No matter how much love exists between parent and child, sometimes traveling with children under the age of 10 can feel like anything but a vacation. There are diapers to be changed, mouths to be fed, temper tantrums to be soothed, and an absurd amount of luggage to be hauled from place to place. But you can have kids, and take vacation, and enjoy it, too.
Follow these travel safety tips for a truly restful vacation (sans babysitter).
Pre-Vacation: Plan for Success
A little foresight can go a long way toward ensuring a smooth trip. Keep the following tips in mind while planning the next family vacation.
- Plan ahead. Sure, CouchSurfing or hostel-crashing are tons of fun when traveling solo, but spontaneity becomes decidedly less appealing with a bawling three-year-old in tow. Maximize the chances of enjoying a well-earned vacation by making concrete plans in advance — from booking flights, hotels, and campsites to reserving rental cars or museum entrance times. When purchasing flights, buy tickets online in order to reserve seats in the same row.
- Know the airline’s rules. Before packing, read up on airline baggage restrictions, specifically as they pertain to young kids. Some airlines allow infants to check baggage, have special policies for car seats or strollers, or provide bassinets for infant travelers. Know the rules and plan accordingly.
- Prep documents. Make sure that all documents (especially passports) are up to date well in advance of the trip. Check to see if anyone will need visas at the destination; children often require visas just like adults. If traveling with an adopted child, be sure to bring along adoption papers. Also note that if you’re the only parent traveling with the child (regardless of marital status), you could be asked for proof of consent from the other parent.
- Check in with the doctor and the insurance company. If taking a trip overseas, call the doctor to find out if any vaccinations are required or recommended before flying. Also be sure to contact your health insurance provider to learn how overseas medical costs are handled.
- Pack light. Though children inevitably come with (literal) baggage, try to limit the amount of stuff the family brings on vacation. When traveling with young kids, it’s enormously helpful to have a hand free for hand-holding while navigating busy public spaces.
- Pack layers. From airplane temperature fluctuations to unfamiliar climates, don’t risk a tantrum because the kids are uncomfortable. Instead, dress children in layers so they’re ready — and happy — for anything.
- Bring a first aid kit. Kids are notorious for acquiring scrapes and bruises in all manner of ways. Having basic first aid items on hand at all times will help mitigate children’s anxiety if anyone gets hurt. Antiseptic wipes, Band-Aids, and an ace bandage are easy to squeeze into any carry-on.
- Take advantage of smartphones. Use a phone’s camera to record important info such as each family member’s passport, the trip itinerary, and the names, addresses, and phone numbers of hotels or taxi services. This will help reduce the chances of needing to dig through a suitcase with a crying toddler in tow.
- Consider a child locator. These techy devices work by strapping a small unit to a child’s belt or shoe and holding onto the transmitter. It’ll be a huge help if junior disappears in a busy bus terminal or crowded dinosaur exhibit — just set off the transmitter’s alarm and follow the sound. Want a lower-tech option? Write an emergency contact number on young children’s arms in case they get lost.
During Vacation: Tips for Tranquility
Congratulations: The family is out the door and vacation is officially starting. Here’s how to ensure the vacation itself goes as smoothly as planning for it.
- Build in time buffers. As any parent knows, young kids’ standards for efficiency tend to differ from those of adults. Help eliminate travel stress by building in extra time around all planned activities, from shuttling to the airport to making that 11 a.m. museum tour.
- Invest in extra rear-views. If a trip involves long periods in the car, extra mirrors pointed at the back seats can be invaluable (especially if you’re the only adult in the car). They’ll allow extra visibility when kids start to bicker — without having to pull the car over.
- Plan kid-friendly activities. The kiddos are more likely to remain, happy vacationers, if they get to spend some time doing things they really enjoy. Schedule time at local parks or kid-centered exhibits to ensure everyone remains a happy camper. Even better, spend the whole vacation in a family-friendly locale with plenty of choices such as New York City or Munich (both cities have a great selection of kid-centric museums with interactive exhibits).
- Child-proof hotels. After checking in, double-check that the room’s locks and windows function properly and note any potential safety hazards such as wobbly balcony railings, loose towel racks, or exposed wires. Make accommodations as necessary.
- Keep tabs on bathrooms. Whether at a theme park or in a hotel lobby or restaurant, it’s always smart to note the location of the nearest restroom facilities — you never know when a young family member might need them.
- When eating at restaurants, go early. This helps avoid crowds, which can be stressful for young children, and will make it easier to maneuver if a child goes into tantrum mode.
- Take breaks when the kids fuss. This one’s for all the family road-trippers out there. If the kids are quiet in the backseat, for goodness’ sake keep driving (even if you have to hold it). Take breaks if/when kids start to act up, and use the time out of the car to let them stretch their legs while you fill up for gas, buy snacks, etc. Cover as many miles as possible while the kids are happy or sleeping.
- Keep distractions on hand. You never know when you’ll get stuck in a long line at the airport or a famous monument. Help prevent meltdowns by bringing along toys and portable games to keep kids engaged and happy.
- Find community. If traveling with a child with special needs, it can be helpful to talk to parents who have done it before and may have helpful tips. Disabledfriends.com or youreable.com let parents do just that. Also consider getting an identity bracelet that lists the child’s medical condition, treatment, etc. Likewise, if a child has serious allergies, consider having her or his travel with a card specifying the allergy.
- Use an app. From Sunday drives to cross-country road trips, to foreign potty stops — there’s an app for that. Check out this list of family travel apps and choose one relevant to your needs.
Perhaps the most important tip for traveling with children? Remember to be present. Turn off the smartphone, don’t check email, and choose to be fully on vacation. The experience — and the family memories — will be all the better for it.