I decided to write this blog post after seeing an unusually large number of friends, family, and colleagues asking for tips about traveling with small children on Facebook.
Here’s a tip: Don’t do it! Just kidding. I know you have to. It’s not fair to make dear old granny visit when you can quite easily pack six suitcases, three blankets, 14 binkies, a breast pump, four packs of gum, two toddlers, and a whiney husband into your cute Michael Kors carry-on bag.
The truth is that traveling with small children—by boat, plane, train, or car—can have its challenges. I mean, how many times as a parent have you been out somewhere and thought to yourself, “This would be so much easier without the kids!” But, if you’re like me, then you’re a glutton for punishment. I am always dragging my two girls to places near and far in the hopes of creating wonderful family memories … and I would say that once out of every eight times that actually happens!
Since becoming a parent eight years ago, I have taken more than 40 trips throughout the United States. The combinations have included one child/two parents, one child/one parent, two parents/two children, one parent/two children, and a partridge in a pear tree.
These quick tips will hopefully help my fellow masochists take the leap and decide to travel with their tiny human companions.
- Stroller vs. Baby Wearing vs. Car Seat vs. Too Many Options
Depending on the size and quantity of your offspring, you may be considering your options for traveling through the airport. What has worked best for me is to wear the baby. I have always been a fan of the Ergo Carrier. This dynamic carrier holds smaller children close to your chest or an older child on your back. The big selling point for wearing your baby in any carrier is it frees your hands to help older children with shoes, luggage, snacks, etc. Also, if you’re a nursing mom and baby is on your chest, you can easily nurse while on the go! Be sure to try your carrier out before heading to the airport. You want to make sure you are comfortable with how to put it on and take it off, and that you can do both by yourself if need be. If you feel more comfortable traveling with a stroller, you will need to ensure you have a luggage tag for it, as the airline will check it at the gate. Keep in mind that strollers often take a beating while being thrown in and out of the plane, so taking a less-expensive model is advisable. If something happens to it, you won’t be as heart broken, and your good stroller will be safe at home. If you have a double stroller, make sure you are comfortable opening and closing it, as well as putting it together (see tip #9 for my stroller story nightmare!).
Imagine this: When Eleanor was about 9 months old, we headed to St. Louis to visit some family. I should have known that when she fell asleep in the terminal as we waited to board that she was ill, but she was just so snuggly and sweet! About halfway through the flight, she perked up, made direct eye contact with me, and before I could even get the words “hi, sweet girl” out of my mouth, she projectile vomited about three buckets worth of breastmilk and organic sweet potatoes on me. I’m laughing now as I write this, but trust me, it was no laughing matter. I was, of course, seated near the window, with my husband in the middle, and a poor, unsuspecting stranger on the aisle. He kindly and quickly got up to give us some room. My husband, giving me a look of shock and horror, asked, “What can I do?” I told him I needed a minute to process and figure out what exactly the best plan was for the pool of vomit that was swishing around on my lap. Luckily, I packed my diaper bag to handle a situation just like this one, bringing us to tip #2.
2. Pack Light and Bring Everything
The key to successfully packing your carry-on is to include everything you need, but it must be easily accessible and not too heavy. Impossible, right? Wrong! Any mom who has dug through a diaper bag with a screaming child on her lap in a crammed center seat on an airplane can relate. The following items are my must-haves.
- Change of clothes (think ease of putting on/taking off, no buttons, etc.)
- Wipes (bring lots)
- Plastic grocery bag
- Zip lock bag(s)
- Lightweight blanket (that can double as a nursing cover)
- Small snacks sectioned off into smaller portions
- A sippy cup or bottle, depending on your child’s age
- Toys (see tip #4)
- Digital entertainment (see tip #6)
You want to pack items in sections, so when you are looking for something, it is easily accessible (e.g., all snacks together, all toys together). Use plastic bags to hold the items. That way, you can quickly find what you’re looking for. I also recommend the pacifier pouch. This is one of those things I laughed at pre-baby and then proceeded to purchase for every bag I owned. Again, just think of the circumstances in which you will take things in and out of your bag—in a small space with a small person on your lap.
When traveling with small children, you can never leave enough time to get to where you need to be. Because there are so many unknowns, you never want to feel pressed to make quick decisions. Think about trying to get out of the house in the morning. If someone decides they don’t want to wear shoes, it can throw your entire day askew! Never cut it close. Arriving early will save you stress in the end. Who cares if you have to check out the duty-free shop seven times? It’s better than missing your flight.
