How to Travel with Children...and Keep Your Sanity
When my daughter was three and my son was six months old, my partner and I decided we would take an exciting family trip. We were planning to elope on the other side of the continent but unlike most soon-to-be-marrieds, we were taking our kids with us. The trip meant a short overnight trip to Seattle, and a five hour flight the next morning to Boston. Naturally, we wanted this trip of a lifetime to be memorable in the best way, with minimal stress as we ventured way out of our comfort zone with two little ones.
First Order of Business: Planning
We dreamed about it, we read about, we talked about it, we discussed it with others. We knew the only way we were going to enjoy the adventure of travelling with young children, while avoiding unnecessary stress, was to be very, very well planned. We relied on my event planning skills and in-born tendency toward catastrophic thinking to make long (and we hoped useful) lists. There were packing lists, travel intineraries in the form of lists, baby gear lists, and of course the fun part: to see lists, to do lists, and lists with everything we needed to remember for the wedding day.
When we looked at our lists we thought to ourselves, there is no way we can do this alone . Actually, it dawned on us even when our trip was a far off dream that travelling with two young children was not going to be easy. When we remembered how much stuff we had to pack for a trip to the mall when our first born was a baby, the idea of travelling that far, with that much stuff, two children and all the unforeseeable possibilities - lost luggage, less-than-understanding co-passengers, an unforeseen illness in an unfamiliar place - it was obvious that more hands on deck were needed.
A large part of our planning went to careful budgeting. We allotted a portion of our overall budget to be able to pay the expenses for a friend to travel with us for the first week of our two-week getaway. This gave us a much needed extra set of hands, a cool head during moments where we would inevitably feel overwhelmed, and a reliable, trustworthy babysitter as required. As we got closer to the date, we discussed with our friend whether she would like to bring her boyfriend along so the trip would be more fun for her. We agreed that while we couldn't afford to pay his trip expenses, we would be happy to cover his accommodation - and we promised there would be nights off! Not unpredictably, having a bonus fourth person along on the trip worked greatly to our advantage. Our fourth grown up co-traveller was great with the kids and pitched in a lot to help make our trip and wedding go smoothly. In the end, our two friends got engaged on our wedding trip. Win-win!
Child-friendly Travel Items
Second Order of Business: Making Arrangements
When you are the parents of young children, thinking in advance about what your kids will need on any given day becomes second nature. Here are a few tips I learned from making arrangements for my children's comfort and safety as we set out to travel by plane, rental car and by hired driver.
1) Infants and car seats on airplanes. Until the age of 2 years old, infants are able to travel on most airlines with an adult free of charge, with the understanding that a seat will not be required; the child will remain on your lap for the duration of the flight. If you bring a carseat from home and there are available seats on the flight, you can ask at check in whether the airline will allow you to carry the carseat on board and move to a section with an available seat for your baby.
If a seat isn't available, rather than checking your carseat with the luggage, you can wait until boarding and leave the tagged carseat with airline staff - that way your carseat will not have been subject to the rough handling of your fellow passengers' luggage, and will be easily collected immediately as you step off the plane.
2) Snacks and drinks. We all know how
important keeping our kids well fed and hydrated is; all it takes for a
baby or toddler to lose her grip is for hunger or thirst to suddenly
sneak up on her. Low blood sugar can also cause adults to feel grumpy
and temperamental, so it makes sense to have healthy snacks on hand for
everyone. While airport coffee shops and restaurants host the same
chains familiar to North Americans worldwide - Starbucks, Subway, and
food court variety restaurants - the food is often overpriced.
If you are able to pack granola, some cookies and sandwiches before you arrive at the airport, you may circumvent a meltdown or two without the buyer's remorse of airport pricing. Be aware that due to TSA regulations, you may not bring beverages on board unless they have been purchased past the point of airport security. Also note that you must open carry-on bags and report that you are carrying on bottles of breast milk, cans of formula or jars of baby food, which must be inspected as you pass through security.
