How to travel with young children and stay slightly sane

So, parents. Let’s talk frankly about travelling with kids. There are no two ways about it: it is MUCH harder than travelling without kids! I have done a lot of both, and I can assure you that anything that I thought was tricky about travelling before having a child along for the ride was actually a piece of cake.

BUT! There’s always a “but”. I still absolutely love travelling with my son. It is a different kind of travel, but it’s also fantastic because I can see him learning to love travelling too – which is really important for me, because I think travelling widely can help you grow into a fabulous kind of person, and that’s what I want for him.

My son’s old daycare centre (a place which I miss now that he’s at school, not just for the excellent cooked lunches he used to eat there but also for the gorgeous staff) asked me to come and speak at their annual parents’ meeting, on the topic of tips for travelling with kids. Thinking about all the tips I have for how to travel with young children (and stay slightly sane – the best I can promise you!) inspired me to write this post to share more widely.

How to travel with young children and stay slightly sane

Tips for travelling with a young baby

Oh dear. I remember all the anxiety I had about my little boy’s first trip, when we took him from Australia back to Germany to meet the rest of his family, aged four months. I thought it would be so tricky, but of course, I was a new mother and everything was tricky, but looking back – travelling with a young baby is the easiest!

I was quite anxious about the flight and had heard horror stories about young babies having a lot of ear pain on take off and landing, but I was lucky that my son didn’t – I did follow all the rules of feeding him on the way up and down, so that probably helped. Other than that, he slept for most of the flight and the trickiest part was changing nappies in the small plane bathrooms. I’ve got a post from the time about surviving air travel with a baby that offers some more detailed tips, if you need them!

How to travel with a baby

My son as a baby on the plane; and meeting one of his cousins in Switzerland

Travelling itself proved only slightly tricky. We spent a month moving from place to place in Germany and Switzerland, introducing our baby to his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Staying with other people when you have a young baby who will inevitably cry in the night can be tricky – I wouldn’t do it with just anybody (although family members, of course, just have to cope!). We were also lucky that my sisters-in-law and mother-in-law had begged, borrowed and bought all the extras we’d need – a cot, a pram, and so on – so we didn’t need to bring any big baby items with us, but many destinations now offer “baby packages” which supply all these baby necessities.

Tips for travelling with a toddler

I think this is the hardest age to travel with children. Once they are mobile and not sleeping as much as a baby, then all the real tricky bits begin. This is definitely not the best age to take your children on a long haul flight, if you can at all avoid it. I stuck to domestic trips between the age of six months and eighteen months.

Flying with a toddler is probably the hardest part. Under twos don’t generally get their own seat (unless you’re prepared to pay extra) and that means unless you’re lucky to have a spare seat near you, you will have your child on your lap for the whole flight. You shouldn’t need to think too hard to realise the problems of this.

How to travel with a toddler

My son at almost two, exploring Melbourne, Australia

I will always remember a flight I took back from Melbourne to Perth (nearly four hours) alone with my son when he was 22 months old. He was pretty big, and he didn’t like to sleep too often. The plane was full. And so he was stuck, uncomfortably, on my lap. Getting the tray table down to eat was impossible – we managed to get the half-version of the tray so we could balance food and drink there. A kind flight attendant offered me a glass of wine, which I momentarily rested on this half-tray – before I realised that my son’s flailing arms would knock it off immediately. By then I needed both hands to hang on to him so I just downed that wine in a few seconds. I hate to think what the other passengers thought – but at that moment I didn’t care! (Check my older post on surviving air travel with a toddler for more tips.)

However, in contrast to travel with a baby, taking a toddler travelling can be a really eye-opening experience for both parents and kids. Toddlers are all about exploring the world, of course, and when that world is different from their everyday one then for them, that’s even better. It’s rare that toddlers are anxious about new places (as long as mum and dad are nearby) and keeping them entertained can be as simple as a new playground. Obviously your own version of travelling has to be adjusted a bit – we included a lot more animal parks and playgrounds and fewer fancy meals and long museum visits – but that’s OK. Compared to babies, they don’t need anywhere near as much equipment: I recommend taking your own travel cot if you’re hitting a few destinations and as you can see in the picture a good stroller is an essential (I prefer a quickly folding umbrella stroller) and a great spot for them to have a nap while you’re still sightseeing, in my experience.

Tips for travelling with a preschooler

The good news is that I think once your child hits three or four years of age, they can be truly brilliant travellers. If you’ve travelled regularly with them throughout their lives, then this is even more true. There are new and different challenges travelling at this age, but I have certainly found it easier and easier to travel with my son as he’s got older. We had a month in Europe shortly after he turned three and I took him by myself to Penang for a fortnight a few months before he turned four, and both were great trips. Even the long flights to Europe went well, and one way I was alone with him – you can read my post about surviving air travel with a preschooler if you don’t believe me!

At this age, though, kids are more aware of the fact that they’re being ripped out of their daily routines (young kids thrive on routines, don’t they!) so you have to put more thought into the emotional side of the trip – while, fortunately, having much less to think about from a practical and equipment side – no baby bottles or high chairs or cots required.

How to travel with a  preschooler

My son at three, on the bus with me in Penang, Malaysia

I found that the best way has been to start talking with my son about the trip from the second we book it. And talking about it a lot! I show him pictures of some of the places we might see, take him out to eat some of the food we might encounter, and even get him involved in the decisions of which apartment to book or what zoo we should visit.

