Traveling with Kids: It Isn’t All Bad (plus 7 tips to keep it that way)
I apologize for my long absence from the blog. It’s been a busy couple of months. We finally bought a house, and with the help of many friends, got moved to our new home. Then the projects began – and continue. Summer school term wrapped up, and I’m prepping for fall term to begin in a couple of weeks. My book is coming along slowly what with all of the above. The blog has been completely neglected.
But I need to get back here. It’s like running and yoga for me; once I get out of the habit of lacing up my shoes or rolling out my mat or actually hitting “publish” on a blog post, these things I love seem to get a bit harder to do. So today, I thought I’d share my latest installment of Things I’ve Learned About Traveling with Children. (Follow the links to previous installments on traveling with babies and toddlers).
Last week, Cee and I traveled together to Kentucky, where I grew up. It was a last-minute trip, tickets booked just days before our flight. Husband was working and couldn’t leave on such short notice. The reason for our trip was bittersweet. A dear friend died unexpectedly, and we went to mourn her loss and celebrate her life. Despite the sadness, it was a special trip with Cee. It was her first visit to Kentucky, so she met (and vice versa) lots of old friends, many of whom now have kids of their own. (I no longer have immediate family in Kentucky, so we don’t visit there often.) Together, we explored the little house where I grew up, touched the grave of my father, and splashed in the creek where I spent the summers. My mom and my brother also came, so it was full reunion of family and friends.
Something else made this trip special: Cee was an absolute joy as a travel companion. Until this trip, travel always felt like a scary limbo – so long as we were in airports or on planes, until we had a bed and a home base, I carried the knowledge that everything might fall apart at any moment. There could be a poop explosion on the plane or projectile vomit upon landing. My bare boobs might fly out of my shirt as my nursing baby squirmed, the two of us wedged in the middle seat between two strange men.There could be two hours of inconsolable crying on a fully booked red eye from Oregon to New York. I say this because all of these things have happened over the last few years of traveling with Cee. We’re experienced travelers, we know the tricks, and we roll with the punches when things get messy. And they usually do, so I don’t much look forward to traveling.
But now… Cee is potty trained, so no poop explosions (although she did wear a pull-up while we were flying, just in case). She can now tell me when she feels nauseous, so we had plenty of time to get out the little complimentary motion sickness bag. And she’s weaned, so no need to lift my shirt. She sleeps when she’s tired, avoiding that dangerous over-tired state. Cee is two, but when people ask how old she is, I now feel the need to add that she’ll be three in November. Especially after this trip, she doesn’t feel like a toddler anymore.
Travel is always an extreme break from routine, and we know how kids need their routines. Such a break from routine with an infant can be a near-crisis situation, and travel is all about survival. With toddlers, the loss of predictability tends to put their worst behavior on display. But with my almost preschooler, a break in routine is now an exciting adventure. And she was up for it.
She was thrilled to point out that we parked our car in section C (“That’s like my name!”), even as we ran through the rain lugging suitcase, car seat, and backpack. She was proud to be in charge of our baggie of liquids as we went through security. She relished every escalator ride (“I yuv escayators!”). She studied the safety guide intently, while I tried to downplay the chances that we would actually need to use our seat cushions as flotation devices. She watched the bags travel up the conveyor belt into the plane and marveled at the changing colors of the sky.
The truth is, things did sort of fall apart for us on this trip, but we held it together. A lightning storm delayed our first flight, and we missed a connection in Denver. At 7 PM, I stood at the customer service counter as the representative explained that we’d need to find a hotel room (at our expense) and catch tomorrow’s flight to Cincinnati, which would get us there at 3 PM.
“I’m trying to make a 2 PM memorial service an hour and a half away from the airport,” I said. “Is there anything else you can do?”
She clicked away on her computer with determination. (At this point, I could tell we’d landed a good customer service rep.) Finally, she had a solution. “You’re gonna think I’m crazy,” she said. And she was. She suggested that we keep flying that night, around the country: Denver to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake to Charlotte on the red-eye, and Charlotte to Cincinnati, with a two-hour layover at each stop, arriving in Cincinnati at 9 AM the next day. I looked down at Cee, who was entertaining herself by emptying the contents of our backpack on the floor next to my feet. I didn’t know how she would handle flying all night, but it would get us there in time. “We’ll take it,” I said.
Let me say that the last time we did a red-eye flight with Cee, more than a year ago, she didn’t sleep AT ALL, and neither did many of our neighbors on the plane. And there were two parents on that flight, Husband taking more than his fair share of baby bouncing. Here I was embarking on an overnight journey without his help, and with no mental preparation for Cee. I hadn’t even brought a blanket. Crazy, for sure.
