I have been traveling all my life, and clearly remember my parents–Dad was career military–traveling with us as very small children. Although things have changed a lot since I was a small child 50 years ago, and even since my own children were small–25 years ago–there are some basic lessons and truths. Technology may change, but little kids really don’t.
With my Dad’s military career, Mom and Dad decided to make the most of every travel opportunity. When I was 4, we moved to Europe–a family of 5, including 3 very young children. We traveled all over continental Europe–Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, etc.–in the 2 years and 9 months we were stationed there. Mom tells the story of how we pulled into an Italian city late at night, with 3 kids asleep in the car. The porters at the pension carried the sleeping children up to the room and laid us on the beds, while others brought up the bags.
While I do remember boring visits to dusty museums, I also remember chasing the cats in the Roman Coliseum, and pigeons at the Piazza San Marcos in Venice, skiing in the German Alps, knocking over the candy display in a campground store in Spain, and taking the train to Berlin through East Germany. Mom and Dad tried to find the right mix for keeping us kids happy and seeing the world with us. (They were not happy about the candy display, however.)
Since my husband and I have had our own children, we have continued to travel and learned a lot about how to do so successfully, by making some mistakes along the way, as well as some really good decisions, too. Our first trip with a very small child was when our daughter was just under 2 and we flew with a lap child to California. She was great–but she slept a lot too. We have not always been so lucky.
Since then, I have traveled with my husband, and alone, with small children, around the US and to Europe and to the South Pacific. Every trip was an adventure, and half the fun was just getting there.
A trip with small children is not a romantic couples trip; if that is your goal, leave the kids at home. That said, a trip with little kids can be very satisfying, fulfilling, and educational, and create memories that will last you and your children a lifetime. The trick is finding the right mix of fun and activity to keep everybody happy, engaged, calm, well-rested and well-fed most of the time. You know your children better than anybody else, but these tips can help you find that mix that works for you and your family.
My first cardinal rule of travel–never have more luggage than you can manage on your own. This sounds like a no-brainer, but I cannot begin to tell you how often I see parents juggling multiple carry-on pieces, several children, and carryout bags of food, while hurrying through a crowded airport terminal towards security. It is even worse at baggage claim, when they collect multiple huge suitcases. It is a wonder no one gets left behind. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate!–you will be glad you did! You probably don’t need nearly as much stuff as you thought you did anyway. By the way, this cardinal rule applies whether I am traveling with kids, Hubby, or my 84 year old mother.
A brief word on packing with kids–brief here, because it is a topic that deserves a post of its own. While it is more than true that the size of the child is inversely proportional to the amount of stuff you need for them, you must–must–must pare down the list of what is essential. If you are driving your own car someplace, it is not too big a deal to load in everything but the kitchen sink even for a short trip. If you are paying $25 for a checked bag, you will probably want to be more judicious. My general rule of thumb was to buy certain things at my destination–like diapers and some toiletries, for instance–and to plan to do laundry periodically, even if it is in a bathroom sink.
In keeping with that theme, consider the ages and abilities of your children. A 4, 5, or 6 year old is plenty old enough to carry his or her own backpack, with his or her own small things. A 3 or under can be in the parents’ backpack–a well made child carrier, with its own carrying compartment, preferably. This frees up the parent’s hands to hold someone else’s hand, or to carry another item. When I traveled like this, the carried item was a carseat–to be strapped into the aircraft seat–and a carry-on tote was strapped into the carseat, consolidating the two into one.
About the carseat. Yes, you can still travel with a two year old as a lap child, and check your car seat if you need it at your destination. Given a choice, I would never do that again. Yes, I know it is much less expensive, and not too hard if the flight is short. But having your small child in his or her own carseat is much safer than on your lap, and it also gives you a place to put the child if you can’t hold him or her. My own experience is that children accustomed to using a carseat will be comfortable and secure in their seat–sort of like a safe space for a toddler–and, bonus, they sleep better on the flight!
The 4, 5, or 6 who is carrying his or her own backpack can be engaged in packing by choosing one or two special items to take on the trip. A special stuffed friend or blankie is lightweight, and worth its weight in gold when somebody gets cranky. It also encourages the child to actually carry the backpack–who wants to leave Bubbie or Blankie in the nearest trash can? Of course, one must use judgment in enforcing the rule that they carry their own stuff. If you are facing a complete meltdown, you may have to relent at least for a few minutes until you can find a place to sit and calm your traveler down a bit. After all the last thing you want is to lose the services of Bubbie or Blankie for the rest of the trip!
This brings me to my next point. You can’t always control your schedule, but you should plan on a reasonable amount of time to change flights, trains or whatever. Rushing to get somewhere is stressful and hard, especially if small and big travelers are tired and cranky. This includes getting to an airport early so you do not have to rush to get through security. If there are special lanes for families traveling with small children, don’t be shy about using them. You will get through security or passport control or whatever faster, and no one else will have to listen to a hungry, tired, cranky child waiting in line.
I also packed–secretly, in my own carry-on bag–little treats and surprises for children. I bought small, lightweight games, toys, books, snacks, etc., that I would secrete away, to pull out at an opportune time to distract a cranky impatient child. We traveled in the days before sophisticated handheld electronics–you may find that a new app or game works just as well. The element of newness and surprise is the important part. Food also helps.
With small children, we tried to stay in self-catering accommodations–places we could prepare out own meals. This is easier than it sounds, with prepared foods, fresh fruits and vegetables readily available in many markets, and then preparing very simple meals. We also carried food with us, in a small soft sided cooler, perfect for stopping for a picnic lunch along the way. It is far less expensive, much more comfortable and relaxing, and it sure beats trying to keep a young child happy in an expensive restaurant after a long day of sightseeing or travel. Or even an older child. We once had a 12 year old fall asleep at the table in a restaurant before the food arrived, after a transatlantic flight.
Along the same line, keeping the days short and giving kids a chance to have some down time is important for avoiding overstimulation and over-exhaustion. For some kids this will be a nap; for others, it will be a chance to burn off energy on a playground, or kicking around a soccer ball. A very young child may simply sleep in your backpack while you are hiking, or in the car if you are driving. An older child will need time to do their own thing–running around or reading quietly.
Final note–BE PATIENT! Traveling with kids is a lot of work and has its trying moments for everyone, no doubt about it. But it is worth it all to hear your child give a half hour presentation to her school class on her trip to New Zealand, or to tell his friends about visiting the ruins of a medieval castle on the shores of Loch Ness, or finding ammonite fossils on a North Sea beach. How many kids get to do that?