Traveling with kids can be a wondrous experience or a miserable slog — and it’s often both, on the same trip. It pays to be prepared, so we’ve gathered road-tested wisdom from moms around the country about what to expect (and how to have a good time anyway).
1) You’ll wish you could teleport directly to your destination.
It’s unclear which is worse: strapping down a small, antsy person (whose idea of torture is prolonged immobility) for a long car ride, or taking a small, antsy person with sensitive, recently infected ears on a plane packed with strangers. If only you could beam yourselves there — or rent a vacation home five minutes from your house. Since you can’t do that:
* Make the most of car trips. Driving is generally less fraught than flying because you can always pull over and you can travel at night or during naptime. Take lots of kids’ CDs. Pearl Yu of Menlo Park, California, discovered that on a road trip from California to New York and back again, her daughter, Avery, then 5, also liked listening to a homemade tape of her mom reading stories. “I recorded myself at bedtime for a few days, and then I taped Avery singing songs and talking, which she loved,” Yu says.
* Take along plenty of new toys. Kim Peltzer of Frederick, Maryland, goes to the dollar store before each trip to stock up for her kids, twins Nick and Alex, 10; Stephen, 4; and Sarah, 2. “Don’t tell them ahead of time that you have a bunch of new stuff,” she says. To buy extra time, wrap each treat (use tinfoil if you can’t be bothered with tape) and dole them out at intervals. I use the term “toy” loosely, by the way. Include the basics, like crayons and paper, but don’t overlook the mundane. One miraculous time, my 18-month-old son, Zander, unscrewed and rescrewed the lid on an empty plastic makeup jar for the entire two hours we were stuck on the runway in a thunderstorm. Over the years, my kids have been equally entranced by masking tape, magnets and paper clips, a wee measuring tape, birthday candles to stick in a Silly Putty “cake,” a small spray bottle filled with water, and a cloth for “cleaning” the car window.
* If you fly, look into getting a direct flight. You don’t want to end up like Parenting staffer Andrea Messina, zigzagging through the Dallas/Fort Worth airport with a double stroller, three car seats, two huge carry-ons, a 4-year-old, and 22-month old twins, trying to make a connection to San Francisco. “We did, barely, but we swore then and there never, ever to do that again,” says Messina.
On the other hand, direct flights can be pricey, so if it’s not possible, allow extra time for connections. Try to avoid a layover coinciding with naptime so your child can burn energy racing around the airport (and snooze on the plane).
* Buy a ticket for your so-called lap child. Before my older son turned 2 — the age when you’re required by law to buy your child his own seat — I played the odds, and if there wasn’t an empty seat in my row, by the time I came down the aisle with Zander, there would be. (Flying with kids gives you a decent idea of what it was like to be a leper in 14th-century Europe.) But planes tend to overbook these days, and “lap child” isn’t simply a figure of speech. If you can handle someone stomping on your thighs for the duration, fine; if not, just pay for a seat. The good news is that many airlines will deeply discount the fare for kids under 2; American Airlines, for instance, charges half the full fare.
* Use your stroller in the airport to restrain your child as you dig your boarding passes out of the diaper bag or as an impromptu luggage cart once you arrive. “Take it right up to the gate — they’ll check it for you and have it waiting on the jetway when you land,” says Kim Peltzer.
* Master in-transit diaper changes. Before you leave, practice the lap change (or for toddlers, the kid-standing-up change) so you can manage nonpoopy diapers at your seat.
2) There won’t be room to take everything you want.
Naturally, it’s tough to envision life without the wind-up swing and the playpen, the baby bathtub and the bouncy seat, and the special mobile that your baby uses to zone out before he goes to sleep. But it’s simple physics — it won’t all fit. To help ease your separation anxiety:
* Pare down. You’ll probably learn the hard way that the hassle of hauling baby gear around is often inversely proportional to the convenience of having it at hand. “After many trips, I finally figured out the bare minimum,” says Georgia Hallinan of Richmond, California, whose sons are 7 and 2. “You need a way to transport the baby, a place for the baby to sleep, and a car seat. That’s it.” To her list, I’d add a front carrier or a backpack, along with whatever lovey your child simply can’t forsake — and that’s really it.
* Be inventive. A stroller can double as a high chair and a safe place to nap. A car seat is nonnegotiable, but in a pinch you can certainly do without a portable crib. It’s okay to let your baby sleep with you (or on a quilt on the floor) for a few nights. At bathtime, plop the baby in the sink or just use a towel on the floor of the tub. Remember, we’re talking about a short period when your usual routine is going to be completely disrupted anyway.
