Taking a trip with the family? Good for you. Get out there and see some new patch of world — you deserve it. Just remember: No matter their age, packing up the kids for a flight or a long drive can make you second-guess taking any trip. There’s nothing quite like taking all that madness on the road along with a massive checklist of to-do items that never seem to all get checked.
Fact: You’re going to forget something. Fact: Not everything will go according to plan. It pays to plan ahead, though. That’s why we reached out to travel experts, parenting experts, and traveling-parent experts — i.e. those who travel frequently with kids in tow — for some expert guidance. Will this road-tested advice make your next trip run without any big hiccups, traffic jams, or airport freakouts? Of course not. But it can help make travel a bit easier — and help you prepare for the problems that might occur. Here, then, are 17 tips for traveling with babies, toddlers, and small children.
Ship the Essentials Ahead
If you’re traveling in the lower 48, “Use Amazon Prime to have diapers, wipes, and other essentials shipped directly to your destination,” says Amanda Norcross, senior editor at FamilyVacationCritic. Make sure to give the hotel a heads-up that you’re expecting a package. You’ll save some cash by avoiding additional checked bag fees at the airport, and now you’ve got less to pack.
Spring for TSA Precheck
If you plan on flying a lot, even just small distances, consider getting TSA Precheck. It’s $85 (although many credit cards will cover the membership fee) and good for five years. Plus one member will cover the whole family’s access to the TSA Precheck lane as long as you are all on the same ticket reservation. “Not having to remove your shoes or your laptop while also breaking down a stroller, pulling out the milk to be scanned, and wrangling squirmy children is an actual lifesaver,” says Juliana Shallcross of the Trips and Giggles travel blog. And of course, you’ll get to move through a quicker security lane.
Cut Down on Long Car Rides
“Kids generally can’t stay in a car for eight hours, so break down your longer car rides into smaller trips,” says Suzanne Brown, author of Mompowerment. Don’t worry about making record time in getting to your destination. Instead, research the towns you’ll be passing through and look for activities or places to stop that are kid-friendly. Even stopping for ice cream or at a playground to stretch the legs could work.
Prepare for Passport Processing
If you’re traveling internationally, your child is going to need a passport. That’s going involve a trip to the post office (ugh) or another processing center. Call ahead to find out the quietest times of operation, so you’re not waiting too long with the kid(s). If you’ve got an infant, “Go after a feeding when they are relaxed,” says Anthony Bianco, of the Travel Tart blog. “But make sure they’re not asleep because their eyes need to be open for the photo.” Most importantly, pre-prepare as much as possible, go through the passport application checklist and make sure to stack all the documents in the order that they need to be processed.
Say It With Us: Snacks!
You love snacks. Your kids love snacks. Everyone loves snacks. And according to Jennifer Fontaine, managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine, “The key to any successful outing with kids, be it a road trip or a flight, is snacks. A lot of snacks!” In your carry-on, pack their favorites, along with special treats they may not be allowed to have often. Fruit and berries, granola bars, and chocolate are all crowd-pleasers and guaranteed to pass easily through security. And don’t forget to treat yourself too. You’ve certainly earned that Charleston Chew.
Schedule Flight/Drive-Time With Nap Time
This one is all about simple time management. “If it’s a long haul, try to leave or schedule a flight at night or super early in the morning, while it’s still dark out, says Adrian Kulp founder of Dad or Alive and author of the upcoming book We’re Parents! The New Dad’s Guide to Baby’s First Year. Ideally, you’ll get a few hours of the trip under your belt as the children snooze. Courtney Zentz, a pediatric sleep expert, and owner of Tiny Transitions, also recommends traveling with blackout blinds or blackout liner that can be cut to the shape any windows. “That helps to ease children into falling asleep, even when the sun is still bright and shining.”
Control the Clock
Going on a short trip but still dealing with a time change? “Consider staying on home time instead of switching to local,” says Corrine McDermott, founder of Have Baby Will Travel. When it comes to trips with more significant time changes (the International Dateline might melt your brain), try to stick to your usual routines and times. You will endure a sleepy and cranky day or two, Corrine warns, but soon you’ll be on track.
