I love to travel with my kids. I’ve also learned many of these travel hacks for kids the hard way – through trial and error. Some of these tips and tricks may seem simple or like no-brainers. Others may be mind blowing genius hacks. I guess it all really depends on if this is your first venture out with kids, or if you’re an embattled pro like myself. All in all, I do my best to roll with the punches, smile with grace and enjoy the adventure.
Travel Hacks for Kids #1: Travel Insurance
Before kids, I was not a travel insurance person. I’ve certainly taken cruises and traveled internationally without buying any extra insurance.
It only took one accident on my very first cruise with my sons to truly illustrate how important travel insurance is. There’s nothing like being in the middle of the ocean with an injured 4 year old to make you realize that an uninsured helicopter air lift at sea would bankrupt this (then) single mom of 2.
Don’t panic, he didn’t need it – but it was the thought that went through my mind when we were deep in the bowels of the ship’s medical center and with a shrieking toddler, mouth full of blood.
Travel insurance isn’t just for medical emergencies. It also covers trip interruption (flight delays, major storms), lost luggage, and all sorts of crazy “what could go wrong” moments. Suddenly sick and can’t travel? No big deal, you get your money back. Hurricane delays your cruise and you’re stuck in a city? Got your back. Injured at sea and need a helicopter to a foreign country with a hospital stay? Amazingly, you’re not bankrupt.
Don’t worry – travel insurance is very inexpensive!
I do NOT recommend adding on the insurance being peddled to you as an add-on to your vacation/travel/trip. Adding trip protection to an airline ticket or the cruise through the offered insurance is not the best bang for your buck. Instead, wander over to SquareMouth and receive multiple offers from several insurance companies. From here, you can pick and choose your coverage needs. For example, I’m most concerned about emergency medical expenses while traveling and last minute emergencies that may require I can’t travel (I’m sick, someone dies). Frequently your booking credit card will offer some coverage for trip interruption and baggage losses.
Spending a little extra time doing research on the front end can save you tons later if something goes wrong. For our upcoming trip to Italy, I insured our trip for $6,000 (cost of airfare & estimated hotels) for interruption (1.5x), inability to travel (1.5x) and medical expenses ($1 million) for $110. Yup $110 for all 5 of us!
Travel Hacks for Kids #2: Ask (Nicely) for Help
I simply cannot over-express how often a genuine and sincere request for help is met with kindness and, you guessed it, HELP. Airlines, hotels, cruises – they are all in the hospitality business! Believe it or not, most of their employees genuinely want to help you. Too frequently they are bombarded by entitled demands. I find that, almost always, adding a little honey to your requests goes a very, very long way.
I’ve traveled solo with kids countless times. Seated away from my kids on a flight? A smiling request for help later and the gate agent has cheerfully reassigned our seats. My youngest recently fell asleep and peed herself on take off. What does a mother do when covered in toddler pee at the beginning of a flight? I know it’s hard when you’re stressed and worried, but when I nicely asked for help I suddenly had 3 flight attendants handing me wet towels, a blanket, cups of water and whatever else they could come up with to make us more comfortable.
Many, many hospitality workers are parents themselves. They’ve been there. They get it. Just smile and ask for what you need. They are quite likely to jump to assist.
Travel Hacks for Kids #3: Keep a Digital Copy of Important Documents on Your Phone
I kid you not (pun intended). I showed up to a cruise with my 7 year old and 4 year old sons with 2 copies of one birth certificate and none of the other. Yes, I absolutely recommend traveling with passports, but at the time we had complex reasons for not being able get them. Cruising gave us a chance to travel outside the U.S. without needing a passport.
There I was, checking in to a suite-level cruise, traveling alone with 2 small children and missing a CRITICAL document for boarding the ship. We were not getting on that ship unless I could produce the missing birth certificate. I was lucky, I was able to have my sister root through my house and fax over a copy of the missing birth certificate. But wow. That was a close one.
Lesson learned. I have copies of their birth certificates, all passports, travel authorizations, insurance information and trip itinerary saved to Dropbox or Google Drive. They’re on the cloud, but I also download these documents to my phone for offline access as well. I can produce them at will. If you’re a parent traveling without the other parent, it’s also helpful to have a notarized authorization to travel from the other parent. I’ll admit, I’ve never actually needed a notarized authorization, but it can’t hurt to cover your bases.
Travel Hacks for Kids #4: Carseats, Strollers and the Schlepping of Stuff
First and foremost, airlines check carseats and strollers for free. You have the option to check them at baggage/ticketing or to gate check them. There are pros and cons for each option. When traveling through the airport with an infant, I prefer to wear them and check all the stuff at ticketing. It’s easier to get through security and my baby is attached to me. Then you get to the crawling/early walking stage and it’s super valuable to have a way to contain your angel baby that suddenly turned into a beast.
