Sunday, March 17, 2013

Tips for Traveling with Kids: From the Experts... Expat Moms!

Traveling with Kids - You WILL Survive!

This time two years ago, I was busy preparing my family for a big move.  My husband had accepted an expat assignment in China!  We were literally moving to the other side of the globe.  However, I believe I was more anxious about the 13 hour flight with my three children (who were 4, 6, and 7 at the time) then I was anything else.  I am happy to report that not only did I SURVIVE, my CHILDREN survived!  Of course, now we are experts at traveling as a family, having made several trips across the world.  I will be flying from China to the US alone with my children this summer, and I know that I have nothing to worry about.

My expat friends and I have some great advise for traveling with kids, whether you are spending several hours in the car, on a train, on a bus, or on a plane.  Not only are all of us traveling between our home countries and China at least once a year, we travel for holidays throughout the year as well.  Our kids have hours and hours of travel time under their belts!  I hope that these suggestions help you and your family feel more relaxed and better prepared for your travels!

Tip 1: Plan your Travel with Your Family in Mind

Let me just say, the BEST advise I can give is to plan with your family in mind.  You know your children better than anyone else.  I have friends that swear by traveling through the night.  If driving, the parents take turns sleeping while the other drives... the kids sleep through the night, and you arrive at your destination and can enjoy a full day!  If flying, kids sleep and aren't bored or annoying those around them, and parents try to sleep.  Sounds great, right?

I can honestly say this is NOT the way to go for my family - kids or parents!  For five years we did a 13 hour drive from our home to grandma and grandpa's.  We tried the all night thing.  Didn't work.  Yes, the children slept the entire drive, BUT I couldn't  sleep because I was paranoid my driving hubby would fall asleep at the wheel, and neither of us cope well without sleep!  We found the best way for us was to get up at 3am after all getting to bed at a decent time the night before.  We got a good chunk of sleep ahead of time, the kids easily slept the first 3 or 4 hours of the drive, and we made it to our destination in good time.

For our flights, one of my three children has always needed perfect conditions for sleep.  If she doesn't have them, it is a real struggle for her.  When she was younger, it was a nightmare being stuck on a flight at bed time, where there was too much noise and too much light.  Now that she is almost 10, it is getting better... but it still can be difficult for her (and ultimately, us as parents).  My son, on the other hand, has never had issues sleeping anywhere!  So my advise is to take your family into consideration when you are making your travel plans.

When you are selecting flights, fly direct when you can.  Consider your departure times, but also take into consideration the number of stops, the length of each lay-over, and the times you will be arriving and departing with each leg.  The airports you plan to fly through can be something to consider too.  Smaller airports usually mean they are easier to get in and out of, and the line-ups won't be as bad getting checked in and going through security.  Larger airports will require more time, but are better equipped with places to shop and eat while you are waiting for your flight.

When you are booking flights where meals are provided, be sure to request a child's meal for your kids!  They are usually more kid-friendly and arrive prior to the other passengers being served.  This must be done ahead of time, as you cannot request a child's meal on the flight.

Tip 2: What to Pack in Your Carry-On

I learned after a few trips with the kids that I was packing WAY too much stuff!  My friend Carrie put it so well..."Be selective about what you bring in your carry-on. I used to try to cram as much as I could into a carry-on, but seldom used half of it. I just ended up lugging around a heavy bag for nothing and having to try to keep track of everything."

My friend Shelly says, "We have our son pack his own backpack with the things he enjoys. He then carries it himself. When he was little his bag was on wheels. He always felt he was important having his bag like his Dad."  I like to pack the bags for my children.  For one, I like the contents to be a surprise since I usually get new things for on the plane.  Secondly, I know that my kids would likely stuff their bag full of things they wouldn't use! 

Roller bags and backpacks are best for carry-on.  Like Shelly suggested, many kids will enjoy pulling a roller bag so they feel more grown up and important.  These are great, in my opinion, and likely easier for children to manage themselves as opposed to a heavy backpack.  However, backpacks are great if you get stuck with them, as you can put them on and still have two free hands.

