I read an article recently about “how miserable” it was to travel with children. The advice provided was that to ease the financial burden and stress of traveling with small children, it’s best to wait until they are 8 or 9 to go anywhere worth traveling to. I agree and disagree with this statement. Yes, it can be miserable traveling with a little one, but why should I put off experiencing other cultures because of my child’s age? Why should my child live in a bubble when he has the opportunity to be out absorbing new sights, smells, tastes, and expose his little brain to a myriad of new neuron-connecting, culturally expanding experiences? Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge supporter of parenting diversity and assume every parent does what works best for them and what they feel is best for their child. However, I can’t get on board with “waiting to travel”. I can’t get on board with waiting for anything. I’ve experienced too much loss in my life and I believe that every second I am alive and healthy on this planet provides me with an opportunity to explore. Kid-in-tow, or not.
In our travels with a little one we have definitely had some rough patches, but I would never suggest to anyone to avoid it all together. My suggestion is: if you choose to travel with your child(ren), be aware that each age has its own obstacles which can be overcome, or at least managed, with some preparation and patience. I’ve listed a few tips below from my experiences.
Newborns and Babies
In retrospect, traveling with a newborn was the easiest. He fit snuggly against me in his carrier, his food was stored in my chest, and diapers and wipes could be found in most any town (or washed for the very brief time we did cloth). He slept a lot of the time and we could move freely through cities with minimal luggage. My advice:
- Leave the stroller at home and invest in a comfortable carrier. We preferred the ease of the Ergo. It was the most comfortable and the easiest to use of my three.(I had an Ergo, Maya Wrap, and Moby). I also suggest getting a cover like this for when visiting colder climates. I can’t tell you how many comments and “oohs!” and “ahhs!” I got when wearing this in Ireland and Scotland and how thankful I was during almost any winter outing in Europe. It became like a second skin and kept us warm, protected from wind, and I was still able to reach through to touch his skin and check if he needed a change.
- Invest in a sturdy backpack with easy-access pockets. Look for one with two outside drink pockets and a variety of zippered areas for quick grabs of burp cloths and diapering needs.
- In that backpack, store a well-padded, waterproof changing kit. We used this one and it saved us when we had a blow-out and had to change my son on the dirty, hard bank of the Thames in England. It’s easily wiped down with anti-bacterial wipes which I suggest you carry until your kid moves out of the house.
- Bring a comfy playmat that folds up small. Anything with a little mirror, a few things that make sounds…something colorful and engaging to get that tummy-time in. Something like this.
- For flights – most folks know this, but just in case, nurse at take off and landing to prevent ear discomfort.
Once we hit the crawling/walking phase, it became more challenging. He wanted to crawl all over dirty airports, train stations, and city streets touching and putting everything in his mouth (blech!). He required more entertainment and ate solids so changing clothes was a seemingly never-ending task. Our luggage increased by a LOT, but we also had the stroller which made life easier when carrying all of that “stuff”.
- Map out the transit areas ahead of time! Navigating a new city with a stroller, suitcase, etc.…is no fun if you get off on a stop that has no elevator. We learned some difficult lessons in Barcelona where the maze of underground stairs and tunnels became quite overwhelming with our overly prepared luggage situation. Also, get a stroller with GOOD tires that can handle cobblestones and uneven surfaces.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE. Pack less. I know, it’s hard with a little one, but it can be done if you find a way to do laundry mid-stay and purchase diapers/wipes/food in the country you are visiting. It may cost a bit more, but you’ll have less to lug around which is always important when traveling. We had fun going into local grocery stores and checking out the local organic/bio baby food. Did you know they sell organic Bangers and Mash squeeze-pouches in Ireland? So cool!
- Instead of bringing toys, utilize the straws, wrappers, and drink lids from cafes and have your child practice fine motor skills trying to insert the straw and connect the lids. Hide small, new (something they have never played with) items and take them out when fussiness ensues. Any type of “new” wooden hand puzzle or a simple car can distract and engage your baby.
The toddler phase was probably the most difficult, especially during the potty-training era. The good thing is that he could easily be impressed with a “choo choo” or a plane which made getting to the destination an exciting experience, so long as the flight was 2 hours or less. For longer flights we had to get creative. For long drives, we automatically add an additional two hours to the estimated time for exercise stops and pee breaks.
