If you’ve seen any of the recent videos documenting drama on board flights — including a family with two babies getting kicked off a United flight and a mom of two in tears when an American Airlines crew member took her stroller away — you’re well aware that it’s not easy to be a parent traveling with kids.
And while, yes, flying introduces some particularly stressful situations, it’s not just air travel that’s challenging. Long drives, hotel stays and taking your kids away from home for any length of time can be a real undertaking (and even more so if you have young kids).
“Being a new parent traveling with your baby or toddler for the first time can feel daunting and stress-inducing,” says Luisa Gangemi, service training specialist at Emirates airline and a mom of 1-year-old twins. “From figuring out what to pack to being concerned that your child will have a meltdown and be inconsolable on a flight, these are real parental fears.”
Luckily, we asked experts for the most common mistakes they see parents make when they’re traveling so you’ll know what to avoid next time you go out of your town with your kids.
No, it’s not smart to under-pack when you’re traveling with kids — but you also don’t want to overpack, which is the more common tendency. In your desire not to forget anything your kids might need, you risk bringing way too much, which only adds to stress. “Many people are over-prepared and bring more than one or two people can handle on top of carrying their child and managing their own luggage,” says Gangemi. “If you’re flying, I always suggest contacting the airline before you start packing to find out what’s offered both on board and on the ground to help lighten your load. On board Emirates, for instance, we provide a range of baby and toddler-friendly items such as diapers, formula, baby wipes and bassinets.” Save the space for stuff you really need.
Limiting screen time
At home, you might have a policy about how much time your kids can spend playing games or watching movies on devices, and normally, that’s wise. But when you’re traveling, you might have to bend the rules a little to get by. “Make sure any device you’re bringing is fully loaded with mom-approved videos and apps,” says Juicy Juice’s 100 percent family time expert Meredith Sinclair, author of Well Played: The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family’s Playful Spirit. “My rules on limiting screen time goes out the window at 30,000 feet. Basically, that means if it will help you arrive sane, power up!”
Of course you have ideas about what museums, beaches or restaurants you want to visit during your trip, but remember that when you have kids, flexibility is everything. “Learn from my mistakes as a traveling mom and don’t overdo it,” says Melanie Fish, family travel expert for HomeAway. “Kids will create better memories swimming in a vacation home pool and eating vacation food than they will trekking to the third tourist highlight of the day. I still make my kids, now teenagers, cry with the words, ‘It’s just a couple more blocks away!'”
Sinclair echoes this sentiment, adding that the ability to deviate from plans is part of the joy of being on vacation. “Leave room for unexpected adventures and the opportunity for spontaneity,” says Sinclair. “In fact, on any road trip, start by putting some ideas for what you each would like to do in an empty juice bottle. Pull one idea out each day and see if you can make time for it.”
Choosing the wrong time of day to travel
You might not have your kid’s sleep cycle top of mind when you’re trying to book an affordable flight, but if you have the flexibility to book based on your kid’s energy, sleep and food needs, it can be a huge help. “Where possible, I would always choose a flight departure that is closest to my child’s bedtime and avoid day flights that mean my little one will be awake and wanting to explore,” says Gangemi.
Paderson agrees: “For small babies and children that may sleep in the car, I would leave in the middle of the night, and that way, they can sleep much of the way to their destination,” she says.
Trying too hard to avoid tantrums
The more you try and try to avoid meltdowns with young kids in public or in transit, the likelier they are to happen — so try not to stress so much and realize that it’s a part of life with little ones, especially when you’re traveling. “If possible, if you’re in public, remove the child from the area but if you can’t, just breathe and agree with the tantrum-thrower that life is awful at the moment,” says Fish.
And even with older kids who are in a foul mood on the day when you were most excited to do a certain activity, try to go with the flow. “Avoid the temptation to get angry that your child is whining about being tired and hungry when they should be appreciating the amazing vacation you’ve planned,” says Fish. “Miss your next scheduled activity and stop for ice cream and a rest.” It’s not worth trying to force things to work out if all signs are pointing to your kids’ need for a nap, a snack or a movie.
Not bringing entertainment or toys
This might seem like an obvious one, but it bears repeating — it’s worth taking up space in your luggage to bring a few items that help entertain and soothe your kids. “Pack your child’s favorite toy, pacifier, stuffed animal or blanket so they can feel comfortable and at home wherever you are,” says Gangemi. “Another little trick I use is bringing a new toy or book my children haven’t seen before, as these often work as a nice little treat when they’re upset. I find little distractions are helpful.”
For older kids, bring portable games, activities or books that can help pass time when you’re in transit. “Pack a batch of small and easily doable boredom busters for those long lines, delays and layovers,” says Ellen Paderson, owner of Smiles and Miles travel consultancy. “Playing on a phone or iPad is fine for a little while, but it’s nice to offer your kids the option to be creatively entertained without constant digital distraction.”
Skipping explanations about different cultures
If your kids are older and you’re headed somewhere international or where the culture and language are new to them, have a little chat about what they should expect to get them excited about the upcoming experience and also to prepare them. “Children are naturally curious and I believe this should always be encouraged,” says Gangemi. “I strive to be the best role model possible for my children and celebrating different cultures is one of the best ways to ensure your child is ready for the world.”
She offers an example: “For instance, a cultural norm that some American kids might not expect is when people in the United Arab Emirates greet by touching noses, rather than shaking hands or hugging,” she says. “Your little one may not have seen something like this before, and it’s important to take the time to praise their observation and explain that in different parts of the world, people say hello in different ways. Then I would encourage them to greet me by touching noses showing that there is no wrong or right in culture — just a wonderful variety.”