Traveling with Kids
By: Jennifer Milano, June 2015
Like many couples, we decided that having kids wouldn't change the way we live our lives. We would still travel the world, take our babies on public buses through developing countries, immerse ourselves in local culture and continue to experience new places. That was the plan - the kids would fit into our lifestyle. And like most of the couples who decided that on that same strategy, we quickly abandoned the idea once our first baby arrived. Being Type A didn't help - I worried about my daughter's health, sleep patterns, eating habits and happiness, and those concerns overrode my desire to travel abroad for quite awhile. We traveled to various places in the U.S. with her, took her across the pond to London and Scotland when she was 9 months old (friends wisely told us to take a trip my husband and I wanted to take before she started walking, so we could put her in the stroller and cover lots of ground while the baby was entertained looking at the activity around her), and met friends with their toddler in the Canadian Rockies when my daughter was 2 1/2 years old and I was pregnant with my second child. It wasn't the most adventurous period in our travel history, but it wasn't bad.
Then my son arrived, and with the exceptions of local travel and visiting the grandparents in Florida and Michigan, we adopted the "staycation" attitude until he turned 4 years old, not taking a flight longer than 3 hours for those first 4 years of his life. When he turned 4 and my daughter was 7, we decided it was time to brave the long flight and time change and take the kids to Italy. My mother came along, thankfully, and told the kids stories in the backseat of our rental car for hours while my husband and I tried to reconcile paper maps, the GPS voice and unclear signage throughout our two weeks in Tuscany. But we did it - and we actually had a lot of fun. Two days after we returned home, I was on kayak.com, researching flights to Geneva to ski the Alps at Christmas (like many of the trips I research, we didn't go). But realizing that we COULD go, that we had reached the point where the hassles of traveling with young children were clearly outweighed by the amazing feeling of sharing our exploration of the world with our kids, was exciting and liberating.
Having the kids with us changed the way we travel, but in most ways, for the better. Our favorite memories of that Tuscan adventure were watching our kids, in their gelato-stained shirts, run around the piazzas in the evening, seeing them play hide-and-seek in the olive trees with Vinci and Orlando, two half-Italian, half-British boys they met, and watching their faces when they walked into the Accademia and saw the massive (naked) "David" statue in front of them.
We've learned a lot about what works for our family when we travel abroad, and try to keep it in mind when we plan our future trips. We always make some mistakes, things go wrong here and there, but as our trips come to an end we all wish we could stay longer. And just when I think I have it figured out, I learn something that makes the next trip a little easier.
The #1 thing on all parents' minds when the kids are little, whether at home or abroad, is sleep. Although you know best how to soothe your child to sleep in an unfamiliar environment, here are some general tips:
- Just like home: whatever comfort item your child sleeps with at home, pack it in your carry-on. If possible, keep a duplicate at home just in case. Pack extras of items that soothe your child, like pacifiers (I kept the clean ones in ziplocs, ready to pull out after my child dropped hers on the germ-infested airport floor) and bottles. Bring your child's favorite bedtime story. If it's helpful, download a white noise app or your child's favorite lullaby on your phone. Bring a couple of night lights.
- Crib: contact your hotel or rental ahead of time to ensure there will be a crib (in Europe, often a pack-n-play) available for your room. Ask that it be set up before you arrive, and then call a couple of hours before arrival and ask again, and again upon check-in confirm that it's been set up. There's nothing worse than arriving in your room with a cranky, overtired child and having to wait an hour for housekeeping to come and set up the crib.
- Overnight flights: if you have an overnight flight, when you book ask the airline to reserve you a row that has a bassinet, if offered. Although our daughter thought hers was a playpen for the first 3 hours of our flight to London, she finally got the idea from the other sleeping babies across the front row of the plane that she should stop screeching and waving to the other passengers and lie down.
- Time changes: there is all sorts of advice out there telling you to get your child on the new time zone asap. In my opinion, this is (1) hard to do - how many times have you wanted your child to go to sleep and realized it's not happening? and (2) often inconsistent with the schedule that works best for your family. It is easier going from the east coast of the U.S. to Europe than to the west coast. I love traveling from the U.S. to Europe with my kids, because the time change means they can stay up late and sleep late, suiting the Mediterranean lifestyle and my natural clock really well. When we arrive in Europe, we take a nap, limiting it to two hours. Then we wander around in a daze, eat dinner, and go to sleep. But I have friends who want to be up early in the morning to get to sites at opening times, and they stay up the first day, feed their kids early and get them to bed by 7:00 pm. Do what works for you and your family, and in most cases, your child will dictate when he/she sleeps anyway. In California, our 16-month old was up at 4:00 am everyday for the first five days, so we took sleepy sunrise walks to the beach to watch the surfers.
