What To Do When You Travel With Kids (And One Thing Never To Do)

Here’s a confession for today:  I hate traveling.  I mean, I despise it.  I hate everything about it:  sleeping in new beds, being out of my routine, packing, riding in cars, going to airports, sitting in traffic, waiting in airport lines, being confined in cars or airplanes for long periods of time, being stuck in bad weather.

For weeks before I have a trip scheduled, I start worrying about it.  When should we leave?  What will be the sleeping arrangements?  What should I bring?  How much will this cost?  (I’m sure I could go into extensive therapy about why I hate traveling so much, but I’ll save a few thousand dollars and hundreds of hours and just admit right now that I can be a control freak.)

My husband is baffled by why I’m such an unpleasant, worrying traveler.  He looks forward to trips, to the breaks in routine.  He literally takes out a bag — doesn’t matter which — and throws a bunch of stuff together a few minutes before leaving for a trip.  He’s giddy with excitement about getting away to new places.

Airport security line
Airport security line (Photo credit: oddharmonic)

The birth of my son only magnified my previous issues with traveling.

When my son was a few months old, we moved from Boston to Buffalo.  I would travel alone to Buffalo by plane with the baby — who was then in grips of horrendous colic — and my husband would stay behind, meet the moving vans, and drive our car (with the pets) to Buffalo the next day.

Watching airplanes
Watching airplanes (Photo credit: ryaninc)

From the day my son was born, I worried about every possible scenario:  What if the plane is delayed and I would be stuck in an airport for hours with a screaming newborn?  What if I forget something crucial for a baby — wipes, a pacifier — and every item that we owned was packed away in a moving van?  What if everyone on the plane is mean to me when the baby cries for the whole trip?

None of that happened.  I prepared well, and the trip was uneventful.  Pleasant even.  As pleasant as traveling with a new baby can be.  (Certainly preferable to the endless car trip with a wailing cat and a needy dog that my husband endured.)

Baby naps in airplane using the Downtime Sleep...
Baby naps in airplane using the Downtime Sleepy hat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what’s the magic formula to successful, happy travel alone or with children, especially for an anxious traveler? Prepare well but then let it go.  Embrace the uncontrollable.  Don’t obsess but be prudent.  Think about your needs and your child’s but know that you can’t anticipate everything.

Here are my tips:

1.  Be realistic about what to expect from your kids.  Kids — especially infants and young kids — thrive on routine.  When their day to day life changes, you can expect that your child will probably have some unexpected difficulties.  Now is not the time to have high expectations for a newly potty trained toddler.  Or to think your new baby will be sleeping through the night.

2.  Do think about food.  Make sure your kids will be well-fed during every part of your journey.  Bring more snacks and drinks than you could think they would consume.  Well-fed kids are less cranky and you can’t rely on the quality or quantity of food on airplanes, in airports, or gas stations.  Here are some great travel snack ideas!

3.  Bring a surprise.  Whether your child is a baby or a grade schooler, bring something unexpected on the journey.  Pack a little goody bag.  A new rattle can fascinate a baby endlessly.  A new game can distract a tired preschooler from going into a meltdown.

4.  Bring your electronic gadgets, fully charged.  Fill it with music, your kids’ favorite episodes, and your child’s favorite stories.  There are smart apps for kids that are perfect for your next trip.

5.  Don’t go crazy with gear.  Try to embrace your inner minimalistic.  Your baby doesn’t need three carriers. (Yes, I have done this.) You don’t need every toy in your house.  You’ll thank me when you’re lugging around six suitcases of stuff around the airport.

6.  Relax.  If you’re a nervous wreck when you travel, you’re going to pass that anxiety onto your kids.  Try your best to go with the flow, and your kid will be more likely to do the same.  Use a spare moment or two to practice a relaxation technique, such as deep breathing.

7.  Start in baby steps.  If you’re going for a really long trip, practice a smaller one first.  Take short car rides before your long one.  Like anything else, practice helps.

8.  Make sure your destination will be child friendly.  That means making sure that medication is kept up and away out of reach of children while you travel and once you arrive.  Put any medications in a safe place — yours and others’ — whether you’re at a relative’s house or in your hotel room. Make sure your sleeping arrangements will be just as safe as your crib or bed at home.

And, finally, here is what you should not do.  When I told relatives and friends about traveling with my colicky, fussy baby, I often received advice about using medications to sedate him.  Don’t do it.

