After 11 years of travel while mothering, I’ve learned a few lessons and have loads of tips for traveling with children in tow. Kids are great travel partners as I mentioned in an earlier post. I’ve already walked the trail of fire through the under-6 stage, and I’ve got more than only stretch marks to prove it. The golden age of family travel has arrived and I am loving it. Please enjoy the wisdom learned from my tougher adventures…but don’t ask why I have it.
Go Early– Arrive as early as you normally would, but add at least 25% more time. If you’re going to the airport, plan on being there a minimum of 2 hours in advance. Kids have shorter legs and shorter fuses, being in a hurry is frustrating for everyone and makes everyone feel stressed.
Ask for Special Perks– Ask anyone who will listen if there are any special accommodations for children. Airport security lines will often let families jump the line. I have TSA Pre-check, which I found extends to my children too, as long as they are under 12. I skipped the security line with my kids on my recent trip to Texas, which made everyone more calm. Delta has been generous in upgrading my kids along with me on domestic flights when I use my airline status. My kids always greet the airplane staff and often get a peek at the cockpit or a treat if they ask kindly. Little gestures like the pilot wing pins go a long way with making kids feel at home on a plane.
Arrive First– Kids tend to wake up earlier than everyone anyhow, so going when museums or attractions first open is key. You’ll avoid lines and crowds, and we all know how kids feel about waiting. On our recent trip to Disneyland, I paid a small fortune to be able to stay on site and have early morning privileges. It was worth every penny.
Bring Snacks– Every Preschool mother knows this one, a hungry child is a demon ready to scratch off your face or at least publicly humiliate you. Have stacks of snacks ready, both sweet and salty. I buy the pre-packaged snack food at Costco: chips, fruit roll-ups, chocolate chip cookie cookies, Goldfish, beef jerky (known mysteriously in my home as “beef turkey”), basically the stuff I would never allow my kids to eat normally. This keeps the hunger monster away and also makes travel very exciting since they get to eat forbidden foods.
Unleash the Electronics– I am as screen-averse as the next parent, but there are no rules when we are on a long trip. Tablets, iPods, iPads, movies, games, books. I like to load new games and books my kids have never seen before as a surprise so they have plenty to explore. Bring headphones for your kids so their games don’t disturb other travelers. Test the headphones out ahead, some kids don’t like earbuds, so you may have to shop around for ones they will actually wear.
Charge the Electronics– Nothing is worse than being stuck without a functioning cell phone. Because you just know that if your phone runs out of power, that will be the moment you need it most. Charge everything fully, bring a back-up battery, and, from experience, don’t let your kid play on your phone the whole time without letting you know the power is almost out.
Don’t, Dear God, Don’t Forget the Stuffies– Does your child have that thing it loves? You know, that animal, rag, pillow or whatnot that has been so loved that it probably smells like your child and has matching DNA? Do not leave it behind. You will suffer and so will anyone you meet as long as you’re gone. Ask your child about this ahead of time, even if they are too old for that sort of thing. Older kids may secretly suffer if not encouraged to bring their security item. Be sure to write your name and phone number on in Sharpie, just in case it gets dropped somewhere along the way. For new child travelers, you can use the lovie as a way to talk about the fears or concerns your kid may have. For instance, “How do you think Puppy feels about the trip? Is he excited? Let’s be sure to buckle him up. I’m sure he’ll feel better when the cart with the doggie treats arrives.” That’s an actual conversation stored in my brain. And it worked.
Let them Help with Decisions– Kids are much more engaged when they feel their opinions are valued. Ask them what they want to do or see the most and make time for it. Even little decisions will give them more buy-in, like choosing which restaurant to go to or picking out everyone’s gelato flavors. I have cultivated the talent of asking questions that end with the answer I want anyhow, such as “Which museum should we visit first, the Museum of Dusty Lace or the War Museum?”
Build in Play Time– Keep in mind that you will simply not be able to see as much with kids in tow as you would on your own. But that’s ok. Do fewer things but enjoy them more, take your time. Take lots of breaks and search for parks and green spaces to run around in. My son’s favorite day in Europe was one where we met a group of kids in Sicily playing soccer at a park. He jumped in, even if he’s terrible at soccer, and played with the kids, even if he didn’t speak much Italian. The kids’ mother fed him a snack along with the other kids and we chatted. That was an experience more powerful than any museum.
Make a Ritual– Kids typically like, or are at least used to, routine. Travel totally blows their schedules out of the water. Cultivating a small pleasure every day keeps their clocks in line. If you’re in Britain, observe tea time. In Italy, I have gelato time- eat as much as you want but never the same flavor twice.
Stay in Apartments– If you don’t have family or friends to visit abroad, renting an apartment is the next best thing. Besides being economical, an apartment offers a more casual atmosphere, and there is usually a kitchen and washing machine. Washing Machine! YES! The kitchen can be a real godsend for parents of picky eaters or shoestring travelers. Taking a walk through a local farmers’ market is interesting, but is a highlight when the kids can pick out the strangest looking produce and go home to cook it. My favorite sites for this are Airbnb.com and homeaway.com, they rent apartments of almost any size, just about anywhere and at every price point. The longer you stay, the better the deal.
Stay Put– The most taxing part of taking kids on the road is the travel part. Travel days can be a challenge. I’ve made a point of staying longer in places with my kids rather than doing as much as possible. Settling in is such a delight once you adjust your expectations. I really enjoy being a temporary local, and showing my kids the everyday life of a foreign country can be more rewarding than the big blockbuster sights. I do practice what I preach, by the way. On my trip with my son to Rome we never did see the Vatican, I knew it would be too much for him. Instead we spent a whole day wandering around Trastevere, checking out artisan workshops and eating local specialties.
Turn Museums into Scavenger Hunts– Give kids an assignment in stuffy museums, such as photographing the Angels with the funniest expressions, or finding the animals in paintings.
Give them a Sketchbook– Arm your kids with a sketchbook, glue sticks and colored pencils. Take some time everyday for drawing and writing. It doesn’t need to be a proper journal, especially for smaller kids, but more of a tool for making observations, keeping ticket stubs and small reminders. I like to give them small assignments, for example, planting my kids in front of paintings in museums and giving them time to draw a detail, whatever interests them. They can use crayons to make rubbings of plaques. Ask them to write a poem about their day. Once they get used to using a sketchbook, you never know, they might continue to draw and write at home too.
Have FUN– Remember fun? Travel doesn’t need to be serious. It can be a riot of fun, even in serious places. Play games, skip, tell jokes. Splash each other in the water fountains. Eat more sweets than you should. Buy those flying toys from the guys in the piazza. They are actually pretty fun if you let them show you how to fly them. Kids are masters of finding the fun.
Lower Your Expectations– Kids just can’t do what you can. They don’t want to either. Cool off, calm down, take your time. Bring a deck of cards and teach them a new game. Enjoy the little things, that’s what they are programmed to do. Learn from them and let them guide the experience. I’ve never sat and tried to decode Latin inscriptions on tombs before but my son thought it was interesting. And he was right. Now I always do it. Kids are great teachers if you let them lead. You might even find that traveling with kids will teach you how to enjoy travel without kids more.