Here are my suggestions for packing your carry-on for the plane:

Pack a "Just in Case Bag" to be kept inside your carry-on.  I place a change of clothes for each kid in a large, ziploc bag.  If we are going to be somewhere with a pool, I make sure their swim clothes are included.  At the chance we have an accident on the plane, or our luggage doesn't make it to our destination, we will at least have a change of clothes to get us through.

Pack a "Kid Bag".  Long flights will usually have on-flight entertainment, but not always.  You will want some things to keep your children busy while on the flight.  Have a smaller bag inside of your carry-on that you can keep underneath the seat in front of you (or your child).  In this bag, keep all of the things your child will want or need while on the plane.  I use another large Ziploc baggie for this stuff.  Here's what I pack inside:  
  • Color book / Paper
  • Crayons or Markers
  • Pen (Pencils will need sharpening!)
  • Healthy snacks (you can be guaranteed, the kids will eat these the first chance they get)
  • Nintendo DS, Leapster, Kindle, etc.
  • New Toy or a special Surprise
  • Travel Pillow
  • Sleep Mask (Great to have if you are taking a night flight.  The lights are constantly turned off and on!)

Pack a "Mom Bag".  There are things that I like to keep close at hand for the kids, but I don't necessarily want to pack in the children's bags.  These are the things that I keep in my bag under the seat in front of me.
  • Snacks, snacks, and more snacks!  I give the children some snacks in their bags, but I keep a stash that I can pass out as I see fit.  I also keep some treats on hand as a surprise to share at some point along the way.  Gold fish crackers, granola bars, fruit snacks and other snack packs are great ideas.
  • Suckers (for plugged ears).  Some children will have a hard time with the change in air pressure.  They suggest nursing babies while the flight is taking off, or landing, to help "pop" their ears.  Older kids might find it helpful to suck on a sucker.  However, in all of the flights we have taken, there has only been one time that any of my children have had a problem with plugged ears.  You might want to have some suckers on hand just in case!
  • An empty water bottle or sippy cup.  This is SO good to have on hand.  You will not be able to bring full water bottles through security, so make sure you save an empty water bottle to take with you onto the plane.  You can fill it before you get on the plane too.  The cups they serve drinks are so un-child friendly.  I am always a nervous wreck, waiting for a child to dump their apple juice all over.  Bring a water bottle or sippy cup with you, so you can keep the drinks easily contained.  Plus, it makes it easy to store them in the seat pocket until your child wants them.
  • Wet-wipes or wippees.  If you have a baby, no doubt, you will have these with you.  If you have older children, a stash of wet wipes can really come in handy.  Sticky fingers, spills, or stains on shirts along the way... it never fails with my kids!  These are a must!
  • Safety Pins, large.  This was suggested by a reader of my blog a while back.  She said she always brought 4 large safety pins on flights so she could "pin" the blanket they provide to the back of her child's seat and to the seat in front of them.  That way you can create a tent, to block out the light for a child trying to sleep... or just to make things a little more fun.  This has been a great tip that we have used often!  Sometimes the seats allow us to tuck the blanket into the head rest, so the safety pins aren't always necessary, but I bring them just in case!
  • Children's Headphones.  I'm just going to say it.  The headphones offered on the flights usually suck!  If they are ear buds, they are going to be too large to fit inside little ears (heck, they hurt MY ears!), and if they are the head-band style, they will most definitely be too large for your child's head.  It is worth grabbing a pair of child-sized headphones to bring along with you if there is any chance their will be in-flight entertainment available.
  • Fully Loaded, Fully Charged iPhone, iPad or Kindle Fire   I have to be honest.  Before we moved to China we did not own any of these things.  We have now had both an iPhone and an iPad, I couldn't imagine NOT having them for these trips.  Before our travel I will go through and clean them up a bit.  I take off games the kids no longer play and I add some new ones.  I will usually add a new movie or some favorite TV shows as well.  These can be your saving grace on long trips.
  • Chargers for electronics.  These are always great to keep close at hand, even if you don't have a place to plug them into on your flight!
  • Copy of your travel details.  At this point, I can leave for the airport not once looking back to confirm that I do in fact have a ticket for that day.  With that said, I do like to keep a copy of my plans and travel itinerary close at hand.  If you have any changes to your flight, it is helpful to see how that might affect the rest of your travel.  My print out includes hotel addresses, phone numbers, and confirmation numbers as well.  I always have a print out with me when I travel (even if I never need to refer to it).
  • Travel sickness pills.  I have one child that will become air sick from time to time.  If you have a child that gets motion sickness, this might be a good thing to have on hand.
  • Extra Ziploc Baggies.  If you have small children, this is a must!  If you have an accident on the flight, and you don't want to have to throw clothing away, toss them into a Ziploc bag.  That way the mess is contained, the smell is contained, and you can deal with it once you are to your destination.  These are also good to have for left over snacks in open packages.  Best of all, they don't take up much space!

