Traveling with young children (by plane, train or automobile) can be challenging! But there are many things you can do to help it go more smoothly. Here’s the TL; DR, with links to more details below.
- Cultivate Flexibility: Even when not on vacation, use flexible routines to help your child learn to adapt to change.
- Plan Carefully: Think about your child’s basic needs for sleep, meals, down time. Can you schedule travel times to be compatible? Can you choose lodging that’s a good fit? Is there another adult who could travel with you – that’s more fun, plus an extra set of hands.
- Prepare Your Child: If they know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it will be much easier for them to behave well.
- Packing for the Trip: Pack light so you’re not juggling lots of heavy suitcases and cranky children. Strategize ahead of time how you’ll carry everything.
- Pack a Carry-On Bag of items you’ll need easy access to. Include: snacks, a water bottle, extra clothes.
- Activities to Keep Kids Busy while traveling include: reading materials, activity books, art supplies or drawing tools, painter’s tape, assorted small toys, a tablet/phone with headphones, and a parent with ideas for fun games to play while sitting still.
- On your travel day, dress in comfortable clothes, allow lots of extra time, and try to model calm, patience and flexibility.
- If you’re traveling in 2021, learn more about COVID safety issues.
Let’s look at all those points in more detail.
Long Before Traveling – Develop Flexibility
Young children thrive on predictable routines. Repeating the same behavior over and over helps them to learn how to do it independently. Knowing what to expect helps them to behave well.
However, you want to be sure to build flexibility into the routines, and be careful not to be too rigid. For example, if your child will only go to sleep in their bed, with their fluffy comforter, and these twelve stuffed animals surrounding them, that will make bedtime on vacation very challenging! I try to create portable rituals. For example, my son likes listening to music at bedtime – we use a Pandora playlist that is available on all our devices and even offline so we can have it anywhere (as long as a device has battery life left.) Although my daughter loved being surrounded by stuffed animals, we practiced having her choose just one on some nights so that on trips that would be a familiar situation.
Also, practice skills at home that your child may someday need on a trip. Take rides on your local bus. Go to the mall to learn to ride an escalator. Eat at restaurants. Use porta-potties. Go places where they have to wait in line with you for something. Try a small local water slide before a trip to a huge water park. Try a one night staycation at a cheap local hotel. Before going camping, first try using the sleeping bag in the house. Then try camping in a tent in the backyard. Don’t try all these sorts of things for the first time while you’re on a big holiday trip you invested a lot of money into!
During coronavirus, your child may not have had many outings in the world, so they may need extra practice at things like staying at the table in a restaurant, or sitting in a car seat for a long time.
Planning the Trip
In my personal experience – your mileage may vary – vacations with young children have to be primarily planned around the children’s needs first, and it is easiest for me to think about it as “I’m taking my child on a vacation and will adapt as needed to make sure they enjoy it” rather than getting caught in a trap of “this is MY vacation, and I need it to be exactly what I want it to be.” Around when my kids reach age 6 or 7, that shifts, and their vacation is also totally my vacation and equally enjoyable for us both.
So, think about your child’s napping needs. Think about how much stimulation they can take in before they melt down. Think about their food and mealtime needs. Their attention spans. What time of day they are most flexible and willing to do anything. Do they do well in the car seat for long trips? If you first attend to making sure your child’s bodily needs are met, then it’s easier to plan in fun activities and have them be successful.
For example, if booking a flight, will you be more successful if you travel mid-day than if you have an early flight you have to drag your child out of bed, or if you have a late evening flight that is past their bedtime? (On the other hand, for road trips, we often plan our driving for early morning, nap time or after bedtime so our child will sleep in the car…)
When choosing lodging, having a kitchenette may give you more flexibility for meals; having a washer/dryer can be helpful; having a hotel “suite” with a living room may make evenings more manageable as you can put little ones down to sleep in one room while adults relax in another room. Also, consider airbnb or VRBO instead of hotel rooms. It’s not always a good match, but I personally like sharing walls with as few people as possible when I’m traveling with a baby who might cry in the middle of the night or children who are rambunctious at 6 am. (I also preferred it when traveling at the peak of coronavirus as there’s fewer people sharing the same spaces than at a hotel.) And they may have an outdoor area where your child can play.