* Remember to give your children a bottle, drink box or lollipop on take off and landing to distract and assist with ear popping.
3) Baby Gear
As a parent, you have to pick and choose which baby gear you can and cannot live without as you travel. Some things, like an infant carseat that doubles as an insert in a stroller, can be a no-brainer. (We carried on my son's carseat as we would need it for vehicle travel anyway, and in case there was an available extra seat on our flight). Items like strollers, high chairs, cribs, playpens and even breast pumps can be borrowed upon arrival via baby equipment rental businesses.
While we were able to travel lighter by minimizing the baby gear we brought with us, we did choose to rent a sit and stand stroller that accommodated both our kids, and a toddler carseat for our daughter. We saved on costs by having our son sleep next to us in the bed wherever we stayed, by bringing his infant carseat on the trip, and by purchasing a collapsible booster seat that strapped onto regular kitchen chairs for feeding time.
4) Entertaining the kids. When you are travelling anywhere with young children, always make sure they have something to do, or something to look forward to; keeping kids busy is essential to keeping the peace. Including kid-friendly activities among our sightseeing itineraries was easy and fun for all of us. Our first full day in Boston we spent walking to the Children's Museum, taking in all the interactive displays in the morning, eating lunch in the family cafe on the bottom floor, then going back up to take in some more displays that afternoon. Every major city has museums, parks and activities designed with children in mind. Finding at least one activity that was just for the kids helped minimize meltdowns, and ensured we were all satisfied by the end of the day.
For long car rides or flights, our most useful entertainment idea was to make sure there was one new toy, book or travel activity for every 45 minutes to an hour in transit. For the flight, we packed more than enough interesting surprises and made the thrill last longer by wrapping each item in wrapping paper. The most popular surprises for my three year old were an etch-a-sketch toy, a new Curious George book, and playfoam that can be molded and re-molded into new shapes over and over again.
Third Order of Business: Go with the Flow
In travel as in life, the best laid plans often go awry. Being a parent of young children, you are already familiar with how quickly a great plan can fizzle due to the unforeseen - a cranky baby, a sudden fever, or an accident.
On one trip, we thought we'd brought enough formula for a week on a small island that had one general store. Several days before we were due to return home on the ferry, we realized we were going to run out of formula. The general store wasn't expecting to get in more formula before we left, but made an emergency call to the owner on the mainland to bring another can that night. We thought we were well planned, but apparently not well enough, and save for a sympathetic local we almost had to return home early.
When we set out on our big trip, all my worst fears about travelling with children fell into the category of "other people". What if our kids annoy people on the plane/in the hotel/at the restaurant and we can't control their behaviour? I am happy to say I was pleasantly surprised by how helpful and understanding my fellow travellers were; many had travelled with their own young children and shared words of encouragement.
One young grandfather was thrilled when he could hold my son for a few minutes while our group took turns using the bathroom. An elderly lady complimented us on how well behaved our children were, and told us all about her grandchildren. There was only one instance where someone said something borderline negative, and it was a man who worried aloud about whether our son would cry a lot on the flight. He'd never been on a flight before, we told him, we didn't know what would happen. We suggested he change seats but he assured us that wasn't necessary, and at the end of the flight said our little guy was a "champ" for how well he did on the trip.
The best thing to do when you are travelling with young children is to remember why you are going on vacation: to relax and have fun. There will be moments that are stressful no matter how well planned you are. Try to smile and be grateful that if you have to endure an uncomfortable meltdown, it is at least far away from home (where no one will remember you in twenty minutes).
Enjoy your travels, but most of all, enjoy your children. Remember that the times you travelled with your children will be your favourite memories in a few years. Happy travels!
I Can Make Life: Poems About Infertility and Miscarriage, Pregnancy and Birth
About Nicole Breit
Nicole Breit is a published author and poet. Her debut poetry collection, , retraces the journey to have her son, and was a finalist for the 2012 Mary Ballard Poetry prize. I Can Make Life
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