A New Parents Guide To Traveling With Children

by on June 13, 2014 · 19 comments

in Family Travel, How To Guides, Lifestyle, Southwest, Travel Gear

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Traveling with young children can be both a blessing and, well, a less happy blessing. Family vacations call for more planning, stricter budgeting, and better organization than the average couple’s holiday. Despite the challenges, my wife and I have taken our two daughters on several lengthy international vacations, and countless domestic ones. Not only did we survive these trips, but we’ve enjoyed them as a family and look forward to more.

At the same time, we’ve seen others struggle with the rigors of family travel, and know many people who have simply given up on travel after becoming parents. Navigating the idiosyncrasies of family travel takes practice, but rather than reinvent the wheel on your own, we hope you can learn from our experiences.

Here are our strategies for making family travel not just bearable, but enjoyable:

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1. Timing is everything. Expecting parents tend to be very cautious about planning travel with infants younger than six months od. Once parents feel comfortable with their babies, they often then plan a trip with their 6-12 month old.

My wife and I have come to believe that this is the exact opposite of how parents should approach travel with their infants. Within the first six months, infants spend most of their days eating and sleeping. Even when awake, they still lack the mobility to get into serious trouble that older infants have.

After six months, everything changes. They start to sit up, get antsy, and want to reach out and grab everything, making flights and meals with an older infant exponentially more difficult. Furthermore, as babies graduate from an infant car seat to a child car seat, you can’t just lug the seat (or carrier) around while the child sleeps.

Once we learned this with our first child, we planned a trip with our second daughter to Argentina well before she was born, and traveled with her successfully when she was just five months old.  After she turned six months old, we largely confined our travels to shorter domestic trips to visit family until she reached 15 months. Now that she is nearly two years old and walking and talking, we feel like we’re over the hump, and have resumed taking longer international trips. For example, we’ll be celebrating her second birthday this summer in Italy. From here on out, she’ll become a better traveler every year (and with her own frequent flyer account, she’ll have a head start on mileage earning).

2. Get a passport first. After your baby is born and you have a birth certificate, it’s time to get a passport. With most international destinations, you’ll need a passport for each member of your family regardless of age. Even where there are limited exceptions to this rule (such as on cruises or trips to Canada), having a passport is much easier than trying to show other documentation and proving that you meet various the requirements for traveling without one. Children’s passports are good for five years, and you never know when you might find a great deal to visit a foreign country.

3. Get Global Entry. When parents have Global Entry, the whole family can receive access to the TSA’s Pre-Check  program, since children under 12 can use the Pre-Check line when accompanied by an eligible adult. This might not be a big deal for some couples and single travelers, but it makes a huge difference when clearing security with your kids. Just drop all your gear on the belt of the x-ray machine, walk through the metal detector (no body-scanners), grab your kids and go.

If you travel internationally at least once a year, it may make sense to sign your kids up as well, since every person must have Global Entry when using the expedited immigration lines. This way you don’t have to worry about entertaining the kids while waiting in a long line or missing your connecting flight. We were able to have our newborn and our 5-year old “interviewed” at the same time my wife had her enrollment appointment, even though they weren’t on the schedule.


4. Don’t bring the wrong gear. The wrong gear includes the extra-large stroller someone gave you as a generous baby gift. Leave that one at home and bring the most compact one you can find that still has some storage space for a small diaper bag. Think small, and check out our lists of Essential Travel Gear For Families With Infants and Travel Gear For Families With Toddlers And Young Children.

5. Learn about lap child tickets. Children under two years old can fly for free on their parent’s lap without a ticket on domestic flights. International flights require the purchase of a a lap child ticket, which can be expensive. With most airlines charging 10% of a full fare ticket just for the right to carry your baby, this can be a significant cost when using a business or first class award. What’s worse is that the rules for lap child tickets are poorly disclosed and often misunderstood by airline staff.

In general, we find that younger infants do fine as lap children on shorter flights in economy, as do older ones in business class for long-haul flights. That said, we book a seat for our children for longer flights in coach around the 1-2 year range.

