With spring break just around the corner and a recent 8-flight-trip solo with my three-year-old, I thought now would be a great time to talk about traveling with young kids. There is a lot of ground to cover on this topic, so I’m going to break it up into 3 or 4 parts.
Part 1: Planning/ booking/ researching the trip
Part 2: Preparing for the trip
Part 3: Thriving, not just surviving the trip
Part 4: Recovering from the trip
This week I’ll provide you my best advice for planning a trip with young children. As usual, give yourself plenty of time to plan your trip so that you can book ideal transportation and accommodations for you and your children. I’m going to break this process down for you very simply.
Transportation: Whether you’re flying, driving, riding on a train, cruising, or any combination of these, there are some important considerations to keep in mind when researching and booking your trip.
- Air Travel is difficult enough as it is these days without a child. When you throw a small child (or more) in the mix, it can be a disaster. Fear not, I’ve got some great tips for you.
- “Child-Friendly” Airlines – The Points Guy covered this topic pretty well a few years ago, but some of the policies may have changed since. His article shows a table comparing each of the airline’s policies on things like family pre-boarding and in-flight entertainment. Other things to look for when choosing an airline is whether they’ll check items like strollers and car seats for free and if they offer discounted fairs for children (particularly for international flights). My biggest pet peeve when it comes to air travel is that not all airplanes are equipped with a changing table. Even if an airline claims to have changing tables, they may not have them on all their aircraft. Just be mentally prepared for that unsanitary reality.
- Time of flights – some people prefer to take red-eyes or fly during a child’s naptime. I have learned that I disagree with this because I cannot personally sleep on planes. So, even if my daughter gets great sleep during the flight, I still have to be alert and ready to go when we get to our destination. I’d rather fly during the day, so I don’t have to worry about trying to sleep on the plane. (Also, if your child is loud during the flight during the day – other passengers can’t be so justifiably mad that you’re disturbing their slumber as they might be during the evening when EVERYONE should be sleeping.)
- Layovers – don’t schedule a flight with a layover less than one hour when traveling with kids. You need that time to get from one gate to the next – whether it’s a potty break, a long walk between terminals, a few meltdowns, or any other common distraction that prevents kids from moving fast when you need them to move fast. A two-hour layover is a good amount of time to get to where you need to be, go to the bathroom twice, grab something to eat, and/or let your kids run off some steam. If you have multiple airports options for a layover, opt for an airport with a children’s play area so you can let your kid run free for a while before getting on another plane. This is a good list of airports with kid amenities, but it is not exhaustive.
- Nonstop or with stops? – This question depends on the kids and depends on the length of the flight(s). I don’t have a choice but to make at least one connection whenever I fly home to Montana. I have also flown with my daughter nonstop across the country. Both scenarios have pros/ cons. Before my daughter was mobile, nonstop was ideal, because she didn’t have a need to stretch her legs and explore. Also, the younger the kid, the more gear you have to bring, so it’s better to limit the amount of time spent lugging gear around the airport. But, since my daughter has been mobile (and, she’s a busy kid), I find it nice to break up what would otherwise be a 6-hour flight into to two legs. As long as it is not in the middle of the night (see my point about flying during the day), it is nice to have a chance to get out and stretch your legs, burn some energy, and eat something other than pretzels or peanuts.
- Seats – This part can be tricky and its probably what I (over) spend the most time on researching. You can use sites like Seat Guru to figure out good seats, but here are some good rules of thumb to remember when selecting seats with kids.
- Airlines have rules about where car seats can go (not in aisle seats, etc.).
- People under 18 can’t sit in exit rows, so no matter how much you want that extra legroom – you can’t do it with your kid.
- Bulkheads can be good because there is no one for your kid to drive nuts in front by kicking their seat, but sometimes they don’t have the entertainment screens that you can manipulate yourself. They also usually cost extra.
- Sometimes its good to sit in the back because you are close to the lavatory. Also, you don’t have to stress about holding up people on the plane when you are trying to get your toddler to exit the plane while you balance all the bags you’re bringing, etc.
(TRAVEL HACK: One of my favorite tricks to use that works most of the time is to book the aisle seat and the window seat for my daughter and I in a 3 seat row. As long as the flight doesn’t sell out, we usually get that middle seat to ourselves because most people don’t want to book a middle seat. If not, we have the choice between the aisle and middle or the window and aisle.
6. Book in Advance – I say this so that you can avoid being that family that asks the passengers or flight attendants if they can swap seats so they can sit with their family members. At this point, some airlines still do not guarantee that minors will be seated next to guardians; therefore, you will want to reserve your seats in advance to avoid that headache.
- Roadtrip – This is one of my favorite ways to travel, and I have done this with my daughter and two dogs. Check out my blog post(s) on my epic road trip last summer. Roadtripping with kids may not be the vacation of choice for everyone, but there are ways to make it more pleasant. In terms of planning a road trip with kids, I recommend the following:
- Take it slow – The point of a road trip is to enjoy the road, not to get where you’re going as fast as possible. Set a limit of driving hours each day and make frequent stops to stretch your legs and enjoy the journey along the way. If you’re doing a long trip with kids, I recommend limiting daily driving to 6 hours per day and honestly, 8-9 hour should be the max (and only out of necessity).
- Use an app to plan the route – I love Furkot! You just put in your origin, destination, and specify conditions such as: desired daily driving hours/ miles, types of lodging you’d like to stay in, and if you have any planned stopovers. It will build you an itinerary that includes recommended lodging and stops based on your desired road trip style. We had our dogs when we used it, and it even recommended dog-friendly hotels for us! Here is an example of the first leg of our road trip last summer on Furkot.
