How She Travels
Art by Leslie Graff, lesliegraff.com
Last year, my family and I traveled to my hometown, Bishop, CA, for a family reunion. It was glorious! I hadn’t been there for over 10 years, because my family doesn’t live there anymore. When we drove into that valley, and I saw my mountains again, I just bawled. I was overjoyed to be there, and it was even better to be able to share it with my kids. We had an amazing time—hiking, a barbeque at a dear friend’s ranch, lots of cousin time, reunions with old friends. We checked all the boxes and then some.
But it was also a terrible trip. We woke up at the crack of dawn and drove an hour to the airport. My son lost his flip phone on the airport parking shuttle, we found it but that meant seven Archibalds running through the airport as our names were called over the loudspeaker. After our walk of shame onto the full airplane, we had to beg a few kind strangers to change seats so our three- and five-year-olds didn't have to sit by themselves. If any of the passengers on that plane knew I would be writing about travel tips, I would have been booed off the plane.
Then came a two-hour ordeal at the rental car place when they didn't have a big enough vehicle for our family, despite our prepaid reservation. All this with a six-hour drive ahead of us, to get to Bishop.
This trip sums up travel with kids perfectly—amazing and terrible all at once. Which, when you think about it, sums up parenthood in general, too.
Traveling when you have kids takes patience, planning, and creativity—even if you're leaving them home—but it can be done! And, usually, it’s worth all the pain. When I started researching this topic, I was amazed at how many families make travel a central part of their lives. (I include a list of some of the family travel blogs I discovered at the end of this post.)
Strategic Travel Planning
Recently, my husband and I realized that we only have five or six more summers before our oldest child (age 13) leaves home. Since my husband usually takes just one week off for vacation each year, we have to think strategically about where we want to spend those six vacations we have left with our kids, and what experiences we want to have with them.
Not only that, but researching this topic has opened up a world of travel possibilities to me, beyond the traditional family vacation. It had never really occurred to me to plan trips with individual kids, or to swap babysitting to go on vacation as a couple. Here are some of the ways families think outside the box with travel strategy:
Travel Swaps. My husband and I have enlisted our parents to watch our kids a few times while we travel without them, but it's a lot to ask and can be hard to coordinate. And some families don’t have that option for one reason or another. Laura, Karalyn, and Kelly get around this by taking turns and watching each other's kids. Each couple has three kids. When it's their turn to travel, the two other families take turns watching their kids and they go somewhere fun, from weekend trips to bigger trips like Portugal, Mexico, and a European tour!
The key to this strategy is to find families of a similar size. Last year my family of seven recently teamed up with two families of eight to do our own swap. When our friends traveled, we ended up with three and four extra children at our house for two long weekends. It was crazy, loud, fun, and a lot of work, but it was a great investment: my husband and I got to spend a weekend riding a bike race together in the mountains and staying for the weekend.
Staycations. Travel doesn't have to be far-flung or expensive. When we were first married, we met a fabulous family who were experts in "home tourism." They compiled bucket lists of local attractions and day trips and spent most weekends checking items off those lists. They knew all the best hiking and camping spots nearby, and the all best ice cream shops, parks, and museums.
To get started on your own local bucket list, pretend you're visiting from out of town and browse tourism websites for your city, county, and state; check out books from the library; and make a list of state and national parks in your area.
A few years ago, Christina and her family made a goal to plan a local getaway one week each month. Check out her blog post, "8 Tips for Finding Adventure in Your Own Backyard," for more great ideas.
Trips with Individual Kids. Nichole and Jared take each of their kids on two solo trips: a U.S. history tour when they're 10 (i.e. Boston, New York, or Washington D. C.), and an adventure trip (i.e. scuba diving in Florida, river rafting in Costa Rica, cliff-jumping in Belize). To read more about their family adventures, check out "How Nichole Builds Relationships."
Megan and Jason do solo trips a little differently. Each kid gets a solo trip with the opposite gender parent at 12 and then the same-gender parent at 18.
Several of my friends also do individual trips with their kids when they graduate from high school, often giving the kid a budget and letting him or her do all the planning.
Kids-Only Trips. When Ruth lived in Florida, her oldest son traveled to see his grandparents in Arizona each year by himself. It was a great way for them to spend time together without the chaos of a whole-family visit—plus, it was much cheaper!
