I love traveling with my kids. It is, however, a very different experience than traveling with adults. Kids slow you down, whine a lot and come with baggage, both literally and figuratively. I have countless stories, but that time our one year old took off my husband’s glasses and snapped them in half on the plane ride TO the vacation, then stayed up all night despite a spin around a bad neighborhood in a rental car comes to mind. My baseline for declaring a trip a success is that the kids’ behavior was tolerable. It will not be all rainbows and lollipops no matter what you do, but it will be worth it. There are eight tips for traveling with kids we have learned over the years to make us less likely to have a Kate Gosselin moment.
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1. Pace Yourself
I come from the “you only live once, but try to pack in enough living for three lives” school of thought. My husband is cut from a different cloth. I have spent our relationship dragging him and everyone else around to the point where no one is having fun anymore. But hey, at least we saw those two cows at that farm, right?
Torturing my husband is much more enjoyable than torturing my kids, because they are not shy about letting me know that they don’t like to be waterboarded. We have never kept our kids on a super strict schedule, but they are used to eating three meals a day at normal times and going to bed at 8:00 p.m. We can stretch this by a couple of hours, but they have a breaking point.
I try to mitigate a Chernobyl-like outburst by taking a longer trip as opposed to cramming too much into each day. When we go to theme parks, we don’t do more than two days in a row at a park without a break day. On the break day, we sleep in and typically don’t do anything except swim and hang out at the hotel. If you have the luxury of time, stay a couple of extra nights and do things at a pace your kid can handle. If your kid is not having fun, you won’t either. Guaranteed.
2. Make a Plan
Making a plan is really important. There is nothing worse than trying to decide where to eat dinner at the end of a long day when the kids are hangry and everyone can barely stand the sight of each other. Make a tentative plan for each day of your trip. You don’t need to plan every second, but a general idea of what you want to do will go a long way. The internet is replete with tips for traveling with kids to every destination on the planet and beyond (if you are going to space). Go into your trip armed with information.
If you are visiting a theme park, make a touring plan and check crowd calendars. Even if you are limited to visiting during busier times, a crowd calendar can suggest which parks to visit on which days to avoid the heaviest crowds.
At Disney World, many are surprised to learn you need to make dining reservations 180 days in advance and FastPasses 60 days in advance. If you don’t put these things in place before you arrive, you will find yourself enjoying a vacation on par with that of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
3. Give Them Screens
This may be an unpopular opinion, but the people on the plane will thank you. To be clear, my children almost never see a screen at home. I genuinely dislike them when they use them. Both of them look like they need a session with Jeff VanVonderen after five minutes with a tablet. I can plainly see screens are terrible for their brains. It may make them tweak, but it also keeps them quiet. As long as you don’t take it away. Make sure that sucker is charged.
4. Make Your Activities Kid Friendly
At this point in our lives, we plan every trip we take with the kids with their interests in mind. I learned early on that they are the Michael Jordans of ruining things about which I am excited. For example, we once chartered a whale watching boat in Cape Cod. Within minutes of the boat pulling away from the dock, whales breached National Geographic style. People in surrounding boats screamed with excitement like the whales were tossing crab legs and lobsters onto the boats. Meanwhile, our kids were on the floor of the boat pushing around toy cars and asking to go back to the house to swim. We spent the next four hours fighting the urge to toss them over the side. We should have left them at home.
I genuinely enjoy watching the kids have fun, and I seriously dislike the sound of complaining in a high pitched tone. Theme parks and water parks are our jam right now. Plan things they will enjoy. They will only be excited about characters and bubbles for a short time in their lives. Embrace this phase. You can’t get it back.
5. Take a Night Off From Parenting
If you are going on a long trip, consider a date night. Grandparents are ideal, but if they aren’t with you, a perfect stranger will work. There are babysitting agencies that run better background checks than I ever have on any of our local babysitters. Dinner at a pace that is not at the speed at which you would consume your food if the restaurant just caught fire is refreshing. Your kids will probably benefit from a change of scenery in their caregiver for a couple of hours anyway.
6. Don’t Always Go The Cheapest Route
I am constantly on a personal mission to get the best deal. My love for saving money was a major reason Put on Your Party Pants and Keep Them on Until 8pm was born. However, getting the best deal is not the same as doing the cheapest thing possible. It is about getting the best value for your experience.
Vacation is amazing. Don’t sully its good name by making it unpleasant. If given the choice between taking a private car or public transportation with kids and luggage, private car all the way. TSA precheck is a godsend. If you can swing a larger hotel room where you can avoid your children from time to time, do it. Can you afford front of the line passes at theme parks? Definitely get those. You get the point. There are tons of resources out there with tips for traveling with kids for a good value.
I am not advocating for blowing an insane amount of money or racking up credit card debt just to travel, but I am a big proponent of looking for the best deal to maximize your time and sanity. Consider points and miles and Disney hacks to cover some of the cost.
7. Don’t Overpack
When we began to travel again after our kids were born, I researched tips for traveling with kids related to packing. It was not uncommon to see lists with over a hundred items. I packed two packs of wipes for a weekend trip, because what if our child suddenly starts peeing 45 times a day on this trip? Spoiler alert. You don’t need all that crap. Your kid doesn’t need all that crap. The more you bring, the more you need to drag through the airport while juggling children, then trip over in the crowded hotel room. You know what your kids require to get through the day. Bring. That. The end. You can always run to a store or the hotel gift shop in a pinch. Don’t add unnecessary stress.
8. Lower Your Expectations
Traveling with kids is great, but it is also hard. You need to lower your expectations and adapt to enjoy the experience. Otherwise, you will spend the entire trip asking yourself why you didn’t just stay home and light a pile of money on fire. Kids don’t have any concept of what you spent on this trip, and young kids in particular will not appreciate it. This should not stop you from having a good time.
Final Thoughts on Tips for Traveling with Kids
Vacations are stressful. This is a first world revelation, but I am OK with admitting it out loud. In addition to contributing to hair loss, vacations are the source of special memories for our entire family. Travel is important to kids too. When you travel, focus on the fun times. Your toddler will be a cynical, thirty-something with his or her own kids in the blink of an eye. Make a plan, get a good deal, and settle in for the ride.