Are we there yet?
Yes, this really is a thing – and you will hear approximately every 4.3 seconds when traveling with children.
But, no matter your mode of transportation or the duration of your trip, one thing is clear – if you know what you’re getting into and how to prepare for it, things will go a lot more smoothly.
The Unexpected Should Be Expected
Whatever season you may be in with your parenting journey, you probably know by now that doing anything with children is unpredictable.
This especially goes for traveling with children.
I am a seasoned parent with two adult children, a teenager, and a toddler (pray for me), and I have taken many trips with them over the years.
I’ve traveled with them on my own with no adult reinforcements; I’ve driven long distances and short; I’ve traveled with them by plane, train, and automobile.
I have seen it all.
So why did I recently have one of the most horrific travel experiences ever with my youngest child?
Because I didn’t expect what was going to happen.
It was a beautiful fall day and I decided to take a day trip with my mother and my toddler to one of our favorite little towns about three hours away.
I enjoy driving and – foolishly – pictured a pleasant trip there and back with some time to catch up with my mother while the little one slept or ate or played with one of the numerous toys and games I brought with me.
Well, about an hour in, my little one started screaming bloody murder. Not crying or whining or any other noise I’ve been trained to tune out after 25 years. Screaming.
I figured, okay, she’s just tired. She’ll go to sleep. An hour later – too late to turn back now – the screaming hadn’t stopped. Any second now, she’ll fall asleep or calm herself down.
Still rationalizing and calling it an off day, I kept on. And when we arrived at our destination, we had several wonderful hours of walking around and enjoying the town.
No nap yet. She’ll sleep all the way home. (Which, as a seasoned parent, I planned for accordingly so it wouldn’t affect her bedtime schedule.)
More screaming. All the way home, screaming. Three hours each way had turned into almost five. I was ready to call in a priest to perform an exorcism.
Needless to say, we arrived home safely with frayed nerves and hearing loss – and I had a good, stiff drink.
Now, the point of this story is not to scare you off from traveling with your children. It just serves to show that you should never – EVER – think a trip with kids is going to go smoothly.
If it does, then it’s a wonderful surprise. If it’s stressful, at least you were ready for it.
So, what was the deal with my kid who usually likes riding in the car? She had a double ear infection and I didn’t know it. And I didn’t plan for extra stops or extra stress.
When traveling with kids, plan, prepare, and always tack on a few extra hours to your expected travel time.
It’s All In Your Head
“But my kids would never do that.” Yeah, you just keep on thinking that.
No matter how well-behaved your kids usually are, traveling throws off their routine, their sense of security, their sleep schedule—you name it.
There will be times that your child acts totally out of character, for example, when they’re unexpectedly sick or you get up in the wee hours of the morning to leave on your trip.
So first, steel yourself against whatever may happen. Realize the travel day itself may be (probably will be) unenjoyable. But that doesn’t mean your family won’t have a wonderful time once you get there.
Mindset is important. Patience, even more so. If you prepare yourself mentally for traveling with kids, you’ll be surprised at how much easier it will be.
Kids pick up on our emotions and react accordingly. Keep calm and stay positive. Reassure them.
For young kids, give them little things to look forward to along the way. Small children are not going to understand, “we’ll be there soon” or “just a couple more hours.”
Try to associate travel time with something they can see, such as, “When the mountain is behind us, we’ll stop for lunch,” or “When it starts to get dark, we’ll be there.”
Point out sites along the way, like farm animals or cool cars or big signs. Keep them engaged and interested. Bored kids are whiny kids.
Sing, talk to them – do whatever you have to do. They don’t like being stuck in the backseat, trapped and unable to reach their favorite people, Mom and Dad.
And make sure when driving a long distance to make lots of stops. Find a few fun places along the way, even if you have to endure Chuck E. Cheese’s for lunch.
Don’t Let It Get To You
Did I mention that traveling with kids is exhausting? Not just the traveling part, but the trying to keep them happy and entertained part — for hours on end.
And what if you’re on a plane, train, or bus?
Fortunately, in the horror story I mentioned, my mother and I were the only victims.
But if you’re using any form of public transportation, traveling with little kids can curdle your blood.
We’ve all been there. You’re boarding a crowded flight and as you walk to your seat, you see the expressions on the other passengers’ faces.
“Please don’t be sitting by me,” they think. And once you pass by them, you can literally hear their sigh of relief.
So here’s another example of preparing yourself mentally. You hope your child will stay quiet for the flight, but they may not. And if you prepare for “they may not,” you’ll be in better shape.
The same things apply when traveling with a captive audience of strangers — keep them entertained and pick up on their cues BEFORE you get to meltdown city.
Get out the snacks, the coloring book, the favorite toy. Pretend the crayons are dancing on the tray table. Play peek-a-boo with their stuffed animals. You can bring all the stuff in the world to keep your kid busy, but YOU are their favorite entertainment.
And take heart; another thing that comes along with being a longtime parent is you eventually stop worrying about what other people think.
Ignore the people who are looking sideways at you and your fussy baby or loud toddler.
They’ve either been there themselves and empathize (you’ll often get an encouraging half-smile from those folks), or they’re stressed and grumpy themselves and don’t have or understand kids. Maybe one day they’ll learn.
Yes, it’s easier said than done, but you really don’t need to worry about what other travelers think of your kids. It is absolutely normal for kids to fuss when they’re stuck in one place with a bunch of people they don’t know.
I’ve found that having a sense of humor works wonders when my kids are having trouble behaving on a plane. I may be dying inside, but I don’t let them see that.
If you can find the humor in the situation and share that humor with whomever is sitting near you, it really does help to diffuse the stress.
Just Don’t Forget The Obvious
So, you’ve mentally prepared yourself for traveling with the kids. You’ve thought ahead about everything that can go wrong and how you’ll handle it. You’ve memorized every song and fingerplay.
But you forgot the diaper bag.
Part of the essential preparation for traveling with kids of any age is to BRING STUFF!
Obviously, for infants and toddlers that means diapers, pacifiers, blankets and something to snuggle with. For older kids, their phones or iPads or (eureka!) a book to read.
Long car trips require things for the kids to do. Yes, they want you to entertain them, but there’s a fine line between entertainment and annoyance.
A great idea for road trips is to go to your local dollar store and get each kid a different colored plastic caddy or basket. Let them pick a few things out that they think will keep them busy on a long drive.
Fill it with snacks and juice boxes or water, puzzle books, stickers – whatever is age-appropriate for each child. And a different colored caddy for each child means everyone has their own stuff, there are no mix-ups, and there is no fighting.
Okay, there is less fighting.
Although there are more regulations if you’re flying, each child can carry their own mini backpack with their own things to do.
When they are able to pick out their own stuff and help with preparations before the trip, it adds a little more excitement to traveling and makes them feel a part of the adventure.
And don’t forget things like trash bags, wipes, extra clothes, and then more trash bags. Accidents can (will) happen when you’re traveling, and no kid wants to sit in juice-soaked clothing for hours on end—or worse, their own barf.
Prepare yourself mentally. Expect the unexpected. Pack your sense of humor.
And have a good, stiff drink when you get there. Or three.
Do you have any tips for traveling with kids? Leave us your comments!