Do you remember what it was like to travel before you had kids? Back then, a road trip was an opportunity for deep thoughts and long conversations. Back when zipping through TSA was a breeze, and a train ride was an excuse to finally finish that novel you’ve had on your “to-do” list. Now that you’re responsible for the safety and survival of other humans, traveling can be a daunting prospect. Unlike the “old days,” when you had to pay for your own passage only, the costs of traveling now days adds up very quickly with a family in tow. Whether it’s plane tickets or hotels rooms, traveling with kids is not for the faint-of-heart.
With the holidays looming, parents are weighing the pros and cons of taking their kids on the road to visit friends and family. Routines will be disrupted, delays are almost guaranteed, and emotional meltdowns are likely to happen. Family travel during the holidays doesn’t have to be torture. In fact, with a little planning, preparation, and creativity, the journey can be more than just something to survive–it can be an opportunity for making memories, spending quality time together, and getting some fresh perspective on the world. Here’s our guide for arriving at your destination feeling peaceful and rested, no matter what mode of transportation you choose.
Packing may be the single most important element for a successful trip, but it’s an art that is difficult to master. We’ve all seen the parents rushing through the airport, weighed down with enough clothes, snacks, toys, and gear to start a new life wherever they’re visiting. On the other hand, every parent has found themselves rummaging through an empty diaper bag, cursing themselves for not packing one more snack or change of clothes. So, should you err on the side of bringing more than enough? Or should you practice minimalism and bring only the essentials? The answer, it turns out, is somewhere in between.
Pack Your Tried-and-True Favorites
It’s easy to imagine that while you’re on vacation, you’ll finally wear that fancy sweater dress or long wool overcoat. However, you should skip anything that you don’t normally wear, especially if it’s tricky to pack. Whatever is on heavy rotation from your wardrobe at home is probably what you’ll reach for when you’re on vacation, too. That comfortable pair of jeans can do double duty for a morning walk through the park and a nice dinner later that night, depending on how you stylize. The same goes for your kids. Comfortable, practical items will get you through the trip without any inconveniences.
For carry-ons and car bags, enlist your kids’ help.
For the trip, your kids will need snacks, entertainment, and if they’re small, probably a few changes of clothes. How do you accomplish this without bringing your entire household into the car, train, or plane?
Include your kids in the process. If they’re old enough to carry their own things, give them a small backpack or tote bag and put them in charge of it. Explain to them the situation: they’ll be sitting in a car, train, or plane for however many hours, and they need to be prepared. Most kids jump at the opportunity to be involved in the planning. With your guidance, they can choose which coloring books, stories, gadgets, dolls, or games they’d like to bring. They can also choose a few extra outfits and even snacks. Whatever they choose must fit into the bag, and they are to be responsible for keeping track of it for the duration of the trip.
This accomplishes a few things. First of all, it takes some of the work off your plate. Secondly, it helps your children prepare mentally for the journey ahead by imagining what it will be like. Thirdly, it gives your child a sense of agency and responsibility, encouraging them to be independent. Plus, if something gets forgotten at home, you won’t have to take all the flack for being the one to leave it behind. (This is important when dealing with adolescents.)
Pro-tip: Bring a change of clothes for yourself, too. You don’t want to find yourself in wandering the airport covered in various bodily fluids and baby food with nothing to wear. We’re speaking from experience.
Have a Trick or Two Up Your Sleeve
So your children packed their own carry-on bags, but you know their entertainment choices will only last so long. So, be sneaky. A few weeks ahead of time, pick up a few toys or crafts that your kids have never played with, and stow them away in your bag. This doesn’t have to be a big, exorbitant gift – in fact, it should be something small that you can stealthily sneak into your own bag, like a pack of Wikki Stix or a Reusable Sticker Pad. Older kids might like trying their hand at Origami or an old-school Dot-to-Dot coloring book. The trick is to save these items for when you need them. The novelty is your secret weapon for when the flight gets held up on the tarmac or when the roads are slick and you need silence from the backseat.
Pack Snacks, Snacks, and More Snacks
Every parent knows: when it comes to fending off tantrums and meltdowns, snacks are vital. For some parents, having snacks on hand is essential to having a peaceful trip to the park or grocery store, so it makes sense that you’ll need to stock up for a longer trek.
Here, planning and preparation go a long way. Sure, on a drive you’ll have plenty of access to gas station snacks and fast food, and a road trip is the perfect time to bend any rules you have in place at home. But letting your kids load up on sugar when they’ll need to be confined to a car seat, airplane, or train isn’t usually the wisest route. Furthermore, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could find yourself in a situation where there is little to no access to food. Being stuck in traffic or on a tarmac with a hungry kid is miserable.
So, plan ahead. If you’re traveling by car, pack a cooler with fruits and vegetables, pre-cleaned and cut into snack-size portions. Carrots, cucumbers, peaches, plums, and apples taste great straight out of the cooler. Deli meat, hummus, and hardboiled eggs provide a filling punch of protein, and ensure that you won’t arrive feeling weighed down by fast food. You can always take your kids out for ice cream when you get to the city, where they can run it off in a park.
If you’re traveling by plane, check here to make sure your snacks will pass through TSA without a hitch. Solid foods are fine to bring along, so pack some handheld snacks like fruit, granola bars, and crackers.
Be Smart About Gifts
Holiday travel presents the unique challenge of lugging along gifts. If you’re bringing gifts, don’t wrap them beforehand; the paper is guaranteed to rip before you arrive. If you can, consider setting aside a day or two for shopping once you arrive. After all, if you’re going to New York, you’ll have access to some of the best shopping in the world.
Another route is changing the way you think about gifts. Consider gifting an experience: a gift card to a great restaurant, admission to an ice skating rink, and tickets to a comedy club, movie, or concert are exciting options. You can also feel confident your gift won’t end up in the landfill someday.
Make a Screen Time Pact and Stick to It
When travel gets tough, many parents turn to screen time. No judgment here – the important part is getting your kids safely from point A to point B. Sometimes, you just need them to sit still and be quiet for a stretch, and a few episodes of a beloved show tends to do the trick.
However, some families find that hours upon hours of screen time brings overstimulation and crankiness. It’s a fine line to walk, and as with many parts of life, balance is key.
Before you leave, sit down as a family and decide on some screen time limits. Let your kids know that they won’t be watching TV for the entirety of your trip. With some planning, you have trip that involves both some personal screen time and quality family time. Here’s how.
Diversify Your Entertainment
Just because you put the kibosh on a non-stop TV marathon doesn’t mean your kids have to simply stare out the window, pondering the meaning of life. You don’t have to put the kibosh on technology altogether.
For road trips, turn to podcasts. Before you go, download some family-friendly podcasts for your whole family to binge on. A whole genre of podcasts aimed and kits exists for this very purpose. Curious, older children will enjoy Brains On!, a podcast that actually provides answers to the tricky questions your kids fire at you all the time, like how do spiders walk on walls? And, what are dreams? Similarly, NPR’s Wow in the World takes a deep, kid-friendly dive into science and technology. For fiction, look no further than Storynory, a storytelling podcast that features writing from authors both young and old.
The best part about listening to a podcast as a family is the interesting conversations you’ll have afterwards.
Slow Down and Take Breaks
With kids, it’s impossible to be in a hurry. Don’t be afraid to stop and take a long break. Historic marker? Kitschy gift shop? Rest stop with a grassy hill for rolling down? Pull over and take a break. These spontaneous moments are sometimes the most memorable ones of your entire vacation. You may get to your destination a little later, but a little patience, exercise and fresh air on the way sets the right tone for your entire trip.