Make travel with kids fun - top tips for family holidays
Updated: Jan 9
Updated Aug 2020.
There is no doubt that travelling with kids is a whole new world, literally. Some things that used to be so simple now just have that extra few degrees of difficulty. Unfortunately this means for many families that travel just gets put on the back-burner waiting for the time when life resumes back to a so called normal.
But is this the right strategy? Travelling with kids means you still get to see beautiful places. You still get to laugh and play and do fun things. You still get to eat amazing foods. You still get to experience cultures and meet people living totally different lives. My advice would be to grab hold of the challenge with both hands and step off the precipice into the world of family travel.
Don't put the hand break on your travel dreams - just approach it with a little more humour, patience and planning.
Here are some hints to minimise hassles and make the most of every day when travelling with your kids.
Where to Go with Kids
Picking the right family holiday destination can be the first step to a successful family trip. Depending on your travel style you may head into the great outdoors for some hiking and mountain exploring or perhaps a beach escape to Thailand is more your style.
Don't get caught in the trap of thinking you need to think small when it comes to family travel. The world is at your doorstep and anything is possible with some extra thought and planning. You can find some destination wanderlust on my travel guides page.
When you travel with kids everything has to be done a little slower and more patiently than you are used to. Having kids has taught me many things but probably top of the list is to be a little more patient - still a skill I struggle to master depending on the given day!
We dream about whizzing through the airport on arrival at our destination to get started on our holiday immediately, but the reality for families is that you generally spend extended periods of time getting 'kid sorted'. Why kids need to turn a trip to every bathroom into the most in-depth activity still has me baffled.
Don't they get that the real fun can start if we ever make it to the other side of customs and immigration?
Eventually you will maneuver your way towards the exit whilst trying to get all your bags and kids safely into whatever means of transport is up next. My point is that try not to let this get to you. It is what it is and you are better off staying calm and relaxed to get the holiday off to a smooth start.
Don't forget about alternative travel styles as well to keep your family trips fun and stress free. Road trips are a fantastic option particularly with young kids and you can always plan some fun car games and road trip activities to keep them smiling and distracted.
We can try and rush kids but we all know this leads to grumpy, difficult times and usually mum and dad arguing over something insignificant out of frustration.
By slowing down, the whole family can relax and stress levels decrease.
Plane Travel with a Baby or Toddler
Speak to any parent about travelling with kids and they instantly turn into a sweaty mess at the idea of putting their young children or babies on a long haul flight to anywhere.
Cramming three, four or more people into a two square metre box, changing nappies in plane toilets, finding enough food and entertainment to keep them happy and managing to get an ounce of sleep is enough to send the average person into a meltdown. OMG but then what if they cry or throw a massive tantrum!
Here is my advice. Seriously don't sweat it.
We had the most awful flight to New Zealand once where I spent a solid three hours wrestling our hysterical 9 month old with absolutely no reprieve til we hopped off at the other end.
Yes it reduced me to a complete sobbing mess and I vowed to never step foot on another plane with a child. I even looked up cruise ships to get us back to Australia.... but fortunately you live, learn and forget!
We have since done many long haul flights with our kids and generally things run smoothly. Your kids get older, you get smarter and more relaxed and you learn to completely ignore any disapproving stares or comments. Ultimately you have paid for your seats and families have every right to go on holidays too. You are usually your own harshest critic.
A couple of times we have been stressed about our kids behaviour on flights only to be praised by some lovely people sitting next to us about how wonderful our kids were.....so dial down your own internal critic and give yourself a break.
Remember that the 'getting there' part is only a tiny piece of the whole holiday and doesn't have to define your whole trip. If you take a deep breath and vow to remain calm and relaxed then there is a good chance that your children will relax too.
Finding the Balance - Keep kids and parents enthralled
A holiday won't hit the spot if parents feel like they are just going through the motions albeit in a different location. It is essential to schedule in plenty of adult friendly attractions and interests as well so that everyone can make the most of their time on holidays.
When you have very young children we found that splitting up to give the other person a half or full day off parenting duties to go and do or see whatever is high on the wish list is a great way to find the balance on holidays.
We don't always want to give up more adventurous activities and it is nice to do some sightseeing without dragging kids along so why sacrifice.
Give each other the permission to take time out and do these things independently and it will lead to a happier, more balanced holiday.
It is important to teach your kids that they will get plenty of treats and fun activities but sometimes it is mum and dads turn and they need to be well behaved for this. As an example we might visit a scenic spot or take the kids on a hike in the morning and then they get to go swimming at the hotel or visit a park or somewhere fun for the afternoon.
