How To Travel Successfully With Young Kids

I get asked a lot how we travel with our toddler and quite honestly, my first thought is always “How do you not?”.
How To Travel Successfully With Young Kids

I get asked a lot how we travel with our toddler and quite honestly, my first thought is always “How do you not?”. Prior to our son Atlas’s birth in 2016, we had tried to maintain a “healthy” travel regiment of around 10–12 weeks per year overseas. Since he was born we’ve been pretty consistent in this regiment and have taken him to Nicaragua, Bali (2x), Paris, Hudson Valley in Upstate New York, Maine (2x), Colombia, Thailand (2x), Singapore, and Italy.

Sure — maybe you have convinced yourself that you don’t have the time (make it), or money (our cost of living typically decreases when we’re abroad), your kids don’t travel well (practice makes perfect) or you’re planning on doing it later (why wait) — there is always an excuse — if you want to find one.

If you’re ready to stop making up reasons as to why you can’t travel with kids and starting wondering — how do we travel with them?— I have a foolproof 3 step formula.

  1. Get a bottle of wine (any cheap red or white will do).
  2. Drink 2–3 glasses (depending on your personal tolerance).
  3. Get on and make one of the best drinking decisions you’ll ever partake in.

If done properly you’ll wake up in the morning feeling some slight anxiety but try not to go into a panic and do something you’ll really regret, like trying to cancel your flights.

Humor aside, the first step is to get outside of your comfort zone and commit to a trip and whatever “secret sauce” you need to get there will work.

Once you are committed you’ve taken a big first step but there still is work to be done. Don’t worry though — I’m here to share some of the tips, tricks, and hacks I’ve learned along the way.

But What About Flights?

Flights are probably the single greatest point of anxiety for many, regardless if they are traveling with young kids in tow. Whether it’s a sub-par domestic experience (I’m looking at you United), a South American or European regional carrier, or a slightly higher end long haul experience on Emirates or Qatar (IMO two of the BEST airlines in the world) all flights inherently are uncomfortable experiences.

Kids are extremely versatile creatures but it’s important to remember that they will feed off of your anxiety and stress. The sooner you can let that shit go, they’ll settle in and be sleeping or watching a movie in no time.

They are also much quicker at normalizing experiences and will learn to travel. Our son was on his first flight to Nicaragua at the age of 5 months and after giving him some time to acclimate, we had him on his first long haul to Indonesia a few months later and have never looked back.

Flight Essentials — Nothing is Essential

Another important key to traveling with minimal stress is to not overpack. Nothing will increase your stress levels more than traveling with car seats, bulky strollers and other “safety items” you will NEVER/RARELY use.

When traveling with a newborn or young child we love the Ergobaby or similar carrier — it’s light, washable, and can be shoved into bags or small spaces with ease. We (mainly my wonderful wife) have carted Atlas across 4 continents in our ErgoBaby and consider it one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.

When they get a bit older (i.e. heavier) we invested in a Maclaren Volo stroller. I first saw these strollers offered complimentary for us in airports all over the Middle East and parts of Europe and figured they were battle tested. The Volo weighs about 8 pounds, packs up with the push of a foot operated button and is built sturdy enough to handle life on the road. These things are so small that if you’re crafty enough you can sneak them by the cabin crew and avoid having to gate check. Pro-Tip — you can find these for $50 on Facebook Marketplace, LetGo, or Craigslist and save yourself a small fortune.

We’re minimalists when it comes to travel so we don’t have many other flight essentials other than a tablet loaded up with games/activities, some dollar store coloring books/stickers/etc (i.e. things you can leave on the flight) and “travel vitamins”. For us — “travel vitamins” consist of low dose melatonin gummies made by Zarabees. They’re much safer than Benedril or any of the other barbaric remedies our parent’s generation resorted to. Pro-Tip — These bad boys are good for more than flights — give your little one a gummy 20 minutes before walking into a museum and you’ll get 3 hours of time to explore.

We’re minimalists when it comes to travel so we don’t have many other flight essentials other than a tablet loaded up with games/activities, some dollar store coloring books/stickers/etc (i.e. things you can leave on the flight) and “travel vitamins”. For us — “travel vitamins” consist of low dose melatonin gummies made by Zarabees. They’re much safer than Benedril or any of the other barbaric remedies our parent’s generation resorted to. Pro-Tip — These bad boys are good for more than flights — give your little one a gummy 20 minutes before walking into a museum and you’ll get 3 hours of time to explore.

