Podcast: Travel with kids — pain, pleasure, and everything in between

Whenever I hear people talking about how relaxing it is to go on vacation, and how important it is to get away from the stresses of work, I find myself stuck on this thought: this person is not the primary parent of small children.

The average work stress has nothing on the stress of sitting with a 2-year-old on a flight that has been delayed 3 hours. Things that are relaxing outside the context of toddlers — a roaring fire in the fireplace! An infinity pool overlooking a cliff! — are utterly terrifying in the context of someone who might leap into the fire or off that cliff. Even little sources of pleasure — like wandering around a new neighborhood, and just eating wherever looks good — are hard to pull off when you have cranky, hungry children who are tired of waiting to eat.

That said, Sarah and my guest on Best of Both Worlds today argues that travel with children is definitely still worth it. You just have to approach it with a different mindset.

Henley Vazquez is the CEO and co-founder of Passported, a travel company that specializes in family travel. She is also the mother of three children: an 11-year-old, 8-year-old, and a baby born last summer (yes, she plunged herself back into the infant stage!) Vazquez says that even little children can learn from travel that there is a world outside their neighborhoods, and that different people do things different ways. It introduces a global perspective, and a flexibility, that will serve the children well in life. I saw this even with taking my three older children to Montreal two weeks ago. It’s not that exotic a place, from the American perspective, but they were fascinated by seeing signs in French, and the temperatures in Celsius. My daughter was very concerned that she use the right word for “breakfast,” which made me laugh, as we were in the Fairmont. It’s OK to call it breakfast, but she learned about “petit dejeuner.”

Anyway, Vazquez had a few guidelines. First, PLAN AHEAD. We are learning that this is a cardinal rule of all things with small children! With two adults, it can be fun to show up in a new town and not know where you’ll stay, or eat, or what you’ll see. With kids, you need a plan, so you can manage everyone’s energy levels. (Vazquez pointed out the upsides of sometimes enlisting a pro in planning — in the Internet age, you can plan anything yourself, but there’s so much out there that sometimes it’s nice to have a filter. Planning fatigue is real — a topic I may write about in the near future.)

Second, understand that some pain is inevitable. At one point I asked her for tips on traveling on planes with small kids and she basically said she wished there were good tips. You can bring little toys, and snacks, and screens if they’ll help. But you can also be relaxed about it. With suffering, there is the actual pain, and then there is the mental anguish associated with the pain. If you accept that sometimes life sucks for a few hours, then you only have to deal with the former.

(Also, bring a change of clothes in your carry-on. For you and the kids.)

But if you’re willing to accept those ground rules, then almost anywhere can be a family-friendly destination. She talked up Morocco; the flight is no longer than the East Coast to California, but it’s an entirely different world. London offers the option of doing an urban-Europe trip, and the countryside nearby (for castles and general rustic-ness). Sarah’s home of Miami got a shout out as being surprisingly good for kids.

Anyway, it was a fun episode, so please give it a listen! What’s the best place you’ve ever traveled with kids? What did you do to make it good? Sarah and I both mentioned the upsides of traveling with a caregiver — either a nanny or relative like a grandparent. It’s another person, so you have to book larger accommodations (though as a 6-person family, hotels are often out for us anyway), but getting some time for adult relaxation can make a trip actually feel like a vacation.



37 thoughts on “Podcast: Travel with kids — pain, pleasure, and everything in between

