No one ever said travelling with kids is easy. The trade-off for “hard” is fun, adventure, culture, education, and much more. But… it can be easier! So that’s why it’s time to share my top family travel hacks.
Travelling helped shape me into who I am, and I want it to mould my kids into empathetic, adventurous, grateful, worldly humans. So if you’re unsure of whether or not to travel with your kids, here a few ideas (that I’ve learned the hard way) to make it more efficient, productive, easy, and fun.
1. Use packing cubes
Game changer. When we went to Panama in 2017, I packed two huge suitcases for the four of us with everything loose inside. Do you think I could find a friggin’ kids’ bathing suit when I needed it? I remember cursing the stupidity of the situation, as I rifled through every item in each suitcase, making a huge mess.
Then I bought packing cubes. And now we don’t go anywhere without them. Packing cubes are little rectangles of goodness that zip up and help separate everything you pack into organized compartments inside your suitcase. I own these ones from Amazon, and love that they are mesh so you can see what’s inside. Amazon has every colour, size, and material imaginable.
I use one large or medium cube for each of the four people in my family’s clothes. You can surprisingly squish it all into one, except larger items like jackets and shoes. I save the smaller cubes for toiletries and trinkets (adapters/tech pieces, medicine, hair supplies) or bathing suits and underwear. When you arrive at your destination, you take the cube out and plunk it into a drawer or shelf, leave the zipper open, and take as you please. Then zip it up and place it back into the suitcase when you leave!
2. Don’t pack enough clothes for each day
I know from experience that packing too much will stress you out more than the possibility of not having enough to wear. With family travel, you bring way more crap than solo or couples travel, so you must learn to re-wear the same clothes. No one knows you, and the same people won’t see you each day, so wear them over and over.
This is one of those family travel hacks that make life easier, as you don’t have too many clothes to refold and repack. You also don’t need as much luggage, nor do you have to decide between too many options of what to wear. Keep it simple.
If you’re thinking, “good one, kids clothes get dirty so easily”– yes, yes they do. That’s why I book at least one place with laundry out of all the accommodations on a longer trip, so I can do the washing there. I also pack a small bag of powdered laundry detergent for the odd hand wash in hotel sinks. There’s always the option to pay for hotel laundry too, which is well worth it in cheaper countries.
3. Family travel hacks for long flights
When our kids were six and four, we travelled to Vietnam and Indonesia from Canada, with a two-day stop in Japan on the way home. Including layovers, Kelowna, Canada to Hanoi, Vietnam was 21 hours over three flights. Vietnam to Bali is six, and Bali to Japan is seven. Japan to Vancouver then Kelowna was another 14. Clearly, I needed to find flight hacks, as even the most screen-addicted child won’t watch movies and play video games for that long.
So I bought a shitload of toys, crafts, treats, and books from the Dollar Store. Then I wrapped each of them in wrapping paper. The kids got a “present” every couple hours or when they showed signs of boredom. This was brilliant for several reasons: 1) they felt spoiled; 2) each present was a surprise and gave them something to do (build mini lego, colour in a colouring book, eat a treat, etc.) and 3) I felt less guilty as a parent for making my young kids endure so many long flights.
Surprisingly, the kids did great on the flights. Other more obvious ways to pass long flights include sleeping (I prefer overnight flights to daytime ones so we all sleep; melatonin helps), snacks galore, downloading shows to a tablet or mobile phone, books, hand-held video games, and compact toys, cards, and games from home (Sushi Go, Skip Bo, and Anomia are faves).
4. The “take turns” method
This might be my favourite of all the family travel hacks. Why? It involves FREEDOM! The take turns method (TTM) is a brilliant way to maintain sanity while travelling with kids. One parent takes all the kids for a couple of hours or however long you want, and the other gets to do WHATEVER. THEY. DAMN. WELL. PLEASE.
The free parent can relax, do a non-kid-friendly activity, or take the opportunity to get shit done (social media, emails, getting groceries, laundry, packing, etc.). We often use the TTM for much-needed relaxation time.
Nick and I use the TTM at home in Canada, but it’s even more important while travelling, as you’re together 24/7. Being with people for weeks on end around the clock creates the need for a break every few days – even if they’re your most favourite people in the world.
5. RESEARCH and PLANNING are key
As the person who plans all our travel, this is one of my family travel hacks that I cannot stress the importance of enough. Try to not show up somewhere without a place to stay or inkling of knowledge about said place. I travelled like this in my backpacking days before kids and it makes everything harder. I understand if you’re on an around-the-world trip or doing long-term travel, yes of course you can’t have everything booked. But planning ahead means more time to see and do all the fun things!
At a minimum, I recommend having all your international and domestic flights booked, plus all accommodations. Trip Advisor is my travel bible for reviews. It leads me to the best hotels, restaurants, and attractions in any destination. Lonely Planet guides are my favourite hard-copy travel books. They rate up-and-coming places as must-dos before other guides, and list hidden gems that won’t have as many tourists.
