Traveling with kids? Tips for making your family vacation a fun trip with kids
While travelling with young kids can be a challenge, our family has learned a lot about how to make the trip go smoothly. My husband and I have traveled considerably in the 8 years we’ve been parents – including a trip to Sweden with a 2 year old, multiple trips 10 hours across California with 3 children all age 5 and under, a trip with a 3 month old and 4 year-old by myself on a plane, and an international trip to Belize with kids age 4 & 7. The last two summers we have taken all three of our kids – starting at ages 3,5 & 8 – to Costa Rica for 5 weeks.
I certainly would say that while it can be work, by planning ahead and being mindful of everyone’s needs, you can make it a very rewarding and enjoyable experience for all. The following are my top 10 tips to ensure having the happiest of young travelers.
- Before the trip: Set expectations
If you tell your kids how exciting and fun vacation is going to be, and don’t mention anything about the travel time, chances are they are going to be very impatient travelers. Whenever we get ready for a long drive or flight, we always tell the kids that its going to be a very long drive/flight, and that it’s going to be very boring. We say this, of course, even knowing that we have lots of fun activities for them or even if the drive isn’t really going to be very long. It’s amazing how much more patient they are waiting for each new thing, when they’ve already been set up for this.
- Don’t talk up the trip too much
It’s really hard not to talk a lot about an upcoming trip that you’re excited about. But the more you build it up, the more your kids build it up. If your kids are really young, this can even create so much excitement or anxiety, that they melt down before you even start your trip. We used to have the worst 3 hour drives out to our cabin when we told our son where we were going beforehand, and realized that, at his age (when he was 2- or 3-years old), it was best not to tell him where we were going until we were already on the road. We’ve seen very bad behavior at school, and regressing with potty training, with our kids when they had too much anticipation about a trip. At a certain age (for my kids, about 4 or 5), kids are better able to handle the excitement, but its still important not too build up it up too much. No vacation is 100% fun all the time, and kids tend to want them to be, especially if we spend too much time focusing on too many expectations.
- Let them pack their own clothes
This one took a while for me to learn. But, after enough complaints of “Mom/Dad, why didn’t you pack my ____?” I learned my lesson. Yes – let them pack their own clothes! It might sound scary, because what if they forget something important, but I simply do an inspection after they’ve packed to make sure that they are well-prepared. The nice thing about having your kids pack their own clothes is a) it keeps them busy when you are trying to pack; b) it makes them feel part of the preparation process, thus easing their minds and giving them a sense of responsibility; and c) it wards off those complaints about what clothes they have to choose from once there. This works for entertainment and activities as well.
- Give them a suitcase that’s just their size
As a parent of an infant and toddler, I got very used to my child’s items taking over all of my luggage and baggage – wipes always in my purse, a change of clothes and snacks nearby, and using my suitcase for clothes for both of us. And while I could still get away with that even with a 2 and 3 year old (the suitcase sharing), I recently realized how much freer I could be if I just gave my kids dedicated space with their own luggage. Even better, I found some small suitcases that wouldn’t take up too much of our packing room, and where compact enough, and with wheels, so my kids could also carry them through the airport or wherever they go.The suitcases we found were so cute, I couldn’t help get the matching backpacks – which turned out to be perfect for them to carry their own snacks and entertainment too.
We had each child pick out a color & design that they loved. Brilliance! Now, they are so enthusiastic to pull around their own child-sized luggage no matter where we go. And I suddenly have my space and my arms more free than I ever would’ve thought possible when travelling with 3 young children. I highly recommend the luggage sets from O3 – click here – but any child-sized/designed luggage set will help give you back your freedom. In our family, these seemed appropriate for age 3 and up, with the 3 year old not carrying her own luggage all the time, but the kids age four and up carrying their own luggage the entire time while travelling. While buying additional luggage may seem costly, if you are planning air travel, you will also likely benefit from reducing your need for checked luggage with these small, carry-on size pieces, that easily pay for themselves if they help you forgo round trip checked baggage charges.
- En Route: Save the best entertainment for last
Most parents these days have some sort of digital device for allowing kids to watch movies, play video games, or generally “veg-out.” While these devices can be effective, even these run out of their entertainment value if overused. And if you run out of the really good entertainment, then you are most certainly left with some cranky kids to deal with. Instead, I find it works well to provide as little entertainment as needed, and start with little or no entertainment, doling out a little bit more only when it becomes necessary. When my kids first get in the car for a 10 hour drive, for example, I try to get away with as much as 2 hours with them sitting and staring out the windows. Then, when they start to complain, out comes something simple – a pencil and paper, for example. We’ll move up to a travel board game or looking for signs next, and so on. I’ll keep the digital devices for the second half of the trip, and let them know, if they start to ask for them, that they won’t come out until a certain time, which keeps them from asking for them every 10 minutes. Amazingly, there have been times we’ve gone on a 7+ hour drive and never even gotten to them!
- Don’t be caught without backup snacks
One thing I’ve learned about travelling – you suddenly lack the routine that home provides for kids eating and sleeping habits – and what can ensue is a very cranky child. While it may be difficult, depending on your travel plans, to get sleep in the quantity or timing that your child needs, there is no reason to also subject them or you to crankiness due to hunger. Always pack snacks, and extras, even if you plan on stopping somewhere to eat – you can always let the child skip a large meal at a restaurant if they’ve filled up on snacks, but you can not recover a hungry child in the middle of a long drive or flight if you are looking for somewhere to stop and eat and can’t find a good option.
- Prevent car sickness
It didn’t take long to realize that my girls got carsick when going on long, windy roads. There was a period where our family could not go on a long road trip without someone getting sick in the car. But it took longer for us to learn that there is something that can be done about it – aside from driving extremely slow with the windows open. Dramamine actually can be taken by kids – even though there is no kids formula. If you look on the back of the product, the directions specifically mention that kids can take a half-portion of the adult’s dosage. I have found even a third of the adult dose is enough for my two- and four-year-old. And, there is an added benefit to taking Dramamine, which is that the kids get incredibly sleepy and often take a nap! Win-win!
- At Your Destination: Don’t try & pack too much in
You probably know this from day-trips, but it deserves a mention here anyway. It doesn’t matter if you are just down the street from your neighborhood, or in a foreign country, trying to pack too much in makes everyone miserable. One main activity for the day, with a couple of potential side trips that can be taken based on everyone’s energy level, or a break for quiet time at your hotel/lodging mid-day, keeps everyone positive and energized.
- Choose one thing the kids will love and one thing you will love for each day
Family vacations don’t have to be all about what the kids will enjoy! Make sure you pick some things the adults will enjoy as well. I find it works well to break up the day with something the kids would like first, then something the adults would like (although, granted, these don’t have to be mutually exclusive).
- Let them know when you will return home well in advance
Have you ever carried a crying toddler out of a playground? Then you already know what I’m talking about here. Make sure you let your kids know prior to your checking out of the hotel, that the end of your trip, or even your stay at one destination in your trip, is coming to an end soon. Obviously this depends on age, but its better to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them know about a day before you are leaving that this is the last day at that location.
With patience and flexibility, travelling near and far with young kids can be quite enjoyable… more importantly, with some advance planning, you can make your travel time be much more pleasant! Something we all can be thankful for. Happy travels this summer!