. This sounds like a lot but you will be very grateful for that little backpack. What you don’t use on the plane can be used at your destination or on the trip home.
A few suggestions to add to your little backpack: print out a few coloring pages from Made by Joel, this pop-up paper city in a box was an easy print out, stickers, coloring and activity books, magnetic fishing game, puzzles, and any random cheap toys in the 99 cent section at the store.
Tech device- When the kid has gone through their backpack or you need to break it up, it’s time to bust out the tech device. This can be an ipad, ipod, or computer with movies and games. If you are anti-tech devices you might want to save that pure parenting for another day that ain’t travel day. Once your tot is happily watching Frozen or Curious George for the zillionth time you can order a drink and enjoy the in-flight entertainment yourself. (Tip for parents with kids who never use tech devices at home: I suggest introducing it to them in the week and days leading up to take-off. This helps them get used to the idea so that on the plane they don’t just look at you like crazy and toss the thing.)
A few suggestions to load up on the Ipad before travel day: Moo, Baa, La La audio book, Peekaboo Barn, Elmo ABCs, and any Toca Boca apps. Visit Common Sense Media to check ratings and age recommendations for various apps.
Baby Carrier- As you can see I am all about getting those two hands back so I always always always take a baby wrap or a carrier like the Ergo baby. (Of course this depends on the age and weight of your child.) When I am going through security with a baby or toddler it helps to keep them in one place while I am taking shoes off and electronics out. I used the baby wrap to go to the toilet on the plane. It’s not easy to use the toilet when you travel alone!
Ziplocks- Oh man ziplocks are the bomb for traveling with kids. First of all I use them to pack her clothes and then I pack a few extras in my carryon for smelly diapers, wet clothes, trash, you name it–they are essential! I separate clothes by category into different bags. It makes getting her dressed super easy. I have read about moms who pack each outfit per day into each ziplock, which sounds wonderful and something I plan to try on my next trip. Grab a bag each day or grab bags of shirts, pants to make life trés simple.
Take off and landing beverages- For a baby either breastfeed, formula for bottle or sippy cup with juice. I don’t offer her anything until the flight is ready to take off so she is sure to take it and drink away to help her ears. Once I gave it to her too early and she refused to drink during take off! I basically started begging and panicking as I imagined the misery if her ears hurt. Thankfully she took it just as the plane was really starting to ascend. But the key is they need to be drinking and swallowing!
WHAT YOU NEED IN YOUR CARRY-ON
- Pack a first-aid kit in your carryon. You don’t need to pack a hundred things but for a long flight stuff like arnica gel for bruises, doliprane or tylenol, a few band-aids, a thermometer, and vicks are perfect.
- Don’t leave home without extra clothes. When you travel the following things that might not happen regularly will happen to you: blowouts, vomit, slobber, spit-up, and spills. I always take two outfits for my sloppy 2-year-old.
- Pack a diaper for every hour or two that you are in transit.
- Take lots of snacks but stay away from the sugary ones. I repeat: stay away from sugary snacks. I have seen moms pack lollipops because it occupies their time sucking on it. But what happens 15 minutes after they are finished?!?! You just created a hyper little monster you now have to manage for another too many hours. Just do yourself a favor: pack sugar-free snacks. Another important reason to pack snacks and even food is because not all kids are down with the flight meal? Also you will be happy for those snacks if there is a flight delay and the plane issitting on the tarmac for 2 hours–it happened to me! Pack snacks and food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Or if necessary ask the flight attendant to put something in the fridge for you.
- You will need hand sanitizer wipes to wipe down that tray your kid plans to lick. Traveling is a germy affair so do your part to minimize sick kids and germ spreading.
- As I already stated and will repeat: plan ahead and always be early. It just makes traveling with kids more enjoyable. There is nothing worse than forgetting something or running through an airport or to catch a train with a crying child. Just be there mega early.
- Plan your departure around sleep times to increase the odds your child will sleep.
- For bed and nap times, take something from home and try to stick to the usual bedtime routine. I take my daughter’s blanket, flavor-of-the-month-teddy bear, her current favorite bedtime story book, and ipod with the usual bedtime music.
- When traveling at night, dress your kid in jammies or change into them once it’s getting close to their usual bedtime. This helps them get into sleep mode. Everyone loves a cute kid running through the airport in PJs.
- This might not work for everyone, but when we are traveling far and the time zone will be dramatically different I start putting my daughter to bed later or early each day by 30 minute increments to minimize jet lag.
- For travel day think about the clothes and shoes you wear. Shoes that slide on and off will help you zip through security. Minimal jewelry (talking to myself here and my oversized vintage baubles) and beltless clothing is one less thing to undo for the metal detector. For moms, a skirt or dress you can quickly pull up makes toilet time easier. Leave the silks and dry-clean fabrics for another day.
- After you pass airport security buy a big water bottle. I don’t bother asking for water on a plane. They give it to you in a small cup and it usually spills. Not fun. Plus they take too long to bring water sometimes depending on where you are sitting. (Not talking to the first classers here.) With a giant lidded bottle you can control things a bit.
- When booking your hotel, if you can afford it, book a suite or choose an apartment rental. You will be grateful to have a place for the kid to sleep separately while mom can stay up a bit longer. Also you will appreciate the kitchen and fridge.
- Think about what you can rent, borrow, or buy at your destination to limit the amount of crap you have to lug in transit. Perhaps can buy diapers and bath products when you arrive? If you can borrow or rent strollers, highchairs, car seats, and beds where you are going, you should do it. There are many rental companies in France and the States that will have what you need waiting for you at your hotel or apartment.
- If you need a bassinet for your flight every airline has a different policy. Look into this ahead of time. Some you need to call as soon as you book your ticket and others are first-come first-serve.
- Babies and kids need to move. If you are on an airplane or train walk the aisles. If you are driving stop at playgrounds. If you have a long layover walk the airport or ride the trains. And check to see if your airport is on the kid-friendly list with play spaces and mini exhibitions.
- Before my daughter was two year’s old I never bought her a seat on the plane. At check-in be very nice and ask if by chance there are any extra seats on the plane. Nine times out of ten, they moved us to where there was an extra seat and let me on with my car seat so she could have a seat to herself.
- My final tip is super personal. I had to get over the idea of being the most glamorous traveler when traveling with my child. I look like a homeless person when I travel sometimes and I no longer care. You don’t have to look like a bum like me, but travel smart and be comfortable. Also try not to waste your energy on the evil looks you will inevitably get from your neighbors. Just hand them some earplugs or smile and kill them with kindness.
Enjoy your travels! I would love to hear any additional travel tips you have in the comments below!
All images by Ajiri Aki, except airport security by Dan Paluska.