13 Tips for Easier Travel with Small Children

The idea of traveling with children might seem crazy for many people. Some families simply postpone traveling out of the fear of watching their kids have a meltdown on a plane, or out of fear of common perceived dangers, like kidnapping or just the assumption that it´s not as fun as traveling children-free.

Yet, those  doing it, have little to complain. It´s not the easiest thing to take off with a small child, the experience has some limitations, but everything tends to work out and the joys of traveling obviously exceed the challenges.

Having traveled with my daughter alone since she was eight months old and after taking off from Brazil to travel and live in Costa Rica when she was only three has made me used to it.

Although the idea of being on the road with a child can be unnerving, there are a few things you can do to make things run smoother:

1. Prepare your child for what’s to come in a playful way. Talk about the trip days or weeks prior to the trip. This helps the kids to be involved in the process, know a bit what to expect and it makes the transitions more comfortable for everyone. You can show on a map where you are going, role play or make a puppet show with parts of the trip at home.

It´s also fun to engage the children in games that show them what they´ll go though, like the line for the check in, or pass the carry-on bags through X-Ray. Your little one will love seeing all his teddy bears lined up to board on a box-airplane!

2. Let them pack. Some families that I know have their children packing and carrying their stuff since they are 3 years old. I didn´t train my girl so well, but I still let her choose some clothes and help me pack. This helps them feel part of the decision making process and it makes them excited to bring their own things. My girl can carry a little backpack that doesn´t have all her belongings, but makes her proud and responsible (but I still have room in my backpack for hers in case of early grumpiness).

3. Bring an emergency toy.  Have a new toy hidden with you that you can use for long delays, exceptionally boring times or when you simply need a break for yourself. Make sure it´s not electronic or noise making so as not to disturb the other travelers. Options are: book, little doll, car or animal, a puzzle…

Always bring paper and crayons. While during some trips they might not use it, in others they can use it for one hour straight and my girl likes to play with crayons and pencils as characters, definitely a multi use toy. Improvise with random objects that can entertain as well, sometimes even a simple water cup can do the trick.

4. Travel slow. Make sure to take small steps to get where you need to get, consider the best pace for your child whenever it is possible. Stay another night somewhere to chill if you think it will help, especially if your child is acting out more than usual.

5. Pack light. The secret is deciding on a small back pack or bag and carrying only enough to fit in it. I travel with a 50 liter back pack and a small one for electronics. I have to say, it´s too much for me and my daughter. When I left Brazil to Costa Rica, my backpack was too full and heavy.

Now, when I take off, I don´t pack it all up. I leave some good 30% of space unused and when I go on short trips (less than one week), I take only the small one (it´s around 25 liters). Another trick a friend taught me to tame your extra packing  is to put all you want to bring over the bed and take half off.

Buy toiletries at your destination, as well as diapers (bring only enough for the road), bring few clothes (three sets for each of you and get used to hand washing every other day), just one or a little set of toys (besides the emergency one hidden with you), think about all the things that are cheap that you can buy later and do it. Figure out the items you can rent as well, like strollers or cribs that can be asked at hotels.

Visit fewer places than you would alone. Instead of touring around five different destinations in two weeks, pick the best two (or one) and stick with them. Be realistic, although it´s possible to take a child on an hectic tour, it´s not as fun and pleasant as having time to enjoy simple sites like the same park a few days in a row, where you child might even make local friends (and you too).

And the truth is that light packing is an art-science you learn with your own mistakes.

I’m not the lightest traveler though, I still insist on bringing my guitar along, so that makes the whole light thing crumple, but other than that, I´ve been taking less and less.

6. If you are traveling by plane, call the airline one day before your departure to ask about any special services they offer for children, it can be a special meal, a drawing kit, and usually something you need to ask early. When on the flight, ask a flight attendant if they have any extra kit from the first class for your kid – but this really depends on finding a sweet flight attendant.

7. Bring meds. Hopefully you won´t need any, but you don´t want to go to a doctor to get a prescription for something you can get more easily at home.  In my med bag I have arnica (for bruises), band-aids and aspirin for myself. The truth is I have only used the band-aids and could have used some antibiotics at some point, but since I didn´t have any, I just went without…

8. Don’t bring a stroller. I took my daughter on trips, on buses and airplanes and I never used a stroller. I always watched families who do carry one not having an easy time. You can have your baby on a sling or carrier and as soon as he or she starts to walk. Make enough time to accommodate their slower-paced walk into the schedule.

9. Bring a snack, but be careful with fruits if crossing borders. I once went to Chile and forgot that I had an apple in my backpack. They made me pay US$200.00.

10. Engage as much as possible with your kid. Play games and make it fun. Don´t expect your child to conform without some creativity on your part. It´s tempting to let our own tiredness take over and make us grumpy but be strong enough to not let this happen. Be positive and playful always.

11. Go with the flow. Let go of your routine. Accept some junk food or more video time to be part of the journey. Tell your child that you are allowing these exceptions to happen only en route and that once you settle down everything goes back to normal (or sort of). Relax your boundaries. Safety boundaries are more important to stick to now. Always communicate to your child the safety rules you need her to follow and only enforce about these ones.

12. Relax. Don’t stress thinking about your bored child on the road. I once flew from Italy to Brazil, leaving at 11 am on a 7 hours flight with a then toddler. I had to resign to the fact that I´d have to deal with a long day on an airplane. It wasn´t bad. My daughter walked around the plane, found a playmate, went numerous times to the bathroom, took a nap, cried, the flight attendant told us to sit down… I guess nothing out of the ordinary when traveling with kids.

13. Just do it. Don´t get trapped by imaging all of the difficult situations you can think of, there´ll be infinite things. Give yourself a deadline, plan what you can within the time to go and do it!

Marília is a surfer-single mom of a 4-year old girl. She writes about our values system, how to find a relevant education and traveling with children. Her single mom blog is filled with unconventional ideas. http://www.trippingmom.com/

Photos by: sean dreilinger, CDasiyM, ewilman

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  • Bed43please said at 2012-10-16T08:15:49+0000: Sweet tips for us, we will traveling through South America in a couple of months with our toddler too so these tips really come in handy! :)
  • Bohemian Travelers said at 2011-12-09T02:48:42+0000: Great article. I think the hardest part is just letting go of all the worries, once you do that then it you will be able to see that you can make anything work. Travel is an amazing gift to give your children. Get out there and do it!
  • Jackie Elizabeth said at 2011-12-18T18:53:24+0000: Interesting article! 13 Tips-there's a typo in the title.