Invest in an Upgrade
If you can afford it, the cost of upgrading from economy class will be paid back to you in a number of ways. Being closer to the front of the plane has certain advantages from more legroom for a more comfortable travel experience to being served from the food and drink cart first. “Most importantly, they are the closest seats to the lavatory, says Rishi Kapoor, CEO and founder of Nanak Flights. “So you can count on quick and accessible visits with your children for those pressing matters.”
This is a two-parter from Will Hatton, owner of a Hotel Jules and founder of the Broke Backpacker. First, charge all of your devices and download all movies and TV shows before you go. Airline wifi is spotty and a battery drainer. Second, pack a multi-plug extension cord. Outlets in airports are often occupied and hotels only offer so many places for an entire family to plug in and recharge. Just don’t forget to pack all of those charging cables, so nobody is fighting for juice.
Keep the Stroller Close and Check the Car Seat
If you’ve got a connecting flight, always check with the airline about checking your stroller at the gate for use at the connecting airport. “During connections, especially in large airports, you may be responsible for walking (what feels like) miles to get from one gate to the next,” says Michael Fisher, Content Manager at Tripshock.com. As for car seats, some people avoid bringing them for fear of fees and figure on renting one at their destination. Most airlines (if not all of them), will check your car seat for free but make sure to pack it properly as it will take some damage going through baggage claim.
Backup in Case of a Blowout
If your child happens to be in the middle of potty training or even if your toddler has been potty trained for a while, a long trip may present certain obstacles, especially when it comes to making it to the bathroom. Turbulence on a flight might mean that the fasten seat belt sign will stay on or the aisle could be blocked by the food/beverage cart. “For these reasons, I suggest having them wear a pull-up on the airplane,” says Marcie Cheung of the Marcie in Mommyland blog. “This will save you a lot of anxiety during your flight.”
Take the Pressure Off
“Even if you’ve weaned your toddler off the bottle, bring a bottle with a nipple with you on the plane,” says Viktoria Altman aka the Traveltipster. When the cabin pressure changes, your child may experience a painful sensation in their ears. The swallowing motion created by latching on to a bottle reduces the pressure and will make your child comfortable again, even for older toddlers.
Bag Up the Fun
Keeping kids entertained, especially on longer flights overseas in a cramped and confined space, is more than a challenge, especially if don’t want to resort to putting a screen in front of them. “After a couple of hellacious inflight experiences, we created ‘Fun Bags,’ a dedicated travel backpack that was refilled each time with brand-new toys, games, art supplies and other projects designed to hold their attention,” says Jon Bailey of 2DadsWithBaggage.com. The contents of these bags don’t need to be expensive or intricate, just new to them. “We would bring one item out of the bag like a big surprise, and, each time, the kids would get really excited to play with it.”
Reset During a Layover
When flying direct isn’t an option you’re going to have to deal with the inevitable layover. If that’s the case then “make sure to pack a change of clothes, face wipes, toothbrush, and toothpaste because feeling fresh makes a big difference,” says Beth O’Donnell, general manager of Thomson Family Adventures. That includes the whole family. Trust us, a fresh pair of socks will never feel better.
Use a Diaper as a Decoy
Warning: Before attempting this tip discuss it with anyone and everyone in your family who might change a diaper. Alexandra Nestertchouk, of the Perfect Day to Play blog, recommends placing your passport, keys, phone, and other small valuables inside a clean diaper, wrapping it tightly, and placing into a ziplock bag. “That way, you can then safely store your ‘package’ in the car glove compartment, in your backpack, diaper bag, or the hotel room with no safe. Thieves probably won’t take a risk by opening what looks like a dirty diaper trash bag.”
Pack a Pool for Bath Time
Bathing a baby or toddler in a hotel room can be a crapshoot, especially if your room doesn’t have a proper tub. “The solution is an inflatable pool,” says travel blogger Jenny Smith. “These can be purchased very cheaply at your nearest dollar store, and easily packed into your luggage.” The pool itself provides a barrier between your child and the questionably clean bathtub free of bacteria, fungus, or whatever the last guest left.
Order Food on the Ride Home
If you’ve just landed at the airport on your return leg of the trip, walking through your front door might still be hours away. If you’ve been driving, maybe you skipped a road stop because you were making good time (classic dad). When you’re getting close to home, Hatton recommends ordering food using delivery app timed with your arrival. “The last thing you want to be doing after a long trip is slaving over a hot stove trying to rustle up some hot food for hungry, impatient children.” Or, you know, parents.
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