Getting away as a family is never an easy feat — in fact, few things cause parents more anxiety than the idea of traveling with their children, whether you’re packing up the car or taking a plane. But when you know how to travel with kids, all those fears go out the window and you can rest assured that your family vacation will be a getaway for the (good) memory books.
As a former flight attendant, I flew all over the world watching parents struggle with their kids on short- and long-haul flights. But I also observed tons of family-travel strategies that work really, really well. Add to that all the product testing we do in the travel category at the Good Housekeeping Institute, and the fact that so many of our Lab experts are parents themselves — I’m now the parent of a very well-traveled 5-year-old — and it’s safe to say that this is the only guide to traveling with kids that you’ll ever need.
Book far, far in advance.
The earlier you book your trip, the more likely you will be able to take advantage of early-bird savings and more availability options, especially for peak travel times. On top of better prices, early birds are more likely to get seats together on planes or trains, better rental car options, and preferred rooms in hotels.
Sign up for special deals.
Popular family experiences like Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts, or The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York have various promotions throughout the year that you'll hear about first if you sign up for their promotional emails and newsletters. That could include discounted tickets, complimentary hotel room upgrades, or even a free extra night (often Monday) — which could make an otherwise pricey getaway much more accessible.
Enroll everyone in travel rewards programs.
The adults in your family are probably registered for airline points, but you might have forgotten to do the same for the kids. Make sure to sign them up before you travel so they also get the travel credited toward their accounts. Many airline points, like those you get through United Mileage Plus, don’t expire, so the sooner your kid starts collecting, the sooner they can take advantage of benefits like free upgrades and preferred seat selection.
Give yourself lots of extra time.
Everything takes longer with kids, so if this is your first trip as a family (or even your 50th), it’s never a bad idea to double or even triple your estimation of how long everything will take.
Stay relaxed, no matter what gets thrown at you.
Unforeseen bad weather happens and so do flight delays — and there’s nothing you can do about either one. Getting mad or losing your cool with the gate agent won’t help. In fact, any frustration you show will ruin your day and potentially rub off on your kids. It's better to embrace the unexpected, says travel expert and author Doug Wallace. "Try as you might, you can’t plan everything ahead," he says. "Just relax, enjoy yourself en route, and be ready for anything. It could turn into a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Aim to travel late morning or early afternoon...
If you have flexibility in your schedule, avoid choosing early morning or late-night departure times for flights, trains, or buses. Instead aim to travel between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. local time. That way, you won’t be forced to scramble during rush hour or wake the kids up extra early in the morning (a tactic that inevitably leads to meltdowns). This window of time is usually the least busy at most airports and often offers the cheapest ticket prices, too, so you save your sanity and your cash.
...and never (ever!) book the first or last flight of the day.
When weather is bad or when an airline needs to make unexpected changes to its schedule, it will often target the first or last flights of the day for a change, which could lead to a major travel upset for your family. Worse, if you’re booked on the last flight of the day to your destination and they delay your flight, you’re more likely to get stuck overnight at the airport and possibly lose a day of your family’s well-earned holiday. If you must take a super-early flight, consider booking a room at the airport so at least you're super close. Take note: Many travel sites do super-cheap last-minute airport bookings.
Align travel time to nap time.
After all, there’s no quieter kid on a plane than a sleeping one. But only do this if your little one is a good napper, who can fall asleep anywhere. If your child isn’t a good travel napper, then do the exact opposite.
Write out a trip cheat sheet.
This should include all pertinent details about your trip, including dates of travel, airline confirmation numbers, hotel addresses, and the names of everyone in your party. Give a copy to each family member, and put all the information in a centralized online location like a shared Google doc or an app like Trello.
While you're at it, make a list of must-take items, like passports, credit cards, and your little one’s special comfort item. Carefully check it (and check it and check it) to make sure you have everything important before you leave. If you know you've done a thorough job beforehand, you'll probably have fewer "Did I forget anything?" worries on the ride to the airport.
Return to the same place, again, and again.
Many families that have aced traveling together return to the same destination — even the same hotel room — over and over. The advantage is that you get to know your destination inside and out, and you know what to expect.
You also won't have to waste any time researching things to do beforehand; you can hit the ground running, which is great for short weekend trips when you don't have as much time to explore. Plus, you get to take pictures of your kids in the same spot year after year and see how much they've grown.
Opt for an all-inclusive resort or a cruise.
If you're looking for a vacation where you don't have to do much planning, all-inclusive resorts offer entertainment options, restaurants, and sleeping quarters all in one place, and for one price (though some activities may have an extra fee). It's perfect if you just want to pick a place and go.
Choose a place with a kitchen.
Once you experience the beauty of having access to a fridge, stove, and microwave when you’re traveling with kids, you'll never want to go back to a standard room. The good news is lots of hotels have also made this connection and have rooms with cooking options. Even if you pay a little more for the room, you’ll save on restaurant bills and the convenience can’t be beat.