At any rate there are two items that I find super useful when schlepping all the gear through air. First and most importantly, a carseat cover. Airplane cargo holds are dirty and it’s easy for buckles and clips to get caught on other luggage and possibly break. If you’re also checking at ticketing/baggage – you can shove extra items (like maybe a winter coat) inside the cover to be included in the “free” item. Double win! Get it here: J.L. Childress Gate Check Bag for Car Seats – Air Travel Bag
If you have a convertible carseat and plan to either use it on the plane or gate check it, I really recommend a car seat stroller. With the attachable dolly, you can roll the carseat around the airport. Your kid can possibly just ride in the carseat through the airport, although mine never did. Instead we piled all the carry on crap and wheeled it around. Get it here: Holm Airport Car Seat Stroller Travel Cart and Child Transporter
Travel Hacks for Kids #5: Do Your Research, Front-Load the Mental Work
Research, research, research! It pays off in the end.
Visiting a big city with great public transportation? Take the time to find a hotel/AirBnB near a bus stop or train station BEFORE you go. Maybe download the city’s public transportation app. Trust me, it’s easier to think it through over a glass of wine from home, rather than under pressure with whiny children that are possibly wandering off.
Spend a little time on TripAdvisor and Google Maps, research things to do, places to go and read some reviews. If you’re the type that likes to be on the go all the time, you can make the best use of your vacation time. If you’re a little more unstructured, like me!, then at least you have a clear idea of the possibilities for the day before you set out.
Ultimately, if you take the time to think through a little at the beginning, you have more time to relax and NOT think when on vacation!
Things I tend to research:
- Hotel/resort amenities: Is there a pool? Spa? Is breakfast included? How expensive is the attached restaurant? Do kids stay free? What about parking and wifi? Mini-fridge? Having all this information ahead of time saves you disappointed kids when you haven’t brought a bathing suit and there’s a gorgeous unexpected pool on the resort property.
- Restaurants/grocery stores within walking distance: My family of 5 eats like a horde of locusts. Food becomes a major part of our travel budget. If I’m armed with my options before we travel, we avoid eating at the closest “out of budget” restaurant and instead find family friendly local favorites. I like to stock up on snacks and fresh fruit for our room to avoid hangry kiddos.
- Parks and playgrounds: Even with teenagers, the nearest park or playground winds up being a great way to explore a new city. My 17 year old perhaps loves the merry-go-round even more than the typical playground aged kid. Nothing resets a cranky kid faster than some fresh air and a place to run.
- Museums and cultural attractions: If you’re in Washington DC, the museums are free. I’ve also found the Smithsonian has a network of free state museums. Wonderful ways to broaden horizons and something to do when the weather stinks. Also, many cities have festivals and seasonal cultural attractions worth seeing. For example, we timed our trip to Fairbanks to take advantage of the fabulous Ice Festival. Enormous blocks of ice (multiple stories high), with intricate carvings. But they’re only around for the month of March.
Travel Hack #6: Arrive at the Airport Early
Just do it. I know you don’t want to, but it’s worth it. It takes time to get through security and if you have extra time you won’t be worried about missing your flight. If you’re taking a stroller and/or carseat through security they’re likely to put you through the special assistance line. This line appears short but is S-L-O-W because it’s all the people like you, with more things to screen and likely some mobility issues.
I like to be through security and still have an hour before boarding. What to do during that hour? Walk down to the end of the terminal, let the kids run back and forth in the dead end and sit with a glass of wine or beer. You get to relax and your kids (hopefully) burn off enough energy to sleep on the plane. If you’re not near your gate be sure to have your airline’s app installed on your phone to keep an eye on gate changes or flight announcements. I always make it a point to be within sight of my gate at least 10 minutes before boarding. Keep in mind the distance back to your gate while you’re running off all that extra energy!
Travel Hack #7: Relax and Parent Your Child Like You Would Anywhere Else
Relax. I mean it.
Your kids pick up on your mood. If you’re anxious, they’re anxious. But if you’re calm, you’re better able to address the crisis of the moment while keeping the kids as calm as possible.
If your baby is crying on plane forget about everyone else on the plane. They’re adults. They can cope with an inconvenient noise. You’ll also never see them again. You know who wants the baby to stop crying more than anyone else? You do. It’s so much easier to calm you baby when you stop worrying about everyone else around you.
There will be stressful moments and crisis. There will definitely be some judgy stranger throw an evil eye at you at some point. Don’t let any of that ruin your travel. You do you. Parent your kids like you would at home. Correct crazy behavior, laugh at funny things. It’s okay. No matter what comes your way, you’ve got this! Now, go have fun!