- Naps: When the kids were still napping, we aimed to give our children naps at the hotel or house rental, and this usually meant that my husband and I had some built-in downtime to read, nap or relax in the middle of a busy day of sightseeing and activity. One of the most memorable parts of our week in Martha's Vineyard was sitting on the front porch of our rental house every afternoon with bakery treats and a book, enjoying the ocean view while our baby napped. In London, we were so exhausted that we slept whenever she did, which kept us energized for exploring the city with a 9-month old. If you're renting a car and your child is light-sensitive, you can buy travel car shades to stick on the windows during nap time, and then remove them.
- Challenge in Europe: Finding hotel rooms in Europe that accommodate four or five people is not easy. You can read my country-specific pages for recommendations in some places, and otherwise you will need to spend time emailing hotels and asking if they can accommodate you and your kids so you can avoid paying for two rooms. To circumvent this problem, you can rent an apartment or house.
As everyone knows, getting the kids their sleep means a happier, tantrum-free family, but it's not always in your control and remains one of the toughest travel challenges.
One of my strongest memories of our trip to the U.K. with our 9-month old was finding baby food. Things may have changed since 2004, but at the time it was difficult to find jarred baby food and we spent several hours of our trip looking for grocery stores that carried it. (I learned later from a friend who moved to London that parents or nannies tend to make their children's baby food.) When traveling with my friend and her 9-month old in Spain, I recall her always asking for "pan por el bebe" as soon as she sat down at a restaurant, to keep her child busy gnawing on the bread while she waited for her parents to review menus and order food. If the weather is good, choose a table at an outdoor café where you can keep your baby in the stroller and there is activity going on around her to watch. Bring baby food or a banana you can mash up (or ask for "pan") to keep her occupied and satiated. If your children are a bit older, having them try new foods (or at least consider it) is part of the fun of traveling. Of course, it helps if you are someplace like Italy where "kid-food" abounds, but I've found that even my picky eaters become slightly more adventurous when we are abroad, and can find something they will eat wherever we go. (Full disclosure: my younger one fills up on lots of plain, starchy foods like rice, pasta and bread, and often goes an entire two-week trip with few or no vegetables in his tummy.)
Plan activities your kids enjoy at home, just do them in another country!
I find that if you plan activities on vacation that resemble activities your children enjoy at home, everyone is a lot happier. Then why spend thousands of dollars and hours of vacation time going to a playground in Paris when you can hit the one down the street, you may be asking? For me, it means we get to be immersed in another culture. I can sit on a bench at a Paris playground enjoying a warm, fresh-baked, flaky croissant, watching my kids interact with French children (or pigeons), thinking about how later in the evening I can sit at an outdoor cafe enjoying fabulous food and hearing my kids practice ordering their meals in French.
My kids prefer the countryside to the city. They love to have space to run. They like playgrounds, the beach and swimming pools. They like animals, whether petting the resident dog at a the hotel, spotting monkeys in the jungle or chasing the poor pigeons around a park. They like ice-cream. They want to play with other kids. Given their interests, many of which match ours (especially the ice-cream), we try to find places to stay that have swimming pools and hopefully, other children. We buy or bring a soccer ball, which is a magnet for meeting other children. We stop for playgrounds and promising-looking ice-cream or dessert shops. We spend hours at the beach. And Mediterranean beaches beat American ones any day - instead of eating a rubbery hamburger from the snack bar for lunch, you will be sitting down al fresco to an amazing meal of spaghetti with seafood or fresh-baked pizza.
Your kids may be doing what they do at home - playing, swimming and eating - but they are in another culture, hearing another language, trying (or watching you try) new foods, buying their souvenirs with a different currency, and learning that people do things differently in different places (my kids liked flushing Italian toilets with a step-on pedal by the floor). Their minds are growing, and hopefully their tolerance is, too. Here are some more strategies for planning activities:
- Limit museum time or find a family-friendly museum tour.
If your children are very young, and you or your partner wants to see a particular museum or site you think your children would find boring, my advice is to split up (unless it's nap time and you think your child will sleep in the stroller while you gaze at Rembrandt masterpieces). Taking time away from your kids while your partner takes them to the park or a children's museum may be in everyone's best interests. If your children are 3 or older, you can make museum visits short but engaging for the kids. Here are some ideas for museum visits with children:
- When we went to the Accademia, I brought sketchbooks and colored pencils so the kids could draw the "David". The other tourists were amused by looking over my kids' shoulders and listening to their commentary about his various body parts (you know which ones).