6. Choose the right airline. We found Southwest and JetBlue to be The Most Family Friendly Airlines For Domestic And Short Haul Flights. In particular, our family adores Southwest because they offer free DirectTV, we can check as many bags for free as we need, and families receive priority boarding (between the A and B Groups). Furthermore, we love their seating policy that enabled us to place our infants in the empty middle seat between us when the flight is not sold out. Now my wife and I both have companion passes, so our two kids always travel for free.

Double the companion passes equals double the fun!

Double the companion passes equals double the fun!

If there’s one downside to Southwest, it’s that they can be very strict about asking parents for proof that their children traveling on their lap are less than two years old, even when they are clearly newborns. Be ready to show documentation when asked. With regard to overseas trips, we also looked at The Most Family-Friendly International Carriers.

7. Make the trip part of the fun. Babies are largely indifferent to air travel (unless they have problems with their ears).  Yet from the toddler years on up, kids love travel and the journey can be part of the adventure. So book first class, or take a train trip, and be sure to load up on activities that are fun for both children and parents when you get there.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • tripswithtykes

    Great advice and I give much of the exact same tips on my own blog! I always encourage my friends to travel with their babies – the toddler age range is the toughest. Our worst flight with our first child was at 17 months old. At 4 months old, in contrast, travel was a breeze.

    I also think Virgin America deserve top marks for families. No free bags, but the in-flight experience is very comfortable with entertainment and food on demand. Not to mention that Virgin America and JetBlue are the only two domestic airlines that have changing tables on ALL of their planes. Don’t underestimate the importance of a changing table on a cross-country domestic flight. You are going to need it at least once or twice. Or sometimes 4 or 5 times!

  • Amy

    My kid is only 2 now but the easiest time, this far was when we went to Hawaii and she was 4 months old. She slept most of the flight, breastfeeding was simple – she just went to sleep. And the long car rides on the Big a Island, she slept most of the entire trip.

  • Jason Steele

    Great points, thanks! I only wish Virgin America had service in Denver, as I would love to give it a try.

  • K2

    My family traveled throughout South Africa (with a 3 day stop in Germany) for a 5 week safari with an 18-month-old, 5-year-old, and me when I was 14. Our family crushed that trip! It inspired a big Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia trip with all of us plus an additional child years later!

  • em

    I have flown with my 3 children at all stages beginning with a 6 week old. The general stress to me was the impact we’d have on annoying other travelers. Bathrooms are tight for me a petite female so good luck when your toddler needs to go or changing a baby. NIGHTMARE! Otherwise, if your children are reasonably obedient and well behaved, there is not really any difference in a plane or on the ground. Unless a child has a medical condition, the kids will act according to parental expectations. FACT! However, 2 year olds will still be 2 year olds as there are developmental milestones and normal reactions to hunger, fatigue, etc. This is why any reasonable parent should anticipate bringing food and entertaining a child more energetically than possibly on the ground. You should be exhausted by the end of the flight, but you had to get where you were going otherwise, why did you board a plane? We have also experienced rudeness from child haters, but if you rise to the challenge of having children by disciplining them then they will enhance your life experience. Also, many adults act shamefully.

  • tripswithtykes

    Maybe soon. Virgin American is finally turning a profit, so I’m hopeful for expansion. (As an aside, my 5 year old daughter got to meet Sir Richard himself aboard a flight last year, and he was the nicest. Great with kids and excited to see how much she loved to fly.)

  • Juno

    My 6yr is a veteran traveler. Flying over 15 flights.. number of train rides, car trips, and cruises.. no problem what so ever even when flying at tender age of 8 months. But now my 1 yr old on the other hand cries incessantly even during a 3 hour car trips.. could be motion sickness.. or just cranky baby.. anyhow, we are putting off air travel to save the others from flying with my crying baby, until 2 yrs of age or whenever she can start verbally communicating what’s wrong so that we can correct it. Yes. you are welcome! :)

  • DanG

    Things that have helped me when traveling with little ones:

    1. A bag for your stroller. This way it doesn’t become as mangled when gate checked.
    2. A bag for your car seat if not part of your stroller.
    3. If not connecting, don’t aim to sit towards the front when in coach. You want to behind the elites, but you want to have overhead space. Take advantage of the early boarding when offered for small children.

    I never really subscribed to the lap child policy. I have been on long flights where turbulence has pushed lap children out of their parent’s hands.
    (Luckily…No one was hurt) For me, it’s safety over savings. Although some airlines do offer discounts for children in car seats…(Fewer by the day though)

  • DBest

    Is it safe to take such a young infant on a plane? Just wondering about the cabin pressurization and what not.

