We are not experts on this subject but we sure have a lot of experience. Along the way we've learned a few things that work and a few that don't. Since many of us are traveling to visit loved ones, get away to relax or off for a play-cation this summer, I thought I would share some of our tips for traveling with kids (or without!).
This is an extra long post, so if you want to skip to the "Quick Tips & Tricks" just scroll down to the end of the post. And if you want all the juicy details, then read on!
Planning Your Trip
-If you are flexible with your travel dates, consider traveling before or after peak travel times. We've done an early Christmas at the beginning of December with extended family, and like to visit Texas in the spring vs summer (easier on the car and the heat factor!). Whether you are flying during a peak travel time or not, check out mid-week flights on T/W/TH. They are often much cheaper than flights on the weekend or even Mon and Friday (busy travel days for business flyers).
-If you're also flexible on your method of travel, decide whether it's best to fly or drive. How long would it take to drive? Could your family handle the drive? How much would gas cost? Is this significantly less than the cost of plane tickets? Would you spend more time in the car driving than enjoying your time away? Would you need to rent a car once you arrive? Do you have help on the other end? All of these questions can help you decide what's best.
-What time should you travel?
This depends on the length of your trip, age of your kids and how much driving time your kids can handle. We have very young, mobile children that still nap (2 of them anyway). For our long 14 hr TX drive, we loaded up the car, grabbed some drive thru for a later dinner and drove through the night. Eating dinner in the car occupied the kids for awhile and an hour later they were falling asleep. Sometimes they woke up when we stopped for gas but usually went right back to sleep or were quiet until they did. They woke up about 2 hours from our destination, so we stopped for breakfast, let them stretch their legs, then finished our drive. James and I were exhausted the next day but since we were going to family, they were happy to scoop up the kids if we needed a nap.
If night driving is not an option then set yourself up for a successful day drive - check out the Tips and Tricks at the end of the post!
This is a tough nut to crack with little ones....
If you try to book your flight during a time when your kids would normally sleep (naps or nighttime), this could go one of two ways: they could sleep for most of the flight (awesome for you!) or they could be super cranky or wired because they are too excited and distracted to settle in for sleep (not so awesome for you).
You could also book your flight during the time of day that your kids are at their best (most rested and focused).
We typically go for the sleep option. We've found that when we travel our kids will often do things they normally wouldn't do at home....my kids will never completely fall asleep with me holding them at home but will on an airplane (usually). As they get older this will be less of an issue and we'll have more options for "optimal" travel times.
To minimize the number of bags we need to haul on the plane or in/out of the trunk, we try to combine as much as possible. A few years ago we invested in a nice large suitcase that James and I share on most trips. We have another large suitcase that the kids shared for our most recent trip to CA. Here's how we layed out their clothes:
Since the boys are so close in size (Sully 3T, Jack 2T), we put Mia's clothes full of girly patterns in the middle to separate the boys similar clothes.
Extra diapers/pull-ups, sun hats, and socks went in the inside pocket of the suitcase lid.
All of their shoes went in the large outside pocket of the suitcase, along with their toothbrushes, travel size toothpaste, and hair supplies for Mia. We packed a pair of sandals, water shoes, and play/tennis shoes for each, and had them wear the tennis shoes on the plane.
*Children ages 12 and under do not need to remove their shoes through airport security. So don't worry about putting them in shoes with laces or that take a little work to get on/off. Put on their comfiest pair for walking through the airport!
Sharing one large suitcase worked for this trip because our kids are still little, so their clothes are little too! It's also summertime, so clothes aren't as bulky. This may not be an option if you're traveling in the winter but look for other ways to combine. I used to pack my clothes and the baby's clothes in one large suitcase.
I also use a packing list and the week prior to our trip, I start doing laundry and setting aside the things we'll need. I made this one for our family and like the lines next to each items. I can write in the number we'll need for each item, any specific notes for that category, or even a reminder that a particular item (like a pack n play) will be ready for us on the other end, so it's not necessary to bring along.