Tip 3: Dress for Comfort

You never know what you are going to get.  I have been on flights where I am dying of heat stroke, and then I've been on flights where I feel like I've traveled to the arctic.  You only have so much control over the temperature on the plane.  My tips for dressing yourself AND your kids for the flight:
  • Dress in layers!  T-shirts with zip up sweatshirt over top work great.  
  • Wear comfortable clothes!  I avoid dressing the kids in jeans, or anything that would be tight on their tummy if they are sitting for hours.  
  • Wear slip on shoes!  You don't want to be fussing with shoes when you need to make a quick trip to the washroom, or you are trying to get tired children off of the plane!

Tip 4: Be Prepared for Flight Changes/Delays

It sucks, but sometimes it happens.  Flights can be delayed, they can be cancelled, you can miss connections, and your travel plans can get pretty messed up sometimes.  Just try to go with the flow.  It isn't always easy to do that when you have kids with you.  The best thing you can do is stay calm, and try to be prepared for things like this.

What you can do in the event of flight delays:

  • Raid your carry-on snacks and activities!  These can come in handy when you are waiting for flight delays.  
  • Watch a movie on your iPhone or iPad together.
  • Explore the airport!  We check out the gift shops, book stores, and take a look at the different food options.  Giving the kids some spending money will help keep them occupied for a while as well.  There are usually some fun treasures to be found at larger airports (though they can be a bit spendy).
  • Enjoy a sit-down meal at a restaurant at the airport.  We love getting a good meal in before our flights because none of us are too crazy about the food on the plane. This is especially a good idea if you have a very picky eater, like we do!  I am quite certain my son has yet to eat a meal on the plane! 
  • Play a game together.  If you didn't bring a deck of cards or a stash of travel games, your paper and pen will be all you need for games such as Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman.  Charades, I-Spy and 20 Questions can be played without any supplies at all.  What other games can you come up with?
  • Ask about food or accommodation vouchers!  You will sometimes qualify to receive vouchers for meals or accommodation if your flight has been delayed or cancelled.  Every airline will have it's own policy regarding this.  Sometimes you will receive these without having to ask.  If you have a long flight delay or a cancellation, it doesn't hurt to ask!
  • Know what the airport offers.  Some airports may have a play area for children.  There are also airports with great rest areas with lounge chairs for weary travelers.  Many airports will offer free WIFI (but not all!).  It is always great to get a directory for the airport so you know where your family will be most comfortable while you wait.

