How to Travel With Small Children

We're smiling. Are we arriving or leaving?

We took the boys out of the country for vacation.

When you’re a parent and talk about family vacation, especially after the trip and to other parents, you always get this question, asked in a hushed voice, as if the person is asking after a sick relative.

“How were the boys?”

Then the sympathy face, as the asker braces for tales of melt downs and popped ears and crying and tantrums and a slim, young stewardess asking you off the plane.

We’ve taken other trips as a family. But this, the connecting-flight-leave-the-country-experience, was a first with both boys.

For me, childhood vacations were road trip affairs. We drove to Florida. To Washington DC. We drove around Lake Michigan one summer, stopping and staying at small towns along the way.

One summer, we drove to Las Vegas, with extended stops in Arizona and Texas. It felt like we would never get out of the car. There was a stretch where a butte sat on the horizon, beautiful craggy surface casting complex shadows in the sun. It never changed size. No matter how fast we drove, no mater how many hours my father drove, we never seemed to get any closer.

I’ve seen a lot of America. But that drive makes me never want to spend more than two hours straight in a car again. For better or worse, we travel by plane.

Some advice, if you find yourself facing a trip with small, dependent people. (So this can apply to either children or short friends who never seem able to do anything on their own.)

— Bring entertainment. My boys are always teaching me something. They reminded me how deathly boring air travel is. Reid, at least, can still pass out asleep pretty much anywhere. A lap. A bit of extra seat. The overhead luggage compartment. But how do you entertain a three-year old boy for three hours at a stretch? Simple. You load up episodes of Super Why on anything that will play video for you. It’s either that or you can put on puppet shows with air sickness bags. Which I did for a while. The bags were unused.

— Book enough time. Undeveloped countries as a vacation destination have their advantages. No giant resorts. Long, lonely stretches of beaches to walk down. They are also impossible to get to and require multiple flights. A day of travel is just that. A day of travel. By the second day, we were already thinking about tacking on a few extra days, which was impossible, since it was spring break and every flight in the country was booked solid. Lesson learned. Know how long you want to spend in advance.

— Bring a babysitter. We timed this trip to be down there at the same time as Lara’s parents. And they were more than willing to watch the boys a couple of times so L and I could go an enjoy dinner and drinks or a bike ride into town on our own. If this is not an option, we found duct taping the boys to chairs a fine, and safe, option.

— Drink. Find time to go out on one long bender with your partner. Lara and I hunkered down and drank 500 beers on a Sunday afternoon, listening to these two guys play cover songs all afternoon with the ocean over our shoulders. It reminded us what it was like when we were dating and how glad we are that we aren’t anymore, when we got up the next morning to make coffee and feed Reid.

Jack, turn around. Turn around. Turn around. The ocean is over there, buddy.

— Push past the “I don’t wanna.” Kids, being kids, default to wanting to do what they want to do. So things like taking a boat ride or hunting for lizards get an “I don’t waannna. I want to play with my toys.” Ignore it. By day three, Jack didn’t want to do any of those things and kept asking to find monkeys and take walks.

— Prepare for embarrassment. As we returned to our glorious bureaucracy, our layover in Dallas left us 50 minutes to clear customs, claim and recheck our bags and make the flight. I made a decision, as soon as we landed: we were all about forward momentum. Diaper changes. Drinks. Food. All these things could wait. Our goal was the gate, even though Jack clearly needed a change. But we had a plane to catch. While we’re snaking our slow way through customs, Jack starts to sing a song, a little ditty that went like this: “I got a poopy in my butt. I got a POOPY in my butt. I got a poopy in my BUTT!” He even did a little dance, involving bent elbows and knees and a kind of bouncing motion. Looks from fellow travelers alternated between, “That kid is hilarious” and “Those parents are horrible, horrible people.” But we made the plane, got Jack home and I will never see those people again.

Sometimes, I still find myself singing that song. It was catchy.

  89 comments for “How to Travel With Small Children

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    April 8, 2012 at 9:24 pm

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  2. Lori Martin
    April 9, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Love this post! We had a trip to Italy this past month and it was stressful at times, didn’t even think to bring a babysitter. Still trying to find a good one we like, any suggestions when looking for a sitter- not only for trips but everyday things as well! We’ve gone through about 5 within the past year..

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