Many parents choose to travel to the same place over and over in those early years so they know how everything works there and they don’t have to keep figuring new things out for every summer – plus, you can have fun traditions like taking pictures of your child in the same place and see how much they’ve grown. You can save the more adventurous travel for when they’re older (or when you get an opportunity to travel on your own without kids!) When I was growing up, in a family with 4 kids spanning 10 years, we traveled in a motorhome, so that we could have lots of familiarity surrounding us as we ventured to new places.
You can choose cheap vacation destinations for young kids. Pick any small town with a cheap hotel, a playground, a lake or stream to wade in and throw rocks in, trees to climb, places to go for long walks, and a library to drop into for some story-time. Your child will be perfectly content. I also find this makes decision making easy… when there’s only a few restaurants in town, you don’t have to debate where to go… you just say “I guess on Tuesday night we’ll have Mexican and Wednesday night we’ll go to the soda fountain.”
You can save the exciting destinations for when they’re older and will appreciate them. We went to the world famous San Diego Zoo when my oldest was two. He spent the day being fascinated by the manhole covers in the sidewalk. Luckily, my husband and I thought the zoo was great!
Consider traveling with family members or adult friends. When my older kids were in elementary school and middle school, they weren’t that excited about visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Wyoming, but were very excited to MEET Grandma and Grandpa in San Diego or at the Grand Canyon or whatever. It was a fun vacation for everyone. When my youngest was little, my sister-in-law was our ” vacation nanny.” We’d meet at our destination, and that meant there was one more grown-up to help with the baby, but also meant that we could leave one grown-up with the napping child while the other two went to a tequila tasting.
If you’re planning to visit attractions, purchase your tickets in advance online if possible. It can be cheaper, and also means you won’t be disappointed by something being sold out when you get there.
Prepare Your Child
Tell your child what to expect and what’s expected of them. Sometimes I see parents scolding their children saying “would you just behave??” And I wonder – does your child know what that means? Seriously – if your young child is in a new environment, how can you expect them to intuit what the rules are there?
So, talk to them about what the plans are for the trip. Pay particular attention to explaining things they might be experiencing for the first time (or in a new way… if they were there as a toddler one year ago, then it will be a whole different experience as a preschooler!) Think ahead where the trickiest parts of the trip will likely be, when you’re trying to attend to adult issues on adult timelines and may not have your full attention available to explain things to them… think about getting through airport security or having to drive for another 20 minutes till you get to a bathroom or about setting up a tent or transferring from one train to another. Walk through those tricky parts in detail.
You can also find books and videos about traveling which will help them learn more about what that is like. For example, here are three videos about what to expect at the airport: One from TSA about security: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHjlN5lzCjM; an airport tour with a puppet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-OzTvCzt2o; or with a child guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT8XZUZFuWE. Here are recommended books about camping, and more books about camping.
Look for “social stories.” These are prepared for children with autism, but can be helpful for any child. Search online for social stories for general experiences, like the airport or the airport with COVID protocols or amusement parks) or some museums and attractions have their own social stories.
Packing for the Trip
Lots of “travel with toddlers” tips start with a big list of all the things to pack and talk about how important it is to have everything you’re used to having with you when you’re traveling.
That is NOT my approach. Personally, I believe in traveling light because some of my most miserable moments of travel have been about trying to schlep too much luggage, abandoning valuable items while chasing children, and struggling through a bus door with suitcases hanging off both shoulders.
Before you start thinking about what to bring, first ask yourself: Realistically, how much can you carry while tending to children? I saw one suggestion which was “don’t pack more bags than you have hands”, but even that can be problematic if your hands are likely to be carrying a child who is tired and cranky.
