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Reader Recommendations for Traveling With Kids

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Boy looking at an airplane through terminal window (Photo: Mikael Damkier/iStockphoto)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 15, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, family travel, hotel, Zak Patten.

After a year in which [[ Air_Travel | air travel ]] has gotten more and more challenging—due to new fees, route cutbacks, delays, and other hassles—the potential for some tough trips has risen substantially. And parents already know the added stress of [[ Family_Travel | bringing the kids ]] along, particularly given how some flyers feel about sharing a plane with children.

But what about the families themselves? Surely they want to have as smooth and stress-free a trip as possible. To help make that a little easier, we recently ran a survey to find out what has worked for our readers, because we often learn best from each other. The responses were wide-ranging and creative, and their collective wisdom may just make your next family vacation more fun for everyone.

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We asked just five questions, but they allowed us to get to the really important issues surrounding family travel, including whether to fly, drive, or take some other form of transport; the best ways to handle the stress of flying with children; what type of lodging is best suited to families; what kind of activity mix is ideal for a family vacation; and any other tips readers wanted to share. Here are the questions, the breakdown of the answers, and the top tips offered:

Question 1: What Mode of Transportation Do You Think Is Best for Families Traveling With Young Children?

Despite the larger expense and hassle of flying, a full 65 percent of respondents chose air travel as their answer to this question. Just 22 percent decided that car travel was preferable and 13 percent chose "other"—though these answers were mostly split among people who couldn't decide which they preferred between car and air—and just one respondent mentioned train travel as an option. There was no mention of bus or any other travel type.

Question 2: What Are Your Top Coping Strategies for Flying With Young Children?

Our second question allowed for a write-in response, and elicited a wealth of answers on the following themes: sleep, food and drink, entertainment, seating, ear discomfort caused by takeoffs and landings, and general travel tips. I've included some of the most useful responses below:

Sleep

  • We first flew with my son when he was a baby. His doctor recommended giving him a small dose Benadryl an hour before so he'd sleep through the flight. He was right and it was worth it.
  • Fly at a time of day that your child normally naps.
  • Tire toddlers with active activities before boarding so that they fall asleep once the flight is in motion (preferably while the plane is still on the tarmac).

Entertainment

  • Bring a child-size backpack for your child to wear so he or she can carry luggage like a "big" person. In it, put a bag of new, inexpensive toys that you can take out one at a time over the period of the flight to hold your child's attention (mini puzzles, books, a small jar of playdough—dollar store finds are great). A kids' DVD player is a lifesaver; we found a Fisher Price one that played Clifford, Dora, etc., TV episodes on discs.
  • This is not the time to reinforce that gifts are only for special holidays, etc. Indulge your child's interest by bringing new, fun little trinkets, and toys in your bag to get your child's attention.

Ear Discomfort

  • Bring something for them to chew on such as animal crackers, chips or whatever so their ears won't bother them on takeoff and landing. Have them chew starting at the approach down the runway and when the captain announces they are approaching landing.
  • For kids still on a bottle bring juice that they can suck on for takeoff and landing to help their ears stay unclogged. For older kids, EarPlanes earplugs work well and a lollypop!
  • Gum is great for kids over three and safety suckers for children under three. You have to keep their ears from hurting somehow because if they feel their environment changing that drastically in the beginning, you can bet they will think it will continue to happen throughout the flight.
  • Breastfeed babies at takeoff and landings to ease their discomfort.

Seating

  • If they are under 40 pounds you have to have a Sit 'n' Stroll. This car seat/stroller allows you to leave your infant/toddler in the seat at all times except when you go through security.
  • When flying with children and car seats, bring the car seats onto the plane. Children feel more secure in their seat and are less likely to get out and wander, thus disturbing other passengers. Up front it is more work for mom and dad, but in the end, it makes for an easier trip.
  • Make sure you get a window/middle seat to keep little arms and legs out of the isle and corralled.

Food and drink

  • If you are taking a long flight with meal service, you can call the airline and request a child's meal that may be a little more enticing for younger taste buds.
  • Bring plenty of small snacks, but avoid sugary ones as we all know what sugar does to kids.
  • Ask the flight attendants to give you the can (not just the cup) of your beverage.

