When my kids were three and five years old we were living in Tokyo, Japan. Traveling with young kids seemed an exciting venture. My husband and I wanted to expose them to as many cultural experiences as possible during our four years living abroad. One of our first travel destinations was Vietnam. It was a bit ambitious, but time was of the essence and there was a lot of Southeast Asia to explore.
A week before our departure date my husband came home from work with a strange look on his face. One I’d never seen. Not anger, or sadness. Not surprise, or fear. It was guilt. Due to a scheduling conflict, he would have to meet the three of us in Ho Chi Minh City instead of flying with us.
Jaw, meet floor. My voice raised six octaves and cracked. “You mean I have to get two toddlers from our apartment in Tokyo to a hotel in Vietnam completely solo? No way. No way. No. Way. No.” Traveling with young kids suddenly didn’t seem like a great idea anymore.
Fast-forward one week and I’m loading two kids, two pieces of luggage, and one big American stroller into a little Japanese taxi. How did I do it? I’m glad you asked.
Traveling with young kids is no joke
Ask any mom or dad and they will have a list of tips and tricks for traveling with young kids. These are mine. Some points are unconventional. Some are common sense. Anyone can google this stuff and much of it’s the same old thing.
But maybe I’ve hit on a few you may not have thought of or read about already. Traveling with young kids is no joke. We parents have to stick together. This is a judgment-free zone, right?
Tip #1 ‘Traveling With Young Kids’: Let’s Play A Game
Thinking about my Tokyo to Vietnam trip took years off my life, but in the end, I devised a brilliant plan. I turned our entire day of travel into a game where the prize was a lollipop. I told the kids that they had to earn points over the course of the day, starting in the taxi and ending at the hotel in Vietnam. Whoever got to 100 points won a lollipop. For example, sitting still in the taxi = 5 points. Standing patiently-ish in line while mommy checked in = 10 points. Seatbelt buckled = 15 points.
I divided the trip into manageable segments in order to keep myself sane. Taxi to airport, check-in, security line, boarding, 4-hour flight, customs and immigration, finding luggage, and taxi to the hotel. Eight segments in all to survive.
At five and three, my kids didn’t know math (the jury is out whether they do now). I added random points when they behaved, and deducted points when they didn’t. I didn’t keep score, but I kept them going on an upwards trajectory toward 100. The power of the lollipop. I’ll be grateful to Chupa Chups as long as I live.
Tip #2 ‘Traveling With Young Kids’: BYOF
Do you know that window of time between being hungry and hangry? When traveling with young kids, that window can be nanoseconds, so being prepared is critical. Whether you have a steward at your beck and call in first-class or are flying with cattle—Bring Your Own Food.
Regardless of where you are seated on a plane, chances are the food: 1) won’t be served at the right time 2) won’t be what your kids like or 3) will create a big mess. Instead, create disposable single-serving baggies of your children’s favorites (ideally not-gooey or sticky) snacks. Think Cheerios, carrots, grapes, sliced apples, crackers, and trail mix. Beware of gummy bears and cookies unless you find uncontrollable sugar highs at 30,000 feet a personal challenge. Your choice.
Make kids earn their snacks and food if you want to make them last for the duration of the flight. Keep baggies in an easy-to-reach area of your Paperclip diaper bag. Be mindful of having equal bags and portions per kid to save you from excessive whining.
Tip #3 ‘Traveling With Young Kids’: Set Olympic Goals
No one enjoys sitting on a plane idle for hours on end. Young travelers are typically filled with energy and especially rebel against sitting still. Oftentimes pre-flight, we’d find a long hallway or large area of the airport to run races with the kids. We’d create a mini, pre-flight Olympics in order to lower the kids’ energy levels. Run, skip, hop, and jump around until your boarding group is called. Not only will this improve their cardiovascular health, but it will also improve your mental health while on-board.
Tip #4 ‘Traveling With Young Kids’: Know Thy Plane
Are you and your kids traveling on a United Boeing 767 with an in-flight entertainment system that has family-friendly movies, games, DirecTV, and a large screen? Or are you flying a regional jet with no TVs or legroom? Knowing your plane in advance is important. There’s no worse feeling than getting on a plane imagining hours of TV to entertain the kids while you read the latest Kristin Hannah novel, only to discover it doesn’t exist. The end.
It’s easy enough to google the plane and see the entertainment options. Then parents can decide how to toggle back and forth between screens: TV, iPad, and iPhone. When our kids were young, we doled out iPad time like a carrot on a stick and it worked wonders. These days our kids say less than five words to us on a plane. I try to engage in deep and meaningful conversations that interrupt their movies. Payback time.
Tip #5 ‘Traveling With Young Kids’: Stock Your Diaper Bag Wisely
Traveling with young kids gets me flustered, even when everything is seemingly going right. Inevitably I spill coffee on myself, in my bag, or on my kid. The best way I can feel sane on an airplane is with a well-stocked and highly-efficient diaper bag. Maybe because it is truly the only thing I will have control over for the duration of the flight.
Spend some pre-travel time organizing what you need and stock up accordingly. You will thank me later when you can reach into your bag blindfolded and know instinctively where that snack cup of Cheerios is.
Pack extra sets of clothing for toddlers, no matter how short the flight. Bring a ‘bag o’ drugs’ as we affectionately called our Ziploc of Baby Motrin, Children’s Tylenol, Benadryl, and band-aids, in addition to the usual essentials. The day you don’t pack it is the only day you will need it. Thank you, Murphy.
Whoever said it's not about the destination, it’s about the journey never traveled with young kids. Getting to the destination is everything when young kids are in tow. Whether you adopt one of these five tricks or have a few of your own, traveling with young kids takes patience and tenacity. But I will tell you this, no matter how easy or tough the flight, you won’t regret taking your kids on holiday.
Just don’t forget the lollipops.
Written by Jamie Edwards
Jamie is an avid traveler, travel writer, and photographer. She launched I am Lost and Found, her adventure/luxury travel website after 25 years of living and traveling around the globe. She has lived in both NYC and Tokyo. Today she resides in Washington DC with her husband, two kids, and two black labs. Jamie’s goal is simple: to inspire travel.