Being hesitant to travel with young kids is understandable. Maybe you’ve experienced a toddler screaming for the entirety of a coast-to-coast flight. Worse, maybe that was your toddler. But saying your kids are too young to travel is a slippery slope. When will you know when they’re old enough? The fact is, the sooner you start taking trips with your kids, the sooner they’ll adapt to journeying. And the sooner they — and you — will reap the benefits of that travel. Here’s why you should travel with your kids, no matter how young they are.
You really can work around their schedules.
Some little kids wake up at the crack of dawn. It’s painful, but there are workarounds. For one, staying in an Airbnb makes it easier to eat an early breakfast. If you’re staying in a hotel, try to reserve one that has a minibar so you can keep a few breakfast items in the tiny fridge.
If you’re traveling with an adult partner, divide and conquer. One of you can take the little one out to a cafe — or a playground — while the other one sleeps just a little longer. They may wish they were still in bed, but the adult who gets out early gets a different window into life in that new location. We spent a week in Menorca when our son was 14 months old, and 6:00 AM was his preferred wake-up time.
My husband got up every day, grabbed the stroller, and took him to the local cafe. My husband had an espresso while the two shared croissants and observed the grey-haired residents of town gather for breakfast together. Then they hit the playground before the day got too hot.
And you can manage their naps.
Little kids also need to nap, sometimes in the middle of the day. That may be the hardest part of the vacation schedule. You’d like to spend the whole day exploring, but you know that if your child doesn’t get that nap, you may be releasing the Kraken.
Don’t skip the nap. If you can divide and conquer, do that with naptime. Your partner can explore the neighborhood on their own and have some cherished alone time while you do something luxurious yourself — like take a vacay nap of your own. You can take turns each day — or give the nap to the one who woke up extra early.
If you’re on a beach holiday, one of you can go for a swim or a run while the other reads a book on the veranda as your child sleeps. Chances are, you’ll look back at those vacation naps as a special moment to just slow down.
If you’re road tripping, and your kid is a good car sleeper, plan drive times to coincide with nap time. Just try not to plan a flight in the middle of nap time, if you can at all help it. (See above note about screaming child on an airplane.)
And then there’s dinner time.
If your child is, in fact, waking up at the crack of dawn, you may need to get them into bed before it’s even dinnertime in a large part of the world. In those places, lunch may be quite late, so you can make the latest lunch reservation possible — and just call it an early dinner. In Spain, tapas can be your evening meal. Throughout North America, northern Europe, and even East Asia, dinner time will be about the same as at home.
Jet lag can work in your favor.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about time. If you’re traveling somewhere where schedules are very different than back home, you might be able to take advantage of jet lag to push your kids’ clocks gently forward. In southern Spain, it’s not uncommon to see families with grandparents and babies in tow arriving for dinner at 10:30 PM.
We have no idea how they do it. But we do know that houses and hotels in many Mediterranean and South American countries have blackout windows that make rooms pitch black — even at high noon. So, yes, you can trick your kids into adjusting their body clocks a bit. And then you can make a dinner reservation for 9:00 PM — when the restaurant opens. You may be the only ones there, but you’ll get a nice dinner.
Traveling with little kids is not that expensive.
Unless your child is under two and can sit on your lap, the biggest ticket item in traveling with kids is flights. After that, young ones don’t take up that much space, so they don’t necessarily need an extra hotel room. (If you have three or more children, that’s a different story.)
If you have one or two kids, you can do what we did when our girls were seven and under: We packed ugly, pink, pint-sized inflatable sleeping bags in our suitcases. The girls slept in them together with us in our hotel rooms all over the world — from Patagonia to Portugal.
After hotels, food adds up. There’s a good chance, though, that the restaurants you dine at with kids are, on average, going to be less fancy than you might have splurged on when you were a couple. And even if you do hit up the fancier places, a plate of plain pasta with a side of broccoli just doesn’t cost as much as the branzino you’ve ordered for yourself.
Umbrella strollers are awesome.
If your kids aren’t old enough to walk, or walk fast, nothing beats an inexpensive umbrella stroller. Depending on where you’re going, you may want a good stroller with sturdy wheels to, say, manage cobblestone streets or unpaved roads. But check that clunker with your luggage. It’s too much hassle to carry onto the plane.
Use the umbrella stroller to get through the airport, especially if you have connecting flights. Reduce the stress by pulling out that stroller as often as needed. We spent six weeks in Europe with our son right after his first birthday, and all we used was an umbrella stroller. By the end of the trip, it was so rickety and the wheels so jammed up, the only place left to put it was the trash. It had cost us $29.
You don’t need to rent a U-haul (aka the kids can carry their own stuff).
You may be frightened off by visions of mounds of luggage that require calling an UberXL just to get to the airport. Don’t bring it. Bring a tiny bottle of laundry detergent and wash clothes in the sink. If you’ve rented an Airbnb, maybe you’ve got a washer-dryer.
You may need to bring a fold-up crib, and there’s really no way around that — although if the airline is going to charge you extra for it, you may be better off buying it locally and then donating it to a local charity. As noted above, think whether you really need that jumbo-stroller.
If your kids are big enough, they can roll their own backpack through the airport. It takes a load off you and lets them feel grown up. If you’re paying for your kid’s airline seat, take advantage of their checked-bag allowance. Stick to smaller suitcases, which are easier to carry and fit into taxis and cars.
They can draw what they see.
If your kids are older than two, electronics can be a life-saver for plane and car trips. But don’t let them be a crutch. Take advantage of a new context and set new rules. Give your kids disposable cameras and let them discover their inner Ansel Adams. Or give the kids paper and crayons and ask them to draw what they see.
When our girls were five and seven, we visited Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier. The girls didn’t understand why we wanted to just stand there watching the glacier calve and listening to its otherworldly creaking and moaning. So we gave them papers and crayons and asked them to draw the glacier. That entertained them. Years later, we still treasure those drawings.
You can still see the things you want to see.
Don’t think that because you’re traveling with little kids that you can’t stroll through museums. Well, in some cases the stroll may be more of a brisk walk. But follow these pro tips on taking kids to the museum and, if you’re in Washington, DC, you really will be able to spend some quality time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
More importantly, you’ll get your kids used to the idea that museum visits — or cathedrals or castles — are just part of your family trips. Help that along by buying age-appropriate books that help them understand what they’re seeing. They’ll appreciate the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, for example, if you read them a children’s book about architect Antonin Gaudì’s upbringing in the countryside. The more they visit museums and see architecture, the more they’ll grow to appreciate it.
You will see things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
You can get even the youngest kids used to visiting museums. But they also need time outside, and you should dedicate space in your daily schedule for that. It turns out that playgrounds in other places can be a cultural experience of their own.
You’ll see play structures you’ve never seen before — like dragons in a park in Berlin or a pirate ship at London’s Lady Diana Memorial playground or even an unusual seesaw in San Francisco. You’ll also see different ways of playing and different attitudes to parental interference.
And kids being kids, they’ll probably make a connection on the climbing structure with another little kid — regardless of whether they share the same language. The world outside their hometown will become a little friendlier and feel more welcoming. And they may be inspired to discover even more of it. And, really, isn’t that the whole point of travel?