Traveling with Children: Fantasy and Reality

toddler on floor at museum

My family is on the brink of a new phase in our adventures. Since the birth of our daughter, we no longer have the numbers advantage enjoyed on our trips with our older son. From here on out, we face a two-versus-two, parent-vs-child cage match on planes, trains, automobiles and everywhere in between.

My wife and I love to travel, and we spend much of our disposable income on it. We have been around the world, and have schlepped our son along with us in his first few years of his life. For the most part, it has been a barrel of fun. On occasion, it has been a barrel of hell.

Whether you are a travelholic considering starting a family, or you already have children and want to explore the world more, I welcome you to join me as I recount the highs and lows of our experience.

The Fantasy

queens guard soldier
The Queen’s Guard at Windsor Castle.

Years ago, I had only vague ideas of what family travel would entail. Expectations and reality rarely mesh perfectly, and travel with children has been no exception.

Without further ado, I present a delusional utopian vision of family travel that I imagined before I had children.

It’s the night before our big trip. Our bags have been packed since yesterday, and we have time for a quiet, relaxed, home-cooked meal. At dinner, we mention to the children that an early bedtime would be prudent, given our flight leaves at the crack of dawn. Big brother and little sister heartily agree, and skip upstairs to the bath after dinner without a single complaint.

Without. A. Single. Complaint.

After a restful night’s sleep for all, we gently rouse the children just before it’s time to leave. To think the children might wake up several times in the night, resulting in a sleep-deprived first day of vacation, would be unimaginable.

We hop into the car, lickety-split, and cruise off to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It’s a beautiful, sunny day with no traffic. We luck upon a parking spot near the terminal, and leisurely make our way to the gate via short security lines and pleasant TSA workers.

The flight is heavenly. My wife and I get unanticipated upgrades to first class, and an elderly couple graciously offers to look after our impeccably behaved children in coach. For my wife and I, the 8-hour flight—a blur of champagne and fully-reclined slumber—is over too soon. As we deplane, we learn that our children slept through the entire flight following an impromptu rendition of “So Long, Farewell” for the passengers and crew.

We arrive at our destination: Classic European City. A warm, late summer breeze greets us each day as we stroll the cobblestone streets. We are all well rested and not the least bit cranky. The food is delectable; our children often clean their plates, and are willing to taste even the most exotic and unfamiliar dishes. Our bliss must be evident to the locals, as we are met with a constant barrage of waves, smiles, and compliments on our children’s behavior.

The timing is perfect: the summer crowds have left and the lines are short at all the major attractions. Afternoons are spent napping and playing in the grass at the park. My wife and I will sometimes join the nap, and other times catch up on reading while the children sleep. By the end of our two-week trip, we have learned many new fascinating facts about our destination city, and even made a few local friends. We shall return home smarter, well rested, and rejuvenated.

Yes, our children live and breathe to travel.

The Reality

lisbon with one sock
One sock in Lisbon.

Delays. Exhaustion. Vomit.

Travel with children is not all this bad, but it certainly has trying moments. We have been fortunate that our son seems to mostly enjoy the travel experience; only time will tell for our 2-month-old daughter.

What is the reality of traveling with children? Allow me to illustrate with a few lessons learned and take home points from our experience thus far.

Plan extensively and far ahead of time. I have nothing against a spontaneous, last-minute jaunt to some far-flung corner of the globe. I would love to travel like this myself someday. But with two working parents and children involved, my planning begins at least six months ahead.

First, my wife and I must coordinate time off from work—sometimes no small task. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, and the last thing I need is to be wandering around a foreign city looking for a place to stay. Thus, all accommodations and transfers are planned in full and in advance.

Be realistic and flexible. I sometimes have to remind myself that our son is a child, and he did not sign up for a life of international travel. We cut him a lot of slack.

We limit ourselves to one major activity/excursion per day. If we don’t make it back to our rental for nap time, a snooze in the stroller or in a park is a workable alternative (with the understanding that crankiness may ensue later).

If junior is really, really averse to trying something new, we try not to confront the issue on vacation. We love hiking and walking, for example, but Mr. Tired Legs has not exactly taken to the pastime. Although we will continue to encourage the denied activity back home, he gets a pass on holiday.

Getting there will be exhausting. If international travel can be tiring for a twenty-something single person, it can be physically and psychologically debilitating for a thirty-something parent. Crossing time zones in a plane, in coach, will leave everyone a little worse for the wear.

