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14 mistakes parents make when traveling with kids

Oct. 04, 2020
13 min read
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Just like learning how to take care of a baby for the first time can be ... tough, learning to travel with one (or more) kids is an exercise in trial and error. That's true even in normal times, but right now there are new layers of challenges. With a few hundred thousand miles traveled with my two kids, including a few pandemic-era trips, we've had lots of trials and I've made plenty of errors.

From my own experiences, and those of other travelers in the TPG Family Facebook group and beyond, we've compiled a roundup of mistakes many parents make while learning how to travel with their kids.

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Trusting airplane seat assignments to work themselves out

You pay for tickets for yourself and your children, designate them as children on the reservation and assume the airline will seat you together. Right? Wrong -- or at least not always right.

While airlines do try and seat children with parents, it doesn't always happen automatically. Don't assume you'll end up next to your kids. This is one thing that may be easier in a pandemic, especially on the airlines that are still blocking middle seats, but it's still something to prioritize on your travel to-do checklist. Be extremely proactive at stalking seat assignments, both for the sake of your kids and those around you who may not want to do day-of seat trading.

Here are some additional tips to make sure your family gets seat assignments together.

Not having a puke bag at the ready

I've done the walk of shame off the plane covered in kid vomit more than once ... and that was before the world was gripped by a pandemic and reasonably afraid of every cough and sniffle.

Trust me, that one time you don't have a sickness bag at the ready within three seconds of reach, you're going to regret it. Now, when I'm on my A-game, my youngest daughter sits with a blanket covering her on the plane so that I at least have that ready to catch any midair emergencies. A bag is never far behind.

Not packing an extra set of clothes -- for yourself

Most parents know to keep a change of clothes handy for their baby or toddler, but forget that they could also need an extra outfit at the ready ... until it's too late. (See above.) Accidents of all kinds can happen while caring for a kid at 36,000 feet, so keep one handy change of clothes at the ready for yourself.

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Related: Guide to surviving long-haul flights with kids

Not bringing a stroller

So your 3- or 4-year-old walks everywhere at home? Mine, too. But the steps they log at home and the steps you need them to log in Europe, at Disney or even to get around a huge resort are apples and oranges. We've had 10-mile days at the Grand Hyatt Kauai and close to 20-mile days at Disney World, so it can add up.

If you're taking a trip that involves more than a very modest amount of walking, you probably need a stroller on the road a full one to two years beyond when you would use it in your normal life at home. (At a theme park, you may need it until your kids are old enough to ace spelling tests.) Here are some of our top strollers for travel.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Forgetting headphones

So you packed a device for your kids to watch or play with and it's actually charged -- very well done. But if you forgot headphones, those around you may be less than impressed hearing that third "My Little Ponies" episode or nonstop video game background music. Kid headphones are very inexpensive but don't forget to pack a pair for each kiddo (and maybe a spare), as we all know how sharing will turn out.

Believing in airplane food

Airplane food is not all created equally. Some of it is really good. But most of it is ... really not good.

Factor picky kid eating and the tendency for some airlines to forget to load special meals and it's a recipe for hungry bellies. At best, your kid will get mushy chicken fingers. On an ultra-long-haul flight, "hanger" will almost certainly set in if you don't BYO food for your kids. And, of course, right now, airplane food is even more limited than normal, so you really need to plan to be self-sufficient.

Related: What it's like to fly with kids during the pandemic

United's kid meal. (Photo by Dia Adams/The Points Guy)

Saving money by adding a connecting flight

There are lots of really solid ways to save money on travel. However, making your family's flight schedule sub-optimal by choosing really early or late departures or adding connecting flights is not a wise way to save money if you can avoid it. When your kids get older, go for those less expensive flights, but signing little kids up for more arduous itineraries than necessary is potentially a mistake.

Related: Should you use cash or miles to buy an airline ticket

Flying with a lap toddler

Flying with a lap infant is one thing. Snuggling, sleepy, nursing babies can sometimes do better in arms than in their own seat. However, squeezing that last free flight in with a lap toddler just before they turn 2-years-old is a decision some parents regret.

We booked a trip one month before my youngest daughter turned 2, and I booked a seat for her literally while on the way to the airport as I realized what a terrible plan this was. Thank goodness there was saver-level award space at the last minute, or instead of sitting happily in her car seat, that 23-month-old would have been unhappily squirming on my lap for a four-hour flight. In other words, just because an airline lets you do something doesn't mean it's a good idea.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

While we are on the topic -- be sure and bring a birth certificate if you are flying with a lap infant. While some airlines don't always check, others do. Southwest in particular is notorious for requiring a birth certificate for lap infants -- even for infants obviously under the max age limit.