  1. Ooh, I am looking forward to this episode now! (I’m always a few weeks late getting to your podcast so I never get to discuss in real time…) I love picking up new travel tips.
    I love to travel and I love to travel with my kids. We’ve been traveling with them since they were babies and genuinely enjoying it. It is true that it is more fun now that they are elementary school kids, but I still look back on our CA road trip with a preschooler and a toddler as one of my favorite trips of all time. I won’t ramble on and on- anyone who’s curious about where we’ve gone with kids and how it has gone can click over to my blog and click on the “travel” and “travel tips” categories. We’ve done car trips and airplane trips, including the long haul LA to New Zealand flight, more than once. I am lucky that my kids are pretty good travelers (it is the universe’s cosmic payback for the fact that they are very picky eaters, I think). So who knows if what works for us will work for others? But my main principles are (1) Have a plan (I definitely agree with your guest on this- I don’t have a rigid plan, but I do have options mapped out ahead of time, including locations of playgrounds and restaurants that serve food my extremely picky 10 year old will eat. Luckily, I think travel planning is a fun chore to do!) (2) Be realistic about what your kids can do, and plan accordingly. So in our early road trips, we’d only try to drive 3-4 hours a day, tops. Which meant we spent some nights in some pretty uninspiring towns! We also plan in playground stops. The bonus of that is that we end up chatting with locals sometimes, and sometimes pick up great tips for other things to see or places to eat that we didn’t know about. (3) Remember the kids meltdown at home, too. This one was particularly important when trying to eat out with a toddler. Mealtimes with that particular toddler weren’t a blast at home, either. And (4): when solving a travel problem, keep all options on the table. So, my picky 10 y.o. is hard to feed on the road and has been since she weaned. At some point, I realized that instead of stressing about finding great restaurant options, I could just go to the grocery store (every place has them!) and load up on healthy-ish snacks she will eat. This seems obvious, but was a travel game changer for us. She loves to travel, and a couple of weeks of living off granola bars and applesauce won’t hurt her.

    1. @Cloud – all great points, and yes to grocery stores. In the case of a picky eater, it might be better to get stuff he/she can eat, and let that person fill up on bread at restaurants, rather than trying to find a restaurant he/she will like.

      1. Yes! My oldest ate everything before turning 2, and we thought we were great parents 🙂 Pickiness ensued. She has had many butter+bread+ice cream meals at fancy restaurants. Certainly cheap to feed her!

  2. Loved this episode. As a long time reader of your books and blog, I was familiar with your advice in the first few episodes. The podcasts have been getting better and better with more unique topics. I will be checking out the Passported website for sure!

    Best place I have traveled with kids: Hawaii. There were 2x6hr flights on either end, and I did 3 out of 4 alone with a 16mo old. Luckily in my life I had already endured two particularly painful experiences: running a marathon and labor/delivery/breastfeeding a newborn. Time spent flying with a 16mo old was also finite, and much less painful than the others! It was SO WORTH IT to introduce my daughter to her family in Hawaii and to watch her feel the sand and waves on the North Shore.

    My tips from that experience: accept help from strangers, bring along some kind of soothing device (a boob, pacifier, bottle), run around during the layovers to expend energy, pack lots of snacks for myself so that I’m not also hangry, avoid early AM flights that leave both parent and child to start the day exhausted, buy toiletries at the destination (if possible) to avoid carrying toilet paper, etc. I also did something unconventional- I bought an $80 convertible carseat and shipped it to my aunt’s house in Hawaii to avoid me having to carry one by myself around the airport. We left it with my cousin, who planned to use it for future visitors.

    1. LOL obviously don’t worry about toilet paper…I meant to say you can buy diapers, wipes, shampoo, etc at your destination.

  3. I loved this episode and it came at the perfect time. My husband and I just bought plane tickets to take our kids to France this summer – when they will be 1 months and 6 years old! We have never traveled internationally, let alone with kids, so we are in for an adventure. I wrote down all of her tips for traveling with babies (extra clothes, spoon for baby food pouches) and have checked out the Passported site :).

  4. Our 11 year old has travelled quite a bit with us- it began with his flight to his new home in the US after we adopted him from Russia.
    Longest flight was to Singapore/Vietnam. Most fun trip was Paris- filled with great playgrounds and my husband and I “took turns” having a few hours to explore museums. The key is to be flexible. If you normally eschew a lot of screen time, let them have it on the plane for as long as it keeps them busy. They will sleep (eventually!)

    1. Kim, do you remember any of the names of parks/playgrounds? I know I can google but welcome your suggestions.

      I think San Diego and Denver, Co are great places for summer family trips.

