The phrase “vacationing with kids” is pretty much an oxymoron when you have small children. Traveling is usually so much work that vacation is just not the right word. But the adventure and memories made are almost always worth it. At least, that’s what I tell myself each time I’m planning a trip.
I’ve traveled with one kid, with two kids, and now with three. It’s funny how it felt really tough at each stage, and now looking back I think “what was hard about traveling with one kid? Traveling with one really IS a vacation!” And while it doesn’t get any easier the more kids you have, you do get better at it. So I thought I’d share a few lessons learned about “family vacations” and traveling with small children.
Go in with no expectations.
I’m really bad about creating these fantasies in my head about how something will go and then feeling disappointed because something didn’t live up to my expectations. And just about the worst thing you can do when planning a trip with little ones is go into it with a bunch of expectations on how things will go. If you plan and prepare the best you can and know ahead of time that something will go wrong then you’re doing the best you can. And when things do go well and you do get to have amazing experiences then you’ll appreciate them even more.
If you pack nothing else, remember these three things: iPad, snacks, and a baby carrier. Those are my top three travel essentials for traveling with small children. When traveling by plane my philosophy is do what you have to do to survive. I pack the iPad with as many movies as will fit for the older ones (plus two pairs of headphones with a splitter so they can both listen) and have no problem letting them watch them for the entire flight. I also always have paper, coloring books, stickers, crayons, and colored pencils. I pack more snacks than I would think three kids would possibly be able to eat, plus lollipops. I pull them out anytime I need to and I don’t care how many snacks they have on the flight. And if you have a baby or young toddler, a baby carrier is an absolute lifesaver.
The key to successful travel with small kids is smart packing. Everything that can go into your checked baggage should go into your checked baggage. Designate your carry-on for in-flight and airport essentials and emergencies only. That way you have less to lug around and dig through. Snacks, toys, and activities, food/bottles/formula/nursing supplies for babies, lots of diapers and wipes, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer, any medications any of you might need, a change (or two) of clothes for the kids, an extra shirt for adults (if you have a baby who is likely to spit up or spill), an iPad or other movie-watching device for older kids with headphones, and anything else that will keep your kid busy and happy should be included.
If you are flying, you’ll need to figure out what gear you’ll need at your destination. If at all possible arrange to have access to reliable gear like car seats at your destination. If you need to take baby gear with you, you can check it with your luggage (all baby gear like strollers, car seats, and travel cribs can be checked for free on most airlines, but check with your airline to make sure) or gate check them. Checking them with your luggage is the easiest for you, since you don’t want to have to deal with them through the airport. But gate checking them is safer for your gear. Whenever possible, check your gear in the original packaging or in a designated travel bag. For our most recent trip we checked our DockATot in their travel bag and used it as a travel crib — it worked great!
Also decide if you will need a stroller at your destination or if one will help you at the airport. If you have connections or are traveling alone with kids, a stroller is probably a must. We use our UPPAbaby G-Link stroller (it’s a double umbrella-style stroller) when we’re traveling and love it. You do have to fold it and put it through the metal detector, so keep that in mind. A baby carrier helps with this — you can let your older child walk through security and wear your baby, which keeps your hands free for all of the other stuff. I’ve both been told to take baby out of the carrier to go through security, and been allowed to keep him in as long as I agree to a putdown. Some airlines let you wear your baby at takeoff and landing (and if they don’t, I usually do anyways and just cover us with a blanket and show that our seatbelt is buckled), and if they get fussy mid-flight (which they likely will), walking them up and down the aisle in a carrier is great for calming and helping them sleep. I actually can nurse Quincy in our carrier (my sling works best for us but I’ve also used my Solly wrap when they were under 6 months and my Ergobaby carrier successfully.)
Little known secret: There is a family lane available in many US airports. It’s a great perk to flying with kids and is usually shorter and moves faster than the regular lines. So when you first step up to TSA, request the family lane. Have your ID and boarding passes easily accessible (but secured so you don’t lose them) in an outside pocket of your bag or in your pocket. When it’s your turn, put your tote in a bin, remove any babies or kids and fold down the stroller, pick up your smaller child, and have your older one put their suitcase up by themselves. Kids can keep their shoes on but you can’t, so slip off your shoes last and throw them in your bin (so wear shoes that easily slip on and off). If you have any breast milk, water for the baby’s bottle or sippy cup, or liquid formula in your bag, you can keep it with you, but TSA will test it. And I am usually able to wear baby in a carrier through security but they will want to do a pat down. So you pick your poison there, but it’s good to know in case baby is sleeping.