Taking a cue from Ruth, when our oldest son was 10, and he saved up money to buy yet another giant LEGO set, we convinced him to use that money to pay the unaccompanied minor fee for a plane ticket to visit his cousins instead (we used airline points to pay for the flight itself).
Mixing Business and Pleasure. Kristin’s current strategy is to plan travel around her husband’s business trips, since his airfare and their hotel is covered. This works especially well for their current stage of life, because her kids are young enough that they’re not in school yet. They research each city they visit ahead of time and try to do a mix of touristy and local activities. You can read more about her strategy at How Kristin Travels.
Big Adventures. Researching for this article has left me amazed at the grand adventures some families undertake. The Smith family has traveled to over 40 countries as a family. They write about it and share lots of travel tips, including family travel guides for destinations from their home in Salt Lake City to Australia at ourfamilypassport.com. You can also listen to a fun podcast with their tips and stories at Family Looking Up.
We have several friends who have taken a year or two off from their regular lives to travel with their families, many of those for humanitarian service abroad. And there is a whole subculture of families who have sold their homes and live in an RV, traveling and road-schooling full time.
Josie, a friend of mine from high school, and her her husband and three kids are on year three of one of the biggest family adventures of all—a 10-year sailing trip around the world. To read a profile of Josie’s adventurous life, click here.
Saving For a Trip
Family vacations can get pricey, but you don't have to win the lottery to make it work. In addition to traveling close to home, one way to afford family travel is to make it a priority and sacrifice elsewhere.
One of Nichole's famous quotes among her family members is: "Do you want to go to Disneyland or do you want to leave that light on?" She and her family went an entire (very hot) summer with no air conditioning while they were saving for a trip to dive with sharks in the Bahamas. Nichole is also an expert at finding travel deals and discounts online—her family paid $3,000 for that trip to the Bahamas, when it would have cost $21,000 at full price.
The Smith family (of ourfamilypassport.com) keeps a separate savings account for travel and puts something in every month. They also save by cutting their spending on things like eating out, cable, and gym memberships. Find more in their article, "10 Simple Ways to Save Money for Travel."
Each year, the Nackos family gives plane tickets as their main Christmas gifts, so the money they would have spent on toys or gadgets go toward meaningful family experiences. The Smiths took this idea a step further, and one year they decided not to give gifts at all—not birthdays, Christmas, Mother's Day—no presents. All the money they would have spent went to their travel fund.
Jessica Dabelich, who blogs at flyingwithfour.com, suggests cruises and all-inclusive resorts as some of the most budget-friendly ways to travel—plus, there’s always camping!
Then of course there are those people like my brother, who put in the time and figure out all the credit card deals and airline and hotel rewards programs. One of the best places to go to find these deals is thepointsguy.com.
Preparing Your Kids
As difficult as the actual travel part is with kids—especially young kids—a little planning goes a long way. When Juliana travels with her five kids, she prepares them for the flight ahead of time by talking through the process at the airport: checking in, going through security, riding a train, boarding the plane, etc. Even for small kids, knowing what's going to happen seems to help them understand what's going on around them and prevents meltdowns.
While at the airport, she talks about what's happening and gives them additional details about what to do. She tries to be calm and not stressed, so they'll pick up on that and follow suit. She also tries to be really aware of how each kid is feeling. If kids are feeling scared, hungry, tired or sick, she gives those feelings credibility and tries to meet their needs. A little empathy goes a long way.
This is such a great idea, because many moms think to prepare kids for the flight itself, but not for the airport, which can actually be the hardest part. Sarah Powers, co-host of the podcast The Mom Hour, had the great idea to make the whole process almost like a scavenger hunt, offering a jelly bean or other small reward after they make it through each new step.
Kam prepares her young son to travel by reading books about the destination, listening to local music, teaching him a few key words in the local language, and printing coloring pages of famous landmarks and areas. She creates a fun countdown starting about two weeks before departure.
When traveling internationally last year, Candice prepared her twin two-year-olds for the time change physically. Ten days before they flew to Italy, she started adjusting their sleep schedules, with the goal of getting the time change down to four hours. She created a schedule to adjust their their nap, bedtime, and wakeup schedule by 30 minutes every two days. Read her article about this at csginger.com.