- Before we went to Paris, we borrowed books from the library about French impressionism, and they tried some painting at home in the impressionist style. So when we arrived at the Musee d'Orsay, my son immediately recognized Renoir's "Girls at the Piano" and Monet's "Water Lilies". This gave his visit more meaning, although after about 20 minutes, he asked to leave, claiming boredom.
- Our most successful museum visit was to The Louvre. I had decided that we were either going to skip the Louvre, or pay an exorbitant fee for a "family tour" by Paris Muse Tours. We did the latter, and it was the best part of our trip to Paris. Jessica, an American PhD art history student, spent two hours bringing the art alive for my kids, who were completely engaged in the experience. I've since recommended the tour to others, and four families I know have taken the tour, all with different guides, and found it to be worthwhile. Even you have to shorten your trip to Paris by a night to afford the tour, I think it's worth it. On the other hand, one family I know skipped the tour and said their kids, who enjoy museums, loved it.
- Another idea you'll see recommended in various travel articles is to buy postcards of certain works from the museum gift shop, and have your kids do a scavenger hunt.
- Museums with kid-friendly audio tours can work well. My 5 year-old loved the children's audio tour of the Olympic Stadium in Athens, although my 8 year-old daughter thought it was boring. Can't please everyone all of the time.
- BUY ALL MUSEUM TICKETS ONLINE, IN ADVANCE OF YOUR VISIT SO YOU CAN SKIP THE LINE! Check the museum websites as soon as you book your trip, as some can sell out of advance tickets (e.g., Eiffel Tower, Anne Frank's House). If you must wait in line, bring snacks to keep your kids busy.
More activity ideas:
- Prepare your children before you leave home. Borrow children's books about your destination from the library. Watch a children's video that highlights the culture you will visit. Listen to language CDs in the car.
- Look for child-centered classes or events. My 9 year-old daughter loved her "French desserts" baking class she took in Paris at Cook n' with Class. Both of my kids thought their Spanish camp in Barcelona was a blast (granted, their favorite part was the vending machine snacks).
- Click here for packing lists, which include items to keep your kids busy on long flights or car rides.
- We rented a golf cart one day in Cadaques, Spain, so we could tour the nearby national park but the thrill of seeing it from a golf cart kept the kids excited.
- Street performers provide spontaneous entertainment.
- Be flexible, and don't plan too much for one day. Build in time for the kids to write in their travel journals and take their own photos (sometimes I buy the kids a disposable camera each, and when we get home, we develop their photos and make a photo book together).
- When you get home, buy a map that allows your kids to mark where they have been. We have a scratch-off map that my kids like, and one that takes magnetic pegs. You can also make a photo book together on the computer, or the old-fashioned way, to remember your trip for years to come!
This may go without saying, but the main goal of a vacation is to have fun, right? If your goal is to see as much as possible of a new place in the amount of time you have, you probably won't have fun. Unless you leave the kids at home. And even then, I'm not sure you'll have fun. Plan one site, museum, market or destination for the morning, have lunch, and relax at your hotel, rental or in a park in the afternoon. Build in time just to wander around town, and see your new surroundings through your kids' eyes.
- Relaxation (don't laugh) (well, okay, laugh)
Let's face it, a "vacation" with a baby or toddler is really just a change of zip code with, if you are lucky, what I call "vacation moments" - those 5 minutes you get to sit in the hot tub looking at the sea while your partner has the kids, or the way-too-brief amount of time when your children are happily tossing bits of baguette to the birds while you and your partner find an empty bench and enjoy your surroundings before someone falls, scrapes his or her knee and starts howling. I don't think I read a book on vacation until my youngest was 6 or 7 (Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Train books excepted).
Ready to close out this website and plan a stay-cation instead? Here's how I look at it: if I have the expectation that the trip will be more exhausting than relaxing, and if I focus on those "vacation moments" as being satisfying enough to outweigh the hassle, I usually decide that the travel is still worthwhile. Why? My husband and I get to be somewhere different from home, and see part of the world we want to experience. Moreover, my children are exposed to new environments and hopefully learn flexibility and resilience. We are teaching our kids how to travel, how to see differences and similarities among people from various cultures, and how a little discomfort is worth that mind-expanding experience.