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The Ultimate Guide to Traveling with Kids

family travel

Noah Woods

Long road trips with kids aren't always fun fests. But they are doable, and at times even enjoyable. As Shelly Rivoli, author of the blog TravelsWithBaby.com, says, "The vacation begins the minute you leave the house." Our tried-and-true tips:

  • Pack one small bag that contains clothes for the next day, an extra change of clothes (for spills), PJs, a toothbrush, and anything else you need for that day and night. It will be much easier to grab that than paw through the big suitcase.
  • Take your toddler's blanket and pillow if there's room. This is extra important if your road trip includes an overnight stay. Kids like their own stuff, particularly at bedtime in a strange place. If your child is out of his car seat, he may nod off more easily if he puts the pillow against the window and rests his head against it.
  • Babies and toddlers drop, spill, and spit up. Keep a roll of paper towels and a box of wipes in the front seat for easy cleanups. Keep a garbage bag handy too.

family road trip

Noah Woods

  • Bring on the snacks. As adults know all too well, eating gives you something to do. Be careful, though -- getting your kids sugared up may backfire. Pack some healthy fare, and don't worry about them turning up their noses at it.
  • Beat the boredom. Be sure to load some kid favorites onto your iPod or take some of your child's CDs. Portable DVD players can be a lifesaver, too. New DVDs they haven't seen are a bonus. Kids often have a hard time with headphones, though, so make sure they're comfortable before you go, and have at least one backup pair.
  • Get in the backseat. A little face-to-face contact, some patty-cake, and a few tickling games go a long way toward distracting a cranky baby or a bored toddler.
  • Try to tune out the tears. There may come a point where no amount of singing, snacking, or engaging will do -- your child wants out of the car, now. How to deal? If your child isn't hungry or wet, remind yourself that he's safe in the car and won't die from crying. Eventually, he'll stop or fall asleep.
  • Choose travel toys wisely. Rivoli has had luck with magnetic and Aquadoodle boards. And she suggests that you find a local grocery store or pharmacy if your toy stash grows stale. "It's likely they'll have an inexpensive selection of things your toddler hasn't seen before."

  • Build in extra time. You know how hard it is getting out the door in the morning with a baby? The same laws of nature apply to trips in the car. You'll have to stop for feedings, diaper changes, and stretching breaks. You'll be much less stressed if you accept that it may take twice as long to get there as it did in your pre-kid days and plan accordingly.
  • Stop often -- for little and big breaks. Yes, you want to get there, but letting your kids burn off some steam will make the time in the car more bearable. Rivoli suggests finding a local library. "You can read a book, let your child run around, and do a diaper change," she says.
  • Be aware that 20 minutes after your longish lunch stop, your toddler will need to stop again for a bathroom break.
  • Book a motel that has an indoor pool. It may cost a little more, but it's something to look forward to, and it will help your child sleep better.

family travel

Noah Woods

  • Overpack snacks, underpack toys. Kids get crankiest when they don't have familiar things to eat. Also, food can double as toys; make mosaics out of colored Cheerios, for instance. And kids will play with anything (cups, napkins, sugar packets) and will also accumulate toys (from fast-food meals and souvenir stands) during the trip, so don't take the whole toy bin along.
  • Put extra clothes in your carry-on -- your baby may have a big diaper blowout on the plane.
  • Pack each day's outfits in a one-gallon Ziploc bag: shirt/pants/socks. It makes packing easier because you can keep track of how many days of clothes you have; after an outfit is worn, use the bag for yucky laundry or dirty diapers.
  • Even with all those clothes, count on doing laundry while away. Dirty baby clothes stink.

At security you'll be expected to:

  • Keep your boarding pass in your hand at all times. But because you're a mom, you'll more likely wind up holding it in your teeth while you manage the baby.
  • Send everyone's shoes through the scanning machine. Take baby's shoes off while she's still in the stroller and have your hands free because next you'll need to...
  • Take baby out of the stroller (or carrier, or car seat), fold the stroller, and send it through the scanner.
  • Help older children put their loveys through the scanner. Promise that blanket or teddy will meet you on the other side.
  • Encourage a toddler to walk through the security gate ahead of or behind you.
  • Hold your baby without any carrier as you walk through the security gate.
  • Gather up everything on the other side; get shoes on and stroller unfolded as quickly as you can.

In preparation, we suggest you all wear slide-on shoes and little to no jewelry. To limit your juggling, try to use one big sack as your carry-on rather than a purse plus a diaper bag plus a bag of toys.