Tip 5: Know the Tricks of the Travel Trade

  • YOU WILL LOSE SOMETHING!!  When you are trying to collect kids, their shoes and jackets, and all of your carry-on items, things can easily be forgotten... especially if you are dealing with tired kids!  What have we lost in our travels?  A Kindle, a favorite baby blanket, pillows, stuffed animals, a backpack full of treasures from a holiday, a Nintendo DS, a Leapster with hundreds of dollars worth of games.... shall I continue?  When you forget something on a plane, or lose it at the airport, it can be a nightmare to locate!  Not everything will be found.  Airlines pass the items found on the plane to the airport's lost and found, and it may take a couple of days before the airport's lost and found will have these items.  Dealing with the airport lost and found can also take a lot of time!  So... be sure to check the seat pockets in front of your children and around your seats before you leave the plane!  This is another reason I like to keep the kids' on-flight goodies in a large Ziploc bag.  Encourage them to keep everything in this bag when not in use.  And, CHECK BEFORE YOU LEAVE the plane!
  • Give yourself sufficient time!  Make sure you arrive at the airport with enough time to get checked in and to your gate without having to rush.  Long check-in lines, lines through security, and having to go through customs can take time!  Domestic flights usually suggest you arrive at least an hour before your flight, while international suggest no less than 2 hours.
  • Plan your potty breaks!  I like to make sure everyone has used the washroom before getting on the plane so that we can be sure to get up in the air before we need to make the next trip.  You will not be allowed to get out of your seat from the time the plane leaves the gate until it reaches cruising altitude.  On the other end, make sure you get your potty breaks in before the plane begins it's decent!  Once the plane is preparing for landing, the kids will need to stay in their seats until stopped at the gate.
  • Bring a stroller!  Strollers are great to use in the airport if you have small children.  These can be checked at the plane without charge, and then picked up as you exit the plane when you reach your destination.
  • Bring a car seat!  If your child uses a car seat, and you will need one when you reach your destination, bring it along!  You can check it along with the rest of your luggage, but you shouldn't have to pay anything extra to do so.  Just note that they can get pretty beat up on the trip.  We always brought our "spare" car seat if we needed one for our trips.
  • Be prepared for gate changes!  You may have a tight connection between flights, and sometimes you even have to take a shuttle or a train from one part of the airport to another.  There is nothing worse than running through an airport with kids in tow to make your connection, only to find the flight has moved to another gate!  For tight connections, I always confirm the gate we will arrive at, and try to get an update of the gate for our connecting flight before we land.  If the stewardess cannot provide this information, make sure to find the first flight schedule board you can once off the plane to confirm.  You will have a map of the airport in one of the flight magazines on the plane too.  This will help you to prepare for what you will need to do to make it to your next flight.
  • Bathroom breaks with baby!  I have had fly alone with a baby a few times.  Trying to manage a trip to the washroom is one of those impossible tasks.  What do you do with the baby?  I carried my babies in a front pack.  As silly as it sounds, I could manage to use the toilet with the baby strapped on me, so I didn't have to set them down on the bathroom floor (ick!).  When on the plane, I found that there was always a stewardess more than happy to hold the baby for me!

Tip 6: Relax!

I have been pleasantly surprised with how well my children have done with these long trips over the years. Yes, there were "times" when it didn't feel that way, but those are definitely not the norm! Chances are, you will be WAY more worked up over things then you need to be. So just be prepared, and try to relax. Riding on airplanes can be very exciting for kids, and for them, this can be one of the best parts of the trip! 

Some more words from my friends...

  • Relax. If your kids are older, they will probably do a lot better than you think. Kids think planes are fun, and will probably enjoy the trip. If you have babies, then expect that they may cry or have a meltdown, but that's okay. Most of the people will be understanding about it, and those that aren't..... just ignore them. Carrie - USA/China 
  • RELAX! You might be surprised at how easy it is to travel with kids! (personally, I think they're more resilient and more adaptable than us grown-ups). Astrid - USA/China

