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The Family Travel Tips I Wish I’d Known Sooner, According To 12 Dads

Whether you’re a new parent or an experienced one, there’s advice here that can make the journey a little smoother.

Originally Published: 
Family in swimsuits taking a selfie on the edge of a pool

Traveling with little kids can be one of the most rewarding experiences of parenthood. Family adventures add much to the fabric. But, hoo boy, can it also be a struggle if you’re not prepared. Trusted routines are tossed out the window. Meltdowns are more likely. Everything takes longer and requires more effort. Rookie parents learn how to adapt to the new travel normal — and quickly understand the difference between a “vacation” and a “family trip.” But there are plenty of mistakes learned along the way, from taking a child on a big vacation they likely won’t remember to thinking your regular house rules will apply on the road.

Hey, you live and you learn. It’s how the game works. But it’s also something that can be used to your advantage, as learning about some mistakes or realizations from parents who’ve been there can make traveling with kids a bit easier — or at least rearrange your expectations a bit. That’s why we asked a dozen dads about what they wish they knew about traveling with little kids a bit sooner. Take note of the advice they shared — advice that they arrived at through a lot of trial and error and tantrums. Whether you’re a new parent or an experienced one, there’s something here that can make the journey a little smoother. And, oh yeah, always pack yourself extra clothes.

1. Realize What Your Kids Will Remember

“Taking a 2-year-old to Disneyland is a waste of money. We did that and, not only was it incredibly stressful, years later our son barely remembers any of it. Despite our best intentions, it ended up as just this ridiculously expensive sensory overload. In fact, he would’ve been just as happy going to a local fair, or a nice park, which would’ve cost much, much less and prevented plenty of gray hairs. We were naive as first-time parents, and just wanted to give our son everything. We went way, way overboard. What we didn’t realize was that we were swimming upstream and that all the time and money we spent trying to make wonderful memories could’ve been spent just being together anywhere.” - Nick, 42, North Carolina

2. Don’t Compromise Their Sleep Schedule

“I’m a father of four young kids and one thing I wish I had known sooner about traveling with them is how important it is to prioritize their sleep schedule. On one particularly terrible trip we took, we had a long flight and arrived at our destination late at night. We assumed our kids would be able to adjust to the new time zone easily, but they ended up being incredibly cranky and difficult to deal with the entire trip. Looking back, I wish we had made an effort to stick to their usual sleep schedule as much as possible, even if it meant adjusting our own schedules a bit. This would have helped them feel more rested and comfortable during the trip, which would have made everything much easier for all of us.” - Dustin, 42, Illinois

3. Let Them Watch Whatever They Want

“Obviously with respect to appropriateness. But what I’ve learned — that I wish I’d learned sooner — is that it’s okay to use a screen as a babysitter when you’re traveling. In fact, it’s probably one of the only hacks that have kept my wife and I sane on long drives or flights. We don’t rely on screen time at home that much, and we thought we could translate that to our family trips. But we learned that, no matter what games or snacks you pack, there just isn’t a ton of stimulation in a van or a coach seat. So we decided that letting them zone out with cartoons and movies on the trip is okay. And since doing that, we’ve been able to arrive wherever we’re going a lot less stressed.” - Michael, 43, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

4. Bring Spare Clothes

“It was still later than I would’ve liked, but I learned pretty quickly that in addition to all of the normal clothes you pack for a trip, you have to bring at least two extra emergency outfits. When you pack a weekend’s worth of clothes for a simple road trip, you don’t count on getting as messy as you will. On our first family trip, I had to change three times the first day, and then wash my clothes in the sink at the hotel. Like a bonehead, I thought it was a fluke. But, sure enough, the following trip was just as bad. I thought I’d smartened up and packed one extra outfit for the next one, and even that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until I started bringing two extra shirts and two extra pairs of pants that I finally found myself able to stay dressed and comfy for the whole trip. I’m sure the exact number of extra outfits will vary from dad to dad, but my advice is to play it safe and overpack until you find your sweet spot.” - Josh, 44, Pennsylvania

5. Take Baby Steps Before That First Big Trip

“Our first trip with the kids was a nightmare. It was an exhausting experience, to say the least, even though it was a relatively short trip. There was a lot of attention-grabbing from both of them, and my wife and I struggled. The kids seemed like they felt trapped. They had all of this energy, and didn’t know what to do with it. So, if I could do things over, I would start by taking the kids on smaller trips before even thinking about going anywhere else. Maybe from our neighborhood to a park nearby, to start. Then building up to places a little further away from home. In that time, you can learn about your kids as much as possible so their travel habits won’t be a big surprise all at once later.” - Marty, 43, British Columbia, Canada

