Top 10 Sanity-Saving Secrets for Traveling with Kids
Save yourself (and your future travel plans) with these quick tips
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I decided it might be fun to travel internationally as a family once a year. This was all part of my start-off-as-you-mean-to-go-on program, and in the hazy, abstract months before parenthood hit me over the head and truly began kicking my ass, it felt like an entirely reasonable goal.
But now that I’m three years in, it seems, for lack of a better word, nuts. The farthest we’ve dared to venture is Mexico and Canada—no complaints, but not exactly far-flung. Our last flight home from visiting family on the East Coast featured a tantrum so epic and desperate that for the first time I understood why many seasoned parents forego all non-essential travel and still others rarely leave the house! Never had staying home—for the next five years—seemed so appealing.
And yet as train-wrecked as I was, I refuse to buy into the notion that the potential nightmare of an eight-hour flight across the ocean should trump the probable amazing-ness of eight days overseas. So I called an inveterate globetrotter and father of two for his advice on traveling long distances with little ones. As founder and owner of ROAM (Rivers, Oceans and Mountains), a boutique adventure outfitter based in British Columbia, Brian McCutcheon crisscrossed the globe scouting new trips with his daughters, Georgia and Grace, when they were two and four. Now they’re seasoned wanderers who love to surf in Ecuador and sail in the Galapagos.
Nice. So how’d he do it?
Invest Time in Travel Training
If you think your kid’s going to come out of the womb a natural-born traveler, guess again. Like most developmental milestones—sleeping well and graduating from diapers—traveling takes practice. You’ve got to train them to be good little jetsetters. Start young with little trips to get your system dialed, says Brian. By the time they’re ready for more ambitious expeditions, they’ll be ready—and so will you. “My kids are dialed,” says Brian. “They are traveling machines. They learned early, and now they’re a joy to be with.”
There’s a time and a place to limit screen time. Flying Coach to Buenes Aires isn’t one of them. Brian packs a portable DVD player, some movies, and an Ipod in his kids’ travel bag, along with healthy snacks. Never underestimate the power of “Finding Nemo” and fruit rollups to keep a kid quiet at 35,000 feet.
Pack Light and Well
Schlepping your stuff onboard may seem like a serious pain, but it forces you to pack light and it’s way less grief than arriving in Costa Rica to discover your bags are still in Houston. By the time Brian’s girls were four and six, they were rolling their own cartoon- and flower-themed suitcases through airports. Once they got older, he bought them serious wheeled duffles from Eagle Creek. To save space on clothes, he bucked up and bought them merino wool T-shirts and quick-dry layers that launder easily. “Buy good gear—it lasts and can be resold or passed down. If kids are dry and comfortable, they will be happy. It’s a small investment in your own sanity.”
Catch Some Sleep
Few things are as daunting as a cranky, jet-lagged preschooler. Many kids will naturally fight sleep on overstimulating flights, so Brian keeps a few tricks up his sleeve to encourage snoozing. “Our kids flew in pajamas if traveling in the appropriate time frame. I always like red-eye flights as kids sleep inevitably and it is easier to keep them on schedule. The additional flight savings can be put towards extending the trip! And once you land, exercise upon arrival is always a great way to tire the little ones out and get them on track.”
Put Them to Work
Get your older kids in on the pre-trip planning by designating them official researchers. Brian’s go-to sources: library books on the destination, good old Google, and Owl, a magazine for outdoorsy kids ages 9-13. “They get so excited for the trip that traveling becomes a means to end,” he says. Once you’re on the road, arm them with a cheap digital camera. “They love to take pictures on all aspects of the journey. They have a much different perspective and the pictures, although plentiful, are really cool.” Brian’s also set up a blog for his daughters so they can write and take photos to share. “They can post along the way or do it when they get home. For younger kids, a scrap book and glue stick may suffice.”
Reinforce Good Behavior
Practice “restaurant manners” before you leave. Says Brian, “This is constant brow-beating about what’s acceptable behavior: polite responses to servers, table manners, no lounging all over chairs and table. No running around the restaurant EVER. Tell them they’re practicing for their trip.” These standards became travel standards—and apply to adults, too. His one exception: “I let them ride the escalators—it’s a good way to kill time in an airport.”
It’s never too young to start the hard sell. As in: “Why would you want to see make-believe bears when you can see them in the wild, teaching their babies how to eat?” To find a family-friendly trip, look for salmon-fed rivers where spawning draws in abundant bruins, like Lake Chilkoe, British Columbia and Katmai and Pack Creek, British Columbia. ROAM’s 5-day Chilko Lake multisport trip combines grizzly-watching, fly-fishing, and whitewater rafting on the Chilko River; kids 6-12 receive a 50 percent discount off the $1995 trip cost.
Travel Less but Longer
Here’s the cruel irony of family adventures: you can expend as much energy prepping for a weekend getaway in the next state as you do for a two-week adventure on the next continent. (A recent day float on the Rio Grande practically destroyed us, while six days on the San Juan left us freakishly rejuvenated.) Buck the current trend toward short, sanity-zapping micro-trips and opt instead for one longer, more awesome expedition year. “The travel will be spread out and kids, like adults, need a few days to unwind and soak up the scenery. Go big or stay home,” says Brian, who makes the case that short getaways aren’t as environmentally sound. Short trips can be shockingly costly—especially if you’re flying—and never mind the boon to your emotional bottom line that extended wilderness trips can offer. “There’s huge value in remoteness.” Can’t argue with that.
Don’t Limit Yourself to “Family” Trips
In a perfect world, you’d sign up for a guided multisport trip in Ecuador and there’d be half a dozen other kids for yours to play with. But schedules and dates don’t always work for all families. Don’t let lack of little ones thwart your plans. “Your kids will love interacting with the guides and playing with Mother Nature,” says Brian. “Being on a trip with like-minded individuals is just as good as being with other kids.”
Resist the urge to overbook your adventure. “Type A parents may get carried away,” says Brian. “Allow lots of chill time in the first half of the trip and kids will build stamina.” Choose age-appropriate activities. “Pushing them to do things beyond their ability and comfort level will usually backfire and potentially hinder future experiences.” Example: Kids will have fun in Class II water if they are riding in an inflatable duckie, versus pushing them to participate in Class IV rafting. “Parents will have more fun if the kids are having fun. Worried parents are no fun to travel with!” Ahh, words to live by.