More Travel Advice from Expat Moms

Suggestions on Packing for the Plane

  • Stock a Carry-On Tote - We bring a tote that sits inside of our roller carry on case that holds diapers, toys, books etc. That way we can put the carry on suitcase over head but still have everything in a bag that fits under the seat for easy access. Erica D.- USA/China
  • Entertaining Little Ones - I pack certain toys away a week in advance so when I bring it out on the plane or in the car, they play with it much longer because they haven't seen it in over a week. I have boys and they are not into crafts or drawing so I need more active activities  Easy to travel games, flash cards, play dough  trucks, tractors, having them tell you what the pictures on the safety manual mean (some great stories can be told:) etc.  Erica O.- USA/China
  • Favorite Travel Activities - We also REALLY LOVED using Color Wonder by Crayola. Astrid - USA/China
  • Traveling with Babies/Toddlers - I also highly recommend taking snacks, a change of clothes for your child and yourself (especially for when they're little), extra diapers, extra Pull-ups, lollipops, pacifiers, children's or baby tylenol and ibuprofen (modified first aid kit) - of course this depends on the ages and needs of your child(ren). Astrid - USA/China
  • Bring snacks, and lots of them. I found snacks tended to entertain my kids and keep them happier than toys. Carrie - USA/China
  • Bring snacks. They will never serve snacks at the same intervals that your children are hungry. Erica - USA/China
  • Bring an empty water bottle. Some flights won't let you bring on liquids purchased in the airport so for those flights we bring our own water bottle. You can have the stewardess fill it up with water once you board the plane and then you will not have to call for assistance when your kids get thirsty, and then only be brought a dixie cup full of liquid. Erica D.- USA/China
  • Bring new toys, books, and snacks. As much as we can fit in our tote we do. Spending a few dollars on new coloring books, books, and cheap toys that likely won't last past the plane trip home, make life on a plane a lot more enjoyable. We also download a few new movies/TV shows onto our computer as we have found on some of the Asian flights that the children's options can be rather limited.  Erica D.- USA/China
  • Snacks!  Let your children pick out snacks to take on the trip (this way they will not complain about the snack).  Shelly - USA/China
  • Entertainment.  If you have an iPad or something to watch movies on...take it (let kids choose movies to take).  Shelly - USA/China
  • Pack a "Just in Case Bag"!  I feel if you are prepared for anything then the trip goes smoother. I travel with a "Just in case bag". Be prepared for the surprising vomit or messes in the pants. Bring extra baggies, extra wipes, and extra clothes (for YOU and the kids).  Erica O.- USA/China
  • Tuck coats in a carry-on.  I use one carry on for jackets.  We pack them before getting on the plane, and keep them in the overhead storage.  That way don't lose them, and have them when we arrive at our destination. Ileana - Mexico/China
  • Gift your neighbors.  My sister-in-law lived in Hawaii for several years and would fly home with her two little kids twice a year. She used to put together goody bags with notes for the people in the rows around her. They'd say something like, "My name is Owen. I'm 2 years old, and I'm really excited to be flying today. I'm sorry if I'm a little loud on the plane - my mom is working really hard to keep me busy. Here are some treats for you. Enjoy!"  She said she always got great feedback from her seatmates, and she felt like people were a little more understanding. Anna L.

General Suggestions when Traveling with Kids

  • Boarding the Plane - Personally we like to board first so that we can get everyone settled in. However, many parents opt to board after everyone else has boarded to let their kids run and play (off the plane) for as long as possible. You just have to see what works best for you! Astrid - USA/China
  • Time changes - If you're switching major time zones (like from the U.S. to China) choose a daytime flight instead of a nighttime flight. The night flights mean that they will sleep on the plane. Although this makes for a nice plane ride it also means that they arrive in their new destination in the evening, meaning they then have to turn around and sleep again. This first night seems to dictate (at least for us) how easily the jet lag transition will happen. Erica D.- USA/China
  • Share your travel plans with your kids.  Research the trip you are about to take and share it with your children. Show them some of the places you will be visiting. This will get them excited about where they are going.  Shelly - USA/China
  • Prepare your kids.  I would suggest talking about what is going to happen at the airport, how to act going through security, and your overall expectations with your children before getting to the airport. This way the kids know what to expect. Remind them that airport security is very serious and it is not a place to mess around.  Shelly - USA/China
  • Using the washroom.  If I am traveling with the kids alone, I use the bathroom on the plane instead of the airport.  I think it is "safer" to leave them in their seats then standing alone in the airport waiting for me. Ileana - Mexico/China
  • Find the outlets!  We wait at the gate, even if we need to wait three hours for our flight.  We are sure to sit next to outlets so we can charge our electronic devises for the flight while we use them.  Ileana - Mexico/China
  • Don't medicate kids to induce-sleep! I don't recommend medicating your kids with a sleep-inducing medicine before the flight. This can really back-fire and have the opposite desired effect. I've never done this but I've heard about this "tip" from sources. Astrid - USA/China
  • Take a walk on the plane.  It really helps to get up and walk around with the really little ones (bonus is that you get to stretch out your own legs).  Astrid - USA/China

