Travelling with children
Travelling as a family allows experiences to be shared. It can add interest to family time together away from the pressures of work and education. You can gain different perspectives on places when travelling in a group with children. It is often easier to get to meet local people, people can be friendlier, and when picking educational experiences for children you often learn something yourself.
However, it also often means extra preparation to ensure that you can all enjoy the experiences. You have to balance the needs of everyone in the group, and try and avoid many of the additional expenses that can apply to travelling as a group. You may have to deal with bored children in airports or on long trips, extra luggage when they get tired, and some frustration when they complain after going to all the planning effort when you could have left them at home with the grandparents.
Luckily, when you return home the crisis times seem to fade, and the memories of the activities together get remembered.
Make sure your kids are well rested before any long distances of travel. You do not want to bring a tired and grumpy child through security, or have them squirming and complaining in the coach or car. Do not overfeed your kids before a trip either. You do not want to get up every ten minutes to go to the bathroom with them and you do not want them to vomit.
Who qualifies as a child?
You know what a child is, but when travelling the definition of a child varies. Normally it is based on age. There may also be minimum or maximum weight and height restriction on some attractions for safety purposes. It is also worth noting that often the definition of a child will differ for hotels, flights and travel insurance. For example while generally we accept that someone may be considered a child up to the age of 18, travel insurance may sometimes let a child remain on a parents travel policy well into their 20's, depending on whether they are full-time students etc.
- Infants and toddlers under 2 to 5 years. – often no charge.
- Children under about 12 or sometimes 14 years – child rates normally apply.
- Young People/Teenagers 14 to 18 years – child rates may apply in some cases.
- Young Adults 18 and up – full-time students under 26 can qualify for discounts with an International Student ID.
The individual guides include child prices for attractions and transport. It is worth reading the details of the attractions to see if it is something that your child may be interested in.
Articles on travel with children to specific destinations:
- Giza with children
- Charlotte with children
- London with children
- Japan with children
- New York City with children
- San Diego with children
- Stockholm with children
- Venice with children
- New Orleans with children
Try to find a direct flight to your destination, at off-peak travel times. The less time you spend walking through airports and clearing security check points, the better. You are going to have to carry plenty of extra baggage, and this will become a nuisance if you have to keep unpacking. A crowded airport is full of stimuli that can upset/ excite/ bewilder a young child, so travelling at a quieter time will make the journey easier.
Age policy around child and infant tickets varies between airlines. As a general rule children under 2 often have the option of traveling sitting on your lap and not being assigned a seat. Lap infants can travel free on domestic flights in some countries and sometimes at a 10% fare on international flights. Airport and government charges are usually not applied to children under 2, thereby reducing ticket price further. They may not have the same baggage allowance as adults.
During take-off and landings infants on your lap should be held in an upright position facing you and against you, with your hands supporting their back and neck. Some infants are more comfortable nursing during these periods and most flight attendants will allow it. Saving a feed for the descent can make the baby much more comfortable. With some carriers a lap belt is available that loops into the adult belt and then around the lap infant for take-off and landings.
Consider putting infants with their own seat in an approved car seat appropriate for their age and weight. This is compulsory n the USA, and recommended in other jurisdictions. Still, best to confirm with your airline about it, as some airlines try to restrict carry-on, and other airlines will not permit an unsupported infant in a seat without a car-seat.
Some airlines do not have the facilities for infants to be booked through their website, and you must contact the call center or a travel agent. Your infant is recognized as an individual passenger on a flight and therefore you must book their ticket before flying. Turning up at an airport with an infant who has no ticket will cause difficulties at check-in.
Infants younger than two weeks may require a certificate from a doctor saying they are able to fly.
If you have infants under 6 months old on a long-haul flight you may be able to request a bassinet (baby bed) which attaches to the bulkhead. Needless to say, this can make long flight much more comfortable for the parent and child. The age, height and weight requirement for using a bassinet depends on the airline. Requirements are usually listed on the airline's website. There are also limited bassinet seating options depending on the aircraft itself. If you check-in after they have been allocated then it will unfortunately not be an option for you.
For older infants, consider a bulkhead seat Arm rests don't go up (the tray is in the armrest), and you have to stow your carry-on bags in the overhead compartment during take-off and landing since there is no seat in front of you. On the plus side, bulkhead seats have more legroom, often enough for moving around without disturbing the occupant of the aisle seat, and there is no seat in front for the child to kick. Some airlines will let you book these when you purchase tickets, others give them out at a first-come-first-served basis at check-in only. Airlines won't let you place infants on the floor at your feet to sleep.
Children between 2 and 12 must have their own ticket. Children this age are usually given a discounted rate (typically 75% of the adult fare) on full service international airlines, but usually have no discount on discount international or domestic airlines. Discounted children's tickets may have different baggage allowances so check before showing up. Children's meals are available on some flights offering meals. The usual rules for special meals apply, and they must be ordered in advance. Picky eaters may prefer a bag lunch.
Unaccompanied children are usually children under 12 traveling without a supervising adult. Not all airlines accept unaccompanied children, especially discount airlines. An unaccompanied child may be required to travel on a full adult fare, and additional fees may be charged. Unaccompanied children will need to be collected at their destination by a named caregiver and may be returned to their point of departure if not collected. Some airlines do not permit connections and no airlines permit connections to different airlines. In Russia a special official document is necessary that states that the child has permission to travel alone.
Seat allocation is important. At a minimum you want to be seated next to your child, but few airlines will actually guarantee that you are. Make sure you and your child are on a single reservation. Try and reserve your seats in advance, if the airline or agent permit it. Check-in early, and if you are not seated together make sure the flight manager is aware you are travelling with a child. If you still can't get a seats together, just make sure you get a window or an aisle seat, as these are easy to swap on board, whereas swapping a centre seat can be a nightmare.
At the airport
Airports often have play areas as well as nursery or parent rooms with changing tables and rocking chairs for nursing.
Parents with smaller children can keep their hands free with a baby sling or baby backpack. Slings can be used on the plane with small infants and can give some privacy when nursing. Many parents find a stroller a life saver when flying. Some airports and airlines will let you keep a stroller with you until boarding, and the stroller is brought to the gate at arrival. Some airlines allow one stroller to be check at the gate in addition to normal baggage allowances.
In the air
Once in the air, flight attendants should be able to heat milk or water for a bottle, and point out which lavatories have changing tables. Pack a small grab-bag with one or two diapers and wipes for changing, since there's not a lot of room to move around in the lavatories and you won't want to bring your whole diaper bag. Flights with meals can include an infant meal with baby food, but you'll want to bring some favorite snacks in case this is not available.
Young infants are often content to nurse and sleep through a flight, while older babies will require some entertainment. Bring small bags of snacks and toys and dole them out every 10–15 minutes so there's always something new to play with. Small amounts of playdough, books, and crayons are good ideas. Avoid anything messy or with small parts that can get lost under foot. Anything too noisy will probably not be appreciated by other travellers. Take walks up and down the aisle every half hour or so and look for other babies and young children. Making a friend (and talking with other parents) can make the flight go faster.
Flying in a group can be fun as children can keep each other busy. On a large plane such as a Boeing 747 or Airbus A380, you will want to reserve the four seats in the middle. The armrests move up allowing for children to sleep. Another option if you're flying Air New Zealand or China Airlines is the Skycouch or Family Couch: a row of three economy seats which can convert into a flat "couch" by raising the legrests and retracting the armrests. It costs extra, and is not available on all aircraft models and flights, but it does give more room for children to lay down than buying regular economy seats. On smaller planes pair one parent or old child with younger children and make sure everyone is supervised at all times.
Time also passes more quickly for children with video entertainment, like a familiar TV show for younger children.
If trans-continental flights seem too long for children, try planning a stopover or two in between. For example, Air Canada has a five-hour flight from St. John's, Newfoundland to London Heathrow for a trans-Atlantic trip. Trans-Pacific flights are a bit more challenging, but Hawaii and Guam (or in some cases, Anchorage, Alaska) are possibilities. Look at a round globe (not a flat map) for more ideas. Keep in mind this will involve more take-offs and landings, as well as getting from one flight to another, so it's a trade off. In addition, it will probably cost a lot more as well, especially if you can't keep the trip to just one airline and its affiliates.
Some countries require children to travel in appropriate child car seats when travelling by car.
Tips for a long car trip
- Try to break the trip up into small sessions. Keeping a young and energetic toddler confined to a car seat can be as stressful for them as it is for you.
- Take a music collection your child enjoys. From time-to-time children are more than happy to bop along to your choices because at that age they don’t have a say, or an opinion, but when they’re distressed, over-tired or just plain bored – you need a better trick up your sleeve. Soundtracks to films such as Jungle Book and Mary Poppins seem to do the trick for younger children as well as a selection of fun children’s stories on CD. When all else fails, try soothing classical music to keep baby cooing. An alternative way is to scan the local radio for music stations
- Take a selection of toys to keep them occupied. Keep a little rucksack in the car filled with books and toys and keep a selection of ‘non-toys’ to pull out in an emergency. A bicycle tyre pump and a glovebox road atlas are good and safe options to raise a smile as well as make them think they are playing with something that they are not usually allowed.
- Frequent stops for fresh air, nappy changes and just plain freedom, are essential on road-trips. Pack a blanket and a sandwich to make these stops more fun for all.
Children do occasionally get travel sick and vomit on long car trips, especially when the road winds. Sometimes they do not give enough notice to pull over properly. Preparing for this eventuality will enable you to recover should it happen, just having water, soap and a cloth stop this being any more unpleasant than it has to be. Consider carrying travel sickness bags if you have older children who can use them.
Sharing a seatbelt with a child is dangerous.
Several companies make small, portable, restraints that act as travel-carseats. These can be folded up and packed in a day bag for use in rental cars and taxis. These only work, however, if there are adult lap or shoulder belts. In more developed countries a child car seat imported may not have the connections or be certified for use in the destination country, and again you may need to request one when you rent a car or hire a taxi.
Car seat regulations are lax in many developing countries and you may choose to carry your own. However, in many countries, especially in South Asia, taxis may not even be equipped with seat belts. In these countries, you will either have to learn to live without a car seat and safety belt, or carry your own car seat and hire a car equipped with working seat belts.
If you are renting a car, most rental companies rent you a child and infant seats at an additional cost.
The availability of carseats and the legal requirement to use or provide one in a taxi varies from city to city and country to country.
Many cities in the United States require the use of a child car seat in a taxi but some (New York City is a prominent one) exempt taxis from these requirements. In London, black cabs are exempt from the carseat regulation but minicabs must provide one on request. If you want your child to be in a suitable restraint, either carry your own or check local regulations before traveling.
By bus or train
Make sure your children are seated and holding on to something in case of sudden stops. Buses and trains at certain times and places, can often be very crowded.
Like when traveling by car, a little rucksack with books, toys and similar may save your day on longer journeys. Something to eat and drink is also good to have.
Some trains have children's cars, with playing space, entertainment, a place to heat food for infants and a well equipped toilet. Get a ticket with seats in or near that car.
If your train is late for a change, talk to the conductor, as your ability to run or adjust your plans are limited. They are often understanding.
While the problems in tunnels in terms of pressure in the ears are not entirely unlike on planes, most travel problems children encounter are lessened by trains having more space and running at or close to ground level.
Going by boat can be a great way to cover a lot of ground with young children or a fun way to relax with the whole family. Before booking you'll want to find out some specifics, at least on some journeys:
- Are there child and/or infant rates? Do they include any activities?
- How safe is the boat for children? What sort of railing is there on the main decks and/or cabin balconies?
- What sort of child-friendly food is there?
- Is it possible to request an early dining time?
- Is there a children's play room and/or children's club on the boat?
- Is baby sitting service available? In the cabins? In the evening?
When aboard, find out if there are life vests and other safety/emergency equipment available for smaller children (they may be at a separate location).
Keep children close by at all times and always check whether there are dangers, such as insufficient railing.
While some cruises are specifically geared towards families and children, almost all cruise lines now have some services for families. Before booking a cruise you'll want to find out some specifics:
- Are the excursions suitable for children? How much walking is involved? Is it possible to visit the sites unaccompanied?
Increasingly, any child, including a newborn baby, needs their own passport, rather than being able to travel on their mother's passport. Check with your local authorities in plenty of time to get a separate passport for each of your children. You may also want to allow time to check into requirements for children's passport photographs as some countries apply the same restrictions to photos of babies as they do to photos of adults. (For example, the United Kingdom used to require that the baby had a neutral expression on its face and was looking at the camera with the colour of its eyes visible—a difficult feat for newborns!)
Many countries will require that all adults who have a legal parental relationship with a child agree to a passport being issued to the child. Allow extra time for the application if you think you will have any difficulty demonstrating this.
Permission to travel with children
Single parents travelling alone with their children can often be asked questions at immigration about the status of the other parent. Usually a straightforward reply will suffice to satisfy the immigration official. A single parent with a different surname to the child may have additional questions to satisfy immigration. Some countries recommend a letter from any legal guardian who is not travelling with you, agreeing to your travel plans, or documentation of court orders granting you sole custody or similar arrangements. Some countries can have an official requirement for a particular type of documentation. Check with the appropriate department of your destination to make sure.
Friends or relatives travelling with children should seek advice from the authorities at the origin and destination as to what, if any, documentation they may require.
In general, if court orders apply to the care of children, for example following a divorce, you may wish to seek legal advice as to whether there is any risk of them being challenged at your destination. Take particular care if your child or your child's parents are citizens or possible dual-nationals of the destination country.
Take your time. If you try to make the city as in adult company, you will soon be miserable. Children often do not understand the grandness of the destinations; a toddler at the Rotterdam Zoo may well be most interested in the ants. A picnic, a nap, a visit to a small playground, simple things you could as well do at home, will all help the children keep their good temper.
Attractions such as swimming pools and amusement parks generally require younger children to be supervised by an adult caregiver or responsible older child. Age limits vary but if the child is getting in at the child rate, expert supervision is also required. If in doubt, ask.
Many restaurants can accommodate young children and serve children sized meals. However, checking before booking a table is always wise. Some restaurants cater especially for families and offer permanent special deals.
Infants and young children
Breastfeeding: By far the easiest way to feed infants and young children on a trip. There's no preparation or utensils required and nothing extra to pack. While some places, including several US states, Scotland, and Canada, have laws guaranteeing a mother's right to nurse in public, it may be unacceptable or illegal in others. Usually this just requires some discretion such as choosing a private place or using a sling for privacy, but it's best to be aware of legal and cultural issues before you arrive. Mothers with new or colicky infants should be aware of the effect of introducing new or spicy food into their diet, as this can change the flavor of their milk.
Bottlefeeding: Preparing milk or formula for young children while travelling requires some planning. On an extended trip or road trip it may be worth bringing a small electric kettle for boiling water unless you know you will have facilities available. Bring a bottle brush and soap for cleaning bottles or pumps in bathroom sinks. Check the availability of formula at your destination, or bring your own. Travel may not be the best time to try changing formula. If your child has special needs (such as soy based or organic/wheat-free formula), check that these are available at the destination. Mothers who are expressing and storing breastmilk for bottlefeeding will need to check on appropriate refrigeration facilities.
Sweets and juice are a multi-purpose tool. They can be used as a reward system in boring times. For example. Child says: 'I'm bored!' Parent says: 'If you sit still and read your book for another half an hour, we can park at a rest stop and eat some cake.'
Chewy sweets and suckers are also great for relieving the pressure on a child's ears when landing and taking off in an airplane. Have these ready, especially for younger children who are flying for the first time.
Places that serve alcoholic drinks may prohibit children. Check the local bylaws before entering bars and restaurants. There may be a special family entertaining area that can be used.
Many accommodation places are set up for adult singles and couples. Travelling as a group of three or more may require you to reserve an extra room or a special family suite. You should always reserve accommodation well in advance so that the proprietor can make appropriate arrangements, such as installing an extra bed. There may be additional charges for extra people as well.
In some locations there may formally be strict rules about number of persons in a room (enforced by booking software), while the proprietors could not care less and are happy to make needed arrangements. A phone call before doing the booking can help in such situations.
Hotels often offer in-house babysitting services or can refer you to a local service.
What to take for your trip
The physical environment when travelling may have a negative affect on your child. To be prepared, you should consider bringing a few helpful provisions:
- Child-friendly motion sickness pills
- Lip Balm and moisturiser for dry skin
- Paracetamol (acetaminophen if in the US.)
- Sunscreen (check suitability for children)
- Child car seat sun visor
Children are messy at the best of times. When they are in a car or on a plane, they make even more mess than usual. Do not give them full glasses of juice or watery puddings. Very importantly: keep your bag of cleaning essentials close by – not locked away in the overhead compartment, or in the boot of the car. Messy incidents will happen at the most inopportune times. Here is a basic checklist to consider:
- Wet wipes – an absolute must
- A bag to throw rubbish in
- A change of clothes for you and your child – trust us, you could very well need it
- Extra wet wipes
- Spare nappies
- A tea towel or two
- Travel potty
- More wet wipes
- Have we mentioned wet wipes yet?
