Do You Travel with Your Kids?
If you do, then you know how fun and challenging it can be. We took our first trip when Grayson was 3 and have increased our travel every year since. Traveling with a kid is no walk in the park. It’s rough, challenging and includes it’s fair share of tears. But as with most things in life it is also incredible and beautiful and filled with moments of adventure and awe. It’s not really laid back and I wouldn’t call it “relaxing” per se, but it is full of unforgettable moments and experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I have found that over the course of our trips there are several tried and true tools and tips I use. It doesn’t matter where we are going, these tips have proven to help us whether we’re in the countryside or a big city. Whether we’re taking road trips, trains or planes. I will add, our little guy is a thousand percent extroverted and extremely active. He only recently started enjoying coloring and writing and he is still usually jumping or dancing while he does it.
Ok, I love a cute outfit and great pair of flats or booties, but here I’m talking about what to pack to keep your little one entertained. Every trip I pick 5 things that I know will keep my little one occupied for long spans of time, during dull moments or when any amount of patience is required, because inevitably all three of these happen while traveling. Here are the things we pack that work for us, (1) Story Cards– these are a must have for us, they add endless amount of conversation, jokes, and story creation (sometimes verbal, sometimes drawn). (2) Melissa and Doug Water and Wow Books, if you haven’t seen these they are wonderful for littles. Usborne Wipe Clean Writing & Activity books, my friend recommended these on the first trip we took and we have taken one on every trip since. Or just a small notebook and mini crayons or markers. (3) Cars, hot wheels come with us everywhere. (4) Mini-toys, these have varied for us but it’s usually small animal figurines, bending/folding robots, even dress up masks to wear and play in (our favs are from Opposite of Far), and most recently Super Zings which are all the rage amongst the school kids in Madrid. (5) A good pair of headphones, we use Buddy Phones by On An Off and love them, to watch a movie, listen to music, or play an app… I don’t like to use electronics as my go-to, but I also don’t mind using them when I need to- #nomomguilt. Another key thing when I’m selecting and packing is size. I want something I can throw in my purse or backpack (or his backpack) as we walk around during the day or when we go out to eat.
Parks & Playgrounds
Wherever you go, find the parks, playgrounds, or any free space (field, grassy area, etc.). A lot of traveling can seem boring or rushed or even sensory overload for littles. I’ve found it to be so important to find a place where they can just run and play freely. They get out energy and you can sit and regroup (or join them and run freely too… I’ve done both). If you’re traveling in Europe so many of the airports even have small playgrounds inside them which is so nice. If you’re traveling in cities, you can stumble upon playgrounds or play areas just walking around… and my rule is always stop and let him play (even if it’s for 10 minutes) any time we’re traveling and stumble upon a playground or play area. But this still applies, even if you’re not traveling in a city. We’ve played on the shores of lakes in Oklahoma and in the farm areas in Lorca, Spain, so city or rural wherever you are traveling building in free playtime in a safe play area is so important.
Mix It Up
So I’m not a huge planner when we travel, I have a general idea of what we’ll do each day but I don’t have it all scheduled out. That’s what works for us, but I know a lot of families who schedule everything out because that works best for them. I think that’s just knowing your family’s vibe and which is better for y’all. But what I do recommend is mixing it up and what I mean by that is plan on doing things that are both super kid friendly and things that may not be kid friendly at all. This may sound weird, but I totally recommend trying it. I still remember my doula telling my husband and I that our baby was joining our family and as much as life would change we needed to remember to bring him into how we lived our lives, and I love and cherish this advice. There are things we do, museums we go to, places we eat while we travel that aren’t “kid-friendly” and can sometimes even be, yep, I’m going to say it, boring for our little one. But we do them anyway, because it stretches him, it pushes him out of his boundaries and comfort zones, and it teaches him how to respond and be ok with being a little uncomfortable. And sometimes he gets surprised and really enjoys something (like sitting and watching an hour long flamenco show). Then there are things we do which are extremely kid friendly. Zoos are a big one for us because our little guy is such an animal lover, we always search out zoos and if a place we’re going has a zoo we go to it. We also look for museums that are interactive for kids, aquariums, any special events or activities for kids. Overall I think it’s good to have a balance between kid friendly things and things that may not seem so kid friendly.
