While traveling with kids may be stressful — packing extra things, considering logistics for both parents and kids, maybe tending to the occasional meltdown — studies show that the educational benefits of travel for kids are meaningful and lifelong. So what do you need to know to prepare for safe and enjoyable travel with kids?
Many parents feel that travel with kids is hardest around 12–18 months of age, when babies are becoming more mobile.
Think through your trip and bring easily accessible essentials for the plane or car.
Different documents are required for international versus domestic travel. Kids traveling alone will need additional documents.
Both kids and adults can benefit from travel experiences through learning, connection, and moments of awe.
The child's age matters when traveling together
Different ages and stages demand different needs. The “terrible twos” may be nonexistent in your house, while the “scary sevens” put you to the test daily. Depending on your children’s ages, the scope of your travel plans will vary. So what’s the most challenging age to travel with kids?
It may be up for debate but, in general, most parents feel that travel is hardest when babies have become more mobile but aren’t yet able to reason with you – around 12–18 months. Being out of your baby-proofed environment requires vigilant eyes on them. Constrained travel environments can be frustrating when they’re at a developmental stage to know what they want but not yet be able to fully communicate it. This isn’t to say it’s impossible, but it will require patience and flexibility.
Tips for easy traveling with kids:
Travel is prompted by all kinds of events, from seeing family and friends to special events, and bucket list must-sees. Thinking of bringing the whole family? It may be daunting, but it could also be the perfect catalyst for connection. Mentally preparing and tailoring your packing list to your kid's age is a start.
Bring the essentials
Think about your travel plans. Will you be on planes, in the car, or both? In general, it’s a good idea to bring:
- Travel first aid kit. Think thermometers, children’s Tylenol or ibuprofen, and band-aids.
- Hand sanitizer and wipes. Exposure to high-contact areas and crowds are breeding grounds for plenty of bugs.
- Easily accessible extra change of clothes. Depending on the availability of rest stops and how well potty-trained your kids are for long travel stints, keeping a spare outfit nearby may come in handy.
- Frequently used items. Top of the list, likely, is snacks. Also bring diapers and wipes, a cooler for breastmilk or formula, and pacifiers.
- Entertainment. Books, simple toys, screens.
- Anti-lost devices for travel. If you'll be walking through an airport, juggling luggage, and trying to keep your wandering toddler in sight, you may want to consider a child harness or anti-lost wristband. Child tracking devices are also available with GPS, so your older kids can walk freely while enabling you to see their location, keeping them safe while traveling.
Traveling by car
If your trip has you on the road for a long drive, factor in plenty of rest breaks. For kids in car seats, stop every 2–3 hours for a stretch, diaper change, and feed. Help your toilet-trained child anticipate restroom breaks along the way. Explaining that there are limited restroom options while traveling may help them set an expectation to use what’s available. But nevertheless, that spare change of clothes may be necessary out on the road.
Consider your lodging plans. If you’re traveling with an infant, do you need to bring your own bassinet or play pack for sleeping, or does your hotel provide one? Plan ahead and add sleeping gear to your list if needed. Are you traveling in the summer? Think about shade window decals for skin protection when in the car for long periods. Don’t leave your kids alone in the car during rest breaks. Apart from being a good safety measure, kids are prone to heat stroke.
Traveling by plane
The Friendly Airports for Mothers act requires all medium and large-size airports to provide clean, private, non-bathroom spaces for lactation purposes. To locate these spaces, search lactation room-finder websites, or download the Mamava app to view their lactation pod availability.
Air pressure is disorienting to kids and can cause ear pain. For young ones, breastfeeding or offering a bottle during take-off and landing can ease the pressure. Baby headphones can also help absorb sound, from both the plane and other passengers. Gum for older kids may alleviate pressure as well.
Consider your destination. If you’re traveling internationally, make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date. Talk to your kids’ pediatrician or schedule appointments with a travel clinic to make sure you’re prepared. What’s common in your destination may be unfamiliar to you at home.
Required documents for airplane travel
Your child will require different documents for airplane travel depending on their age, whether they are traveling internationally or domestically, and if they are traveling accompanied or not. Bring your children’s birth certificates to validate their ages with the airline. If you don’t have their birth certificates, order a certified copy or purchase an individual ticket for your child. Babies under the age of 2 don’t require their own ticket if they will not be sitting in their own seats.
- Accompanied domestic flights. Accompanied minors don’t need ID for domestic travel by airplane when accompanied by an adult companion, but the adult does need ID. It may be a good idea to bring some kind of ID for your children, such as a student ID. If you’re traveling somewhere that may apply student IDs for discounts, such as museums or other attractions, it may be a good idea to have them on hand.
- Unaccompanied domestic flights. If your child will be traveling alone for any reason, you will need some extra documents. Kids 5 years and older can travel unaccompanied but are subject to U.S. airline procedures for unaccompanied minors, such as only flying on nonstop flights. These conditions vary by airline. You will also need to provide your child with a travel consent form and consent letter signed by both parents. Teens should also carry their own kind of ID like a passport, student ID, or driver’s license.
- International flights. All kids taking international flights require a passport, no matter their age. Search for the nearest passport acceptance location to submit your passport application. Passport applications require a certified copy of a birth certificate as well as passport photos. Keep in mind that passport processing times can take up to 3 months, sometimes longer.
Benefits of travel
We can all use a little wonder to refresh our perspectives and renew our energy, and travel is one way to do that. The science of awe reveals psychological and physiological benefits to experiences of reverence. Feelings of vastness can bring our focus outward, reminding us that we are part of a larger whole. You may encounter moments of awe while traveling with family by making new memories together or watching your children marvel at something new. Kids absorb their environments and can learn a lot while traveling.
Infants become more responsive to their surroundings as they grow. Exposure to different sounds, sights, and smells fosters their ability to interact. Toddlers are in a stage of exploration. Traveling can help them learn to be adaptable by trying new foods and seeing new sights. Children with travel experiences show an increased willingness to learn and desire to travel more. Experiential learning increases their capacity for perspective-taking, increasing their confidence, curiosity, and ability to collaborate.
Whether you are traveling by plane, car, or both, will determine how to prepare for your trip. Think through what you’ll want to have on hand and pack those accessibly. The age of your kids will also determine travel plans and how to set your family up for success. Preparing mentally and logistically can ease stress about traveling, so you can make new memories together.
- Student & Youth Travel Digest. A Comprehensive Survey of the Student Travel Market.
- Transportation Security Administration. Will minors need to have a driver’s license or state ID to fly domestically?
- U.S. Department of Transportation. When Kids Fly Alone.
- U.S. Birth Certificates. Do Kids Need ID to Fly?
- John Templeton Foundation. The Science of Awe.
- Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Nursing & Lactation Spaces in Aviation.