My husband, Chris, travels a lot for our ministry. While we enjoy traveling together, at this stage of life, it doesn’t happen as often as we would like. I love when I can accompany him, and it is even more meaningful when we can make it a family trip. Bringing the kids adds a whole additional level of complexity, though. The last two journeys we have been able to go on as a family has again brought into focus all the extra preparations and considerations needed when traveling with kids.
While it is fresh in my mind, I want to share some tips about how to travel with kids and stay sane, and even enjoy the time—a challenge, to be sure! We have recently taken a long car trip and a plane trip with the boys, but interestingly, the first tip I have for you is the same, regardless of the mode of transportation.
You may recall when you are waiting for a plane to take off, the flight attendants will go through the safety checklist, so you know what to do in case of problems while flying. When talking about turbulence, they always make the point that you should put your oxygen mask on before helping children and those around you. Whether you are flying, driving or traveling by train, this principle applies equally.
The first rule of traveling with kids is to do what you need to take care of yourself, so you can stay in relational mode (The Brains Relational Real Estate). One thing I can guarantee when traveling with children is, at some point during the trip (perhaps multiple times a day), their relational circuits will go off. When this happens, you can expect stress levels to rise as the emotional train threatens to go off the tracks and derail the fun of the time together. To be able to navigate this sticky terrain, you will need to stay in relational mode yourself as much as possible—an additional challenge, to be sure, when it happens in a restaurant, on a plane or at your in-laws, and all eyes shift their attention to your child and how you are going to respond.
As you prepare for your trip, create your list of items to pack, and plan your time, I would suggest you add creating an appreciation list to your preparations. Grab a notepad and pen (or open the notes program on your phone), and start a list. Think of things that make you smile. A beautiful sunset, snuggling with your daughter before bed, laughing with your son, your favorite date with your spouse, a special time when you felt God’s presence close by—anything that brings a smile to your face and feeling of peace and joy—are great things to reflect on. As each memory comes to mind, give it a one or two-word name, like “sunset,” “snuggles,” “giggling,” “date night,” etc., and write the name on your list. Try to come up with at least ten items for your list, and aim to include one about each of the family members who will be traveling with you.
When a potential melt-down moment occurs on your trip, take a deep breath, think of one of these appreciation moments—it can be especially helpful to think of a joy moment with the child who is having the meltdown—and focus on staying in relational mode as you help your child navigate getting their RCs back on. This one step can make a big difference in how much your family will enjoy their time together.
The following is a list of practical things to consider to help you and your kids avoid the most likely things that can cause stress while traveling.
- Packing can be stressful when you are trying to pack everyone in the family. As appropriate by age, tell your kids what to pack (5 outfits including pants, short sleeves, underwear and socks, two pairs of PJs and a swimsuit) and have them pack themselves. Double check their pile before they put it in their suitcase. Our boys have been doing this since they were 4 and 6.
- Discuss expectations. If Grandma is fragile, make sure they understand to give her a gentle hug. Review the appropriate behaviors and those that are not in each of the situations you will be in. Even make a game of it, and think of the most outrageous things they shouldn’t do, like, “Don’t stand on the table at the restaurant.” Review once again just before entering the new environment. This helps children know your expectations and cuts down on unnecessary stress from miscommunication. If going into busy public places, discuss what to do if any of you become separated.
- Bring snacks. When traveling, everyone is out of their routine, and you probably aren’t always eating when their bodies are used to it. Having snacks handy can buy you a lot of time while waiting for mealtime.
- Bring entertainment. There may be long periods when the kids will be expected to sit still and be relatively quiet. (With our boys, this can be a big challenge!) Books, (appropriate to age, whether picture, simple words or chapter), activity books, portable games (cards, paper for hangman, etc.), portable movie players (we don’t have a lot of screen time at home, but on trips the boys are allowed screen time during long car rides or plane rides), etc.
- Have children pack bags they can carry and, if flying, check as many of the other bags as possible. It is stressful to become the pack mule, carrying the bags for everyone because they are “too heavy!” Have them practice carrying their bag themselves, so they know whether the weight is too much.
- If flying, be aware of potential ear pain. Bring something to address it if it occurs (for infants, a bottle or pacifier, for toddlers, a sippy cup, for older kids, gum). If you know your children struggle with ear pain when flying, look into EarPlanes.
- Protect sleep as much as possible. One of the hardest things about traveling is being in a new environment and out of your routine. This can lead to shorter nights of sleep for everyone, which gives less capacity for everyone to deal with the curve-balls of the day. As much as possible, protect the time for sleep; get the kids back to where they are sleeping at a reasonable hour. If they are like my sons, they will wake up at the same time of the morning, regardless of the time they went to bed, so help them (and you) grab enough shut-eye to face the next day with energy.
- Make realistic plans according to family capacity. Schedule some downtime for rest or naps during the day. Get back to where you are sleeping at a reasonable hour. If they “Go, Go, Go” without rest or downtime, children will become overtired and grumpy quickly (and you probably will too!)
- Have realistic expectations. If they are tired and cranky from being out of routines, in different beds and not sleeping enough, we can expect some level of acting out and meltdowns. Be prepared to stay tender to weaknesses and give grace (to them and you).
- If anyone in your family has dietary restrictions, research restaurant chains in the area so you know where you can find safe options to eat and be prepared to supplement with food you bring along.
Traveling together as a family is a wonderful opportunity to build great memories and enjoy being together. Be prepared to flex on your plans, give plenty of grace (to everyone, including yourself and your spouse), and put your oxygen mask on when there is turbulence so you can help the family navigate bumpy terrain. Today, start paying attention to when you fall out of relational mode and use appreciation to get you back. With practice, you will be well prepared the next time you travel!