The good news is that breast milk is considered a "liquid exemption," which means you can bring more than 3 ounces on board as long as you are traveling with your child. (If your child isn't with you, the 3-ounce rule applies.) This also applies to formula or juice, canned baby food, and teethers filled with gel or liquid. If you're bringing these items on board, separate them from the cosmetics that you're carrying in your quart-size plastic bag. Declare you have breast milk (or formula, etc.) at the security checkpoint. To print out the official rules to have in hand, log on to tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/children/formula.shtm.

Looking for a place to nurse in an airport? Find a quiet gate near your assigned one, or try one of those Internet booths. Some airports also have a kids' play area where you'll find a lot of understanding parents.

With baggage restrictions, how do you get baby gear to your destination? Options vary depending on where you're going.

  • Best bet when it comes to diapers, wipes, and formula: buy and ship from places such as Amazon.com and Diapers.com. This is a cheap, easy way to get heavy staples there, and it will give you more room (and weight allowance) in your suitcase.
  • Staying with relatives? See if they have neighbors or friends with young kids who will let you borrow a high chair, Pack 'n Play, or baby swing while you visit.
  • Staying at a popular family destination? You may be able to rent equipment, but you'll have to dig around, and prices vary. Baby Beach Rentals, serving the Gulf Shores of Alabama and Florida, charges $25 a week for a high chair. Bear Baby Equipment Rentals, run by a mom on Martha's Vineyard, rents high chairs for $30 a week. A high chair from Rockabye Baby Equipment Rentals, serving cities in Texas, costs $45 a week. Trust us: It's easier to rent than to bring one or buy one.
  • There are some national baby-equipment rental chains, such as BabysAway.com. To get prices, e-mail them the specifics of your trip.
  • Staying at a hotel? Call the concierge or front desk. At the least, most provide a Pack 'n Play. (Even if there is a crib available, it may not meet current safety standards.) Loews hotels can lend Fisher-Price toys and baby gear like a bouncer seat. The more high-end the hotel is, the more it will offer. You should see the baby toiletries given out by a Four Seasons!
  • Mail your own stuff to your destination. Expensive, yes, but it may be cheaper than an extra piece of luggage.
  • Buy secondhand after you arrive at your destination. This is time consuming but can be worth it. One American Baby editor, staying in Ohio for a weekend, took her 2-year-old to a Salvation Army and bought $20 worth of toys. Before they left, she donated them all back again.

Insider Tips from Flight Attendants
When it comes to traveling with kids, flight attendants know best how to keep them comfortable and entertained. Here, advice to follow.

Stay warm. "Dress a child in layers or bring a blanket. Planes are so cold these days, and a lot of airlines don't offer blankets anymore -- you don't want your kid to shiver the whole time."
-- Erin Howes, United

Try arts and crafts. "A child can make a picture for the pilot, and we'll hang it up in the galley or the kitchen. Kids get excited about this. They know it's for the pilot and that we'll display it. So they really concentrate on making it, and that eats up a lot of time. Also, you can make hand puppets out of barf bags. Just draw faces."
-- Julieanne McDermott, American Airlines

Walking around is okay. "Try to do slow laps around the airplane, maybe once every hour. This keeps babies happy."
-- Angela Greener, Virgin Atlantic

Readers' Air Travel Tips

"If you're nursing, get the window seat so your husband can shield you with a blanket. Feeding baby during takeoff (or giving her a paci) will help pop her ears."
-- Mara Ehret, via e-mail

"The airport is the place where I let my 19-month-old toddler move around so he doesn't become antsy on the plane. He likes to visit the food court and to watch the planes through the window. And I've learned to pack light so I can follow him while he wanders from gate to gate."
-- Elizabeth Campbell, via e-mail

"I stocked up on small toys, books, crayons, and coloring books, along with diapers and a change of clothes. Each kid had his own backpack. They felt so grown up. A big hit was Barrel of Monkeys. Other kids on the flight liked the game too!"
-- Kim, via e-mail

Readers' Car Tips

"Last year we drove from Michigan to New Jersey. At the end of the trip, we left New Jersey at 8 p.m. and took turns sleeping and driving throughout the night. Eleven hours later, we were home."
-- Lisa Shenton, via e-mail

"I drove nine hours alone with my baby. I lowered my expectations about how quickly we'd get there. On one five-hour leg, we stopped halfway and had a picnic on a grassy area next to a restaurant. It took an hour but helped him tolerate the ride better."
-- Liz Morey Campbell, via e-mail

Originally published in the November 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.