  5. I loved this episode! I’m in the midst of planning some trips for our family and Morocco sounds really enticing. I definitely agree with the Barcelona advice, too—Spain is lovely for children.

    I feel like travel with kids also requires a certain amount of flexibility and a willingness to look for new adventures even when everyone just wants to go home. We were recently on a vacation that got extended a few extra days because of a storm and cancelled flights. In our case, we were merely “stuck” in Seattle, so it was a no brainer to find a nice hotel downtown, graze at the Market, and make a big deal about the monorail en route to the science center, etc. I was still relieved to get home, but my kids haven’t stopped talking about the fun things we did in Seattle.

    I was surprised by the advice about Alaska being best experienced from a boat. I’ve been there several times and, while its size does require you to choose a geographic area, you can have some incredible experiences. I would definitely encourage a family with school age kids to consider Juneau, for example—you could hike, go kayaking, see a glacier, and still eat in delicious restaurants and stay in a comfortable hotel. I guess it depends on how outdoorsy a family is, but I think it would be great.

    1. In traveling with kids, I’ve also figured out that the way I feel about a trip is strongly influenced by the state of our house when we return. To that end, I’ve started scheduling our house cleaner to come while we’re away. And when we were delayed recently, I called someone to arrange emergency snow shoveling so that we wouldn’t have to contend with that when we eventually got home. It’s that whole “plan for your future self” idea

    2. @Robin- there are definitely much worse places to be stuck than Seattle with kids. I’ve never been to Alaska, so I have no thoughts one way or the other on that. I know the cruises are popular but I imagine there are great inland places too.

  6. I CANNOT WAIT to hear this episode. We travel with our 3 kids all the time – starting with when my first one was 6 months old – and I am always looking for more ways to make it work better. We’ve done 14 hour road trips and long haul flights. When the kids are in the toddler/pre-school stage, the lift-the-flap books from Fisher-Price were great for road trips (like this one: http://amzn.to/2GToAgF). The Melissa & Doug Water Wow toys are also nice for that age group and low mess (http://amzn.to/2FUPZxB), as well as those magnetic drawing boards (just make sure to get the kind with the pens attached!). We pack tons of healthier snacks and sandwiches for the road trips so that if we do have to stop at rest stops, we mainly buy coffee and things like soft pretzels for the kids. For one road trip, a friend printed out a scavenger hunt for my 8 year old son so that he could find different car make insignias and different state license plates and mark them on his printout. My 8 year old also likes to have a printed out map of our route on road trips so he can see which states we’ve driven through.

    On long haul flights I actually try to pack less stuff because I don’t like to have too much to carry-on since I want to have my hands as free as possible. While on road trips we avoid screens because my kids get nauseous using them, on flights I am happy to help them find the kids movies and cartoons to watch. On our last trip to Egypt we packed the Kindle Fire so that the kids could use it to take photographs and video; I also make sure to pack (or purchase on arrival) a notebook/journal and pens/pencils/crayons so that the kids can draw or write about their experiences. I always make sure to pack my e-reader and several books for myself to read, so I am also getting my older two in the habit of bringing a book for those layovers and downtimes. Looking forward to hearing more ideas!

  7. My most fun trip was taking my 6yo to Norway, Sweden and Denmark for 3 weeks – just the two of us. That, I think, was my favorite vacation EVER in my entire life 🙂 But she is a super easy traveler and a laid-back kid in general. Also those countries are VERY easy travel-wise.

    We have never taken our now 5yo on a flight longer than 2.5 hours 😉 though she has been on a couple of multi-day road trips. She is one that has trouble with changes to the routine, so trips to Disneyland and grandparents in AZ were always HARD just because she’s not a great traveler, or happy about sleeping in strange places. So we felt like it wasn’t just a matter of sucking up a bad flight – the whole trip is harder than it needed to be. So we kept our travel plans pretty minimal for her first few years.
    But now that she’s 5, I think she’s ready 🙂 We’ll likely attempt Hawaii or Mexico this summer when it’s burning hot in CA, and I want another Europe trip and maybe Japan too, provided I get back to work soon. (Paperwork is being processed.)