Find out about laundry.
Unless you’re staying at an Airbnb or long-term rental, it’s unlikely your accommodations will have do-it-yourself laundry. And you definitely don’t want to pay a hotel to launder things. But that doesn’t mean you’re S.O.L. Look up nearby laundromats or ask the concierge. It’s worth it to do at least one load for any seven-day getaway.
Check the weather at your destination.
At least a couple days before your family leaves for vacation, look up the weather where you’re going. This will help you pack appropriately, sure, but more importantly, it'll help you plan outdoor versus indoor activities.
Call ahead to find out about child-friendly amenities.
Need a crib waiting in the room? Want to hire a babysitter? Ask about all these amenities before you reserve so you know exactly what your hotel offers.
Charge up all devices and load them up with things to watch.
While most flights these days are equipped with entertainment options and wi-fi, service quality and availability vary widely by airline, flight route, and cabin class. And of course, there’s also no way to know in advance if the service will be down or unavailable, so show up prepared by downloading some games and shows that you and your kids can watch even without internet access.
Pack headphones for every child.
Don't be the parent that remembers to charge the tablet and download new shows only to discover you've left your kid’s headphones at home. Oops! You can always buy a new set at the airport, but the selection will be limited and cost more than usual.
One set that’s really great are LilGadgets' Untagled Pro Wireless Bluetooth Headphones. Not only do they connect wirelessly, they have a 12-hour battery life and they come in tons of fun colors and patterns. (If you're looking for more headphone suggestions, the engineers in the GH Institute's Media & Tech Lab are currently testing the latest headphones for children; in the meantime, check out the top picks on our sister site Best Products.)
If you have more than one kid, it also doesn't hurt to pack this $10 headphone splitter, so multiple kids can watch or listen to the same tablet. (Even if they all have their own devices, the splitter is a cheap insurance policy in case one runs out of batteries during the trip.)
DIY a barf survival kit.
The mess. The smell. Ugh. Every parent knows the nightmare of an unexpected vomit fest. Help yourself and everyone in your family by bringing your own barf clean-up kit. Include paper towels, pre-moistened wipes, plastic bags, plus extra clothes for your kid and for you. And don’t forget jackets, shoes, and socks, which usually take the brunt of the mess but are often forgotten in the extra-clothes department.
Create a fake wallet.
How many times has your kid spent hours playing in your purse or wallet? Why not make them their own version for a trip? Fill an old wallet with used gift cards, photos, blank coffee shop loyalty cards, old hotel keys, and various other curios that can distract them for hours. This is one of the most effective ways to keep a child entertained on a plane — and it won’t cost you a thing!
Set a false deadline to leave the house.
You can tell everyone what time you want to leave the house, but getting out on time might be the hardest thing to accomplish. One proven success strategy is to set a time-to-leave alarm — and program it for 15 to 30 minutes ahead of when you really need to. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with us!
Never bring more bags than hands.
As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t lug more than two bags per person. And in fact, try to make one of those bags a backpack. Check out our best backpack picks to find the right one for you.
Get them their own suitcases.
One of the best things a parent can do is give each child their own suitcase. My daughter loves taking her Lassig About Friends roller luggage through airports and stashing it under the seat in front of her on a plane. Your heart will swell when you see your toddler marching confidently through an airport or hotel pulling her own suitcase. It frees up some room in your own bags, too.
And let them pack it.
Empower kids to choose the clothes and goodies they want to bring on your family vacation. Encourage them to lay everything out the day before and then transfer it all to their suitcase. This pre-travel ritual helps create excitement for them about the upcoming trip, and allows you to answer any questions they might have. It can teach valuable lessons about editing and staying organized. Sure, they’ll throw in a few too many toys, but you can sneak those out when they’re not looking.
Try to carry it (all) on.
Checking a bag almost always involves extra cost, time, and headaches — and most seasoned travelers follow the “never check a bag” approach. Yes, it’s a little trickier with small kids, but if you pack strategically in a good carry-on, it can be done!
We recently tested the Connect Frequent Flyer Carry-On from Victorinox, and found it surprisingly durable, lightweight, and spacious for a smaller carry-on. It’s also super-easy to maneuver, which is so important when you’ve got your hands full, as all traveling parents do.
Rely on double-duty products.
A stroller that converts to a car seat. Luggage that turns into a nap pod. If you have small children, you’ll want to bring some of these double-duty items. One guaranteed lifesaver that we tested in the GHI Parenting Lab is the Doona car seat-stroller combo. This compact, lightweight stroller is perfect for on-the-go infants and young toddlers — just pay special attention to the weight restrictions. Once kids reach the upper limit, it’s no longer a viable solution.
