Travel with small children can be hectic, but it’s one of the best things you can do for your kids. Even if they’re too young to learn about different cultures and you’re afraid they won’t remember it, you’re still spending quality time together and establishing a firmer bond with them.
But having traveled all around the country with my two kids — my son’s first flight was when he was three months old — I can tell you that it takes some getting used to.
I’ve been the horrified parent trying everything to appease my screaming toddler on an airplane. I’ve underpacked and overpacked, spent more than I needed to, and pushed my kids so hard to have fun that no one was happy.
How to travel with small children and enjoy it
In short, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and instead of learning from your own, learn from mine. Based on my and others’ experiences, I’ve put together a list of tips to help you be as prepared as you can be and enjoy your experience with your kids. Keep in mind that some of them are age-specific, so they may not always apply to you.
1. Don’t wing your packing list
Packing for myself is easy. All I need is enough sets of clothes, toiletries, and my laptop and charging cord. When it comes to packing for my kids, though, my head starts to spin. Kids are high-maintenance, and if you don’t get everything you need, you may end up having to buy stuff at your destination.
And if you accidentally forget their favorite toy or their security blanket, your life is about to become a living hell. So instead of putting off packing until the night before the trip, start making a list early on and get things ready as early as you can without disrupting their little lives.
2. Don’t overpack, though
It can be tempting to just pack everything just in case you need it. But overpacking will not only cost you more in checked bag fees if you’re flying, but it can also slow you down.
I made the mistake a couple of times of packing our infant son’s pack n’ play and 10 days worth of diapers. They took up about three-quarters of our biggest suitcase, forcing us to check two bags instead of one. And guess what? Hotels have pack n’ plays, and you can buy diapers just about anywhere.
It’s hard to say exactly what you should and shouldn’t pack. But if you’re honest with yourself, it should be clear what you need and what you can leave at home.
3. Get a credit card that offers free checked bags
Speaking of bags, you’ll be lucky if you can make the trip without checking one. Southwest Airlines offers two free checked bags to all of their passengers, but the other major airlines all charge you for them. Some of the legacy carriers charge $30 for the first bag each way, costing you $60 roundtrip every time you fly.
If you have one of the airline’s credit cards, though, you may be able to get a free checked bag for you and one or more travel companions. These cards typically charge an annual fee close to $100, but if you fly and check bags twice a year, the savings outpace the costs.
4. Bring a new toy or book
It’s always a good idea to bring some toys and books to entertain your kids while you’re traveling and at your destination. But giving them something new can potentially keep them occupied longer than something that they’ve played with over and over again.
5. Provide ample entertainment
Screen time rules be damned! Seriously, in my opinion, the best thing you can do for your sanity — and everyone else’s on your flight — is to give your kids an iPad or Kindle and let them watch whatever the hell they want for the duration of the flight.
Obviously, you’ll need to download shows and movies in advance — don’t leave that task to the last minute, either — and doing so will likely keep them entertained and quiet, making for a much more pleasant experience.
For the record, I also think this is a good solution for road trips, at least until your kids are old enough to entertain each other.
6. Bring headphones
No one wants to be forced to listen to PJ Masks or Paw Patrol on full blast from the row behind them. Get your kids some good, inexpensive headphones that won’t draw the ire of your fellow passengers.
7. Pack medicine
If your child has a prescription, you’ll obviously want to have enough doses to last you for the duration of the trip. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to have some basic medications like pain relievers, allergy medication, and something for nausea or motion sickness. You probably won’t need them, but you’ll be grateful if you do.
8. Find out what travel documents you need for your kids
If you’re traveling abroad, having a passport for your child may not be enough. Some also require the child’s birth certificate to prove that they belong to you. Find out what you need before you go.
Also, if you’re planning to travel with a lap child, airlines like to have a copy of their birth certificate to ensure that they’re the right age.
