The amount of advice for traveling with kids can be overwhelming. But like most of us grown-ups, children often become good travelers through a lucky mix of nature and nurture: Some kids are flexible, some crave a routine, and some are just completely thrown off kilter by the travails of delayed planes, any change in schedule, and jet lag.
Nonetheless, here are five ways to make the time away from home easier for kids — and adults.
Don’t overload your itinerary, but let everyone pick an activity. If you are heading to Paris for the first time, it can be tempting to put the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Musèe D’ Orsay, and Michelin-starred restaurants among the many musts on your list, even with little ones in tow. “Packing an itinerary with insane amounts of activity, or booking reservations at restaurants that won’t make you feel comfortable with children is a common pitfall,” said Biba Milioto, a writer and postpartum doula based in Brooklyn who travels frequently with her two children, ages 3 and 5. “What we do is basically try to approximate our normal life at home, but with a different — hopefully more beautiful! — backdrop.” On my family’s own recent trip to Paris, with that advice in mind, we did one bigger excursion a day, but left plenty of time for pony rides in the Luxembourg Gardens, and a trip to the adventure park Jardin d’Acclimatation, both recommended by a friend who lived there (and given the thumbs up by my son), while carving out solo time each day for my own activities: a run by the Seine one day, an hour to read in a cafe on the Left Bank on another.
It’s also important to know your child’s personality — they aren’t going to be a different character on the road, or at least don’t count on it. “Super calm kids, who are quite shy and reserved, aren’t going to become gregarious party animals just because you’re traveling,” Ms. Milioto said. “And vice versa — those crazy rambunctious kiddos are not going to suddenly become pillars of decorum at the Sistine Chapel.”
Drop some rules and allow everyone more freedom. Allowing my 7-year-old to use his iPad as much as he wants on a trans-Atlantic flight or during a bout of jet lag can make me feel guilty at times, but as Henley Vazquez, the chief executive and co-founder of Passported (an online travel company that specializes in luxury family travel), as well as a mom of three (including a newborn), said: “Loosen up. Sure, at home we all limit screen time and sweets and all that other stuff that we know isn’t great for our kids. When you’re traveling, let it go. Eat ice cream every day, let the kids YouTube for an extra hour in the morning so you can drink coffee in bed, allow yourself to relax and not enforce all the rules you keep while you’re at home.” Although it can be hard to believe that little ones can return to the regulated world of home, if you are clear that things will go back to normal after the trip ends, kids can enjoy vacation as a time to be a little more unsupervised, and they can understand, just like adults, that holiday rules are different.
Be clear about who is responsible for which bag (and then be prepared to carry everything yourself). Kudos to the parents who have organized each child to carry on his or her own bag and to not lose anything en route, or on the plane. Especially on red-eyes, when we are half asleep, stuffed animals, iPads, and favorite sweatshirts have all been left behind. We find that it is best if there is one bigger trolley bag with perhaps a smaller bag for our son’s toys and activities, and we make sure we have repacked everything an hour or so before landing. Ruth Coady, a London-based film executive and mother of two young boys who travel to her home in Australia frequently, is firm that until her sons are really ready to be accountable for their own roll-on, they each get only a small knapsack, with a few additional things they want or need going in her bag. “Otherwise, I end up carrying everything and everyone,” she said. “Keep it simple. Pack a small zip-lock bag of Legos or some smaller toys, a change of clothes, and dry snacks.”