11 Tips for Traveling with Small Children

We’ve done a ton of traveling this year. When your husband has a fall break, two weeks of spring break, and five weeks of Christmas break (plus, classes only twice a week), you try not to waste the opportunity.

After Williamsburg, a cruise, Washington DC, and now Chicago, I’m feeling a lot braver about traveling with small children than I was a year ago.

These are eleven things I’ve learned about making it less stressful and more fun for all parties involved.

  1. Pack snacks. I rarely take snacks along for my girls when we go on outings. Ella will eat every snack we have and then no dinner, plus it makes me crazy when the snack becomes the focus of the outing instead of the ACTUAL OUTING, so I basically just skip the snacks entirely. But on vacation? I pack snacks. After I bought these Fruit Shoot juices for a sponsored campaign, Ella specifically requested them for our Chicago trip (I had to break the news that we couldn’t take juice on the airplane). Besides drinks, I also like Clif Bars, string cheese, apple slices, dried fruit, and nuts. This also means that if we eat somewhere the girls (aka ELLA) don’t like, I have some backup options instead of ruining my long-awaited vacation meal. 
  2. Take the stroller. Preferably a double stroller. We have a double stroller, but I worry about it getting damaged on the airplane (thanks to our single stroller getting damaged on an airplane), so we took our old $20 second-hand Graco travel system stroller which made getting through the airport easy since I could snap Ani’s carseat right in, but then when we were in Chicago and could leave the carseat in the car, both girls could sit in it (even though it’s a single stroller and this is probably strongly not recommended by the manufacturers, but it worked like a charm for us). 
  3. Don’t skip naps. I know that it’s super tempting to just skip naps since you’re paying a ton of money to be wherever you are, but squeezing in a nap will make everyone’s life a lot better. Ani’s transitioning between two naps right now, so we just did one nap every day. We’d go out in the morning for breakfast or to do one thing, then come back, have her take a nap, eat lunch, and then head back out again. Plus, it gave us some nice downtime to read, relax and rest our tired feet. Ella doesn’t nap, but having her do quiet time helped her decompress a little between outings. 
  4. Prep your kids for what you’ll be seeing. Ella was really excited about seeing the Lincoln Park Zoo, going on an airplane, and visiting the Museum of Science and Industry. Knowing a little bit about what we’d be doing helped her be excited about the trip and have some feel for what we’d be doing. 
  5. Just expect to not get a ton of sleep. When we went to Seattle in September 2012, it was our first real city traveling experience as a family. I decided that I would just expect to get up super early every morning, and then when that happened, I was okay with it. 
  6. Be serious about bedtime the first night. We went to Houston for one night when Ella was about 18 months old. She didn’t love being in the crib in the hotel room corner, and we got her out to comfort her, then tried to put her back in, but she’d figured out we were softies and it was a huge pain to try to get her to bed. We learned our lesson and when we went on our cruise, we put Ani to bed the first night, turned out the lights, and went into the hall. Not a peep. She went down without complaint the rest of the trip except for one night when it took us a minute to get out of the room after she was in bed and I felt bad she was standing up in bed whining to be picked up, so I got her out of bed and. . . what do you know? She didn’t want to go back in and fussed a lot when we put her back. Hold strong the first night and they are less likely to fight you about it the rest of the trip. 
  7. Your kids will do better than you expect. When we booked our cruise tickets in March, I was deeply worried that no one would get any sleep. Here in North Carolina, both my girls have their own rooms, and they’d never shared a room before. But, you know what? It was fine! 
  8. Don’t overpack toys and entertainment. I hate a heavy bag, so I always pack really lightly for the girls. For the plane, I download library books onto the Overdrive app on my iPad so I can read to them without packing a bunch of heavy hardback picture books, I stick in a pack of Uno cards, some crayons and a notebook, and some play dough. When we’re out and about, I’m kind of a stickler for not having them glued to the phone or tablet playing games while we’re experiencing a new city, and they are surprisingly happy just taking everything in as we walk. Ella loved walking on every retaining wall, Ani wanted to point at every bird and dog, and we pointed out cool window displays, letters on signs, and anything else that might interest them. 
  9. Over-plan and expect to do half of it. I had a good list of things to see and places to eat while we were there, but of course we didn’t get to a lot of it. Every night, we’d figure out what from the list we wanted to shoot for the next day, and then we’d work it around naps and see how it went. I’d rather have a great time at one thing with the girls than push to do two things and have us all miserable throughout it all. 
  10. Pick kid-friendly things. This might seem totally obvious, but this is not the time to try and spend 3 hours in the art museum (unless your children are way different than mine). We try to visit the public library, do a lot of walking, scope out parks and zoos, check out the children’s museum, and run around at outdoor gardens and memorials or monument. I also am not interested in eating at lousy places when we’re on vacation, but I recognize a fancy sit-down meal might not be a great fit with two tired children. This is a great time to visit hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food trucks. 
  11. Don’t rush. I have to really fight my urge to GO GO GO GO during vacation with children (or making the whole family miserable by my inability to let go of my “schedule” that’s being thwarted by a too-long nap). I try to remind myself that the point of vacation is to have fun together as a family first and to get to know a new city second. Ella wanted to walk a lot of the time, and so we let her, even though it was much much slower. We spent a good 15 minutes at the Art Institute watching the girls walk up and down the marble staircase inside the lobby. And a 5 minute walk to get some cookies during one of Ani’s long naps took 40 minutes because Ella wanted to pet every dog, look in every window, and balance on every retaining wall. But the weather was beautiful, she loved every second of it, and, when I stopped trying to rush it, we enjoyed a lovely afternoon together.
Of course, all my pretend knowledge will really be put to the test when we go to Europe this fall. If you have tricks for traveling with children, share the wealth! 