I find roller bags can be tricky to pull when you’ve got a toddler by the hand, so backpacks can be easier since they leave your hands free. Some parents recommend having 3 – 6 year olds start being responsible for their own bags, and that’s great… but make sure you’ve also planned for how you can add their bag to your load when that backfires. Some parents love traveling with a stroller (often loading it with the luggage while they hold their child). Others find it’s just one more thing to schlep. (A mom I know who travels the world solo with kids highly recommends a low cost travel stroller.) Some parents use a toddler harness with a leash to make sure their child doesn’t escape them at an inopportune moment. If I’m flying in the winter, I either leave extra space in suitcases so I can shove our coats in before we check the bags, or if we’re doing carry-ons, I bring a plastic or cloth bag I can shove all the coat in to keep them together in the overhead. In the summer or on spring break escapes, I always have plastic bags for wet swimsuits that didn’t dry before it was time to pack.
Regarding car seats and airplanes: my preference if I’m traveling with a child under one is to check the carseat and wear the baby. For one to four year olds, it’s nice to have the carseat on the plane because that can keep them contained for more of the flight rather than wanting to run up and down the aisles. If you have not purchased a seat for a toddler, and it turns out that there is not an extra available, you can gate check the carseat.
It is a pain to carry carseats through airports. Make a plan for how to carry it easily – can you put it in a bag to carry it? Strap it to a suitcase? Here’s info from the FAA about how to use a car seat or a CARES harness on a plane. https://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/
For bigger equipment, like carseats, strollers, and cribs / pack-n-plays, you may be able to borrow one or rent one at your destination. It’s not likely to be the newest or nicest one, but should be serviceable. I’ve known some grandparents to purchase needed items at a consignment store, and then when the children go home, sell it back to the same store.
Food: My oldest child was a flexible eater, who was happy to eat almost anything anywhere. My youngest is super picky. So, on all trips, I have a stash of snacks in the suitcase that I know for sure that he will eat. Otherwise, we don’t pack a lot of food for trips because I don’t want to schlep it and I don’t want to spend my vacation time cooking and cleaning. So, we often just hit a store when we get there and get simple things like cereal, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies and dip. And we eat one meal out a day for nutritional variety and as one of the “events” of the day.
When I’m packing, my approach is to pack the minimum I think I’ll need. After that, I ask myself – “if I don’t have that, what will that mean?” For example, I now always bring a few Tylenol and a few allergy meds on every trip because of multiple holidays where we had to abandon plans to search out meds and then pay ridiculous prices for a large bottle when we only needed one. And Tylenol is small, so that’s an easy decision to make! For other bulkier / heavier things I’ve thought: “if it turns out I need another sweatshirt, I can always buy one in a gift shop.” When packing, I have that willingness to buy items if I end up needing them, and it actually has turned out that I’ve almost never really needed anything beyond that minimum that I had packed.
I involve the children in choosing a few comfort items to bring along (like a small stuffed animal), but I also make sure they know that we won’t have as many toys there as we do at home, and that’s OK, because we’re sure to find new and interesting things to do there. (This lack of distractions from home can actually help you be more present and more open to discovery on your trip.)
Packing the Carry On
Whether we’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile, we always have a “carry-on” bag packed with the items that need to be easy to access. I’ll sometimes even pack one for going to a restaurant or to grandma’s house where my child may be expected to stay in one place and quietly play.
I don’t like a bag with a lot of pockets where I need to put things away “just right” for them to fit. I like a tote bag or messenger bag I can shove things into quickly. I use a lot of ziplock bags to organize things in the bag – the extra clothes are in one baggy, the electronics in a baggy, the snacks in a baggy… then it’s easy for me to reach down, and pull out the bag for what I need without rummaging through everything. Also, when I had multiple small children I had separate toy bags for each.
Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about what your child needs in their carry-on:
- pacifiers or teething toys – have extra in case one gets lost or dirty
- wipes and diapers – have more diapers than you expect to need
- have some napkins or wet wipes handy for clean-ups
- extra clothes for the child, and maybe for the parent (I have a friend who swears that every time she went on a plane from her children’s birth to age 10, they ended up spilling a drink on her.)
- smartphone or tablet loaded with interesting content (make sure it’s fully charged!!) plus headphones your child is willing to wear
- snacks – think about things that don’t make a lot of crumbs (avoid muffins!) or are hard to re-seal and will get goo everywhere (like yogurt tubes). I personally prefer large items they take bites of (chewy granola bars or protein bars, string cheese, fruit strips, applesauce packets) to lots of little bits that get dropped (goldfish crackers, pretzels). But other parents swear by the trick of getting a pill organizer or “snackle box” and filling each section with tiny snacks like Cheerios, raisins, nuts, M&M’s to keep the child occupied for a long time with opening sections and eating little bits.
- a sippy cup for water (if you’re traveling by plane, fill it after security)
- if you’re flying with an infant, be sure you know TSA rules for packing breastmilk or formula – https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures/traveling-children
- for plane rides: the pressure changes during takeoff and landing can be really hard on a baby or child’s ears, causing a lot of discomfort and leading them to cry a lot. For a baby, plan to nurse or give a bottle during these times. For an older child, have them chew gum, suck on a lollipop, or use a sippy cup with a straw to relieve the pressure on their ears
- toys / activities to keep them entertained (see below)
- a plastic bag – for trash, for wet clothes, for an “I don’t have time to re-pack these things properly so I’ll just shove them in here for now bag)
- Whatever you as a grown-up need to survive the trip. For me, honestly, when traveling with small children all I bring on a plane is a bottle of water and something to read – with no real expectation of getting much reading done while keeping the child happy
Keeping Them Entertained
Whether you’re on a road trip, on a bus, train, or plane, or in a restaurant with hangry folks who are all up past their normal bedtime, there will be times on a trip where you just need your child to sit still, and play quietly.
Some entertainment options that work well:
- Screens. Tablet or phone with books, movies, or apps loaded and ready to go. Yep… no matter your usual attitude toward screen time, this may be a great time for it. Normally I advocate for passive toys to encourage kids to be active, but here, we actually want a passive child so occupying their attention with the screen can be helpful.
- Reading materials: I like magazines so we can recycle them when my child finishes them and we don’t have to carry everything with us for the whole trip.
- Puzzle books / activity books: I would take a trip to a bookstore or Lakeshore Learning before a trip and get workbooks.
- Art supplies / drawing toys: You could pack a small pad of paper and a bundle of colored pencils or markers. These are great for art, but also for all sorts of paper-pencil games like Hangman, Dots, Tic Tac Toe, etc. I also like small white boards and magna-doodle toys – where the drawing stylus is attached by a string and can’t be dropped, and paint with water books, and Wikki Stix.
- Magnetic travel games, like chess or magnetic tangrams.
- For toddlers and preschoolers: masking tape / painters tape or post-it notes are so fun to stick down, pull up again, stick down again, and so on. You can make roads to drive their cars around, or draw pictures to stick around them. For older children, I like the removeable, reusable sticker books. (Don’t use regular stickers or you’ll be scraping them off everywhere the child could reach!)
- For road trips: I love audiobooks and podcasts – it’s a great way to have a shared experience with kids – especially tweens and teens – it gives you something to talk about at the next meal as you reflect on what you heard in the story. I also like singalongs – put on the Beatles and singalong, or sing every camp song you know. (I have great memories from childhood of traveling in the RV, belting out camp songs!)