9. Check the stroller and car seat
Unless your child is young enough that you prefer to have them in a car seat, it’s best to check that and your stroller when you first get to the airport. That way, you don’t have to lug both around. If you feel like you absolutely need a stroller to get your kid from Point A to Point B, consider getting a lightweight umbrella stroller.
10. Get durable gear
If you fly frequently, you’ll likely need to check a stroller or a car seat, and you can bet that something is going to break at some point. It’s happened to me, and guess what? The airline likely won’t do anything about it.
Make sure you have good, solid gear to limit the chances that it will get damaged while being handled.
11. Or have a cheap travel set
Instead of spending more on durable gear and still risking damage, consider buying a cheap stroller or car seat just for travel. That way, if it gets damaged, you won’t be out hundreds of dollars to replace it.
12. Make sure you have snacks on snacks on snacks
I’m not just talking about snacks for the kids; I’m also talking about snacks for you. I’ve been hangry more than once on a trip with my family, and I’ll tell you what — no one wanted to be around me.
Before you leave for a trip, go to the store and stock on up snacks for the kids and the adults. They’ll keep everyone happy from the start, and can be a lifesaver if you get delayed and can’t get real food for a while.
13. Plan your travel around nap time
If your kids are still napping, there’s nothing like having them fall asleep shortly after takeoff and waking up when you land. After the first time my son did this, I made sure always to schedule our flights around his nap time. And if he started nodding off too early, I’d try anything to keep him awake until the right moment.
14. Apply for TSA PreCheck
TSA PreCheck is an expedited airport security screening program that allows you to avoid long security lines and get to your gate without taking off your shoes and belt or taking your laptop out of your bag.
The program is $85 for five years — that’s just $17 per year, people — and requires an in-person interview. A handful of credit cards will cover the application fee for you as a benefit.
Even if you have to pay for it out of pocket, it’s worth it if you travel two or three times a year, with or without kids. That’s because children ages 12 and under can accompany you through the TSA PreCheck lane. (Anyone 13 and older can’t, though, so if you have a spouse or partner, they’ll need to sign up separately).
15. Bring some plastic bags
There’s not much worse than having to change a poopy diaper while you’re on an airplane, and it goes without saying that you should have enough diapers to last you the entire flight. After you manage to change the diaper in the too-small bathroom, though, no one wants to smell it for the rest of the flight.
So triple bag that sucker to keep the smell from making you everyone’s least favorite person for the day.
16. Hell, bring an extra set of clothes too
Travel with your kids enough, and someone’s bound to get some type of bodily fluid all over them. It could be your kids, or it could be you. I’ve personally never been the target on this one, but I’ve seen it happen, and it’s not fun.
So consider packing an extra set of clothes for you and your kids, and keep them in your carry-on bag or a backpack under your seat.
17. Try to book nonstop flights only
The process of getting to your destination is typically the most stressful part of a trip, so the faster you get there, the sooner you can start breathing more easily. This is why I try always to book nonstop flights. Layovers add an extra level of anxiety to the mix, and I’ve never found them to be worth it.
18. If you have to do a layover, make it a long one
Booking a nonstop flight isn’t always possible. If you have one or two layovers, though, make sure they’re at least an hour and a half to two hours. This will give you plenty of time to get off the plane, get to your next gate, and maybe even get a quick bite to eat before you board again.
It can also give you a little bit off flexibility if your first flight lands a bit late. Once, we had a 60-minute layover, and our plane landed 15 minutes late. And as you can probably guess, that’s exactly when my son’s turtle instincts kicked in. He walked so slowly that we missed our opportunity even to grab a sandwich for fear that we’d miss the next flight.
19. Don’t rush yourself
Whenever I head to the airport, I have a good idea of how long it’s going to take me to get there, make my way through security and to my gate. And I can plan accordingly. With kids, though, you can expect that there are going to be bathroom emergencies, temper tantrums, slow walking, and just about any other frustrating thing you can think of.
So give yourself plenty of time — you may end up hanging out at the gate for longer than you want, but it’s better than feeling flustered or missing your flight.