Figuring out entry requirements, visas, and immunizations prior to travel is a must. Many countries require only a passport, but others such as Vietnam, Russia, and China require a visa. For immunizations, there are many destinations where you’ll need Hepatitis A and B, along with typhoid and all routines vaccinations, at a minimum. Visit the travel clinic or check with your doctor a few months before leaving.
I also research if restaurants in my destinations offer children’s menus or Western food options. I figure out how we’ll generally get around (if we’re renting a car or hiring a driver, I book this prior; if we plan to use public transport, I look into which train, subway, or bus is most efficient).
Last but not least, at a minimum, we learn “hello“, “goodbye“, “please“, and “thank you” in the local language. You’ll be happy with how far these few words get you with locals, who especially love when kids say them. Plus, it’s fun to say words like “arigato gozaimasu!”
6. Family travel hacks for making boring airport layovers and road trips fun
Worried about a long layover or road trip? Feeling guilty the kids are on screens too much while travelling?
Escalators and moving walkways in airports provide endless fun for kids. Going up and down is fun already. But you can also time how long it takes or have escalator races. Dare I say you could even play “ride the suitcase” on the moving walkways – but for the love of God, leave room for others to walk past you. Many airports also have kids’ play rooms. We’ve killed boring layovers in these in Seattle, Tokyo, heck, even my small city of Kelowna, Canada has one. When in doubt, ask.
We’ve spent hours on road trips (Canada is big) or in standstill traffic (ahem, Bali) with no Wi-Fi playing car games such as “would you rather” or “two truths and a lie.” Would you rather is when you say two scenarios, like, “would you rather have a snake slither over you or a tarantula crawl on you?” and everyone has to pick what they’d do (the former, clearly). In two truths and a lie, you say two facts that are true about yourself and one lie, and the others have to guess the lie. You can also try Lonely Planet Games on the Go 1st Ed., which I’m about to get my hands on for our next trip.
7. Don’t forget the GAFHIM kit
The what kit? The GAFHIM kit is so important. This is the acronym I’ve created to cover general family medical needs at all times while travelling. We’ve used every one of the letters multiple times (except I try to stay away from the I, but it can be necessary). And for you medical people, yes I know I’ve mixed brand names and generic names.
G is for Gravol: for carsickness, seasickness, or any nauseating circumstance. If you’re extra prone, get some Dramamine too.
A is for Acetaminophen (Tylenol): a no-brainer and good to have on hand for any kid or adult fevers, pain… or hangovers.
F is for first-aid: I have a tiny square first aid kit with Band-Aids, iodine, gauze, scissors, and medical tape that I bring.
H is for Hydralyte (or your local electrolyte tablet): great for dehydration from jet lag, active pursuits, or too many mojitos.
I is for Imodium: juuuuust in case you get hit by the TD.
M is for melatonin: for helping the whole family sleep on long or overnight flights, or when kids are overtired and all you want is some shut-eye.
8. Get ’em while they’re young
Waiting until your kids are old enough to remember a trip before you go? Don’t. This is only my humble opinion (and I know some would disagree), but here’s why: we don’t travel only to create memories. We travel to allow new experiences to teach us, help us grow, and shape our character. I can guarantee you the trips we took when our kids were younger had a positive effect on them, even though they may not remember them.
Why is this a hack? Well, hacks are all about productivity and efficiency. If you start travelling with your kids when they’re babies or toddlers, they’ll become accustomed to different scenarios, and more adaptable to new ones, making it a hell of a lot easier to travel as they get older. Imagine how much more efficient your older kids will travel if they’ve already been on multiple flights, tried many new foods, learned words in different languages, experienced different people and cultures, and generally “get” this whole international travel thing. I can’t wait for those trips.
9. Bring food
Oh, how I would love if my kids tried all the delectable foods in the places we travel to. Yeah, it doesn’t happen. I’m happy to get them eating plain vermicelli noodles and chunks of meat with the sauce wiped off.
So we don’t just bring snacks for the plane. We bring meal replacements for when our kids eat nothing on the menu. In many countries, there’s no kids’ menu. You may be lucky enough to get a page of “Western” food options, which should please your kids with pizza, pasta, or burgers.
On any trip to a place I know the food will be different, I pack a large Ziploc bag of healthy protein bars, granola bars, and dry snacks. There have been restaurant meals where my kid ate nothing but a protein bar. At least he’s getting nutrients.
One thing can be said for almost anywhere in the world – there’s always fruit. And kids love fruit.
10. A couple drinks always helps (don’t judge me)
This one doesn’t require much explanation. Plain and simple – looking after kids is easier and more fun when you’ve had a couple. When you throw in jet lag, long days of sightseeing, and tired kids, having a couple (or more) drinks becomes the family travel hack of all family travel hacks.
Time to make that booking
There you go – my tried and tested family travel hacks. I plan to update this post as we travel more with our kids, and I hope it fuels your confidence to book a family trip to somewhere you’re dreaming of visiting. Because if it isn’t hard, it isn’t worth it. Forget the hard and focus on the experience.
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