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Post-Pandemic Travel Advice for Families With Kids

Planning and patience make the secret sauce.

Key points

  • Traveling with young children can be a challenge, but the adventure can stretch and enrich a family's mental life.
  • Family trips provide a memorable and educational experience.
  • If you plan ahead, manage expectations, and pack appropriately, you can improve the odds of a successful family trip.

Sam’s grandfather turns 60 this summer and wants his extended family to gather at the lake where he summered as a boy. It is halfway across the country, meaning Sam would be taking his first plane ride, about which he is ecstatic. He is also excited to meet a two-year-old cousin for the first time.

"I love babies!"

His mother cautioned, "Sam, Ben’s parents aren’t sure they want to put him on a plane. Toddlers aren’t the best travelers."

Sam asked, "What about when I was one?"

Sam's dad said, "It was Covid time when you were that age, so we didn’t go anywhere. That’s why I want to go now, for sure."

Sam noticed his mom gave his dad a look he didn’t quite understand. But you, the reader, probably do. Traveling with young children is typically more adventure than vacation, and R&R are rarely in the cards. So why do it?

The downsides to traveling with young children: money and flexibility can be tight, pandemic cautions linger, things don’t always go as planned, parents often return home as tired – or more – as when they left, and what will little kids remember anyway?

The upsides to traveling with small children: novelty at the edge of the comfort zone is brain food at any age, adventure enriches everyone’s mental life, mom and dad are not working and are occasionally even laid back, watching how adults handle the unexpected (or not) are lessons in problem-solving, not everybody talks or acts the way one’s family does, learning the ins and outs of travel early can make life more of an ongoing adventure (even if particular itineraries are forgotten), and travel is an important reminder that there is a lot of life beyond the little blue screens.

To improve the odds of successful family travel with little ones:

  • Manage expectations up front. If the family needs R&R, pick one novel destination without flights and enough infrastructure to support the needs of your children’s particular age (safe surroundings, available food, space to collapse when enough is enough). If activities are planned, discard half of them. Everything takes twice as long with kids, so limit disappointment. For older kids, ramp up the adventure component.
  • Consider the age of the children, but don’t let it be the deciding factor. When you want to and can start, that is a good time to go. True, fussy and squirming 9- to 12-month-olds are not pleasant companions, especially on long flights. But 18- to 24-month-olds surf a tsunami of curiosity that can be wondrous to behold and occasionally exhausting to them (and you). Expect delight and lots of chasing. Three- to 5-year-olds can carry their own gear, understand more of what’s happening, and tell you what they need. After 4 to 5 years of age, actual events get remembered. For my money, 7 to 11 years old is the golden age of family travel, especially if they have traveled when younger. Warning: When planning travel, your child’s temperament (easy, fussy, difficult) trumps age range as a predictor of success.
  • Pack appropriately. Bring juice/water/snacks (no sugar), simple toys, books, and maybe a tablet to help them manage the unfamiliar disruptions inherent in travel and give you moments to b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

Disclosure: Before my teens, I remember more about the road trips I took with my family than what I learned in elementary or middle school. I learned things about myself, my family, our values compared to those of others, the inspiring power of nature, and how the world works beyond my yard. Decades later, these early learnings still influence my daily life as a physician, dad, grandfather, and teacher. A better return on investment is hard to imagine.

More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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