Nancy McGurty will never forget the time she traveled from the East to the West Coast by plane with her howling infant, in the center of a row of “suits.” For six hours the Bogota, NJ, mother tried to soothe her unhappy baby while bravely withstanding the aggravated glares of businessmen jabbing at their laptops.
Few who’ve done it would deny that traveling with kids can be trying, but it doesn’t have to be. One of my family’s best trips was a 17-hour car expedition from New Jersey to Nova Scotia (our three active boys were then 1, 3, and 8). Are you crazy? friends asked as we climbed into our aging station wagon. But the journey — driving through northern Maine’s woodlands, cruising the breathtaking scenery on Canada’s coast, the novelty of visiting a museum in Halifax — remains one of our favorite memories.
If there’s a rule for family travel, it’s this: Find the right balance between preparing for the worst and letting the best happen. In other words, map out a plan but be ready to leap into those serendipitous moments.
What follows is parent-tested advice gathered from those who’ve braved and survived the travel zone with their children, on the rails, in the air, and on the road. There’s lots to be learned from their mistakes — and from their triumphs!
Kathryn E. Livingston is the author of Fashion Photography: Patrick Demarchelier and the mother of three boys. She now specializes in writing about family issues.
Plane and Simple
GETTING TO THE GATE
With babies, small kids, and luggage in tow, navigating an airport can be a challenge, which is why many experienced parents prefer curbside check-in if it’s available. If it isn’t an option, this may be the time to spring for a frill: Get a skycap, give him a tip, and let him transport the luggage while you cart or shepherd the human cargo. (A suitcase on wheels, which even a second-grader can maneuver, may also be a worthwhile investment.)
The supposedly family-friendly option of boarding the plane before everyone else can actually work against you, especially if no other adult is along. Many parents of young children report that they prefer to get on last, taking advantage of those final moments of freedom for their toddlers to run around the waiting area. If your child is the type who likes to climb, somersault, or catapult from chairs and you’re traveling with him solo, early boarding may only make a long trip seem longer.
But if you’re traveling with a spouse or companion, the early-boarding option can be a boon; one of you can get on board to get settled with the diaper bag, carry-ons, and snacks while the other supervises the leg-stretching action.
Because turbulence can hit without warning, kids under 40 pounds should use an appropriate child-restraint system (CRS) — a car seat with the label, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.” The type of restraint should be based on the child’s size and weight, according to a recommendation from the FAA. Of course, this means buying a ticket for the child because he’s occupying a seat. But the good news is that last summer American Airlines initiated a 50 percent discount on domestic and U.S.-Canadian fares for children under 2, and other airlines swiftly followed with similar offers. On most airlines parents can book a bassinet for their baby; these vary in size, so it’s wise to ask how big it is.
BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE
The bulkhead seats (the first row of seats in the cabin) offer more leg room and floor space. “But I’ve had both good and bad experiences with bulkheads,” says veteran traveler Abby Johnson, of Carson City, NV, who often takes off with her son, Wheeler, 10. “The drawback is the airlines also tend to put the elderly there and other people who require extra leg room, so you might be sitting next to someone with a broken ankle and crutches. This can make for some complicated dynamics when you’re traveling with an active toddler.”
Other drawbacks to bulkhead seats: There’s no under-seat storage, so all your supplies have to be in the overhead compartments and won’t be available during taxi, takeoff, and landing. Some bulkhead armrests don’t lift up (inhibiting for little nappers, who like to stretch out), and the pullout meal trays may not be as sturdy as those in the other seats. Older kids won’t appreciate that the movie screen is very close.
Nursing moms may prefer the privacy of a window seat, while parents flying without a partner may want to opt for the aisle for easier access to the flight attendant. (It’s in your best interest to develop a friendly rapport with this person — though, as one mom points out, she or he either may be thrilled to cuddle your baby while you use the bathroom or may clearly convey the attitude “Hey, the kid is your problem.”) Avoid seating preschoolers near the wing if they want to see the view. Barbara Albrecht, of Monroe, CT, mother of Erik, 10, and Alex, 7, has advice echoed by many seasoned traveling parents: “Let your children take turns looking out the window. If my seven-year-old gets to watch the takeoff, then my older son gets takeoff on the way home.”