On a flight to London last year, our son decided that sleep was for the weak. Luckily, an iPad and near-constant snacking kept us from losing our sanity. Ear pain due to pressure changes and changing a diaper in turbulence are just a couple painful situations unique to flying. But beware the mundane: everything that can go wrong on a random Saturday can also go wrong at 30,000 feet. A fractured animal cracker or torn coloring book page can spell disaster.

You will pack enough for a small army. Entering the airport for a long trip, my wife and I have luggage, baby gear, and children draped off our bodies, like some bizarre camouflage worn for an invasion of Babies R’ Us.  Diapers, strollers, and portable cribs are just some of the new gear that you must figure out how to carry. Gone are the days of a single carry-on bag for a two-week trip; it makes me laugh and cry a little to remember that time.

Expect to pay more. More humans = more money, obviously. Young children are reduced price or free in some situations, but very much adult price in others.

On long flights, we purchase a separate seat for our son: a luxury that is, in my opinion, well worth the cost and peace of mind. More power to you if you can contain a 20-month-old on your lap for an 8-hour flight. That ain’t me.

Upon arrival at our destination, we usually opt for a private car transfer from the airport to the city, with a taxi or Uber as a back up option. Public transport is out of the question with 100+ pounds of unwieldy luggage and sleep-deprived kids and parents.

TSA precheck is nice. Every little bit helps when navigating security with little ones. TSA precheck lets you keep your shoes and belt on, leave electronics in the bag, and pass through a mere metal detector instead of the “see through clothing” machine.

Kids puke. My son takes after his mother in that he’s not afraid to let the vomit fly when the mood hits him. On one memorable occasion, we landed in Chicago following awful turbulence during landing and were greeted by—I am not exaggerating—one mile long customs line. My wife took it in stride and strapped our son on her back for the long wait. Moments later I heard a scream, and spun around to witness a stream of bile and old hamburger running down my wife’s back.

Pray your child does not get motion sickness.

Home/apartment rentals >> hotels. Do you love sneaking around in the dark after your children have fallen asleep right next to you at 8pm? Then by all means, book a hotel room for your family.

After a few uninspiring hotel stays, we switched to VRBO and Airbnb rentals for our accommodations, and have never looked back. The key is common space—living rooms, kitchens, patios, pools, and hot tubs. After the children are tucked in bed and the baby monitors are powered up, the house is your playground.

Each trip will be both better and worse than the last. People change, especially children. Don’t expect the next travel experience to be like the last. As our son grew, he slept less and puked less, moved around more and occupied himself more. Recognize and adapt to survive.

London street puppeteer.
London street puppeteer.

The Joy

In the darker moments of travel with young children, you may wonder what the hell you are doing. Do they even enjoy traveling? Why am I torturing myself and them with this madness?

But the reality of family travel is not invariably a depressing shell of the travel fantasy. In fact, reality far exceeded expectations for us on more than one occasion.

For one thing, children are a wonderful ice breaker. Their honesty and openness can be disarming. People will take your children out of your arms and let them play in the kitchen (this happened to us in more than one country).

To see the world through the eyes of a young child is to see the world for the first time. Chasing a flock of pigeons around a city square may be frowned upon and ill-advised, but it is undeniably fun. A bus ride can become a grand adventure. And the street performer your child forced you to stop and watch might form a memory that lasts forever.

What have your travel experiences with children been like? Can I expect things to get better or worse as my children grow?

26 Replies to “Traveling with Children: Fantasy and Reality”

  1. Oh boy, this sounds very, very familiar! We particularly like the flexibility note, that really makes of breaks a holiday! Awesome post.
    P.s. we have similar vomit stories unfortunately. Motion sickness is definitely a problem sometimes.

    1. Low expectations are key! All we really know for certain is that we will arrive on a certain day an leave some time later. Kids can throw a wrench into any plans in between, but sometimes it’s a good wrench.

      I have become used to the puking, but I do wish we would get a little more warning.

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

  2. Oh man, this is hilarious! I loved your fantasy (especially the kind couple taking care of your kids in coach 😉 ) We have learned to slow down, take it easy and be flexible… and we only have one so far! We are road tripping + taking a ferry to a local island in 2 weeks so we’ll see how that goes!

    1. We have not traveled with two yet, but have plans to do so this winter. I will let you know the results!

      I had a lot of fun writing that fantasy trip, but in truth we feel very lucky to be healthy and wealthy enough to explore the world with our kids.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Dr. C

  3. This is all true. The travel fantasy would make a good bedtime story for parents. When we have craziness going on, I try to remind myself that all families have difficulties going out with kids at times.

    We haven’t brought the kids through the airport yet, but we’re taking all 4 next winter.

    1. I’ll be looking forward to a post mortem of your travel experience! I want to say, “I’m sure it will be fine,” but I don’t want to jinx anything 😉

  4. I had a hard enough time travelling by myself in Europe (though the inability to walk well with a broken foot and crutches didn’t help), I can’t imagine how much harder it would’ve been with a kid. I probably would’ve packed up and gone home at that point 😛 Ah, if you could only fantasy travel, and everything would be perfect…

    1. Fantasy travel—in the sense of imagining and anticipating a trip—is sometimes just as great as the actual trip itself! Hours and hours of travel research is an end in itself for me, even if the trip falls through.

      You should trust your instincts and avoid travel with children until all the broken bones have healed 🙂

  5. luxestrategist says: Reply

    This line is genius:
    “Entering the airport for a long trip, my wife and I have luggage, baby gear, and children draped off our bodies, like some bizarre camouflage worn for an invasion of Babies R’ Us. ”

    Man, you make having kids seem soooooo enticing! I always tells myself that I’m going to get all my travel out of the way before having kids. And I will just not go on anymore vacation until the kids are 5 years old. We’ll see how realistic that is, ha!

    1. Alright, maybe I’m exaggerating the difficulty a *little* bit. It’s a much different experience traveling with children compared to our solo travels. We choose different destinations and activities, but we still have a great time.

      Do check out my post about our tip to France for a more positive spin on family travel:

      Thanks TLS!
      Dr. C

  6. Physician on FIRE says: Reply

    You’re a brave soul to travel extensively with such young children. We did a little bit, but when you’re in the diaper / nap / tantrum over a broken Cheerio phase, world travel just seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

    Since our boys have been big enough to walk, talk, stay awake all day, and poop in toilets, we’ve picked up the pace with our travels. It’s much easier and more enjoyable for everyone.


    1. Our travel bug is too insistent to wait until the no nap, full poop age to take the kids along. We have done some childless travel with grandparent babysitters, and it has been great, but we prefer to take them along if possible. We definitely do “stay put” vacations nowadays, either in a beach or city, rather than multiple destination trips.

      I know they won’t have memories of it, but my wife and I will. Our son loves looking at photographs of his previous trips. He tells us he likes traveling, but who knows with a 3-year-old!

      Dr. C

  7. I wouldn’t say I prefer to take them along, but sometimes you just have to either because it is a family trip (not the same thing as a vacation) or because you can’t get anyone to watch them.

    Those who haven’t done international travel with children need to realize it is very different from international travel without children. Not only is the trip half the fun and twice the hassle, but it also costs 3 times as much. It isn’t that it isn’t still fun, or isn’t worth it to do occasionally, but don’t kid yourself that your kids will care about much except the pool at the hotel. For all they care, you might as well be staying at the Best Western down the street from your house. That changes some as they get older, but a lot less than I thought.

    And don’t plan on this being a vacation. It’s a trip, but not a vacation.

    1. I have heard about the “pool factor” from quite a few parents with older kids, but ours hasn’t quite hit that age yet. For now, he just wants to walk around and look at stuff, which presents its own set of challenge when traveling abroad.

      We will see how the pain and joy balance out as the kids grow and we continue to travel. Sprinkling in an occasional parents only trip might help make family travel a little more palatable.

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

  8. Dreamer In Chief says: Reply

    Ah traveling with kids. I remember we once spent 45 minutes going around the tram in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport just because the kids were so entertained and we had a 3-hour layover. I totally dig your reasoning for getting a rental vs. a hotel! I have to say I’m very happy when the airplane has free kids movies at each seat. Whoever came up with that idea is a genius. When a four-hour flight becomes just watching Frozen and Trolls with headphones instead of constant interaction and stimulation, it makes for a much better flight for everyone.

    1. I have been on the DFW tram, and it is even fun for adults! That is a huge airport.

      When our son was almost two, he was mesmerized by watching a movie about monkeys (with no sound, mind you) for a good three hours on one of those seat-back monitors. Nowadays, the iPad is the vice of choice.

