18 Jun Family Travel — Love It or Dread It? Here’s The Ultimate Guide!
By Tatiana Reznichenko
Family travel — love it or dread it? Here are the best do’s and don’ts of family travel! It’s no secret that traveling with kids, especially little ones, can range anywhere from being a hassle to your worst vomit-splattered nightmare. So why would anyone ever do it? Expensive toys will only give your kids fleeting pleasure before they break or get tossed aside. So why not give them an enriching experience instead that will last long beyond the actual trip? It also turns out that family travel might make your child smarter! Finally, your kids will only catch the travel bug if they actually travel! So brace yourselves, fellow parents, it’s going to be a bumpy ride! This handy guide was born out of painful experience and multiple kid-related travel disasters. Commit it to memory and your travel adventures with your future little jet-setters will be far less miserable and more rewarding. Because, ultimately, the alternative is staying home and missing out, and how boring is that?
My Favorite Family Travel Tips!
1. Don’t wait until they’re older
The most common excuse I hear for skipping out on family travel is that kids won’t remember it anyway. That may be true for babies, but that means their parents are missing out too! The golden age of family travel is birth to age 2, simply because under 2’s travel almost free of charge on planes if they sit on your lap and don’t get their own seat (technically, it’s only 10% of the base fare). Once you celebrate your kid’s second birthday, your flight budget shoots up overnight by 50% because you’re now paying a full child fare, which is usually 90% of an adult fare.
Most hotels provide cribs free of charge, so you’re not paying for a bigger room or an extra bed yet. Money issues aside, while they may not realize it, babies and toddlers are getting valuable training. It will help turn them into expert travelers by the time they’re old enough to get their own seats!
2. Do give your little nomad a map
To prepare your little one for a trip, show them where you’ll be going on a map. Later, it’ll also help them learn geography. One of my daughter’s favorite 4th birthday gifts is a cheap €5 globe. Now, whenever we travel, we trace our itinerary on it, and she can still find the countries months later. Nothing melts this parent’s heart more than when my pre-schooler correctly pronounces and then finds Lanzarote on a map!
3. Don’t overpack
Airlines generally allow you to take up to 2 pieces of baby gear for under 2’s. But, my advice would be to take as little as you can get away with. Juggling heavy luggage and gear becomes very tricky when at least one hand is taken up by holding some part of your child, or you’re chasing after an unruly toddler. As I’ve mentioned above, most hotels will provide you with a folding travel crib. Trade in the stroller for an Ergobaby or the like. Suddenly, you’re free to explore the uneven terrain, climb winding stairs in hilly cities like Lisbon or Paris, or you can even take a nature hike. Children tend to get filthy very quickly with food and outdoor play. You can never pack enough clothes, which is why we don’t even bother. We plan on doing at least one wash while we’re away.
If traveling with a baby, pack sufficient diapers and food to last the entire trip, unless you’re going to a large cosmopolitan city. Diapers cost a fortune in remote locales (or on Greek islands, as we learned to our dismay). Bring enough baby food as your baby may not like local tastes. Best of all, by the end of your trip, you’ll have plenty of room in your suitcase for souvenirs and impulse buys!
4. Do break up the trip
Long flights are hard on everyone, especially kids. Break up your itinerary into segments to ease everyone’s discomfort and save you money:
- Train + plane
Flights out of some cities, like Paris, are often frustratingly pricier than from nearby cities, like Brussels. One way to remedy that, especially in Europe, where distances are short, is to take the train to the cheaper city. This works the other way around too, if you’re flying to Europe. You can spend the night in the cheaper city and explore it as well.
- Traditional carrier + low cost airline
A lot of people have Australia on their bucket list, but it often remains a pipe dream due to the prohibitively high cost of getting there. But here’s a secret: Australia instantly becomes more affordable if you fly to Asia first, and then take a high-quality, low-cost carrier like AirAsia the rest of the way! Do spend several days in your Asian destination to take in the rich culture and delicious cuisine. Plus it’ll take the sting out of jet lag!
- Free stopovers
Some airlines, most famously Icelandair, allow you to make a free multi-day stopover in their hub city. Not only will this give you a bonus city to explore and a few days to recharge everyone’s batteries after a flight, but, according to Flystein’s comprehensive stopover guide, it could also save you money!
5. Don’t neglect nap time
An airplane may be the most unnatural environment for a child. Children don’t voluntarily sit still unless they’re unconscious parked in front of a screen. The best way to achieve the former is to plan your flight (or any travel, really — car, bus, and train trips too) to coincide with nap time or take a red-eye flight. Your child will tire out eventually. And, this will spare you the real or imagined dirty looks from other passengers when your child throws a tantrum because she can’t run around freely.