Packing and unpacking are the green-eyed monsters of travel. But there's no real way around it. Here are a few ways to make the monumental task of packing a bit easier:
Create a standard packing list. Jennica realized that there really isn't much variation in what she packs from trip to trip, so she created a standard packing checklist which she prints for each trip. Jessica did the same, but she laminated hers, so they can check things off with a dry-erase marker and then reuse them. (Jennica and Jessica discuss their great packing hacks on Jessica's podcast Extraordinary Moms.)
I have a packing list saved on my computer which I can adjust to each trip we take. I print a copy for each of my kids, hand it to them, and they pack themselves. I pack my three-year-old, but the rest do a pretty good job. Before one trip, we had a really crazy week with lots of unexpected mini-crises. Plus, my husband and I had a concert the night before our trip and we knew we wouldn’t be back until almost midnight. We left for the concert with nothing packed for anyone, and handed the packing list to our 13-year-old with a promise of extra babysitting cash if he’d pack himself and his siblings. When we got home, we packed ourselves, but we didn’t even have time for a cursory inspection of the kids’ luggage. We knew the worst-case scenario was a trip to Walmart at our destination. It turned out that they all did a great job packing and only forgot a few things. Now I totally just leave the packing to the kids.
Make a last-minute packing list. I'm always scrambling after the car is loaded up to grab my phone, my purse, phone chargers, toothbrushes, pillows—all those things you need up until the last minute. Jessica has a standard, laminated list for this too! I'm hoping this tip will get rid of that uneasy feeling I always have for the first part of any trip—"What am I forgetting?"
Pack right out of the dryer. Marjean used to pack her kids up as she did laundry the week before a trip. She lined up the duffle bags in her laundry room and just filled them up straight out of the dryer. It saved the step of putting the clothes away first. The kids were in charge of packing their own backpacks with anything they wanted on the trip besides clothes. Carrine, at Some Semblance of Order does all her laundry the day before a trip and packs up as she pulls clothes from the dryer as well. You can find her road-trip packing list here.
Set up a packing station. Jessica Dabelich of flyingwithfour.com sets up a packing station in her bedroom when they’re packing for a trip. She chooses her bedroom because it has a lot of floor space and it’s a room the kids won’t come in and out of to mess everything up. This allows her to take her time when she’s packing. She lines up suitcases for her four kids in a row, and then lays out everything that will go in them so she can see everything at once and fill in any gaps. She can also see if she’s packing too much.
Pack by day or activity, not by person. This idea rocked my world. I stumbled upon Saren Loosli's article about this at Power of Moms just in time for a multi-stop road trip. Instead of packing bags for each person, I packed a bag for each stop on our trip, so we only had to bring one bag (plus a communal toiletry bag) into each hotel. We had all the supplies we needed for the specific activities we were going to do at that stop. Saren also packs one bag with church clothes for the whole family, and one bag with sweatshirts or jackets, so they don't have to rifle through bags to find them.
Keep outfits together. Adrianne packs her kids' outfits in ziplock bags, so they can grab and go each day. Jennica uses packing cubes for the same purpose.
Rent equipment there. What? I had no idea this existed, but there are companies all over the world who will meet you at the airport with baby gear that you can rent during your vacation. So you don't have to lug all that baby paraphernalia around with you! Meredith rented a high chair, portable crib, and car seat from a company called Toddgo when she traveled to Germany. For a list of equipment rental companies go to travelmamas.com.
Pack light. Saren's rule of thumb for packing clothes is 2-3 pairs of pants and 3-4 shirts per person. She intentionally chooses clothes that don't show dirt. And remember, unless you're traveling somewhere really remote, you can usually find laundry facilities in a pinch. For you, Reachel Bagley of Cardigan Empire has a great system of packing a travel capsule wardrobe so you can fit everything you need for a trip in a carryon (and still look great).
Keep your toiletries packed. Jennica keeps a permanent travel toiletry bag with everything from toothbrushes to hair products. She restocks it as they use items up so it's always ready to grab and go. She has a separate medicine bag as well
Pack a multipurpose kit. Wherever she is, every day, Jennica brings her all-purpose kit, a bag called In-a-Pikle. It's a little bag with zippered pouched inside. She uses it to keep hair elastics, ibuprofen, allergy medicine, hand-sanitizer, sunscreen, post-it notes, lip gloss & mascara, scissors, tweezers, floss, a mirror, little screwdrivers, and other handy things. (I just bought one for myself.)