4. New (Cheap) Toys
This is my favorite tip on the list. Before I get on any flight, I always make time to stop at the dollar store sans children (if possible) and purchase about $30 in new toys—all cheap, all disposable, and nothing that will be missed if left on the airplane. That’s the key, people! You do not need the added stress of your child dropping her brand-new, organic, cotton tomato toy in the aisle, only for it to roll back 16 rows, never to be seen again. Can you tell that I’m writing from experience? The other part of this tip is to pack a bunch of those toys for your return flight. When kids start to get antsy, pull out another new toy that will hold their attention for an almost guaranteed eight minutes.
5. Take Off!
A big concern for parents of young children is how they will handle the cabin pressure change during take-off and landing. Of course, everyone has heard that chewing gum can help, but if you have ever seen my children with gum, it is not a pretty sight, as said gum rarely stays in their mouths for more than 36 seconds.
I have had great success with Dum Dums® lollipops. They are small, they distract my kids enough so they somewhat forget about their ears, and they are a sweet treat! For smaller children, a bottle, nursing, or a pacifier are great ways to release some of that ear pressure. Just remember that you need enough for the way up and down.
6. Digital Entertainment
If you are one of those awesome parents who has it together enough to not allow your children to watch TV, you need to let that plan go when you are on a trip. No one will judge you for allowing digital entertainment. In fact, they will likely judge you for NOT allowing it. The key here is preloading your iPad, Kindle, etc. with kid-friendly content. Not all airplanes are equipped with Wi-Fi, and most cars are not either. You will want a mix of new shows and oldies but goodies. I typically involve my girls (now 8 and 5) and ask them what they would like to watch. They can each pick two new downloads for the trip. Don’t forget headphones and chargers, and don’t forget to charge your devices.
7. Stop and Stretch
This is a great tip if you are taking a road trip. Very shortly after the girls and I became a family of three, we planned a trip to Martha’s Vineyard. It was a four-hour drive, followed by an hour-long ferry ride. I was anxious, as I had never taken a road trip like that without my husband. So, I planned out our drive according to rest stops. I was able to leave very early in the morning and keep the girls in their jammies for the first two hours. They dozed on and off, but my plan to have them sleep the entire first part of the trip did not pan out the way I had anticipated (shocking, I know). They did do well with their newly downloaded shows, though. About two hours into the trip, we stopped at a McDonald’s that had a play area. This was ideal. I got them dressed in the parking lot (yup, I’m that mom) and let them play for about an hour. Then, I gave them breakfast and off we went for the second half of the trip. This little detour broke up the trip and enabled the girls to burn some energy. I’m happy to report that we did great and no one had a meltdown, not even me!
8. First On, Last Off
When traveling with my kids, I like to be the first one on the airplane and the last one off. It gives me an extra few minutes to gather my stuff, figure out where I need to go, and not feel added pressure from other passengers trying to catch a connecting flight or be the first to reach the baggage claim area. I honestly feel like it sets the tone for my trip, so if you can, try this tip out!
9. Expect the Unexpected
When Eleanor was 3 and Charlotte was only 8 months, I decided to take them to visit my grandmother in Texas, alone. I wish I could say that I was cool as a cucumber leading up to the trip, but that would be a flat-out lie. I was terrified about flying alone with two layovers (learn from my experience and pay the extra money for a direct flight; it’s worth your sanity!). Armed with my double stroller, Ergo carrier, and perfectly packed diaper bag, off we went. I was blown away with how well behaved my girls were and how the three of us got through our trip like seasoned travelers! After about eight hours of traveling, we landed in Texas and I took what I think was my first deep breath of the day. My uncle was picking us up at the airport, and once the car seats were installed, I figured it would be smooth sailing from that point on. I was the last off the plane (see above) and while Eleanor sat at the gate holding her baby sister, I struggled to unfold the double stroller. The flight attendant came out and asked if I needed assistance. I said I was fine, but I could feel the pressure to move things along. I quickly snapped open my stroller and almost immediately felt a sharp pain in my hand. When I looked down, I saw blood on the floor and only about three-quarters of my finger. I told Eleanor to jump in her seat and by this time, the flight attendant had picked up Charlotte. I grabbed onto the stroller and noticed everything going dark as I began to faint. I could hear the flight attendant and someone else asking if I was traveling alone, but I was unable to speak. Moments later, I opened my eyes, saw the flight attendant radioing for a wheelchair, the pilot holding my baby, and my sweet Eleanor still seated in her stroller. They gave me some soda and wheeled me out to the baggage claim, where we met up with my uncle. Other than it being about the most embarrassing moment of my life, it all worked out fine. So, expect the unexpected.
10. And Away You Go!
You’re traveling with small children. Anything can happen. But if you put some of these tips to use, perhaps they will minimize the drama and stress and allow you to maybe, just maybe, laugh at the pool of vomit in your lap and/or your missing fingertip.