By Richard Schneider
There’s a kernel of adventure at the heart of even the most mundane travel. Nourished by the ambiance of the journey—the weather, the company, the playlist—it blossoms into the secret romantic narrative that filigrees your memories of the trip.
Three steps down the right snowy central-European street and I was a trench-coated Cold Warrior. I’ve been a vagabond poet sharing a drink with a WWII vet in an Amtrak dining car. I’ve been a dozen different Dust Bowl refugees, and one bump up to executive class was enough to put me at peace with the world for a solid 12 hours.
And then I had children.
Despite their reputation as agents of chaos, toddlers are surprisingly constant; they rely on routine and are reassured by repetition. They really can’t be anything but toddlers, which makes it difficult for me to be anything other than Dad — particularly on vacation, when the concrete structures of home are removed.
There’s no need to abandon the call of the open road, though. Traveling with kids can be difficult and exhausting, but in the end, it’s really just a matter of logistics. Accounting for their needs when planning actually lets you recapture your own sense of play and genuinely relax on your next trip.
Take road trips, for example. My problem—the quintessential problem, really—of the road trip with toddlers is that intervention is impossible once everybody’s diapered up and strapped in, the engine’s roaring, and your hands are at 10 and 2. This can be really liberating for a parent (how much trouble can they really get into back there?) but is absolutely maddening when things start to break down. Preparation is key to keeping the ride smooth:
- Try to plan car travel to coincide with naptime, if possible. Either way, dress kids comfortably — shoes off, loose clothing or pajamas, and blankets.
- Pre-portion snacks into individual servings so kids can set their own pace and adults won’t need to provide “just one more” every quarter-mile. Car seats with built-in cupholders are a big help, but only if the child is developed enough to work them reliably.
- Toys and books will inevitably be dropped just out of reach within the first mile of highway driving. Forgo them in favor of (expendable) stuffed animals.
- Music should be plentiful and dependable. My phone has most of the kids’ favorite songs, but I distrust its battery life and would absolutely never rely on the availability of a data connection. If your stereo supports it, I strongly suggest loading MP3s onto data CDs instead. That will get you 100 to 150 tracks per disc; just make sure they’re all tracks you’re willing to listen to 100 to 150 times in a row. You can gingerly retake control of the playlist once the kids have nodded off.
- Keep in mind that ideal sleeping temperature is cooler than you might expect; adjust the climate control accordingly.
- Most importantly, know your little passengers’ tolerances and be liberal with breaks. The bladder shouldn’t be your sole criterion here: My three-year-old can stay dry for two-and-a-half hours between rest stops, but becomes a raging misanthrope at two hours.
Air travel, with its sealed doors and fastened seatbelts, would seem to have the same pitfalls as driving, but presents a different set of priorities. (Unless you’re the pilot, I suppose.) It begins at the airport. Like everyone else, maybe more than everyone else, a toddler wants to be ON THAT PLANE. But if you’ve arrived on time, the plane he sees isn’t the plane you’re going to be flying on, and your toddler doesn’t know that a plane can be a cramped, stuffy nightmare. You want to encourage that enthusiasm, while minimizing the toddler’s actual time spent in the cabin.
- If this is a child’s first flight, rehearse the whole process for several days before departure to build excitement and eliminate possibly frightening surprises. Be honest but reassuring about ear-pressure pain, and promise there will be chewy candy available. Babies do well with nursing or taking a bottle. My kids were both plagued with relentless ear infections, so their ENT recommended pain medicine before takeoff. A talk with your pediatrician before takeoff is never a bad idea.
- Buy an umbrella stroller you won’t mind losing. Call the airline ahead of time to confirm rules about strollers, car seats, and carry-on luggage, particularly if you’re traveling with a child on your lap rather than in a ticketed seat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the baggage allotments provided to children flying in-lap, although that may be because I assumed the child would be counted as my own carry-on.
- Calisthenics at the gate are a great way to prepare for those cramped spaces and will burn off a lot of time and nervous energy. As an added bonus, the sight of those cute little jumping jacks will probably win you some allies among your fellow travelers.
- Take full advantage of the invitation for passengers with small children to board early, but don’t actually board the children. If you can spare the hands, send an adult on to prep the seats, stow the diaper bags, and arrange swaps if necessary. Then board the children at the very end of the line to avoid the stampede.
- Music and video are a great distraction after takeoff. Bring those giant can headphones that were last seen blasting Mozart into a pregnant belly; they’re a great way to muffle the roar of the engines and to protect nearby passengers from the 100th replay of “Let It Go.”
- Remember, toddlers have little legs, so even the most cramped seats will feel like first class. Give them some ginger ale and the window seat and let them revel in joy of flight.
Whatever the destination, when traveling with children the best advice is to relax. I don’t suggest that facetiously like my therapist. Or my masseuse. Or my cardiologist. You’re going to need to make some compromises, so decide in advance what you’re prepared to relax: schedules, diets, expectations, even discipline.
Travel is rough on families. Even the best vacations end with my family unit feeling just a little broken. So we bend the rules. My youngest is just learning to sleep in a bed by herself, but she’s made it clear that arrangement is intolerable if we’re sharing a room, so she gets to sleep with us. The hotel pool is at the top of my kids’ to-do list on every trip. I wouldn’t cancel the day trip to the Grand Canyon for them, but I’d gladly push bedtime back half an hour every night to sneak in a swim. And the promise of that swim often keeps them going through what they might consider the boring parts, like the Grand Canyon. My wife and I have even given each other vacation days within the middle of the vacation, where one will watch the kids while the other does something fun.
Ultimately, traveling with toddlers gives you the chance to view the journey from a new perspective, to align yourself to their (surprisingly) less frantic pace. And making that shift is the difference between reminiscing about the adventures you had before you had a family and planning the adventures you will share with your family.
Richard Schneider is a transplanted Philadelphian who travels frequently with a one-year-old and a three-year-old. And no, he’s not crazy.
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