Don’t believe people that tell you that you can’t travel with kids. My son just turned five and he’s seen seven states, been to Canada, traveled by train, plane and car. His current daily walking record is 11.2 miles — although I carried him for at least a half mile. (We’re just not a stroller kind of family.)
He’s visited museums and held his own at dinner. We’ve had picnics, attended outdoor festivals and tromped though a National Park.
My best advice for traveling with kids is to consider each child as a individual and simply adjust your trip to accommodate their physical and emotional needs and interests. (Spoiler alert: That’s the same advice I’d give to anyone planning a group vacation, no matter the ages of the participants.) Kids are people and traveling together and working together as a group are important human behaviors to master, so treating your kid as another person along for the ride (instead of a tiny dictator who must be catered to), will make family travel more enjoyable for everybody.
Here are some of the tips and tricks I learned along the way.
1. Involve kids in the planning process:
Send off for tourism materials about where you’re going and check out books that feature your destination. (Even little ones can look at the photos.) Pull out maps and discuss your route and teach the kids about the state, province or country that you’re visiting. Talk about ways it might be different than home and the ways in which is might be similar. Show them the photos of your hotel’s pool, the mountains you’ll be hiking or the museum you want to visit. Let them know what to expect.
Then actually let them help you plan. Obviously, the adults will handle most of the details. But bigger kids can help too. And they’ll enjoy the trip more if it reflects their own interests. My favorite part of a multi-generation family trip last summer was when my nephew passionately agreed that we should go on a tour of the North Dakota capital building (he loves history and trivia) and happily helped me plan a trip to The North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum so he could personally show his little brother (who is obsessed with dinosaurs) the museum’s triceratops skeleton himself.
Even tiny kids can chose something they’re interested in when presented with a range of age-appropriate options. This can actually make a trip more interesting. Because of my son’s choices, I’ve spent time at 100% more railroad museums, firehouse museums and railroad pedestrian bridges than I ever would have on my own. We introduced ourselves to an entire firehouse in Milwaukee. I certainly wouldn’t have done that if I was traveling by myself!
2. Anticipate boredom by providing activities:
Every trip has a boring stretch or two. That’s part of life that we all need to learn to navigate. If a quick walk isn’t possible and the classic car games are wearing thin, pull out activity bags.
I have a daypack ready to go at all times. I first stocked it with art supplies from the dollar store, but I add to it constantly. (This is an excellent place to toss at that miscellaneous free and promotional stuff — the frisbees and squishy baseballs sponsors had out at games, the baffling toys and spare crayons that come with kids’ meals etc. — that piles up in your house.) If it gets lost, oh well. It was fun (and free) while it lasted.
Here are a few ideas to get your started.
– Art supplies: Washable markers, colored pencils, crayons (but not if they’ll melt in a hot car!), stickers, scraps of paper, coloring books, stamps.
– Reading material: Magazines (which you can leave behind if you like), books that don’t get read much at home.
– Games: Anything self contained is good — travel bingo cards and a wooden memory game without extra pieces are my son’s favorites. (If you must use a game with piece, make sure they’re magnetic.) For older kids (and adults), a deck of playing cards or a few rounds of Old Maid or UNO can help pass the time.
– Activities: An Etch-A-Sketch, Colorforms (remember those?), crossword puzzles, word finds and activity books work great. (You can throw or recycle completed activity books when you’re done, as well.)
– Small toys: You want “stocking stuffer” kinds of items so your bag doesn’t get too big. Try Play-Dough if you have a tray table to work with, small cars, figurines, etc.
– Outdoor activities: Blow off steam during picnics or rest stops with small frisbees, balls or sidewalk chalk.
3. Don’t be afraid to take it slow:
I think the biggest mistake people make with travel in general (not just with families) is trying to do everything. There’s no joy in stressing out about hitting everything on your list and rushing around from place to place. And the anxiety that can produce when traveling with kids (who are usually not sky about voicing their displeasure) just isn’t worth it.
So think about what you really want to accomplish on this trip. Schedule one must-do a day with small ones (and two to three with older kids — the same number of activities I recommend for adults) and just let it be. Enjoy taking it easy. Rest when you’re tired. Sit down on park benches and picnic tables and sidewalk cafes and watch the world go by.
4. Honor naps (and your kids’ sleep schedule)
Look, maybe your kids are magical creatures that can sleep everywhere or skip naps entirely and never get cranky. But mine wasn’t. I totally worked my trips around his regular nap and I honestly think it saved my sanity.
When I travel, I’m not always great about scheduling downtime or truly relaxing. Knowing I had to block out time for a break stopped me from oversheduling myself and let me slow down enough to write, veg out with social media for a bit or even nap myself.
