How to Travel with Kids [Ultimate Guide]

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It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time traveling with your children or the 10th, each time presents some challenges.

Yes, you’ll learn something new on each adventure – a trick or two. But there are parts about planning and enacting a family vacation that can seem overwhelming.

Being prepared and knowing some of the biggest issues helps greatly. In this post, I’ll let you in on some of the things that give you a leg up on the whole process of how to travel with kids.

What’s the Big Deal?

You think about taking your kids somewhere wonderful, fun, or educational. They can experience new food, see new things, interact with a wide variety of people-all while enjoying quality family time and creating special memories. But (you knew there would be a BUT, didn’t you!) even an adult vacation has unpredictable parts.

Consider unanticipated missed or delayed flight. You are stuck not only having to figure out alternatives or next steps, but you have anxious, and often tired, kids in tow.

This is where the “big deal” starts and it can rapidly spiral out of control. Your children may have a melt down, begin acting out because they’re bored, or complain that there is no food they like.

This is not the way you envisioned your trip starting or ending. Nonetheless, these are just a few of the realities you face when considering how best to travel with kids.

Why Travel with Your Kids

There is so much more to the world than your own backyard. Particularly during school breaks you have the opportunity to expose your children to a broader view of the Country and perhaps the world.

This is educational and enriching.

The exact form of a family vacation depends heavily on the age of your children and your budget. You may just rent a cottage for a few days or a cabin in the woods. Maybe you’ll take a European cruise.

No matter the choice, the rewards for your child and your family far outweigh potential problems and inconveniences.

What can your child gain from travel?

Plenty! Here’s just a few:

  • Exploring New Roles: Your child can help with navigation, food testing, planning, and packing. These are all functions outside of their daily role. This is important because in the process they begin learning about flexibility and compromise.
  • The School of the World: There is a massive difference between classroom learning and what children learn in thheir travels. In the real world there are far less filters and structure. This challenges your children, and helps them develop greater awareness, focus, and self-confidence.
  • Poise & Pluck: At home and in the classroom children get used to specific patterns that are comfortable. When traveling, that all changes and it gives the kids a chance to explore aspects of themselves. One might dive into adventure like a skilled swimmer. Another might seek out intellectual activities. Both these examples lead to boosting self-esteem. When you give your children the chance to thrive in a different way, you’ll be amazed at the results.
  • A Sense of Tribe: The more you travel with your children, the more they begin to see that humans have a great deal in common. As they encounter those similarities, their world view changes. Other places and people aren’t so frightening. Humans are a distinct tribe, and your child is learning their role in that global scheme.
  • Patience makes Perfect: Ok, even as an adult I get frustrated with how some incredibly well planned events go awry. For children, the unexpected nature of schedule changes, sleep patters, security checks, ticketing for buses, and even long car rids can become unsettling. With practice, however, they learn that patience has value. Maybe they meet a new friend at that layover, for example. We often forget that children bounce back pretty quickly. Sure the luggage got lost, but what’s in store now? New clothing?
  • Family Strength: Our communities and circles have become very disconnected. People don’t talk (really talk) like they used to. When you’re on the road there will be times that cell and internet service doesn’t work at all (egad). Suddenly they have two choices: be bored or interact. Communication is essential when traveling with children. If one has specific fears, find ways to work through them together, for example. You may not have even known until your trip that your child even had such a fear.

Travel Tip:
Consider your goals for the family on this trip. Yes, you want to have fun, but what other family fundamentals can you put into your plans?

How Difficult is it to Travel with Kids?

There are a lot of variables in answering this question. You have to take into account:

  • The age of the children
  • The children’s base behavior patterns (how well they listen/take directions)
  • The destination
  • Your plan (and thinking it through)
  • Preparation (or lack thereof)

Looking at these a little more closely, you are the person who knows your children best (hopefully). That means you know what to expect when they don’t get their way, don’t like the food, can’t sleep comfortably etc.