More Resources for Traveling with Kids

Travel Activity: On-the-Go Packet

20 Travel Activities for Kids - Want some ideas on what you can bring to keep kids busy on your travels?  I have a great collection of ideas for you HERE!

You can also find a great collection of Road Trip Activities on THIS Pinterest board by Lisa Vaught.

Toddler Approved has some great suggestions in the post, How to De-Stress Young Children During the Holidays.  These tips also apply to traveling with kids.  Though you don't have complete control over these things all of the time, try to keep these things in mind when making your travel plans.  It will help ensure the kids AND you have the most enjoyable experience.

World Citizen Wednesdays -
Tips for Traveling with Kids - All Done Monkey has another great list of tips for traveling with kids - especially if you are flying with a baby!

Staying Sane While Traveling with Kids Mummyology has a great post on how to be prepared when you plan to travel with kids.

The Chirping Moms have two great posts related to traveling with little ones.  Italy with a Bambino, and Traveling with Little Kids.  Both posts have some great ideas to consider when making your travel plans.

Happy Travels to you!


  1. Wow! I've travelled to the UK from the US with my son on four return trips now - but why didn't I think of safety pins?? My son hates sleeping on the plane, so my husband and I end up holding the blanket up for him to create some darkness. But safety pins. What a great idea! We're travelling again in two weeks when my son will turn 2 - I'll be sure to use many more of your ideas too!

  2. We audiobooks to keep our kids entertained at home. We have them playing in the background constantly -- when they're playing, doing art projects, whatever. There's lots of great sites to download them, but we use this one a lot because all the stories are original and free. Here's the link if anyone is interested.

  3. My top suggestion is to take your carseats on the plane. I did this with my almost-5-year-old and 2-year-old. I'm pretty sure all US airplanes are required to let you take a carseat (and stroller) for free/not included as one of your carry-on's/packed bags. I'll admit it was tricky to get the carseat to the gate (we strapped one on a stroller, one to a roller bag. But, kids know they always have to be in a carseat in a it just natrually follows on a plane. Two reason to have a carseat on the plane: sleeping and simple containment. Carseats are soooo much more comfortable for a child to sleep in with the side wings/head rests, and they are used to napping in them. Also, it keeps them safe, secure, and seated on the plane. We had everything we needed in their separate go bags and they stayed in their seats the whole 3-hour plane ride. (oh, one note though. Some airlines have rules with what seat a carseat can go in. Most will NOT allow it in the aisle seat, because it can create a possible blockage for an emergency exit. We had enough adults that we put them both in the window seats in 2 rows. No fighting and they each had individual attention, yet we could talk back/share items and forth between the seats.) Anyway, I really think it was a great idea and then we didn't have to rent carseats at our destination.

  4. We travelled to Sydney from Copenhagen when our twins were two years old and to Chicago when they were five and we found instead of sitting together it was easier to split up so each parent only had one kid to focus on. Especially around mealtime it was nice only to keep track on one kid and the potential spills. We sat in two rows behind each other or when possible in a row with four seats.

  5. We travelled to Sydney from Copenhagen when our twins were two years old and to Chicago when they were five and we found instead of sitting together it was easier to split up so each parent only had one kid to focus on. Especially around mealtime it was nice only to keep track on one kid and the potential spills. We sat in two rows behind each other or when possible in a row with four seats.

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