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My husband and I are very lucky that we and our children live near my extended family in San Diego, California. We see my parents almost daily, my older brother and his family weekly, and my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents at least once a month. We love knowing our kids get so much quality time with their relatives. While being near my family is both planned and fortunate, it doesn’t make being away from my all of my husband’s family and my younger brother any easier. All of my husband’s relatives live across the world in the UK, and my younger brother and his fiancée live in France. Wanting to give our children the same quality time with the family members around the world translates into the four of us traveling internationally at least once a year. Most recently (and by that, I mean three days ago!), we made the long trek across the Atlantic to good ole Great Britain. We are on holiday! (Well, kind of, because is vacationing with kids ever really a true holiday?)
It can be intimidating to travel with kids in tow — even just the idea of the potential challenges can be enough to put you off booking a trip. It is well known in the parenting sphere that the preparation involved with planning and packing is tough. That’s why you can now find hundreds if not thousands of packing lists online. Pinterest, anyone? And then there’s the travel itself! You worry about how you will contain your kiddos during hours of pre-flight waiting, and then hours of on-flight waiting. Not to mention the anticipatory anxiety about the side-eye and judgment from strangers.
Have faith though, it can be done! And it can even done without much pain. Yeah, right? Now, I’m not saying it will be painless — these are kids we are talking about, after all — but follow my tried and tested tips for trip prep and travel execution, and you’ll start to experience less turbulence when traveling with your children.
Common Travel Challenges and What to Do About Them
Packing all. the. Stuff.When you are packing for your trip, it is easy to go overboard. You live your day-in and day-out routine with your kids, and no doubt have handy items to make life easier, but you know you can’t take everything along. So when it comes to baby and kid gear, I have two recommendations: pre-order and ship key items, or rent them.
I just love having items waiting for us at our destinations. Give me fewer things to pack?! Yes, please! Since our travels are usually to be with family, Amazon is our best friend. We stock our cart with diapers for the baby, Pull-ups for nighttime for the toddler, wipes. And since we often travel to the same place multiple times, we have even ordered big items: car seats, travel beds, and white noise machines.
For this trip we ordered the Britax Romer seat. This exact seat doesn’t exist in the US, but is a highly rated one for the UK. We use the Britax brand at home, so we felt good staying with it for our visits here. This seat will last until our daughter turns 11 years old, so we will keep it at my husband’s parents’ house for years to come!
The portable noise machine by Rohm is fantastic. We have the standard one at our house, so we knew the portable one would work great abroad. What’s awesome about it is that it has a charging cord with a USB port, so we can plug it into the outlets in the UK that have USB chargers, without having to worry about converters and adapters.
Our travel crib of preference is a Graco Pack ‘N Play. It can be bulky to actually travel with, but we love it at our destination, so we had it ready for us upon arrival. We have the same one at home, so I knew that our son would feel comfortable and not have to transition to the feel of a different travel crib.
Another option, if you do not want to buy duplicate sets of things you’ll need on your travels, or if your destination is not a place you’ll return to so buying doesn’t make much sense, is renting! There are rental companies for children and baby goods, such as Babys Away, a company in the US where you can rent cribs, high chairs, Pack ‘N Plays, and more. What’s great is that the prices are reasonable, you can select your specific dates, and they do the drop off and pick up
When it comes to your children’s clothes, you know best what they need and what the weather will be at your destination. What I will say is, if your trip is to be with family, they most likely have a way for you to wash clothes, meaning that you can pack fewer outfits and wash as needed. If your travel is for fun, it may save you some suitcase space to look into if there will be laundry facilities.
Having too much time at the airport
We’ve all done it. And we’ve all hated it. We race to the airport extra early because we want to be there with plenty of time ahead of the flight, plus we’ve got so much baggage to unload (prior to reading this post and the tip above) that we leave even more time for that. And then we get to the gate with our kids, and we have way too much time to kill! Our kids go crazy, we go crazy trying to keep them from being kids, and by the time we get on the flight we are knackered. Our anger is high and our patience is low, and we haven’t even flown yet!!
It seems the common suggestion is to arrive two hours before a domestic flight, and three before an international one. That’s way too long for young families. I’m not recommending to shave off a ridiculous about of time honestly, but with kids we know every minute counts. I want you to plan your airport check-in to give you enough time to make your flight, but not so much time that you are the first to your gate. Aim for being at the airport approximately an hour and a half before a domestic flight and two and a half hours before an international one. Check-in and security can eat up around forty-five minutes, cutting down on wait time before boarding the plane (forty-five minutes for domestic travel, and an hour and forty-five minutes for international). Now that you’ve set yourself up for the smallest amount of waiting without increasing anxiety about missing a flight, what you’ll need is a dash of lowered expectations and a pinch of relaxed parenting.
