When traveling with young children, one of the first things I think to ask is what should I take? Should I take a car seat or rent one? Can I take snacks on the plane? What exactly should I take on the plane that will make everyone’s life easier? Should I take a pack and play or have the hotel provide one? What clothes should I take? What if it rains? What if it snows? What clothes will make us look less touristy? The thing is, aside from the safety of your children, at some point on your trip none of these things really matter. Whether you take a pack and play or rent one doesn’t really matter if no one is sleeping. Or taking the rain cover for your stroller to account for bad weather will make no difference if your stroller is stolen or damaged in transit. There are however some valuable lessons I learned on a recent trip to Europe with our kids, age 1 and 6. Below are my 11 Essential Tips to Traveling with Young Kids.
1. Deep Breaths and proper hydration are essential.
Most people would say alcohol is essential, but it just dehydrates and slows/impairs judgement. Upon arrival into Paris city limits at a major metro station at the equivalent of rush hour with two young kids and luggage, you need to be on your game. See what I mean? You had to take a deep breath just reading that sentence. Additionally, you WILL sweat profusely as you navigate the flood of people regardless of the outside temperatures. It will feel like you are literally swimming/drowning in people while you absolutely walk in the opposite flow of traffic. If you are hydrated, you won’t pass out from the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from traversing a foreign city with luggage, kids and the inability to speak the language. It is very important to breathe deeply during this time. As with all painful experiences, holding your breath will not help. Deep breaths are proven to help you relax…eventually. If you are sensitive to smells, breathe through your mouth. You will regret breathing in deeply the smells of any city unless you are parked deep inside a bakery.
2. Invest in marriage counseling before and possibly after your trip. No, really. Public transportation or really any kind of transportation brings out the worst in people. The worst is magnified when done in the company of one child that is bound to complain and another that can’t walk yet. I’m not sure what it is about airports, but my husband and I cannot get through one without some sort of argument/I told you so moment. Never fails. So, unless you recently won the award for Best Communication in a Marriage, some sort of counseling session will only help. If you’re not into counseling, no worries, but be prepared to spend, eat or drink your feelings.
3. Pack for the eventuality that every single bag will at some point be strapped onto your back. I suggest you try it out before you go. Pick up every single bag, even your child’s carry on, and try walking around. If you have stairs even better. Go up and down the stairs at least once. Think of this as travel bootcamp. It will feel like a workout depending on how prone you are to overpacking. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can make use of your stroller. There are places with stairs and *gasp* no escalator OR elevator. Or worse, there will be an elevator or escalator, but it will be broken. Murphy’s Law. You will at one point, or many points, carry all of your bags and your child, so be prepared. If you practice before you go, it won’t be such a shock to your system, and it may cause you to rethink you packing choices.
4. ln light of #3, sleep naked so you can pack less. PJs take up so much space and weight. Seriously though, think long and hard about your needs versus wants. When it comes to traveling, I WANT to be able to take my entire closet, but the reality is I just don’t need that many clothes regardless of the weather. And yes, clothes can and should be worn twice. If you really want to get crazy, consider washing clothes on your trip. Think of it as an adventure, or as I realized, the most peaceful hour and a half I spent on our trip.
5. Don’t trust single, sans kids, adorably Parisian, chic Julian when he tells you it is no problem to park your stroller at the bottom of the stairs. It IS no problem to park your stroller at the bottom of the stairs, but you will soon be relinquished of your ownership responsibilities. Despite the two secure entrances to the apartment building, someone will inevitably help themselves to your stroller. Sure it means you have to carry the stroller 4 flights of stairs, but you’ve already prepared for this eventuality in #3, remember? Two sub-lessons – 1. Should your stroller be stolen on a Sunday, familiarize yourself with local retail hours. For example, in Paris, don’t bother traipsing across the city looking for a place to buy a stroller. Retailers actually take the whole, sabbath, day of rest thing seriously. 2. When retail hours resume, please note, that should you try to purchase a new stroller in a foreign city, you will pay an arm and a leg for something that you could purchase back home for $20. As always, refer to lesson #1 for all things. Properly hydrate and take deep breaths should this happen to you.
