Traveling with kids is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are surely worth it.
Because the lessons they learn from other cultures, customs and people is an education they will not soon forget.
If thinking about packing up the kids for a long-haul flight makes you and your bank account nervous, fear not. The following strategies have been developed by seasoned family travelers to help make the flying process not just bearable, but smooth.
Most importantly, traveling with kids doesn't have to be expensive, if you consider some of the following tips when preparing for your trip and throughout your travels.
When planning your vacation...
There may be no shortage of places to see, but certainly one’s budget can be what gets in the way of travel.
While you may not be able to get away as much as you like, there is no reason to avoid travel altogether with kids.
1. Avoid peak-season travel
When looking online for travel deals, avoid going during peak-season. Sure, getting away to sandy beaches in the middle of winter is a well-needed treat, but you will pay a premium to do so.
If you would rather not wait until spring or summer, look at the shoulder seasons. This could be a month or two past winter break, or the month or two beforehand. It won’t be the cheapest deals for travel, but it certainly won’t be the most expensive.
And if you are worried about pulling the kids out of school for family travel, consider the experiential learning that will take place for them at your travel destination. No child has ever regretted the lessons learned outside of the classroom on their family travels.
2. Fly mid-week
Before you go ahead and book those flights, why not try a mid-week flight with a return in the middle of the week as well.
There are fewer travelers mid-week, which often results in less expensive tickets, as well as less busy line-ups at the airport. When you have kids and all their gear in tow, it’s the little things like fewer crowds that make a world of a difference.
Speaking of line-ups, there is probably no way to avoid them altogether, but there are ways to come prepared to help your children, especially young ones, withstand them better.
3. Go for frequent family flyers
When booking your flights, don’t forget to get your kids their own frequent flyer membership.
Over time, they will accumulate enough miles to earn their own free flights. Although your kids may not travel as much as you do, the miles will add up and you may be able to take a free family vacation sooner than you realize.
Related: Best Travel Credit Cards in Canada
4. Travel with kids under 2
Some people argue traveling with babies is pointless as they won’t remember a thing. But you certainly will.
The memories you will make with your little one as they see the world through fresh eyes is priceless...
Besides, flying with children under 2 is free.
If you prefer to get them their own seat, by all means do so. Although you’ll end up paying for a full seat, you’ll pay less on fees and taxes. But if you are budget-conscious, flying as much as possible with young children is easy when the only seat you will be paying for is yours.
Granted, traveling with toddlers is never an easy task, but we’ve got some tips below on how to occupy your little ones during a flight.
Preparation is key...
If this will be yours or your child’s first time on an airplane, preparation is key.
A couple of weeks before the big departure, explain to your kids that you’re all going on a trip. Naturally, they will be excited, but perhaps a bit nervous.
If your child is prone to nerves and anxiety, having them do a practice run through a makeshift airport security line in your living room could be helpful.
Get them to dress in slip-on shoes, no belts and jewelry. Have their carry-on backpacks packed and then ask them to unload all shoes, coats, electronics, etc. onto your imaginary conveyer belt.
Tell them what to expect when they pass through the scanners. Go in the order that you think will work best for your family.
Ideally, you will have a spouse to help you with this process, but if not, then all the more incentive to practice beforehand.
This practice round doesn't necessarily save you money at the airport, but it does save you time and helps you avoid potential meltdowns, which is priceless.
5. Buy attractions in advance
If this is your first time at the travel destination, research the attractions beforehand and consider purchasing tickets in advance for the places you know your family is going to.
Advance tickets can be cheaper, and even if they aren't, researching attractions beforehand can tell you when there are free days for entry or cheaper times to go with children.
Don’t forget to check online or in stores if there are any third party deals for the attractions you are planning to see. For instance, my local Costco sells discounted tickets for the cinemas in town, as well as for Canada’s Wonderland.
6. Choose seats in advance
If you are traveling with babies, sometimes booking a seat which has a bassinet attachment is worthwhile. If available, there is a small fee for these seats, but besides the bassinet, you also get extra leg room.
When my babies were less than a year old, I would often book these seats on flights longer than five hours to give my children a chance to nap.
The bassinets are not large, so make sure your baby fits the weight and height restrictions. Each airline has their own policy, so call the airline you’re flying with to find out if it’s possible for you to book it.
If bassinet seats are out of the question, try and book seats in a comfortable location with the family altogether.
Not all airlines allow booking 24 hours before your flight, but if you can, I recommend booking ahead for long-haul flights as getting stuck in a really uncomfortable seat for multiple hours can get your trip started off on the wrong foot.
Just before you fly…
Two to three days before your flight, start gathering all the necessary supplies for making travel with kids easy and pain-free.
7. Get activity packs for young kids
For children under five, prepare activity packs for them. Go to the dollar store, or your local kids consignment store for stickers, coloring books and puzzles.
For a zero cost option, ask friends and neighbors for toys and books that their kids don’t use anymore. You could also do a toy swap with them and switch out the toys that have been forgotten by your kids.
Having novel toys to play with is always entertaining for children, regardless if it’s new or secondhand.
8. Create activity packs for older kids
For children older than five, you can involve your kids in creating their activity pack. Take them with you to the book store, or a thrift store to choose new books and games that they will have to wait to use on the airplane. This creates anticipation for the upcoming travels.
9. Bring your own tech accessories
At a certain age, your kids will love to take advantage of the digital entertainment onboard. Since there is a huge markup on headphones at the airport, bring your own set for each family member, or have them use the complimentary set some airlines provide.
