The art of travel with young children

The following post is by contributor Catherine Way of Indirect Observations and originally appeared in June of 2010.

The first time I took a big trip with my son, then two years old, I was looking forward to a break from the mundane, a chance to have some time to myself and the opportunity to have a few new adventures.  After all, that is what holidays had been about before I had children.  But that expectation nearly spoiled my holiday.

I found myself upset at my child for just being a child. I worried when he missed naps or didn’t sleep at night.  I worried about disturbing other people on the plane or in the next hotel room when he wouldn’t stop crying.  I worried when he wasn’t enjoying what were doing.  And I got upset that I didn’t have time to sit and read my book or go and see what I wanted to see.

As I got more and more stressed I realised I was ruining my holiday. I was missing my son’s excitement at new experiences and I wasn’t enjoying the time I did get to myself or the new sights and experiences.  Trying to make the holiday fit my expectations was making things harder for me.

So, I let go of my expectations of how the holiday should be and started to enjoy it just the way it was.  And I found my son went to sleep more easily, my husband was less grumpy and I was enjoying myself. Nowadays, after many big and small trips with my children, I find it easier to relax and enjoy the holiday.

Here’s what helps me to get in the right mindset when I’m travelling with my children …

Plan Before You Leave

Before your holiday, think about what might cause difficulties while you are away and arm yourself with tools and information to help you deal with those problems.

For example, how will you entertain your child on the plane or in the car?  What are some attractions your children might want to visit?  What do you need to pack?

One caution though, avoid planning a strict itinerary, you need to be flexible and able to change plans when travelling with children.

If you’d like some advice about planning from a veteran at travelling with children I recommend Delicious Baby.  At the website, there are tips about everything from what to pack to dealing with jetlag.

Relax, or Put Aside, Your Routines

Your child is sleepy, but it is not nap time.  Let them sleep.  Now’s your chance for some down time.  Routines suit home life.  When you’re travelling and everything is changing you need flexibility, not routines.  I usually try to stick to a guideline of keeping 3 hours between a nap and when you want your child to go to bed for the night and leave it at that.

When something goes wrong, do what needs to be done and forget it. Whilst you are travelling there will be challenging moments. Imagine, your child won’t stop crying on the plane.  You’re the person everyone is cursing.  But thinking about that is not going to help you calm your child.  It is probably going to make you tense and it will take longer to calm your child.

So, expect that things will go wrong but don’t focus on short term difficulties that come up. They won’t be what you remember about your holiday.

Find the Adventure

Let your child be the guide on your travels.  I don’t mean only do what your child will enjoy, but I do mean work with your child’s mood.  Let them set the pace. If you’re driving and your child wants to stop, then stop.  You might find a hidden gem by stopping somewhere you otherwise would have driven past.

One of my best travel memories was made when we had to stop because my son wouldn’t stop crying.  We saw a little farm shop and stopped, just in time for my son to give the lambs a bottle of milk.

Try the activities and visit the places that will entertain your children.  It will give you a whole new perspective on the place you are visiting.  And these are often the places to meet other parents – travellers or locals – who can further enrich your experience of the place you are visiting.

The thought of travelling with young children can be daunting.  But it can also be a great adventure with your children helping to open your eyes to new experiences.   Even the airport is an adventure for young children. Children are experts at being joyful and living in the moment, so follow their lead.

Happy travelling!

What are your tips for travelling with young children?  What things have made trips with your children memorable?


About Catherine

Catherine Way is mum to two boys living in North Australia. They read lots, run lots, love to learn new things and are good at finding fun and mischief. Catherine blogs about her family adventures and passion for lifelong learning at Indirect Observations.

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  1. We went on an overseas trip a couple of years ago with our (then) five kids and everyone said we were mad… leave the kids at home and spend six weeks in Europe as a couple. G.A.S.P. we had so much fun with our kids, of course there were insane moments when we thought – we will never do this again… but they past fast and we had such a great time seeing the world through their eyes. We saw so many things we would never had seen if we were on our own… we lingered longer in some places, we whizzed through others… we were all in bed by 8pm every night!!! And we got home totally rested. Our best preparation was getting fit and practicing lots of walks together… we would have been pretty miserable if we didn’t have the energy to get around.
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..Saturday Spot: The Autumn Table and Se7en Million Autumn Crafts… =-.

