Okay, I am going to start by addressing the elephant in the room. You may already be rolling your eyes and thinking that there is no such thing as simple when you bring your little bambinos along on a trip. As the saying goes, “Parents don’t really go on vacation. They just take care of their kids in a different city.” But I think if you approach travelling kids with the right perspective and implement some of my strategies for traveling with kids in tow, you will realize that travelling with kids doesn’t have to be so complicated or unapproachable.
Tip 1: Reframe your Perspective
That being said, I am starting with the most important tip for traveling with kids, and it actually has to do with you. You have to change your perspective on what travel is going to look like with kids. First of all, you have to realize this is not going to be a spa getaway or a drunken bar hopping tour or a twenty-mile in one day back packing trip. However, you don’t have to limit yourself to Disney World either. There are so many wonderful adventures to be had, even with young kids. And there is so much to be gained by exposing your kids to travel at a young age. If you are looking for more inspiration on that note, check out my post 5 Benefits of Traveling with Young Kids.
My toddlers have hiked to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah. My toddlers (and baby sister in a stroller) have navigated subways like pros with me in New York City. All three have gone out on a catamaran in the Pacific Ocean while Daddy and I took turns snorkeling with sea turtles in Hawaii. My youngest came with me in a pack while I hiked to the foot of a glacier in Alaska. The twins caught the careful watch of security guards at famous museums such as the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo who couldn’t believe one-year-olds were touring the place on their own two feet. You don’t have to let having kids stop you from traveling. You just need a little reframing. Here’s a couple of things to embrace when traveling with kids.
- Things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. They just aren’t. You need to be open to the possibility of miniature disasters. I know no one wants to deal with meltdowns, missed plans or the like, but these things inevitably come up, and you will be better prepared to endure them if you have at least embraced the idea that they could happen. So be open to a little chaos, and your perception of the trip will be a lot better. Oh, and when you are in the middle of something not going as planned, just remember that these moments become the funny stories later on. I have plenty to tell.
- Things are going to take longer than you think. Did Google say it would take three hours to get your destination? Just go ahead and plan for five. Nothing is worse than mentally planning to be on the beach by noon and then barely rolling up in time for sunset. And this is coming from someone who saw all 50 US states in 77 days with my kids in tow. I am the queen of of maximizing time on trips. I was constantly checking myself on my time expectations with the kids. It took us two whole days to get from Knoxville, TN to Bentonville, AR. I probably could have cut a few weeks off the trip just in stops for the kids alone. Just build in lots of buffers for things to take longer than expected and plan to do less than you would sans kiddos, and you’ll relieve the stress of rushing to make it to everything on time.
- Activities lists may need to be modified. As illustrated above, you can do a surprising amount of things with little kids in tow. But you can’t do everything. There are activities that have minimum age requirements such as sky diving and there are activities that are physically challenging for little kids such as rock climbing and of course anything by water is worrisome and requires a careful eye on your little ones (say goodbye to siestas on the beach). And there are things you can do with your kids like hiking or visiting a museum but you have to be mindful that they are going to wear out faster than you. It doesn’t mean you can’t do these things, but you may need to modify your plans such as inviting other adults to help with the caregiving or dividing and conquering with a spouse to get some more hard core adventures in or picking a shorter hike so your kiddo can tag along. One activity that I like to incorporate into our trips, especially long car trips, that one might not normally consider is stops at playgrounds. There are so many unique ones everywhere you go. It’s a great way to experience something new, mingle with locals, and let off some steam.
Okay, now that I have thoroughly depressed you, here’s another chance to look at 5 Benefits of Traveling with Young Kids and psyche yourself back up. And now for the tips to make traveling with kids go more smoothly.
Tip Two: Embrace Minimalism
Nothing takes you from a minimalist to a pack mule faster than becoming a parent. But nothing can stress you out more while traveling, besides rushing to meet deadlines, than carting around too much stuff. Stuff is both a physical and mental burden. I find airports easier to navigate with just carry on bags. I find attractions are easier to navigate when you don’t have find the locker room. I find car trips more manageable when the back seat isn’t overflowing with stuffed animals and crayons. I may be speaking from a little bias as a minimalist, but trust me you do not need to bring the kitchen sink!
