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Family Travel - How to Travel with Kids and Stay Sane

Updated on February 17, 2012

Family travel can be a wonderfully educational and mind-broadening experience for kids, but family vacations can also be a terribly stressful and mind-numbing experience for parents. When it comes to traveling with kids, as with many other things in life, if you fail to prepare you prepare to fail, so what exactly can you do to ensure that both you and your kids arrive at your destination alive and well, and arrive home wanting to travel together again at some point in the future.

Before you go:

Do your research. Some destinations are more family friendly than others, and that goes for individual resorts, hotels, hostels, campsites and airlines. Some family friendly policies are easy to spot. A resort will advertise a kid’s club, playground, or children’s activities, or an airline will advertise a free kid’s activity pack or child friendly in-flight entertainment. Sometimes it pays to dig a little deeper. What equipment (such as cribs, high chairs and booster seats) does the resort provide, and is there a charge for it? (In other words, what can you leave behind, without doubling the cost of your trip?). Are there great family travel experiences you haven’t considered? Older kids may love camping, volunteering or taking a trip based round a specific activity.

Be aware of the costs of travel during scheduled school breaks. Taking kids out of school can be a good idea to avoid the ridiculously inflated travel costs during school vacations, but every school has a different policy on term time trips. In Britain many schools won’t allow it at all. I’m living in Canada right now and it is more than acceptable. Some Canadian teachers actually seem to think that travelling can be a valuable educational experience (Well, duh!).

Think through the practicalities. The timing of your travel can be vital if your child has a very inflexible schedule for eating and napping. I can tell you from first hand experience it is (almost) impossible to carry two sleeping kids through an airport on your own and collect your baggage successfully. It’s perfectly OK to put kids to bed in their (comfortable) clothes if you need to get them up and in the car at 5.00 am for an early morning flight. (I can hear the thud of perfect parents hitting the ground as they faint at this suggestion but I can assure you I’ve done this to my kids several times with no ill effects).

Choose your packing wisely. Take only what you need, and everything you need – easier said than done at any time, a major challenge with one or more child, each with their own diverse set of needs. I now realize that if I have passports, tickets, money, prescription medications and the invariable irreplaceable stuffed animal/blankie for each child, I can (probably) buy anything else I’ve forgotten. As mentioned above, check what equipment you can borrow from the accommodation you have booked, and if there are easily accessible laundry facilities (which will cut down on volume of clothes needed). If you are travelling long-term and/or “rough” with or without kids you will soon learn to improvise, compromise and wash out essential clothing using very basic facilities (and find a way to hang it so it dries by the next morning, even if it’s monsoon season, pouring with rain and there is no apparent place to hang it in your room).

Carry on bags. If your child can walk, she can wear a small backpack. It should contain, at minimum, small toys, books, puzzles, drawing and coloring utensils, an electronic game if your child is old enough, snacks, a drink, and, for older kids an Mp3 player/ipod (actually these can be great for younger kids too if they have kid’s stories/songs loaded onto them). Your own carry on bag should of course contain essentials such as diapers, wipes and changing mat, more snacks and drinks, and more toys (preferably ones they haven’t seen before for novelty value). What? You wanted to take a book or magazine for yourself and maybe your own ipod? Dream on!

The above “carry on bags” apply to long trips by car, train or bus as well as flying. At least then you’ll be able to carry your child’s favorite drink. Remember no liquids will be allowed through airport security and drinks on the other side of security are (unsurprisingly) exorbitantly expensive. You are allowed to carry a clean, dry, empty refillable bottle, which can be filled from a tap or drinking fountain once past security.

While you’re there:

Give kids time to adjust. If jet lag is a factor kids will tend to be wide awake at four in the morning. Even Brad and Angelina admit to having this problem when they travel.

Find child-friendly activities. If you’ve done your research there will be plenty at your destination to keep kids happy. Make travel a great experience for them and you’ll set them up well for future adventures.

Stay flexible. Kids are a lot less predictable than you’d think. On a recent trip to Florida my kids enjoyed the world famous theme parks like Disney and Universal, but enjoyed the incredibly quirky Wonderworks and playing mini golf as a family even more!

Follow your little explorers . Many parents realize that seeing things through a child’s eyes is one of the great joys of parenthood. Take time to let your kids explore their new environment. Get down to their level and let them point out all the wonderful sights (and sounds, and smells) you might have missed by staying at “adult” level (physically and mentally).

Making friends. Kids make friends so naturally. Keep them close and safe, but allow them to make friends with local children and tourists/travelers from other parts of the world. Encourage them to collect addresses and stay in touch by email or, even better, snail mail when they return home.

Education though travel. One of the greatest benefits of your kids visiting new places is the opportunity to learn new things. Encourage activities that help them learn about local culture, geography, nature and people. It doesn’t have to be a trip to a museum. It could be a visit to a local festival or accepting an invite to visit a local’s home.

When you get home:

Settling back in. Give them time to adjust (again). It can be really valuable to plan to be home a day or two before they need to be back at school.

Preserve those memories. Print your photos. Create an album. Make a scrapbook. Contact those new friends. Talk about your trip and what you all saw and learned together.

The education continues. Look at where you went on a world map and a globe (they’ll each give you a different perspective). Map the route you took. Do more research on things you found out about. Look for kids' books on the area or movies set in that part of the world. And then start planning and researching your next trip.


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      rebeccanwill 7 years ago

      Great post! I think one of the most stressful part of travelling with kids is actually at the airport. I personally think a great idea is to check into an airport hotel - even if it's just for a few hours. They are self-contained environments and will normally have enough to entertain the kids until your flight.

      I've actually written by own guide to family hotels near Stansted airport. I hope people find it useful. They can read it here:

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      TheDisneyVacation 7 years ago

      Great hub

      A little research won't hurt, but help in having a hassle-free vacation.

    • amandaelaine profile image

      amandaelaine 8 years ago

      I loved reading this article, an inspiration to get me out with my boys, as summer is coming closer to ending I have run out of ideas and was begining to think there's not much left to do until I read this and realised I was in need of a helping hand. Thanks for you Hub!! Great photos