But guess what? We did it. Before our plane left the ground in Salt Lake City, Cee laid her head in my lap, unprompted, and fell asleep. I carried her off the plane in Charlotte and found a rocking chair to sit in until the next flight. She slept until we landed in Cincinnati. I didn’t sleep, but one of us sleeping is far and away better than neither of us sleeping.
I’m really excited about this new world of traveling with Cee. And after our trip, I sat down to reflect on what worked well and what I’ll try to improve on for the next trip (which is coming up all too soon – we’re flying again this week!).
1. Build up your trip as a grand adventure together. As I was preparing for this trip, a friend mentioned to me that traveling with her 3-year-old has been easy lately, because it has become their special time together. That totally changed the way I approached the trip. I started telling Cee about our special trip, just the two of us, and we both built up some positive anticipation for traveling together.
2. Talk through all the details of the trip. Kids this age are still very much living in the present and have a limited ability to think about the scale of time into the future, so talking about the process is just as important as talking about the destination. Before this trip, I had spent lots of time talking about the people and places we would visit in Kentucky (including a friend’s farm), and I had told her that we would fly on an airplane to get there. When we landed in Denver, after the first leg of our trip, Cee looked around the airport and asked me where our Kentucky friends were and when we would see the cow. I had neglected to tell her that we would actually fly on two planes, and of course, I had no idea that it would take us four flights to get there. Next time, I’ll prepare her for every step of the trip, as much as possible.
3. Pack a new toy or two and some tried and true books. I started the tradition of buying a couple of small new toys (or borrowing them from a friend) for long trips when Cee was a baby. On previous trips, I have sometimes been organized enough to wrap them up in tissue paper and ribbon, which adds to the excitement. This time, I brought this lacing pony by Hape, which was a huge hit. When Cee got tired of playing with the pony, she made a necklace out of the beads. For books, I brought a few of our favorites in paperback, because I think familiar books help make the bedtime routine more comforting in a strange place. This was also our first trip when a coloring book, colored pencils, and a sticker book proved to be highly entertaining.
4. Bring technology, but don’t count on it. Cee really doesn’t watch TV or videos at home, and we only use iPad apps occasionally, but I have no qualms with taking full advantage of technology during travel. I downloaded a full episode of Sesame Street for this trip, but Cee watched all of 3 minutes of it before asking for something else to do. Part of this, I recognize, is that Cee doesn’t have much practice sitting still to watch a video. She does enjoy interactive apps, though. Her favorite apps on this trip were Toca Doctor, Monkey Preschool Lunchbox, Trucks HD (by Duck Duck Moose), and Shape Builder Lite (this one, which is incredible simple and FREE, is actually Cee’s favorite right now).
5. Run off steam in the airport. Sitting still for hours in a small space is hard for people of all ages, and running is good for kids and grownups alike. Once I knew we would be on a red-eye, Cee and I ran up and down the airport terminal until it was time to board. This is actually really fun late at night, when the airport is nearly empty. And I think it helped Cee look at the seat on our red-eye flight and see a good place to rest rather than play.
6. Have a plan for carrying your kid if needed. Cee can walk at a reasonable pace and for a reasonable distance now, and in the interest of packing light, I contemplated leaving my Ergo carrier at home for this trip. I’m so glad I brought it. It was essential for carrying Cee on and off the plane when she was sleeping, while also lugging my backpack and keeping my hands free for paying for coffee or using the bathroom (this is really important when you’re traveling solo for 20 hours!). I’ve never used a stroller for travel, but I’m sure this works well, too. Just be sure you have something, especially if it is just you and kiddo.
7. Use light/dark cues to set sleep expectations. Travel means disrupted routines and often time zone changes as well. On this trip, I kept it simple and told Cee that we’d go to sleep when it got dark (if not before). In Kentucky, I worried about putting Cee to bed too early (8 PM in Kentucky is just 5 PM in Oregon). But travel is tiring, and Cee accepted that nighttime meant sleep. I told her the same thing when she came into my room at 4 AM on our first morning back home. She climbed into bed with me and snuggled until 6:30, when she pointed out that it was getting light outside. After a few days, we were back to our usual schedule. If day length or latitude mean that nightfall is way too late for bedtime, use blankets to darken the bedroom to maximize your chances of good sleep. Travel is more fun when your child is well-rested!
How has travel changed for you as your baby has grown? What tips do you have for the preschooler set? (And parents of babies and toddlers: take heart. It truly does get easier.)