Expert Strategies for Surviving Travel With the Kiddos
A couple of years ago, my husband and I moved our family from Honduras to Australia. Although we were experienced international travelers, we considered the 16-hour flight to Sydney with kids to be the family travel equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. Before embarking on the journey, my husband and I reached out to our broad network of expatriate families on Facebook to ask for recommendations for iPad games to occupy our 3-year-old while our newborn slept.
My husband and I doubled over laughing after reading one woman’s answer: “Just give him books.” Books?! Now, we share our love of literature with both of our children on a daily basis, but this wasn’t our bedroom routine we were filling up. It was an entire day in a glorified tuna can with small children.
Within minutes others trolled the woman asking whether Proust or Dostoyevsky might be a better fit for our 3-year-old. Clearly, this wasn’t her audience (or she had never taken an extended flight with two children under three). I still look back on that exchange and smile. Books, ha! Yet, there was some wisdom hidden in her social media snarkiness. Some of the simplest things have occupied my children on our world travels. While most of them were not books, we didn’t need to chain them to the iPad either.
Our kids will be exploring country number 13 this year, and after countless hours keeping them engaged and (relatively!) quiet on planes, trains and automobiles, we have learned a thing or two. Here are some strategies and activities to keep your little ones busy as you make your way to your dream destination, grandma’s house or a medical appointment a few hours away.
Sleep and Coffee
We learned long ago that strategically messing with our kids’ sleep before travel was a terrible idea. Ever seen a kid on an apple juice sugar high, five time zones over, up at 2 a.m. in a tiny hotel room in Los Angeles? When the hotel desk called to ask us to quiet the party, my husband nearly lost it.
Circadian rhythms are powerful. All-nighters do NOT work for changing your child’s sleep schedule. Both my husband and I try hard to get a good night’s sleep before our family travels, knowing the next day we are going to need every ounce of patience and goodwill we can muster. And we are going to need every ounce of coffee that flight attendant has hiding in the back.
Spend Some Quality Time in the Dollar Aisle
When I embark on long-haul travel with my kids, I consider myself part parent, part magician. While I may not be pulling quarters out of my kids’ ears or rabbits out of hats, I am pulling “special surprises” out during mission critical moments throughout the trip.
The small surprises require some forethought, usually best pondered over a caffeinated drink the size of my head perusing the dollar aisle of my local Target (or equivalent when we are living overseas). It is in this cozy little corner of the store that I find coloring books, squishy sensory toys, and small arts and crafts kits that do not involve many parts.
Use Your Resources Wisely
Our kids have logged a lot of airline miles, and if we have learned anything in the process, it is to use our most precious tools sparingly (hello, iPad!) and to spread out our resources wisely.
Do our kids want to flip through the germ-filled magazine in the front seat pocket? Color on the barf bag? Review the safety pamphlet one more time (those lifejackets look so fun, mom!)? If the kids are occupied and engaged, we do not interrupt their flow. Ride that wave like Kelly Slater. We are all about anything that sucks up sweet travel minutes that doesn’t involve a screen.
Go Old School With Eye Spy and License Plate Games
Eye Spy is an oldie but a goodie. We have played this game countless times with our kids in the car and on planes. They love “spying” something we have to guess, and they have to practice using their descriptive words and forming specific questions in the process. We also cunningly take a long time to spy the obvious, which makes them feel like formidable opponents.
In a car, if you have older kids, the license plate game can also be a ton of fun. Who can spot the most states? Better yet, put together a Road Bingo game and print out the cards before you travel. All of these games encourage children to look up from their laps and pay attention to their surroundings and the world beyond their window — and they are basically free.
Stickers and Notebooks
If I ever write a travel memoir, I will seriously consider naming it “Stickers and Notebooks.” This dynamic duo has saved my sanity on so many trips, and the recipe is as simple as it sounds. Each child gets a large notebook and a page of stickers at a time (the adult doles the sticker pages out because receiving varying types of stickers is part of what keeps them entertained and interested).
Our only rule is the stickers must go in the notebook; we do not care how fast or slow they do it, or on what page, as long as said stickers do not end up on the tray table, their body or our face. Our children find the process of peeling off stickers (particularly those with unique shapes) so engrossing. This is a great calming activity with overstimulated kids.
What’s Your Kids’ Currency?
Every family has some tiny household item otherwise serving a practical purpose that takes on a new importance in the home. Our currency is Band-Aids. Seriously, they are like cigarettes in prison. My children love them, not just for their gaping wounds but also as tiny fashion accessories.