20. Take advantage of lap-child policies
Most airlines allow children under the age of two to fly free, as long as they’re sitting on your lap for the flight. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars with this strategy, and, again, if they sleep through it, it’s not too bad.
That said, you’ll need to be smart about when the strategy is no longer feasible. Around the time my daughter turned one, she wanted nothing more than to get down off our laps, and it was miserable. At that point, I decided the savings wasn’t worth it. It can be different, depending on your kids, though. Only you know when it’s best to get them their own seat.
21. Wipe down the food tray
I’m not the type of parent who needs to sanitize everything my child touches. They need every chance they can get to build up their immune systems. But when I’m on vacation with my family, I’ll move heaven and earth to prevent my kids from getting sick.
And according to a study by the National Science Foundation, the food tray is the dirtiest place on a plane with almost 10 times as many colony-forming units — which is used to estimate the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells in a sample — as the toilet flush button.
So bring some antibacterial wipes and some hand sanitizer for good measure, and use them up.
22. Be prepared for air pressure
For some reason, my kids have never had problems with air pressure when flying. But I’ve been on planes where, as soon as the plane gets a little altitude, the babies start crying. One of the best ways to get their little ears regulated is to get them to swallow.
You can do that with a bottle or a sippy cup, or by breastfeeding. Whatever works best for your child, it’s important to have it ready before takeoff.
23. Help them understand what’s going on
Traveling can be a distressing experience for a child. The more you communicate with them about what’s happening, the safer they’ll feel. Set some expectations and talk to them about what they’re going to experience so they can prepare themselves. It may sound like a small thing, but it can make a big difference.
24. Set a trip budget
I don’t know why, but it always feels like I spend a little extra when my kids are around. I think it’s a combination of them seeing something they want and me thinking, “Screw it, we’re on vacation.”
That’s completely fine. But at a certain point, it can be too much. Before you take any trip with your kids, sit down and create a budget for the vacation. Try to think of everything, too. If you run through it too quickly, you may end up forgetting something that you were planning on spending money on in the first place.
There’s no right way to set a trip budget or amount you should spend. Just be reasonable.
25. Plan for downtime
Whether I’m at home or on vacation, I have a hard time just sitting around. But I learned very quickly that pushing your kids too hard makes for a terrible experience for everyone. If your child still takes naps, head back to the hotel or Airbnb, plan for a long drive, or have a stroller they can sleep in during that time.
Also, remember that your kids need time to play. If you’ve spent the majority of the day traveling and it’s already bedtime by the time you get to the hotel, consider giving your kids 10 or 15 minutes to play with their toys and books to help them feel more normal.
26. Pay for the trip insurance
Many airlines offer trip insurance that reimburses you if you have to cancel or interrupt your trip because of a sickness, injury, death, or other covered reason. You can also buy it with third-party travel insurers.
It may seem like a waste of money, especially if you’ve never needed to cancel or interrupt a trip before. But with kids, you never know what’s going to happen. A few years ago, we had to cancel a trip at the last minute because my son was up the entire night before we were supposed to leave throwing up with a fever.
Even if I had wanted to chance it, it wouldn’t be fair to other passengers to potentially get sick because of him. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use your insurance, but it’s worth the peace of mind.
27. Look for hotels that offer free meals
You never expect it, but food can be one of the biggest expenses you have on a trip, especially if you have kids. I always try to stay in a hotel that at least offers free breakfast to save a little money for other things.
Some hotels even offer free dinner, though they’ll typically call it something like an “evening social” or a “manager’s reception.” The following hotels offer evening meals:
- Homewood Suites (Monday through Thursday only)
- Residence Inn (Monday through Wednesday only; not at all locations)
- Staybridge Suites (Tuesday through Thursday only)
- Embassy Suites (seems to be more snacks than real food)
- Drury Hotels
- Clarion Collection Hotels
28. Buy groceries
Whether or not you’re getting your breakfast and dinner included with your hotel stay, another way to save with kids is to buy groceries and make some of your own food. It’s best to do this if you can get an Airbnb with a full kitchen or a hotel room with a kitchenette.
