Traveling with little and big kids, ages five and up, can really be a hoot. Whether taking my 18-year-old niece on her first New York City trip or Burning Man festival, or planning a Crater Lake expedition with my 6-year-old stepdaughter, adapting my usual travel habits makes trips different and more enjoyable for me, too.
And of course I remember hundreds of long trips by car, plane, and train growing up with my family. I’ve managed to learn a few things along the way:
#1. Slow… down…
Young children operate on a time scale of their own. They like to explore, to linger, to tinker. Holidays are an excellent time to slow down your own pace—which, let’s face it, is probably a little dysfunctional anyway.
Even fast-moving older tweens and teens might want to take their time at certain stops. Give them some room to, say, flatiron their hair in a rest stop that happens to contain an electrical outlet, or pore over the Wii aisle when you stop to buy batteries. Instead of waiting in the car or standing there, tapping your foot, stretch out, walk around, and people-watch. Write in your journal, even if you’ve never kept a journal before. Slowing down is a gift to yourself, too.
#2. Make mixed itineraries
Approaching the decrepit age of 40, I realize that my travel style has changed over the years. A typical itinerary used to look something like this: “Ferry to Le Havre. Bring student pass; see where the trains go. Remember Rough Guide. Return in 2-3 weeks?” Or perhaps, “Dave coming to Dublin—hitchhike to County Donegal? Yeats?”
My haggard, middle-aged self gets a kick out of making itineraries and doing research, partly for my own amusement, and partly because even a loose itinerary can be fun and safe for family travel. I’m not sure I’d want a 7-year-old to sleep on the living room floor of a dodgy hostel-owner in Paris, like I did in my 20s. For specifics and destination suggestions, check out “Kids: Mixing Itineraries.”
#3. Plan ahead
Mom, the Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts were right after all: “Be Prepared” is a fabulous motto for travel in general. With kids, it’s even more essential. They sniff out stress like dogs sniffing out fire hydrants. If you forgot Band-Aids or underwear, it’ll affect them along with annoying you.
Especially if you’re new to traveling with younger humans, make a list of everything you want to bring. Check off each item as you pack it. Show the child how you’re planning, or let them help (“Barry the stuffed-talking banana should be on the list!” “OK! Let’s write that down.”). It’s harder to go minimal when packing for kids; it can be done, though, if you plan ahead and make it clear to everyone that you’re not bringing the entire house with you.
Here’s one I learned from my own parents, the hard way: Don’t freak out at the last minute while packing the car or rushing through the airport. Your child will absorb the idea that going on trips means last-minute craziness and people snapping at each other. Take… your… time. Plan ahead. Breathe.
#4. Be flexible
Say your little one notices billboards for Dinosaur Adventure along the road and really, really wants to go. Listen to her request. “If you’re good and don’t whine or complain for the rest of the day, we’ll go to Dinosaur Adventure,” might be an apt reply. You’re giving her a choice in the matter. You may have to weather a meltdown if she doesn’t follow the rules; you can get through it, limits and rules intact.
In general, allow kids to make at least one decision every day. When they say, “I want to see the giraffes!” or “Can we climb that tree?” or “Let’s go to Burgerville!”, go with it sometimes. Or offer them the choice: “We can have a campfire and marshmallows, if we get to the campground early enough, or we can stop at Burgerville right now.” Let them put on their own CD or playlist on the car stereo for a while, however much Rihanna might irritate you.
#5. Be in the moment
This classic piece of Buddhist and New Age advice happens to work. It goes hand-in-hand with slowing down, giving your child choices, and actually listening to her. It’s hard to do this fully in everyday life, which is part of why people take off on romantic getaways. Remind yourself why you’re on this trip: to be with your family or otherwise spend time with a special child. Turn off your cell phone. Be here now.
#6. Get into nature
Even if you’re an uncomfortable newbie at camping or hiking, bone up on how to do it, and give it a shot. You may want to start with group trips or guided tours into splendid nature parks. Kids, even video game addicts, have an innate ability to connect with sensory experience; joining them on that experience may open your own wonderment and sense of vision.
In everyday life, many of us don’t touch or smell anything non-manmade, except perhaps food. What does a handful of dirt and leaves smell like? What does the bark of a tree feel like? Go camping and find out. Learn from how your kid interacts with nature. If they’re shy or frightened, take the lead and be an example. Note: it’s OK to be ignorant. Little David doesn’t need to think you’re a professional botanist. If he asks the name of a flower and you don’t know it? Try “Huh, I don’t know,” as an answer.
#7. Use familiar home routines
Does Anya usually get a bedtime story? Does Ruby eat toast every morning? Bring some comforting everyday routines on the road with you, since so much of what you’re all experiencing is new and different. If you’re not the child’s parent or guardian, try to spend some time babysitting or visiting the family overnight to prepare yourself.