    My favorite tip was from a mom of 3 whose kids are all older than mine by many years. She told me for every plane flight to pack an extra shirt for myself in a huge Ziploc bag in my carryon. The bag is for sealing up the dirty stuff after someone pukes on you, diaper blowout, etc. SUCH good advice 😀

    We also travel with snacks and soymilk boxes so there’s *something* for kids to eat. mine are also VERY enamored with the ‘snack boxes’ Alaska Airlines provides. We get at least 90 min of entertainment out of those, especially if I let them eat the chocolate 😀

      1. @ARC – I love the smiley faces! I appreciate your observation on how different two kids from the same family can be. There is something to this. Some kids are more flexible than others and it really can affect how enjoyable travel might be.

      2. I second the ziplock idea! I learned that the VERY hard way when we were just about to land on a long haul flight and ALL THREE OF MY CHILDREN vomited, including the baby in my lap. I had a change of clothes for every one of them … but not myself. The flight attendants gave me a duty free bag to use for the dirty clothes, but alas no extra adult sized t-shirts … needless to say we were the last ones off that plane.

    1. “So we felt like it wasn’t just a matter of sucking up a bad flight – the whole trip is harder than it needed to be. So we kept our travel plans pretty minimal for her first few years.”

      Thanks for mentioning this — I was feeling kinda bad while listening to the podcast and reading the comments here because I feel the same way about my older kiddo. She’s not a great sleeper and is hugely sensitive to changes in her routine and environment; we would return from even low-key weekend trips to our family cabin utterly wrung out and not having had much fun. Between that and the expense of travel, my husband and I both very firmly shelved the concept of travel with kids into the Not Worth It category until she was old enough to roll with new experiences a bit more. She’s now four and showing more signs of being ready to try again, and my son, even though he’s only three months, already seems wayyy more chill than his sister ever did. So maybe it will be back on the table at some point in the near future!

  8. Our key to success has been to come home one day earlier than we need to. It leaves a little hunger for the next trip, and gives us more transition time to get back to “normal” before having to get back to work, school, etc. And +1 to the comment above about being realistic about what the kids can do. I broke down and took my kids to a Dunkun Donuts in Berlin near the Brandenburg Gate last spring – at ages 3 and 7, they’d had more history than they could absorb and just needed the kind of pick-me-up that only a handful of Munchkins can provide.

    1. @Fan from Boston – I’m a fan of coming back a day before you have to as well (for longer trips). Especially since trips with little kids aren’t actually relaxing – a day at home might be slightly more so.

  9. I also recommend Arabic-speaking countries (including Morocco) for being particularly family friendly, as kids tend to be accepted in more places, everyone loves them, and “larger” families are more common. I had great experiences traveling with my daughter to Jordan when she was 2 and 3, and will be headed back with both kids in a year or two (with my husband at least part of the time!).

    1. We also had an amazing family holiday in Jordan (and Lebanon) back in the mid-1990s. People were so friendly – we were a larger family too. I was a teenager but my brother was only 8 and I think him (and his enthusiasm for crusader castles) really made for good connections with people.

      1. I also really want to take my kids to Jordan and Israel. I’ve only seen Israel from a distance- we couldn’t enter at the time for visa reasons.

  10. I continue to enjoy this podcast! This episode was fun. My kids are 5, almost 3, and 8 months. I’m commenting because you said you’re headed to Yellowstone. We went there and Grand Teton NP this summer, and I highly recommend them both for little kids. It gave us a lot of confidence in traveling with our crew and in their ability to handle long car rides and hiking. We want to do more national parks while they are young because I’m not excited about taking them abroad and dealing with time change.
    Be prepared for being in the car a lot at Yellowstone – there are long lines at certain sights, if there are animals to see, etc. also, if you’re not sure where you are flying into, we found flying direct into SLC driving from there would be just as long as a connection to an airport closer to the park, plus there is a pretty drive by Bear Lake (we stayed on the Idaho side) and we stopped at Costco in Idaho falls on the way.

