Do you want to travel, but doing so with kids shoots your anxiety levels through the roof? Well, fret no more. After decades of traveling with children, we’ve compiled the best tips for how to travel with your kids so there’s little to no stress on any of you.
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I’ve talked with so many people about traveling with kids. Most people think there’s no way they’ll ever do it. Heck, you only have kids living in your house for about 18 years, you can wait…right? Wrong! It’s been proven over and over again that travel is one of the best things for a child’s development. Why then is it so daunting?
Raising kids is hard no matter what, but the great thing is, you know your children. You know what is going to stress them out, what they like to eat, what stuffed animal they like to sleep with, and so on. Taking that knowledge, and your little explorers, on the road really isn’t going to change any of that.
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When Should You Start Traveling with a Child?
Over and over again, I’ve heard people say, I’ll take her on a trip when she’s ten or when he’s a teenager. You almost never hear someone comment on taking their toddler on a plane or a long road trip. It’s just too overwhelming.
However, like anything else, learning to travel is a skill. Skills take time to develop, and the best way to do this is to start small and build on it.
For example, unless you are expert travelers, I wouldn’t suggest taking your kid on their first outing on a 2-week tour of Egypt. No, start on a smaller scale. For a first trip, go somewhere closer to home and just make an overnight or a weekend out of it.
You won’t believe how much practice you’ll get. You still get to sleep in a hotel. You need to pack, and you have to figure out meals.
Once you’ve got your weekends down pat, move on to trips for a week, then two, and so on. The same thing goes with where you go. First, start local, then get further and further away.
For us, we never stopped traveling and both girls took their first international trips way before they turned one. It’s true. And to be honest, if we’d waited until they were in school, I think it would have been a lot harder.
So, when should you start traveling with your child? Now!
What are some things you need to think about when traveling with kids?
- Health and Safety Concerns
- Food Allergies and Like and Dislikes
- Comfort Items
- What to pack
- Hygiene and bathroom breaks
- Keeping it interesting
If you are staying local, you might not need much in the way of paperwork, but if you are crossing international borders it’s a different story.
When crossing international borders, it’s important that you not only have your passports and visas, but also powers of attorney or permission. For example, if you are a divorcee, and you are traveling with your own child, you will need to have a document from the ex-spouse allowing you to take the child out of the country.
If you are traveling with a child that is either not related to you or is a nephew, niece, grandchild, cousin, or another type of relation, you will want to get a power of attorney from the parents allowing their child to travel with you so you can make medical decisions for them.
Immigration personnel will often ask to see this paperwork, and if you don’t have it they might detain and question you. If you are not sure what is required when crossing into another country, call the embassy or consulate and ask.
Health and Safety Concerns
In this day and age, with the pandemic still rearing its ugly head now and again, health and safety concerns have really been an issue.
First off, depending on where you are going, you might still have to wear masks indoors. We just came back from Japan, and masks are required indoors and on public transportation, and many people were just wearing them all the time. Thankfully, we’d brought a hefty supply, so we were ready.
Even if masks aren’t required, I know I feel safer putting one on when I hear someone near me coughing or looking sick and I can’t move, like in an airplane or at a restaurant.
I also always make sure I have plenty of hand sanitizer and wipe things down or use them on my hands when I’ve been in public transport, or other public places where everyone is touching the rails.
No matter how old your children are, they need to have your phone number on them at all times. It’s also a good idea to put a hotel card in their pocket as well, so if they get lost, their helpers will know where to find you.
Eating Local Foods – Do you have a picky eater?
Kids love to eat the same things, and many children are not adventurous eaters. If the food looks different than what she is used to, it might be difficult to get her to try it.
After a while, you might feel that your child is not getting enough food. The best way to combat this is to go to a grocery store or convenience store and buy some foods you know will be okay.
Our first stop each and every time we go to a new country is a grocery store. There we stock up on portable snacks, fruits, and drinks. No one likes to be hungry.
Another tip is to go ahead and have an American favorite, like McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, once or twice on your trip. The kids will appreciate it, that’s for sure.
If your child has food allergies, the best thing to do when traveling in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is to have a message translated (Google translate is a good app that can do this) that states it. For example, “My son has an allergy to gluten”. This way, you can show the card to the wait staff to be sure that his food is gluten-free.
Allergies are probably a bit easier to deal with than just likes and dislikes. Start having your kids try food from that area or country before you go. If they really like something, they’ll be more eager to try it while you are away.
Especially for younger children, it’s important to not forget their comfort items. Whether it’s a blanket, stuffed animal, favorite t-shirt, or whatever, don’t leave home without it.
Kids love routine, but luckily they can adapt to different routines for different places. For example, the routines are completely different on school days and weekends. Routines are different at grandma’s house than at home.
So the routine can be different when traveling. However, it’s a good idea to establish some sort of routine. For instance, maybe you wake up, go to breakfast in the hotel, hit a landmark like a museum, have lunch, hit another attraction, eat dinner, and go to bed. That’s not all that different than a day at home, and it’s easy to know what’s coming next.