It comes down to managing expectations of the whole family so that everyone gets to enjoy the trip.
Keep some sort of routine
Some kids take to being out of routine without a flutter of an eyelid. My kids WERE NOT these kind of kids when they were little.
As soon as our kids become over-tired the entire planet ceases to spin in the right direction which makes travel very tricky. Therefore an early lesson for us while travelling with kids was to attempt to maintain some kind of normal routine.
If your child still has daytime sleeps then you could plan your day to get out and about for the morning, return to your accommodation through the middle of the day for quiet/rest time and then plan other outings and activities for the afternoon/evening.
This general routine still works for our kids who are way past day sleeps now. Factoring in a bit of quiet, relaxation time in the middle of the day gives them an energy boost for a fun afternoon or evening and avoids the burnout of trying to keep them on the go all day.
If you are away from your accommodation you can consider some pram time or even scheduling any extended travel over rest times. A quick nap in a car, bus or plane kills two birds with one stone.
When it comes to choosing your flights you should consider the times of travel. With a lot of airlines increasing late night schedules you need to consider how manageable this will be. Keeping young kids up to catch a midnight flight and then trying to settle them after take off, once over-tired is a recipe for disaster. We aim wherever possible for flights departing in the morning while the kids are well rested.
Jet Lag and Kids
So what about time differences and jet lag? We know as adults how terrible you feel arriving in a new place knowing that it is one o'clock in the morning back home and you haven't actually slept for over 24 hours. You can amplify this feeling of exhaustion and irritability by ten for kids.
If your destination is only a couple of hours time difference then you can try adjusting your kids bedtimes and routine by an hour or two a hour a week out from your trip. This small change can help a lot as they adjust whilst still in the comforts of home.
If you are covering a long distance with big time changes your best bet is to plan a flight that lands at your destination in the afternoon or early evening. That way you can navigate through the airport, get to your first hotel and let everyone go straight to sleep waking fresh and excited the next morning.
Tick off all your health and safety needs when planning and booking
The last thing you need when travelling is to have any sort of health or safety issues. You would take care of these things if travelling independently so it's even more important to do them for your kids. Make sure you read our safe travel with kids guide to get you started.
Make sure all your travel documents are valid, copies are stored electronically and remember kids passports only last 5 years.
Check vaccination requirements for the destination you are travelling - book to see your doctor if necessary
Organise transport. Many countries roads and safety standards are below what we are used to so establish early in your planning what you deem to be acceptable and make plans. If you don't want babies or toddlers travelling unrestrained then do the research to find how this can be accommodated and if necessary take your own seats with arrangements for a private driver with correct restraint fittings.
It is becoming increasingly common to find tour operators for transfers with child restraints. We have a guy in Phuket who regularly takes care of us when we visit which is a life saver.
For any pre-existing medical conditions ensure you take all medications with you and be aware of what medical services or hospitals are near your location. Never put your medications into your checked luggage for obvious reasons.
You MUST have travel insurance - no insurance, no travel - Click here for great value travel insurance
Many public toilets around the world will have lower levels of hygiene so keep handy in your day pack your own toilet paper, tissues and hand sanitiser to avoid any nasty tummy bugs for the littlies who don't know what they shouldn't touch.
Give kids some responsibility
As my kids get a little older I am finding that by giving them some more responsibility it instils a little more anticipation and excitement about being part of the trip. They love feeling like a grown-up by helping pull the trolley bags through the airport and we are progressing this for our next trip by letting them carry their own 'packs' for the trip.
Let older kids help read maps, take photos or find a good place to eat so they can be part of the overall experience.
Perhaps before you leave you can work on learning some of the language together. Kids love trying out new words in fun destinations.
Compact entertainment options
Gone are the days of having to carry an entire carry on suitcase of colouring in, books and toys. With the progression of technology we can now cut this down to the bare necessities and load some games, reading and movies onto a tablet.
Super handy is to always travel with the kids own set of lightweight headphones and perhaps a a cheap digital camera for them to take their own photos of the trip.
Try to pack the tablet away once you reach your destination or if travelling by ground. You want to encourage them to look out the window and see what is surrounding them rather than staring at a screen.
We include this rule for meal times too as the expectation is for us all to actually talk to each other and enjoy whatever yummy food we have found.