The time between getting through security and boarding your flight is the best time to let the kids get the wiggles out. Let your older children walk, move, jump, etc. and get out as much energy as possible. Lay a blanket down on the floor for your baby to stretch and roll around. This is also the best time to hit the potty and change diapers one last time before your flight. If your flight isn’t a long one, maybe you won’t need to go into that dreaded airplane bathroom at all. (My baby once pooped three times during a five hour flight, so don’t hold your breath.)
Once it is time to board, try to wait until the end to board so your kids aren’t on the plane any longer than necessary. This works especially well if you only have bags that go under your seat (since the overhead space always fills up) and if you have the aisle seat in your row so you don’t have to crawl over a stranger.
Wipe everything down.
The very first thing you should do when you get to your seats is wipe everything down with sanitizing wipes. Literally everything within reach of your kids needs to be wiped down—the germs on airplanes are beyond disgusting. So try to clean the seats, arm rests, windows, tray tables in front of you, seat belts, and anything else you see (like the window shade if you have a window seat).
Pack a diaper changing caddy or a freezer-size storage bag with a few diapers and a pack of wipes. I really like using this diaper changing station because it makes traveling way easier since it holds wipes & a diaper and is a changing pad as well. When you do need to go into the airplane bathroom, bring your sanitizing wipes and wipe down (at minimum) the changing table and the wall surrounding it. Those things are never cleaned. My husband forgot to do this on our flight when changing a poo diaper, and three days later my baby developed hand, foot, and mouth disease. You’ll never convince me that he didn’t pick that up from the dirty changing table. Ugh.
Get through the flight. Or the drive.
Don’t forget to nurse or give a bottle to your baby during takeoff and landing to relieve the pressure in their ears. A pacifier works too if your baby likes those, but I always time a feeding with takeoff and landing if I can. If your child is older, it may not bother them at all, but a sippy cup or fruit pouch can help. Have new toys to introduce on the plane. Babies love pulling small items out of a bag, and opening and closing things (even a pack of travel wipes with the plastic opening could keep them entertained for thirty minutes). A bag with a zipper is great. I love the books with the flaps—open, close, open, close all flight long. I also like to have a snack handy for babies—Calvin absolutely loved these and ate on them off and on the whole flight. And my older son Charlie loves sticker books and watching movies on his iPad. And don’t forget a pair of kid headphones—the airplane can be quite loud, and it is hard to hear the iPad (and disturbing to other passengers) without headphones. I also pack snacks for him like crackers, fruit pouches, a banana—stuff he likes and that packs easily. I throw in a few things he doesn’t eat frequently, like fruit snacks or lollipops. I opt for convenient and entertaining food over healthy options when on the plane—it’s all about survival.
Road Trips vs. Flights
We’ve flown to Hawaii with one kid under 2, but most of our flights are to visit our families in Ohio/West Virginia where my husband and I are from. Those are usually 1-2 week trips and we have all the gear we need at our destination. But they also involve a long day with connecting flights, layovers, and at least one tiny plane — not ideal with little ones. When we’re planning a “family vacation” we tend to stay closer to our home in Los Angeles. While Kauai is my favorite place to travel with or without kids for an actual relaxing vacation, I love places like Ojai and Laguna Beach (you can see our recent Laguna Beach trip here) and prefer those shorter road trips to the hassle of air travel if possible. And I’m dying to take the boys on the Pacific Surfliner up the coast because train travel seems ideal with small children. While in theory I would love to visit Chicago or NYC or travel abroad with my family, I know that I am just not up for it right now. Three kids is a lot, and I’m already tired as is and just thinking about that kind of travel is very overwhelming. I know my limits, and I do best when I stay within them 🙂
Don’t forget to try to enjoy the journey a little bit. Make a road trip playlist and play car games if you are traveling by car. Document your flight with some photos of your kids on the airplane. Try to get a family photo somewhere along the way. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Make friends with a flight attendant. And if things get really bad, just remember the flight won’t last forever. And you can always buy drinks for the people around you to make it up to them. Or have one yourself 🙂
I love to hear how other moms tackle traveling with kids — oftentimes you learn tips that you never thought of or gain a fresh perspective on the family adventure front. Be sure to check out the other posts from the other inspiring ladies in the Real Mom Series: The Effortless Chic // Design For Mankind // The Fresh Exchange // Natalie Borton // A Daily Something
What are your favorite travel tips for family vacations? Do you have a favorite destination?