Before I begin, let me preface by saying I love my children. Deeply. But given the choice of flying first-class on a luxury airline with my children, or flying in the back row of economy on a full flight in the center seat without them, I’ll choose the latter every time. Traveling with young children can be maddening. I’ll never forget the time my daughter wet her pants as we were walking through the TSA checkpoint. Or the time in New Zealand she nearly jumped out of the boat in a pitch-black glow worm cave. Or the night we spent in Jamaica with her wedged between us because the hotel “ran out of cribs.”
The truth is, when you’re bringing children, the experience starts long before the actual trip begins. So here’s the motherlode of how to make your next trip with the kids great…before you even leave.
When booking the flight, avoid layovers whenever possible
It may be more expensive, but it’s worth it. Your children won’t be woken if they’re asleep (carrying a sleeping toddler to a new gate is exhausting!), there are fewer chances for delays, and you’ll get to your destination faster.
If it’s a long flight, consider an overnight stop-over
We try not to do this if we can help it, but sometimes, if we’re going somewhere really far, it can be very helpful. We flew from Orlando to LAX and spent the night in an airport hotel there before flying to Australia. Total, our travel time was nearly 24 hours, so that night of sleep was vital. Plus, my daughter had fun playing at the nearby McDonald’s play space to get some wiggles out before our long flight.
Choose your seat wisely
Depending on how many are flying with you and the configuration of the plane, this may change. But if you have a small party, the aisle seat might be better so you don’t have to disturb your seatmate with diaper changes/trips to the bathroom. But if you’re planning on bringing your car seat onboard, they are only allowed in the window seat, so be sure you snag one to avoid being reseated.
Decide how many tickets you need
If your child is under 2 years old, you don’t have to pay for a seat, but you will have to keep the child on your lap. For babies six months and younger, this is no problem. But the older they get, the harder it gets. We never pay for a lap child, because if there are any extra seats on the plane, the flight attendants usually offer it to you. Go to the gate as soon as you check in (you’ll have to go to tag your stroller or car seat anyway), and see if there are any extra seats and if they mind letting you bring the car seat on. They usually give priority to the first person who asks if there are limited seats. If it’s a really long flight, consider buying them a seat anyway, or try to reserve a seat with a bassinet in front of it (usually only available on international flights).
Make sure your car seat meets the airline’s standards
If your car seat is not approved by the airline (most say whether they are or not on a sticker on the side of the car seat), they won’t let you bring it on. And different countries have their own regulations. If it’s not, consider buying or borrowing one that is. Ours was not approved on a long flight to Thailand, and we had a difficult time wrangling our 18-month-old for most of the night, when she likely would have slept if it had been allowed on.
Schedule your flight around nap time/sleeping
My children do not sleep well on planes. So booking our flights during night time is miserable. I always try to do day-time hours if possible, even if it means we arrive at our destination during the middle of the night there. I have friends whose kids sleep through entire red-eye flights with no trouble, so obviously it’s better for them to book during evening hours.
Talk to your child/children about where you’re going
If it’s a trip to visit family, Facetime or Skype with loved ones so your kids can build up some anticipation in going to see them. If you’re going to a new place, read books about the place, or watch a movie.
Get them their own luggage
Obviously, this only applies to children old enough to carry their own. At first I thought it would be just one more thing to carry, but my daughter actually loves pulling her own suitcase and it holds nearly all of her stuff, freeing up room in my suitcase.
Let them help you with your planning
There might be a fun museum, park, or zoo they’d love wherever you’re going. Having something on the agenda for them makes them more willing to go with you to your museums or sites (or at least makes you feel less guilty for dragging them there).
Packing & Planning
Pack the entire week before
I set out my suitcase the week before we actually leave. I seem to remember things to bring sporadically, and when I do, I immediately retrieve them and put them in the suitcase. Things like sunscreen, medication, hats, and swim diapers are items I always forget. Then when I arrive, they either cost a lot of money from a hotel gift shop, or are difficult to find. The day before we leave I actually organize and pack everything.
Packing cubes are your friend
I bought packing cubes a few years ago and they are a game changer. I usually bring two per kid. One holds their clothes, the other holds their pajamas, underwear, swimsuits, etc. I also bring cubes for myself and my husband. It makes it easy to find everything once we arrive, and it gives everything a place so that the suitcase isn’t always a huge mess.
Buy diapers if they won’t fit in luggage
We’ve done this several times. Diapers take up a lot of space! When we went to Europe for two weeks we rented a van, so we just bought a box of diapers there and only brought what we needed home. Every country sells disposable diapers if you can’t justify the space they take up in your suitcase.
Organize your diaper bag/carryon well
I feel like everything is all over the place on planes – especially with kids on laps. So I organize our snacks, toys, and diapers into gallon-sized Ziploc bags. I pre-measure formula into Ziploc sandwich bags as well. This makes getting through security easier (they always flag a big container of formula) and you don’t have to measure and scoop with a screaming baby. I also over-prepare for long flights; bring everyone a spare change of clothes, a blanket for your kids if they’ll fit, and plenty of food for you, too.
Always pack a bag of snacks/activities for the flight home
I just barely started doing this and can’t believe it took me so long. It’s so easy to focus on getting there that you forget the flight home! I make two bags of snacks, activities, diapers, formula, etc. and put them in the top zipper compartment of my suitcase. I don’t touch it until we’re preparing to come home and it makes a huge difference in our experience with minimal effort.
If you have more than one kid, either spring for a suite or get a vacation rental
Hotels are rough with more than one child. With one, we traveled for years and put our daughter in a crib in the bathroom. It was dark, quiet, and we could stay up after she went to sleep. With two kids in a single-room hotel room, your night is over once the kids go to bed. Vacation rentals can be surprisingly affordable and much easier for the whole family. We stayed in one vacation rental in New Zealand that had an entire room of toys for the kids! They never wanted to leave.
Ask for baby essentials when you arrive
Most hotels provide baby shampoo, a blanket, and other baby essentials. Some even have white noise machines (use your phone for this if they don’t!) and stuffed animals or gifts for babies. I’ve even been provided a couple of diapers before.
Call ahead and reserve a crib
As mentioned above, we spent a night in Jamaica without a bed for our daughter because they ran out of cribs. Now we always state that we need one in the reservation notes and we either call or email ahead of time to ensure we will have a crib in the room. Most of the time we arrive at the hotel and all we want to do is sleep. But sometimes hotels still take up to an hour to deliver your crib to your room. Make it clear that you want the crib in your room upon arrival, and not delivered later. And if the hotel has a rollaway bed, request one for your toddler/older children.
By preparing beforehand, your vacation with kids will be much smoother. There will be fewer surprises, everyone will have a place to sleep, and most importantly – they’ll be well cared for. Which means you, dear parent, will be happier too.
Got any other tips on traveling with little ones? Share them with us in the comments.