Your Ultimate Guide to Traveling with Kids: It Does Not Have to Be Stressful
In 2021, during the second year of the COVID pandemic, I braved to fly across the world with two little kids and a baby! By myself. Without tablets or DVD players. And we were A-OK! Scroll down to see my survival guide.
As nervous as I was to take little children with me to a crowded airport full of strangers, I chose to look at it as an adventure together! It’s the time when I GET to hold them during long layovers or plane rides. I GET TO teach them how the planes work or about the country, we will be visiting (map lovers, anyone?). It is the time when I can allow myself to slow down and BE with them as opposed to being occupied by chores and a million other things that day-to-day life brings.
Here are the most useful tips I can share with you:
Prepare your child
Talk to your child about what is going to happen. Go through the trip that’s ahead of you. Especially if it is their first time traveling. Explain how you and your child will pack for the trip. How you will drive to the airport, go through security, and get on the plane. I would even suggest role-playing! Tell them they will sit next to you, and about the nice ladies who will serve them a meal and yummy snacks. Tell them what the bathrooms are like and that when you land, they will get to see the captain who flew the plane (they typically stand at the exit and thank you for flying.)! If your child likes planes, they will be especially excited about that part. So perhaps even mention that in order to meet the captain, they have to be very patient during the flight? I have heard a mom tell her restless little boy that his behavior was distracting the captain and he couldn’t fly the plane. While that is clever, make sure such statements don’t cause tension or anxiety in your child.
Don’t lie to your child
If you are getting ready to conquer a 12-hour road trip, or a flight over the Atlantic like me, tell your child about it! Don’t lie and say “oh it’s not so bad, it will be quick.” Wrong! It WILL be long, tiring, and maybe at some points boring. Tell them. What does “long time” mean? Is it as long as their favorite TV show? Is it as long as the 2-hour drive to the grandparents? Tell them that “hey, we will be on the plane for 8 hours - that means we will eat dinner on the plane, sleep, eat breakfast, and as soon as we are done, we will only have one TV show amount of time left before we have to buckle up again for landing!” This helps your child put what “long” means into perspective. We all fear the unknown. The sequence of events eliminates the stress and anxiety of the unknown. And trust me - you will have a much more patient child on the plane, and less questions of “are we there yet?”
Also, during the weeks leading up to the trip, I preemptively mention to my girls how glad I am they are coming with me because I will need all the help with the baby that I can get (hehe!). I would say something like “oh my goodness, how will I carry this bag while having to feed your baby sister…” And immediately my 6-year-old would say “momma, we will help you! Don’t worry!” And you bet she did! She or her 4-year-old sister would “watch” the baby while I helped the other sister in the bathroom (right next to me, but it still counts!). They pulled my carry-on luggage if I had to nurse the baby while pushing the stroller because we had to get to our gate. At one point my 4-year-old even helped me put my shoes on on the plane because I had 7 gajillion things going on simultaneously. The sweetest! And each time that my girls fulfilled their promise of helping me - I praised them and rewarded them. As a result, it only encouraged them to continue helping. If your kids are anywhere as competitive as mine, they will race to help first.
Speaking of rewarding your child - prepare! Make sure to have their favorite candy on hand or something else small that you can pull out at a moment's notice. If it’s in your budget, plan to buy a new toy or a treat at your connecting airport once you land. It will give your child something to look forward to AND will encourage them to keep being a sweet helper. When we connect in Copenhagen, we always stop in at their famous LEGO shop.
