Traveling with Young Children

Photo by Gauri Ma

Photo by Gauri Ma

Does even the thought of traveling with young children give you chills? Yes, it can be a daunting task, but I’m here to tell you that it can be done!

My family and I moved abroad a few years back and ended up living in Europe for almost four years. In that time I planned and went on at least 30 family vacations with young children. By the age of 3, my son had traveled to 30 countries.

Whether it’s a day trip, weekend getaway or 10-hour plane ride, traveling with kids can be done sanely, safely and somewhat enjoyably for all involved. Here’s what you need to do:

Plan, plan and plan some more. Leave nothing to chance.

Plan your daily activities around nap times. You don’t have to be locked in a hotel room for naps; you can plan drive time between destinations, stroll through a quiet museum or sit by a babbling brook while your child snoozes in a comfy stroller. Also be sure to get back to your hotel early each night so everyone can sleep and be fresh for the next day. You can only expect so much from an exhausted baby.

Try to book two adjoining hotel rooms or a suite so that you and your partner can enjoy some privacy after the kids are asleep. If that’s not possible, try this: Bring two sets of headphones and your laptop. Then, once the little ones are asleep, you and your partner can relax in bed and watch a movie on the computer with no disturbing noise. Also, pack a white noise machine to block out nighttime hotel chatter.

Get breakfast included with your hotel room rate. That’s one less meal you have to think about. Plus, if you’re in a foreign country, it’s always easier to see the food on a buffet rather than ordering from a menu you can’t read. By the way, ice cream, sorbet and gelato all count as nutritious meals while on vacation!

Overpack. If you think you won’t need it, bring it anyway.

Pack your child’s favorite toy (as long as you can buy a new one if it gets lost). Pack extra blankies, binkies, baby dolls—whatever is familiar and comforting—so they can cuddle when they get tired or out of sorts in a new place.

Make a list of everything you need to pack well in advance. It’s easy to overlook something when you’re packing for yourself plus one, two or even three more people, and a list really does help. That said, don’t panic if you forget something. Almost anything you’d pack from home can likely be purchased at your destination. Once you embrace this fact, you’ll relax. I promise! It’s only the really important stuff you need to take care to remember: passports, money, car keys, reservations, phone, tickets.

Research. A little planning goes a long way.

Do a Google search for “family-friendly things in  [name your city].” Also, ask friends and relatives for recommendations. I planned many trip details based solely on friends’ advice.

Book family-friendly hotels. (Think pool, playground, bathtub, crib, non–5-star restaurant.) Save the posh traveling for when you leave the little ones with the in-laws. This is not the trip to try the hottest new boutique hotel in the city.

Plan at least one special activity for the kids on the trip (amusement park, train ride, zoo, aquarium or beach day). Come to terms with the fact that you might not see all the sites on this trip. I cannot tell you how many cities I’ve been to during the day but never seen at night. I hear the Eiffel Tower is spectacular lit up in the evening, but I wouldn’t know. I was always bathing a baby at dusk and asleep by 9:00! Be realistic; with an infant, you are not going to be able to hike all day, scuba dive or wait in a line for hours at a museum. Focus on things that everyone will enjoy as a family.

Research local customs and hours of operation for anything you want to visit. There’s nothing more horrifying than showing up for dinner at a restaurant at 5 only to discover they don’t open until 7. If you’re  going somewhere with nice weather, research all local parks. That way when the kids get antsy after a day of being strapped in their strollers, you can hit a park for 30 minutes and let them run their legs off. This should recharge them for the next round of sightseeing.

Additional Tips for Air Travel

  • Yes, babies under 2-years-old fly for free, but if you can afford it, I highly recommend buying babies their own seats. I cannot stress enough how much more you’ll appreciate your trip if your child is in her own seat on the plane strapped into her carseat from home. (Just make sure the carseat is airline approved. Call the airline in advance.) For one thing, it’s safer. And, typically, being in the carseat prevents a child’s little legs from reaching the seat in front of her, thus relieving you from repeating this sentence the entire flight: “Please stop kicking that seat. The man in front of you doesn’t like your tiny foot imprints on his kidneys!”

  • Pack a change of clothes—for you, the kids, your husband and maybe the passengers sitting around you. Things seem to get extra messy in small spaces.
  • Pack a portable DVD player and the kids’ favorite movies. Do not count on the plane supplying a TV or kid-appropriate movies.
  • Pack food, food and more food. Limit sugar and sweets. These can lead to energy, and energy is not good on a plane.
  • Pack coloring books and crayons, stickers, books and small toys to keep kids entertained.
  • Bring a small surprise for “emergency” meltdowns. Choose whatever makes your child happy—a new Matchbox car, gum, a book—whatever. Wrap it like a present. Then pull it out and watch as your child exclaims with joy and surprise—hopefully for more than 10 minutes. You are literally buying time here, people!
  • Pack special blankies, binkies and lovies. Also pack your own blankets and small pillows—not all airlines supply those items anymore.  Make this adventure as comfortable as possible for the little ones.
  • Don’t forget to bring medications in your carry-on (prescriptions, gas meds, Tylenol, nasal spray, diaper rash cream, etc.). They should be able to pass security since you are traveling with an infant.
  • Walk around. We’ve all seen those parents pacing the airplane aisle. Yep—that’s going to be you now.
  • Make “friends” with other passengers and/or the flight crew. You’ll need allies in case of a full-on tantrum once airborne. And if a tantrum happens, accept it and embrace it. Pull out every soothing trick you have and just go with it. Don’t fight it or apologize. Your child will eventually calm down, and you’ll never see those other passengers again in your life (fingers crossed!).

Most of all, enjoy your family vacation! Your stress will be short-lived, but the trip memories will last a lifetime.

Kristen Podulka is a seasoned marketing professional, mother of two young children and founder of, a cooking website that offers recipes for real, fresh, fabulous food. Kristen and her family recently moved back to the Bay Area after living in Europe for the past four years.

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