If you truly have a fear of missing out, book a room with a balcony that looks into the city and enjoy a snack or a cup of coffee while the kids sleep. Or unwind with a book about your destination or take the time to record your thoughts in a travel journal. You can also book a suite, apartment or house (more on that later) and invite the adults in your party to chat, play cards and or with local wine, beer or herbal tea at the end of a long travel day.
5. Location matters:
It can be a sanity-saver to book lodging in a central location. Yes, you can save money by staying further away, but stop to ask yourself if schlepping all your stuff and a small army of children to the beach/city center/waterpark every day is truly worth the few extra dollars.
When I stayed in Chicago, we stayed downtown because we knew that we’d want to visit the parks and museums in the area. We walked and used public transportation to get anywhere else we needed to go. Our group contained an newborn, a baby and two toddlers and being close enough to pop back into the room if they got cranky was a godsend.
6. Think outside the hotel room box:
Multi-room suites are a must for families where the adults don’t want to go to bed when the kids do. Also look for family-friendly amenities like public areas where kids can blow off steam. Pools are great, but some lodging options also offer basketball courts, courtyards, mini-parks and even putting greens. A free breakfast is one of my favorite family-friendly add ons. I’ve also stayed at hotels with free lending libraries for kids’ books, games and activities, which are handy on a rainy day.
If your family is larger than what the typical four person hotel room maximum allows, or if you’re traveling with a group of families), it can certainly be cheaper to rent a cabin, condo or vacation home and split the costs. Personally, I’ve had great luck with AirBnB. (Here’s a $40 discount code for you if you want to try it!) These places offer a wide range of amenities and often include lots of add-ons (from beach chairs to bikes to books) that you’d otherwise have to lug with you.
I booked a cute little cabin for me, E, my parents and my grandma in the Minnesota northwoods and it worked really well for all of us. The elders in the family got their own comfortable beds in their own rooms and we could all gather in the living area and kitchen to play games from the game cupboard, watch movies and cook meals together. Five people could stay for less than the price of a standard hotel room and we had much more room.
7. Get outside:
We’re all wired to need fresh air and time to work off excess energy. Kids just aren’t shy about embracing this side of themselves. So allow plenty of unscheduled outdoor time. While the kids are running around the playground, the adults can chat, relax in the sun or catch up on some reading.
If you’re traveling by car, plan a run in the park or time in a wooded rest stop instead of a concrete gas station parking lot. I just took Amtrak from Fargo to Chicago and we took advance of stops where we could go outside, stretch our legs and breathe new air.
When you’re traveling, integrate green spaces into your daily activities. Look for city parks, riverwalks and pocket parks en route to your daily destination and let the kids explore. And let kids walk as much as possible. You’ll get to see the city like a local and they’ll be nice and worn out when bedtime rolls around. (Bonus.)
8. Think like a local parent:
The places you visit aren’t just exotic tourist destinations: They’re home to people like you. So if you’re looking for things to do with your kids, just take notes from parents and grandparents and check out the fun (and often free) family-friendly options that are already offered to locals.
– City and state parks: Bring the kids to picnic or play on the playground and check out programing options on the park’s website.
– Public libraries: Yes, you’ll need a library card to check out books. But you can read in the building, play with the toys and games and stop in for activites that range from story time to crafts to exercise classes for free, without filling out paperwork.
– Community festivals: Check the city’s event page for info on cultural festivals, pedestrian celebrations and art and music gatherings. This kind of programming is usually free, often family-friendly and will allow you to drop in and out as you please.
– Local community pools, splash pads and water parks: Pack a picnic and spend an afternoon with locals at a community water feature. I still remember spending a scorching day in Spain at my friend’s local municipal pool and I was a teenager!
– Local gyms and fitness centers: These activities are marketed at members, but many large facilities offer non-member options as well. For example, in my town, guests can bring their kids to an indoor playground and obstacle course, try a climbing wall or take cooking classes.
– Museums and cultural centers: Many cultural institutions offer children’s programming, classes and tours for free or for a small fee.
– Family-friendly restaurants (that parents actually want to go to): Please, for the love of God, skip Chuck E. Cheese and check out a kid-friendly taproom or restaurant. When our friends Ryan and Melissa and their daughter came to visit, we had a blast eating pizza on the patio at Spicy Pie while the kids played lawn games. That’s the level of chill you should be aiming for.
9. Streamline your snack stash
If you’re a parent of little ones, you probably always travel with a snack. (I recently went hiking with my friend Jo and amused her by pulling several snack options out of a very small daypack.) When you’re traveling, you’ll want to up your snack game to anticipate unexpected delays (flights, trains, road construction), an increased need for snacks due to time zone changes or increased physical activity and to provide a dose of comfort and familiarity to to people who might be struggling with unfamiliar menus. (That applies to adults as much as kids, sometimes.)
