It's possible to have kids and still indulge your wanderlust as a family unit. Here's how.
We did the occasional summertime camping trip and beach excursion, and once, we went to Disneyland. For us, a week in London was as far-fetched as a month on Mars.
I was twenty years old before I stepped foot on an airplane and into the great unknown of world travel. On a lark, I took all the money I’d saved waiting tables, and pushed it in front of a travel agent who helped me book a ticket from Los Angeles to Paris, and a return trip out of Rome. I thought I was going to see great artwork, historic monuments, beautiful beaches, and hoped to have fun doing it. And I did. But even more significantly, that trip was my first taste of real freedom. I returned home with a new sense of confidence, and the realization that the world is full of possibilities. I’ve been addicted to travel ever since.
I spent a good part of the next fifteen years following my traveler’s heart to places like Europe, South Africa, Hawaii and the Caribbean. When I first met the man who would become my future husband, he had not been avid traveler. I told him, “If you’re with me, you’re going to travel.” He has graciously (and sometimes begrudgingly) conceded. We caught an unseasonably warm March week in Verona, spent quiet days in a favorite little beach town in Mexico, and got married on the beach in Costa Rica. Although those early years were lean, we grabbed every opportunity to travel.
And then we had a baby.
To say that having a baby makes you want to stay on lockdown at home is an understatement.
Home is safe. Home has everything you need. The baby wipes are warm and the extra breast milk is in the freezer. Baby has come to know her routine, at-home natural baby remedies are at the ready, and a babysitter is finally on speed dial. After having my son, it would have been easy to put my travel lust on the top shelf, to dream of dusting it off for two weeks each summer, or more fully in retirement.
But I am who I am: someone who loves to explore. And so, I’ve honed my travel skills to include a husband and a child.
Here's what I've learned over the past five years about how to indulge in wanderlust as a family unit. I am mindful of budget, simplicity, and sanity without sacrificing the fun, and enrichment that travel bring. The wipes might be cold, but when you reach the beaches of Greece, no one will care.
GET IN GEAR
Travel gear: it can be the difference between family travel that feels like a dream, or a straight-up nightmare. If you plan to travel more than once per year with your children, I suggest investing in some key items that will save you much unnecessary stress. Here’s my short-list:
Kinderpack makes a soft carrier for older toddlers and preschoolers—ideal for when they’ve grown out of their baby carrier, but aren’t yet able to manage walking the winding streets of Venice all day. When my son was two and three we used this to let him nap in transit while we explored museums and shops.
The GB Pockit Stroller folds up into a small square, fits in a nylon grocery bag, can be carried onto a plane and stored overhead. Done! This is the most genius travel stroller I’ve ever used, hands down (and I’ve gone through a few, since they can get pretty banged up when you check them at the gate). This little guy came in particularly handy on a trip to Disney World, when we had to get on and off hotel busses that didn’t allow strollers on board.
We always brought our car seat with us on airplanes. Not only to use at our destination, but our son slept better in the familiar embrace of his trusty seat. GogoBabyz Travelmate is a lightweight cart that allows you to push or pull your car seat right up to the gate. Your kiddo can even ride in it through the airport.
If you don’t need a car seat, but want a secure ride for your older toddler, the Kids Fly Safe CARES Harness is an FAA approved harness that slips over her plane seat. Your child must be between 22 and 44 pounds, and up to 40 inches tall, although Kids Fly Safe makes a version for taller kids with special needs.
For bigger kids who still need a booster, Mifold travel booster is as portable as it gets. You may have spied this company’s Indiegogo campaign, showing off their innovative and lightweight design. We’ve used it, and it delivers. Your child must be four years or older, and over forty pounds.
Use packing cubes like eBags to simplify your packing and cut down on too-many-suitcases.
BUY THE EXTRA SEAT
It is so tempting to keep your child on your lap during flights for as long as possible. My husband once said, “If I’d known having a child meant buying a third plane ticket, I would have reconsidered.” He was joking, but the cost of third ticket sure wasn’t funny. The first time we flew with him, I kept our infant son on my lap. I learned two things over that trip: it was dangerous, and it was uncomfortable—for both of us.
I had my son in a carrier during the flight from New York to Los Angeles, only to try to get him to sleep. The airplane hit some very intense turbulence and a sudden jolt had us yelping while we grabbed seats in front of us to stabilize. I realized that if my son had not been in the carrier—the way he’d been through much of the flight already—he would have been thrown from my lap. Even if I hadn’t woken up to the dangers of keeping a child on my lap during flights, one point was inarguable: we were both uncomfortable. Halfway through the flight I was willing the pay the man beside us $500 for him to stand up and give my son the seat. Do yourself a favor, pay for the extra seat.
ONE SUITCASE, ONE CARRY-ON
When I travel I always see kids carrying their very own little suitcases. They usually have animals on them, or nifty designs that allow kids to ride on them like toys. I hate these suitcases.
For every extra bag you have, check or unchecked, you have one extra item on your mental check-list of things not to lose. Simplify: one suitcase for the entire family. One carry-on for snacks, entertainment, wipes, diapers, and essentials. When you have multiple suitcases, multiple carry-ons, and then have to add car seats and strollers to the mix, you are creating a prime opportunity to lose something important. My husband once insisted on bringing his guitar with us for a thirty-day trip to Europe. Sadly, that guitar was the casualty of our too-many-things-to-keep-track-of mistake. It now lives in with a taxi driver in a small town in Spain.
I manage the One Suitcase Rule by giving each family member a packing cube, like these lightweight ones from eBags. Family members are allowed to pack anything that fits inside their cubes, but I push for minimalism. Leave heavy options like jeans at home if possible, and make sure all your wardrobe options work together in multiple combinations. Go for a single pair of shoes that work well from day to night, and swap out dolls and toys for cardboard games and paper cutouts.
TRACK IT, BUY IT
The cost of flights can be the most expensive part of a trip for families. I have a reputation among our friends for being able to find insanely cheap tickets. Last year we flew from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for $125 per ticket, round trip. I booked our tickets from New York City to Sweden for $370, also round trip. And I don’t do layovers.
I have a two-part strategy for snagging cheap tickets: use fare trackers, and be mentally prepared to buy tickets the minute you see a great fare. I like Hopper: a free app that let’s you put in your ideal flight dates and destination, and then advises you to snag the tickets, or wait for a predicted better price. I use Hopper in combination with Google Flights. If you have a timeframe in which you’d like to travel, and are flexible about destinations, Google Flights will let you explore prices over multiple destinations with flexible dates. And they’ll send alerts as soon as a good price is available.
That said, you have to be willing to book the flight as soon as you get that little push notification. Know what your flexible dates are (if you have them), know which forms of payment you’ll be using (hopefully a travel credit card), and be sure your partner is okay with booking without consultation (I learned that the hard way). That $125 fare I caught to California? It was sold out in twenty minutes.
DON'T FIGHT THE TIME CHANGE
Crossing time zones can be a struggle babies and kids. I handle the issue with these two tips: first, try to adjust to the new time zone before you leave. Push your little traveler’s bedtime by 15 minutes per night in the two weeks before your departure. Or try for fifteen minutes early—depending on the direction you’re traveling. You might not get perfectly in sync with the new zone, but inching closer will help everyone to adjust upon arrival.
Secondly, when you arrive, throw yourself entirely into the new time zone. Don’t spend your time calculating and comparing time zones to make sure your baby naps at their usual time. Just jump into Paris time and go about your day. If you non-napping child passes out at 4:00 in the afternoon, put them in a stroller and go have a glass of wine at an outdoor café. In other words, roll with it. You’ll enjoy your time more fully, and they will adjust just fine.
WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART
Airport lines, train station waiting rooms, customs security—they are the hardest part of travel for little ones. Especially if they are tired or just tired of not having fun. Be sure to prepare your kids for every part of the journey. Even when my son was barely talking, we told him what would happen. “We’re going to wait in some very long lines. We will all have to be very patient. You’ll get books and snacks to help.”
To manage the boredom, I have a three tiered snack system to occupy my son in these times. The first level is something yummy, but relatively healthy: a cup of pretzels, or cheese crackers. (You can also check out these organic snack foods for kids for ideas.) If that’s not cutting it, go for a higher end treat. I like gummies made of fruit juice. If you’re approaching an epic meltdown, go for the big guns: candy. I pick up a bag of something sugary in the airport shop and hand little pieces out one at a time to get through the hairiest of situations. And then I finish them off myself when my son falls asleep. Because, if ever there was a time to put our ideals aside, it would be the security line with a cranky toddler.
This goes for screen time, too. Are you a twenty minute per day parent? Not on travel days. Whatever your child needs to get through travel, I now deem you completely forgiven for providing.