Here’s a couple of ideas to keep your packing to a minimal. First, try to pick places to stay that have baby items on hand such as pack and plays and high chairs (see tip three below). If you are worried about cleanliness, check reviews and bring your own covers. Look for travel-focused products that are designed to be portable. For instance, many people do not feel comfortable using car seats that rental companies provide and so they bring their own. WAYB makes a car seat designed specifically for travel, which extremely portable. We also love our pop and sit booster chairs, which are super compact in size and great for travel and camping.
But in that same vein, be realistic about what you can do without. We brought the pop and go on our last trip because it was us driving to and staying in one place at the beach. I would not bring it on our Norway trip because we can find alternatives for baby eating spaces even if its just on our lap and it was easier to get around on public transportation without. We have also stayed at places with fold out couches and adapted it for the girls to sleep on or even put a mattress on the floor instead of taking a pack and play or toddler cot. A couple of other things as examples that I think seem essential but really aren’t are sound machines (I personally think its best to avoid dependency on things like sound machines, just for the mere fact that your don’t have to worry about keeping up with one) and bottle warmers (a cup of hot water at a local restaurant or hotel will do).
Finally, save space in your luggage (especially if you are flying) by a) skipping out on pajamas, b) picking one versatile pair of shoes to bring and c) buying essentials like diapers and wipes on location as needed. I usually pick one nightgown or two and the girls rewear them the whole trip. They aren’t going to get that dirty sleeping in them. Worse comes to worse, sleeping in a comfy pair of leggings and t shirt meant for day wear is basically pajamas anyways. You can also save space if you plan for doing laundry midtrip on longer trips (see tip three) and pack less clothes altogether. Another space saver is to pick one versatile and sturdy pair of shoes for the whole trip. My favorite go-to for little kids are the Garanimals Baby Girls’ (or Boys’) Combat Boots from Walmart. I buy them a pair every year. They go with so much and are comfortable and sturdy (they wear them hiking too) while looking cute. I also like these brown faux leather Mary Janes from Old Navy for if the weather is warmer and there is no hiking planned. And as for diapers, I usually back enough in my diaper wallet (see below) to get by, but if we are flying somewhere or hopping from location to location, I will save the room by not packing any additional diapers and just buying them on location instead. By the way, my favorite luggage for young kids are these carry-on / boarding bags from American Tourister. They are the perfect size for being independently handled by a tot, while also offering the practicality of adult-designed luggage (durability, capacity, 360 spinning wheels) and a neutral look. They also (as of this publication) qualify as a personal item on flights since they fit underneath the seat, which is great for when flying budget airlines.
While I do pack minimally even with kids in tow, here are a few essentials I bring on every trip.
- A Structured Carrier and/or Stroller. I am going to discuss which scenarios I prefer each below, but whichever is your preference, this is a must for pushing the limits of little legs while traveling. I am all for encouraging children to walk on their own as much as possible (I had my two-years-olds hiking several three mile hikes on their own two feet on our road trip last year), but it’s just not possible for one foot tall legs to keep up with our adult pace, and we can push the envelope a little on what we can accomplish with the help of a carrier or stroller. These also make great napping spots while on the go. If I am going to be big city hopping such as going around New York City or London or San Francisco, I am not going to bring a stroller. I know that sounds crazy, but there are a million stairs and tight spaces to navigate in those places and a stroller is very cumbersome and limiting. If I am relying on public transportation to get around, I am not going to bring a stroller for the same reasons listed above. If I am going out into rugged nature, I am also not going to bring a stroller (for obvious reasons). I don’t like strollers in airports either because they have to be gate checked (check out these luggage seat attachments we used on our trip to Norway instead of strollers) Because these scenarios describe most of my travel experiences, I actually don’t bring a stroller with me as often as you’d think. That is why I highly recommend having a structured carrier for your travels. I really love our Lille Baby carrier. Soft-structured carriers provide the right amount of support for carrying around a baby on your back all day, while also being lightweight, hands-free and uncumbersome. For a little more hard core carrying, an Osprey aluminum frame carrier is the way to go. This is actually on my wishlist for Christmas for hiking with Heidi in tow (wasn’t possible with twins). I like that the aluminum frame can be set down with baby still strapped in (not possible with a soft-structured carrier) and there is more storage in these for bringing along snacks (see tip five). Now if I am traveling with our car, I will bring a stroller (we love our City Select, which my brother modified to accommodate all three of our littles at the same time). There’s no denying the ease of pushing your littles around on wheels. I have actually found myself reach for the stroller more so in the later toddler years because the kids weigh more and hurt my back to carry around for long periods of time. We definitely found the stroller essential for walking the National Mall in DC at two and at Disney at almost three. If you know where you are going is easily navigable with wheels, then bring the stroller and save your back.