I prefer items that don’t melt or break into dozens of pieces. (Bonus points if they serve as great trail snacks later on.) And since I tend to eat less healthily on the road than I do at home, I try to counter my “hey, it’s a vacation” choices with slightly better options. I’m not some kind of clean eating saint, since I’m not above prepared foods and convenience foods can trip you up with excess sodium and sugar if you’re not careful. But every little bit helps. (You can always shop for fresh produce and other essentials at your destination.)
Here’s a sampling of what I’ve packed in the past. (And what I’m packaging for this week’s trip!)
– Protein: Turkey pepperoni and jerky are my picks, since they don’t need refrigeration.
– Whole grains: Granola bars, breakfast bars, naan and super sturdy crackers provide lots of whole grains and fill me up without taking up a lot of space in my bag.
– Fruits: Dried cranberries and apricots are great for hiking, but I also pack apples and clementines for snacking on the road.
– Purse snacks: It’s easy to lose track of time on vacation, only to be brought back to reality by fussy kiddos when you’re, say, in the middle of a park with no snack options around you. So I pack fruit snacks, dried fruit, trail mix, granola bars or small containers of cereal for moments like this.
I never drink enough water on vacation and I’m an adult that should totally know better by now. So kids will need a little extra push to make sure they’re drinking enough to stay hydrated. I order water instead of soft drinks at restaurants for all of us and make sure we have a glass or two of water whenever we’re in the hotel room. (Yes, this makes life a little more difficult if you’re potty training. Adjust as needed.) If your kids really hate plain water, steal a trick from my mom (who also struggles with this issue) and buy those little packets of mix-ins to give the water a flavor boost.
I also really recommend traveling with a reusable water bottle. My son is always thirsty, so instead of getting up every five minutes to go to the water fountain (or spending money on expensive bottled water at a tourist attraction), I just fill up a water bottle when we get there and we’re set.
I’m a brand ambassador for Hydaway and I’ve really grown fond of their collapsable bottles. (Yes, I would say this even if they didn’t send me freebies!) They hardly take up any space in my bag, so I can easily carry three in one small pocket of my purse. And they actually close, which is a must of my son, who shares his mother’s propensity for spilling all over the place.
11. Prepare your own food as needed:
I love food. I love eating out. But let’s face it, that can get expensive with a big group. And it’s not always necessary.
Since restaurant portions are so much bigger than what I eat at home, at some point on a trip, I usually find myself with leftovers and a very diminished appetite for my next meal. That’s why I like to book rooms that include a fridge to store leftovers in, as well as some kind of kitchen so I can prepare my own (smaller) meals as needed. (Just supplement your snacks and leftovers with a run to the market and you’re set.) I’ve saved a lot of money and seen interesting parts of cities by preparing a picnic lunch and eating in a park, along the river or in a sculpture garden.
I know groups that take turns cooking epic meals in their vacation rental, cabin or hotel suite when they travel. They really make it an occasion to try new recipes and throw little mini dinner parties on the road. (If you are that kind of person, please adopt me.) I’m not nearly that ambitious, but I’ve seen how this approach can solve some of the inevitable snags that come up when you’re traveling with a group.
For example, I mentioned earlier how I vacationed in Chicago with a group of friends (including four kids under the age of five) last summer. The youngest baby and her parents, my friend Carrie and her husband, were the only ones driving in and they arrived later than the rest of us. The larger group was ordering deep dish pizza when Carrie texted and said they wouldn’t make in time for dinner. We adjusted the order, walked back to our hotel and offered Carrie’s family sandwiches, fruit, granola bars and donuts from Portland and cookies from the Minnesota State Fair when they arrived. They giggled at our comprehensive dessert options, but were able to put the baby down to sleep, eat and and catch up, without running around trying to track down dinner after a long day on the road.
12: Encourage reflection:
Maybe this is just my dreamy yet analytical travel writer brain talking, but I believe that you’re never too young to reflect on what a new place can teach you. As adults, we often mull over our travels by taking photos, writing in travel journals or making photo albums or scrapbooks when we return. There’s no reason that crafty kids can’t help with those projects — or even take charge of their own.
Encourage them to write or draw about the trip while you’re actually traveling. Help them engage their senses by asking them what they smell, see, touch, taste and hear. Listen to their questions and don’t be afraid to ask a few of your own. Encourage them to interact with locals you meet, whether its a grocery store clerk, a cab driver or a family you meet at the park and to engage with other travelers as well. Hand them the camera or your phone and ask them to take photos or video of your trip. You might be surprised at the new insights their perspectives provide.
What about you?
What are your trips for traveling with kids?
What do you pack when you travel with a family?
What’s your ultimate family bucket list vacation?
Which family vacation spots do you love?
What family travel problems can this community help you solve?
Which destinations in your region do you recommend for family travelers and why?
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