challenges to family travel and how to overcome them

This one’s for the parents. I polled my Instagram followers for some of their biggest obstacles to traveling with their kids and these are a few of the things they shared with me. I know you’re reading this while hiding in the bathroom for a minute, daydreaming about the day you can go on a vacation…without your kids…so I’ll jump right in. There are many challenges to family travel. Especially if it has been a while, you’re feeling rusty, or you just don’t travel as a family often. Practice makes perfect and I am here to help!

Four common challenges to family travel and how to overcome them.

Let’s discuss. 

1. Stuff overload.

I often feel like an actual traveling circus when we hit the road, or the airport as a family. Packing is one of my biggest challenges to family travel. I’ve shared some packing tips before, you can check those out here. Keep reading and I’ll tell you a few of my favorite ways to combat the soul-crushing amount of kid-gear you feel obligated to tote along when traveling. Here is a list of things we bring, or choose from when traveling, basically since becoming parents, and still now with our two and four year old boys:

Our Kid-Gear Packing List

I’m sweating as I type this. It’s all so much. But we don’t bring it all, every time, and we certainly leave as much behind as we can, when we can. It varies if we’re flying vs. driving, where we will be staying, what type of activities we will be doing, and the ages of our children (we’re about to retire the pack n’ play and I’m going to throw a party when we do).

Here are a few ways to combat the stuff.

One. Be sure to check with your accommodations ahead of time about the possibility of providing an infant crib. This is a huge item and if you can leave it, awesome. Same applies to high chair. Ours is like a small camp chair, packs super small, light, and makes containing mealtime mess in an apartment so much easier, that it is worth it to bring. Often times Airbnb-type apartments will have baby beds and high chairs (as advertised, or upon request). If you’re planning to stay in a hotel and eat out all the time, then obviously leave the chair at home.

Two. Pack things inside of things and consolidate. The Ergo 360 carrier can fit inside a pocket of the Osprey backpack. The portable high chair can fit inside the middle of the folded up Pack n’ Play. Little pillows can be smooshed in the folded toddler cots. It doesn’t make for less, but it will feel like it. 

Three. Consider whether or not you need either a stroller, the child carrier backpack, or both. Often times one, or the other will do. Depending on how big your kid is, and the types of adventures for which you are traveling, you might be able to make-do with a more pack-able carrier like the Ergo 360 vs. the heavier duty Osprey backpack.  The Ergo holds a child up to 45lbs, making it something we could (and have) technically use for our four year old. My favorite combination is the Ergo 360 and our light stroller. We can throw it in the bottom of the stroller and pull it out when both sets of little feet are tired at the same time, or if our adventures take us off-road and we need to carry our two year old on a hike or something. 

Lastly, diapers. If you’re in this stage, bless you. I can’t stand packing diapers, they take up so much space. But I also don’t feel like running around to find diapers upon arrival. So I pack them. If it’s a weekend, I pack four days’ worth. If its a longer trip, I pack everything I’ll need for three, or four days and then buy a pack of diapers in the meantime.

Oh, finally, finally, do not forget the night light and download a white noise app on your phone or tablet. 

Boys Please Cry at Amsterdam Museum of Contemporary Design

2. Sibling arguing.

Another challenge to traveling as a family is a constant togetherness. Someone is going to get on someone else’s nerves, guaranteed. My boys are still very young, and their biggest squabbles these days are mostly over little things like knocking over someone’s Duplo tower. We do deal with whining, complaining, bad manners in restaurants, and the occasional angry tantrum. We understand they come with the territory of young childhood, and these behaviors don’t just get left at home while the rest of us go on vacation (one can dream). As a parent, these scenarios can be painfully difficult in the moment. I imagine listening to, and refereeing bigger arguments between siblings must be too. But, more importantly, these are usually the first things to be forgotten when looking back on my memories. If I do remember them, because goodness knows we have our fair share- like the time the boys had their biggest collective meltdown on a glass-top Christmas lights boat tour in Amsterdam, or vomited in the car on the way in to Paris, or one parent eating at a time in a nice restaurant in Tallinn while the other walked the over-it toddler outside- I can usually look back and laugh. Because despite the best efforts by our children to (not purposefully) ruin an experience, they didn’t and WE DID IT! High five.

And so, my advice to parents is:

Persevere, because travel experiences are exceptionally bonding. Sibling arguing probably makes you want to pull your hair out, but in the long run, the time spent together as a traveling family will draw you closer and nurture the bonds that last a lifetime.*

*or, earplugs.

Home away from home in Tartu

3. Cost.

This one is tough. I’m here to advocate for taking the kids. More people, equals more money spent. It’s unavoidable. All budgets are different and there are an infinite number of ways to travel, and to save. Flying the family to Disney World is probably going to cost you a lot more than a road trip to Yellowstone. I suggest starting there to decide what kind of adventure you are saving towards. Budgets are infinitely different, the type of trip you want to take is a personal choice that will be different for everyone too, and as many budgets and personal preferences there are, are suggestions for ways to save. Read on, for a handful of simple, practical ways we like to save, when traveling as a family. 

Suggestions for Saving on Family Travel

One. Don’t settle until you do your research. The way things add up might surprise you! You’d love to travel to Europe. You might think the cost of flights to Europe are going to break your budget, right off the bat. But generally, Europe is a less expensive place to travel around than the United States, so you could end up making up the cost on that end and spending the same as you would on a similar trip stateside. In Europe, average hotel prices are less and food/beverages usually are too, both at grocery stores and restaurants. Once you’re there, you can get around by plane, train, or bus, for a fraction of the cost. A ticket for the two hour train ride from Szczecin to Berlin, was about $20 for the family last time we went. 