- A Well-Stocked Diaper Wallet. I bet you have never heard of a diaper wallet. It’s the minimalist’s version of a diaper bag. I love my JuJuBe wristlet and pack it to the brim with essentials. I stuff diapers and wipes along with a change of clothes for Heidi and underwear for the girls (back when they were newly potty trained). It has Band-Aids, a plastic bag, a bib and a small container of Neosporin and Desitin as well as a few single-serve packages of snacks. To me, these are the essentials. Also, I mentioned that I pack Band-Aids and Neosporin in the diaper wallet. I also keep a small first aid kit handy in the car (and on hikes). This is based on lessons learned from having to doctor a busted lip with baby wipes at Hovenweep National Monument in the middle of nowhere Utah. Even as a minimalist, I have come to learn the importance of having these essentials on hand (especially when you have clumsy toddlers).
- My LowePro Hatchback Backpack. I usually stick the diaper wallet, my purse, the girls’ water bottles and extra snacks (see tip five) or extra layers (if the weather necessitates) into my LowePro Hatchback Backpack (if I am going somewhere sans stroller). I love this backpack and think it’s the absolute perfect size! It’s compact for a backpack but still fits everything I need. It is technically my camera backpack, and I also use the insert to bring my DSLR safely along when I am feeling fancy (but more often than not I just take my photos with my phone and edit with my presets in Lightroom Mobile). It is also my personal item on flights and my go-to hiking pack. I love that the back bottom unzips for easily reaching things at the bottom and there are secret places to stash things like passports.
- A Portable Potty (for road trips). If you are traveling with recently potty-trained kiddos, I highly recommend bringing a portable potty. We just stashed an extra of our little Baby Bjorn potties in the trunk of the car for the whole first year after potty training, and it was a life saver. It makes life so much easier and saves a lot of time when you can pull over anywhere for your little one to go. You can read more potty training tips here if you would like.
- My Kid’s Lovies. Each girl has one beloved stuffed animal or doll and a little blanket that are their personal lovies. Technically they have a million more stuffed animals at home, but they are only allowed to bring one each on our trips. Teddy and Baby have been to a lot of places! Thankfully we have not lost them yet (knock on wood). We bring thing with us as a small comfort from home no matter where we are. We usually also let the girls pick out a favorite bedtime storybook to bring along as well. My favorites to pack along are the Frog and Toad books because they are small, thin paperbacks with several cute, funny story options in each book.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention bringing a bunch activities or electronics for the kids to entertain themselves with on long car rides or plane trips. I literally cringe at posts with titles like 101 fun activities for road trips with your kids. Again, I am a minimalist, so take this paragraph with a grain of salt. But I also strongly believe that packing for / planning for endlessly entertaining / distracting your kids sets them up for continually needing that constant entertainment / distraction. There’s nothing wrong with a few spaced-out activities, but I think overdoing it just makes traveling more complicated. If your kid is used to being entertained, they will desire more entertainment. It’s a cycle, and it can turn into a constant need. I think having one or two fun car trip activity surprises up your sleeve is sufficient (think search and find books or the like). I also advise not bringing them out first thing, but also not bringing them out as a latch ditch effort because you want the activity to be for fun not out of necessity. As crazy as it sounds, we did our whole 50 state road trip with just the lovies, one day with a sticker book and a couple of days with a coloring book. We also sang a lot of nursery rhymes together, pointed out lots of things we saw along the way, and if the girls had been a little bit older, I probably would have played a couple of audiobooks instead of the radio to spice things up. But mostly my girls have just become accustomed to entertaining themselves through imaginative play and that has served us very very well while traveling.