- Assorted small toys – you know how random inexpensive toys enter your life from time to time? I’m talking birthday party favors, Happy Meal toys, good behavior rewards from the dentist, and so on. Things that aren’t great toys, but do provide short-term entertainment? Toy cars, plastic animals, and so on… Pull those out for trips. Some parents wrap them up like gifts or as rewards for good behavior, because opening them also keeps the child occupied a little longer, but I don’t like dealing with the mess of the wrapping paper. (Note: save a few toys for the trip home.)
- Games to play – I Spy, 20 questions, would you rather, I’m going on a trip and so on! Check out my post on Easy Play Anywhere Games for kids age 5 and up.
A few tips on what to avoid:
- don’t bring anything that is irreplaceable. (Remember how at the start of this article I talked about teaching your child flexibility? If they are utterly reliant on a single comfort item that is irreplaceable and that gets lost or damaged, that can be devastating. Encouraging your child to rotate between multiple comfort items – if possible – gives you more flexibility. And you can leave the irreplaceable one-of-a-kind item at home, and bring the generic, easily replaced item along.)
- don’t bring expensive or valued items you feel you must bring home with you (I like the freedom of feeling like if I want to, I can leave anything behind and it will be OK – I rarely do, but I like that I could)
- don’t bring things that are really messy (paint! play-dough, stickers with backings you remove) or really loud (instruments, electronic toys)
- avoid items with lots of little pieces where if you drop / lose some pieces it will create great frustration (puzzles, Lego sets where they want to follow the instructions precisely, games with irreplaceable pieces)
- don’t give your child antihistamines to make them drowsy
If you can check in online, print baggage tags online, get your maps ahead of time, or any other preparation, do so! The less you have to juggle on the road while juggling kids, the better. Dress everyone in comfy clothes, with layers to adjust for too much heat or too much air conditioning, and shoes that are easy to get on and off.
Allow LOTS of extra time. More than you think you’ll need! If you get somewhere early, you can always walk around to burn off some kid energy, or play I spy, or whatever, and you won’t be nearly as stressed when inevitable long lines or delays crop up.
The calmer you stay, the calmer your kid will be. If you’re extremely anxious about your baby crying on the plane, they’ll pick up on that anxiety, and be more likely to cry on the plane!
Teach your kid about “Opportuni-pee.” That means when we have a convenient opportunity to make a bathroom stop, we use it, even if we don’t HAVE to pee right then. Not just before you get on a plane or get on the road, but even at the fair or amusement park – when anyone needs to use the restroom, we all take our turn so it will be longer till we all have to stop again.
Be flexible, be nice to people, have fun… model for your child all the best traveler behavior you can think of! My partner calls this Vacation Mode – if you’re actively relaxed and having a good time, it helps those around you do the same.
At Your Destination
In the packing section, I mentioned we don’t bring a lot of toys, other than a comfort item and the distractions in the carry-on. When parents have a lot of attention to give to kids, it’s easy to improvise play activities. When you’re in a new environment, there’s lots of new things to discover and explore.
Some of my favorite vacation memories: fireflies in a midwest campground after dark, collecting a rainbow of colorful rocks in Australia, stacking plastic cups from the airplane with my toddler son, building driftwood cabins on a beach, making “sock bunnies” when we forgot to bring my daughter’s stuffed animal, stacking flat rocks into tall towers, facepaint from a hotel gift shop, cutting out models of the planets from a cheez-it box when my two year old child was obsessed with the solar system, playing whatever board games we find at vacation homes – including the 80’s “classic” Mall Madness, and making improvised nature art with my toddler when my teen was sleeping in late.
Slowing down to kid speed on vacation and following your child’s lead can take you to some magical places.
COVID and Travel
For 2021, you may have questions about the safety of traveling with unvaccinated children. I gathered resources and questions to consider in this post.
Read about the Developmental Benefits of Travel for Children.
Affiliate links: Note that some of the links in this post will take you to product descriptions on Amazon. If you order anything on Amazon after clicking on these links, I do receive a small referral bonus, at no cost to you.