We for sure get more bang for our buck when we stay at Airbnb or apartments, vs. a hotel while we travel in Europe with our two boys. Our average cost per night for lodging on our recent Baltic States road trip was $99! Every place (except one) was a gorgeous one, or two bedroom, fully-equipped apartment and included a parking space (plus bonus high chairs, cribs and toy boxes at several locations!).

Our Airbnb in Warsaw last February was a quarter of the cost of our Airbnb in Paris in January. You can save by researching, and choosing a less expensive location. There’s plenty to see, and do, everywhere. Of course, if you absolutely must to go to Paris (because you must go to Paris, just once) with your kids, save-save-save and make it count! If the exact location you’d like to stay in is over your budget, research neighborhoods, or towns nearby that have charm and public transportation to where you really want to go. Neighborhoods are where it’s at if you really want to get to know a place, anyway. And double bonus, you can see two places while you’re there!

Two. Go on a road trip. If the idea of buying multiple, multiple airline tickets stops you from beginning to plan your vacation, go on a road trip, and make the journey part of the fun by stopping to see things, or people you know, along the way. Think of all the places you could go between Michigan and Florida. Stop in Nashville for a night! Eat BBQ and find some live music. Browse the aisles of a truck stop and indulge in some road trip retail therapy. Ahh, we’re talking my love language right there I think. Locate national parks on a route, or the Mall of America, or the Corn Palace and explore all the wonderful, random roadside attractions America has to offer. I have a few suggested road trips here, and if you need more ideas, drop me a line!

One of my favorite ways to travel is to go visit a far away friend, or family member. Stay a night or two, if they’re willing to host you. You can reconnect with your far-off people, and save on the price of a hotel for a night. 

Three. Travel in the off-season. While maybe not as appealing as far as weather, off-season travel has its perks. One being cost-savings. Two being avoidance of crowds. I’ve said this before, but it was so, so special to have the D-day beaches of Normandy to ourselves in December.  

Four. Use points, perks, and family discounts. There are airline credit cards with perks like a free annual companion flight, so someone in your family can fly free. Of course, kids under two fly free on domestic flights, but you have to weigh the physical and emotional pain you as the parent will endure by juggling your child for xx number of hours. Sometimes the cost is worth it, depending on general wiggly-ness of child and flight time. But if an extra ticket is going to keep you from going, use your credit card responsibly, then use the points or companion ticket to book that flight.

At museums and attractions, often times there are discounted (or even free!) tickets for children under a certain age. Traveling as a family can be a challenge, but it also has its perks! There are also often family discounts. You can look in to these ahead of time, most places will have them listed on websites, so you’ll know how much to budget for certain attractions you would like to see. 

Five. Set aside a separate travel savings fund, set a goal amount and start adding to it every month. Consider what you don’t need, clean out a closet or two, sell some stuff to give your fund an initial boost. Keep your eye on the prize and make sacrifices in other areas. Do you really need that new outfit? Can your phone survive one more year? Once you’ve reached your goal amount, book that trip! 

*Really boring, practical advice. Bring instant oatmeal packets for quick, easy, breakfast and save on the cost of eating out on one meal per day. And hit the ground running as soon as you’re done. 

Its natural

4. Breastfeeding and other private family matters.

Let’s add potty training, diaper changes and noisy crying. Family life is intimate. There are some things that you’d just rather do, or deal with, behind closed doors. Traveling with kids can feel vulnerable because you’re opening those doors and stepping out into the public eye in a big way.

First, let me reassure you that parenthood is a universal equalizer. Parents around the world are in it together.

Second, breastfeeding is normal, natural, universal, and American culture can be rather prudish about it. However, I understand that this is a private and very personal thing. Especially as a new mother, nursing your baby can feel quite vulnerable. If you’re shy about nursing your new baby, or have an older, easily distracted baby who likes to pop up and say hi to everyone, every so often, plan ahead to be in a quiet place during normal feeding times. This could be a park, where you can find a bench off to the side and keep your back to people, or a back booth in a restaurant. My babies and I never did care much for a nursing cover, but when needed, a muslin blanket (or burp cloth!) is light, and when folded, doesn’t take much space in the diaper bag. It doubles as a cover for privacy, as a place to change a diaper in the grass afterward, and a sun-shade for the stroller.

Third and, speaking of diaper changes, you might have to get creative. There’s a sinking feeling that goes along with walking in to a WC to change a diaper and discovering that you’re going to have to play diaper-change roulette, crouched with your baby on your knees, or with a standing-up toddler. Places we’ve changed diapers (including, but not limited to): front seat of car, camp chair on side of the road, next to a big tree in various green spaces, bathroom stall while repeating “don’t. touch. anything.” Most often though, you’ll find a changing table. I’m seeing more and more family restrooms too, for all hands-on deck, get-it-done-in-one-fell-swoop diaper and potty-ing. Some of these rooms even have a seat for a mother and baby for nursing.

Finally, potty training. One, I see parents with small children peeing next to a tree or a shrub in a park near the playground, all the time. It is ok if you are in the middle of a potty emergency and need to deploy this tactic. Two, here in Europe, I see grown men deploying this tactic alongside the highway. So don’t feel self-conscious. Three, if you are in Europe, keep a stash of coins so that you can quickly pay, if the nearest restroom requires a fee for entry (usually 0.70-2 Euro, or Zloty).

Noisy crying is noisy crying. Making a fuss makes it worse. Keep your cool and keep moving and no one will notice. 

. . .

Parents, I am your number one cheerleader! I want you to get out there with your kids! So let me encourage you. Parenthood is messy business and so much hard work. It can be messy and hard at home, or it can be messy and hard on the trip of a lifetime with your family. I want to help you overcome any challenges to family travel, please let me know what else you want to hear by dropping a comment below, or sending me a contact form. Go explore, broaden your horizons, and make some memories. You can do it!

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