Five tips for a seamless travel experience with kids

A roadmap for how to discuss your travel needs in advance

Getting a stroller stuck in the aisle while boarding a bustling Amtrak train is probably not the best way to embark on your first travels with a little one. Back in October 2017 when Eliza was two months old, we were the frazzled parents trying to manage everything, which somehow resulted in us managing to make nothing look easy. Many months—and many travels—later, we’ve had far fewer strollers caught in tight spaces and many more conversations with each other that have led to seamless travels—or, well, mostly seamless travels.

When we shifted from traveling as just a couple—or independently on solo trips—to traveling as a family, we found it became even more important to set aside dedicated time before our travels to talk about our expectations. Up first: What are we hoping to do and get out of the trip? Next priority: Can we discuss, and inevitably compromise on, what we’re bringing with us? For instance, should we bring a car seat, rent one at our destination, or rely only on public transportation instead? What about a portable high chair? How many diapers? What kind of food? Somehow no point ends up being too minor for discussion, at least during your first few trips with an infant.

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Sean and Eliza turn some pages on a local bus in Gibraltar (December 2018)

After quite a bit of practice over the past (almost!) two years, we’ve broken down the five most important questions we’ve found ourselves discussing for seamless travel with a baby:

1. What are your needs on every part of your journey?

Of course, our individual needs can differ significantly, and so too can each family’s. That’s why we’ve found it instrumental to acknowledge what each of us—and what both of us—consider to be important while we still have plenty of time before our travels. To ensure we don’t make assumptions or take the basics for granted, we tackle the big ones: luggage, transportation, accommodation, costs, and timing. By breaking down each leg of the trip into its increment parts, it can be easier to ensure we’re on the same page with what matters and our approach:

  • Even if you agree to “figure it out” while there, have you walked through how you’ll get from various point As to point Bs? If you’re flying, how will you get from the airport to your hotel or apartment rental? And how far apart are they? If you have a delay, will the same transit options exist, or will you need to have a fallback plan? We failed this planning test when a nighttime flight into Kansai International Airport was delayed, customs and immigration took longer than expected, and we ended up with a much longer than expected middle-of-the-night bus trip into Osaka, followed by a local taxi to get to our hotel, which we reached just before dawn.
  • If you need a crib or a child’s bed, have you called or emailed in advance to confirm whether your hotel booking or apartment rental can provide one? We’ve done this relatively religiously from the beginning, but we let our guard down once while in Spain. Sean had done several confirmations of crib requests, but overlooked one hotel where we’d made a two-night booking. When we arrived, the hotel had no cribs on site, but some polite pleading (and a chance to put our Spanish lessons into critical practice) led to very kind hotel staff coordinating with another hotel in the same chain to get one by nightfall.
  • Will you only take public transit on your trip? Or will there be any times where you’ll need a car seat? This has often been one of our trickiest negotiations, at least once Eliza outgrew her easily carried little-baby carseat. For anybody with a toddler (and a carseat that might even weigh more than said toddler), it can be an all-or-nothing decision. If you’re renting a car, or driving your own, from start to finish, a carseat will be little more than a brief inconvenience whenever you need to put it in or take it out; however, if your destination is well-served by public transit, especially if you’re in a big city, is it worth lugging the carseat just in case you need to take a taxi? Or are you both fine with committing to take only buses and trains?
  • Is every item you’re bringing necessary? Let’s face it, the less we bring with us, the easier it is to travel and the happier we usually end up. But that certainly doesn’t hold true if you forget any essentials. What constitutes a must-bring is a highly personal question, and it’s important to be honest with each other and allow time to be receptive to hearing what we might not want to hear. Many of our travels have overlapped, rather intentionally, with weddings or family gatherings, which means our outfit choices have needed to span a large range of scenarios. And that has meant making do with fewer choices of everyday casual wear. And while it might seem logical that packing carefully would discourage throwing in an extra pair of shoes, Sean has often (and, I will admit, rightfully) insisted we bring good walking sneakers. They’re clunky but mean we’re prepared and supported during longer walks—and hikes away from paved streets.

2. Who plans to mind the baby/babies/kids at key points in your travels? 

When traveling with Eliza, we both fess up to having momentary fantasies that we’ll have ample undisturbed time to sit back and tackle a great new novel or lose a few hours watching a movie. But as many parents traveling with children will know all too well, that mighty bubble of a daydream can be all too quickly popped. Even a single baby has the powerful ability to reclaim the time and attention of two parents sitting side by side.

But yet again some advance communication and compromise can go a long way. Before a recent red-eye flight from San Francisco to Boston, Sean told me that he would look after Eliza for the entire flight so I could get some sleep. I was grateful but skeptical, certain I would be on the hook for baby duty during some part of the trip. But I was wrong: even when I asked if I could help, Sean wouldn’t let me. (Don’t tell him, but I still didn’t sleep most of the flight: instead, I used my alone time to watch a rom-com and a few episodes of Veep. Knowing I could do this in advance, and then actually being able to do it, made for one of my favorite flights.) And to keep some balance here: we’ve had a few flights where Sean has had to work along the way, and I’ve been happy to take on the Eliza care during those trips.

I admit planning can go too far. For the longest haul we’ve ever taken together, from New Zealand to New Orleans, I made an incredibly detailed spreadsheet outlining who would watch Eliza and when, including both the origin and local timeframes. It was so utterly perfect and thorough, mapping out numerous handoffs, that neither of us ended up finding it helpful. After all of my work, we only glanced at it a couple times. Better to keep it simple and stay flexible.

3. Have you reviewed the belongings you plan to bring?

I’ve found it useful on a few occasions before longer trips to stage a “dress rehearsal” before actually packing my bags. This test-run gives a chance to see what fits (and what doesn’t) and differentiate between the must-haves, would-like-to-haves, and don’t-really-needs. And while this applies to actually packing your bags, you’ll also want to review the bags themselves (and unpackable items that accompany any travel with children) so you don’t find yourself without the mobility you need or carrying too much weight for your own comfort. A while ago, Sean packed one of his favorite bags only to realize that its handle had torn. It was better to have figured that out before we needed to search out emergency duct tape or buy a new bag on the go.

4. Who’s responsible for each important item?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s worth the slight annoyance of double checking that you have your wallet, phone, passport, eyeglasses/sunglasses, keys, and any similar essentials before you leave on your trip—and doing so again at key times along the way. We once made it halfway to the airport for an international flight only to realize that we had left our passports locked in the hotel safe. When we used to travel solo or as a couple, it was simpler in that we were generally responsible for each of our own items, but the addition of children into the equation sometimes means consolidation: either one of us might find ourselves holding all of the passports and both of our wallets.

The same rules we apply to the smaller must-haves also hold true for larger items like luggage, strollers, car seats, traveling cribs, and so on. As well as making sure you don’t forget any of these, talking about these items in advance gives both of you a chance to acknowledge how much you can reasonably manage to carry, push, or pull. For instance, our travel crib folds up into a backpack, making it fine for Cathlin to carry but uncomfortable for her to lift. And when we travel with a car seat, Sean needs one of our carry-on suitcases to function as its balance beam. Whenever we’ve waited until we were in a time crunch to figure out what seem to be relatively minor logistics, they often end up being harder and more stressful than when we discuss them early. We’ve learned to apply this same lesson when it comes to buses or trains, or checking in or out of our accommodation: sketching out a quick game plan verbally and doing our best to take care of our respective responsibilities.

5. Have you confirmed, and reconfirmed, your luggage at each point in your journey?

It’s not hard to count whether you have two bags or four, but the more you have in tow, the more it can look like you have everything you need. Think back to the premise of the original Home Alone: Kevin McCallister is left behind because his family thought they’d counted him before leaving. Don’t let that perfectly packed suitcase of yours become the Kevin McCallister of luggage. We barely averted such a crisis last summer, while waiting at my parents’ house for a car to collect us for our travel from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Seoul, Korea. We had our carry-on suitcases, backpacks, diaper bag, stroller, carseat, and a bunch of snacks we’d grabbed from the kitchen at the last minute. Everything was set up out on the driveway, and we were feeling rather confident until a quick count of the items suggested we were one short of the number we had tallied earlier. Turns out we had forgotten to fold up Eliza’s travel crib after her nap, which we were able to rescue just in time.

Flying from Dublin to Madrid; E was happily asleep next to us so we took a child-free selfie (November 2018)

If you’re brave enough (or simply need) to travel with your child or children solo, the second question above doesn’t require much discussion: Who plans to mind the kid(s) at each point in the journey? Well, you do—and bless you for it. I’d say the most important advice in this circumstance is to hold a dress rehearsal to ensure that you’re not bringing so much that you need extra hands along the way. When I’ve traveled solo with Eliza, I’ve found people to be willing to ask if I need help, but I’ve also found great peace of mind in knowing that, while it might be difficult, I know I’m capable of carrying our belongings and managing on my own, albeit more slowly.

Even if you follow the tactics above, there may be times when you lose something important. (Our beloved stroller would still be with us if we’d followed our own tips before speeding away from the airport!). Still, I have a feeling you’ll end up more confident in yourselves and your upcoming travels if you’ve spent sufficient time discussing the questions we’ve broken out here. And once you’ve gotten home and unpacked from your latest travels, sit for a few minutes together and do a “post mortem” to discuss how you can improve for the next time. 

And the last bit of advice that I’d say applies to any kind of travel with children: build in more time than you think you’ll need. Everything is easier when you’re not racing against the clock. At the very least, you’ll have a higher likelihood of keeping your cool so when things do go wrong (or you end up with longer or slower lines), you’ll be better able to find a solution.

Regardless of how you plan it, cheers to you for embarking on travels, near or far, with your child(ren)! (Paris, April 2018)

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