My husband Craig and I love to travel, especially with our kids. While I’ve only been married with stepkids for a few years, I’ve been traveling for most of my adult life. I’ve visited six continents, dozens of countries and about three-quarters of the states in the U.S. Craig has visited a couple fewer continents, but has 48 states and no small number of conflict zones under his belt.
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Though not a new lesson for Craig, I have learned these last few years that trips with children can be tricky. Kids travel differently than adults. This was something I hadn’t really considered until I became a stepmom. But they do.
They don’t have the same attention span, they need more guidance navigating new places, and they need to know you’ve got them covered and are handling everything. Since I’ve been a stepmom, we’ve done a number of very long car and train trips and flights with our children. Suffice to say I’ve had to learn a lot – and quick! – about how to tee up a great trip and keep kids engaged throughout.
Here are a few absolute makers and breakers, especially for traveling with tween/teens:
Before You Leave: Planning
Engage your children in the planning. Starting almost the minute we book a trip, we discuss the destination with the kids. What will there be to do and to eat? What will we see? We also ask each child what they want to do most, and we try to work that in.
We discuss travel logistics with the kids. How long the flights will be, how layovers will go, how we’ll get from the airport to the hotel, how we’ll get around once we’re there (the kids always want to know if we are renting a car and if so, what kind), how the time difference will work and whom they might meet. Really, we talk about anything and everything about the trip that we can think of.
Whether your kids are younger or in the tween/teen range, including them in the planning can excite them about the adventure and allay any potential anxiety about being in a new place or doing new things.
If you let the kids pick some of the sightseeing stops on the trip, it will allow them to feel some ownership in the planning process. And maybe even offset the inevitable teenage eye-rolls and yawns. The last time we went to Florida to visit family, my twelve-year-old stepson desperately wanted to go to the Alligator Farm and my thirteen-year-old stepdaughter wanted to hit the beach. We did both. While the weather did not cooperate for as much beach time as we had hoped, the Alligator Farm was a lot of fun. And both kids felt like they had gotten to decide some of the activities.
On our recent trip to Paris, our twelve-year-old decided immediately that he wanted to visit the Paris Catacombs. Both of the kids wanted to go first thing to the very top of the Eiffel Tower and, of course, our thirteen-year-old couldn’t wait to shop. So we arranged to visit both the Eiffel Tower and the Catacombs on our second day, and then I took my stepdaughter for some one-on-one shopping time on the fourth day. Guide books can help here, too – see the discussion on that below.
When you travel with your children you are giving them something that can never be taken away . . . experience, exposure, and a way of life.
– Pamela T. Chandler
If you’re going to travel with kids internationally, it goes without saying that they’ll need a passport. You might also consider getting them Global Entry, which speeds up the re-entry process. While it costs $100 for five years, it also includes TSA Pre-Check. I believe it’s well worth it. If your kids don’t have passports or Global Entry and you think you’ll even contemplate international travel in the next year, I would go ahead and start the long process.
If your trip is last-minute (or you’re a procrastinator), you can use an expediting service to get a passport more quickly. I have used G-3 Global Services several times over the years and have always been impressed with their efficiency and service. But whoever you use, be prepared to pay through the nose. We planned and departed on our trip to Paris within about five weeks, so we used G-3 to guarantee we had the kids’ documents in time. Although we received the passports earlier than promised, even without using the fastest rush service they offer, it was still crazy expensive. We also applied for Global Entry for both kids, but that process did not get completed in time for our travel. Plan ahead!!
Depending on how old your kids are, they may or may not want your help packing. We let our thirteen-year-old pack her own bags for our last few trips and each time she brought exactly what she needed (her packing lists are truly professional level). Except when she only packed one pair of socks for a week in Paris. We wear the same size shoe and luckily I had packed a couple of extra pairs.
Our twelve-year-old, on the other hand, brings his suitcase to us once he’s finished packing so we can make sure he has packed the right things. For our most recent trip, we did swap out some of his clothing choices for items that didn’t scream “tourist.” We also had to fold his clothes, which he had just shoved into the suitcase. That was a different conversation!
Start the packing process (or at least the packing discussion) with enough time to allow you to buy any items needed so that you aren’t panicking at the last minute. As we talked with our kids to prepare for our recent Paris trip, we realized my stepdaughter needed gloves and a winter hat, and that my stepson needed more long sleeved shirts. So Amazon Prime got a few last minute orders. I can’t count on both hands the times Prime has saved my butt on travel-related items!
Whether it’s a long flight or a road trip, I always bring snacks – for the kids they take the form of “snack packs.” I started doing this on our very first plane trip and it’s now become a tradition that the kids look forward to. In fact, we got the kids back from their mom the day we left for our most recent trip and the first thing they asked when they walked in the door was whether they had snack packs for the flight. On our last couple of trips, I’ve also packed them for my husband and me, and we have enjoyed having treats on the plane just as much.
My snack pack process is fairly simple. I load a gallon-sized Ziplock bag with sample-sized treats. The bags are largely configured the same with some minor differences to account for the kids’ tastes. And you can construct the snack packs without spending a ton of money. Instead of buying individual bags of Goldfish crackers, I buy a larger size carton and divide them into Ziploc snack bags. I try to find some halfway nutritious items like trail mix (okay, fine, who are we kidding?) and I like to throw in some of their favorite treats, like peanut M&Ms, gum, and Sour Patch Kids.
Also, if you’re visiting a foreign country, you might consider bringing along some protein bars if your kids are picky eaters. In many countries, you’ll be able to find restaurants that offer kid-friendly options, but foods palatable to the picky eaters likely won’t be as readily available as they are here.
