I think there are several key areas of focus to making traveling successful with small children. The first area is correct preparation. The second area is when you are actually traveling. The third is when you get home.
Prepping for the Trip
The first thing to focus on is to prepare for your trip.
Where are you going to go? Sometimes your travel location is chosen for you. You might be visiting relatives over the holidays or going to a family reunion. In those cases, you don't get to choose where to go. If you are traveling because you want to do a family vacation, consider your destination carefully. What is your goal for your vacation? How much are you able and willing to spend? What do you want to do while there? Where is the best place to go to meet your goal?
For us, most of our travel right now is done relatively close to our home. I think just about wherever you live, there will be lots of neat places for you to visit close by. Our goals for vacations right now are simply to have a fun time without it negatively impacting our children. We live in the West of the United States, so we have lots of neat National Parks and Forests close by. We also have several lakes.
In the future, we have many places that are more than a days drive (or a flight) from our home. We will be visiting those places when our children are all old enough to fully enjoy it (so, the youngest can get through the trip without having to take naps--probably around 4ish). Until then, we are enjoying the wonders of our local area. That doesn't mean that is what you have to do--that is just what fits our desires right now. The point is for you and your spouse to figure out your goals and go from there.
Something to take note of when traveling is if you will be changing time zones, and if so, what you will do about it. For me, when I travel just one hour hour out of my time zone, I don't bother messing with the schedule at all. We will either be an hour ahead of or behind local time. No big deal. We are then either early rises or sleep in a bit. I find that makes much more sense than spending weeks before and after the trip preparing for and recovering from shifting time zones. I think with a two hour difference, you might be able to do the same, but it depends on what the sun rise and set is like and what your child is used to.
If you are traveling more than two hours difference, you will likely need to change time zones. You will have to decide what to do. You can treat it like a time change and prepare weeks before and then spend weeks after moving back. I would consider that with a baby--babies are not as flexible and you might enjoy your trip more if it is a smooth transition for baby. For toddlers and older, though, I don't think I would mess with it. I wouldn't want to spend two months on this for one week of vacation. I would just make sure the child has consistent naps and bedtimes before the trip so the child is well rested when the trip starts. Then I would work with it all when we got home.
Where will you stay? Once you know where you are going, you will figure out where you will stay. Will it be a hotel? A camper or tent? Rent a home? Know the conditions for where you will be staying. You can then start to think about what kind of bedding you need to bring for your children. Do you need to bring your pack and play or peapod?
I like to bring their own pillow--even if the place has pillows. I also like to bring one favorite stuffed animal and one blanket. I know I sleep better with my own pillow and blanket, so I figure children might also.
I don't do any extra sleep preparation before we travel. I don't have them sleep in different places. My children all sleep in other places without issue. As babies, Brayden slept in different places often enough that to go on vacation and sleep somewhere different was not a big deal. Kaitlyn as a baby took at least one nap a day in my room in the bassinet or pack and play, so she was used to sleeping in those beds. McKenna was just a sleeper. I kind of figure there will either be potential for a couple of adjustment sleep days on the vacation or at home--it doesn't matter to me where those adjustment days happen. If you have a touchy or sensitive child, however, it might be a good idea to prepare by sleeping in other places. Your child might do better with one change (location or type of bed) rather than several (different state, house, bed, time zone, etc.). Go with your own judgement on your child.
Do you need to bring some sort of white noise? An ipod with white noise tracks? A machine? Think about what will make sleeping the most successful basked on where you are staying. Picture putting your child to bed in that location so you don't forget anything.
Make a packing list. For at least a week before you leave, keep a list close by for packing. Anytime you think of something, write it down. I currently keep my lists on my iPhone. When the time for packing comes, check things off as you go. Also, pack as you get ready that day. So as you dress your child, pack the clothes, diapers, socks, underwear, etc. you will need for the trip. As you put shoes on, pack the shoes you will need. As you do hair, pack the hair stuff you will need. Do this throughout the day. Try to not stress about the list, though. My husband always says if we forget something, we will just buy it when we get there.
See also: Packing for a Vacation: http://www.babywisemom.com/2010/07/packing-for-vacation.html
How will you get there? Will you be traveling by plane, car, bus, train...? Think about how you will get there and what you can bring along to make it easier. Make a list of your ideas so you don't forget anything. See these posts for specific ideas:
The next step for success while traveling with children is to prepare for what you will do while traveling.
Travel Activities. I think one of the biggest worries about traveling is how will the child do while confined during travel time? No matter the age of the child, have a pack of activities for your child to do while traveling. I pack a bag for each of my children that is their special travel bag. What I put in that bag ranges based on the age. Older children are easier and need less because they have longer attention spans. We do things like books, coloring activities, puzzles, favorite toys, and learning activities. Often times, a new toy is a good idea for traveling. New toys are very novel and tend to hold attention longer than a familiar toy.
Eat good food. I like to pack some of our food--even if it is just snacks. I like to have healthy snacks while traveling. I don't like to eat out for every meal, so we try to have some meals made by us.
Get good sleep. Do what you can to protect sleep. Get naps in as often as you can if your child still needs them. Get bedtime as close to normal most nights. Your child will be happier if she gets the sleep she needs.
Be flexible where you can. Though you want to get the sleep your child needs, try to recognize where you can give. Your child might be able to skip a nap every other day or go to bed an hour or two late. Your ability for flexibility will depend on your child's age (the older the child, the more flexible) and personality type. Remember your reason for the vacation and make your flexibility decisions based on that reason.
One example of how we are flexible with our children at their current ages is time allowed for videos in one day. I typically try to stay at 30 minutes or less. When traveling, however, I allow for a lot more while locked in a carseat for a long period of time. Oh, that reminds me of a random tip. If you use videos or other electronics when traveling, I suggest you wait at least an hour before getting started on those electronic devices. Let your children explore their travel bags and figure out how to self-entertain. It is easier for children to think of ways to have fun if they aren't influenced by the easy way out in the form of shows and video games.
Once you get home, there are some things you can do to make your adjustment back to normal life more smooth.
Expect tantrums. When you get home, you will have some tantrums/fits/crying. Expect some discipline issues to come up.
Work toward consistency. Try to be consistent for at least a few days in your routine to help your child readjust easily.
Be patient. You know the fits are likely to come, so when they do, be very patient with them. It can be hard because you will likely be tired and want to throw your own version of a tantrum. Take a deep breath and be the grown up. Show patience and love to your overly tired and stimulated child.
We don't do a lot of things differently when we go on vacation. We basically:
- Decide where to go
- Think through where we will be staying and what we need to do for preparations and packing
- Prepare based on method of travel
- Make packing lists
- Try to eat and sleep well
- Allow for variations to normal life while traveling (flexibility)
- Be patient when you get home
- Spend a few days being very consistent in routine
Please share your own tips for traveling with children!
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