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  • Reply Landen April 21, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Great ideas, and I love those pictures! Especially that last one of Ella and Bart!

  • Reply Ashley April 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Excellent tips! Especially not skipping naps, and over plan, but expect to do half.

  • Reply Just Jaime April 21, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    When flying ask the flight attendant if there are any open seats for your lap sitting child. I just did this on a flight and 3 out if 4 times there was! I brought her car seat on the plane and age slept wonderfully while I read a magazine! Seriously!

  • Reply april April 21, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    I find traveling with children less of a headache/anxiety than traveling with older people (like my inlaws). We don't bring a stroller, but we never use a stroller anywhere. I wouldn't say that I over plan, but I do try to come up with as many things to do as possible so if we need something to do we don't have to do research on the trip, we just pick from a list.

  • Reply Michelle April 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    I love your tips. We went to England/Ireland for 3 weeks with a 9-month old in 2011 and just got back from 2 weeks in Hawaii with our 3 and 1-year old. I would add a couple ideas, especially for long distance/long term travel:

    1. Look into vacation rentals. This isn't always possible, but often you can get a larger place (with a kitchen! A bedroom for kids!) for the same price as a hotel. You can save lots of money eating a couple meals at "home." And you don't have to deal with hotel cleaning, which always messes up naps for my kids, even when it's in the room next door.

    2. Have a jet lag strategy. The best advice I've gotten is to adjust halfway the first day (so if your time change is 6 hours, treat it like 3) and then adjust one more hour everyday. I always think this makes it easier for me to schedule meals, naps and bedtime when your kids are just cranky and exhausted from a long day of traveling.

  • Reply kristi April 21, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    You're so much braver than I was when my kids were these ages! Love that last pic!

  • Reply Paige Flamm April 21, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    I love the over plan but expect not to do it all! Last year when we went to DC we had SO MANY things we wanted to see and had clearly set the bar too high, I'm going to blame it on being newbie parents!

  • Reply Megan B April 21, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    I agree with all of these tips, especially the napping advice and expecting to get up early. I'm a lot less grumpy when I just know that the kids will be up earlier than normal.
    I'd also add–don't be afraid to travel with kids! We have traveled with our kids since our oldest was 6 weeks old so by now they are used to traveling and don't go crazy in new locations. I have a friend whose child was 4 or 5 when he slept in his first hotel room and he was so excited, he didn't go to sleep until 1 am!

  • Reply Renee April 21, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    This is in no way shape of form related to this post, BUT I must ask. Have you read Dreams of Gods & Monsters yet. You got be hooked on the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series and I have been dying to hear what you thought of the last book.

  • Reply Jodi April 21, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Good tips. Way back when Atticus was 6ish months and I was debating traveling to France while my husband did research for a few weeks, I got some advice for international traveling. I haven't read it in like a REALLY long time so I don't remember what was said, but I still have and I will forward it to you.

  • Reply Ralphie April 22, 2014 at 2:10 am

    I find that last picture simply hilarious.

  • Reply Holly Alberts April 22, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Your tips also work well for Europe. Plan a ton and expect to do half is a good mantra. Also it's helpful if you seek out a few public parks in the areas you plan to tour. And a €1 gelato goes a long way.

  • Reply kelsey April 25, 2014 at 7:41 am

    I've been living in Europe for almost two years now. My boys were 18 months and 3 1/2 when we got here, so we've experienced travel over lots of stages. What we have found works best for us is that we have to throw things in for them. Science museums are great for kids because they can and are supposed to touch everything! (The one in Barcelona is great!) Plus they tend to be CHEAP! Definite plus when traveling Europe and things just constantly add up. I would also consider that Europe isn't as…wide as America, so traditional double-wide double strollers are impossible here. At this point with a 3.5 and 5.5 year old, we've completely abandoned strollers all together and so we just have to go slower, but that's good for me because I, too, want to GO GO GO and just can't with little kids. They are not going to want to see what you want to see. They just won't. Hope you have fun living in Barcelona. That was for sure one of our favorite trips so far! Also, good sites to travel cheaper: — — — —

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