Essential Tips for Traveling with Tots

If I had to choose an audio intro to this post it would be that chorus— Hit me with your best shot!

I don’t know about the rest of the lyrics, but I feel like this would be an appropriate chant for the approach of this topic.

Friends… I am on my sixth or seventh itineration/furlough/visit (however you call it, as long as you don’t call it a vacation 🤣) to America while traveling with kids. It is definitely a journey.

We’ve traveled in all kinds of situations:

Seated in lap, with their own seats, with a car seat, sleeping between parents, sleeping on air mattresses, carried in a baby sling, pushed in a stroller, while teething (and cutting first teeth on trans-Pacific flights), while sick, while sleepless and sleepy. Those two usually go hand-in-hand.

We’ve had good trips.

And we’ve had some nightmare ones.

Not all of it is going to depend on the parent and even sometimes our best efforts aren’t everything. But good preparation and good ideas can go a long way to making the travel as reasonable as possible.

The key is in thinking ahead. And in “thinking ahead”, I mean a purposeful approach. This is not thinking about what all can go wrong and avoiding those things.

It’s also not: what all do I want out of my trip and how can I make the most of it? We need that if it’s going to be successful.

It has to be a combination of the two: how can I limit the things that can go awry and how can I mindfully set everyone up to get what they need out of the trip?

If only one question is answered, the balance will tip in the other side. If we only think about preparing for the worst, we are unprepared and unable to work toward the best. If we are only prepared for the best, then the worst is going to do it’s best to show up.

In my trial and error of travel with tots, here’s what I’ve learned on my travels:

Preparation

Many kids enjoy the adventure of traveling. They are excited and full of energy… certainly more energy than their parents have.

To help put a good leash on some of the excitement and not staunch it completely, I find it helpful to give my kids a set of only 3 rules for air travel. Ours are:

– You have to sit with your seat belt on.

– No fussing on the airplane.

– When we are in the airport, you have to be close enough to touch mom or dad at all times.

My kids can tell you our rules at any time— even when we aren’t traveling. It has made a difference, and when one is tempted to make a fuss about something, the others reminds them of the rules.

Give them pop quizzes about the rules in the weeks leading up to travel. Talk about your plane schedule (once the plane goes up, we will get to eat, then you can watch a movie and then we have to take a nap so that we aren’t grumpy when we land).

Encourage Team Work

We try to talk about how we are working together. This is what Parents have to do so that we can do such and such, and this is how Kids can help it to go smoothly so we can have fun times. Instead of doing it all ourselves, as the kids have gotten bigger, we try to talk about what needs to happen and find ways they can be a part of the process. Usually, when they can see the goal or the point, they are more willing to cooperate, help out and see it as part of their adventure.

We also have predetermined roles for security points. My husband is usually in charge of getting laptops out, getting the bigger suitcases up, taking charge of any liquid. My job is corralling the kids, keeping the passports on hand, and getting the kids their backpacks as soon as we finish.

Having this predetermined has made security checks a breezy bustle for us. We haven’t left anything or anyone behind yet.

Packing

My kids each have their carryon backpack. Because my kids would each prefer to take their entire room with them, I give them limits: one toy, one mini-stuffed animal. An activity book, etc.

They each get their own headphones and usually a cup. A pack of tissue and a small container of hand sanitizer. A rolled-up plastic bag for trash.

I do *not* pack snacks in their bags. Mom keeps those in bulk in my own purse. Otherwise, they choose pretty inconvenient moments to bring them out: security lines or boarding.

One of our roll-ons is for “first night”. It’s everything we need for arrival and bedtime. My kids use a sound machine. That’s in there. Their pajamas, tooth brushes, baby monitors, etc. all get packed in there. My youngest needs a certain pillowcase, and that gets put in and never left to checked luggage.

Also, I always pack a nightlight in that roll-on. New environments are hard on little ones, especially when they wake up in the dark and a familiar nightlight helps them get to sleep.

One recent useful addition is a blow-up cushion for between seats. When bedtime is approaching, I (albeit awkwardly) blow it up 2/3 of the way, place it between us and the seat ahead (make sure you’re not going to need anything else stored under the seats) and then finish blowing it up.

This has helped our kids greatly to be able to sleep without falling off the seats… it’s even extended sleep time for them. And even when I’m sleeping with a kid on me, I can prop my legs up.

*Freebie Travel Tip: This isn’t particularly related to kids. Keep a ziplock for your currency switch. This stays in an easily accessible place and once we land in the next country, we take a moment to empty our wallets of one currency and replace it with new stuff. This saves a lot of hassle at the cash register.

On that note, I keep my American “savings” ziplock. This is for gift cards, “rewards cards” for stores so that you can get better prices (I made the mistake of throwing them all away when we initially moved overseas), a list of phone numbers that I’ve used to register my kids in kids church programs, etc. There’s a designated bag and it’s one of the first and last things we deal with.

