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A lot of people assume that traveling with babies, toddlers, and just all young children is just an impossible task. Many say it’s best to just wait until they are older, and it gets a little bit easier. But don’t feel discouraged. Travel with young children can be easy if you plan it right. Trips with littles are certainly different than when you are traveling with only adults, or even when you are traveling with older children. But they can be magical just the same. And honestly, going at a slower pace to accommodate your younger kids might just change the way you travel for good. There are so many things you see when you just take the time!
In our travels, we have done lots of things right, and even more things wrong. But we’ve learned a whole lot on the way, and we’ve had a lot of fun and gained a lot of great memories. For us, a successful vacation means that you, and everyone in your family, actually enjoys themselves. Sure, there may be a few un-fun moments, but overall, you come home refreshed and happy, with a ton of new experiences under your belt. These are our top tips for a successful vacation with your small children.
1. Be honest with yourself about your family’s needs and limitations.
If you are traveling with a baby who naps three times a day and cannot fall asleep on the go, don’t plan days stuffed full of activities. You’ll only wind up disappointed, rushed, and frustrated. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a great vacation though. Just make sure you build your trip around their needs.
Timing is everything when it comes to small children, so pay attention to their rhythms as you’re planning. For us, that means almost never booking flights that are earlier than about 7:30 or 8 am. We know that if we have to wake up our kids super early they will certainly not go back to sleep. LIkely they will be exhausted and cranky all day. My kids are able to handle staying out later (and even falling asleep on the plane or in the car) better than they can handle getting up really early.
When it comes to vacationing with little ones, choose a locale where you are SUPER close to the action. We like a VRBO on the beach, or a resort with tons of amenities so you can stick around the resort. This allows you to head on back to the room for a nap, or to get away from the hustle and bustle for a minute and take a break. Plus, it means you won’t have to carry a WHOLE DAY’S supply of diapers, bottles, snacks, water, etc..
2. Plan Ahead
Make a packing list, and start packing early. You’ll find that much of your packing can be done well in advance, and will save you the stress of remembering everything the night before. Traveling with young children can be stressful, so you’ll want to start on the right foot – with everyone getting enough sleep the night before you head out.
Come up with a basic plan for travel days, and days that have big outings. Have an idea of where you will eat lunch, where you can take breaks, what time you expect your children to struggle and where you’d like to be for those hard moments. Your plans won’t always work out, but it’s nice to at least avoid a few emergencies.
3. Plan your Itinerary Carefully
As you come up with an itinerary or just a list of things you are hoping to do on vacation, keep in mind which of these are going to be hard for your child. For example, waiting in long lines, sitting still at a nice restaurant, or just being somewhere they have to stay close to you and always hold your hand will be tough for them. Make sure you have a mix of difficult for children, and easy/relaxing options like a playground where they can run wild. Maybe even limit the ‘difficult for children’ options to one or 2 shorter activities a day for younger children. And try to keep your itinerary flexible whenever you can. Somedays, your kids might just wake up completely unable to focus and just need a safe place to play. Trying to fight them will only make everyone frustrated.
What works for my family is to set a location where there is plenty to do an explore RIGHT there, then come up with a list of activities we’d like to do, approximately one per day, and keep in mind that we probably won’t be able to do every single one. Those items might include trying a restaurant, going to the aquarium, a day trip for some sightseeing, etc. If we don’t need to make reservations, we don’t. We check the weather, check our energy levels, and continually adjust our plan as needed.
4. Make sure you choose a play to stay where you will feel comfortable
Choosing hotels or vacation rentals is hard work, but as you review your options, make sure you prioritize comfort for you and your family. There are a number of reasons that lead to discomfort. Perhaps there is inadequate air conditioning or too many items that you fear your child might break, or the space isn’t clean enough, or it’s TOO clean and you worry your children are destroying it. And maybe it just doesn’t feel homey. Whatever the reason, if you are uncomfortable, children are incredibly intuitive and will pick up on this tension, and it can wind up making the situation infinitely worse. They might be unable to sleep, or just start acting out and pushing limits.
Consider Maintenance Issues
Read reviews. Look for items regarding maintenance problems, noise, or any other items that might trigger your discomfort. And review the photos. Make sure there aren’t breakable decorative items everywhere. You can always rearrange somewhat when you get there. But, if there a million decorative glass items at toddler height, it might not be the best spot for you.
One not so great experience we had was when we chose a vacation rental that claimed it had A/C, but the A/C was a window unit in the living room of a 2 bedroom condo. The climate for that area is typically mild, but they were having record high temperatures, so we wound up in an 85°F condo. My kids were unable to sleep, and we spent the night worrying and sweating. We decided to just forfeit our vacation rental and moved down the street to a hotel with air conditioning so we could get some sleep. It’s not much of a vacation if you are up until 3 am sweating.
Make sure you have enough space
As your budget allows, you’ll also want to make sure you have at least a LITTLE bit of space for your little guys to relax and play. Plus you’ll want to bring a few small toys to occupy them and help them enjoy the space. In a standard hotel room, we often toss a blanket on the floor and let them just play there. We typically bring a backpack of small toys for travel and downtime at the hotel, which works out really well.
