Planning travel with children can seem like an overwhelming task, even for the experienced traveler. The uncertainty of toddler tantrums or pre-teen mood swings can make a family vacation seem as fun as a root canal. Whether they’re yours or someone else’s, factoring a child’s needs into your travel plans is more than just downloading apps on the tablet or packing enough snacks for a road trip.
In my son’s short 10 years on this planet, we have been to 14 countries, 23 international cities, and on countless planes, trains, and busses together. We have discovered some amazing parts of this world together, both domestically and internationally. However, all of our travel moments weren’t Instagram worthy.
In our adventures, we have learned a lot about ourselves and our traveling style. Through our escapades and mishaps we have encountered some creative ways to explore the world around us and picked up some useful hacks to help beat boredom and frustration. (We even know what to do if you’re ever face-to-face with an elephant while on safari.)
Here is a quick list of the things I have learned along the way that have helped us not only enjoy our family vacation, but have made traveling easier for the both of us as he grows older.
1. Plan and schedule everything.
When I travel alone, I usually just wing it and go where the wind takes me. I wander down streets and enjoy getting lost in a new city. Sometimes, I end up sharing a meal with a local or playing games with school children.
But with kids, predictability is key. You may have every intention to find things to do as you move about your day, but often times I find that this creates more challenges. My son loves to know what places we will be exploring throughout the week—keeping a schedule helps curb his boredom.
To try to avoid the task of asking him what to do while we are in the thick of a vacation, I plan an itinerary with him for every day we are on that trip. He helps me research and adds in things that he loves to do so that he doesn’t feel like the entire trip is about history and architecture. I ask him to research three places he would most like to visit and we try to fit that in the schedule. Most of the time we end up at aquariums and arcades, but at least he feels like he has some control over the holiday.
2. Be flexible.
Here’s one thing I have learned: Murphy’s law is in full effect whenever you travel. So you have to learn to adjust when things don’t go as planned. Construction may close a site that you were planning to see or a typhoon may shift and completely cancel that walking tour you had planned for the day. You have to learn to just roll with it and dance in the proverbial rain.
In that flexibility, you have the power to change the course of your travel. You may not get to take that selfie with that famous monument, but you may find yourself in a random neighborhood having lunch with a local family and sharing stories despite the language barrier. It can happen if you’re open to the possibility.
3. Do your research.
I cannot stress this enough. You have to understand where you are going and not just wing it in an amazing country where you found a flight deal. There are many countries who have policies on single parents bringing children across their borders alone. There are countries that are going through holidays that restrict not only its citizens from eating or drinking water in public, but also tourists (Ramadan Kareem!). There are countries that do not allow you to sunbathe in your two-piece bikini no matter how beautiful their beaches are or where you are from.
Even when thinking about the potential safety and health issues that are present in any country, you need to know what to expect. Thoroughly doing your research and understanding the laws, customs, and entry requirements will save you lots of time and frustration when you show up at passport control and they deny your entry because you lack certain vaccinations to enter the country. This happens all the time.
4. Let’s be honest: You probably won’t be #teamcarryon.
Traveling with kids requires stuff. The younger they are, the more change of clothes and diapers and things to occupy them you will need. Kids are messy little beings who attract dirt, noise, and smells and you need to be prepared.
It can be frustrating to want to explore a city during a long layover and have to put your bag in a locker or airport storage for the time being, or worse, drag it around with you because you’re too cheap to pay the $7. (I know I’m guilty of this.) But checking a bag isn’t so bad, practically speaking. Even if the layover isn’t that long, it’s easier to schlep through the airport to your connection without it. You’ll be busy carrying your kid and their book bag because they will probably ask you to hold theirs as well.
But you have to be mindful. Sometimes bags go missing. Or get damaged. Or a bunch of other horrible things that happen to bags between your departure city and that Narnia that exists between you and baggage claim. If you have to check a bag, make sure you have at least a change of undies—and at most a full outfit—in your carry-on bag. Ensure all necessary medications and cash are with you, as well as your electronics.
I do not, however, recommend bringing everything with you. One outfit per day, plus two for incidentals is completely fine. And your child doesn’t need every toy or their rock collection to come with them. The rule in my house: You pack it, you carry it. My son has learned his lesson after lugging his 20lb bag around Abu Dhabi because he wanted to bring his whole collection of Wimpy Kid books.
5. Know thyself. And thy child.
We like snacks. And we tend to get hangry (that’s hungry + angry) when we haven’t eaten in about three hours. So I always have snacks, even on long plane rides where they feed you often.
I know my kid is more unpredictable than the weather in the Midwest, so I always have a backup just in case. I also know he gets “bored” easily, so I try to make sure things are happening at all times. But I also know he’ll eventually come around once we get going and that I should never have him make a choice during the trip. He will almost always choose wifi and then complain we didn’t do anything while on vacation. Been there, done that, don’t wanna do it again.
Knowing who we are and how we travel best helps me to prepare and plan. Occasionally I will try to get him to try new things, but I know my son and what he is open to and what he is not. This helps me to avoid conflict on what should be a nice and enjoyable family vacation.
Know who you are and the type of traveler you are before attempting to recreate some cross-country schlep this lady you saw on Facebook did with her toddler strapped to her back. Stop trying to be these other people and just be you. The fact that you just want to travel with your kid is pretty awesome. Be the awesome and amazing family that you are.
6. Be present and enjoy yourself.
Travel is supposed to be fun and relaxing. It’s about finding out more about yourself and strengthening your connection with your family. About creating traditions and new experiences that can hopefully be passed onto future generations. What is the point of exploring these new worlds if you’re not there to enjoy it? (Answer: There is no point.)
If you do the research and a little bit of planning, you’re going to enjoy whatever time you have with your family wherever you are in the world. You can’t always plan for every little thing that could go wrong, so don’t even try. But know yourself enough to know what you can prepare for.
Also find a way to take some time for yourself. Book a massage and get some time to yourself while your kids are with the hotel babysitter (they have those, you know). Enjoy that book while your son splashes around in the pool. Find a way to enjoy yourself on your vacation because it is yours as well.
I encourage anyone who is considering it to travel with your child and explore all that this amazing world has to offer. But know that traveling with an irrational and unpredictable human comes with its challenges. Know that you might be frustrated and your trip might not go as well as you thought it would, and know that there are ways you can still enjoy yourself.
You have to figure out what works for you. You and your toddler may never climb Machu Picchu, but you can definitely go on a hike through the Redwood Forest in California and find some pretty amazing things. Or if travel is out of your bank account’s reach right now, you can find a way to explore your own city until it is.
Just as with parenting, family travel is about what works for you and your family. And that’s all that matters.