How Travel Changes When a Kid Joins the Family
A question I get very frequently centers around how travel changes when a baby joins the family. The answer is more complicated than it seems because that baby then grows into a toddler, kid, etc. so travel changes not only with the baby, but really for the next 18 years...or longer. The good news is that many of the changes are actually for the better in many ways. I've written a very similar post before, but I wanted to update it based on the new experiences we have had in the last couple of years!
How Travel Changes With an Infant:
Our travel changed dramatically when C was born. We went from going on an adventure at least once a month to going nowhere.
We spent our days and nights with a very fussy (but adorable) baby. We were too tired to care about going anywhere other than the grocery store, or maybe Target if we were really feeling ambitious. Though we did have a very failed attempt at attending the local Carnaval celebration when C was about six weeks old - ha! Our only trips out of town for the first few months were to drive the three hours to Grandma's and Grandpa's house (we were living in Austin at the time), not only so they could see the baby, but so we could pass out for a few hours while they took care of the little one. We would pack so much stuff with us for those weekends that it seemed like it would literally fill the entire truck bed.
I say that not to scare anyone, but because it was our experience, and it took us a bit by surprise. Many families have a much smoother transition to "family-hood", but you won't know how it goes until the baby is born and you get into a routine. We had no clue the amount of drama and heartache that was in store for us when C was born. Until it happened. I highly advise against scheduling any travel at least the first month and potentially until your baby is at least three months old because you just don't know how things will go with your infant, and it often takes close to that long to get into at least a decent sleeping routine. And if you aren't sleeping, then I highly doubt travel will be very fun - here is what month one looked like for us.
We took our first trip without C when she was about five months old to go to a wedding in Puerto Rico. She stayed with my parents for the weekend. We fantasized about this weekend on a beach with as much sleep as we wanted almost every night for months. It was our "light at the end of the tunnel" when we thought we might never sleep again. Of course, when the trip finally did arrive we ended up missing her like crazy, and I was the psycho-looking mom longingly staring at every baby who would be carried by us. Still, it was a great weekend to feel like grown-ups and not just zombie-tired parents. It also helped set up a pattern that we continue even today where C will have great long weekends with Grandma and Grandpa while we gratefully get to go on some quick getaways.
Once she was about 11 months old we did finally take a trip on an airplane with her to visit her other set of grandparents. I think that 9-18 months is actually the hardest age to fly with a toddler on average, but we started with a pretty quick flight, and we were very prepared with small toys, snacks, bottles, extra clothes, diapers, etc. She flew in her car seat in her own seat, and did fantastic. I think having your first big trip with a baby be to somewhere that you are either are going to visit family, or that family is going along with you to help, is the ideal situation.
Now that we have baby #2, we ignored our own advice and speculatively booked a work related trip for when she is about one month old, and when that turned out to be a bad idea (shocker) we had to pay the penalties to delay it until she is going to be closer to two months old. Since she is also a bit fussier and more particular than average, I am pretty nervous about travel with a two month old, but we will do our best and then report back on how it went.
Travel With a One Year Old:
C's first birthday is where life really shifted from "survival mode" to fun at our house as her tummy issues got much better. Not coincidentally, it is also about the time that our travel slowly started to pick back up. We did several trips with her that year including a big Disney World trip, my first solo flight with her, and more.
Especially when she was a younger one-year-old, we were still traveling with a fair amount of "gear". We had to bring bottles and bottle parts, formula, lots of diapers, lots of extra clothes, car seat, stroller, baby carrier, toys, her "sound machine" (trust me, that was essential), and we had to ensure we had a safe crib or pack and play everywhere we went for her to sleep in. She also only took bottles that were at least partially warm until a certain age, so we had to be able to access some warm water to warm the bottle in at feeding times. I'm sure if we had more kids they would have to get used to drinking their bottles at room temperature much earlier.