Tip Three: Create a (Temporary) Home Base
Why is home so much less stressful than traveling? One of the reasons is that you have the comfort of having everything set up and part of your normal routine. It’s predictable and easy. One easy way to reduce stress while traveling is to replicate this wherever you travel to. On our first international trip, my husband’s only request was not to change locales more than once. He didn’t want to be packing and unpacking suitcases every day.
I highly recommend staying at an Airbnb or similar when you travel. (If you have never tried and Airbnb, you can use this link to get $65 off your first booking). Airbnbs replicate the home feeling and have the added benefit of separate bedrooms, kitchens, and laundry facilities (which save you from having to pack a million clothes). Airbnbs also often come stocked with essentials (and even things like pack and plays, high chairs, and strollers), which can help you a lot with tip two. We love setting up a home base this way and even doing a pick up grocery order to stock the place and cut down on eating out.
Now you may be wondering how I can talk about setting up a home base, while I drove 20,000 miles across the country over the course of three months and hardly stayed in the same place more than one night. But if you think about it, even on our extensive road trip, we had a well planned out home base; our converted family sprinter van. It didn’t matter where we were in the country, my girls slept in their same bed every night and I knew exactly where to kind clean underwear.
Tip Four: Try Your Best to Plan Around Your Normal Schedule, But Also be Flexible
I know those two statements basically contradict themselves, but think of it as creating a Plan A, but also being able to move on to a Plan B, C, D, etc. Especially when your kids are very young and on strict eating and sleeping schedules, you’ll want to try your best to plan activities around these schedules. Trying to tour the Guggenheim during your two-year-old’s nap time isn’t going to go over well. This can be really limiting, especially when your kiddo is still on the two-naps-a-day train, but as much as you can plan around their schedule, the more likely you are to avoid meltdowns.
However, you can get creative (and this is where flexibility comes in) with the schedule if you think you can pull it off. Nap time is the perfect time for travel time in the car or on a plane. We actually love driving through the night to get places because we can make up a lot of ground while our children sleep. Nap time can also be achieved just about anywhere if you have a stroller or carrier and your kid is able to fall asleep in strange environments.
Tip Five: Pack an Overabundance of Snacks
Snacks make the long hours in the car pass faster. Snacks keep little ones quiet. Snacks can stop a meltdown. Snacks can be used as bribes. Snacks can stave off dinner pangs. Snacks repair all grievances. Snacks, when traveling with little kids (even adults if we are being honest) are king. Bring snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Bring an overabundance of snacks. My favorite snacks to pack include Cheerios, cheddar bunnies (goldfish), apples, raisins, applesauce pouches, and cheese sticks. I have tried many different snack containers, and I have not found one that keep the snacks from turning into a giant mess, so I hand out either baggies or snack cups or single serve packets as often as they are requested and worry about the mess later. The overabundance of snacks also helps with the flexibility mentioned in tip four. If we are running late for a meal, I pull out more snacks. Unless you are a full-time traveler, travel is temporary, so you don’t need to fret about ruining your child’s health over a week of copious snacks. We also religiously carry around reusable water bottles for each of the kids, so we never have to worry about drinks for them.
So there you have it, all my travel secrets are out on the table. I hope this helps you get out there and make travel happen with your kiddos! Here’s some more travel inspiration as well.
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