A child’s temperament makes a huge difference as to whether your trip is easy or a little more challenging.

The destination plays a big role too. I once looked at Atlantis thinking it sounded fantastic. Upon closer inspection, at that time there were no real indoor activities for children on rainy days, including no swimming!

That was simply not going to work. Great if you’re an adult, but they can watch TV any time at home for free. You want to find a location where you can keep your children engaged easily while also getting them back to the hotel when they tire without hours of return time.

Age, personality, and destination work hand-in-hand with your plan & preparation.

  • When do you tell the children about the trip?
  • Is there anything you want to show them ahead of time about your destination?
  • What do you want to pack?
  • When should you purchase tickets (and which ones)?

I find that making a tentative schedule for each day of the week helps (and maybe some back up plans). You know it will change; it’s the nature of the travel beast. BUT having a framework creates a comfort zone for mom and dad.

If you keep a cool head, it’s much easier to keep your family on an even keel (or happy, or excited!).

Best Vacations for Kids

People have a lot of different views on this, most of which go back to the points about difficulties in travel. Here are some ideas for pondering:

  • Adventure Vacation: Activities like rafting, zip lining, jet skiing, hiking, and horseback riding amp up the energy level of your vacation greatly. You (and the kids) need rest before each outing, but you can be pretty sure they’ll sleep that night.
  • All Inclusive: All inclusive resorts have become far more family-friendly and some are even designed specifically for families with children. Read exactly what your destination means when they say “all inclusive” (some things that you might expect to be part of the package could be missing altogether).
  • Cruises: As long as no one gets sea sick, a cruise may be the perfect choice. Cruise lines have game rooms, swimming pools, slides, specially designed kids activities when you want an hour alone, and much more. Think of it as a mix between a theme park and a hotel.
  • Family Interests: Is there an activity that your family loves? Maybe you are foodies\, for example Take everyone to an area known for food diversity or one hosting a food festival.
  • Hot and Cold: From the beaches to the slopes you have tons of options in preferred weather depending on your season for travel.
  • Landmarks & Cities: The world is filled with amazing sights. Older children appreciate things like the Eiffel Tower, Grand Canyon, New York City, and Chicago more than older ones.

Travel Tip:
If your children are old enough, get their opinion. Maybe even take a family vote. This gets them involved from the outset.

How to Travel Long Distances with Kids:

Long distant travel offers parents a few more potential pot holes than short term jaunts.

By car, plane or train, here are some tips for keeping your children happy and your stress levels to a minimum:

  • Comfort: A favorite stuffed animal or blanket along with a pillow go a long way. Also dress your child for the time on the road so they’re not constantly tugging at shirts or pants. Note: it never hurts to have a back up set of clothing handy for spills or accidents.
  • Entertainment: Portable games of any sort, maybe a DVD player, coloring books, crayons, stories, tablets-technology offers us a lot of variety here (just remember your charger).
  • Layover Lounging: When feasible give children times between long stretches where they can walk, eat, window shop, or people watch. This is good for you too!
  • Sleep-time Travel: If you can get children into a car or plane around the same time they would normally be sleeping, you’ve taken a lot of hassle for your journey with little fuss.
  • Snacks: Not every way-station will have the kind of snacks your kids like. Pack a bunch of them, avoiding anything that can melt or items disallowed on an airplane.

By the way, these recommendations apply to adults too!

How to Travel with your Kids when you have no Money

For the budget minded family, the choices of where you take your children shift a little.

Maybe you won’t travel as far, use a train or bus instead of an airplane, stay at less expensive establishments, etc. Now, I will warn you that when you start using a search engine for “cheap vacations” you will be overwhelmed.

So, let’s start with some basics.

Travel during off season to ANY destination saves money. You won’t get the best weather, and some points of interest may be closed. Nonetheless the savings can be phenomenal.

