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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:
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.
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.