The amount of advice for traveling with kids can be overwhelming. But like most of us grown-ups, children often become good travelers through a lucky mix of nature and nurture: Some kids are flexible, some crave a routine, and some are just completely thrown off kilter by the travails of delayed planes, any change in schedule, and jet lag.
Nonetheless, here are five ways to make the time away from home easier for kids — and adults.
Don’t overload your itinerary, but let everyone to pick an activity.
If you are heading to Paris for the first time, it can be tempting to put the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Musèe D’ Orsay, and Michelin-starred restaurants among the many musts on your list, even with little ones in tow. “Packing an itinerary with insane amounts of activity, or booking reservations at restaurants that won’t make you feel comfortable with children is a common pitfall,” said Biba Milioto, a writer and postpartum doula based in Brooklyn, New York, who travels frequently with her two children, ages 3 and 5. “What we do is basically try to approximate our normal life at home, but with a different — hopefully more beautiful! — backdrop.” On my family’s own recent trip to Paris, with that advice in mind, we did one bigger excursion a day, but left plenty of time for pony rides in the Luxembourg Gardens, and a trip to the adventure park Jardin d’Acclimatation, both recommended by a friend who lived there (and given the thumbs up by my son), while carving out solo time each day for my own activities: a run by the Seine one day, an hour to read in a cafe on the Left Bank on another.
It’s also important to know your child’s personality — they aren’t going to be a different character on the road, or at least don’t count on it. “Super calm kids, who are quite shy and reserved, aren’t going to become gregarious party animals just because you’re traveling,” Milioto said. “And vice versa — those crazy rambunctious kiddos are not going to suddenly become pillars of decorum at the Sistine Chapel.”
Drop some rules and allow everyone more freedom.
Allowing my 7-year-old to use his iPad as much as he wants on a trans-Atlantic flight or during a bout of jet lag can make me feel guilty at times, but as Henley Vazquez, the chief executive and co-founder of Passported (an online travel company that specializes in luxury family travel), as well as a mom of three (including a newborn), said: “Loosen up. Sure, at home we all limit screen time and sweets and all that other stuff that we know isn’t great for our kids. When you’re traveling, let it go. Eat ice cream every day, let the kids YouTube for an extra hour in the morning so you can drink coffee in bed, allow yourself to relax and not enforce all the rules you keep while you’re at home.” Although it can be hard to believe that little ones can return to the regulated world of home, if you are clear that things will go back to normal after the trip ends, kids can enjoy vacation as a time to be a little more unsupervised, and they can understand, just like adults, that holiday rules are different.
Be clear about who is responsible for which bag (and then be prepared to carry everything yourself).
Kudos to the parents who have organized each child to carry on his or her own bag and to not lose anything en route, or on the plane. Especially on red-eyes, when we are half asleep, stuffed animals, iPads and favorite sweatshirts have all been left behind. We find that it is best if there is one bigger trolley bag with perhaps a smaller bag for our son’s toys and activities, and we make sure we have repacked everything an hour or so before landing. Ruth Coady, a London-based film executive and mother of two young boys who travel to her home in Australia frequently, is firm that until her sons are really ready to be accountable for their own roll-on, they each get only a small knapsack, with a few additional things they want or need going in her bag. “Otherwise, I end up carrying everything and everyone,” she said. “Keep it simple. Pack a small ziplock bag of Legos or some smaller toys, a change of clothes, and dry snacks.”
Don’t change your sleeping setup too drastically, but think about what type of accommodation will best suit your family.
Hotel rooms and resorts can be a great deal of fun, but everyone sharing a room can prove distracting at bedtime, and extra costs can mount up quickly if there is a minibar or room service. Many families instead turn to apartment-rental or swap services like Airbnb, One Fine Stay, or the children-oriented Kid & Coe. An extra room is always a plus so you don’t have to go to bed at the same time, and having your own kitchen for early risers or fussy eaters is great, too.
That being said, if you love hotels and don’t want to change that habit, plenty of parents continue to book them. “We strive to be the people who don’t sheepishly exit the hotel scene just because they have three small kids,” said Katherine Wheelock, a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and mother of three children, all under 7 years old. “We love hotels and don’t need a kids’ club, just a place that is good for families.” Online travel sites like Mr. & Mrs. Smith have a list of kid-friendly properties, while some are completely family-focused like Ciao Bambino.
“At the end of the day, if families can’t fit comfortably into room configurations, it doesn’t matter how convenient a hotel is or how many cute treats they have for children, it doesn’t work and ultimately this is the most important factor,” said Amie O’Shaughnessy, the founder of Ciao Bambino, a family travel planning site. “All of this said, families with just one child this age can usually fit into a single room if cost is a factor,” she said, referring to children under the age of 10. “One of the tricks families use in warm destinations is to have a room with a balcony so the parents have a place to go after kids go to sleep (if they don’t have a suite).”
Figure out child care in advance (family or otherwise).
Setting up child care away from home is personal, but it came to mind recently when a new friend confessed that despite her mother’s offer to come to Italy to help with her 3-year-old, she decided to hire a paid caregiver instead. “My mom drives me crazy at home,” confessed a friend who preferred to remain unnamed. “I know that in order to take a vacation from frustrating family dynamics, I need a break from family, too.”
For every grandparent who might add to travel tension, there is, of course, the complete opposite — the one who makes everything smoother and easier and provides endless help without instilling any guilt.
If you have friends or acquaintances or even business associates with kids in the places where you’re traveling, asking them to recommend child care help can be a good bet. Local babysitters will have the best insider knowledge, from the most child-friendly parks to the most satisfying ice cream shops.