This is completely personal preference, but I almost always opt to check our bags vs. pack a carry on for each of us. It's difficult enough to corral three kids and our small personal carry on's, much less attempt to toss suitcases over our heads into bins. So, instead of 5 carryons and 4-5 suitcases to carry on the plane we end up with this:
4 personal carry ons and 2 large suitcases....well, we also had 3 carseats. Even more reason not to haul more bags!
Here's how we packed our personal carry ons....
First let me tell ya about these backpacks - they are from the Pottery Barn Kids McKenzie Collection and oh how I heart them! First, I love that they come in a preschool size. My littlest ones don't look like turtles with giant shells on their backs. They are the perfect size for toddlers and have great compartments.
I already had a preschool size for Mia, so I took advantage of PBK's Memorial Day sale (30% off and free shipping) and grabbed 2 for the boys and one in the next size up for Mia. Right now they are actually 40% off and free shipping as part of their summer sale, so check them out!
I much prefer backpacks over rolling bags. It leaves their hands free and you avoid stopping everytime the rolling bags flip or catch on something.
And here's what we were able to pack in his bag.
We packed the extra clothes on the bottom and snacks towards the top. Try to think about what they will need to access first and most often. Place those items toward the top. I know - wishful thinking that the least likely item we'll need are the extra set of clothes ;)
And let's not forget the lovies. Since we would be flying during their nap block, these were essential. This here is Gus and Sully's elephant blanket.
I folded the blanket length-wise, rolled it tight and placed it on top.
Gus was too big to fit inside, but another great feature of this backpack solved that problem. We simply strapped him on the front of the backpack with the front clasps. These are a great place to secure a sweatshirt or jacket too.
We basically packed the same thing in Jack's with the addition of a non-noise-making toy. We also added this snap-on bink pod to the front of the backpack. Two pacifiers fit in there and stayed nice and clean.
His blanket and Stuffy Duckie both fit inside his backpack
Mia's backpack is a little bigger and we packed a few additional things for her...mainly the Leapster, kleenex pack (she's slightly obsessed), and a few extra books.
Her blanket and Bunny fit with room to spare.
This is perhaps one of my favorite features on this backpack. The chest strap keeps the arm straps from slipping off their shoulders. I wish this was a feature for the preshool backpacks too!
For snacks we packed easy food items that are minimal in the mess department. Be wary of "travel" snacks like Go-Gurt, Capri Suns or even super juicy fresh fruits. They are just a mess waiting to happen. Here we have a fruit bar, cheese stick and plastic snack bowl with veggie straws. You can freeze snack items like cheese sticks and grapes until you are ready to pack...they will thaw on the way to the airport and still be cool when ready to eat.
We grabbed these snack bowls with lids from the dollar bins at Target. They are great for grapes or crackers....anything easily crunched!
The final addition to all the backpacks was an empty water bottle. Drinks cannot go through security and most of the drinks that can be purchased in the terminal are not exactly little kid proof. Even things like juice boxes, which are made for kids, can be another mess in the making. I'm assuming my kids aren't the only ones that squeeze the box as they grab it! We pack an empty water bottle or travel cup for each kid. They go into the outside pocket of the backpack and we fill it up with a drink we purchase once we get through security. Most airlines now have lids and straws for drinks they serve in flight, but if not, this cup will help avoid spills by little ones on the plane too!
Now, how about your carry on? This has been my go-to carry on bag for the past few years. It's the "Vera" tote by Vera Bradley and was a gift for my birthday a few years ago.
Here's a peak at my carry on:
-ID for each family member
-Reading and sun glasses
-Nail clippers/file/tweezers (in the little silver case)
-Kindle and book - I know...reading with toddlers on the plane - right!
-Diaper changing supplies
-Make up travel bag
I also folded up a few extra plastic bags for emergencies....use them to dispose of diapers (zip locks are even better), place any wet/dirty clothes that require changing, or for the portable potty (I'll explain in a minute!).