- Some parents may not agree with this next method, but we ended up purchasing a Leap Pad for my son and it was a game changer. We only brought it out when we failed to keep him occupied on longer flights, or when we wanted to actually eat our food at a restaurant and talk about navigating our current trip. The Leap Pad is educational and the games we purchased taught letters, numbers, colors, and had him singing along. To that point, make sure the device you get has a slot for headphones. You and the people who surround you will thank me.
- Find playgrounds. Barcelona is teeming with them, Rome is barren. Pick your cities and your activities and check to see where the local playgrounds are. It will help when planning the day and navigating around naptime.
- Make everything a game, especially when waiting on a plane, train, in line, for food, you get it. “Can you find everything purple on this plane? How about white? Can you find me something that is a circle? Ok, now what about a square?” Make up games and play “I spy with my little eye” and you’ll create some engaging distractions for long waits. I’ve tried “let’s play the quiet game” with my son, but it’s never worked.
- Get a little roller bag that is “all theirs”. Fill it with snacks, diapers/toys, and activities. My son has carried his “Bob bag” all over Europe and America and the best part, he wants to carry all his own stuff “by myself!” which reduces our load as parents. This was the best 7 euro I’ve ever spent.
I’m in the thick of this age, and preschool travel is easily my favorite. The way his eyes light up and his happy, little jaw drops when he sees new things, or the way he does a little dance and giggle when he sees a fun ride have been burned into my brain. We can psych him up for nearly anything at this age and I am having so much fun exploring the world with him. We do nature scavenger hunts in the woods, let him get messy as can be during camping trips (hose ‘em off!), talk about the mechanics of the trains and planes we get on and how they work, try new foods by singing the “oh oh oh oh oh try everythiiiing!” song from the movie Zootopia (thanks for that, by the way), and of course, use bribery when necessary. Playgrounds, ice cream, candy, and toy shops are located all over the world and sometimes, you gotta use a little bribery to make the day run smoother for everyone.
- Activity books are excellent at this age. My son loves to do the workbook pages and that can occupy him for quite some time. You can bring some with you, or find them at many convenience stores or local book stores for a couple of euro/bucks/lira/depending where you are.
- I’m about to mention technology again, which is funny to me now because when my son was in utero I swore he wouldn’t have one of those “games” and would have zero screen time (which, to our credit, he did his first 18 mos of his life). Oh my, the silly things I said. Truth is, we live in an electronic and digital era and It’s important he know these devices, but also that a healthy balance is maintained with usage. We ended up dedicating my husband’s old, cracked iPad as my son’s. He loves books, but lugging a bunch of books with you when you travel is not practical. On the iPad, we can load books, educational games, movies, and information about the places we are going to on one handy device. We purchased a really sturdy case for it (which I recommend if going this route) and bring it along. It’s been a fantastic repurpose.
- Scavenger hunts are a great way to learn about nature, or the area you are traveling in. I mention scavenger hunts a lot because it’s such a malleable game. You can make it any which way you please (I like using local field guides) and who doesn’t love to play games where there is a chance to win something cool at the end?
That’s all I have for newborn – preschool ages. My son is only three and a half so we have just started the preschool phase. For little kids in general, I can suggest the below:
- If traveling to a city, try to stay near the city center. Location is key, especially when trying to navigate the day around naptimes, or running home to clean up after an accident which most likely will happen, one day.
- Naptimes and sleep schedules are crucial, at least in for my kid. We try not to plan much when on vacation, but I always navigate the day around sleep schedules. He stopped passing out in his stroller when he was about two, so we have had to plan to be in our room or somewhere sleep-worthy at the right time, or all hell breaks loose. A tired toddler is not something anyone should have to deal with. Especially me.
- Keep snacks in your purse! As a parent, you probably already know this. However, I can’t stress it enough, keep nuts, bars, oranges, etc., not only for the littles, but for the adults as well. If you add hungry + sleepy and let’s say you are in a small town in Mexico during siesta where everything is closed…just don’t ever be in that situation. Pack snacks.
- Pack the corkscrew! Seriously. There is a reason behind the name of my blog. If all else fails, wine can make hellish travel-with-kids a hell of a lot more tolerable. Always be prepared.