General Travel Tips

  • When traveling with another adult, I will keep the kids with me and let the second adult board the plane when families are called for pre-boarding. The person on the plane can get seats set up, bags put away and place toys/snacks in an easy location. The children will then board with me towards the end of boarding. Keeping the children in the terminal longer allows them to expend a bit more energy and be a little calmer on the plane.
  • We always break up the flight when going across country so they have time to burn off some energy in the airport. We will walk around for about 30 minutes minimum between flights. I DON'T recommend thinking you are going to burn off the kid's energy by walking the aisle of the plane.
  • If I have all of their basic needs covered (hunger, potty breaks, well rested), there is no reason to cry and it makes for a great flight for everyone.
  • Train your children to respond to your commands while they are at home so they are easier to manage when in public.
  • [Choose] nonstop flights [and] give them something to do so the time goes by fast.
  • Stay near the back of the plane where's it's noisier. And pack everything in Ziploc bags. Snacks in one, diaper change stuff in one, toys in one, books in one. That way it's easy to grab what you want fast.

Question 3: What Accommodations Do You Think Are Best for Families With Multiple Young Children?

The majority of respondents here favored more expensive lodging options that also offered plenty of services and full kitchen facilities. For 33 percent of families, an all-inclusive family resort was the top choice while 28 percent favored a vacation rental. Just 7 percent felt that a budget hotel with a pool was the best choice, and a relative's house was at the very bottom of the list at 4 percent. However, a full 28 percent chose to write in their own answers. One reader summed up what many of these respondents seemed to be seeking: "[A] multi-room 'suite' hotel with kitchen facilities."

Question 4: Planning Vacation Activities Can Be Challenging When Traveling With Young Children. What Do You Think Is the Best Mix?

More than half (52 percent) of the responses here advised planning just one activity per day, allowing free time before and after. After that, your responses were split into much smaller segments, with 17 percent advocating going "on a resort or cruise vacation where there are options to do lots of activities or nothing at all." Seventeen percent of you also wrote in your own advice, which by and large was a recommendation to balance careful advance planning with flexibility.

Question 5: Do You Have Any Other Specific Tips for Parents Traveling With Young Children?

The final question of our survey was another open-ended one, and your answers hit upon a couple of major themes. The first was the need for parents to be flexible with schedules and have a relaxed attitude. The other major theme among your responses was involving children in the planning process. Here are some of the best ideas you shared:

Go With the Flow

  • Plan ahead, then play it by ear because things change when you have children.
  • Expect the unexpected, have an adventure, be flexible (but prepared), and enjoy life and family!!!
  • Don't try to pack in too many activities. Allow time for your child to take a nap when necessary. Trying to do too much will only make everyone unhappy or cranky and the memories of your vacation won't be positive.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes, especially if it is new to them. Some kids are uneasy about the crowd, noise, cramped space. Don't expect them to be able to sit still for 3 hours.
  • Flexibility!!! Don't plan too much in one day. Include them in planning activities.
  • Go with the flow and relax as much as you can. You will find you and your child(ren) are more adaptable to traveling than you may have anticipated!
  • Don't let anyone get you steamed. Babies cry, toddlers have tantrums. You paid the fare for your family, do your best, and NEVER meet anyone's eye when your children are being loud (either because they're miserable or just being bad) because you invite that person to give you a lecture or just glare at you. Don't give them the opportunity to do this. At the same time, if you take the first flight of the day, everyone on the plane will be more tolerant and rested (including your kids) so fly early! You're also far less likely to have a late departure or a late arrival at your destination. Happy Travels!

Planning Is Key, and Kids Can Help

  • Make a list of all things you need to pack and take with you. Once, we actually left my son's bag with his milk etc in the refrigerator at home. I travel with all kinds of over-the-counter meds to cure just about everything. I pack band aids, ointment, calamine lotion, sunscreen, bug spray, diarrhea and heart burn med, Benadryl cream, and liquid for sunburn and jellyfish stings. I've either had to use this or lend some to someone who didn't have any.
  • Let them help decide the day's activities/itinerary, they will be more willing participants if they helped decide rather than feeling like they are being "dragged" all over.
  • Remember that kids, while small, are people too. Practice patience and LISTEN to what is being requested. Make mental notes of what was requested on a prior trip and keep it, or something similar handy for trips to come!
  • Travel so kids are interested and have fun; don't take kids on a vacation for the parents.
  • Make sure tiny ones are exposed to what they might see before you go. There is a children's book for almost any location. And let them think they are part of the planning process even if they are just getting excited about places you already plan to go. Even toddlers understand more than you think.

With all of the stress and hassles of traveling with kids, some parents may be tempted to never go anywhere. But that would be missing the whole point. As one survey respondent put it, "Enjoy sharing every aspect of your life with your children while they are young. It is worth the effort and investment."

If you haven't yet, please take our survey.

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