Those traveling without kids may relish the thought of a direct or nonstop flight, but many parents prefer connections because they provide a chance to chuck out the dirty diapers, let antsy kids burn off some energy, and sometimes even get a good meal. Other parents say it’s wiser in the end to grit your teeth and take the airtime all at once: When getting there isn’t necessarily half the fun, getting there sooner is better.
Families with babies likely to doze might opt for night flights, but most parents with toddlers and older kids prefer to travel during the day (and, if possible, during the week). That way the children’s usual routine is disrupted the least and you can tuck them into bed upon arrival.
What about food? On many airlines you can preorder a children’s meal when you make your reservation (see “Special Food for Little Mouths,” below). But considering that many airlines have cut back on in-flight meals, it’s always smart to bring along your own goodies to eat en route.
What’s stowed under your seat can mean the difference between a pleasant flight and an uncomfortable one. Bring a change of clothes for each traveler (sticky messes and spills are part of the itinerary). Dress the kids comfortably, but even if it’s a hot day, bring along a sweatshirt; airplanes can get cool. Be sure to grab a blanket and pillow for your youngster when you board.
Other essentials: diapers (one for every hour of flight), wipes, baby food, bottles, necessary medications, and as many small activity books and toys as you can handle. Leigh O’Neill, of Dayton, NV — mother of a 5- and a 3-year-old — tucks a couple of surprise games and toys into individual bags, then uses one bag for each leg of the journey.
Though you may need your stroller on your trip, you don’t need to drag it onto the plane; leave it (with a luggage tag) with the attendant by the gate before you board, and it will be waiting when you disembark.
NOW EAR THIS
The change in air pressure when the plane is taking off and landing can cause ear pain or discomfort, especially in young children, whose eustachian tubes don’t function as well as adults’. To alleviate the pain, babies should suck on a bottle or pacifier, says Patricia Edwards, M.D., a pediatrician in Concord, NH. Older kids can suck on juice or chew gum. “You want the child to be swallowing, which is what helps the ears pop,” says Dr. Edwards. If your child has an earache or an ear infection, she recommends giving a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen along with using the ear-popping tactics. A youngster with a cold may benefit from a dose of decongestant prior to boarding the plane.
Riding the Rails
Amtrak, the passenger railroad service in the U.S., has upgraded in a number of family-friendly ways. On the East Coast, you can take the Auto Train from Lorton, VA, just outside Washington, DC, to Sanford, FL, just outside Disney World; go leaf-gazing in New York’s Adirondacks or in Vermont; or tour the national parks out West. The Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to Seattle has on-board entertainment that includes puppeteers, musicians, and magicians, and kids can play in a coach that has been converted to a reading and play area for little ones. Amtrak’s Travel Planner brochure gives a rundown of the options available. Kids under 15 travel half price; those under 2 without tickets are expected to sit on their parents’ laps.
STAYING ON TRACK
But train travel has its pitfalls too. When you’re planning a trip, keep the length of the journey and the ages of your kids in mind. Linda Hynson, of Asheville, NC, a mother of three, who once traveled from Los Angeles to New York City with twin toddlers and a sitter, found the three-and-a-half-day trip too long for the little ones — they kept running and falling in the aisles and poking their fingers into the nasty jaws of the train’s metal trash receptacles. Another mom, who with her husband and three kids took the auto train to Orlando, said she couldn’t fall asleep in her seat at night because of the lack of privacy. On the way home she was able to book a sleeper; she and her children slept like babies in their private, locked compartment, while Dad snoozed in coach. But be aware that sleeper compartments can be very tight and cramped.