#8. Make expectations clear
Before you head out, establish guidelines with all your travel partners. Will stepdad want some time alone, wandering the city? Will mom want to go fishing by herself? Will any adults be not-present, to take work calls or bring their laptop to a café? Does David have to bring his homework? Try not to disappoint your children or yourselves.
If extended family or visiting friends join in your travels, mom and her girlfriend might sneak off for a day trip of short overnight hotel stay nearby—even just a nice dinner out while grandma hangs with the kids. Talk or email about this with the friends you’re staying with in Sydney, or the grandma who’s joining you in Rome, long before you head out the door.
#9. Develop traditions
These will probably evolve organically, but travel traditions can be pointed out to kids. Some examples: Normally, you can’t drink soda pop—except on an airplane. In everyday life, lights out at 9:00, but you can stay up reading with a flashlight while we’re camping. Normally, no fast food—but we’ll stop at Subway on our way to the train station.
#10. Document differently
Sometimes we’re so determined to document every adorable instant of our vacations and every kid’s cutely cavorting caper that we forget to actually experience those moments. Ask any media theorist or art critic: viewing life through a lens distances us from the living moment. So leave the cameras at the hotel for one day. Enjoy your time to the fullest; if you find yourself thinking, “Ohhh, I wish we had a camera,” keep the thought to yourself. Capture part of the trip (or the hike, or the Experience Music Project visit) on video, but not all of it. Kids are already accustomed to photographing and digitizing everything. Their lives are like one long performance. Let your vacation be a surprising break from endless, constant documentation. Be selective about when to bust out with the camera.
#11. Give a travel allowance
Even younger children who don’t normally get an allowance can benefit from a travel allowance. Start with a small daily allowance for postcards, gift shop goodies, vending machine gumballs, and any other amusing, useless stuff your kid is likely to clamor for on the trip. Older kids should get a larger sum to dole out over the course of a week.
This not only reduces the amount of time you’ll spend debating the merits of a Space Needle alarm clock or a Maui T-shirt, but teaches kids about the value of money, the necessity of prioritizing one purchase over another, and maybe even how to save money over periods of time. (Note: this method will cease to be educational if you loan money against future birthday gifts, or if the kids spend their dough immediately and you give into their whining for more knickknacks.)
#12. Play musical chairs
Do you always sit in the front seat, child in back, your partner driving? Mix it up a little. Squish in the back seat with your kids for an hour; have your partner do the same while you drive. Trade seats on the plane or train. Especially if you’re traveling solo with the child, plan time for extra stops during long car trips; have milkshakes and play a round of Uno at a diner, or play tag on a rest-stop lawn.
#13. Take care of yourself
You need a vacation, too. You need to sleep. You need to eat well. You may need to chill out and stare at a wall. Do these things. Arrange in advance for your partner or other adult travelers to help you do this. If it’s just you and the kids, plan in advance for at least one activity that the kids will do without you: horseback riding classes, a ski class, or a trustworthy day care at the hotel. As we know from Chevy Chase movies and “Little Miss Sunshine,” shoving a family into a small space 24 hours a day isn’t always entertaining or even tolerable.
#14. Work in individual quality time
QT with each parent or adult, separately from the others, makes for special memories. Take a look at any imbalances in parenting, if you are a parent: who spends the most time with Zoe? Who’s usually stuck in the role of disciplinarian? Use this opportunity to break up the routine.
Consider establishing some of this at the beginning of the trip. “So, David, you’re going to spend some time with your dad while I get some alone time,” lets him know what to expect. Whether you’re taking your nephew on an overnight hike or your stepson on a two-week family vacation, be especially sensitive around step-parenting, divorce, and blended families.
Even completely separate trips can be magical. I’ll never forget the week my dad and I spent rafting the Rogue River, just the two of us. Deepening family ties doesn’t mean you have to travel ensemble 100% of the time.
#15. Foster an adventurous spirit
Tired? Timid? Try to stretch your imagination—without making too much of a fuss over it. Your kids will learn by watching you eat strange foods, work with unforeseen circumstances, or stop the car for an unplanned hike to a waterfall.
Find one thing that no one in your family has done before, and do it. Nearly everything is new to kids; shouldn’t we get on their level and learn something, too? Hopefully your ideas will come from your kids’ latest obsession or impulse (“Hey! Can we build a Snow Mummy?”). Or you could:
- Flyfish or deep-sea fish with a guide
- Ride on the Zipper at a roadside carnival
- Fry an egg on the hood of your car in the desert
- Take a short factory tour of some weird local business (just follow the billboards)
- Forage for wild mushrooms with a class or guide
- Ski, snowboard, surf, skate, snowshoe, wind surf
- Pet the goats at a creamery and sample the chèvre
- Find a new swimming hole with a rope swing
- Make mud angels, instead of snow angels
- Take tombstone rubbings in a pioneer cemetery
- Go rafting, inner tubing, sledding, horseback riding
-Tiffany Lee Brown