By: Cristina Moreno, Bilingual Outreach Specialist, Penfield Children’s Center
Although my husband’s family lives near us, my parents and siblings live about a two hour drive away, and I have always made a point of going to visit them at least one weekend out of the month. I knew those trips would likely increase after my son was born because I wanted to make sure that he would have the opportunity to spend plenty of time with my side of the family as well. For the most part, he has handled those longer car rides quite well; he fusses at times, but we try to travel during his typical nap times so they do not feel quite as long for him. I had not intended or planned to take two significantly longer trips with him this past year, but the opportunities to visit family and friends in other parts of the country presented themselves with little warning, and off we went. The first trip we took with our son consisted of a three hour flight followed by a layover and another hour long flight to get to our destination, and a four hour flight back, and our second trip was a 17-hour drive and then a two hour flight home. Both times I feared the worst, but both times went much better than expected. My son was 8 months old when we went on the first trip and he powered through it no problem. It was a lazy vacation, just the three of us, and our focus was fun and relaxation. We were happy to venture out as long as he was comfortable and then let him nap as he pleased, even if that meant spending more time in our room than we typically would.
Our most recent trip was not as easy going. This time he was just over a year old and putting a lot of effort into trying to walk. He had enjoyed a new freedom the last several months since he had started crawling and it was getting increasingly difficult to secure him in his car seat. A 17-hour drive can be a headache for anyone at any age, and I was bracing myself for hours of tears and constant pit stops to try to calm him down. However, I was pleasantly surprised that with a little planning ahead, we were all able to get through the drive in a decent mood. My son did get quite upset during the last couple of hours, but just two difficult hours out of 17 is a pretty good ratio.
When traveling, most of our “rules” get forgotten about. Finished your bottle and want more? You got it! Some screen time before bed? Here you go! Vacation means a break for everyone, and the less you tell a toddler “no” (within reason and only until we reach our destination), the happier we will all be. It is also important to mention that a child’s temperament and past experiences are a larger factor in how smooth traveling will be. My son was already accustomed to regularly going on longer drives and is also quite curious and likes being out and about, so I think that is part of the reason he was able to adapt well when we traveled. You are the best judge in deciding when would be the right time to travel with your child, or if it may be best to save longer trips for when he is a little older. Regardless of whether your child is easy-going, a curious explorer, or prefers the coziness of home, traveling far distances can be difficult for him and stressful for you. Here are some tips to help you prepare for traveling with children under the age of 6.
- Plan to obtain necessary documents and anything else you will need well ahead of time. This may not be applicable if you are traveling within the country, but it is important to know ahead of time if you will need to have a passport, visa, or any vaccinations in order to visit the place you plan to travel to. I try to keep these documents, and anything else we need such as flight tickets, readily available in an easy to access pocket in my purse or carry-on bag in order to make the check-in process as fast as possible. If the child is not traveling with both parents, you may also need a permission letter signed by the parent(s) who will not be traveling and have it notarized by a registered public notary. Be sure to research the airline policies and the U.S. Department of State’s U.S. Passports and International Travel website if you have any questions regarding what documents you may need.
- Choose the best mode of transportation. While sometimes choosing how to get to your destination is an easy choice, there are times when you may have the option between air or land travel. Each option has pros and cons, so take time to consider each carefully. Is getting to your destination as fast as possible important to you? Air travel is probably your best option. Do you want the flexibility to stop and go as needed and not have to deal with the hassle of going through airport security and checking bags? Your best bet will be to drive to your destination, which also allows you to have your vehicle with you, and may also be a deciding factor in your decision.
- Bring your car seat. Traveling with a car seat is obvious if you choose to drive, but you may not think to bring it along if you travel by air, or it may seem like too much of a hassle. Unless your trip involves getting to your destination and not leaving a resort during your entire stay, you will mostly likely need to have your child’s car seat with you. Car seats are considered necessary equipment, similar to wheelchairs, and airlines typically check them in the baggage area at no extra cost. I have spoken to cab drivers who have said that they sometimes have to turn passengers away because they do not have their child’s car seat with them, and you definitely do not want to find yourself having to spend money on a new car seat while on vacation.
- Upgrade your everyday bag. Whether you still use a diaper bag or just stash things in your own purse, it is a good idea to get a larger bag for travel that fits everything you need. I like to use a book bag because it fits everything that I usually put in my purse plus what goes in the diaper bag, and has plenty of pockets to keep important documents accessible. A bonus is that standard size book bags typically meet the size criteria to count as a personal item when traveling by plane, and most airlines allow one personal item per person at no extra cost.
- Pack snacks. Whether that means a banana, cookies, fruit snacks, or whatever else is easy to grab and go, you will be happy you have extra snacks on hand to keep your child calm and entertained. Make sure you also have some wipes to clean dirty hands, as well as hand sanitizer and a snack for yourself. Always have an extra bottle or cup as well. Young children tend to throw their things at the worst possible time, and you do not want to be stuck on an airplane or in traffic with only a dirty bottle or cup.
- Bring extra clothes. Your bag may feel pretty full already, but be sure to pack at least one extra outfit for your child, and then throw in an extra set of under clothes just to be on the safe side. An extra shirt for yourself would not be a bad idea either.
- Save their favorite videos and stories. Even if you are set against screen time or have specific screen time rules for your child, they may be worth reconsidering while you are on the road. I do not like to rely on screen time to keep my son entertained on a regular basis, but having some of his favorite videos downloaded to a tablet and available to watch even when there is no internet signal was a good move to help keep him from getting overly antsy on our very long car ride. If your child likes to read, you may also be able to download a few e-books or audio books onto the tablet instead of lugging around half of his book collection.
- Don’t forget a favorite toy from home. Low-stress traveling is about packing as little as possible while still being prepared for anything that can come up. While you do not want to go overboard and carry all of your child’s favorite things, it can help to take along some of the comforts from home. Be sure to let them pack one favorite toy and possibly a small favorite blanket. The hardest part about traveling for us is that my son seems to have a hard time at bedtime and throughout the night when not at home. All of the new surroundings can feel overwhelming to young children, but carrying a few items that feel familiar and safe to him may help the transition.
- Travel during sleeping times if possible. Whether it is a trip to his grandparent’s house or across the country, we always try to plan any trips longer than 30 minutes for a time that he is likely to sleep. When we went on our second trip, we left close to his bedtime and even though he was awake during parts of the night, he slept through most of the 17 hours, which was a huge relief.
Traveling with young children can be difficult, but it is definitely possible. Even if your child is not being as cooperative as you would like, you may be surprised by how smoothly your trip can go if you take a little time to prepare, get all of your essential items together in a bag you can keep with you at all times, and streamline your packing as much as possible. The important thing is that you get to enjoy some quality family time, even if it means bending a rule or two.
Have you taken a young child on a long trip? What kind of tips have you learned for easier traveling?