Bring the same kind of carry-ons (diapers, medications, toys, etc.) when traveling by train as you would by air; you’re allowed two per person. Checked baggage and luggage in your car on the auto train are not accessible while you’re on board.
On the Road Again
While some parents relish the freedom of piling the children into a car and hitting the road, others can’t imagine a more gruesome scenario — wailing babies, constant complaining, sticky seats.
Before you head out on an extended journey with the kids, make sure your car or van is in tip-top working order and get a tune-up if necessary. (My sister learned this lesson the hard way, stranded once with two kids in a freak desert hailstorm on a cross-country trip while her husband sprinted out of sight in desperate search of a mechanic.)
If you don’t trust your car for a long trip, it’s a good idea to consider a rental. Rather than spring for a new transmission, we recently called a reputable local rental agency and got a good rate for a week on a medium-size four-door car (if your pocketbook allows, go for a van).
PACKING IT IN
No matter how I pack a car, when I’m done I can’t see out the windows and half our stuff is still sitting in the driveway. When my husband and 14-year-old pack the car, the windows are clear and there’s plenty of room to spare for a portable TV, a bike, and a hockey net. Guess who packs for our trips?
Accessibility and foresight are the keys to good packing. Medications, the first-aid box, extra diapers and wipes, and extra snacks (pretzels and bagels — forget crumbly items like donuts or cookies — juice boxes and water) are what get the place of honor in our trunk. What we probably won’t need en route (the just-in-case galoshes, for instance) go into the far reaches. What to keep at arm’s length? Linda Hynson brings a blanket and pillow for each child — a good idea to promote napping. In addition to the surprise package of small games or toys you’ll want at your fingertips, each child should have access to her own backpack filled with her stash (her portable tape or CD player, books, crayons, etc.). Always carry a roll of paper towels and some tissues or napkins. It’s also wise to keep a Frisbee or a ball within reach for stretching legs at rest stops.
While some parents can’t wait to hightail it down the turnpike to their desired destination, others have discovered the joys of stopping to investigate points of historical interest or to sample regional pizza parlors and ice-cream shops. To boost older kids’ interest and patience levels, let them participate in planning the route and following it with a map. They can help pick out a place to stop each day of a long car trip — a museum, for instance, or a special restaurant they might like or an area for a roadside picnic — so they have something specific to look forward to.
Whether traveling by train, plane, or car, if your child suffers from motion sickness, try giving him a kid-size dose of Dramamine or Bonine, recommends Dr. Edwards. Babies don’t usually have a problem with motion sickness, but if yours does, you can give her a dose of Benadryl to make her sleepy, Dr. Edwards notes. Motion-sickness patches placed behind the ear may also be useful for child travelers, but they don’t work for everyone, says Bruce Meyer, M.D., a pediatrician at Columbus Children’s Hospital; and there can be side effects, such as vomiting and nausea. Also, you need to begin to use the patches the day before travel, he says. If your child gets carsick, this is one time to discourage reading; it’s better to focus straight ahead. And don’t let him load up on food before a journey; a light snack is a better idea.
One of the great things about traveling by car is that you can be your own entertainment planner. Many a traveling family has been saved by music, whether by singing, listening to tapes, or having kids hook up their own portable tape or CD players. Wendy Logan, mother of Andrew, 4, and Phillip, 6, from Seattle, audiotapes her kids’ favorite videos and then plays the soundtracks as she drives: “The kids act out the parts and sing all the songs — they really get into it!” A Goofy Movie works well, she says, because it’s about a road trip.
The all-time favorites? Car bingo (make your own or pick up the game at a discount store) or searching for Hondas, Corvettes, red or blue cars, various state license plates or for deer, hedgehogs, rabbits, or just about anything else (we counted 100 soaring hawks on our last trip). Reading aloud and books on tape are also popular with families who travel by car.
However you travel, it’s worth making an extra effort so that getting there and back is enjoyable for everyone. As the proverb goes, the longest journey begins with the single step. So why not make it a pleasant one?