What to bring back home
- Magnets for a fridge are very popular with infants at 7-10 months. (They like to remove them from fridge and, later, to put it back. This is an exercise for the arms.) Prefer rubber magnets with no sharp edges, no more than twice the size of the child's palm.
For bigger children
- T-shirts with funny stamps.
- Various presents according to age.
Travellers, especially those on long trips for business or study, may have children born while outside their home country. Aside from making sure that local birthing or medical facilities meet your requirements, you will wish to make sure that your child's birth is sufficiently well-documented that you can at some point take them home! Check with your home country's embassy about how to register the child's birth and apply for or record their citizenship. Children born in some countries become citizens of that country by right of birth, but this is not necessarily the case: if not, you will not only have to establish their citizenship of your home country but also meet any visa requirements and so on for them to stay with you.
Your children should have age appropriate knowledge of what to do when lost. Have an age appropriate plan, and make sure everyone knows what they are going to do before setting out.
Younger children should always carry a card with their name, your name, contact details (hopefully including a mobile phone and accommodation details). It is too much to expect a young child to remember all this in an emergency situation.
Consider giving giving older children a mobile phone, or money and instructions on how to use a public phone.
An example of a plan could be for a child to go to last place they knew you were together, while the adult retraces their steps. Another plan includes nominating a particular location to meet on a particular trip.
Teach children who you would like them to approach. Consider whether you would like them to approach someone in uniform, which is something most children will recognise.
Children may have special health needs while travelling:
- Very young babies may not be able to receive any vaccines, even routine ones, and will be very ill if infected with the associated diseases. Check with a healthcare provider about travelling with a child who is not vaccinated, either by choice or for age reasons.
- Your healthcare providers can advise on the suitability of travel vaccinations for older children, if they cannot receive them you may wish not to travel to some destinations. Some children have difficulty swallowing tablets, and if they cannot it can make things like Malaria prophylaxis extremely difficult (many tablets cannot be crushed; while some can, always check with the prescribing doctor or a licensed pharmacist before doing so with any given medication.) Practice with M&Ms.
- Children get cold faster than adults. If in a cold climate or participating in winter sports, your children may need warmer clothes than you do, and it's likely that by the time you feel the cold your children are already on the way to hypothermia.
- Children suffer motion sickness more easily than adults, particularly since they are usually relegated to smaller seats with less visibility. You might need to give them travel sickness medication and prepare to clean up if they are sick. Regular pit stops on car trips to let them get out and walk around help. If possible, choose seats with windows at the right height and in the front in buses.
- Children and especially babies have trouble equalising their ears on airplanes. Teach older children to yawn and offer them hard candy or gum for take off and landings. Babies should nurse or drink something to help with the pressure. For toddlers, bring a spill-proof cup and have them drink something during take-off and landing. However, if they're asleep, don't wake them, they'll be fine.
- Train your child a couple of weeks beforehand to brush their teeth and rinse out of a water bottle (if appropriate) and to wear slippers in the hotel rooms as well as thongs in the shower to avoid picking up any foot fungus. Spraying feet with a fungicide may be a good preventative measure, but ask your physician first. If the doctor approves, consider making it routine for a while before leaving.
Make sure your kids are well rested before any long distances of travel. You do not want to bring a tired and grumpy child through security, or have them squirming and complaining in the coach or car. Do not overfeed your kids before a trip either. You do not want to get up every ten minutes to go to the bathroom with them and you do not want them to vomit
Make sure your child has enough to keep him or her busy, entertained and satisfied for the duration of the trip. Think about all the on-flight entertainment available for adults – drinks, food, movies, sitcoms, soaps, documentaries, newspapers and music. Now double that and you are somewhere close to what your child needs.
Pack a rucksack full of toys for each child (they will use it the whole holiday), including one or two new ones that are wrapped – these do not have to be expensive. Don't let them open them until they get on the plane. Build up the excitement for them. If you are packing a gaming console, like a DS, make sure you have extra batteries. This applies to all electronic products.
When leaving a toddler in a kindergarten or with a babysitter, it's always a great idea to first make such an experience in your home country, in less unfamiliar conditions:
- make sure a toddler is generally comfortable to stay without parents with a stranger [and with other children]
- escape a language barrier that is much more likely to be found when travelling
- avoid putting under risk time-sensitive travel plans for a day