Liquids under 4 oz are allowed for most airports. Place all of them in a zip lock back so that you can easily pull them out and place in a bin for the security monitors
I place all of our IDs, Proof of birth/age, and passports in one ziplock bag. This will keep all forms of ID together and prevent them from being damage if something leaks in your bag.
I place this in the outer zipped pocket (it fits all the way inside) of my carryon so that it's easily accessable for checking in and going through security.
Some might pack their make up in their suitcase, but I like to pack mine in my carry on. I use only a travel-size bag for all my makeup, keeping it minimal. After a long flight or drive it's nice to be able to quickly pull it out for a touch up or just to assess the dark under eye circles ;)
With one still in diapers and one very recently potty trained, this is a must. We love this diaper changing "wallet" by Skip Hop.
The netted side holds a few diapers and wipes.
The other side has a zippered pocket that holds a changing pad, diaper cream, a some disposable wipes for the bigger kids.
Sadly I knew that I would likely not be doing any reading on the plane so the books went in first.
The diaper changing wallet on top of that and all of the other little items were spread throughout the 6 inner pockets.
Now for the somewhat odd but completely worthwhile item: the portable potty seat. This one is the Potette and I love it because it folds up small and compact. Normally I would just keep this in the car or pack it in the suitcase but we just potty trained Sully a week before our trip (poor planning but the kid was so ready). He wanted nothing to do with wearing a pullup on the plane and I had visions of him announcing his need to potty with a line of 3 people waiting for the bathroom. Or me attempting to squeeze myself and 3 kids into the airplane bathroom stall on the flight back by myself. The flight was only 2 hours but in the case of an emergency and to avoid the risk of urine all over the airplane floor, I packed it and figured I could break it out if absolutely necessary.
Here's what you need: potty seat, a disposable bag and a diaper (you can buy bags made for this chair that have an absorbant pad already in them but they can be pricey). Place the bag in the center of the seat folding the top down over the edges of the seat. Open up the diaper and place it in the middle of the bag. They sit. They go. You tie it up and toss it.
I carry it in a plastic with a diaper so that I can just grab the bag and have everything I need.
Fortunately, we did not need this on the plane - Sully did a fantastic job with no accidents while traveling! We did, however, use it several times throughout our trip, including an "I have to go!" moment in the airport parking lot...far, far away from any bathroom. So I'm sure this will be a packing item for a couple more years!
Quick Tips & Tricks
For Packing Your Suitcase/Bags....
-If you don't want to carry around a large carry on bag once you get to your destination, pack a small empty purse in your suitcase to use once you arrive.
-Use ziplock bags for packing kids' clothes. Place one outfit (top/bottom/undies/socks) in each. No fishing around for clothes trying to find something that matches! Pack a few extra shirts and bottoms too. If a shirt or pair of pants get wet, you can grab a fresh one without dipping into an outfit bag.
-Pack similar items in a zip lock bag - kid's toothbrushes and toothpaste go into small ziplock bags and all of Mia's hair stuff goes into a large ziplock bag. Her clips and rubber bands are further separated into a small extra makeup bag. That small bag goes into the large ziplock, along with her brush, detangler and hair spray.
-For mom....pack neutrals for your basic layers and stick with one or two color schemes for your other layers and accessories. This will allow you to mix and match with out having to pack as many clothes. This last trip I had jeans, whites and tans for my basics and added a few other clothing items and jewelry in a tealy blue/green color scheme and others in a pink/coral/plum scheme.
-If you are going for a longer trip and will have access to laundry facilites, pack enough clothes for just over half your trip and do laundry there. Packing different layers will help you mix/match your clothes so you don't feel like you're repeating outfits.
-Instead of packing a bulky wallet, pull out just what you'll need and place in a smaller wallet or bag. I take 2 forms of ID, my debit card, cash, and an emergency credit card.