6. Universal laws are not actually universal – except Murphy’s Law. Seems to contradict itself, but Murphy’s Law is the exception to every rule and Universal Laws do not really exist. Parents of young ones, it is, in my opinion, a Universal Law that you can and should take your newly purchased, over-priced, unreliable, french umbrella stroller all the way to the gate. FALSE. This is NOT Universal Law and because I had believed in it so passionately, I am now convinced that Universal Laws do not exist. In the words of the Air France gate agent, each terminal and gate is different or Murphy’s Law. WHAT? Again, be thankful that you took to heart #1 and #3, because lugging your overpacked carry ons and your youngest kiddo is no big deal. You totally have this.
7. As with all important events, don’t you dare make any drastic changes to your hair before hand. I cannot stress this enough. You will look back on pictures, and your hair will probably look cute. And because you are standing in front of some major European landmark you will convince yourself that drastically changing your hair before a trip was the best idea you had. It is not. DON’T do it. Because you are traveling with young children that require your attention and valuable toiletry space, you will not have the luxury of pretending to fix your hair. There will not be enough space for hair products that you rely on, so don’t even try it. Whatever your amazing hair dresser did to your hair before you left, you will not be able to replicate it. I get it. I wanted something new and different. Something to shake things up a bit. I wound up with severe bed head that could not be polished back into an easy bun or pony tail because my hair was too short. I was not used to fixing it and most mornings opted for breakfast instead of extra time taming my hair. My thought is ,if you can’t have easy hair, make sure you have a great breakfast. It will temporarily help you forget your hair woes should you choose to ignore this particular point.
8. Visiting local playgrounds is a must.
It shouldn’t be the first thing you visit each day unless the playground is right outside your door. But It should be on your list somewhere around lunch time or after a visit to a museum. There are several things that will ensure you teeter at the edge of insanity – jet lag, hunger, and spending all day visiting monuments and museums with kids. To regain a grip on reality, find a park, eat some food ,and let your kids blow off some steam while you sit. If the weather gods refuse to play nice, don’t fret just pack appropriate all-weather gear. It sounds crazy, but there are worse things than sitting under an umbrella at a playground. You could be trying to get home in the rain with over tired, soaking wet kids. Shudder. I cannot stress the necessity of appropriate clothing though or at least the knowledge of where to buy said appropriate clothing. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing.
9. Be prepared to defy all levels of your parental I will never list. Sure it’s easy to make fun or judge others from the comfort of your own “every thing I ever needed to parent within reach” home, but when you are out there on international and unfamiliar turf, you make do. You make do or you pay for it dearly in the currency of cranky and disorderly children. I fully admit that when Alicia Silverstone admitted that she chews her children’s food and then feeds it to them, I totally judged her. Who does that? Birds, that’s who. But who can really judge another? Not this girl. With limited access to a proper knife, I absolutely made due by biting off smaller, manageable, bite size pieces for my 1-year-old. It’s not exactly bird like, but it was pretty darn close. I also let my 6-year-old go from only one sugary drink a day to 3. What can I say, travel makes you do crazy things?
10. Speaking of things you do to survive, please note, Jet lag is not your friend, but Children’s Benadryl and Advil PM is or it was my friend. As with all medication, please consult your physician beforehand. And test it before you go. There’s nothing worse than having a sure fire plan, back fire on you.
11. In order to ensure that everyone that goes on the trip returns with you, always decide on meeting points. Beforehand if possible and not after you get separated in a giant museum that counts with thousands of visitors each day. Realizing that there is no “meet your party at the lost and found desk” courtesy phone, after the fact might only serve to induce panic. Or wandering each floor trying to guess their location will probably make you glad you invested in marriage counseling or wish you had. It will do you no good, if after you are separated you realize that meeting next to an obscure unpopular painting of a man with a ukulele would have been a great idea.
Meeting points mean that you get to see the sights instead of spending valuable time looking for each other or worse, cursing each others name.
There it is. The non-definitive guide to surviving and having enjoyable moments when traveling with small children. All those other lists that popped up on my google search “what to pack when traveling with children” are just as helpful, but remember, there are no Universal Laws. So stay flexible, hydrated and don’t forget to breathe.