Related: 10 lessons from 10 years traveling with kids

Under-stocking formula, diapers or wipes

There's how long a flight (or cruise, or train trip, etc.) is scheduled to take, and then there's how long it actually takes. If you only plan for enough diapers, wipes and formula to get you through the planned journey, you may be woefully unprepared for the reality of the journey. Bring extra when it comes to the essentials -- and then a little more on top of that.

I won't tell you how many diapers we went through on a transatlantic flight when my 1-year-old started having tummy troubles shortly after takeoff, which then continued through the rest of the overnight flight. Let's just say, it's good I really rounded up our diaper supply count.

Related: What it's really like flying business class with little kids

Underestimating jet lag

In the TPG Family Facebook group, a family shared that it took their kids four full days to get over jet lag on a trip to Africa. Unfortunately, their entire time in Africa was only five days long. Experts say it can take a day for each hour of time zone change you make.

I'm not sure it always has to take quite that long, but if you are crossing an ocean, there's going to be a major adjustment to be had the first of couple days. Be conservative in what you expect your kids to be able to handle and what time of day you expect them to be active.

It can help to overnight somewhere along the way -- which is why we often stop for a night on the West Coast on the way to Hawaii to cut a little pain of jet lag off at the pass.

Counting on seatback entertainment

Notice something wrong with this picture? Well, if you were counting on the airline to provide inflight, seatback entertainment there's a big problem.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

Very few domestic airlines reliably have seatback entertainment available across the fleet, so it's often best to assume there won't be any and simply be pleasantly surprised when there is functional built-in entertainment.

While we're talking about inflight entertainment, remember to pack backup power supplies for everyone's devices, too. Not every seat or aircraft type has in-seat charging.

Related: These are the best airlines for families


Whether you are crossing oceans or just going to Florida, the root of 89% of all family travel meltdowns (in my very unscientific guesstimation) is over-scheduling and the resulting over-tiredness and shorter tempers.

Don't believe me? Just walk around a normal-era Disney World where families have scheduled out FastPasses, meals and more months in advance and watch what happens when they try to do it all. You can't do it all -- or, even if you can, you shouldn't. This is something that has improved a bit during 2020 as people are used to going with the flow and enjoying the little things, but it's still something to keep in mind.

Know when to call it quits. (Photo by Melissa Ann Photography)

Thinking hotels will offer cribs and connecting doors

We've picked on air travel a fair bit, but there are plenty of mistakes that can be made when it comes to lodging and kids.

If you need a crib or connecting rooms at a hotel and noted that on your reservation, it's reasonable to think that those things will happen. But sadly, that's just not always true. Call the hotel to confirm in advance, and then on the day of travel, call again. Even then, it can still be missed, so don't be shocked.

We once arrived at an airport hotel very late at night thanks to a delayed flight. Our then 3-month-old was beyond done with the day and was pretty hysterical. She was the kind of baby that was a light sleeper -- there was no such thing as transferring her when she was sleeping without her waking up, so we kept waiting for her crib.

That crib we requested months in advance and again that day? It was MIA for two hours, which at midnight with an angry baby might as well have been 102 years. Had we known it would take that long, we would have moved on to Plan C, but we made a mistake and assumed it would be there any minute. It wasn't. I can still hear the cries of that night (and probably so can our room neighbors -- sorry). If you want to play it safe, you can bring your own travel crib.

Not getting kids used to masks in advance

Here's a very 2020 addition to this list that we can hopefully delete at some future post-pandemic point.

On most U.S. airlines, at theme parks (such as Disney World) and even in some hotels, children aged 2 and up must wear face masks just like adults. I'm very pro-mask to keep everyone as safe as possible, but it can be a very real challenge for young toddlers to wear a mask for hours on end if they aren't used to wearing one.

If you have travel coming up where your child will be 2 or older, start getting them used to wearing a face mask in advance. If you simply cannot get your 2- or 3-year-old to comply with wearing a mask, it's probably time to re-think any near-term flights or trips to destinations that require mask compliance for that age range until this phase of the pandemic has passed or your child grows into being able to tolerate a face mask.

Related: These are our favorite face masks for travel

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

When you travel with kids, you may end up covered in mess, praying for sleep in the middle of the night in a faraway land and temporarily promise yourself (or your partner) that you'll never travel with the kids again.

But that moment passes. During normal times, the worst mistake you could make when it comes to kids and travel is to skip it and stay home. It's sometimes hard -- really hard -- but it's worth it. Learn from those who have come before you and try to avoid some of these mistakes that we almost all have made at some point.

When things do go wrong, the most important thing to do is keep your cool and just focus on what your kid needs in the moment. If you do that, the moment will pass much faster than if you panic or worry about what others around you may think -- we promise.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto