Traveling with children is never easy. Managing long journeys with kids requires non-human nerve, stamina and stability. And factoring children’s needs into your desired travel schedule involves a lot more than a play-list of kiddie tunes and frequent toilet stops.
Unfamiliar timetables, jet lag disrupting a well-established routine, not to mention the stress of check-in lines, passport control queues and security checks are enough to break any seasoned traveler, even more so if doing it with kids as single parents. As far as air travel, despite clever planning and time management, the taking off of shoes, placing items in bins through X-ray conveyor belts is always a no fun, panic game. Ask any three year-old to walk through a metal detector without his blanket – or not clutching mom’s hand – and there’s room for fear on the smaller end and impatience from the uniforms. Hurriedly re-assembling pieces and walking through endless terminals to reach the designated gate exhausts frazzled adults, imagine potential time-bomb tantrum children. This all happens before even nearing the boarding lounge, with the bulk of the journey still ahead… Rail, boat and road journeys with little ones are no less stressful.
Is there a secret for making travel with children seamless or at least bearable? Maybe not, but I have accumulated enough mileage to share some helpful hints for parents traveling with tiny humans in their care. The best thing to do when approaching extended travel with kids is wise planning, keeping clutter to a minimum and staying calm. Here are my tips for traveling with children:
- Whether camping or staying in 4-star hotels, if traveling with little ones it pays to reserve lodging ahead. Unplanned hitches can always happen, but with meltdown material it’s best to make hotel/guesthouse reservations way ahead in order to minimize risk upon arrival at the destination. Check for special family deals, including discounted rates and free meals for kids: many international hotel chains offer these.
- Remember that the ordeal of traveling begins way earlier than boarding time. Book smart air/train travel times. For longer flights, ferry, bus and train rides, consider making reservations for ones that don’t leave too early in the morning or during your child’s nap or meal times. Night journeys are the best: darkness and quiet guarantee precious shut-eye. On evening flights it might be wise to feed kids before the plane takes off. Younger children will also feel more comfortable in their pajamas.
- If you plan on getting around with a rental car, select daytime travel instead, especially if exploring a foreign country. Invest in a good satellite navigation system, with updated maps and traffic alerts, remember to reserve a car/booster seat and bring along a trustworthy translator app.
- Plan connections with ample layover, three hours at least. Unplanned delays can overthrow your entire itinerary, forcing you to rush through unfamiliar terminals, depots and stations in order to make your connection.
- Children’s passports generally only last 5 years and they have a pesky habit of expiring when you’re not checking. Allow at least 3-4 weeks to renew one. I don’t know about where you live, but in Italy the cost for a last-minute passport is astronomical.
- Visit your pediatrician 4 weeks prior to departure and inform the child’s practitioner about your travel plans. Monitor your children’s health closely and be sure to contain first signs of sniffles with plenty Vitamin C. Ear-ache during a transcontinental flights causes excruciating pain to your little ones and the wailing does not sit well with fellow passengers. Don’t ask me why I know this.
- Pack light, period. I can’t stress this enough. Children under age 7 and heavy luggage is the recipe for a failed vacation. Since weight is the key word, make sure you’re starting with lightweight suitcases to begin with. A word to the wise: check your baggage only if you absolutely must. I have learned to travel with carry-on only, but that’s an art form mastered over the course of several decades of intercontinental journeys (and many lost luggage reports filled).
- When you feel like you’ve packed light enough, undo the bags and lay out all the items back on your bed. Cut down more and pack again: nine out of ten you’ll always find superfluous items that can be pulled out. I work well with packing cubes, which allow to organize everyone’s luggage according to outfit, or that can divide clothes in tops, bottoms, onesies, lingerie, etc. I use the bundle-technique, but the burrito strategy also works for maximizing suitcase space, although it tends to wrinkle and crease the clothes more.
- If you absolutely cannot avoid checking-in your baggage, and end up travelling with lots of heavy checked-in luggage, you may want to ship suitcases and bulky items such as strollers and surfboards via a baggage delivery service. Most charge by kilo, try FirstLuggage or Carry My Luggage to get a quote.
- Pack spare clothes, extra diapers and wet wipes for the kids in a small backpack they each can carry. Other essentials are hoodies that help to protect from nasty cabin air conditioning and provide shade in case Mr. Sandman arrives. When I travel, be it in the air, on rails or on wheels, I always wear a pashmina that doubles as blanket. My son swears by a lightweight down jacket that when squished, fits into a pouch shaped like a neck pillow.
- Pack a small first aid kit. Mine always contains easy-to-swallow fever reducing medication, cough drops, antihistamines, motion sickness medication, arnica balm for contusions, band-aids, Vitamin C powders that can dissolve in water, tea tree oil, antiseptic wipes, mosquito repellent, sunblock and a thermometer. For skin allergies or rashes, I bring a tube of over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream.
- There’s really no need to pack a bag of toys when travelling with kids. Do bring a special book, stickers and magic scribblers (I have lost more of my son’s crayons and markers down the side of seats than I care to remember). On the other hand, the most compact form of entertainment is your tablet or smartphone loaded with fun child-friendly apps and games. If headed overseas, remember the plug adaptor!
- If you’ll be driving a car for long stretches, think about bringing along on-board entertainment for the wee ones, like movies downloaded on your mobile device, a tape deck or a portable DVD player fitted with a battery charger cable (one that connects to the cigarette lighter). For the driver’s psyche, equip the viewers with headphones.
- I suggest never locking your luggage. Rather have each piece tagged and identified with a special color ribbon, pompon, tag-holder, etc. I always snap a photo of my luggage, this comes in handy should I have to describe it in a lost luggage report.
More travel tips for mental sanity
- If this is your first time traveling with children, plan for a slower pace than you might usually attempt (as you would have in Life Before Children). Be realistic about what you can cover during yours travels, especially with toddlers in tow. Factor in bad weather days and jet lag before you commit to an action-packed itinerary without leaving any wiggle room.
- Often a bite to eat can sedate a tantrum, break a boredom spell and give kids an activity during long journeys. Pack some hunger-busters for the trip, but be wise: fruit bruises dangerously, so avoid fresh peaches, grapes and bananas: too perishable. Apples are OK, but sometimes the waxy skins are too coarse, which means chewing forever, so peeled wedges are preferred. Dried fruits are always a good idea: banana chips, dried apricots, raisins, candied ginger (great against motion sickness). Pretzels, pumpkin seeds and salted nuts are great for energy, but make you thirsty. Sandwiches can come apart in your bag. So pack a stack of crackers and wedges of Swiss cheese, carrot and celery sticks, protein bars and citrus fruits like tangerines or oranges, whose aromatic spray when peeled is a welcome air freshener. Resist the temptation to keep kids alert on a long journey by feeding them candy. It’s best to avoid arriving in a foreign city with kids in the middle of a sugar rush.
- On the plane make sure each child has chewing gum to help equalize ears during take off and landing. An airline hostess once handed my son two plastic cups to place over his ears right before landing, this made for a fun game and reduced the discomfort associated with changes in cabin pressure.
- The minute I started walking my mother strapped me in reins and walked me like a poodle. My son would not have any of that morbid stuff and most toddlers may react the same way. But for keeping tabs on mobile kids of all ages in airports, train stations, ports, bus depots and crowded attractions, you can consider investing in a child locator. The child wears a small unit strapped to a belt or piece of clothing (avoid shoes) and parents keep the transmitter (usually a downloadable app for their phone). I’ve tried Fisk.io and Trax which have a built-in GPS system that tracks and signals the child’s whereabouts on your smartphone.
- Designate a meeting point in each new place you visit in case anyone gets separated from the group. If you’ll be in really dense crowds, promise a reward for staying together.
- Find out where the kiddie areas are at major airports, so instead of making children wait in line for check-in or car rental processing, one parent or care-taker can oversee the kids while they let off steam in the play area and the other adults do all the boring stuff.
- I’m not usually a big fan of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers but when traveling with my little boy, it’s a different story. During said times they become handbag essentials. Unsure of hygiene or seeing no washing facilities nearby? A wipe or a squirt and quick rub can zap germs and commonly caught bugs in public bathrooms, restaurants, airports, museums, cabins, coaches, etc.
- Get your children started on a holiday-related project before leaving. This is a great way to prepare them for what’s to come. Pore over maps, make a game of studying the history, geography, animal and plant life of your destination, read books or watch a family-friendly film that’s set in the country you’ll be exploring.
- Ask the kids to draw and list things they’ve seen and interesting foods they’ve tasted during the trip by keeping a travel journal. This may also encourage them to try new, exotic foods!
- Buy a disposable camera or a child’s compact digital (Nikon makes one that is also waterproof). This encourages kids to observe their surroundings and focus on what interests them. Collecting postcards from visited places and writing the message on the back also gives kids a fantastic library of cosmopolitan memories.
- Need to avoid soul-destroying sulk and eyerolls from tweens and adolescents during travel? Involve them in the planning of the trip. Ask them for input on what they’d like to do. The feedback could be surprising.
What’s your travel-with-kids strategy?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.