Of course, it’s also a good idea to build in play breaks, maybe playing in the pool in the afternoon before dinner, as well as some snack breaks during the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. The important thing is to try not to completely change day to day so that the child isn’t sure what is going to happen next.
Susan Heller’s famous quote says, “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” But the reality is we all tend to overpack. Everyone does. Trust me.
What we’ve always instilled in our kids is that they are in charge of their own luggage. This means that they probably won’t want to pack too much because they are going to have to carry it or lug it around.
When our kids were in about the fifth grade (so ten or eleven years old), we would have them pack for the whole family so that we could get everything in the car and drive away minutes after we got home from work.
Even our three-year-old grandson knows that he has a rolling suitcase and a small backpack. That’s it. On every trip he’s ever taken, he’s dragged his own suitcase and carried his backpack and never complained. (Of course, at this point, it was packed by Mom so it hasn’t been too heavy.)
I think looking for clean bathrooms is always the hardest part of traveling, and when traveling with little ones, it’s even more crucial.
It goes without saying that it’s important to teach your child, from as early an age as possible, to go to the bathroom in whatever building they are in before heading out into the unknown. Although it’s true some countries have very clean public toilets, I’d rather go at the restaurant or museum before I leave. Who knows how long you’ll be tramping around the city?
Keeping it Interesting
A lot of people think that if you travel with kids, you won’t want to go to all those temples, cathedrals, or museums, because the kids won’t be entertained. First of all, it’s again a matter of training. If they’ve done these things their whole time traveling they’ll have developed an appreciation for them.
It’s so important to go to museums, but luckily most museums will have developed some kids’ activities, like a scavenger hunt. You should also play games with them. There’s the classic license plate game, as well as others like I spy, but you can play as you go.
Let the kids play their pokemon game or another game either when they are waiting in lines or while you are tramping around the city. Both of you will be much happier.
Kids do like being active rather than being passive, so whenever you can add in something where they get to move, like a sport, they’ll love it.
More Tips on Keeping Kids Happy While Traveling
Give Them Buy-in
It’s our job as parents to really help our kids grow. To do this, have the children share the planning. What do they want to see and do?
For little ones, ask them a choice between A and B. Do they want to go to the park or go back to the hotel and go swimming? Do they want to eat lunch in the museum café or go find a different restaurant?
As your children get older and can read and use the Internet, they can do searches, find books on where you are going and add input that way. You will be surprised at how much they learn. Also, when they see the sight they chose, say the pyramids, they will be so excited! Much more than if you suggested it.
The most important part to this is that if you give them a choice, stick to it. Even if you know that museum has the best sandwich in the whole city, move on to another restaurant.
Use Google Maps
Google Maps is a traveler’s best bet. Not only can you find things, walking directions and how long something will take, but you can pin all the items you want to do, things you want to see, restaurants you want to try, on one.
Afterward, you can use it as a pseudo journal, by adding photos and descriptions to the pinned items. It’s also a living document, so you can change it as much as you want. I love using Google Maps.
Relax and Have Fun!
Families get cranky when traveling just doesn’t seem like fun. Don’t forget to relax. Don’t worry about people staring you down at the airport. When they see how organized and calm you are while you are dealing with your toddler, they’ll be grateful.
Also, don’t forget to get silly. Let the kids play their games, and take funny photos of them and you. They’ll enjoy the trip that much more.
There are many ways to keep your children happy and your stress levels low when traveling. Here are our general tips:
- Know what you need and get your paperwork ready a few months before your departure, especially if you are crossing international borders.
- Bring masks and hand sanitizer
- Give everyone your phone number and a hotel card
- Bring your medications in their labeled packaging and take a photo of each one so you can show it to a pharmacist if needed
- Always stack up on snacks and keep your kids from getting hungry
- Know the cultural norms for restaurants and open and closing times, so you don’t get caught trying to find a restaurant in the mid-afternoon.
- Add in sports or other “doing” activities
- Have plenty of snacks available
- Go ahead and go to an American fast-food place occasionally
- Bring food allergy cards
- Don’t forget their comfort item
- Set a basic travel day routine and try to stick to it
- Build in play breaks
- Get hotels with pools
- Kids carry their own bags
- Train them to take bathroom breaks where there is a good bathroom
- Keep the kids interested in museums or other sites by playing games, signing up for activities
- Have the children make some decisions
- Use Google Maps to pin the places you want to go
- Get silly; take those funny photos
- Play Pokemon or other games
- Eat what they want, like pancakes for dinner
The most important thing to remember is to just relax! A vacation isn’t as fun if you are stressed, so don’t be. Just remember to go slow and enjoy your family time together!
Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
Friday 17th of February 2023
Lots of great trips here. I wish I had thought of a few when I first travelled with my husband's son. That was a VERY memorable experience. Love all the cute photos :)
Friday 17th of February 2023
Thanks Lisette! Hope all is going well with you guys!