Top Ten Tips For Traveling With Littles

I feel like Pinterest and the blogosphere are full of million point lists about how you should travel with kids. More often then not, they are hawking fancy gear that costs the earth and makes what is by nature an expensive endeavor, needlessly more expensive.

My top ten list has no fancy gear…ok, except a tablet or phone loaded up with distractions for little brains when you, the parent, need a little downtime from the precious ones. I’ll also say this list is geared toward kids age 4-8 or so. Travel with babies/young toddlers are a whole different ballgame, and the big kids have different needs as well, although some of these tips are applicable to smaller and bigger kids.

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  1. Take It Slow: We tend to be have the best luck with structured activities in the morning so we try to get out into the world early and then have a lazier afternoon. It is better to see two or three things that you really want to spend time exploring than to see ten things you rush through. I feel this way even when I’m traveling as an adult. Don’t stress about seeing everything. Too much “once in a lifetime” thinking gets you in trouble because you hurry from place to place without ever actually taking the time to linger and you don’t end up enjoying your time. On our second trip to Rome we booked an Airbnb right by the Trevi Fountain. One of my favorite memories was waking up early with Lu and “sneaking” out to see the fountain by ourselves at 6:30. Besides the shop keepers tidying their shops for another day of business, Lu and I had the place to ourselves. We spent forty-five minutes really looking at each part of the fountain and making up stories using the cast of characters presiding over the blue water.

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2: Plan For Down Days: Even the most flexible child (and adult!) needs a break now and then. Build those days into the itinerary and protect them. If you think you could cover Paris in three days without kids, plan for five days with kids. I’ve really come to love the days when we have no set schedule or place to be. Often Andy and I give each other some alone time so we have a chance to recharge and explore (and take photos) at our own speed.

3. Wander Out of the City: Small Towns and Villages are your friend, especially in Europe. This past summer we really wanted to travel a bit more but between the heat and being a little worn out from a very travel heavy Spring, we chose to visit a small town. It was lovely to just wander the pedestrian friendly streets letting Lucy roam and explore her idependance. She would wander and check out fountains or just wait for us outside of shops, something that wouldn’t happen in the city. There is only so much to see in a village so it forces you to take your time and experience a bit more deeply.

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4. Include Kids In Your Research: This one is key, I think. I like to get some reading material or watch some travel shows with Lu before we head out to a new destination. I’m always surprised at how much she remembers when we arrive at our destination. We watched Anthony Bourdain eat his way through Rome on his Layover show and so Lu knew exactly what she wanted to try when it came time pick a restaurant. We watched Mimi and Alex Ikonn wander through Positano on their You Tube channel, so she was ready for the rocky beaches and sea glass hunting when we arrived. We check out museum webpages and do flyover tours of cities in apple maps to get excited about all the lovely things we are going to see.

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5. Be a Minimalist: There are a million things that you can buy to make your life “easier.” But purchasing the whole of the sky mall catalog is not going to make your life easier. In reality, it’s just going to give you more crap to lug around and leave you with less money for gelato. Don’t let this happen. I try to hit up places like the Target dollar bin and get a few cheap gifts to wrap up and pull out in a pinch, but really, when Lu is in a state of travel unravel, what she really needs is my attention, creativity, and comfort. Those things are free. Make up a story together taking cues from what you can see, hear, smell, and touch. Count as heigh as you can. Draw a picture or write about your favorite part of the trip. Have that third gelato of the day. You can afford it! You didn’t buy all that expensive crap the internets told you to buy! This is also a good time to pull out that ipad loaded up with favorite games and cartoons. Do what you gotta do.

6. Study The Map Ahead of Time: Look for parks, open space, playgrounds near where you’ll be seeing the sights. I make notecards by neighborhood when we are planning a big city venture. In Trastavere? Great. Here are three coffee shops, two playgrounds, and a deli where we can pick up something to eat on our way to see the pretty church.

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7. Make Navigation and Transport Part of the Fun: I always pick up an extra map for Lu if I can so she can “help” us navigate the city. It’s never too early to start building map skills. My dad always kept a giant Atlas in our cars while I was growing up and I would stare at them for hours on road trips. He taught me how to know if a highway runs east-west or north-south when I was seven. It’s a valuable skill. I also like to give Lu some options if there are no pressing time constraints. If we can take a train, boat, or bus to get where we’re going, I like to give her the facts and see what she chooses (spoiler: if boat is on the list, the choice is always boat). Our first few trips to DC and Chicago when she was really young, riding the metro was just as much of an event as anything we saw, so take your time and enjoy the journey.

8. Make a Plan For Separation: This one is huge. Sometimes metros are bursting with people and there are times when things go awry. Make a plan. Get off at the next stop. Find a bench. Find a police officer or a mother with children. Sit and wait. Don’t panic. It’s easy to overlook, or avoid talking about it because you don’t want to scare your child, but it’s necessary. If you have a little one, write your phone number or email address on the tags of clothing or have a card you keep clipped to a jacket or in a secure pocket with your information.

9. Bring Notebooks And Journaling Materials:  I visited the Met in my early twenties, long before Lucy and Andy were a part of my life and I saw a mother making her way through the Egyptian art with four kids. Each child had a large drawing pad and a pencil and were busy at work sketching their observations. We have tried this with Lucy at museums that have less interactive displays and she responds so well. Museums suddenly become inspiration and not just a boring slog through some old stuff. These materials can also help to quiet overstimulated minds while you take a little coffee break.

10. Always, Always, Always Have Snacks: This is a cardinal rule of parenthood in general. Low blood sugar is never your friend. Nuff said ;).

Small Rant: It really irritates me when I hear someone say that a city isn’t “kid friendly” or there is “nothing for children to do” in a particular place. Chances are, the people living in these cities have children and they do things. Caveat: We’re not talking about safety here, that’s different. Now is not a good time to hop on a plane to Mosul with your little ones in tow. I get that. But a city doesn’t need a plethora of activities designed specifically with kids in mind in order to be fun to explore with children. Flexing your parenting muscles and figuring out how you can engage your child along the course of your travels is good for both of you.

So what tips make your top ten list? What did I leave out?

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