First off, congrats on making the decision to travel more with your kids, particularly little ones. Let’s face it, travel, in itself, can be stressful enough, and traveling with kids at any age rarely makes it easier. But the benefits of experiencing new places for kids are huge, and travel can be one of the most rewarding things families do together.
That’s not to say we parents don’t make mistakes along the way. Fortunately, many of the most common family travel mistakes are easy to avoid through simple measures.
The payoff? Less stress and anxiety, more fun, and better memories.
We’ve taken what we’ve learned from our travels with our own kids, and other parents we know as well, and identified these common travel mistakes families make, as well as easy, travel-tested tips for avoiding each one!
10 Family Travel Mistakes & Tips for Avoiding Them
1. Sacrificing Big Comforts for Small Savings
This first one’s a biggie, and we’re just as guilty as anybody of doing this.
Coming from a budget backpacker background, it’s hard not to want to save money wherever possible. But when you add in one, and then two, little ones, it gets a lot harder to justify sacrificing comfort for a few dollars in savings.
It may feel really good when you book those super-saver fares from the comfort of your home, but that $30 savings may not feel so great as you’re boarding your third flight of a 12-hour+ marathon journey with a hungry, tired, and defiant toddler.
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We highly recommend prioritizing fewer flights and better connections over price, especially traveling with very young children.
Even for parents traveling on a very tight budget, ask yourself whether the savings is worth getting that family trip you’ve been planning for months off on the wrong footing, which could have implications for your entire vacation.
If you simply can’t swing the extra cost, consider breaking up your trip with an extended stopover or overnight layover en route to your final destination.
While we’re on the topic of air travel, always reserve your seats ahead of time if at all possible. If doing so costs an extra $7/seat, it’s money well spent to guarantee sitting together and to have one fewer potential headache in the mix.
We’ve added a lot of unnecessary stress to travel by waiting until we check-in to get our seat assignments. I don’t usually say this, but reserving seats ahead of time is definitely worth the cost of that extra pint of craft beer.
When choosing where to stay, I know how attractive it can be to spring for that 3-bedroom Airbnb just outside of the city for pennies rather than a much smaller place in the heart of the city.
You tell yourself, “We’ll just commute like the locals do, make an outing of it, and save a ton.”
If you’re visiting a smaller city with your own wheels, this may actually be a great idea.
But don’t even think about pulling this stuff in a city like New York, London, Bangkok, or Mexico City. You’ll spend more time fighting whining and traffic than you will doing or seeing anything worthwhile, especially when you factor in nap times and eating schedules.
With little ones, it’s generally worth it to pay a little more (and/or adjust your space requirements) to get a place closer to the action. Doing so will ensure more quality time at your destination, more flexibility to return to your home base if the need arises, and less travel time in taxis or buses with young kids.
It’s All About Perspective
Travel can be expensive, and overseas travel, even more so. A week+ family trip of a lifetime can easily run into the thousands.
It’s only natural to want to reduce costs where you can.
But look at it this way, if you’re already spending $1,800 on a vacation you’ve been planning for months or even years, is it really worth potentially ruining the whole shebang to save $100?
2. Forgetting Flexibility
Travel can be unpredictable. Flights, road conditions, hotels, luggage, weather, food, language… Heck, I’d say counting on unpredictability is about the only predictable thing about traveling.
Kids are unpredictable too, especially the youngest ones.
All of this unpredictability demands flexibility — in your schedule, in your expectations, in your entire being. Heck, get rid of the schedule if you can swing it — with little ones, it will only drive you mad.
It’s easy to get set on a particular destination. You tell yourself, “Oh, Jack and Chloe would just love seeing all those floating lanterns during Chiang Mai’s biggest festival of the year, wouldn’t they!”
But it’s a short flight to Santa Fe, it’s low season, and the weather is supposed to be a lot better. Maybe an epic trip to see the floating lanterns can wait until Jack can use the toilet by himself and Chloe can make it through a 5-hour flight without screaming bloody murder for half of it…?
It may not be your first choice destination, but staying flexible and keeping an open mind to less logistically-demanding destinations can actually make for a better trip with little ones in tow.
At home, we have tough limits on screen time, sugar, processed foods, and buying stuff for our infant and toddler.
On the road, however, we’ve learned that a bit of rule-bending can make a trip with little ones a lot more enjoyable without serious long term consequences, as long as we resume business as usual after the trip is over.
If we’re going to bend the rules, vacation time is the perfect opportunity, as it implies something special that doesn’t happen every day.
With our oldest, there is now a hard distinction between home time and vacation time, making it easier to spoil him just a little bit while traveling without worry about the long term impact at home.
That Darn Budget, Again
Being flexible also carries over to the pocketbook. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of putting together a budget, then planning a trip at the upper limits of your budget, but we really caution against this.
It’s easy to say, “We have just enough saved up for a budget trip to Disneyland or Europe, let’s go for it!”
With young children, however, you may be setting yourself up for disaster.
Kids get sick (especially toddlers!), debilitating mood swings are common, and it’s much harder to make that mad dash to the gate for final boarding when you’re loaded down with kid gear and your toddler runs about as well as a drunken sailor.
Determine the upper reaches of your budget, then hack 20%-30% and plan with that budget in mind. That way, when the unpredictable strikes, it’s far easier and less stressful to adapt to the situation or change course.
3. Failing to Plan Ahead
One of the things we love about travel is the seemingly endless opportunities for spontaneity and adventure.
Before kids, we valued the flexibility and enjoyment we got from not booking ahead or not reading up on our next destination. Sometimes we’d get lucky, and sometimes we’d get an adventure.
These days, we still seek out travel adventures, but when it comes to running out of diapers or not having visa paperwork in order, those are adventures we’d rather avoid with little ones.
Tips for Planning Travel with Toddlers & Infants
For the young infants, pack one diaper per hour of flight time. This may sound excessive, but if you haven’t flown with a three-month-old, you’ll be amazed at what changes in cabin pressure can do. And don’t underestimate the number of wipes and clothes to bring either.
For the youngest kids, a lovie is a must. As far as everything else, we’ve found that novelties work much better (and longer) than old favorites. Novel doesn’t mean having to go out and buy something shiny and new. It can mean something as simple as hiding a toy for a few hours and bringing it back out later.
Also, you may be amazed at how long a box of tissue can entertain a 12-month-old. We were!
Arriving in a new city (or country!) can be challenging enough, but when you add a kid or two following a long trip, it can get downright harrowing. Add a late night arrival, a long journey from the airport to the city center, skipped meals, potty breaks, and missed nap times, and now you’re talking some real nasty.
Make sure your hotel plans are rock solid and consider pre-arranging an airport transfer through your hotel or guesthouse prior to arrival. Doing so has made all the difference in the world for us when traveling with little ones.
When driving from point to point, map out your route before getting in the car, even if you know the route well. Take special note of construction zones and accidents and plan to avoid them or account for them with extra snacks and activities. Don’t forget to check the weather before hitting the road. And, if possible, gas up the car the night before. Kids can be awesome on road trips, but they can also be monsters.
A little planning and prep in this department can go a long way in saving your sanity, particularly if you’re the one behind the wheel.
If possible, don’t leave customs and immigration forms for the last minute. The last 15 minutes of a flight can get pretty hectic with antsy toddlers, poopy infants, turbulence, service carts rolling up and down the aisle, cleaning up toys, last minute toilet visits, and so on.
Complete entry paperwork as soon as you can get your hands on it. I like to have all the common information for the entire family in a note on my phone ready to go so I don’t have to waste time pulling out each passport, looking up addresses and phone numbers, etc.
Common immigration & arrival card info: Full name, date of birth, passport number/ issue date/ expiry date, flight/ vessel/ license plate number, hotel name/ address/ phone at destination, visa number/ issue date/ expiry date (if applicable), and planned departure date.
Visas — If you’re traveling abroad, make sure you check the entry requirements ahead of time for your specific port of entry. There’s nothing worse than showing up to immigration unprepared.
Make sure you have exact cash in the correct currency (many countries only accept USD for a visa-on-arrival — they won’t even accept their own currency!).
If you are traveling with kids and have a choice between applying for an e-visa online and getting a visa-on-arrival when you get to your destination country, go for the online e-visa!!!
Immigration lines can be very long, and visa-on-arrival often adds another long line on top of that, which is the last thing you want to do traveling with small children following a long journey.
4. Unrealistic Travel Pace
It’s natural to want to see and do everything at your destination. If it’s a trip of a lifetime, you’ll want to squeeze every last drop out of the experience, right?
When traveling with kids, you might want to adjust your expectations…and your pace.
Depending on the age of your kids, you’ll want to consider mobility and stamina, interest level and patience for certain activities (museums, historical sights, etc.), sleep and eating schedules, over- (and under-) stimulation, adrenaline and crashes, sudden mood swings, and variety of activities (or lack of). For trips lasting more than a few days, you’ll seriously want to consider (and respect) the real possibility of trip fatigue, and vacation burnout.
Toss out the daily schedule, slow things down, and make peace with not seeing everything, or even a fraction of everything. Remember, the objective shouldn’t be crossing things off the list. After all, in 20 years, I’ll wager that it won’t be the historic artifacts and ruins that dominate your memories from the brief time you spent traveling with your young kids, so why prioritize that aspect of your trip above all else?
5. Forgetting to Add Buffer Days to Travel Days
Speaking of slowing things down, it pays to add buffer days around long travel days, particularly when traveling with the youngest children.
Don’t be afraid to stay the night in a hotel to cut up a long travel day or layover. Sure it’s one less day you get to spend at your destination, but remember, it’s quality over quantity when traveling with kids. If an extra day of rest means better memories and experiences together, make it happen!