Despite the extra gear, traveling with her at one was fun. She was old enough to be very engaged in everywhere we went. She also was young enough she went to bed pretty early at night and took a couple decent naps during the day. This meant either breaks in the day at hotels, or we just keep going and she napped in the stroller. This was also an age where a hotel suite with two rooms was very helpful, so we didn't have to tiptoe around for half the day. The downside to travel at this age was that she was still pretty "routine oriented", so sometimes getting her down at night in a hotel room was very hard. She would not get as much sleep as she should, so would get pretty cranky by the second or third day of a trip from exhaustion.
Travel With a Two Year Old:
Two is a big turning point for travel. At least for us, it meant no more diapers, no sound machine, no bottles, no formula, no crib, etc. She was very verbal and we could talk about where we were going, what was going to happen, etc. She could just sleep with us in the hotel bed, and was old enough to manage some changes in routine without it having a huge impact to her ability to sleep at night.
She was old enough to get excited about where we were going, and to remember things that we did. She also was old enough for us to explain to her where we were going while she stayed behind with grandparents. Her attention span was also good enough to have movies keep her occupied for a while on most airplane flights. Not only that, but she understood the airport process, and could start to help pack and pull her own bag in the airport. Of course, she wasn't 100% with any of this, but she was a pretty good participant.
Another big shift that happened at age two, was the importance of her having some kids to play with on trips. She really looked forward to trips where she got to see some of her cousins, and played fantastically with them. This was a double win as she got to spend memorable time with them, and the adults got to actually just sit for a few minutes and watch them have fun together!
Two years old is old enough to take part in some activities on vacations like pony rides, sleigh rides, dog sled rides, ice skating, etc. Of course, all of those things are done with very hands-on adult involvement, but it does make it more fun for everyone to have more things to do! Another bonus of travel with a two-year-old is that they are still free to participate in many activities, so everyone can have fun without it hitting the wallet too hard.
The only thing about travel with a two-year-old that can be more challenging than travel with a one-year-old is potty training. Your routines are thrown off, and you may not have the same training potty your kid is used to at home, so travel can regress potty training. At the very least, you have to stay on your toes a lot more when potty training on the road than at home. We would use pull-ups on trips for a while even when she had advanced to wearing "big girl panties" at home just to avoid problems. This was especially true on flights when you can't always get up to run to the potty due to take-offs, landings, and the seat-belt sign.
Travel With a Three-Year-Old:
Between the ages of two and three, our travel patterns returned to a similar frequency as they were before our daughter was born. Sometimes she would come with us, and sometimes she would stay with one set of grandparents or the other. We still had the freedom from a school schedule, but more and more we scheduled trips to coincide with preschool breaks since we would all have "free time" anyway and none of us were very good at just being at home for days on end. Being three and potty trained means that she is old enough for many kids clubs such as "Camp Hyatt". She has a blast playing with other kids for a little bit at these clubs, and we get to have an adult meal or a couple hours to just relax. Being three and potty trained is another big achievement in the world of family travel!
At three she also didn't require any baby gear. We stopped bringing a stroller, but would rent one at places with lots of walking, like Disney World. She can stay up late or wake-up early without it causing crankiness that lasts for days. She was able to take an active role in planning activities, and then gets to look forward to certain parts of the trip (like breakfast with the Disney princesses)!
At three I took a big trip alone with her to Hawaii for the week. I was a bit nervous going into such a big trip alone with a three year old, but we really solidified our "travel buddies" status on that trip. We both knew we had to work together, and in the end we had an amazing week a long way away from home. The time change, long flights, and more might have caused minor blips, but the fun way outweighed any problems on the trip. She recently begged to go back to Hawaii the following years, and we did!
Just like when she was two, trips where she can play with our kids are really special. We started to plan some trips to overlap with other families we knew, so that the kids could be together. We also continued to travel to see cousins, who at this point she actually knew and remembered. She even had her first weekend where we flew her to her out-of-state grandparents to stay there while we took a weekend trip. She got a little homesick I think by the last day when the cousins went home, but did great overall. She had grown up with a pattern of having fun with grandparents for a few days while mom and dad were away, and trusted that we would always return (and usually with a toy).