  2. Living in the moment, accepting that things *will* go wrong but they are just part of the adventure, and allowing for flexibility – great tips! And you’re right: things will go wrong, but that isn’t going to be what you or your kids remember if you don’t make a big deal about it and just relax (wish I had that advice on our first family vacation 8 years ago!)

    “… the places to meet other parents – travellers or locals – who can further enrich your experience of the place you are visiting.” That makes such good sense! Who better to know the local area and good things for kids? I’m going to make an effort to chat up more parents on our next vacation 🙂

    .-= Kara Fleck´s last blog ..At the Craft Table with Rae Grant: Forever Blowing Bubbles =-.

  3. We’ve done a lot of travelling with our kids – since each was an infant. I’ve found that one key to success is to let my older daughter have her own backpack – which we pack together – with some fun snacks and new and some old activities (I even wrap up a few new little things). Then, when we are in an airport, in a restaurant and there is some boredom whining coming on, I just tell her to dig into her bag! She loves that she has her stash.

  4. There are some great tips here. When the kids get old enough, include them in the planning process. This year when we visited Hawaii, I let my 5 year old pick a couple of places he wanted to visit. That way he was excited and invested in our trip!

  5. What great tips you are all sharing. Travelling with kids is fun – writing this article and now reading all your tips, I’m keen to start planning our next trip.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..We Play – mobilo =-.

  6. Christine says:

    I like this post. We just finished a road trip over memorial day that had every manner of driving catastrophe short of a wreck, but the kids really rallied and we learned to let go of a lot. Our toddler refused to try any foods he hadn’t seen before or didn’t love while away from home. So we eventually just fed him whatever he would eat and said, oh, well! The baby did well too, even when stuck in a multi hour long 27 mile backup. I was a wreck, but they managed. It got a lot easier when I stopped wanting to cry and started to laugh. Good lesson for me!

    Now we’re about to head on a plane trip. We’ve carefully orchestrated a direct flight followed by a <2hr car ride. Hopefully it will go well. Even if they cry on the plane! (And, BTW, I have been the person with the screaming baby on the delayed, over heated flight. It wasn't fun. But you know what? I had a lot of other passengers, who could see I was worried and doing everything I could, reassure me that it was fine. They said they'd been there. So see, not everyone is even cursing you. Just a few of those people who haven't had kids, or don't remember being one.)

    • We just spent 6 weeks in Europe and my little one basically lived on chips. Luckily she’s still breastfeeding so I wasn’t worried, but letting it go and just accepting it was temporary and wouldn’t kill her was important.
      .-= Deb´s last blog ..13 Things to Do With a Stick =-.

  7. We’re taking our first vacation this year with young children (3 & 1). One thing we decided to do was to rent a house for a week instead of staying in a hotel. We can put the kids to bed at their normal time and still have the luxury of adult time after they go to bed. We’re also planning a combo of action-packed & low-key activities and allowing plenty of time to do whatever strikes our fancy that day. I hate to plan too much on vacations!
    .-= Terri´s last blog ..Wednesday Escape… =-.

  8. We are currently on our 2 month vacation with our 9 month old visiting family in Hawaii. The most essential items that we packed was his blankie (a pashmina shawl we’v had since he was an infant)- it is soft, smells like home, and has brought him a great amount of comfort during those difficult times. It helped soothe him during the looooooong airplane trip and helps him fall asleep at night. And, it has been used as a sun shade over the stroller and as a “nursing cape” to give us some privacy when nursing in public places. We’ve even used it as an impromptu picnic blanket on the lawn of a church when he just couldn’t wait one more second for lunch!!!

  9. We travel a lot because we live interstate, there are some great tips here that I absolutely agree with. The other thing we do is have a map or atlas so we can mark in all the places we’ve been and draw the routes. The girls love it, and it’s a great way to remember the trip later when we look at it.
    .-= Deb´s last blog ..Watching Peas Sprout =-.

  10. This brings back memories, Catherine! When we first started caravanning with our kids I tried to keep their bedtime routines the same as at home. All the while other kids were tearing around outside having a great time. There was no way my kids were going to sleep! Now I let them set schedule. After first night excitement, they generally are asleep not long after dark and up at dawn.
    .-= Leanne´s last blog ..Last minute ideas for the long weekend =-.

  11. I’m glad it’s not just me who started out by being a bit stressed by travelling with kids. I’m loving everyone’s stories.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Australia With Kids – Tasmania =-.

