On the third Friday of every month, Cameron Wears from Traveling Canucks is here to give us tips and advice on how to travel better with your kids. This is an often-requested topic so I’m excited to have him on the team! Here is this month’s article, with Cameron’s top tips for traveling with your family, including small children. Some of these might never have even crossed your mind before.
No matter how well traveled you are, traveling with young kids is a very different experience than solo backpacking or couples travel. I remember planning our first family trip to California like it was yesterday. We had so many questions and didn’t know where to begin. How do we get a passport for a baby? Do we need to get clearance from a doctor before we travel? What do we need to pack? Will we get any sleep if we share the hotel room with our little one? How do we keep him entertained? What if something happens abroad?
With no experience as traveling parents, we defaulted to the way we traveled as a couple. That strategy was a good starting point, but we learned a few valuable lessons the hard way and made a few mistakes. Now, having traveled with two young children for many years, I want to share some of the most relevant travel tips we’ve learned so you can avoid our mistakes and travel easier:
Book accommodations with separate sleeping areas
Choose accommodations that offer one- or two-bedroom suites instead of the standard hotel room with two beds. You’ll pay a little more for this convenience, but a good night’s sleep is the key ingredient to a successful family trip.
Consider this: if everyone is piled into one room, you’ll likely have to go to sleep when your kids do. Now, if it’s been a long travel day and sleep is what you’re after, this won’t be an issue. However, if you want to have a drink, read a book, watch a movie, or have a conversation, it’s best to book accommodations that will give you and your kids separate sleeping areas.
Not every hotel offers one- or two-bedroom suites, so you need to do a little more research. We use most of the big sites like Expedia.com, Booking.com, and Hotels.com to get an idea of the hotel options within our price range, then we go directly to the hotel’s website to research room options and availability.
Apartment rentals are the best option for this. They are often cheaper than hotels and offer all of the comforts of home. We look for centrally located apartments that provide full kitchens and laundry, which saves us time and money. We like to use Airbnb.
Play it safe, make reservations
Before kids, we rarely made reservations in advance. Part of the adventure is arriving without a plan and allowing the moment to guide you, right? The problem with this travel style is that when you have kids you need to consider their threshold for being uncomfortable.
Do yourself and your kids a favor: make hotel and transportation reservations ahead of time to avoid unnecessary frustrations. Wandering the streets for hours in search of a hotel room or waiting an extra six hours at a train station is not fun at the best of times, let alone when you add a cranky child to the situation. Not pretty.
Don’t assume that your hotel or apartment rental will have a crib or high chair available. Call ahead to confirm availability, even if the hotel’s website states that it has cribs on hand (they may be used by another guest during your stay).
Lighten your load, rent equipment
Did you know that most popular travel destinations have services available for families to rent strollers, cribs, car seats, high chairs, playpens, and bikes?
We first used this service earlier this year on a trip to Sayulita, Mexico. We rented a two-bedroom apartment for a few weeks so we needed to find a sturdy crib for our toddler. The owner of the apartment recommended a local business that set up the crib before our arrival and picked it up after we departed. It was super convenient and reasonably priced (I think we paid about $50 per week).
Availability depends on location, time of year and length of time you need to use the item. I’ve yet to find a central website that works for all destinations, so it’s best to research online and use a local business that has good reviews. When in doubt, ask the almighty Google.
Protect yourself — get proper travel insurance
This one is self-explanatory. Travel insurance can feel like an annoying, unnecessary expense, but it’s always best to play it safe, especially with young children.
Our infant has a severe food allergy and our toddler is accident prone, so a trip to the hospital is not out of the question. This is not the time to cut corners to save a buck, so get the right plan that protects everyone. When in doubt, pick up the phone and talk to someone about your specific questions and concerns.
Matt says: Cameron’s right. Travel insurance is not something you should leave home without. I never do. Here’s my detailed guide to buying travel insurance.
Load up your tablet
The tablet has firmly landed in our top five travel items we never leave home without. We bring two tablets with us when we travel, an iPad and a Surface. Each tablet serves a different purpose. We use our Surface for cartoons and movies because it has a USB port. Being able to have our kids watch their favorite shows is a life saver, especially on long flights and in the evenings when we need some quiet time. We use our iPad for games, music, and video. Our toddler loves Angry Birds and coloring programs, so we pull out the iPad when he’s feeling playful and creative.
Both tablets are loaded with white noise (sounds of waves, rain, etc.) that we crank up at night and place beside their beds. The loud white noise is soothing and drowns out other sounds that could potentially disturb them. Give it a try if your kids have trouble falling asleep while traveling.
Choose your destination wisely
Choosing the right destination can make or break your family trip. It’s important to consider your children’s needs, but it’s equally important to visit a place that interests you. Most destinations have some form of amusement park or family-friendly attraction, so when you make your short list, look for destinations that have some adult fun for you, too.
Do you still travel with a stroller? If so, consider destinations with proper streets and sidewalks, as it will be easier to get around than trying to navigate jungles and more obscure places.
Long travel days are hard on the little ones, so it’s wise to pick a destination that has direct flights. I choose hotels that are centrally located and/or close to attractions (like the beach), which reduces the need for taxis or public transportation. Make sure to factor these things in when picking a destination.
Treats and surprises are always a good idea
Bring small presents and/or treats and reward your little ones for good behavior. When on a long flight or train ride, give your children a small present like a toy car, puzzle, or coloring book. Not only does it encourage good behavior, it keeps them entertained.
It’s a good idea to let your children choose a few small souvenirs from the places you visit so they have a memento from the trip. On our trip to Alberta this past summer we visited the town of Drumheller, known as the “Dinosaur Capital of the World.” After we checked into our hotel we visited a tourist store and let our toddler choose a toy dinosaur. This got him thinking about dinosaurs again, which made our visit to the Dinosaur Museum so much more exciting for him. Timing is everything.
Now, every time he plays with that toy dinosaur he says, “Remember when we went to dinosaur town, Daddy?” That was $5 well spent.
Check your ego with your bags
Most parents fear the dreaded meltdown while on a flight. I know I did. My anxiety levels rise the moment our boys get irritable and fussy. I don’t want to disturb others on the plane. I don’t want to be THAT guy.
But the reality is that even the calmest of children have a breaking point. Crying and misbehaving will happen, so it’s up to you to roll with the punches. How you react will set the tone for future flights. If you freak out too, there’s a good chance your children will associate air travel with daddy and mommy being angry.
Don’t worry about what others think. Many people on the plane are parents that have been in your position before. They can empathize with you and are usually willing to give a hand when needed.
Stay cool. Smile. Ask for help. It will be over before you know it.
If there’s one tip I’d like all traveling families to take, it’s this: slow down!
Don’t try to replicate the way you used to travel before kids. Things are different now, so try not to squeeze too many activities or sightseeing into one day. Enjoy your big activity or adventure in the morning when everyone is fresh and recharged. Break up the day and spend some quiet time back at the hotel before you venture out again.
The most enjoyable travel experiences we’ve had are the ones where we’ve set proper expectations for each day. Remember, travel is supposed to be fun. So make it fun!
Family travel doesn’t have to be a daunting experience that should be put on hold “until the kids get older.” It takes a little more planning and an adjustment of attitude, but you’ll be so glad you made the extra effort when you see the positive impact travel will have on your children…and you.
Cameron Wears is one half of the duo behind the award-winning Canadian travel blog TravelingCanucks.com. Having traveled to over 65 countries and territories on six continents in the past eight years, he now lives in beautiful Vancouver, Canada, with his wife Nicole and their two young boys. You can follow their family travel adventures on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook.