Travel season is upon us! You may have already gone back to your home country, as many workers do over the summer, but maybe you can use these tips for the return trip.
Our family has traveled with 1, 2, and 3 kids, from 5 weeks old to now 10 years old. Each cross-world trip has had its frustrating moments, but I’ll nod my head in agreement with all those who say it does get easier as your kids get older. Last year, traveling back to the US with kids ages 9, 6, and 3.5 was literally the first time I didn’t pace the aisle, consoling a kid. It was also the first time I watched a movie in its entirety—not without interruptions—but I watched a movie! Traveling with kids, especially young ones, can be excruciating. Here are the nuggets of wisdom we’ve gained over the years:
- Meditate on the fruits of the Spirit and the armor of God. This is our area of expertise, right? Most of us are pretty good at displaying God’s character when times are easy, but how do we act when our kids are crying inconsolably, with 10 more hours on the flight to go? What about when the airline forces you to pay for an extra bag even though you bought a ticket for your 18-month-old toddler in order to get that “free” bag and extra space? (True stories.) If you spend time meditating on these Truths beforehand, when your patience is tried or something goes awry during your trip, you will have His tools ready to use.
- Lower expectations, let go of routine and rules, and be flexible. Our family tends to follow a routine when at home. Naps at this time, snacks only at that time, and limited screen time. When we travel, it all goes out the window! We let the kids know that the travel days (and maybe even days of jet lag) we will have different rules. It’ll be fun to have more screen time and more snacks, but they still need to obey (more on that below). It is a special time with special privileges. We go back to our normal routine and rules once jet lag is over and we can see straight again! Traveling with little ones is tiring and stressful for everyone involved. If you expect it to be this way (not in a Negative Nancy way, but just realistically), chances are when they act out, you may have more patience to handle it. Their little minds don’t know what’s really going on anyway. Extra grace required!
- Clamp down on behavior and discipline issues the weeks and months leading up to departure. Everyone disciplines differently. I’m not going into the different strategies. But I will be the first to acknowledge that as parents, we fall off the wagon sometimes. We get busy, distracted, or just don’t have the energy to devote to consistent parenting. But if our parenting is tightened up and everyone is on the same page again before you travel, the kids won’t be surprised when you expect and enforce obedience in the 2-hour line at customs. I’m sounding a little militaristic here—don’t take it that way—there is always room for more grace, as stated above! Whatever your parenting style is, just be sure you’re actually doing that and the kids know what to expect. That way, when the chaos of travel hits, you’re dealing with something stressful, and your kid loses it all at the same time, he won’t be surprised when you enforce your discipline (warning, ultimatum—whatever it is) and knows he better straighten up.
- Check, double-check, and triple-check all the details. In our family, my husband is the details person when it comes to travel and paperwork and I’m the cat-herder…er, kid-wrangler. We split these duties up several years ago, and it’s so nice to only have to focus on one or the other! Be sure to check flight times, baggage allowances and weight requirements for those bags. Also be sure to add the miles to all the frequent flier accounts. We all fly enough to definitely benefit from these programs!
- Aim to have most packing done at least a few days before departure. As I’m writing this, our departure is a mere 2 days away! It’s definitely crunch time! But we’ve been able to enjoy hanging out with loved ones the past few nights stress-free because we finished 80% of our packing a few days ago. We packed and weighed all of the suitcases we didn’t need access to anymore. The remaining ones will hold the things we’re using now and any leftover laundry. It seems simple, but I think this is the first time we’ve ever packed this early, and it feels wonderful! We’ve had many trips where we are packing past midnight the night before we leave. When packing is done earlier, a good night’s sleep is in store before the long journey begins. Well, if you can turn your brain off, that is.
- Be prepared for it all. Change of clothes for everyone, more snacks than you think needed (a variety of sweet salty, and fresh if you can), extra devices for the kids to play on in case the screens on the backs of the seat are broken (this happened to us and lasted several hours!), kid-sized headphones, and possibly double headphone jacks if they want to watch something together. Load some games on your devices that can be used without wi-fi. Load some audio books to change it up from watching something. Let the kids pack a few toys in a backpack to play with.
- Bribery is fair game. I’m not big into bribing to get my kids to obey in normal circumstances, but on an airplane with hundreds of other people, sometimes it has to be done. Several years ago, I started individually gift wrapping (different wrap for each kid) cheap little toys or treats. I tell them if they behave well, every few hours (sometimes less for littler ones), I’ll give them a special gift. They get super excited and will even find ways to entertain themselves while waiting for the time to pass. I spend less than $20 on everything, and it literally buys us a little sanity, not having to entertain them or worry about them watching endless hours of movies.
- With young babies, be prepared to walk the aisles a lot. Being stuck on a plane is extra tough for babies and toddlers. Crawlers don’t understand why they can’t get down and crawl. Toddlers don’t understand why they can’t run the aisles. So, we parents get to play the ring leader of the circus. Some trips I’ve been prepared with lots of toys and surprises and snacks, but it’s just not enough. They get tired and don’t understand why they can’t lay down and sleep. Eventually they’ll crash, but until then, it just takes lots of patience and grace. If you’re worried about air pressure in their ears, have something for them to suck on or chew during takeoff and landing. Befriend the flight crew early. We’ve had some give us extra snacks or toys, but always extra sympathy. In the end, you can’t always control the upset baby or toddler. As long as you’re doing your best trying to console them, others around you will empathize.
- Spend the extra bucks for comfort. Your flight is delayed. And delayed again. Shucks, you missed the last flight out of the night. Now what? You have a cranky family ready to be at your destination, but travel won’t happen until tomorrow. For us, it’s been worth it to spend the extra money to get a hotel room close by instead of sleeping on hard airport seats. It’s not convenient to spend the extra cash, but again, sanity may pay off in the end.
- Don’t let jet lag win. If you’re traveling across several time zones, sleep is going to be tricky once you land. If you’ve traveled before and know your kids sleep well on flights, land at your destination in the morning or early afternoon so they/you have time to get tired again to sleep at the right time. Because our kids rarely sleep well on our 24-hour trek (my oldest stayed up for 36 hours once, when he was 7!), we try to land in the late afternoon so we only have to make it a few more hours until bedtime. Often, we’ll only have 1-2 nights of someone up a bit during the night, then we’re all on the right sleeping schedule. Of course, this all only works if you can tweak your itinerary. It’s not always possible.
Whatever happens, know that God’s grace is sufficient and He will give you the strength to handle whatever is put before you. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only a day or two of hardships.
What would you add to these checklists for traveling with kids?