Bring Ziplocs/garbage bags. The What Fresh Hell podcast also has an episode dedicated to packing for a trip, episode 20, Vacationing With Kids—What to Pack. Spoiler alert—bring lots of Ziploc bags. These airtight bags are essential for traveling with infants, between blowouts and spitup, but they can be handy for kids of any age, both on the road and in the air. You never know when you’ll need to contain something wet, smelly, or dirty.
On the Airplane
Kristin used to spend a lot of time prepping for and stressing about airplane travel with babies. But after a few terrible flights with a crying baby, she realized that it's only a few hours—at longest a day—of her life, and that she and the other passengers would get over it. She still prepares with activities and snacks for her two young children, and is as courteous as possible to other travelers, but sometimes no amount of preparation can prevent a meltdown.
That said, there are some things you can do to make airplane flights more pleasant for you and your kids. Juliana makes sure her iPads are charged and that movies are fully downloaded. She tests the headphones, and even had her 20-month-old practice using headphones before the trip. Each child (except the baby) is responsible for packing his/her own backpack with snacks and activities for the flight. This teaches them responsibility, plus they can't complain to her if they don't have what they want on the flight.
And sometimes you just need a helper. Since she gets airsick, Juliana knew that she couldn't fly all by herself with her five kids when her husband couldn't come, so she bought a ticket for her sister to accompany her.
Candice always gate-checks her stroller rather than checking it, so she doesn't have to carry her kids through the airports. She brings finger foods like cheese sticks, pistachios, grapes, fruit snacks, granola bars, crackers, jerky, small suckers, smarties, m&ms, dove chocolates (or other treats you can meter a little at a time), and gum for their ears. She advises that you save the best entertainment for last, like treats, iPad, etc. For more of her survival tips for international flights with kids, go to csginger.com.
Margaret Ables, cohost of the fabulous parenting podcast What Fresh Hell, coined the term “skyrules” for her philosophy that parents are allowed to throw all the rules out the window on flights with kids, as long as they’re quiet and happy. So sugar, screens, nothing is off limits.
Kam always stocks up on dollar-store toys so her son has new toys to play with. She also usually brings a small Lego set. For herself, she brings a scarf that can double as a blanket and a travel pillow (see below). For her son, she brings an inflatable foot rest (see below). For more ideas of her flying tips, go to ourfamilypassport.com.
In the Car
Oh, the family road trip. Like many of you, my childhood memories involve imaginary lines that siblings couldn't cross and rolling around in the back without seatbelts. My dad used to record the sound of movies like Ghostbusters on cassette tapes and we'd listen to those and Disney read-along books. And there was singing. Lots of singing.
iPads and DVD players (and seatbelt laws) have brought us a long way from those rustic road trips, but it's still a struggle to keep kids entertained and, most importantly, not fighting or whining.
Fortunately, I stumbled upon several road-trip geniuses while researching for this article. (Really, all you need to know about road trips, you can find at Saren Loosli's article, "Tried and True Road Trip Tips.") Here are some of their fabulous ideas:
Before Sidney's grandkids go on a road trip, she buys snacks and toys from the dollar store and wraps them up—one for each hour of the trip. It can be as simple as three Starburst, a bag of pretzels, or a small puzzle. Sometimes she even wraps up a story book, including a recording of herself reading it for the kids to enjoy during the trip. Each hour, the kids open one present. The anticipation and element of surprise entertains them the whole way. Similarly, Jamie lets her kids eat one Jolly Rancher an hour. They last a while and it helps the kids count down the time.
Elise has her kids do something active, even just running around in the front yard, before they get in the car for such a long drive. And Saren organizes active games at rest stops for the same purpose, throughout the trip. Gotta get those wiggles out!
You can only watch so many movies, so there's always the good, old-fashioned car game. You can go with the classics—I Spy, We're Going On a Picnic, or the Alphabet Game—but here are a few more:
Fortunately, Unfortunately (Take turns going back and forth between the two, to make a story: "Fortunately, we're heading to Yellowstone." "Unfortunately, the bears have taken over the park." "Fortunately, they're only charging one jar of honey for admission." ...)
Two Truths and a Lie
The License Plat Game (Make this more fun by giving each child a printed map of the U.S., so they can color in the states for any license plates they see.)
Would You Rather
Conversation Starters (You can buy sets of cards with interesting questions, or just come up with your own.)