Believe it or not — there are some pretty sweet perks or “travel hacks” to flying with young kids.

We all know that kids under 2 will fly for free but did you know that many carriers discount tickets for kids under 12? While I don’t think there is any rhyme or reason to it I’ve paid as little as 50% of the adult fare when booking tickets for our young one. Keep in mind that I’ve never seen a US carrier offer this (big surprise) but many international ones do so make sure to check for discounts when buying tickets.

Another perk for traveling with young kids is priority boarding. Yes — when they offer early boarding to the elderly, individuals with disabilities and families with young children, that means you.

In many cases, you can board before first class so make sure you work your way to the front of the line with your boarding passes in hand and take advantage of unlimited overhead storage bin space! This trick also works when moving through immigration, security checkpoints (again, mostly abroad and not in the US) and any other line you may be subjected to.

Getting Around

Prior to having children, public transportation was my best friend. I’ve navigated the Metro Madrid with a surfboard and travel backpack, hopped trains across Morocco (spring the few $’s extra for 1st class) and ridden more bus/train/water taxi combos than I can recall. That being said — we’re primarily an Uber (or Grab when in Southeast Asia) family now — especially when getting to and from an airport. Ridesharing services are pretty much ubiquitous worldwide, they’re cheaper (and more honest) than cab drivers and you can pay on the app, saving the hassle of finding local money and getting ripped off by the currency exchanges set up at the airport.

Be sure to make sure that you install and set up Uber, Grab or whatever local ridesharing service is available and legal prior to your trip. While ridesharing may be frowned upon in many parts of the world, as long as it is legal, the airport will have a designated pick-up area.

In my experience, some of the airport staff may be reluctant to tell you where the pickup location is — especially the information booths who want to shepherd you to the cab stands — so be sure to ask a maintenance worker or someone who is a little less “financially motivated” to help you.

It’s also important to remember that while most airports have Free Wifi (perfect for hiring a driver) you may way to invest in a Sim Card when you arrive. Personally, we use T-Mobile in the United States and they offer 100% Free 4G International data which is perfect for Uber, Google Map or researching places to eat nearby anywhere abroad.

Finding Your Home Away From Home

Prior to having children, I typically looked for a moderately priced backpacker hostel with decent reviews and close to the action when searching for accommodation. Hostelworld was always at the top of my search history and I always had a HI membership in good standing.

These days we tend to learn towards Airbnb as a friendlier alternative to hostels and I honestly can’t recall the last time I stayed in an actual hotel.

I tend to prefer Airbnb for a number of reasons but primarily because you can get closer to a city center or tourist center for less. You will certainly spend more on an Airbnb in a prime location but compare that to any hotel in a similar area and they won’t even be in the same stratosphere.

Additionally, I’ve found that you tend to get more space and, while I’ve always looked at accommodations as somewhere you sleep when exploring a city or country, with kids you’ll want a home base for naps and downtime so I like to make sure we’re staying somewhere with a few of the creature comforts of home. With kids in tow, you won’t have those 5AM club nights in Barcelona or watch the sunrise on a beach in Central America so I’ve found a nice compromise is to book a comfortable space that we don’t mind bringing a bottle (or two) of wine back to for a quiet evening.

In regard to amenities, when traveling with kids my “must haves” include a kitchen (or food prep area), on-site washer and dryer (laundry will be a daily chore), and a king size bed (we co-sleep). Depending on where we are, I like to look for a pool or other outside amenities to keep the little ones occupied.

Doing Stuff, Seeing Things and Exploring

The key to sightseeing and exploring with children is to resist the urge to pack too much into your trips. Prior to kids, I would have no problem hopping on a bus or train every few days to try and see a new city or town but kids will certainly turn a few hour bus ride into a full-on travel day. My advice for a 10-day trip would be to pick 2 or 3 spots max and spend more time in each location. For example, on our recent trip to Italy, we spend a few days in Venice, took the train to Florence for a few days and then finished up with a few days in Cinque Terra. As much as I wanted to explore Rome and some of the southern destinations I wanted to see and experience Italy from somewhere other than a bus or train.