For The Airport/Plane....
-If traveling with a child in diapers, pack only what you'll need for 1-2 days and buy the rest at your destination (especially if visitng family!). For the flight, pack 1 diaper per 1-2 hrs of travel.
-While I love my Vera Tote, many prefer to use a backpack as their carry on. It allows both hands to be free, avoids straps slipping off your shoulder and ensures nothing falls out.
-If you need to provide proof of age/birth for young kids, leave original birth certificates at home and bring copies instead. Shot records or Proof of Birth from the hospital will also work for this purpose.
-Pack a couple of surprises in kid's carry on bags. I hit the dollar bins for new small activity and sticker books. Mia has recently started reading, so I picked up a few Stage 1 Fancy Nancy reading books for her.
-Avoid markers for little ones on the plane. Stick with crayons, pencils, or even better, Crayola Color Wonder products that only work on the special Color Wonder paper.
-If you're debating on taking the stroller, my vote is "Yes!". We took the double stroller on the last trip and were so glad to have it in the airport...and there waiting for us when we got off the plane! Just remember that you must get it tagged at a Customer Service desk by your gate before boarding.
-If you are traveling alone with kids most airlines will allow someone to escort you to the gate. On my flight home from CA my mom was able to go through security with me and stay with us until we boarded the plane. So wonderful and good for my stress level...and bathroom trips! James was also able to come through security to meet us at the gate when we got off the plane (traveling Southwest).
-We invested in a carseat travel bag that straps on like a backpack. It's really helpful when hauling bags to/from the car. It also has a little extra room so you can pack things on the seat. We've been known to move items over to the carseat bag if our suitcase is slightly over the weight limit.
For The Car....
-Plan out your stops for food and potty breaks ahead of time.
-Pack plenty of healthy snacks in individual portions. You'll make less stops, eat better and be able to easily distribute them to the kids if they are packed in individual portions.
-A Portable DVD player can be a life saver (especially when accompanied by new or never seen shows/movies). Bring along headphones if you don't want to hear the voices of cartoons throughout the car!
-The portable potty: if traveling with young kids, it's the best decision EVER.
-Pack one "carry-on" type bag for each kid with age-appropriate items for the trip.
- Our secret "drive through the night without falling asleep" weapon is sunflower seeds! They force you to actively do something with your mouth. Unlike gum, you have to do something specific to get the seed out which forces you to concentrate. As soon as I feel the blanket of drowsiness set in, I pop some seeds and am immediately awake as long as I have them in my mouth.
-As much as it will help to be organized and prepared on the way out, it will also help to set yourself up for success when you get home!
-If it's possible to wash your clothes before you leave - do it! If you end up have a mix of dirty and clean clothes be sure to place your dirties in a plastic bag, so clean clothes stay fresh and it's easy to simply dump the dirty clothes in the hamper when you get home.
-If you don't like the smell of your clean clothes when they come out of the suitcase, you can also put them in a plastic bag with the dryer sheet once they come out of the dryer, then pack them up!
-Take suitcases/bags into the respective bedroom when you unpack. If we unpack in the living room, it's like a clothes bomb went off in the house. Unpacking in the bedroom allows you to easily put clean clothes away, dirty clothes in the hamper and leave you with just a few cosmetic items to carry to their rightful place.
-If possible avoid filling up your calendar the first couple of days after you return. It takes time for kids and adults to decompress after a trip and get back into a normal routine.
And that about wraps it up! The good news is that there are so many resources on the web for helpful hints when traveling, with or without children.
I found this blog post helpful and it has several links at the bottom of the post for more resources.
And this is an interesting article on packing efficiently "10 Days in a Carry On"from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/05/06/business/businessspecial/20100506-pack-ss.html
Whatever your travel plans this summer and beyond, I hope this info will help you to feel more organized, prepared and ready for the journey...no matter what unexpected surprises await! I would love to hear your travel tips and what's worked (or not worked!) for you too!