September 10, 2014

Tips on Traveling with Children

Feeding pigeons in St. Mark's Piazza, Venice, Italy.

Feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Piazza, Venice, Italy.

Traveling with young children can be one of the great joys in a parent’s life. If children become accustomed to travel at an early age, it is likely that a desire and willingness to step out of their comfort zone and place themselves in another world will develop and remain with them throughout their life. In other words, they will not fear exposure to that which is foreign, but instead embrace the unknown. Exposing children to other ways of life — customs, foods, languages, history, beliefs, and so forth — strengthens their understanding of our multicultural world. In my experiences, I’ve found that it also develops within the child (and adult) a level of compassion for others, not to mention a better perspective of their own place in this world. All of these benefits will carry over into many aspects of a child’s life.

Children, in their innocent questions and unique observations, also add tremendous value for the parents. They can help you see the world in a different light. For these reason and many more, traveling with children is fantastic. But let’s be honest, it can also be a nightmare. There are challenges at every turn, from jet lag to finding food they are willing to eat to the classic exhaustion meltdown, having the children along requires the parents to be prepared for every possible scenario. Having just returned from an epic European adventure with my family, I have made note of several things that will help make any travel experience go as smoothly as possible.

1) Have plenty of snacks on hand
Nothing can sour a child’s mood like hunger. Well, being overtired is on par, but that’s not always within the parent’s control. Bring along plenty of snacks, ideally snacks that won’t melt. Peanuts, energy bars, apples, raisins, and gummy bears are all easy to pack and hand out as needed. Also grab each child a water or juice after you have passed through security. You never know how long it will be before the flight attendants serve drinks, and a thirsty child is no fun to deal with either.

2) Make them tote their own carry-on (if old enough):
We were traveling with our three daughters, ages 9, 7, and 4. All of them were responsible for their own carry on. To make it easy, they each got a small backpack with wheels for their birthdays, so they could simply drag it along wherever we went. Before we had the roller bags for the kids, my wife and I looked like Himalayan Sherpas, toting more luggage than seemed humanly possible. Given the chaotic nature of travel with children, placing the responsibility on them to manage their own things also frees up critical mind space.

Movies, pillows and blankets help keep kids comfortable on long flights.

Movies, pillows and blankets help keep kids comfortable on long flights.

3) Bring multiple forms of entertainment:
We brought an iPad mini with a few shows and movies pre-downloaded – Disney’s Cat’s, Wildcrats, and a few others. And make sure to bring earphones or earbuds. Our flight attendant notified everyone that watching a movie without headphones was prohibited. For the sake of other passengers, that seems obvious, but another set of parents on our flight seemed surprised by the announcement. We also brought a few books for each child, which they keep in their carry-on backpack, along with coloring books, sketch pads, journals, crayons and pencils. I also checked out several ebooks at our local library and was told most libraries offer this service…and it’s free! All you need is a library card.

4) Help make them comfortable
Bring along a neck or travel pillow for each child. We also brought their favorite blanket, and a light sweatshirt. The temp on our plane went from sauna temps at take off to frigid mid-flight.

5) Keep an extra pair of clothing in carry ons
In the event your checked luggage does not show up, it is nice to have a fresh pair of clothes for you and the kids to change into once you’ve settled in to your hotel. While you wait for your luggage situation to be resolved, it’s much easier to get by with two outfits than it is with one. Also, if you have room, I advise carrying a travel sized toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant, just in case these items aren’t readily available to you when you arrive.

6) Keep a few bribes in your back pocket
I know this practice may be discouraged by many, but I honestly don’t know of a parent that doesn’t do it on occasion. I’ve heard parents say they just don’t agree with the philosophy, but when all you know what breaks loose, a simple bribe can be an effective way to bring calm to a situation. Especially, when you’re asking them to behave during their umpteenth tour. Let’s face it, that’s a tall order for any kid.

Playing soccer with the locals was a highlight of the trip.

Playing soccer with the locals was a highlight of the trip.

7) Do kids things
On a trip with children, the itinerary needs to be balanced. For every historical tour, you need to do some things the kids will love. We visited some of the most storied cities on earth, and the things our children enjoyed most were visiting a water park, feeding pigeons, playing soccer with a group of Italian kids, and the afternoon we spent at a beach in France. Funny thing is, these were also some of the most enjoyable moments for the parents, too.

8) Know your itinerary
Not only do you need to know it, but you need to verify prior to travel. It helps if both parents have a copy, either paper or digital, that can be easily accessed. And it’s important to take a few minutes the day before your trip to verify flight times. I learned this the hard way. On the last leg of our flight, we arrived an hour and a half prior to the flight time listed on our emailed itinerary, only to find that the departure time had been changed and our flight had already left. Our travel had been booked by a travel agent, and message of this change never reached me or my wife. The lesson here is this: Rely only on yourself. If I had taken five minutes to verify the departure time the day before, we could have avoided a very costly mistake.