  • Matt C

    Just traveled with a 8,5 and 2 year old on a 15 different airport itinerary to Europe and back, all did great (especially the 2 older ones with the Ipads and on demand entertainment with Air Berlin). The two year old was a challenge but you just have to actively work to have plenty of activities, distractions and alternate foods. While we are active in trying to calm the unavoidable storms that come up, most around you understand and as long as you are working on solving whatever situation is the issue they understand. We’ve flown with all 3 at a young age internationally and you just have to remember that it’s 2 not so fun days on each side of the trip, with great experiences and adventures with the family in between. You’ll never see those around you in the airplane again. They can judge all they want whether or not you should be there, but you bought a ticket just the same. Be polite and active with management of your kiddos and that’s all anyone can expect. I don’t look at it any different than the adult in front of me that decided that the 9 hour flight (that was going west so everyone generally stays awake) was the correct time to recline his seat to the point one foot in front of my face…

  • dee seiffer

    My kids are in the 20s now, but we flew with them when they were small infants < 4 mos old.

    Once they were mobile, we preferred car travel… up to 12 hours in each direction. We found it easier to be able to stop and find playgrounds to blow off steam and pack as much stuff as we needed, including coloring books, audio books, snacks, etc. And it was A LOT less expensive than air travel in the days before credit sign-up bonuses.

    Living on the commuter train line to NYC + kids under 12 used to ride for $1 RT, we did a lot of trips to Manhattan when they were growing up.

    Once they were school age, we started to fly again. They were all seasoned travelers by then.

    One method I used to keep the peace no matter what the mode of transport was I gave them 10 quarters apiece (you might have to up the ante in this economy). They had to hand over a quarter anytime they fought or whined, but got to keep what they had left to spend on whatever they wanted. Worked like a charm.

  • T

    My advice for traveling with children….DON’T! Leave the little brats with Nana.

  • Kevin Nas

    I have to travel a lot for my business, mostly in Europe and Asia, but often in the states to cities like Las Vegas. I used to use sites like Travelocity to book my flights and lodging, but I stumbled upon the better way to find deals: go to the second level sites – those like who compare the hundreds of different booking sites in one single search. You’ll not only see Trivago or Expedia deals, but ALL OF THEM in one place.

    I must have saved over 3,000 Euros since I started using them. I sincerely believe that using only one of the top booking sites is not necessarily the best idea.

  • em

    My children are perfectly healthy older children now. Feeding new babies during takeoff is often recommended.

  • Anon Dad

    Just because your kids turned out fine doesn’t mean it was a wise thing to do. The whole “my parents let me walk barefoot on glass and I turned out fine so it must be fine” thing is silly.

    I’m glad your kids turned out fine. Most doctors do not recommend that children travel until they are at least 3 months old and have built up some immunity.

    The whole “feed during takeoff” thing is an old wive’s tale. You feed them when they are hungry (for nutrition) or irritated (to soothe them). If takeoff makes them irritated, you can then feed them. Don’t force feed if they don’t need it.

  • GCMD

    Question: If I’m redeeming an international AA flight (US to Japan) using miles (AAsaver) and I have a infant <2yo, can I also use miles to book for the lap infant as well with international flights on american airlines? I read that it's 10 percent cost (monetary) to have internation flight infant, but if the flight was booked using miles instead of money, is it 10% additional miles or 10% cash needed? Thanks in advance for the clarification.

  • Rusty Longwood

    Kids hardly remember much of anything that happens to them under 5, let alone appreciate it. Why go to the hassle of hauling diaper bags and strollers around, pay for those extra tickets and limit yourself when they won’t get much out of it? Wait until your kids are old enough to handle the toilet themselves, eat solid food, walk at a normal pace and be able to safely sit in a car without a car seat. Nana’s a dine option.

  • Another anon dad

    Not an old wive’s tale at all. The sucking action helps them equalize pressure in their ears, it’s basic physics. You’d be amazed at how quickly a crying baby/toddler will be happy once they get something to suck on during take-off and landing.

  • iceman199

    What is you’re traveling to SEE nana???

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