5. Find Sleeping arrangements that work for your family
Young children, and probably actually EVERYONE, have a hard time falling asleep in an unfamiliar place, so make it as familiar as you can! Bring a lovey and maybe a familiar blanket, and stick to your normal bedtime routine. You’ll also want to think about whether your kids tend to fall asleep with you IN the room, or alone with the door closed. It’s not always possible to recreate a home environment for them, but try to be creative in coming up with something similar.
We are lucky that my kids sleep best when we are in the room (at least when it comes to travel sleeping arrangements, less lucky for everyday life LOL), so we are pretty comfortable in a hotel room. If your child needs to fall asleep alone, you might need to get a little bit creative if you are staying in a standard hotel room. Perhaps head out to the balcony?
Also, make sure whatever your child will be sleeping IN (perhaps a pack ‘n play, or an air mattress or something similar), try to introduce it BEFORE bedtime on the night they will be sleeping in it. Otherwise, the thing will be very new and exciting and make it even more difficult for the child to fall asleep.
6. Plan ahead for Meals
When it comes to hunger, kids just aren’t able to wait as long as adults. If you are waiting at a restaurant for a table or waiting for food at a nice/slow restaurant, there is always a non-small chance of a meltdown before their meal arrives. Bring snacks, or just be proactive to make sure you don’t get behind when it comes to meals for your little ones. We love to stock up on healthy snacks for our kids when we travel. That way, we can put together something nutritionally equivalent to a meal without the hassle. My kids are picky eaters, and honestly, it’s a vacation for me to just let them eat what they want for a while.
If possible, plan to cook some of your meals. Even if you don’t have a full kitchen, you might be able to grab supplies for some simple breakfasts or lunches. That’ll leave your child’s patience a bit higher when it comes time to go out to dinner. We also do take-out in our hotel or vacation rental a LOT.
7. Packing Tips
When it comes to figuring out what to pack, there are a number of things you’ll want to consider. First, as you pack your clothing, consider if washing facilities are available, AND if it’ll be a hassle for you to wash. I typically don’t mind washing clothes and prefer to keep luggage light provided there is a washing machine in the unit. If I have to go somewhere to do laundry, it’ll end up being too much for me, so I just take the hit on larger/heavier luggage. For babies and young toddlers, I plan on going through at least 2 outfits a day. Good thing their clothes are small! For older toddlers and preschoolers, I just let them be dirty.
You’ll also want to double-check the weather a week out to see if it’s going to be warmer or colder than expected so you can adjust the wardrobe accordingly. Don’t forget about early morning or evening temperatures as well. Even if there aren’t any surprises, you might want to bring one or two contingency items for unexpected weather.
To bring the stroller or not. That is always the question for us when we travel. We’ve learned to err on the side of bringing it, even if we think we won’t need it. Typically you are walking farther, and wind up being more active on vacation than at home. Plus, you’ll end up carrying beach towels, water bottles, etc., so you won’t be able to carry your child as often as normal. You might be surprised how often you’ll need a stroller, so unless your child ALWAYS wants to walk even longer distances, you’ll probably want the stroller.
Bring your kids’ water bottles and/or sippy cups to avoid spills and keep some familiarity. You might bring any other handy items for snacking on the go, like this amazing snack cup – always a favorite of ours. If your child is particular about plates or silverware, you’ll probably want to throw in a plate and a silverware set as well.
Buy what you can at your destination
Since I had 2 kids in diapers, I just refuse to pack diapers whenever I can. They take up way too much space, and it just isn’t feasible to me. I use disposable diapers on vacation, and buy them at my destination if at ALL possible. I also grab snacks, maybe baby toiletries, and any other bulky and inexpensive items.
When traveling with young children, and trying to pack everything you need for them while still trying to pack light is definitely a balancing act. And honestly, I’m not sure you ever really can pack light. But you can pack lightER. Re-use PJs more than one night, and let them wear slightly dirtier clothing, and try not to go overboard on bringing comfort items and you’ll be just fine.
8. Don’t forget Outside time
My kids thrive when they are outdoors. Honestly, I believe all kids, and probably at least most adults, thrive outside. While traveling, you likely end up in a lot of crowded, overwhelming spaces, so heading outside gives you a chance to enjoy some quiet, and have the space to run and wiggle and explore. For my kids, outside time is mandatory. If we skip it, they fall apart. Something about being outside resets their brains and allows them to focus and get to a place of relative calm.
I’d highly recommend including outdoor time in your vacation schedule, even if you aren’t a particularly outdoorsy family. I’d say 1 hour per day for everyone. Longer for those more outdoorsy families, or families with highly active children. Or, even better, plan a mostly outside vacation. You won’t regret giving your kids the space and freedom to move and scream, and truly enjoy themselves!
9. Rest days
In my experience, while traveling with young children, you’ll need a rest day about every 3 days. On those days, they are just moving a little bit slower and wanting to do a little bit less. On these days, we might plan a more relaxing day, or even a day with more car time, like a day trip for sightseeing or whatever. We don’t completely take the day off, but we definitely allow for lower energy activities. It’s been super helpful for us to just acknowledge that it’s coming so we don’t overburden ourselves with too much to do.
Through our trials and tribulations, these tips have helped us master travel with our young twins. When followed, these tips keep our vacations truly relaxing, even when traveling with twin toddlers, and we all come home feeling great- refreshed, and full of memories that’ll last a lifetime. I hope they will help you out as well. Traveling with littles is such a great experience if you are willing to give it a try. Read about some of our wonderful trips with littles here, here and here.