- Train travel – I’m only going to cover US train travel for the purpose of this blog, as it is different elsewhere and that is worthy of another blog post. Traveling on Amtrak can be a very exciting and pleasant experience for kids, or it can be tiring, stinky, and expensive. I’ve traveled with small children on Amtrak from New York to Montana twice (once in coach and once in a sleeper car.) Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE TRAIN TRAVEL. But, if you ask me, Amtrak has a long way to go when it comes to making it a more pleasant and prioritized mode of travel in the US. Here’s what you need to know when planning Amtrak travel.
- Check how the price compares with flights – If you are going far or remote enough, Amtrak is often more expensive than air flights, especially if you opt for a sleeper car. Sometimes it just makes more sense to take the plane. Kids are usually 50% off on trains though!
- Check the times of travel – If you want to take a train to enjoy the scenery, check when the train travels through the parts of the country you want to see. Often times, passenger trains travel through scenic areas in the middle of the night, so you can’t even enjoy the Rockies, for example. Also, if you are traveling overnight, traveling in coach may not be very restful for you and your kids.
- Consider a sleeper car – if you can afford it and it’s a long enough trip to really need a sleeper car, get it! It made all the difference in the world when I traveled with two toddlers across the country. You have your own toilet and sink, and you can lie down on your own bed to sleep at night! In coach, you have to constantly watch your kids while you are trying to sleep to ensure they are not running all over the train (among other reasons).
- Cruising with kids is another topic that warrants a full blog (or two), but I’ll just say that some cruise lines are more kid-friendly or even kid-oriented than others. Some lines even have an age minimum to sail. This is especially true on river cruises. Some things to consider when booking a cruise with children are:
- Children’s Activities –Does the cruise line or ship have specific amenities/ activities that children will enjoy? Some cruise lines are more kid-oriented than others. Disney Cruise Line takes the cake on this topic with its rich vault of Disney characters and activities to offer onboard.
- Childcare/babysitting – Does the cruise line or ship have specific childcare services and/ or facilities? Royal Caribbean has a very impressive childcare program. I took my daughter to the nursery on Allure of the Seas while my husband and I enjoyed a nice meal by ourselves.
- Adjoining/ family rooms – Does the cruise line offer rooms designed for families or adjoining cabins? Carnival’s newest ship, Carnival Vista has very cool Family Harbor Staterooms specifically designed for families that include access to a Family lounge. Also, most of Disney’s staterooms offer a bathtub for the youngest guests; while many cruise lines only offer tubs in the most expensive suites.
- Diaper tax – This is a new one for me, but I heard about this from a fellow travel agent of mine. Some lines are charging fees to dispose of diapers. Holland America Line charged a $350 per infant fee to one of her clients recently for disposal of diapers. I don’t think this is prevalent yet, but as cruise lines look for ways to increase revenue, we may see more of this. Just read the fine print.
- Reduced fares for children – Some lines offer reduced fares for children during promotions. Some even offer to sail children for free! MSC offers free sailings for children under 12 when sailing with adults.
- Special sailings for families – Some lines that typically sail an older crowd offer additional kid-oriented amenities during the summer or school breaks. Some lines, specifically river cruises, offer family-friendly sailings where they lower the minimum age requirement and create family-friendly sailings. AMAWaterways partners with Adventures by Disney to sail amazing itineraries for families, such as their Frozen-inspired Norwegian Fjord itineraries in the summer.
- Cruise lines are trying to get younger – Every year, cruise lines do new things to attract younger guests and attract multi-generational groups, so keep your eyes-peeled for continued innovations for children in cruising. There is a lot of this happening with river cruises in the next few years, which will be very exciting as it unfolds.
Lodging: Finding a place to rest your head for the night is a bit more fun to research than transportation; however, there are lots of options out there so it can get overwhelming. Full-service hotels, resorts, all-inclusive resorts, vacation rentals, and campgrounds are all great options when traveling with children.
- Places to avoid – This goes without saying, but avoid booking a stay at an adults-only resort. Also, make sure to check before booking at Bed and Breakfasts. Many B&B proprietors prefer a quiet environment for their guests and prefer not to welcome children with families. There is a similar consideration that must be taken with vacation rentals.
- Amenities to look for – You may be surprised what hoteliers are doing these days to attract families with children. Even some unexpected hotels like Ritz Carlton are creating programs to cater to families traveling with kids because they realize traveling with kids shouldn’t be miserable. Things to look for to make your stay more enjoyable are similar to what you’d look for in a cruise line: activities, childcare, and family rooms.
Travel Dates: I know school-aged children tend to be tied to school calendars and can only travel during school breaks, but if you can travel in the off-season (generally September/ October and February/ March) do it, because:
- Everything is cheaper!
- Everything is less crowded! [Think Disney World attraction lines and the line to go in the Sistine Chapel.]
Special Needs: Whether your child has special dietary, accessibility, or health needs, there are ways to prepare for trips to make them more seamless.
- Work with a travel advisor that specializes in special needs travel – This is my favorite tip because many of these travel agents (and I know some if you need a referral) started their business out of necessity for their own special needs. They help their clients address special needs with empathy and experience.
- Suppliers that accommodate special needs– I know of two companies off the top of my head that are known for accommodating special needs.
Get Help: If this seems like a lot to figure out, I barely touched the surface, to be honest. But, this is my sweet spot. I am here to make your vacation with your kids as easy as possible. Reach out to me, and I can figure all of this stuff out for you, so you don’t have to! I think of ALLLL the details, so you don’t have to.
Stay tuned for how to prep and pack for your next trip with your kids.
P.S. If you need help planning your next trip, start by filling out our trip planning form, and we’ll work together to create a trip that will bring you and your loved ones together in an unforgettable way.
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