In Country

Routines

This may be a given, but if you’ve traveled with littles, you know how much a change in their routine can create anxiety. Our first kid didn’t need many routines to thrive, but we’ve had to change that with our younger ones who really needed it. Still, our oldest benefited.

But this particular trip, we are sleeping in new beds every 5-15 days. So my strategy is to build up our routines:

Make a bigger and more tender deal out of our bedtime routines in particular. We don’t skip any of them even for the most tired of nights, but make them a little more intentional to help alleviate any worries the smaller ones may be having.

For my older one, I set her homework out on the table for early morning tasks. Otherwise, I leave out something for the kids for the morning (if they are old enough to be trusted alone).

Food

This one is tricky.

We make it a point to try at least a bite of new “American foods”, but in reality, my kids end up eating a lot of French fries and chicken strips.

For my youngest, I am just happy if she’s eating. She has some snacks that she loves and I try to always have these on hand for emergencies.

This is one area I don’t have many suggestions for. Make trying new things fun or a game. But use a survival approach to mealtime and leave your “balanced meal” philosophy for home.

Day to Day Life

The Suitcase Life

This is where that second law of thermodynamics will get ya: all systems move toward disorder. It has never proved truer than on itineration.

I stick to designated spots for everything. Dirty laundry goes here. Hair stuff goes there. Chargers go here and only here. Toys always go back in your book bag at the end of playtime. The bounds of your suitcase space versus mine are clearly defined. And each suitcase/bag has a specific function— we do not mix or move or borrow space. This is the only way I know to combat the wily laws of nature.

Battle Strategies

I find that a good 20-30 minutes of prep time at the end of my day sets everyone up for success the next.

So, even on my most exhausting day, it’s still worth it to pull together instead of dealing with chaos the next day.

During this time, I:

– Lay out everyone’s clothes for the next day (except my husband’s)

-Pack bags for a full day of activities the next day (supplies, toys/games, activity books, etc).

-Wash kids’ cups, etc.

-Take care of my accounting (receipts, etc), and get prepared for any errands the next day.

-Write my to-do lists and reminders

-Touch up anything that is out of order or suitcase that is on the brink of chaos.

It’s tiring, but I’ve never regretted it in the morning. I have definitely regretted it the next day when I’ve just gone to bed without taking care of business.

Since this time is our biggest opportunity to connect with people, we end up in a lot of conversations at any given time.

While my kids are still working on this one, our rule for when they need my attention is to come out their hand on my hip. This lets me know they need to talk to me. My response is to cover their hand with mine. This lets them know that I’m aware and will attend to them as soon as I can.

I try not to keep them waiting, but it’s a good way to keep from being constantly interrupted.

Other than that…

We only require “hello’s” and “goodbye’s” to people. If they are asked “how are you” and mom/dad are around, “good, thank you.” is appropriate. We don’t push them for more, but we do require common courtesy and we discuss this ahead of time. 

We try to engage the kiddos. Encourage them to ask questions about the things they see.

On that note— since my kids are now in an English-speaking environment, I try to encourage them to ask questions about people (how they look, what they’re doing), during the times when it’s just us. Or in a whisper. This is a good conversation to have ahead of time with them.

We try not to keep the kids running from meeting to meeting. We try to find time to play at the park or have a movie night. One of my kid needs creative time, one needs running time and the other needs alone time. And so we try to keep that in mind so they can feel refreshed.

Also, if possible, we FaceTime with friends back home. Or have our kids write and regularly send post cards to their friends so that they can feel connected to their “home” communities and vice versa.

This is all I’ve got for the moment! Even with all these things, life still gets messy. We still have to go with the flow of schedule changes and unexpected obstacles, deal with grumpiness and tears, fears, accidents and sleepless nights. But these tips here are our best efforts toward success in one of our most challenging activities.

If you’ve done international travel with kiddos of any age, I’d like to hear your tips! What are your best suggestions for managing this furloughs/visits with littles??

3 thoughts on “Essential Tips for Traveling with Tots

  1. Solid! I love the idea of a ‘first night’ bag.

    We practice much of these same things. It’s different now that the boys are a bit older, but we still do the packing list for their carryons – 1 book, headphones, 1 game (instead of toy for the orders) etc.

    Something we have done for longer flights and right now as we are taking a super long multi-week road trip with a toddler: getting several small cheap things from a dollar store, that she has never seen before, and that I pull out when she is desperately board, restless, upset, etc. I can’t tell you how useful getting a cheap knock off of one of those pop-it things has been on this trip, pulled out of the bag at just the right time! Also, I got window stickers for the car, though I suppose this could be done on a plane too. But sticker books, a tiny toy ‘camera’ for her to take ‘pictures’, things like that.

    Like

    1. YES! A dollar store bag of tricks! Love it. That sounds super helpful. My oldest one took along origami paper and also a travel journal this time but the toy camera sounds like a great idea for littles too!
      We took a day trip by car and we had a travel I Spy card game that helped for a few hours. And a joke book, if your little is old enough to get that.

      Like

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