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.
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.
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—a 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.
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?