And don’t forget to account for jet lag after you’ve arrived at your destination. Chances are there will be an adjustment period with sleep schedules, eating routines, and getting accustomed to strange surroundings.
Stay patient and remember that it’s better to sacrifice a little sightseeing and adventuring up front to get everyone on the same page than to have it spill over into the next several days.
6. Not Respecting Your Kid’s Needs & Wants
You’re the parent, you’re paying for the trip, so you’re the boss, right? Well, yes and no.
We parents like to think of ourselves as the boss, but in practical terms, that’s rarely the case. Perhaps a middle manager at most, but never the boss.
That’s because, in addition to kids being their own persons with their own wants and desires like the rest of us, the youngest kids have specific needs that must be addressed (and respected) not just for their survival, but for the well being of the entire family.
Command all you want, you won’t make a hungry baby any less hungry, or a tired toddler tour three more UNESCO sites before nap time by telling them so or threatening them with punishment.
All this to say, it’s important to take into consideration and prioritize the needs of all family members when traveling with kids. Here are some easy suggestions for making that happen:
- It might be tempting, but don’t skip the nap. For the youngest travelers, you might even be able to get away with a mobile nap (in a carrier or stroller). Either way, respect the almighty nap!
- Respect mealtime. If your kids eat at certain times at home, it’s best not to mess with that too much. Your kids will be happier and less moody, but also have more energy! And, they’ll be more likely to go along on your adventures and subscribe to your crazy travel schemes.
- Kids have lots of energy, but that energy can be short-lived and certainly has its limits. Take frequent rest breaks and plan for your youngest travel buddies to have less stamina throughout the day.
- Give your kids choices. Better yet, encourage them to participate in deciding what to do and where to go. They’ll be more excited for the day ahead and generally more cooperative.
- Don’t forget to bring a lovey, blankie, or something that brings a slice of home with you on your trip.
Children will be more willing to go along on your adventures and subscribe to your crazy travel schemes if they feel like their needs and desires are also being respected and addressed.
7. Not Adjusting Your Expectations
When traveling with little ones in tow, it’s often hard to know what to expect. What’s certain is that traveling with kids will be quite different than travel before kids.
As such, family travel will serve you best if you are able to adjust your expectations to the new normal. Expecting to travel like you did or see what you saw or do what you did before kids will only lead to stress, frustration, and a lot of disappointment.
There’s an endless amount of value in traveling with your kids, and countless benefits. Travel expands your kids’ worldview, exposes them to new things, increases confidence, and offers endless opportunities for learning new things, just to name a few.
For parents (and older kids), the experiences had while traveling as a family makes for some of the most enduring memories.
There are things you won’t be able to do that you used to do, and that’s okay. There is a season for everything and this one is shorter than you think. Adjust your expectations and appreciate this fleeting time together.
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8. Losing Patience
When things don’t go as planned and the kids seem intolerable, it’s easy to lose your cool. We all do from time to time.
With that said, if it’s possible to cultivate more patience, then do it!
Prioritize patience when traveling with kids, keep it at the forefront of your mind, and traveling with kids all of a sudden feels that much more enjoyable. We can’t all be the Buddha, but even just reminding ourselves that things rarely go as planned while traveling, with or without kids, goes a long way in mitigating travel challenges.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that our example as parents speaks far louder than our words. If we want our kids to be good travelers, we’ll want to model that behavior while we’re actually traveling.
9. Skipping Travel Insurance
Don’t skip (or skimp on) travel insurance when traveling with kids. It’s one thing to opt-out of not having some sort of policy when traveling solo or as a couple. When traveling with kids, however, you may be asking for trouble.
If you’re traveling somewhere where you won’t be covered by your usual health insurance policy, making sure the entire family has coverage in case disaster strikes is likely going to be the main reason you’ll want some sort of travel insurance.
However, with little ones, you’ll also want to consider the importance of maintaining flexibility in your travels. It’s a state of mind, sure, but flexibility can also impact on your finances as well.
The best travel insurance policies cover travel delays and trip cancellation due to a variety of factors. If you have a flight that’s canceled or severely delayed, travel insurance will often cover lodging.
With all the unknowns that go along with traveling with kids, having a travel insurance policy goes a long way in reducing stress, mitigating uncertainty, and protecting against huge unexpected costs.
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10. Losing Perspective
Finally, when the kids are in rare form, the vacation is teetering on the brink of ruin, and all seems lost, don’t lose perspective.
What’s hard this time around may very well be a walk in the park next time. Your kids’ likes and dislikes, moods, challenges, lovies, attitudes, and needs might all be different next year, and before you know it, they’ll be off traveling with their own kids.
Take time to step back and appreciate the now. So often we put so much time and money into planning a trip that we forget to take the time to enjoy all that effort. Once you’re on your way, stop planning. Take time to take it all in. Enjoy the experience, not for what it could’ve been or what it isn’t, but for what it is.
Take a deep breath. Laugh. Life is short. This time is fleeting.
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