Once we are on the trip, I think that keeping some regular routines – your standard book reading at bedtime for example – helps a young child feel secure enough – while breaking others can be a great idea. For example, my son never gets to use the iPad at home (mostly because he then refuses to stop!) but when we’re travelling we let him use it much more often – and that’s OK. It goes back on the top shelf as soon as we return home! I’ve also found that packing just a small number of popular toys helps. My son is pretty satisfied if he’s got a bunch of small cars and trucks, and some paper and pencils (even better, sticky tape and glue as well!). You’ll know what suits your kid best. I also have to remember to add extra down time into my usually busy travel schedule – which is good for everyone, really!

Should you travel with your kids?

Oh, YES! I am such a huge advocate for travelling with your kids at any age. It is absolutely worth taking your children on trips (even if they’re too young to remember the details) and it’s what makes great family memories for the years to come. I’ll always remember something one of my school friends told me when her husband said to her: why do we have to go away? They have four kids so it’s a very practical question! But she said: Because this is what the kids will remember. She’s right, so do it!

 

Comments

  1. I said to a friend just the other day “the kids will never care what car you had or how big your house is but they will remember family holidays”. Money is better spent travelling with the kids than buying them toys or thinking they’d appreciate a bigger/ better house or car.

  2. Great tips!

    We prefer to travel at night, like 11pm so he sleeps all the way. He’s six but he gets bored quite easily and whinges. I also have to worry about child car restraints. A pain if you’re in a country where it’s hard to find the rental places for seats.

    And before we leave, we check for the nearest chemist or clinic from the hotel we’re staying. Just in case. I also show him photos of the people or city we’re going to so he can start to picture and understand why we’re going there.

    I did get a couple “I don’t want to go on the plane, it hurts my ears” but thank God we bought sugarfree chewing gums to distract him, although he only asked for it on the way back but only because he saw me taking one.

    • Oh Rhonda, I’d hoped I was on the downward path to easy by now, perhaps when my Mr4 is a Mr6 we might have the same trouble! Fingers crossed. Checking for chemists/clinics is a good idea.

  3. Travelling with kids is so much harder than travelling solo but I love it so much. I wouldn’t swap it for travelling solo. We get so much more out of our travels now that we have kids along for the ride.

    • Totally Bethaney – I wouldn’t swap it either. So exciting to see them experience the world through their eyes, I love everything Mr4 tells me about his new experiences – it’s like starting travelling all over again.

  4. I wrote about this recently, too, because it’s important to be frank…traveling with kids really is not easy, but like you, I find it totally worth it.

  5. This post brought back so many happy memories for me about travelling when our kids were little. They went everywhere with us and yes, they often talk about different places – never the car we owned or the toys they had – ok they do remember the dogs and hamsters! My most frantic trips were when Sam was a baby – flying back to England from Nepal on ‘home’ leave which included a long wait in Bangkok and I can’t remember how many hours flying time – about 17 probably – and I was generally on my own.

  6. Awesome tips hun – I wish we had done more travel when out kids were little little… it would have been less expensive than now that they are bigger lol. xx

    • Oh yes Sonia – they also have fewer opinions when they’re little! I’m just starting to hit the more expensive age where Mr4 actually has to pay for stuff like zoo entrances and I’m finding it kind of annoying!!

  7. Thanks for your advice and experience Amanda. Our little girl is 2 now and we have made a couple of trips with her to Perth and Fiji which have both gone pretty well. We are going to try and push the flights a bit further next year and see if we can make it to Hawaii and then Italy a year or two after that. I agree with what you say about getting your kids used to travelling – I so want her to be a person who loves to travel.

  8. Daiana Magalhaes says:

    My daughter’s first flight was at barely 4 months on a domestic flight to meet great grandmother for the first time who lived on the east coast. It was also a trial run for our long haul flight to Portugal barely 4 weeks later and about 30 hours between getting to the airport, connecting flights and the actual flying time. We travelled every year to Portugal for the subsequent 3 years and each time it got easier and easier so much so I have always had fellow passengers comment to us that our daughter was very well behaved. The fact that I used to bring everything but the kitchen sink to keep her entertained was beside the point!
    Like you, I bring some of her favourite toys which she gets to choose for the flight plus I’ll pack some new small toys as surprises. Packaging and all – wastes a few minutes getting them out!
    My daughter, now 7.5, is bugging us as to when can we go to the airport again…she loves travelling and does remember some things we have done on our trips, even at such a young age.

  9. Awesome post! Snap- getting stuck with a large toddler on your lap for a 7 hour flight is no fun. However, if we could visit my family more often, I would endure my 13 year old sitting on my lap just to be able to afford to travel more to see more people! Wonderful #MyGlobalLife post.

  10. I agree with Nic! I cherish my memories of family trips, and I’m so grateful my parents took us traveling, even though it wasn’t much of a vacation for them! We mostly went camping and took roadtrips but it definitely taught me how to travel and fueled my wanderlust.

    Thanks for participating in the #MyGlobalLife Link-Up!

  11. Great post! I absolutely agree that traveling with kids is important. Sometimes it’s not even the destination that stands out… my family went on a lot of road trips when I was a kid, and I have the BEST memories of those!

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