If you traveled extensively before having kids and have continued to travel with your kids, you know that traveling with kids presents its own challenges, but also leads to some of the biggest rewards.
Read more about how travel changes before and after you have kids.
Before kids, we almost never checked luggage. We flew with carrier-ons only and often with only an under-the-seat personal item. Now, those days are long gone. We generally arrive at the airport with a car seat, a stroller, three personal items and/or carry-ons, and at least one checked bag. Let's face it: kids need stuff. From diapers or pull-ups to matchbox cars and their favorite stuffy to extra changes of clothes because they will inevitably spill milk or something equally smelly on their clothes at some point during the trip, kids' stuff, though small, takes up a lot of space. And that's okay. We budget for our luggage and take advantage of gate checking the stroller.
Before kids, it's fairly easy to take spontaneous weekend getaways and trips during the school year in off-peak seasons. After kids, planning a getaway generally takes more advance notice and working around school and sport schedules.
Planning also involves more thought as to where you will go, how you get there, where you will stay, and what you will do while you are there. Planning involves taking into account some downtimes for the kids to nap, rest, and recharge.
On planning, Sarah of The Walkers Abroad has this fantastic advice: "For days out, I generally attempt a 60-40 approach when planning. 60% focused on something adult-centric that will probably be educational while still enjoyable. Think touring a castle, visiting a museum, or hiking. Then 40% on something you absolutely know they will enjoy like a park, an ice cream, or a petting zoo. I believe it teaches kids that there is value in doing things they might not choose initially, and that those things can be super fun as well. Part of traveling is expanding horizons and doing new things and learning! As parents, it also ensures you’re doing activities that you’ll also enjoy and find worthwhile too."
It's so important to involve your older kids in the planning process. Allowing them to have a say in where you go and where you stay, as well as their top one or two must-do or must-see items will allow your trip to go more smoothly, as they will feel more invested in the vacation and will feel like their voices have been heard.
Though it is important to plan, plan, plan when it comes to traveling with kids, it is equally important to be flexible and allow for schedule changes. Your toddler may refuse his nap and require an earlier bedtime. The activity you had planned for the morning may get rained out, so you will need to call an audible for a backup activity. The restaurant you had planned to eat at may have a one-hour wait. With or without kids, being flexible and having the ability to make other arrangements on the fly is part of travel, but when you travel with kids, the variables are exponentially increased. Take a breath, count to ten, then hop on Google.
Planning kid-friendly vacations means researching kid-friendly destinations. Is the area safe? Is it clean? Are there kid-friendly activities? I have joined Facebook groups and read oodles of blog posts on Pinterest in order to find kid-friendly destinations that my son will enjoy. I also know a few places that I love and will eventually take him to, but not till he's older. We loved Yellowstone and can't wait to get back, but with so many potentially dangerous cliffs, animals, and hot springs, it's not somewhere we will take him during his toddler phase.
Hostels and small, cheap hotel rooms are in the rear-view mirror now that we have a child. Our accommodations generally involve, at the very least, a mini fridge, though we love finding hotels and AirBnBs with full kitchens. We always make sure we have a king-sized bed, because Emmett inevitably ends up in bed with us at some point each night. And we try to have a room with a separate living area so that we can put his cot there and we can still watch TV in our bed without disturbing him. Kid-friendly amenities, like a pool, a tub in the room, and free snacks (like popcorn!) are icing on the cake when booking our accommodations.
Sarah of The Walkers Abroad had this to say about accommodations: "I’m the crazy person who has always enjoyed searching AirBnB for fun or crazy accommodations for traveling. As a couple, we've stayed in fun places like in a third floor flat in Amsterdam, climbing up one of the most narrow stairways I’ve ever been on, a shepherding hut in the middle of a cow field in Northumberland, and a one room place on Maui that had an outdoor shower with a nosey lizard that enjoyed drinking shower water.
But traveling with kids is totally different than traveling as a couple. I’ve learned that you need to bring appropriate gear, like lovies, favourite blankets and pillows, and sleep masks (but only if your child is old enough). When I book an AirBnB, I look for places that have separate bedrooms, unless my kids are used to sharing a room. Bathtubs are a must, as is a dishwasher, and if possible, a gated garden/backyard. Think of what you must have at home and either bring it or make sure it’s there!
Hotels are hard when you have more than a couple of kids, so staying in a suite is preferable. It is possible to make it work though, if you’re not opposed to putting a child in the bathroom; we put a pack-n-play in a bathroom before for the baby and it worked very well. White noise in hotels especially is necessary; it blocks out not just normal parental noise, but any noise from neighbours too."
Entertainment and Comfort Items
Before we had kids, we were usually able to travel with headphones (for both of us) and a book (for me). Now our in-flight or in-car entertainment needs have greatly increased, and we travel with kids' books, many matchbox cars, loveys, a blankie, stickers (if we are doing a road trip), and all. the. snacks. Older kids will have different entertainment and comfort needs, but will certainly need something to keep them engaged.
Avoiding overstimulation and fatigue is one of our keys to enjoying our vacations. We plan around normal naptimes and bedtimes. If we are traveling for an extended period (7 days or more), we plan a whole day of rest, where all we do is relax at our accommodations. On this day, if we are able to, we plan to cook at least breakfast and dinner in the room, venturing only a short distance from our hotel for lunch.
Sarah Walker adds "Pacing when traveling is hard and so subjective, because every child has different things they enjoy and they all have different limits of what they can tolerate before a meltdown! Only you know your child best and what they can take.
Account for meals, try to factor those in before the 'hangry' stage hits, and eat early when possible to avoid the rush and keep everyone happy.
There is a happy medium of course, and I’m also a fan of taking rest days, especially if traveling across different time-zones. And there are going to be absolute duds of locations, in which case, know when to call it a day and leave and do something fun, like ice cream! Traveling with kids means being flexible, adjusting a schedule, and always, always carrying snacks!"
The speed at which Marvin and I travel has also changed since we had a child. Before kids, we might spend 1-3 nights in one city and then move on to the next, in order to see the highlights of as many places as we can. Now we do more slow travel, spending more time in one place, getting to know one city well, rather than spasmodically running through each city as quickly as possible.
Before having Emmett, we tended to never visit the same restaurant more than once in order to dine at as many different establishments as possible. Now, if we find a particularly kid-friendly restaurant, we may return there several times. This allows him to get to know the servers and have a familiar setting in the midst of all the different sites he sees.
The best part of traveling with kids is seeing things from their perspective. I love taking pictures of Emmett watching something he finds interesting - pointing at fish in a tank or a bird in the sky, or bending down to examine a sea shell or a bug. His excitement and enthusiasm makes my heart happy and brings out the kid in me. Kids can help us find beauty in the ordinary and charm in the everyday. They also help us slow down and really see things we might otherwise have missed.
Travel changes after we have kids. It takes more care and more thought, more time and more patience. But it also offers more enchantment and more magic, more love and more appreciation.
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