Consider a portable high chair.
These days, most restaurants in North America have high chairs, but if you’re traveling to smaller countries in Europe, South America, or the Caribbean you might think about bringing along a portable high chair — especially if your child regularly uses one. You can keep using it when you're not on vacation too, whenever you visit Nana's house.
Take a good stroller with you.
If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing on foot, make sure you have access to a good stroller, especially if your traveling with kids under six. Many theme parks or kid-focused attractions have stroller rentals on-site. Same goes for some family-friendly hotels or vacation home rentals. Call ahead to find out.
If you need to bring a stroller, consider the Bugaboo Ant. This ultra-compact and lightweight stroller folds up easily with one hand and it has as good-sized storage basket underneath. For a less expensive alternative, the Summer Infant 3D Lite is a no-frills umbrella stroller that gets the job done (but a lot of parents use it, so make sure to put a luggage tag or other easily-identifiable marker on the handle).
Make toiletry bags for each family member.
Keep a personalized pouch of essentials within easy reach at all times when you’re traveling as a family. This could be in your carry-on or in a purse or backpack — just don’t pack it away. The reason? Knowing where your allergy meds and toothbrushes are will save you from digging around in the back of the truck — or worse, needing them on a plane when they’re packed in checked luggage.
Bring toys to keep toddlers entertained for hours.
Long trips needs lots of distractions for kids. Make sure you have a good mix of digital and non-digital options. Dole out new surprises or small toys at different intervals during the trip. And remember fewer pieces means fewer things to keep track of or lose. While a Lego set or puzzle could keep them busy for a long time on a plane, these types of toys are probably best left at home.
It's also a smart bet to choose items they can re-use over and over. Moms and dads at Good Housekeeping highly recommend Melissa & Doug’s Water Wow! Reusable Activity Pads. These compact, spiral-bound booklets are perfect for travel because you don’t need markers or even extra paper. Simply fill the “paintbrush” with water and let your child color away on the pages.
Ask to be seated near other families.
Airlines generally try to seat parents traveling with young kids in the same section, but that’s not good enough. See if they will put yourself in a row directly in front of or behind kids.
Carry on healthy snacks.
Hangry adults is one thing. Hangry kids … now that’s a recipe for disaster. It's best to always have plenty of healthy nibbles on-hand when traveling with kids. Good Housekeeping’s registered dietitian recommends snacks that are high in fiber and protein, like a handful of unsalted almonds and an apple, or cheese, crackers, and fruit.
For GHI-approved grab-and-go options that travel well, try Splitz Split Pea Crisps in a kid-friendly flavor like Himalayan Pink Salt, or Rx Bars that are super-filling and made with very few ingredients. One thing to note: Treat an airplane like a classroom and avoid nut-based snacks. The last thing anyone wants is to trigger a fellow passenger’s severe nut allergy at 30,000 feet.
Bring reusable bottles, straws, and cups.
With so much single-use plastic on planes, trains, and cruise ships, the travel industry is a major contributor to the world’s growing garbage problem. Help reduce plastic waste by carrying a reusable water bottle for you and the kids as well as an insulated travel mug if you like to drink coffee. (Just make sure they’re empty when you go through security.)
For young and old travelers, the GHI Kitchen Appliances Lab gave Zojirushi's 16-Ounce Stainless Steel Mug top marks in its most recent travel mug test. Our experts found this pick won't leak or spill a drop and it keeps your coffee piping hot. It’s so reliable, it comes with a five-year (!) warranty on heat retention. Our parenting editor also loves it — and so does her 3-year-old daughter.
Buy tickets to attractions before you go.
Whether visiting a museum, a zoo, a theatrical show, or any other popular attraction, always visit the website before you go to purchase tickets. Tickets purchased online in advance are often cheaper than buying tickets at the door. It also probably means you can walk right inside instead of wasting time waiting in a long line at the entrance. Plus, some popular destinations are so busy they require you to reserve your date way in advance, so if you know you want your family to visit a hot-ticket event, book it as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
Ask for family or child discounts.
Many attractions offer a break on the full ticket price if you’re coming as a family, so make sure you let the ticket agent know. Some also welcome children under six for free and have special prices for grandparents or students too. Always ask, because these special rates aren’t always posted.
Look into multi-attraction offers.
Many cities offer multi-attraction passes that will allow the family to experience several popular places for one discounted price. CityPass and Go City are a couple to check out if your family is visiting a large city in North America, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle, among others. It’s also worth checking the website of tourism office at your destination so see what kind of promotions or special events they have running at the time of your trip.
Do a hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
If you’re visiting a city your family has never been to, there’s no better way to get acclimated to your destination while learning a little history than taking advantage of a bus tour that allows you to get on and off throughout the day, at your own pace. Don’t forget you can often buy these online, too, or get promo codes through the local tourism office.
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