A Unique Experience
We love to give our little one some independence or input by letting him craft his own unique experience. We do this by giving him a map and a camera. We started by giving him a play kids camera, then when he really started to take an interest we let him use our cameras, and then we upgraded him to his own as we saw his interest in photography take off. He also loves maps, and he uses them to help plan how we navigate through the place we’re visiting. And a map is a great visual to help kids travel through a location whether it’s through a museum, a town, a zoo, a subway, or the whole city/town. We’ve also done homemade travel scavenger hunts, given him things to find and document as we visit our destination. But whether it’s a camera, a map, a scavenger hunt, or even a travel journal. It adds an element for the littles to feel like they’re a part of the adventure and able to document and participate in their own unique way.
Ok so we’re huge on eating, we love a good meal. But just like I mentioned above, we try to mix it up. A mix of more casual eating (sitting outside and eating hot dogs, sandwiches, pizza or pretzels from a vendor, picnics in the grass) to the less casual (a full service restaurant). I’ve mentioned before that my son is a picky eater and what he actual picks to eat is even more curious, but we don’t let what he will eat determine where we eat. We push the boundaries with him here too and present him with a variety of foods, sometimes he eats it and loves it and sometimes he refuses to even try anything except the free bread served at the beginning of the meal, but for me it’s about exposing him to new things, having him be a part of the dining experience with us, and learning about the food culture wherever we are. This y’all is not without it’s challenges, it usually involves bringing many of the items I listed in number 1 above. And it usually involves me asking him to sit down more times then I can count, and depending on the restaurant and time of day I will let him dance around, especially if we’re seated outside. I also pack snacks and find a local market. Not to take snacks to the restaurant, but to carry with me throughout the trip. I like to find a local market and get things that are familiar to him in the morning when he wakes up, like berries, carrots, granola, apple sauce, milk. It’s surprising how just a small element of the familiar can help little ones center themselves and give a great start to the day.
So we’re not the most planned out travelers, we probably land somewhere in the middle between no plan to completely scheduled. But I think no matter where you fall on that spectrum flexibility when traveling with a little one is a must. Weather happens, potty accidents happen, melt downs happen, adult melt downs happen, holidays you didn’t even know exist happen, there is always an element of the unexpected and the not anticipated when traveling. And I think that requires an element of go with the flow and being able to transition when needed. I’ll give you a perfect example; on our trip to Barcelona we visited the beach, it was December and cold, but my little one loves the beach and asked to just put his toes in the ocean. I let him, and well he ended up in the water to his chest, his clothes soaked, we had no towel, no extra clothes, were a 20 minute bus ride or 40 minute walk from our air bnb, and the temperature was in the thirties. Needless to say we didn’t make it out to dinner as planned and we had an interesting time keeping him warm and getting back to our place. Flexibility was required, and full transparency, when it first happened I was frustrated and flustered, and could only think of the headache I was in for, but after a couple of deep breaths (and choice words said under my breath), I began to laugh, and we figured it out. Now I look back at that moment and I smile, my little one and I had this amazing conversation about experiences and embarrassment, a conversation I couldn’t have had planned or tried to have, it just happened. Was it totally convenient- nope, was it eye rolling annoying, was I worried he was going to get sick- yes, and yes. But it was also an incredible moment, a teachable moment, and a moment where we connected that I couldn't have orchestrated or planned.
Because travel can have so many ups and downs and so many unexpected surprises, we like to include some rituals that our little one can always expect when he travels. Kids enjoy routine and our little one really enjoys knowing what to expect and likes to know what’s coming every step of the way and since with travel you can’t always do that with littles and since routines will be off and schedules will be broken, we wanted to implement an element of the expected or routine that our little one could always count on when we travel. On his very first plane ride, he received the kids meal from United Airlines which included an apple sauce pouch and fruit gummies. And now for every plane ride (or train ride) I make sure we have an applesauce pouch and fruit gummies (this is not something he eats regularly so when we travel he knows this is a part of the travel routine). We bring his elephant from home to sleep with and keep the same bedtime routine, now bed time may be later or he may be sharing a bed with someone, there may be plenty that is different, but we keep the routine the same. He gets to pick a book from a book store in whichever place we visit. He has books in French, in Spanish, in Portuguese, it’s pretty cool and entertaining as we attempt to read them. and we let him plan a day, so he knows where we’re going and gets to choose what we’ll do and eat and see that day.
I think when traveling with kids, it’s all about balance, flexibility, knowing, and expecting that life happens no matter where you are, whether you’re at home or traveling. It’s full of deep breathing and belly laughs, from sampling different flavors of giolatto to screaming no at the top of your lungs when your son eats a piece of bread a pigeon just spit out, because “why waste bread mama”. I think all travel, but certainly family travel is all about the journey. So here’s to all the parents embracing the journey with a few tips and tools to help along the way.