In addition to whatever guidebook you plan to use, bring along one for the kids. Even better, get one in advance (here’s the planning ahead theme again!) and let the kids read it before you travel. They’ll get excited as they learn about the destination and feel more invested in the journey.
For our recent trip to Paris, the Lonely Planet Paris City Trails guide was fantastic – it’s written especially for kids and has a lot of fun facts and interesting, kid-friendly stories about the city. Lonely Planet offers similar books for London, Rome, New York, and other cities, as well as a kids’ travel journal with fun ways for them to document their travels. I really wish I had found that one before our last trip!
For our 13-year-old, we bought the Rick Steves Pocket Paris book. Rick Steves is a well-known travel expert, especially on all things European. He has written pocket guides on many cities and for the short attention span of teens, they’re packed with information but are more digestible than full-sized guide books. For adults, he’s got a ton of offerings. Craig’s favorite is Europe 101, which gives an overview of European history and art that will put your trip in context.
Lord knows I wish the kids didn’t crave their devices as much as they do (that’s a whole different conversation). But in today’s world, that just isn’t the reality. So, make sure you have devices charged – and keep chargers handy for plugging in along the way. Our kids are old enough that they take ownership over their chargers, but it never hurts to have a spare handy.
If you’re traveling internationally, decide whether you’ll let the kids bring their phones and if so, what phone plan will work best. If your kids are like mine (and most, I suspect), they’ll want their phones on vacation. Craig and I discussed at length the option of disallowing social media or texting while we were abroad, but we both agreed that that was probably a losing battle. And we figured it’s probably okay to be a little lenient with the rules when we’re on vacation.
We have Verizon and were able to take advantage of their international Travel Pass. The Pass costs $10.00 per day but the fee is only triggered on days you use your phone. Let’s be honest here – we all triggered it every day of our last trip, which ended up to be much more expensive than we bargained for. If you can talk your kids out of their phones for an entire week without them hating you the entire time you’re gone, you might be better parents than we are.
“Every day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children”
– Charles R. Swindoll
Decided in advance how you want to deal with spending money. We usually give them a set amount, like $100 for the week, to buy souvenirs. We have found that when we give them a limit, they are very thoughtful about how they spend their money.
Our thirteen-year-old generally devotes all of her money to clothes, but on our recent Paris trip, she decided to splurge on a Longchamp backpack she has been wanting for months. She used all of her souvenir money on the purchase and was beyond excited to come home with it.
Our twelve-year-old will usually pick a couple of mementos that he wants, and will buy souvenirs for his other siblings (yes, we always applaud his thoughtfulness). In Paris, we helped him haggle with a street vendor for an Eiffel Tower statue he wanted to spend his money on to bring back for his teacher.
You can use a tool like FamZoo (which we also use for the kids’ allowances) to track their money if you aren’t ready to let them manage that kind of cash.
Once You’re There
Continue to plan daily – but allow for spontaneity. We always spend a few minutes each night talking about the next day’s activities so there aren’t surprises. And while we stick to the plan as much as we can, we also allow for wiggle room if one of the kids (or one of us) sees something along the way that might be fun to do.
Also – be ready to throw your idea of the “perfect” vacation, or “perfect” experience, out the window if needed. Our first few days in Paris, we had the kind of wonderful French food that Craig and I love – and we were excited to share it with the kids. We lingered over long, leisurely lunches and dinners with them. We were able to enjoy a couple of glasses of wine and some foie gras or mussels while the kids either tried something new or found something with “frites” they could tackle. Lovely, right?
I was very proud the kids were actually willing to try a number of French foods, like French onion soup, foie gras, and even escargot (they didn’t like any of it). But after the novelty of the first few days wore off, they begged us to find them some places that served pizza and burgers that weren’t rare.
So we did. And in all honesty, I’m not quite–but almost as–picky as the kids (I leave the foie gras and mussels to Craig – blech), so I was fine with dialing it down on some on the meals. And while the last few days didn’t feature the fabulous gourmet dining we had envisioned, it made for happier kids (and probably me) and we all felt like we had gotten a great taste of Parisian fare along the way.
Kids, especially those on the younger side, believe everything you say. If you tell them something will be amazing – they want nothing short of amazing when they get there. I’ve found it’s much better to under-promise and over-deliver. The more we build something up for them in advance, the less impressed they tend to be when they see or experience it. But if we don’t oversell something for them, they tend to love it.
Before our recent Paris trip, we had described the beauty and scale of Notre Dame to the kids. But once we got inside, it was packed shoulder to shoulder. Although there were plenty of signs asking for silence, people that day seemed to be speaking at full volume in the sanctuary. The noise and crush of people totally overwhelmed any ability for the kids (or us) to appreciate the setting. We managed to loop through the sanctuary once before they were at wit’s end, and we escaped quickly with only one minor meltdown on the way out. I think we were inside all of ten minutes.
On the other hand, we didn’t talk to them at all about the Conciergerie. But when we decided on the spur of the moment to drop in and check it out, they were both fascinated with the site that had imprisoned Marie Antoinette before her execution. We ended up spending much more time than we expected learning its storied history.
Travel with kids can be stressful. It can be tiring, frustrating, and on a bad day make you want to pull your hair out. Kids can take it out on each other, and you, if they’re tired, hungry, or just out of sorts from travel.
BUT – showing the world to your children, seeing it through their fresh, wide eyes, and having precious family time to build memories without distraction? That all helps turn any rough moments into distant memories and preserve the recollections of a fantastic voyage. I hope these tools will help you whether you’re planning a weekend getaway or a fabulous international vacation. I’d love to hear from you:
What advice do you have for traveling with kids? Feel free to comment below!