Also, always book as early as possible adding travel insurance just in case. Early bookings are also typically cheaper, and travel insurance covers you for unexpected circumstances that could come up before you go, or while on the road.

Various websites will send you information on package deals and fare alerts if you provide them with the area(s) in which you have most interest and sign up for their newsletters. Why not let those services save you time? When you get a notification you can compare it to other ones at your leisure.

Start saving today. If you know you want to go somewhere with your child in a year or even two, make a nest egg for that adventure. I recommend an app called YNAB (You Need a Budget) – it’s helped me save for tons of stuff. Note: that’s an affiliate link, which helps me get free YNAB time if you purchase a subscription!

Bear in mind that the cost of travel will likely go up a bit over time. Add a little bumper room to that budget.

Travel Tip:
During your saving period, use credit cards that offer points toward travel, be it “getting there” or lodging. Those add up to great discounts, and it’s money you’d be spending anyway.

One other way to stay on budget? Use cash-based transactions.

If you use debit cards, prepaid gift cards, or cash throughout your planning and travel this is a great way to stay on budget. You will know right away when funds are running short or gone. By comparison you might not keep track of purchases with a credit card until you receive that heart-attack sized bill.

In fact, using credit cards has been shown to increase the amount that you tend to spend!

Look for places that kids eat for free deals or other similar benefits for your kids. Food gets pretty expensive. So, hotels or parks that have special discounts should be on your targeted list.

How to Rent a Large Van to Travel with Kids

So you’ve decided a road trip is in order, but really want space for that jaunt. How do you rent a large van for this vacation?

Well, first of all you need a head count. All rental places note each van’s capacity on the information page.

Think about luggage in this equation too. That takes up space even if you have a roof rack. You can find vans suited for up to 15 people.

Second, consider the van’s features. Do you want one with heated seats for a wintry destination? How about bike racks if you plan on hitting the trails? Maybe television screens in the back of seats or dvd overhead players for entertainment?

Tip: a traditional car rental company is better equipped to handle the needs of a family than companies that have transport vans (moving trucks).

Now it’s time for comparing rental companies. Of course, price is always part of the equation but what does that cover? How many miles can you go before incurring more fees, for example? What type of insurance exists on the van and what do you have to buy yourself? When do you have to return the van, and is there a fee for being late? Compare like for like on each point.

BTW, purchasing extra insurance for long jaunts is always a good idea, but check your credit card benefits to see if this is covered already!

Once you find the company and van you want book as soon as possible. Some sizes go very quickly especially around holidays.

How to Sign a Document to Travel with Kids

When traveling internationally, you need to know the documents you need so that your time at inspection. I can’t stress this enough – messing this up could derail the whole vacation!

As it is, those lines can move slowly, making it hard to keep fidgety children happy. So take the time to learn about what you need and order it WELL AHEAD of time so you’re not sweating delivery at the last minute. Passports, for example, take up to 6 weeks depending on the time of year.

Speaking of passports all children traveling internationally should have a passport. It is, perhaps, the best document you can have while traveling and you can renew it if necessary (initially it lasts for 5 years). It is official proof of citizenship.

While you can take a birth certificate in some cases, you do not want to risk losing that. Note that there is a fee for a passport, and both parents or guardians must approve the application.

Travel Tip:
If you want to carry birth certificate(s), get notarized copies and leave the original safely at home.

If you are going on vacation without your partner or significant parental unit, you will also need a consent form from that person. This is even more important when you go on the toad with a child who is not your own.

In this case, both parents or guardians must sign the Child Travel Consent. This form includes things like:

  • Contact information for the child
  • Contact information for the parents/guardians
  • The planned travel arrangements (who will be present at different stages of the journey like a chaperon or a guide.
  • The Child’s destination(s)
  • Proof of your relationship to the child (court orders, adoption papers, death certificate)

Here’s one example consent form.

