I recently returned from a trip that many warned me against taking. I was four months pregnant when I Ieft, five when I returned and I journeyed with my almost two year old as my only companion. I had always wanted to visit Italy, and now there was the added pull of a dear friend of mine who had married an Italian man and settled there with him and their precious son.
I had begun to think of taking one last trip before my daughter officially turned two and required an expensive airline ticket of her own, and the more I thought about taking one last adventure with her as an only child, the more the idea stuck in my head. Soon we would be a family of four, she would be a full-fledged toddler, and life would be quite different. So, despite warnings that I would be horribly uncomfortable and it would be difficult on my own, I decided we would take the trip. Twenty-six or so hours and eight thousand some odd miles later, we were there. I was uncomfortable at times, and it was indeed difficult at times, but I’m so glad we went for it anyway. Along the way I learned some lessons that I’m sure will help me on future trips. Hopefully they’re helpful to you, too!
Keep plans flexible
Some children have an easy time traveling, and seem to adjust to all of the changes along the way without a thought. Others will feel very unsettled between their new environment, the change in routine, and the number of new people they encounter. The way a child responds at one age does not necessarily indicate that they’ll always handle travel in the same way. Building a few ‘no agenda’ days into your schedule and a bit of down time into each day will give you the chance to respond to your children’s needs and keep the stress level low. You may find that you don’t have as much energy as you expect either! You can always add or subtract activities as you go along. Don’t forget to pack plenty of snacks either – no one is at their best when they’re hungry!
Prepare special activities for planes, trains, and car rides
For many parents traveling with young children especially, time in transit can be the most difficult part of a trip. Having a few things on hand to keep your children engaged, relaxed, and generally content will make all the difference. Many recommend movies, whether on a portable dvd player, laptop, or tablet, and kid-friendly apps on a smartphone. There are plenty of low-tech options as well, and your knowledge of your child is probably the best resource for helping you come up with a few. For my two year old specifically, art supplies – especially stickers, books, and snacks were sources of endless entertainment. You can see details on exactly what we packed for our long journey here.
Look for family friendly accommodations
There are many options, of course, when it comes to places to stay while traveling. If you can bunk with family or close friends, you’ll have a chance to enjoy their company while saving your pennies, and this is great. If you’re staying with families who have children of a similar age, you’ll likely have very little to worry about. If your hosts do not have children and yours are small, you may want to talk over and consider some ways to make the environment child friendly. Will you need to pack a few outlet covers and some extra toys? Can your hosts move items they’ll be worried about the children touching to another place temporarily?
When it comes to staying in rented accommodations, I’m convinced there’s no better way to travel with young children than in a vacation condo, hotel with kitchenette, or some other home-like setting. While in some cases the cost will be a bit higher than a hotel or bed and breakfast, the ability to cook many of your meals in your temporary home will help balance things out a great deal. The difference for me and my daughter was absolutely huge. In our cozy bed and breakfast, she was restless and grumpy while I tried to get ready and tie up loose ends with our itinerary each morning. In our homey, condo-like rental, we could sit at the table and eat breakfast together while I pored over maps and finalized plans, and then she had plenty of space to spread out and explore while I got myself ready for the day. Having a few extra “comforts of home” made it so much easier to feel connected with our usual rhythm, and equated to far less stress (and therefore, more patience) for me.
Find a few small ways to keep children anchored in their normal rhythms
As discussed above, staying in a home-like setting can make it much easier to flow through morning and bedtime routines in a way similar to what you would do at home. This can make a huge difference when it comes to helping children feel grounded in their normal way of doing things. You can also plan ahead and pack a few small things that will help your child stay connected with their home life. The bedtime routine is a hugely important part of the daily rhythm in our house, so most of our “anchors” were associated with it. I packed our basket of three rotating bedtime stories, a favorite lullaby CD, and a little doll that my daughter sometimes snuggles with while she sleeps. Having these familiar items with us as we wound down from each busy day seemed to help a great deal, and bedtime went very smoothly for the most part.
Depending on what’s important to your child and their daily rhythm, you may choose to pack a few special toys, a favorite book, or even something seemingly insignificant that you know will make your child feel at home, like their toothbrush cup. When you’re in a brand new environment, it helps to have at least one or two small things that connect you to home. It wouldn’t hurt to do the same for yourself, really!
Be gentle with yourself
Traveling and parenting can both be stressful on their own. Combine the two and you just may find that patience is harder to muster than usual. Remember that your best is enough, even if your best today is not quite on par with your best on a normal day at home. You, too, are adjusting to a new place and a change in routine, and in some cases a whole lot of other things. If you make a mistake or several, give yourself a little grace, and if you’re tired give yourself permission to put your feet up for awhile. Patience, responsiveness, and gentleness aren’t just for the children – you deserve all of those things, too!
Be gentle with your children
It goes without saying that travel can be stressful for children. When their behavior throws you for a loop and you’re at the end of your patience, however, it’s easy to forget that just like you, they’re likely doing the best they can. Make time for extra fun and extra connection, and do your best not to stress over perplexing behavior. Everyone will be back to normal before long. For now, just enjoy your trip!