      Everyone on the plane benefits from occupied and quiet children 🙂

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

  9. This is just great! We don’t have any waffles kiddos yet, but definitely plan to continue traveling if/when we do. Thanks for laying it all out there, the good, the bad and the ugly.

    1. Thanks for reading, Mrs. Wow! I had fun writing it, even the bad and ugly parts 🙂

  10. we booked a week off for 2018- destination yet unknown. My kids has flown more in his life then I had my first 15 years. I definitely want him comfortable running around and traveling. The next goal is to find a way to travel with less things. Packing has become such a bear now. We used to have one carry on and somehow now have at least one checked back every time.

    1. I know the feeling: I didn’t fly for the first time until college! But once I caught the travel bug after my semester abroad, I was hooked.

      Not sure how old you son is, but the ability to walk and sleep in a regular bed (and resulting loss of the stroller and portable crib) were huge. Of course, we just regained these travel items with the new baby!

      Thanks for stopping by, DDD!

  11. I read half your post when it came out then got interrupted by our 4 month old having an epic Exorcist style spit-up just after the elderly couple took care of your kids in coach – just got to the other half. I love the fantasy, so vivid. The entire cabin singing “So Long, Farewell” paints the perfect mental picture of what it’s not like. Incidentally, it reminds me of a great episode of family guy with a Griffin family rendition of the song for your pleasure:

    Traveling with our daughter was just getting fun. Like that video game that was hard a first then got good once you put the time in (Metal Gear Solid??). Then we hit the reset button with our second kid born 5-6-17. Trying the first trip in October with the pair. We’ll be going to the parents so there is salvation if the schlepping itself goes awry. Keep us posted on your first vacation with the infant and toddler.

    As I’ve said before, you have a talent for travel blogging, even fantasy travel blogging.

    1. Having parents along is KEY! It’s magical to have a dinner out somewhere on vacation during which all the food stays on the table and one of the dinner party doesn’t try to constantly wander away.

      We were supposed to be in Hilton Head Island today, but we delayed until later in the week (still pending the damage). I’ll be interested to hear your first travel experience as well!

      Thanks for stopping by AGLMD!
      Dr. C

      1. Hilton Head? I trained in Charleston. If you want a good trip with kids, Charleston is amazing. Especially if you are a foodie and like the beach. Ahh…… the days of dual disposable income and no kids. DDINKS

        1. We love Charleston! Our good friends who trained in Pittsburgh moved down there (wife is a pediatric electrophysiologist). They used to live downtown but now live in Mount Pleasant.

          We’ve visited 6 or 7 times over the years, and have stayed on Isle of Palms and Seabrook Island on different trips. I looked for jobs in the area after residency but came up empty. Maybe someday we will FIRE there!

  12. To RE or not to RE? says: Reply

    This is an important topic!
    I have 3 boys under the age of 3 (no twins). My wife and I routinely traveled before the kids and had to make some adjustments since their arrival. We have figured a few things out that may be of help to others:
    First – shorter trips close to home. These should not be overlooked as more regular, achievable trips. These should be scheduled on long weekends several times yearly. We bought a 4×4 Yukon XL solely for this purpose – flexible weekend trips these vehicles contain kids, bags, gear, chocolate labs without problem. Bouns – get a boat and you have even more options. There are plenty of beaches, parks, and cities that are within several driving hours of anywhere in the US.
    Second – airplane trips – national or international. These require much more planning as mentioned above. I have to disagree about the hotel vs airbnb for those with sub 4 yo children. Nice hotels have cribs available. I CANNOT imaging traveling with a pack-n-play! Nice hotels also have in house baby sitters for the evenings so parents are not prisoners to the house. You didn’t travel across the oceans to stay in for the night! Also, that drop cam will work from the restaurant/bar on the roof if your kids are good sleepers.
    We just returned from Rome this past Saturday and I would particularly recommend it for a young family (after outgrowing strollers). There are innumerable sites to see which are all fairly close geographically (walkable) and the food is great – what kid won’t eat pizza?

    1. Actually, Italy is on our list of candidates for a vacation in the spring, so I’m glad to hear about your experience!

      We found a pack-n-play from Baby Bjorn that is fairly light and portable. The real key, though, is that our son became used to it and slept well in it. Strange beds and cribs tended to disagree with our little prince, although YMMV.

      I’m so glad to hear that quite a few like-minded family adventurers are out there. Maybe we will meet you on the road someday!

      Thanks so much for reading!
      Dr. C

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