The Initial Game (20 questions, but with people. You start by giving the initials of a real or fictional person.)
Singing games like Encore. (Split into two teams, someone comes up with a topic or word, and you trade off thinking of songs with that word in it until you run out of ideas.)
Cows on my side (You get points for spotting cows first, and keep track.)
More fun car games here.
Elise buys window clings for the kids to play with on the road. And Brittney brings cookie sheets and magnets for the kids to play with (be careful, some cookie sheets are not magnetic). Several moms mentioned Water Wow activity books.
For those floppy heads trying to get some sleep, bring neck pillows. Saren even found neck pillows for babies! (See link below)
Brittney packs snacks like dried fruit, veggies, and crackers in individual snack bags, so they're easy to pass around, and cleaner than eating right out of the bag. She picks things they don't usually keep around the house, so they're a novelty. Instead of putting ice in her cooler, she freezes water bottles so they double as a backup water supply. (No one drinks anything but water, because of the inevitable spills.)
For quick weekend trips, Jennica packs in laundry baskets rather than suitcases. Then she has a laundry hamper and a portable mudroom to store shoes or jackets, and they're so easy to pack up.
While You’re There
It's hard to give advice for once you get to your destination, since it's always so specific to the location, but there are so many bloggers out there with tips for traveling to specific destinations with families. I'll list some great resources at the end of this article. But I did come across some great ideas that would work anywhere.
Kam and Shani from Our Family Passport recommend scheduling one relaxing day for every two scheduled day on a family trip, so the kids can catch up on sleep and just do their own thing. They also suggest you take advantage of the hotel laundry service so you don't have to overpack.
Jamie stumbled upon a great travel idea when her son wanted to buy a soccer ball in Italy. She gave in, even though it seemed like a bulky thing to have on her trip. It turned out to be so much fun for the whole family to kick it along as they were walking all over Europe. They just bought a little travel pump with it so they could deflate and inflate it for travel.
Carrine dresses her younger kids in matching brightly colored shirts when they go to crowded places like amusement parks. (Her older ones aren't too excited about that, so they wear what they want.) She likes to keep those shirts in her bag so they don’t end up being worn on the wrong day.
Most importantly, when you travel with kids, you have to have realistic expectations. Everyone will have a different idea of what a successful trip looks like. Make sure to plan activities for all the varying tastes and ability levels of the people you’re traveling with. Your kids may enjoy and remember splashing in the fountain at the park just as much or more than touring that beautiful cathedral.
I found so many amazing family travel blogs and podcasts while I was researching for this article here are just a few:
Jessica Dahlquist interviews Jennica Woodbury of mommyconvos.com and they both share great family packing ideas for both air and road trips.
My favorite podcasting trio talks to Kam and Shani of Our Family Passport about how and why they travel to exotic (and some not-so-exotic) places as a family. It's a fun listen, and packed with great ideas. It will inspire you to be adventurous.
If you’re hesitant about traveling with kids this interview with Jessica Dabelich may just change your mind. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but the memories are worth it!
Sarah has flown a lot with kids, and Meagan is an expert at road trips. Together, they created a great podcast episode full of great traveling hacks.
Great packing tips with a dose of humor and a slight ziplock obsession.
Flyingwithfour.com: Jessica Dabelich shares her family travel adventures with four small children, including lots of great articles with travel tips, packing lists, and great destinations.
Our Family Passport: A family of ten that has traveled to over 40 different countries together. They share tips for the logistics of traveling, plus location-specific, family-friendly recommendations for what to do once you get there.
Power of Moms: If you haven't yet discovered Power of Moms, you'll thank me for hooking you up. Saren Loosli has written the definitive family road trip article here. It also links to several other great travel posts from the site.
CSGinger.com Candice is an intrepid traveler with her twins, now three years old. She has great tips for traveling domestically and abroad with littles.
3kidstravel.com One of the best parts of this site is the interviews with other families that travel. Elise has great insights of her own and a knack for finding other intrepid traveling families.
Adventure Together Christina McEvoy and Rachel Von share fabulous tips and destination-specific travel guides for families.
travelmamas.com A great resource for traveling with kids, including some fabulous packing lists.
thepointsguy.com Go-to resource for travel deals and navigating credit card, airline, and hotel points.
cardiganempire.com This isn’t a travel blog, but Reachel gives great tips about how to pack a capsule wardrobe so you look great and pack small.