At three she was also old enough to start ski school, and make her vacation wishes (and dislikes) well known. Honestly, travel with a three-year-old was insanely easy. We weren't taking her around the world on a regular basis, and exploring Europe with her didn't sound fun to us quite yet, but it wasn't far off. She was an active, and fun, member of this traveling family.
Travel With a Four-Year-Old:
When our daughter turned four she was a genuine traveling kid. She could wiz through the airport like a pro, and could stay occupied flights like a champ. She even earned frequent flyer elite status as a four year old thanks to so many trips!
She had some of her own activities on trips, but also loved time just playing with mom and dad. We could take her pretty much anywhere we wanted and that even included all the way to Paris with mom for a girl's trip! She also returned to Hawaii, did the overnight trip home from Alaska, and many trips in-between mostly without incident. She knows to sleep on the plane at night and can easily stay engaged with shows or her iPad on long flights while she is awake...basically, she was now easy.
Additionally, she was then old enough and good enough at things like FaceTime, that we were able to be gone for longer periods of time. When she was four, we utilized both sets of grandparents to head literally around the world with stops in Amsterdam and the Maldives to celebrate my husbands 40th birthday. We were gone for about 9 days and everyone did fine because she was old enough to handle being away from us for that long, and she was self-sufficient enough that it (hopefully) wasn't too huge a burden for those keeping her.
At four I felt pretty confident that we could take virtually any trip with her that we wanted and make it work. We just had to be sure and work in time for her to just be a kid, and tailor some activities to meet her needs. That is something we have worked at for years, and happens to be something that meshed with her personality very well.
Travel With a Five Year Old:
Travel with a five year old is pretty similar to travel with a four year old, but they are just a little bit more mature and a little more opinionated...which is both good and challenging. The hardest issue that crept in around this age was that while she can handle quite a bit, she is still a little kid and can get very tired and eventually hits a wall during long travel days or delays. However, she was now sometimes too big to really be able to carry. This led to some...creativity in getting us to our final destination.
Aside from that, five was a fantastic age for travel - especially before kindergarten kicked into high gear. She learned some basic French words before we went to France and some basic Spanish before we went to Spain by using educational apps. She can show you where the countries are on the maps and has some reference as to how long it takes to get to these places. She enjoyed trying some different foods around the world and understands that different doesn't always mean bad.
She also is a much stronger swimmer than in previous years, so destinations with swimming activities jumped even higher on her list of favorites. There are some activities and kid clubs that set the minimum age to participate at five, so by this age the kids are pretty much able to participate in the vast majority of kid's clubs and activities other than some higher impact sports and activities like horseback riding, four-wheelers, etc.
Five year olds also are generally pretty social and I know my daughter loved trips that either included time with other kids she knew, or she was also happy to make friends with other kids around her age that she interacted with along the way. I always felt like we won the lottery when she would make friends with other kids at a pool, park, or beach as she could then play games with them for a bit...which let us stop pretending to be Princess Twilight Sparkle for a few minutes.
Once kindergarten starts for your five year old, the available dates you have to travel with your kid will likely become mostly relegated to summers and school breaks, but the good news is there are lots of adventures you can successfully have before the more rigid schedule kicks in. I would have never believed what my 2, 3, 4, and now 5 year old was able to do on trips around the world before I saw it happen with my own eyes.
Every kid is different, but my best advice is don't rush travel with a new baby, but don't put it off forever either. Start small, and expand as you get some wins under your belts. Having a child absolutely changes everything about a family, including travel. However, after a few bumps and some mental adjustments, it can be even more fun than before. You aren't going to be able to pack for the week in a backpack for a while, and your vacations may no longer be vacations in the sense that they are relaxing, but they can become exciting family adventures that you tackle together. Every year is so different than the one before, so a trip that seems impossible today, may be well within reach before you know it.
I can't wait to see what this year, and future years, have in store for our traveling family of four. The one thing I know for sure is that without miles and points, we wouldn't have gotten to go near as many places, or in near as comfortable a manner as we have.
That is my experience on how travel with a child changes over the first five years. Stay tuned for how our experiences with how travel changes with two little ones! Please share your experiences as well!