But even if you just have a mini-fridge and a microwave, you can still do cereal or oatmeal in the morning and sandwiches.
29. Plan for kid-friendly activities
If you want to spend a vacation doing all the things that you want to do, that’s great. Do it without your kids. A fun vacation is a vacation where your kids are engaged. If they’re not, they’re going to be bored and whiny.
So before you go, search for kid-friendly activities in the area, then plan to do at least one a day to keep your kids going. If you have older kids, they’ll have even more fun if you let them pick some of the activities.
30. Book a hotel with a pool
For the most part, kids are easy to entertain, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money on activities to keep them engaged. If the weather is nice where you’re going, choose a hotel that has a pool. It’s free, and your kids will be happy to play in it for hours if you let them.
31. Find out what else is free
A lot of activities are free — or at least discounted — for small children. For example, we took our kids to Disneyland right before my son turned three so they’d both be free. In fact, our final day at the park was his third birthday, and as long as you start a multi-day ticket before their birthday, they’ll be free during the entire planned stay.
Other options include museums, aquariums, shows, and more. If it’s not clear whether a place offers child tickets for free or at a discount, don’t be afraid to ask.
32. Pre-book as many things as possible
If you’re planning activities that allow you to book in advance, do it. Traveling with kids can be a stressful experience, so if you book everything in advance, that’s one less thing you have to worry about while you’re at your destination.
33. Make frequent bathroom stops
In the U.S., we have access to a lot of public restrooms for free. But that isn’t the case everywhere in the world. If you come across a bathroom, take advantage of it. If you wait until your child has to go, there may not be an opportunity.
(Or, if you’re like me, it could happen after you’ve been waiting for half an hour in the line for Dumbo and you’re in the next group to get on the ride. Fortunately, the operator allowed us to go and come back to the front of the line.)
34. Put yourself in their shoes
Children thrive on routines and having the freedom to mostly do what they want. So sitting in a car, plane or train for hours on end can be difficult and they’ll let you know it. Instead of getting frustrated, have some empathy for what they’re going through.
Also, know when your child needs something other than what’s happening. I took my son to San Diego for a few days and the first couple of days were a whirlwind of activities. On the third, we went to see a movie then I took him to the children’s pool to look at the seals. Except he didn’t want to look at the seals, and he didn’t want to play at the park nearby.
At first, I was confused. But then I realized that he probably felt overwhelmed with everything we had done. So I took him back to my friend’s apartment where we were staying, and he had a blast playing by himself with his toys for the next couple of hours.
35. ALWAYS know where your children are
One of my biggest fears is that something bad is going to happen to one of my children, and when I’m traveling, I’m on high alert. Do whatever it takes to keep an eye on your kids at all times. If that means getting one of those child leashes, so be it.
And just in case you do get separated, give your kids your contact information. With older kids, you can just give them a piece of paper to keep in their pocket. And with younger kids, you can write it on a travel bracelet and put it around their wrist.
36. Take a lot of pictures
I generally hate taking pictures, but I take as many as possible when I’m traveling because I want to remember every detail of the experience with my kids. Also, it’s fun to create a photo book for big trips so both you and your kids can look back on them together. My kids love looking back on our trip to Disneyland that happened over a year ago.
37. Lower your expectations
The best way to have fun when you’re traveling with kids is to mentally prepare yourself for things to go wrong. That way, it won’t be as frustrating when they do, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they don’t.
My first few trips with my kids were terrible because I had high expectations. But once I relaxed, I realized that there were things beyond my control that can come up, and, in the grand scheme of things, it was going to be OK.
38. Don’t be afraid to do it
Traveling with your kids can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be nerve-racking. Don’t let the potential negatives deter you from having those experiences, though. It may be tough the first few trips, but over time you’ll learn some tips and tricks of your own, and you’ll understand how to ensure that both you and your children have a blast.
Got any family travel tips you’d like to share? Put them in the comments, and they may show up on our list.