Get this document notarized if you haven’t received something more formal from an agency. Ask your travel agent, the airlines, the cruise line, and look at the country to which you are traveling for their requirements.

If you go to websites looking for info, you’re looking for something like “Visa Requirements” and “Entrance and Exit Requirements”. The US State Department of International Travel can be a fantastic resource.

Alternatively you can reach out to the U.S. Customs & Border Protection.

Once you get all your documents together, keep them safe.

You want to have your child carry emergency contact information with them at all times and a COPY of consent forms (if applicable), itinerary, and passport. Parents/guardians should also have this with them (along with a recent photograph) particularly on tours, in crowded locations, etc.

It’s easy for kids to wander off. Avoid carrying originals, except for when boarding planes or going through customs.

What’s a Good Book on How to Travel with Kids for a Year

Like everything else in travel, different people have unique opinions on this topic.

One book that I found that seems to fit the bill is Jumping Out of Mainstream: An American Family’s Year Abroad by Caroline DePalatis. The author explores immersing your family for a year in different spaces and places. Keynotes include how to balance adventure vs. being homesick and the mundane and items of mystery.

Bonus: Some of the proceeds from the book go toward supporting education and libraries in under-served parts of the world.

Option two, Let’s Leave the Country: A Guide to your Family Year Abroad by Jacqueline Jannotta. You can expect down-to-earth information about schooling (if applicable), alternative financing, dealing with language barriers, and immersing your family in a different setting for new perspectives and inspiration.

Other Family Travel Fundamentals

There are a lot of moving parts in planning a family-friendly vacation. Here are just a few more to pack in your suitcase:

  • Pace yourself. Leave time for the unexpected, and don’t squeeze so much into one day that everyone ends up cranky and overwhelmed.
  • Minimize your packing: You cannot pack the whole house. You only get one carry on by plane per person (for absolute necessities). The rest of your bags go through luggage routes. After you pick up that luggage you have to wrangle it AND the kids effectively. If you forget something, you can and will find it somewhere at your destination.
  • The joys of pre-booking: You can pre-book lodging, restaurants, attractions, private transportation, and tours ahead of time. Just make sure you know the cancellation policies if something else comes up.
  • Keep the kids in the loop: Older children don’t like to guess about all the whispers and announcement. Let them know honestly what to expect when it comes to delays or other problems. There is a level of comfort in knowing what’s going on.
  • Ask about child discounts (or daily specials). This can save you money. Don’t be shy. It may not be clearly advertised, but many places have such offerings. Take my mom’s advice: the worst anyone can say is “no” but you don’t know that until you ask.
  • Share child watch responsibilities: The adults in a travel group should take turns watching the kids while others are shopping for souvenirs, getting tickets, or any other activity where you have to focus (and turn your back).
  • Have copies of emergency information on your cell phone and that of your child if they have one.
  • Remember to carry necessary medicines along with other items you might need like antacids, allergy formulas, and aspirin. You don’t want to be hunting for a handy pharmacy when someone feels sick.

Travel Tip:
When carrying prescriptions, use the original packaging. This makes getting a refill much easier. It also makes searches during boarder crossing less stressful. Also, some places might require additional paperwork for your medication, particularly controlled substances.

  • Should special needs arise, find a translator! Unless you are fluent in a regional language communicating information about things like “gluten-free” foods can be nearly impossible. Alternatively you can make cards in regional language(s) that explain dietary requirements and food allergies before you go by using online translations.
  • Click it!: Kids who are old enough to spot and shoot can take pictures. These become part of your memories, and keeps them on their toes for “neat” things.
  • Bring gum or a bottle on the plane for popping ears. Babies in particular can’t equalize their ears, but sipping on a bottle helps.

Last, but not least, make time to rest.

Take naps!

Hang out by a pool. Your vacation with children doesn’t need to be jam packed 24-7 for it to be enjoyable. Your kids need that downtime too.

Have any other tips? Please leave them in the comments below?

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