Turn sightseeing into a game
Looking at monuments, wandering through quaint little villages or visiting local markets can be a little dry for young minds that don't yet understand the significance of where they are.
Try turning this into a game to keep their attention and interest. Spotting drinking fountains, counting significant 'things' or helping you to 'find' a gelateria or similar fun place can keep their brains occupied.
You will be amazed at how kids when placed in a different and interesting place can actually come up with these games themselves.
Another great idea is to draw up a simple treasure map of the places you are visiting that day and when you find each place the kids can stamp it off on their map - you can always add a nice little incentive at the completion of the map. A lot of travel offices are now supplying their own kid focused activities so worth asking when you arrive if such a thing exists.
Thredbo Alpine Resort is brilliant at this kind of thing with kids treasure maps, activity trails and timetables.
Make transport interesting
Getting there is half the fun so think about fun or alternate ways you can reach where you are heading for the day.
Kids love all things transport, so throw a bus or train ride in, ride a bike or horse, boat around a lake and then walk or ride back or catch a tuk-tuk somewhere nearby. You still get to see all the cool stuff but the kids are having fun doing it.
Get there by any means at the pace you want to go. Choosing your own adventure on a mix of transport means you can go as quickly or slowly as you like and stop at all the best bits on the way.
You might just find the perfect little patisserie or chocolate shop along the way.
Don't be the first on board
So back to the airport, please don't be fooled into getting on board first. You will have waaaay long enough on that plane as is and kids are better off free-roaming around the airport than sitting for up to an hour extra while you wait for everyone else to board and shuffle their belongings around for what seems like forever.
You have assigned seats so there is no rush, and it can even be helpful for one parent to load with the rest of the passengers to get organised (grab out sleep toys, entertainment, drink bottles, find blankets etc) while they have some space. The other parent can then board with the kids and easily just sit down ready for take off.
This is my go-to tip for flying with kids. Spend the extra time in the terminal where they can run and play before boarding.
Be organised with your packing
Do you hate when packing for kids and there are twenty items that can't be packed til the morning like toothbrushes and sleepy toys?
How do you work out what is best packed into carry on and what can go checked?
These are questions that don't bother you as a solo traveller where your pack list is pretty straight forward. You also don't have a couple of over-excited kids running back and forth pulling things out of suitcases quicker than you are putting them in.
Get it all in check by using effective lists. I hate to sound like one of those list crazy people but when travelling with young kids a packing list is a necessity.
I always split my list into three categories to make it as simple and quick as possible - Checked bag, Carry on bag and Last Minute.
I then methodically pack the checked bag and zip it up before little hands can get hold of anything for dress ups. The carry on bag gets packed next and on the morning of departure I have my ten or so items that can be thrown in last of all.
Be a little ruthless and never carry anything that wont be used. Cut down on bulk by investing in some time and space saving items such as disposable bibs. Importantly don't forget to assume your bags might get lost - have two days worth of clothes in your carry on to get by with particularly if travelling to a different climate to your origin.
If your trip is mostly in warm climates but you are spending just a section of it in cool areas try using the space saving travel vacuum bags from travel stores which will condense any bulky jackets and jumpers until you actually need them.
A handy little time saver tip for those of you who travel a bit with kids. Keep a separate toiletry bag stocked and ready to go at any time with spare toothbrushes, kids hair tyes etc so that you can automatically throw this in and just add clothes. A great time saver for the weekends away and saves on the number of things that have to be packed on the day of departure.
Need some added assistance for packing for a family holiday - make sure you visit my two packing guides to get you moving in the right direction. Packing for a long trip with two kids and multiple climates and the ultimate travel with kids packing checklist
Never underestimate your child's ability
It is easy as a parent to fall into the trap of ruling things out because it will be a hassle with kids. We owe it to ourselves to constantly challenge these assumptions because generally our kids are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for.
With some enthusiasm and positive reinforcement they can surprise themselves and us by achieving something pretty great.
What your child grows up believing they can do will set the foundation for how they develop as adults and how much 'stretch' they give themselves to do wonderful things in life. Let them expand their beliefs and boundaries to be able to live their life to the fullest.
Hopefully these hints make your next travel adventure that little bit easier. Remember, that a holiday should be exactly that. Don't cram too much into each day and miss really immersing yourself in what you are doing, but never sit back and say we cant do anything because we have kids. Where there is a will there is a way.
Be the best role model you can be and let your kids spread their wings.
For more indepth travel advice and destination wanderlust please SUBSCRIBE to Big Adventures for Little Feet.