    1. @Meghan – thanks for the tips! I wasn’t sure where we would fly into. When we went to Yellowstone many many years ago, we did a big round trip that included SLC and Idaho (well, and all the way to Reno for me, but that’s a different matter). When we went a few years later (with one kid) we flew in and out of Bozeman MT with the connections, but that’s because I had a journalism fellowship that required me to be in Bozeman for a while. We may just do SLC again – not sure. I haven’t seen Costco in Idaho or Bear Lake. That could be nice too!

      1. Bear Lake was pretty and they are “known” for raspberry (and other) milkshakes so it was a nice break. Costco was nice to stock up on supplies (we needed diapers, snacks, etc).

  11. We’re branching into travel next month – an overnight trip for a work conference, a long weekend + conference in Europe, and then the trip from the UK to California. It’ll be super mellow once we’re there (my parents’ house) but I’m dreading the flight with a 10 month old.

  12. This episode was so timely as we are planning a family trip to FL in a few weeks, but my husband and I are also toying with the idea of a trip to London or Paris in the Spring (the airline he uses for work travel just added direct flights from our city, and we have a free companion flight credit).

    Regarding the potential overseas trip: we are thinking of taking our then 6 or 7 month old (depends on when exactly we go) and leaving the 3.5 and 6.5 yr olds with grandparents. Pros: infants travel free, and having traveled with toddlers this sounds like a piece of cake; also, we can go for a longer stay since it’s asking less of the grandparents to watch older kids who are in school/preschool part of the day. Cons: Will we enjoy it? Having left both older kids before it is hard to imagine going back like this on what could be a couple’s trip. We took our oldest to Italy at 6 months and enjoyed that, it may have even enriched parts of our visit (people being friendlier, skipping museum and airport lines because we had a stroller…) But not sure London/Paris have the same family centred vibe.

    From past experience I’d advise anyone thinking of travels with a baby to just do it! I found our Italy trip easier than my real life in many ways because a I had a full-time coparent with me, unlike my maternity leave grocery store trips, etc. Also, if the baby is screaming on a train, just gesture at your mouth and people will give you a pass for teething… the universal bane of parents.

    If anyone wants to chime in on London/Paris with an infant, I’m all ears! Also, any tips for hotelsurvival for our family of 5? We have avoided hotels but do have an overnight planned during our upcoming Florida trip. Wine in the bathroom does sound appealing, although I was sort of planning to put the baby in there to sleep!

  13. One of the first of many long family trips was from Oregon to the UK for five weeks. At the time, our oldest girl was almost 4 and the youngest girl was 3 months. Before the trip I bought a kid-sized suitcase that the oldest rolled herself. Then, I packed it with a large variety of tiny toys, a playdoh set, games, books, crayons, etc. all of which were new to her. I found almost everything on clearance so it was inexpensive. She also carried a tiny little backpack with a favorite stuffed animal and snuggly blanket. Naps, snacks, and the new toys kept her occupied the entire time. When we were sightseeing, we carried the infant in a backpack. She slept back there when she needed a nap and I took her out and breastfed under a blanket when she was hungry. Over the years, we used the “new toy suitcase” strategy for a 5 day cross-country move and many flights back to see family.

  14. PRAGUE!

    We took our 5 and 7-year-old boys to Prague for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and it was amazing. Really kid-friendly, super walkable, and interesting. None of us spoke a word of Czech and it wasn’t a problem. It’s a gorgeous city too. Highly recommend for families!

  15. One more endorsement for Prague: it’s an easy trip from the East Coast. We did United from IAD to Munich and a quick Lufthansa leg to Prague. Bubble Bum inflatable booster seats for the Uber ride from the airport to the city center, after which we did walking and the subway for the rest of the week.

  16. I want to make my daughter’s first international trip to Barcelona as a result of listening to this episode! I also like the idea of having some childcare on the trip. We’ve had my mom with us on a couple trips and it’s been great, but I hadn’t really thought about looking into finding babysitters on trips when she’s not there in order to make the trip an actual vacation!

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