Traveling with young children is one of the more stressful aspects of parenting. By the time the trip is over, parents may feel the need for a vacation from the vacation. Don't let meltdowns and mishaps derail a family trip. These tips can make traveling with kids cheaper, easier, and more fun.
Always plan ahead, no matter what the mode of travel. If a long flight is looming, order kids' meals when booking or several days before departure. If the plan is to drive and stay in overnight lodging along the way, book a hotel in advance and research where to stop for meals. Some restaurants welcome children at no charge and others offer reduced prices.
No matter how loudly they protest, young children must sit in their car seats. Make sure the seat is properly installed and children are strapped in the right way. If traveling by air, obey the airline rules about child safety. The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that children be secured with a child safety restraint system. Some car seats have been approved for use in planes. Even if the airline doesn't allow your car seat, bring it anyway and check it with your luggage -- many airlines do this for free -- to avoid having to rent one upon arrival.
A fun-filled pit stop now and then is a welcome treat for all during a road trip. Map out the route and locate a spot along the way that the kids will enjoy but won't insist on spending the day exploring. Look for cheap or free attractions, which might be best for short stops. If passing a state park, for example, pull in for a short hike. The goal is easy entertainment and a chance for everyone to stretch their legs.
Munchies and beverages are powerful defensive weapons when traveling with young kids. Snacks help distract young ones from meltdowns and keep them occupied -- at least for a while. When flying, consider giving kids something to chew or drink during takeoff and landing to reduce popping in little ears. Pack homemade snacks ahead of time to avoid handing over money to high-priced convenience stores or airport vendors. Of course, stay away from sugary treats, because a hyper toddler in a confined space is a recipe for disaster.
Pack your portable devices and load them with cheap or free kids' apps and movies. If the children are older, buy each a small iTunes or Google Play gift card and let them choose their entertainment. Try some non-electronic activities, as well. Games such as I Spy or an alphabet-based memory challenge provide plenty of entertainment for the entire family, whether at the airport or train station, on a plane, or in a car. Best of all, they're free.
Diapers, wipes, hand sanitizer, and medications are essentials to keep in a carry-on or within easy reach in the car. This saves the hassle of digging through packed luggage (if it can even be reached) and precludes the need to buy a bottle or pack of whatever the situation demands. Many kids get motion sickness, so a disposable bag is a necessity, as is a change of clothing. A first-aid kit stocked with bandages, antibacterial ointment, safety pins, and small scissors also might come in handy during long car rides.
In addition to games, electronics, and snacks, a few well-timed surprises can go a long way toward keeping the whining and crankiness at bay. If your child has been eyeing a particular toy, buy it before the trip and introduce it when the going gets tough. A few strategic choices can make airport and convenience store merchandise look less tempting.
This part of the advance plan is key to a cheap and hassle-free trip. Plan the route so that children will be asleep for some, or most, of the time. If driving, consider leaving at bedtime and driving through the night (if you're comfortable doing so). If flying, try to book a flight during normal naptimes. This may not save money, but it might save sanity.
Kids like to feel part of a team, so assigning them a small task for the trip lets them focus on the adventure and may even help. Consider asking them to pull their own luggage or, if size is an issue, the carry-on. Put them in charge of documenting the trip with a digital camera designed for kids, which can be found for less than $30. The pint-size perspective they capture may surprise you.
Call ahead to double-check, but most airlines allow strollers to be checked at the gate. Even better, the airline will have it waiting at the arrival gate. This spares parents the hassle of juggling carry-on items as well as a child through the airport. It also provides a place for a child to nap during a layover.
Rather than paying to check a portable play yard, highchair, and other large baby accessories on a flight or squeezing them into an already-crowded car for a road trip, consider spending a small amount of money to rent such items on arrival. Some hotels and other destinations even provide them for free on request. It's worth asking about anything bigger than a single stroller.
Granted, even the best-laid plans won't prevent random mishaps, such as a flat tire or a delayed flight. Accept the situation and take steps to resolve the problem. Remember that kids pick up on parents' attitudes and stress levels, so keeping it together is crucial. An emergency bag of tricks containing games, snacks, and picture books can squash the temptation to splurge on a toy or meal just to keep children calm. Treat travel as an exciting adventure and see how much better the outcome is.