I like to apply the same rule for planning our days as well. It’s important to pick one or two activities and not overwhelm your agenda. Things will go wrong (i.e. your kid will inevitably meltdown at some point) so I’ve learned to keep a loose agenda vs. a regimented schedule.

As far as activities and keeping them engaged, we like to find a local bike rental agency and take at least one day for a bike trip. Even the $1.50/day rental shops in Bangkok’s Green Lung offer child seats so it’s an easy way to keep them engaged while exploring. Depending on your destination we also like to visit other outdoor locales such as waterfalls, beaches or parks — it’s a good way to burn off energy and as an added bonus, many of these activities are free.

When you do want to visit a museum, Buddhist Temple, cathedral or any place of historical significance — i.e somewhere “boring” for a younger child we like to sync these visits up with nap schedules and, on occasion, we’ll just dip into our stash of “travel vitamins”.

Meals can be another stress point when traveling with kids so we like to make sure to stock up the Airbnb with lots of snacks, juice and other food. This also allows us, to a certain extent, to eat where we want to eat versus finding a kid-friendly alternative. Don’t worry too much about bringing your kids in tow, unless it’s fine dining, most places will accommodate, especially when overseas.

We’re not huge fans of screen time or YouTube but when eating out when traveling we always pack a tablet in our day bag — it can very well be the difference between a stressful affair and an enjoyable meal and I think the experience of travel far outweigh any of the negatives of screen time.

Lastly, this may go without saying but we try and document as much of our trips as possible with video and photos. A toddler may not have a solid memory of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person or feeding elephants in Northern Thailand but they will look back on these videos as their own. We also try and include Atlas in as much of the planning as possible and I encourage you to do the same — show them on Google Maps where they are, where they are going and ask them what they would like to see and do — it may not seem like it at the time but you’re subtly opening their mind to the world.

We also try and teach Atlas pleasantries (hello, thank you, goodbye, etc) in the native language of wherever we happen to be. Again, it might not stick with him permanently, but I like to think it expands his mind and helps him to understand that there are completely different cultures to our own. As an added bonus, it’s adorable to watch the innocence of a very outgoing toddler trying to interact with individuals who don’t speak his language.

What Do We Even Get Out of This?

For many, travel is relegated to something you do after college to gain life experiences or saved for retirement but I feel that by subscribing to this mindset you miss out on a huge opportunity.

Traveling with others creates memories. Be it your family or a fellow backpacker you randomly decided to hop a train to the Algarve the night before, some of my fondest memories are with the companions I’ve shared adventures with. Traveling with your family is something that should be shared with kids of all ages — it will strengthen the bond between you and your loved ones.

I find travel, especially abroad in a country with a non-native language to your own, really forces us to open our eyes to how magical and large the world really is. I live in suburban New Jersey, in the United States, and, to varying degrees, most people here have a very similar upbringing & value system as me. What someone from my part of the world deems as “normal” or “weird” is totally a byproduct of our conditioning.

We are direct products of our culture and unless we begin to challenge these notions it’s hard to comprehend that there are other ways to live, find happiness, and things in which to put value in. I hope that through these experiences I am able to offer my kids the ability to challenge their world view and their relationship with it.

Your Homework Assignment

Now that I’ve given you the tools to jump into traveling with kids, I’ll leave you with two challenges:

  1. In the next month, commit to a short, local trip for a night or two. It doesn’t have to be far or anything elaborate but try and pick someplace that is a minimum of a 3–4 hours away by car.

  2. In the next 6 months, commit to a short flight or trip. It can be a weekend getaway or something a little longer. You’d be surprised how many incredible destinations are just a few hours away by plan so pick somewhere you’ve been itching to go and do it!

With both of these challenges, commit to not overpacking — 1 small carry on bag for each of you is more than enough and focus on minimizing the amount of equipment you bring — you don’t need it. Trust me, it’ll be a more enjoyable experience and remember, if I’m wrong, nothing is stopping you from picking up something along the way.

Once you get your feet wet you’ll quickly realize that traveling with young ones isn’t a chore — it’s an experience to offer, a memory to look back on and most importantly, it’s your job as a responsible parent seeking to open a child’s mind.

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