6. All Hotels Are Not Created Equal

“There was a time without kids when the cheapest hotel would do. But when traveling with kids, a little extra spent at the right hotel is worth its weight in gold. Amenities like playground areas, game rooms, and pools have become no-brainers when booking now. An on-premise restaurant or the quality of the continental breakfast is a huge factor, because it’s amazing how a waffle maker with the right toppings can really set the tone right for my kid’s day. Another big value add is the availability of a suite with bedrooms and/or a small kitchen. Places like Marriott’s Residence Inn or TownePlace Suites provide us with a little extra privacy and increased functionality in these two areas. I’ve learned that being able to prepare some snacks or a small meal while giving the kids their own area goes a long way in keeping the stress levels down and making any trip more enjoyable.” - Rob, 45, Massachusetts

7. It’s As Much Work As It Is Fun

“When we first started traveling with kids, it was all work. Maybe not all work, but the majority of the time my wife and I were just trying to keep everyone safe. We tried to enjoy it as much as we could, but we’re both pretty neurotic. So, every activity was overshadowed by handwashing, constantly keeping tabs on where everyone was, and trying to keep the peace. But, when our kids got older, traveling became much, much easier and, believe it or not, almost entirely fun. I wish I would’ve known that all the work we put in up front would pay off in the sense of clear expectations for our family trips down the road. It may sound backwards, but now that our kids are teenagers we worry a lot less when we travel. They depend on us and we depend on them. Traveling is definitely more of a team sport when they get older.” - Tom, 46, Ohio

8. You’re All Explorers

“This was a piece of advice I heard recently that changed my mindset when traveling with kids. Before, I used to look at each part of each trip like a goal or an objective. We made it to the airport — check. We made it to the hotel — check. It was just a giant list of things that needed to be done, rather than things we could do. What I mean by that is that the final destination doesn’t have to be the only fun part of the trip. If you adopt the mindset of an explorer from the moment you leave your house, your kids will buy into the idea that the whole trip is a fun adventure. Not only will that make things more smooth, but you’ll create these fun little memories where you never thought you could.” - Evan, 39, Indiana

9. Stops Will Take Twice As Long

“Remember how when it was just you or you and your wife road-tripping somewhere? And you could just pull off the highway, hop out, get gas, go to the bathroom, grab a snack, and get back on the road in like five minutes? Kids are the ultimate monkey wrench to that routine. I didn’t realize — and was never told — how much time would be eaten up by all of the little tasks like unhooking the car seat, shepherding everyone into the restroom, washing hands, waiting out tantrums when they want candy instead of a granola bar, and so on. Flying isn’t that bad, when you’re in the air. The plane gets there in the same amount of time. But then there’s baggage claim where you have to wait for an extra suitcase. Or an extra trip to the bathroom to change a diaper. It sounds like I’m pissing and moaning, but it’s really more just me being awestruck by how much time all of this stuff takes. When you do it at home, it’s part of a routine. When you travel, it really eats up a lot of clock.” - Marc, 40, California

10. Home Rules ≠ Travel Rules

“You can’t plan on enforcing the same rules on a trip that you do at home. Home is your kingdom. You know everything about it. But when you travel, you’re literally a tourist in an unfamiliar place. You can’t plan to send a kid to timeout while driving in the car, or on an airplane. You just can’t. Sometimes you just have to let things go, and pick your battles when it comes to rules. Should your kids run roughshod wherever you are? No, of course not. But I think it would’ve benefitted me to know early on that a big part of traveling with kids is just surviving. To do that, you have to call a lot of audibles and go with the flow. It’s like Jungle Law in a minivan.” - Derek, 41, Florida

11. You’re Not Special

“Meaning: Don’t expect people to bend over backwards to help you just because you’re traveling with children. As nice as it would be for people to let you cut in line, or switch seats on a plane, or give up a booth at a restaurant, you can’t count on it just because you have kids. And that’s not a knock on humanity, it’s just a reality check. People have probably had experiences with traveling kids before, either because they’ve encountered families doing it, or they’ve done it themselves. And, sure, you might find a few sympathetic onlookers while your tired child is having a tantrum, but nobody needs to help you get things under control. As the parent, that’s your job. And, again, it doesn’t mean people are rude, or even judgmental, it just means that your kids are the center of your universe, not the universe of the people you’re sharing a plane, rest stop, or restaurant with.” - David, 35, West Virginia

12. Rent A Car

“When you travel with family, it’s nice to have a family vehicle. The gospel of Clark Griswold and the Family Truckster was not lost on me when we started taking our kids on road trips. The actual trips themselves were usually fine. Our kids loved being in the car. They actually got along — for the most part. But what I didn’t realize was that our minivan was taking a much bigger beating than I anticipated. We only had it for five years, and ended up putting thousands and thousands of miles on it thanks to trips. That translated to repair costs and, eventually, having to get a new car way, way sooner than we should have. After that happened, we ran the numbers for renting and decided that it would be better to leave our home cars at home, and put the miles on something else. The kids actually love it, because every trip gets them a ride in something new.” - Bradley, 48, Minnesota

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