  12. Great tips! We’ve travelled a fair amount with our now 2.5 year old. The most memorable being when I flew with him on my own from Chicago to our new home in Frankfurt, Germany when he was just 9 months old. People still look at me as though I’m crazy when we take trips from our home in Germany to visit my parents in England, but our son adores traveling and is very good. I think the more you do it, the better kids are with it.
    .-= Satakieli´s last blog ..Spinach & Basil Pesto =-.

  13. I love this article! I travel with my 5 all the time. we live in a RURAL town, less than 100 people within 12 miles. 12 miles is the nearest gas station and 2 hours to a real grocery store! My children are all very young and yet seasoned travelers. I think it helps to start them while they are young. You can’t take kids who have never left the 5 mile radius around their home and throw them in a car or a plane for hours on end. Like the woman mentioned in the beginning, her family walked together to get used to it, basically “training” themselves. You have to do the same with road trips. If you didn’t start when they were younger then start now, even if you don’t have a vacay planned in the near future. start with 1-2 hour drives to see how it goes. and add time and distance as you see fit so they can get used to it. This requires a lot of planning ahead but in the end is so worth it and you will have lots of little fun filled trips to remember too. Also, a very important thing to remember, young children will rarely go more than 2 hours without a stop. So plan on them. make stops every 2 hours or so for about 30 minutes, find a park or scenic lookout, whatever so you all have somewhere safe to stretch. Plan on any trip with children taking more than it would by yourself. That helps cut a huge amount of stress when you don’t have a tight schedule to keep also.

  14. I love that picture of the lego man on the beach! I may have to steal your idea.

  15. Letting go of all expectations and going with the flow is key. I found this really easy to do with my children but only because I have been travelling for years myself so I knew this is the best way for anybody to travel.

    I love involving my daughter in the planning and getting her so excited about our travels. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she is so well behaved whenever we travel.

    Spend your time letting go and appreciating getting the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a child again and rediscovering what is so wonderful about it.
    Caz Makepeace´s latest post: Sydney Harbour cruises with Sydney Sea Cruises

  16. “Trying to make the holiday fit my expectations was making things harder for me.” Exactly. The best way for me to make vacations enjoyable is to let go of my expectations.
    Steph´s latest post: An Open Letter to Introverts in the Church

  17. I relate to letting go of those expectations. When I tool my then 3 year old daughter on a three week trip to visit our family on the East Coast, I had visions of renting a car and driving to do fun things between family visits. It was clear to me within a day of being there that was not going to make for a good time for us. I switched to a train trip to get from NJ to DC and then a plane to get us up to Boston and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I also did a lot of managing well-meaning family who had an over-whelming amount of things we could go do together, when my girl was so happy being at their homes and going for walks around their neighborhoods. As the vacation went by, we did less and less which was the right choice for both of us.
    Susan@improvamama´s latest post: Playful Links – 5/21/12

  18. i let my son pick out what clothes to bring along with 3 books and 3 toys so he is surrounded by the familiar.

  19. Thanks for the advice! I will be travelling soon with my 2yr old so this post definitely comes in handy 🙂
    Mackenzie´s latest post: Goals For September

  20. Our daughter, now 6, is from Russia, so our initiation as a family was a 28-hour train-bus-plane odyssey. It was brutal but we’ve kept on traveling. The other day, as we pulled into our garage I reminded her to make she got all of her stuff and she chimed in, “And be sure to check the seat pocket in front of her.” Anyway, we’ve learned with her that while we can set aside our at-home routines, it’s vital that we still keep her sleeping and eating as priorities. She’s a happy adventurer as long as she’s fed and rested, but if not, she’s miserable and so is everyone within a 20-yard radius. She’s a dawn riser, always, so matter how wonderful an evening activity might look, if it will keep her up past 9, we just have to skip it. I have learned not to fret when she’s legitimately cranky on a long flight, but I do feel badly when she’s pitching a fit on the train because I’ve let her get too sleepy or hungry, if I could have prevented it. Doing my best to keep her fed and rested is, I feel, what I can do to help keep the traveling experience pleasant and fun for all of us.

  21. After having just survived two 8 hour flights with my 12 month old, I can vouch for a pack of colored file labels (or any stickers, actually). I bought them for less than $1.50 and they kept her entertained for a surprisingly long time. They stuck to her and to everything she could get her hands on and were easy to clean up!


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