People will glare. Naps will be necessary. There will be at least one epic meltdown. But traveling with your kids can be the best time of your life. “It’s such a cliché but, for me, it’s more fun and interesting to see the world through my kids’ eyes,” says Eric Stoen, a travel writer who pens TravelBabbo.com, which covers kid-approved destinations. A prime example was taking his daughter to a playground in Hong Kong. “She made friends from all over the world,” and, by extension, so too did Stoen. “It forced me to have this cultural exchange with the other parents that I never would have had otherwise.”
Of course, it’s not all Instagram-worthy moments and warm-fuzzy bonding time. Things will go wrong. Toddlers will lose their cool — and you may too. But with a little advanced planning and some been-there-done-that-got-the-vomit-stained-T-shirt advice, you can avoid the most common pitfalls. For starters, if at all possible, don’t travel when your children are 18 to 30 months old, says Hadyn Kihm, a D.C.-area mom who has traveled the globe with her two young kids. “Between those ages, kids are mobile but not obedient, which makes things really hard.” Here’s how to avoid nine more of the biggest, dumbest, most regrettable mistakes parents make when they travel as a family.
1. Stop Buying the Cheapest Tickets
“I came from a backpacker mentality, so this was hard for me to get over,” says Stoen, who’s traveled with his kids since they were babies. But shelling out a little more money for a lot more convenience pays big dividends. For one, spring for the non-stop flight. This eliminates the risk of missing a connection, and it means you won’t have to offload everyone and everything from the plane right as your kids are tucking into a movie. The same goes for ground transportation. Sure, maybe in your twenties you navigated the Paris subway with luggage, but trying to do it with jetlagged kids and baby gear is a nightmare. Buck up and pay for the car service.
2. Make Layovers Work for You
Sometimes you can’t avoid a layover. In cases like these, think about what flight path makes the most sense for your kids. “If your trip involves at least two flights, try to divide them up evenly so you can release pent-up energy in the airport before the second flight,” says Kihm. Even better: Choose layover airports with play areas (check their websites). “Two to three hours is the ideal layover length for play and then getting to your gate,” Kihm adds. If there’s no play area, she’ll ride inter-terminal trains, which her kids find surprisingly entertaining.
3. Don’t Board Early
Airlines offer this to young families, but it’s a trap, says Kihm. By the time boarding is finished, you’ve already asked your kid to sit still for almost an hour. Instead, wait until the last boarding group. If you have a ton of luggage, send one parent ahead to grab overhead space, or, better yet, check as much as you can.
4. Check the Car Seat, Not the Clothes
“I brought the car seat onboard exactly once; it’s cumbersome to carry through the aisle and install, and it puts toddlers at the perfect height to kick the chair in front of them. It was an impossible situation: either let them kick the seat, or hold their legs down so they scream the whole flight,” says Kihm. Check it. One thing not to check, though, is a change of clothes. Kihm always has an extra outfit for her kids and for her in her carry on — since vomit/urine/mucus explosions always happen at the most inopportune moments.
5. Bring, and Ration, Food and Entertainment
Finally, pack lots of snacks and games (but nothing loud or with flashing lights) and ration them. Kihm doesn’t get toys or games out until the flight is actually in the air, since blowing through all your entertainment on the tarmac is a real concern. Darby Fox, a New York–based child and adolescent family therapist, suggests making a plan with your kids for what you’re going to do during what part of the flight. “Kids work so much better when they have a schedule to follow.” That means a movie for two hours, followed by coloring for 30 minutes, then a snack. If possible, says Fox, have them switch rows with a family member at some point. “The change of scenery helps with boredom.”
6. Let Them Plan Activities
Want to make your kid miserable? Drag them through the Louvre or along a three-hour alpine hike. “A lot of people assume that what they want to do is what the kid wants to do,” says Fox. But the trip is going to go a lot better if you ask your kid what they want to do. Even kids as young as four or five crave autonomy, says Fox. Involving them in day-to-day planning is going to eliminate a lot of “but I don’t want to do this” meltdowns.
7. Create a Plan For Getting Separated
Stoen has lost his daughter twice in foreign cities. The first was in an aquarium in Hong Kong, the second was when she wandered from an apartment in Paris. In both instances, she kept walking as she tried to find her way back to her parents. But that made finding her harder. “So we had a conversation: If you’re ever lost, stay where you are and we’ll find you,” says Stoen.
Talk to your children about strangers — but move beyond the idea that all strangers are bad. Ideally your kid should look for a police officer if they’re lost. If they can’t find an officer, it’s okay to seek friendly strangers, specifically other parents and shopkeepers, says Fox.
8. Don’t Procrastinate on Paperwork
The U.S. requires children (even babies) to have passports and renew them every five years. “Both parents have to go to the post office to do the renewal,” says Stoen, though divorced parents may take a notarized authorization from the other parent. Likewise, Stoen says that many countries are wary of admitting a child accompanied by only one parent. Each year he takes each of his kids on a father-daughter or father-son trip. Before they go, his wife signs a notarized letter giving him permission to cross international borders without her.
9. Destress Meal Time
Stoen says his children have developed incredible palates from eating their way around the world. But if your kid isn’t an adventurous eater, finding food they like may be tough, says Jeanenne Tornatore, a mom of three and a senior editor at Orbitz. Tornatore eliminates much of mealtime drama by eating at the hotel. “I’ll buy a gallon of milk and some boxes of cereal so I know they have something for breakfast that they’ll eat,” she says. Or she’ll pack a picnic dinner that her kids can enjoy in a nearby park.
It’s okay to push your kids to try new things too. Fox says if your kids seem open to an idea, a little prod can help. If they’re stressed out about it to the point of crying, though, back off. This goes for both food and adventure — once you’ve reached the crying stage, you’re officially doing more harm than good by pressuring them to eat or do anything.