* Do sweat the small stuff. There are a few things that don’t take up much space but can be tremendously helpful to have along. Liz Berman of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, packs dishwashing liquid so she can wash her kids’ sippy cups at the hotel. Parenting staffer Maura Rhodes takes a handful of outlet covers to childproof the room for Lucas, 21 months. And you can never have too many zip-close bags. Allisun Ranaldi of Montreal, mom of three kids under 6, eschews suitcases entirely in favor of stackable plastic bins when she travels by car. “My friends laughed at me when I carried them into the cabin we’d rented together,” she says. “But they were so convenient for storing stuff during the vacation that now everyone copies my idea.”
* Forget the pack-lightly rule for your carry-on bag. I don’t care if you’re only going to be in the air for 30 minutes — take enough toys, diapers, snacks, and wipes for an army of children. “Don’t forget spare clothes, including extra T-shirts for the adults,” Minneapolis mom Julia Litton advises, recalling a flight to Florida with 14-month-old Patrick, who threw up all over her. Which leads to my next point:
Paging Dr. Mom!
3) Someone will get sick (and maybe the entire family).
Of course, you can plan to avoid germs and the people who might carry them. And to wash your hands every 20 or 30 seconds and sterilize everything you and your family might touch. But to play it safe in the real world:
* Take your pediatrician’s phone number with you. It may help when your child suddenly starts vomiting, as Messina’s son Teddy did on a trip to Nebraska when he was a toddler. “Our doctor called us back within ten minutes, made sure there wasn’t a serious problem, and suggested buying Coke syrup at the local drugstore to settle his stomach,” she says. If necessary, your doctor can phone in a prescription to a nearby pharmacy.
* Pack a meds bag. Mine has a thermometer, children’s pain medicine, and a children’s decongestant because those are what I reach for most in the middle of the night. Add small bandages, antibiotic ointment, and Benadryl, and you’re almost as equipped as you are at home. Anything else can probably wait until morning — chances are they have drugstores where you’re going too.
* Ask the front desk whether there’s a doctor on call. “Our hotel in Hawaii even had one in house when my three-year-old got sick,” recalls Jenn Fallon, a mom of two in San Francisco. “It eased my mind knowing she’d been seen by a professional.”
4) Eating and sleeping will be erratic at best.
Have you taken your baby to a restaurant lately? Is it something you’d like to repeat three times a day, every day you’re on vacation? And does your child happily bed down in an unfamiliar crib or on a rollaway cot? You get the picture. To make it a prettier one:
* Rethink meal schedules. New York City mom Monica Winsor, who took daughters Sophia and Athena to Greece when they were 3 and 1, says, “Our big meal of the day was lunch. I think it’s easier for kids to hold it together earlier; at dinner, they’re usually exhausted and cranky.” Restaurants are often less crowded at midday, and the wait staff is less harassed. In general, the stakes are lower then, and the meal comes more quickly.
* Have a picnic for dinner at your hotel with prepared food you pick up at a local deli or supermarket. You could even have two picnics, the second one taking place on the balcony of your hotel with a nice bottle of wine after the kids are in bed. You say you don’t have a balcony? Then…
* Spring for a suite. Every mom I spoke with said it’s worth it. “With Patrick, we spent much more time in the room,” Julia Litton says. “And after his bedtime was our only time to be alone.” Trust me, taking that bottle of wine into the bathroom, and keeping your voices down as you huddle on the tiled floor, isn’t so cozy; neither is going to bed at 7:30 when your kid does. Get the suite — you won’t regret it.
* And consider a kitchenette. Who wants to shell out for a room-service or restaurant breakfast your child takes two bites of when you can make oatmeal in your room? Besides, you’re likely to get out the door faster in the morning. You’ll have a fridge to stash juice boxes and small cartons of milk — and the wherewithal to call it a day and cook macaroni and cheese if you simply can’t handle another meal out in public.
The Real Deal
5) Reality will set in quickly.
Who can’t help but dream that the trip will be rich in bonding moments and photos filled with priceless memories? Better to let go of those visions so you can actually relax and have some fun.
* Lower your expectations. Vacations are just like life: flawed, messy, and often more amusing in the retelling. If you plan for those all-too-certain travel mishaps, the trip will go no worse than you expect — and probably even better.
* Capture the memories anyway. Go ahead, take a picture of your feverish baby sleeping next to the vaporizer you rushed out to buy at 4 a.m., and another one of the rain beating down on the palm trees. “We have a great shot of Patrick covered in sunscreen and sand, looking like a furious little tempura shrimp,” Litton says.
Even the bad parts can bring you closer, especially if they become part of your family lore. What makes for a successful vacation isn’t perfect weather or angelic kids, it’s having the right attitude and a sense of humor. Besides, your kids probably had a swell time no matter what.
Before you know it, you’ll be tempting fate again: Who ever heard of everyone getting sick, flights being canceled, and the weather being lousy two vacations in a row?
Fernanda Moore, who wrote about holiday stress in the December/January issue, has survived (and enjoyed) traveling to seven states and four countries with her two sons.