Ever heard of a “Band-Aid watch?” My son loved wearing a Band-Aid on his wrist so much he actually put one on specifically for his preschool picture. Make no mistake: Band-Aids do not floweth freely in our house. They are a controlled substance we use for actual medical purposes (shocking!), and, you guessed it, when we travel. We have a stash of Band-Aids in our carry-on to be called upon in the worst of times. A promise of a Band-Aid has gotten us through some hairy travel situations. Oh yeah, and we gladly let them struggle to part that oh so fine paper cover. Is it bribing? I prefer to think of it as spending my kids’ currency efficiently.
Take a Stroll
I have heard tall tales from days of yore when kids ran up and down plane aisles to their hearts desire. Unfortunately, those days of staring out the window at the clouds and mulling over existential questions while little Tommy terrorizes fellow passengers are long gone. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take strolls with our kids up and down the aisles to give them a stretch and free them from the womb-like confines of economy.
Also, high five to giving ourselves a break from urging our brood to stop kicking the seat in front of them for the millionth time. If I am going to the trouble of extricating my kid from our micro-plot of plane land littered with wrappers and half-eaten pudding cups, I try to make a trip out of it and burn a few minutes. Stretching exercises around the plane parklands near the bathroom are mostly to entertain but to also ensure we keep the blood flowing.
The Moveable Feast
Food is not just food; like everything else, it’s a tool! When that single serving arrives, we stop the Sticker-mania, iPad movie or whatever else is engaging them to fully focus on eating.
Have you ever tried to feed a toddler on a plane? Better question: Have you ever given a toddler one of those squeezy yogurts and turned around to go about your business? If you’re smiling while reading this, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Although our kids are independent eaters, we often find ourselves literally spoon-feeding them just to keep the mess contained.
The drawback of this approach is your own food will get cold in the process, but the benefit of your child eating what he/she needs is worth it. Remember: Big meals promise food comas and maybe, just maybe, a nap! And make sure you grab that dessert to dole out as a special treat when things get hairy again.
Podcasts and Audiobooks
We love podcasts in our family. Our son listens to “Brains On” and “Circle Round” on his long drive to school each morning, and there are so many more for all ages. Podcasts simultaneously entertain our children while not revving them up, a marriage made in heaven when they are stuck in a seat for multiple hours.
While our kids are too little to fully appreciate most audiobooks, others with older children have sworn by them for long road trips. One family friend even curates certain books to complement his itinerary and trip plan. He likes the idea that his kids will remember the trip when they remember the book and vice versa. I consider this #lifegoals.
Here’s the caveat, you won’t see us pull out the iPad until we absolutely need it. When do we need it? When they are restless and overtired in a seatbelt (airplane, car, tuk tuk, you name it) and all the other tools have failed us, we thank Steve Jobs and pull out the magic screen. It is really our last resort when we travel, and not because we have strong philosophical feelings about screen time, but because our kids start to spiral out if they have too much of it.
That being said, we always pack the trusty iPad (we will call upon you, dear friend!) and download a few puzzle apps, shows and movies ahead of time that we know our kids will love. We also pack comfortable kid-sized earphones.
Ditch the Party Favors and Be Attentive
You will notice that I do not recommend putting together precious party favors or advance apology letters for the people seated near my kids while we travel. Who has time for this? I absolutely do not believe in reinforcing the idea that people should feel sorry about traveling with their children. Children are the future after all.
That being said, I also totally get that most people don’t want to be seated next to the crying baby. Yes, it’s bad luck, but it’s also life (welcome to Planet Earth). Here’s my approach: I greet my seatmates warmly and reassure them that while I may not be able to keep my kids completely quiet, I will do everything in my power to be attentive to them during the flight.
Simply addressing the elephant in the room (and by elephant, I mean my tiny toddler daughter already throwing a tantrum about putting on her seatbelt) seems to put my fellow passengers at ease. Sometimes, people just want to know that you won’t be ordering up Bloody Marys, handing your kid “Dora the Explorer” on an iPad, strapping on the eye mask and reclining your seat while your “village” does the mid-flight parenting.
Wishing You Happy, Safe and Real Family Travel
I was pregnant with my first child when a friend advised me to travel with “ambition and enthusiasm” the first year of our future newborn’s life, as it would keep our world big while our routines “got small.” While I have embraced that approach, I think a good dose of practicality and planning are just as important as ambition and enthusiasm when traveling with kids.
For every mountaintop we have summited as a family of four, there have also been plenty below sea level moments. My Instagram feed is full of glamorous family travel photos balanced out with some funny and brutal outtakes, the result of fatigue, sickness, poor planning or bad weather. In other words, some things are just out of our control, and everyone has bad days.
Don’t beat yourself up, and remember that there is no such thing as stress-free travel with kids. We’ve worked hard on every one of our trips whether they went pretty smoothly or felt more like a tour through whine valley and tantrum town than a foreign country. All our travels have broadened our collective experiences and brought us closer together. Whether giving your child a glimpse of another country, another state or even the next town over, it is nearly always worth the effort. The more you do it the easier it gets.