I asked our pediatrician about giving medication to our baby to relax him or make him sleep when we traveled.  He told me that it wasn’t safe and he would never recommend that for infants or children.  Yet, according to a Parenting Magazine poll, up to 18% of parents confess to medicating a child before a long car ride or plane trip!

Always talk to your doctor about the appropriate use of  over-the-counter medication with your child.

As a parent or caregiver, you have to make a lot of decisions about your kid’s health.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed.  OTC Safety reminds us that there are many over-the-counter (OTC) options available to help make your child feel better when he or she isn’t well, but be careful to only use a medicine that treats your child’s specific symptoms. Even though they’re not prescription medicines, OTCs are real medicines and should  be given to your child according to the label instructions. Never use cough, cold, or allergy medicines to sedate your child.

Traveling with children can be hard. Exhausting even. I miss the days of the open road: just me, my dog, and a tape deck. But you can also learn a lot from new adventures, as a family.

What are your strategies for traveling with your kids?  What have I missed?

Disclosure: I receive compensation for this post as part of the CHPA OTC Safety Ambassador program. However, all of the opinions here are my own.  




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13 thoughts on “What To Do When You Travel With Kids (And One Thing Never To Do)”

  1. Thanks for the tips! I am going to be making that same BOS–>BUF flight in a couple of weeks. I’ve been planning for 4 months, but still feel unprepared. Probably just need to relax…it’s only an hour and a half flight!

  2. It really wasn’t so bad! You’ll be fine. For me, the Boston to Buffalo flight is the absolute perfect flight. Easy, short, cheap. And it sure beats driving for a million hours across the NY Thruway!

  3. Love this post…totally helpful tips and you described my approach to travel perfectly…and my hubby is JUST like yours…loves it, can’t wait, blah, blah, blah. Not me sister. I wish I were less that way, but I am not.-Ashley

  4. Many, many changes of clothes for everyone traveling with you, in the carry on. If it’s a baby, and you’re going on a plane, bring the car seat even if it feels like a huge inconvenience. Your kid will probably be more likely to sleep in the familiar “chair” and you will have your hands free.

    Ignore the haters. Appreciate the other parents who offer to help, and take them up on it. We wouldn’t offer if we didn’t mean it.

  5. SUCH good advice! The first time we traveled with my son (I believe he was 15 months old), we brought an ENTIRE SUITCASE full of toys. So dumb. The whole world is a toy to a baby or small child. Now we just bring one book and one stuffed animal. And we never even end up reading the book.

    1. I know! I always feel like I should bring lots of books, but we never read them anywhere when we’re away somewhere. As if a toddler is going sit down and read books when there are completely new things to see and discover?

  6. Great advice! My husband travels a lot for work, so he is usually the one that takes care of the details, but I have to remind him to allow a little extra time if the kids are going to be with us. I have to remind him that we cannot skip meals until we reach another destination or arrive somewhere at 11pm. However, I have also found that kids (at least my kids) tend to be a little more resilient than I give them credit for. They adjust to the different schedules pretty well.

    1. That’s good that your kids adjust! It’s a tough balance: you want to teach your kids to “go with the flow” but you also don’t want to upset their routines too much!

  7. Change the diaper as soon as you get off the plane. Don’t think oh, I’ll clear Immigration. My daughter was cheerfully gurgling away in the sling, my toddler had my hand and we were juuust about to walk up to the customs desk when her diaper decided it was done. So as I handed over our passports suddenly the sling, the baby and I were soaked in pee. Fun fact, they won’t let you open your suitcase in the baggage area. No. So then I tromped thru customs DRIPPING.
    Also, when the toddler was a baby he somehow managed to pee thru 3 outfits in one plane ride. It’s a big hassle to try and change a kid in an airplane bathroom, but it’s worse to spend any amount of time covered in pee.

  8. Yes, yes, yes!! I HATE sleeping away from home and all the rigmarole that goes along with traveling. My hubby loves it, my son loves it, but my daughter takes after me, which makes it even more of a nightmare. Sigh. Great tips!

  9. These are great tips, Jessica. It’s much easier to travel with older kids, when music and headphones are key. On our flights this summer to CA, we were surrounded by little ones traveling with their parents. I simultaneously felt sympathy for the stressed out parents and relief that it wasn’t me!

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