Pro tip: If you are traveling with a child that still needs to nap, may I suggest having a lollipop on hand? As much as I don’t encourage sugar for the little bodies (especially if they have no room to work off the sugar energy), when you are traveling across the world it is all hands on deck! Or, all tricks-on-deck. When my oldest was only 18 months old, she and I flew back from Europe alone. We had to be at the airport before 5am, which only resulted in an exhausted child. At one point she was so tired nothing could soothe her. The noise of the plane wasn’t helping either. Before we took off, my mom slipped me a lollipop at the airport just in case my daughter needed a treat. So when nothing helped my exhausted and delirious toddler, I pulled out the lollipop to try and distract her and stop scaring other passengers. Wouldn’t you believe, she fell asleep instantly! Sucking on a lollipop mimics a pacifier and provides the soothing sensation the babies crave. She immediately calmed down. And although she did not finish the lollipop, the crisis was averted! She just laid her sticky face on my only shirt and all was good with the world again. Except my shirt...
Lastly, have a few small busy bags ready for when boredom takes over the little minds, to prevent emotions from driving their behavior. Which brings me to my next piece of advice:
Keep your child busy
When I travel with my girls, my goal for activities is something small or something we can use and throw away (and make room in our bags for souvenirs!).
Busy activities for the airport:
Balloons - They don’t take up a lot of space and you can throw them away after playing. Balloons have endless possibilities - you can volley, kick, throw, chase, play hot-potato, etc.
Chalk - you can use wipes to clean it off of most surfaces.
Draw a maze on the ground and make it a goal to walk through in different ways: heel to toe, on your tippy-toes, backward, like a crab, etc. This game always results in giggles in our family. We all take turns choosing the next “walk” and it only gets sillier with time.
A piece of string or yarn
Make sure it is long enough to make a one-line maze with turns spaced in one-foot intervals. Play Robot on The Line. Start by standing at one end. Your child has to direct you to the other end of the maze by giving you instructions of “turn right” or “turn left” ONLY! Then switch places. This will work on your child’s laterality AND directionality. If they are not good with their left and right, have them stand behind you or next to you and move along with you so their right and left are always the same as yours (meaning, don’t make them stand across from you where their left and right are opposite from yours).
My kids love tracing the planes in the distance onto the airport window. We end up coloring each one differently, and playing a story-telling game about who we think is sitting at each window. Let the imagination run wild!
keep in mind that it is a liquid, so make sure the size of the bottle complies with TSA regulations.
Play Charades - for this game, you only need a pen and a piece of paper, or nothing at all!
Craft or electricians tape
find a larger space at a gate that’s not boarding and make a maze that your child has to walk through like on a tightrope;
make a hopscotch game. I tend to mark certain squares where only the hand can be placed - not the foot. It makes for a funnier, more challenging, and way more exhausting game!
mark X’s on the floor and play the hot lava game.
make a maze of roads for their toy car to drive through, etc. When you are done, remove the tape and throw it away!
Slap hands - these are individually wrapped and stick great to windows.
Puzzles - I put ours in Ziploc bags to save space in the suitcase.
Play “move like an animal” - no equipment needed. Score! Or if the imagination is escaping you, use these cards.
These activities are purposefully selected with physical exercise in mind. You will be getting on the plane and will have to sit in one spot for a while, don’t spend your time in the airport sitting and watching TV or playing on electronics.
Busy activities for the plane (or car):
Check out my post for my tips on traveling with kids in a car.
Cling on stickers - these are great for little ones because they stick onto windows, faux leather, plastic, vinyl, etc., and can be removed and reapplied over and over. My 18month old spent HOURS with her stickers on the plane, transferring them from one armrest to the other.
Play make-up for sisters to play salon on each other (or on you, dad ;-) )
Legos - choose smaller sets. We like these for their portable case.
Mess-free Finger paint book that does not require stamps or water!
Knot a Quilt kit by Melissa & Doug
Build your own toy kit - no tools or glue needed! I love this kit because you can divide it up and use different vehicles for different trips.
Bead kit to make necklaces in a cute carrying case! Better yet, a bag of fruit loops so they can make their own snack necklace for later.
Draw the map of where you’re going or where you would like to go for the next trip.
Bandaids - in addition to healing boo-boos, it also serves as a challenging sticker.
Audiobooks - Best Books for Roadtripping with Kids
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