6. Do choose your seats strategically
The most family travel and kid-friendly seats on the plane are bulkhead seats, or the seats situated just after a dividing wall between cabins. Although they’re not nearly as cool as BA’s vintage baby hammocks that hang off the luggage rack, bulkhead seats typically have some sort of bassinet attachment for babies, so they can sleep somewhere other than on top of you. Height and weight restrictions do vary by airline. But even if your child is too big to fit in the crib, make a blanket fort, and she will happily play on the extra floor space. Their position directly behind a wall also ensures that your child is prevented from disturbing other passengers, by kicking the seat in front of her. The prospect of extra legroom means competition for bulkhead seats is fierce, and not just from other families. Make sure you snatch them up as soon as they become available, and by any means necessary. Do call the airline preemptively, and tell them how soundly your baby will sleep if they grant you the coveted bulkhead seats.
But, if you strike out with bulkhead seats, here’s a trick to score an extra seat so your lap kid won’t have to sit on your lap for the entire flight. During online check-in, choose the window seat for one parent and the aisle seat for the other, leaving the cramped middle seat free. There is no guarantee this will work but, if the flight isn’t completely full, people will generally avoid the dreaded middle seat.
7. Don’t forget to claim frequent flyer miles for your kids
Sign your kids up for frequent flyer mile accounts. Or, better yet, sign the whole family up for a household account. The latter is the ultimate way to rack up miles quickly from your family travel because miles are funneled into a single account. We have one at British Airways’s Executive Club, but there are other airlines that also let you pool your family’s hard-earned miles.
8. Do your research on airport facilities
While airplanes aren’t at all kid-friendly, airports, perhaps counter-intuitively, can be. Most airports will have a changing table in every bathroom and an indoor playground somewhere in the terminal. Head directly to the play area after check-in to tire your kids out so that they sleep soundly on the plane. Some airports go the extra mile when it comes to family travel and kids. Singapore’s legendary Changi airport is home to the country’s tallest slide. Emirates provides free strollers to transiting passengers at their hub in Dubai. Always check the airport’s website before you fly. You never know what fun surprises await you!
9. Don’t try to do everything
Perhaps the biggest life change that comes with parenthood is your relationship with time. Simple things like leaving the house that once took no time at all, now take what seems like an eternity. The same goes for family travel. Kids, as a rule, don’t like to be rushed. They need time to adjust to a new place and a new routine, not to mention, need to get over jet lag. So unless you want grumpy kids ruining everyone’s fun, slow down and manage your expectations. You may not be able to hit all the sights. But in sacrificing breadth, you may get to know a place in greater depth by focusing on a particular neighborhood. One of my favorite trips with my kid was a long weekend in London last year. We stayed within walking distance of St. Pancras station and explored that part of the city completely on foot. Who knew there was a hidden nature reserve smack in the middle of the city?
10. Do split up
Have you ever traveled with a bunch of friends who all wanted to do different things? I find family travel to be not much different in some respects. Kids and adults often have vastly different ideas of fun. One solution is to split up from time to time – one parent hangs out with the kids while the other does self-indulgent adult things like going to an exhibition or browsing in a bookstore for longer than 5 minutes. While the point of family travel is to spend quality time together, it may be a good idea for some of us to take an occasional break. Otherwise, you’ll need another vacation when you get home!
11. Don’t book your long-haul flight before consulting Flystein.com
The second most common excuse for avoiding family travel is that it’s just too expensive. The fact that air travel becomes less affordable once you start paying for tickets other than your own is undoubtedly true. But that just means you have to get creative. That’s where Flystein‘s highly resourceful travel hacking experts can help. Send them the lowest fare you’ve managed to find, and they’ll work hard to beat it using their secret industry know-how, proprietary technology, and expert travel hacking tricks. In my case, I thought I’d done a pretty good job in finding a round-trip flight from Geneva to Singapore last summer for €570, but Flystein managed to shave nearly €100 off, and the new flights were actually at much more convenient times. That may not seem like a whole lot at first glance, but multiplied by the number of family members traveling, it was like getting more than 50% off our daughter’s ticket! Try them out, it’s risk-free!
Tatiana Reznichenko is a linguist, explorer, and international woman of mystery. Her 4-year old daughter has been to 15 countries and taken a total of 45 flights, and counting! For more of her travel secrets, check out Traveling Fox Hacks.