The free headphones are often too big for my youngest, so I usually bring a set of earbuds for him.
10. Remember some snacks
Snacks are your best friend, as well as your kids. I scope out for sales on their favorite nut-free snacks (since people in airplanes may have allergies) the weeks leading up to the trip.
I buy in bulk, then divide them up into snack portions in ziplock bags.
I put enough variety in each of the bags so they never get sick of whatever surprise snack I pull out next. When my toddlers start getting fussy, the snacks never fail to keep them content a little while longer.
These work miracles especially in long line-ups.
Pack this, not that…
Days before the big trip, it’s time to start packing, here are the basics.
11. Have your travel documents ready
Travel documents include your Passports (if leaving the country), Travel Visas (if necessary), as well as Travel Insurance Documents ‒ and of course the kids documents too.
Have one parent hold all the family documents in a safe place. When checking in at the airport, hotel, etc. it helps to have all the information streamlined and easy to access.
12. Decide what baby gear you need
Every parent will be different in what they deem necessary for travel, but for us it’s always a travel crib, umbrella stroller, baby carrier and a million diapers.
Some parents choose to buy diapers when they arrive, but if you opt for that, make sure you still travel with enough for multiple changes during the flight (Murphy’s law dictates you will need more than you think).
I like to travel with them and then use the extra space in my luggage for souvenirs on the way back.
13. Include extra clothes in your carry-on
In my carry-on, I ensure that I have also included extra changes of clothes, wipes and diapers. As most seasoned parents know, wipes aren’t just great for baby bums, but for cleaning surfaces and kids sticky hands.
14. Bring refillable water bottles and sippy cups
Pack refillable water bottles and sippy cups so your kids don’t get parched on the road. Filling it with the free airport water, or in flight refreshments beats paying the painful premium on drinks at the airport and souvenir stands.
Of course, if you’re visiting a country where the tap water is questionable, opt for bottled in that case, or boil all water before drinking it.
15. When bringing toiletries can be optional
Depending on the size of your family and how long you’re staying in the visiting country, it might be worthwhile to not pack any toiletries like shampoo, body wash and toothpaste. If you’re landing relatively early on in the day, consider buying those items in full-size options once you arrive. It might actually be cheaper than purchasing mini-sized toiletries for each family member. Plus if space in your luggage is a premium, you don’t need to waste it on toiletries.
16. Travel light on clothes
Since kids go through multiple changes a day, I usually just bring enough clothes to last them a week, then do laundry while I am on vacation. Sure that might seem like an unappealing option for you, but packing an extra suitcase just to bring enough clothes is more unappealing to me.
I prefer to travel as light as possible, and even buy the detergent in the country I am visiting. Plus it saves me from doing laundry for multiple days once I get back home.
17. The car seat challenge
Car seats are quite cumbersome to take on travels. If you are renting a car, many companies offer car seats for children at a fee, but there is no guarantee a car seat will be available if many other families happen to rent on the same day.
Also, the fees can add up if renting over a long period, and thus it could actually be more economical to buy a low cost car seat at the closest Walmart or other big box store near your travel destination. The only caveat with this is that you will have to go and buy the car seat leaving your child at the airport with your spouse or another trusted adult.
Final tips upon arrival
Hopefully by the time your captain cues the cabin for landing, you still have your wits about you and the kids are feeling satisfied with the snacks you provided and their activity packs have been well loved.
Once you’ve stepped off the plane and collected your baggage, you will be pleased to know the most challenging part of travel is over. At this point, you will just need to find transportation to your accommodations.
18. Consider alternatives to renting a car
Although it might seem easiest to load all the kids and their gear into the car, renting a car may not be the most budget friendly option. If your hotel is charging you for overnight parking, this will be an added expense to transportation, along with parking fees at certain attractions.
If there is a shuttle bus from the airport to your hotel, and you can get to most attractions with public transport, then you will not only be saving on transport fees, but you may not need to take the car seat after all.
If you simply have too much stuff to schlep on a bus, then consider taking a cab or catching an uber to get around ‒ which could be cheaper than the daily cost of a rental car in the long run.
19. Combine eating out with eating in
If you can book accommodations with a kitchen, your wallet will thank you. Having a meal or two in everyday certainly keeps a rein in on the budget.
Shop for essential grocery items once you have settled into your accommodations and have figured out what appliances you have. Some kitchens may have microwaves, kettles and fridges, but not full stovetops and ovens.
If you do opt to eat out a few times, research which places allow kids to eat free. Or search for online coupons or Groupons for deals at nearby eateries.
20. Manage the souvenirs
If your kids are prone to wanting to go inside of every gift shop in sight, explain to them that there is only so much they can bring home in their luggage.
Give them a budget or allow them to bring their allowance to purchase something from their vacation.
Tell them that once they spend that money, they will not receive more, so they need to use it wisely.
If you are not prone to giving out allowance without conditions, perhaps you could incentivize your kids by rewarding good behavior. If they are able to show patience (especially during long days of travel), help take care of younger siblings or go to bed when asked, then you might reward them with a few dollars to spend on whatever they like.
Have fun and be flexible!
Most important of all, have fun and remain flexible...
Don’t overschedule your family’s itinerary, so you have time to explore new sites and enjoy these soon-to-be memories with your family.
Allow yourself to see the world through your children’s eyes and you may see it in a whole new light, even if this is a part of the world you have visited before.
And when (not if!) there are hiccups in the travel along the way, don’t sweat it. No family travel is completely stress-free, so as long as you remain flexible and open to a bit of salty with the sweet, you are sure to have a family vacation to remember.