Making sure your children mind their Ps and Qs
In the airport, let your kids be kids. Many airports these days have a play area. Hunt it down and let them go wild. And if there isn’t a play place, let your kids explore the airport. My husband and I each take a kid and follow them as they
walk run around, or find stairs to climb. This is the chance for your children to release the energy that can be hard to contain on the plane. Please tell yourself to not worry about strangers being annoyed with you. If you are showing enough concern to be publicly acceptable (basically just make sure they don’t actually run into anyone), then other travelers don’t seem to care. Some even think your kids are cute and entertaining! Remember, they also know that if they have to share an Airbus with you, they’d rather your kids get out their energy in the airport than on the plane.
In prep for this trip my husband and I got our daughter an Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition.
Generally we do not love the idea of children having their own tablets, but traveling with kids is a special circumstance. No #momguilt here! Our daughter was thrilled to sit still as she explored it while we waited for our flight in the airport lounge. This enabled my husband and I to actually enjoy a beer for him and a wine for me while we entertained our son and gave him some food (his love language). We seriously high fived ourselves for how our travel day was starting out!
Even with the tablet and the food for our kids, they still make lots of noise. We worry about bothering other travelers, getting rude looks, or hearing under-the-breath comments. But I can honestly say that we have found fellow travelers to be very kind, and even helpful. Everybody has either had kids or knows kids and gets that they are noisy and busy creatures, and they’re fine with it. Now nobody enjoys a screaming child, but if they see you’re trying to do something about it, then they let it slide.
Keeping your wild animals in a tiny space for a long time
Congratulations! You’ve survived the airport waiting game. Your have moved up a level to the airplane time-pass challenge. Depending on the age of your children there are loads of different items you can have in your diaper bag to keep them occupied. My favorite source of inspiration is Elise at 3kidstravel.com and @3kidstravel on Instagram. For our flight we were stocked up on post-it notes & Band-Aids (for sticking and re-sticking pleasure), window gel clings (that work on the window and the tray!), the new tablet, some small toys that it would be okay if we lost on the plane, and some awesome new headphones that the kids wear like an eighties headband (or a 2019s one since they’ve made their way back!).
In addition to whatever items you bring for your kids, at request you can often get flight activity kits with coloring books and crayons.
If your flight has this option, pre order children’s meals. We just did this on our international flight on British Airways, and I imagine other carriers do this as well. What this means is that means kids are fed before the entire plane. No complaints of being hungry while they wait for other passengers to be fed! Point out to them that they get to eat before everyone!…They will feel like First Class travelers!
Our flight to the UK is a red-eye so we knew we’d only have to entertain the kids for so long. Then the concern turned to how to get them to sleep comfortably. Luckily our lap toddler is a snuggler, so even though he sleeps in his crib at home, we had faith he should do decently well curled up on us in our seats. The child we worried about is our quite tall daughter. On the same trip last year she was so uncomfortable trying to sleep in her seat and she woke up hourly screaming. We desperately wanted to avoid that this year and borrowed this inflatable travel cushion from a friend!
It worked like magic. Our daughter got herself into a cozy position using the cushion, which extended her seat, as a bed, and slept solid for much of the flight. Win!!
We’ve been lucky to always have kind flight attendants. Be your usual friendly self, make some friendship-forming small talk, and more often than not, the flight attendants will go out of their way to ensure your and your children’s comfort and flying pleasure.
What NOT to do when you travel
We wish you and your family the most pleasurable travel experience ever. Toting your kids along for adventures involves some extra prep, but following these tips will help make your trip just that much easier and more fun. Now that you have a better idea of what TO do, read on to learn what to NOT do.
Don’t be like us and not pay attention to when the clocks go forward in another country. We “sprung forward” in the US about three weeks ago and have been dealing with later bedtimes and all around crankiness with the adjustment since then. When we planned this trip, we did not remember that the UK springs forward later! So, as I write this, we have just moved the clocks up one hour, and now will have to add the time change adjustment to the already intense jet lag and travel adjustment. Learn from us and save yourself the pain!
Don’t expect the first few days of sleep once you’ve arrived at your destination to be very good. Kids can’t just make themselves sleep when they should like we grown ups can do! My husband and I have been involved in a serious game of musical beds with the kids the past few nights, and to be frank, it sucks. But we knew it would be like this, so we know to just wait and ride the wave until smooth sleep is on the horizon. Isn’t that funny — the kids did all the waiting during the travel, and now the adults do the waiting once you’ve arrived. Maybe playing on my daughter’s tablet will help.
Best of luck, everyone! Let me know in the comments what other things have been helpful to you when traveling with littles!!
Christina is the writer behind the blog Real Life Mama. She is a mom two littles, a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. Christina and her family live in San Diego, where she is a full-time mama, part-time mental health therapist (LPCC), and round-the-clock blogger, writer, and author. If she ever gets a moment to herself, she can be found singing at the top of her lungs, cooking, and crafting. Thanks for reading!