Family vacations when I was a child meant fitting two adults, three children, a 130 lb Rottweiler and a whole lot of camping gear into a Jeep. Once everyone was crammed in, there was the drive into the mountains or to the beach, which was inevitably punctuated by the dog getting carsick, copious bickering over the lack of space in the back seat and people usurping more than their share, and threats to pull the car over or turn it around. Eventually, we would make it to the campsite and spend a week or so exploring and enjoying the outdoors.
I travel a lot now and I often encounter families traveling with children. Sometimes the parents have it all impressively under control. But more often than not, the parents are struggling to juggle luggage and children and make it to their destination without losing one or the other. Here are some tips from parents who are pros at traveling with kids:
- Prepare your kids ahead of time. You wouldn’t take your child to the dentist for the first time without giving them some idea of what to expect and maybe playing dentist a few times to get them ready for the experience. The same goes for travel. Talk with your kids about what to expect in the car or on the plane, train, or boat. Outline your expectations for behavior and discuss rewards your child will earn by behaving appropriately. Also discuss the consequences for misbehaving. Play make-believe in the weeks leading up to the trip to give your child a chance to practice those behaviors and get used to the idea of being on the plane/train/boat.
- Plan ahead and expect the unexpected. Always plan your route, be aware of alternate routes just in case, and know where bathrooms are. Have itineraries, tickets, identification, and maps and directions to hotels easily accessible. Sometimes travel delays are unavoidable. Having a plan of action to deal with delays goes a long way towards lessening the stress. Hunger has a tendency to make people incredibly unpleasant to be around, so have snacks at the ready. Young children are not as able to adapt to changes in air pressure as adults and they often suffer from ear pain on planes. Talk to your child’s doctor about a pain medication in case the bottle or pacifier does not help.
- Give kids some responsibility. Have each child pack a backpack to carry with them in the car or on the plane. In that backpack should be a few of their favorite toys and activities so they have something to keep them occupied. If the activities make noise, include headphones so you child can hear the sound but no one else will be bothered by it. Some suggestions: favorite books, handheld video games, mini etch-a-sketch or magna doodle, travel board games such as Battleships, crayons and coloring activity books, special blankets or stuffed animals.
- Take advantage of the wait. You know that once you get on that plane or train there will be limited opportunities to move around. And it is a bit unfair to ask children to sit still for an hour or so before boarding and then for several more hours while on the plane. So take advantage of the wait time at the gate to get some of the wiggles out. Many airports now have play areas, but if one is not available to you, you can use an empty gate or the small bit of unoccupied space at your own gate. There isn’t a whole lot of space at the gate, so relay races are out. But you can play Simon Says or see who can do the most jumping jacks. With any luck, your kids will be worn out by the time you get on the plane and will fall asleep as soon as the plane takes off.
- Be considerate of other travelers and of the staff. If your child is in diapers, please, please, please do not use the tray tables that other people eat on to change them. I have seen this happen on planes and trains way too often and it disgusts me every time. If your child needs to burn off some excess energy, let them walk or dance up and down the aisle for a bit under your supervision, as long as it doesn’t bother the other passengers. But make sure that drinks or meals are not being served at the time and the flight attendants won’t trip over your child.
- Have a plan for dealing with bad behavior. Other passengers’ patience runs thin for parents who allow their children to kick the back of someone else’s seat for hours on end or scream for chocolate milk (which airlines don’t serve) until they turn blue in the face. No one wants to listen to someone else’s child act up for the duration of travel in a confined space. But with children, minor behavior mishaps are par for the course. Be prepared to redirect your kids to appropriate activities (such as the ones they packed for themselves or looking out the window to see how many different animals they spy or what shapes the clouds are or engage them in making up stories). If redirection doesn’t work, remind your child of the rewards and consequences you discussed before the trip.
- Keep in mind that your attitude influences your child’s. No one likes waiting in traffic, sitting at the gate for an extra two hours due to delays, or being stuffed into a tiny airplane seat for those interminable hours. But children are sensitive to their parents’ moods and often unknowingly mimic them. So, if you are getting irritable because you feel cramped or tired, you can bet your child will start to fuss, too. If you can take a few moments to readjust your mood and remain calm, it will go a long way towards a more enjoyable trip.