Traveling with kids: ways to make it work

Let’s be honest, OK? Traveling with a young child is a hassle. You need to maintain their schedule, or suffer the consequences. You need to pack and carry a lot of stuff. You are paying for experiences they will likely not even remember. But the compounding benefits of a well-traveled child will, I believe, serve both kids and parents.

a fountain in Dublin

When traveling with kids, fountains are your friend.

In the past few months we’ve taken several short trips from our home base in the middle of Germany. We’ve been to Berlin, London, Dublin and Salzburg and I can confidently say we had a great time in each of those places. A fair amount of preparation, a little luck and a surprise or two helped make each excursion fairly painless for all involved. Here’s why traveling with a young child can really rock.

1. Hospitality professionals are great with kids.

We flew on eight Lufthansa flights recently and on each one, E was greeted enthusiastically by the flight crew. They made him feel special and he was given a different game or toy on every flight. We’re still playing with the LEGO plane and pilot he received.

We hit the jackpot with several hotels. The ApartHotel in Berlin offers a family suite with a separate kids’ bedroom, a washing machine(!), a full kitchen with kid-sized utensils and an immense breakfast buffet.

ApartHotel Berlin family suite

The amazing family suite at the ApartHotel in Berlin.

In London, we stayed at the St. James Court where E was presented with a backpack at check-in. Inside were colored pencils and a coloring book, games, and a teddy bear dressed like one of the Queen’s guards.

While not billed specifically as a kid-friendly hotel, the Dylan in Dublin had the most amazing staff I’ve ever encountered as a parent. The waiter we saw at breakfast greeted E by name each day and brought us little extras, like fruit already cut into bite-sized pieces and small glasses of milk. When E had a melt-down one morning and I removed him from the restaurant, the two gentlemen at the front desk (fathers of young children themselves, we discovered) offered to open up the private lounge so I could have a space to myself to help him calm down. They also chatted with E each afternoon about his day and gave us lots of family-friendly tips for restaurants and activities.

2. You’ll meet lots of locals

Many tourist attractions hold little enchantment for young children, but neighborhood playgrounds, cafes, parks and zoos always fit the bill. We scouted nearby playgrounds and walking trails in each city and every time ended up chatting with local families who gave us tips about places to eat and things to do. Our own insiders guide and new friends for E to boot!

A fairy house in Salzburg

Iron Man discovered this fairy house on a hike far off the tourist trail.

3. A slower–and non-linear–pace

Forget the whirlwind tour of historical highlights. Kids force you to slow down and take in your surroundings in bite-size portions. You won’t hit all the big tourist spots, but you’ll find things you never would have seen if you followed the guidebook. Lingering in front of the main tourist attractions in Salzburg led to a fascinating conversation about puppetry with one of the performers. Hitting the local pub before the evening rush led to a lengthy chat with our server and some new and tasty discoveries. A simple afternoon walk to get the wiggles out led to a pretty neighborhood with a quiet canal and plenty of ducks to feed.

London’s free museum admission is perfect for families. However long (or short) the time you spend, you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. My grand plan to hit three museums in one afternoon fell apart when E became so enchanted with the Science Museum that we spent five hours exploring the hands-on areas. But he was happy, I was happy and there was no reason to hustle him to the next destination.

And when a short rain shower delayed a meet up at the end of the day, a quick duck into the National Portrait Gallery turned into E’s first introduction to several great masters–without any guilt that it only lasted 15 minutes.

Monet's waterlilies

E among the waterlilies.

So it’s true, we didn’t tour Mozart’s house, kiss the Blarney Stone, see the Crown Jewels or visit Museum Island. But we did hike to a castle, splash in fountains, eat shepherd’s pie, touch the Berlin Wall, and stand before Big Ben as it struck 12. And those are the memories I want and that I hope to keep on creating.

 

Full disclosure: Some of our accommodations were part of business travel, and therefore not paid by us personally. However, we received no special treatment or compensation for our stay at any of the hotels listed above and all opinions are my own and based on my personal experience.

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The long-haul carry-on bag

kid's back pack for travel

packed up and ready to roll

After several flights with E, I’ve developed a few rules for our carry-on bags to help make our journeys more enjoyable. While every flight is different, and needs change as E grows, we have a few tried-and-true items we never leave home without. Will they eliminate the possibility of melt-downs? No. Will they end all boredom and wiggling? No. But hopefully they will give us at least a bit of peace and quiet and keep us from being that family on the plane.

E’s backpack

Fjallraven mini back pack

Kid’s backpack, perfect for long trips and short hops.

E loves to carry his own back pack and pick out the things that will go inside. I got him this yellow Fjallraven for a few reasons:

  1. It is mini-sized, so it won’t make him top-heavy.
  2. The top handles make it easy for me to grab if I need to keep him out of harm’s way.
  3. The bright color makes him easy to spot and and the backpack hard to accidentally leave behind.
  4. The straps adjust all the way to grown-up length, so if he decides to ditch it, I can put it on and keep my hands free.

It doesn’t hold a lot, which I think is a good thing. He can find what he’s looking for and there aren’t’ so many items that I can’t keep track of them when he invariably pulls them all out and dumps then on the floor.

In his back pack, we tend to stash the following:

  • Crayons and Post-it notes in an old Altoids tin (thanks Pinterest!)
  • A stuffed animal
  • A Melissa and Doug Water Wow tablet
  • Snacks
  • A few books
  • A  rubber dinosaur
  • Fuzzy pipe cleaners
  • Tape (Tape is awesome. Make tape balls, stick it on your face to make funny faces, re-seal snacks, label stuff…)

I carry my trusty L.L. Bean Quad backpack which has traveled with us on several trips and holds an amazing amount of gear and flotsam.

L.L. Bean Quad back pack

L.L. Bean Quad back pack

In my back pack:

  • Toddler water bottle
  • E’s blanket
  • Overnight essentials dopp kit (toothpaste and tooth brush, facial wipes, contact lenses and glasses, etc.)
  • Diaper change pack
  • Set of clothes for E
  • Set of clothes for me (Do not discount this one. If your child gets motion sickness, the person they throw up on will not be themselves. Trust me.)
  • iPad and charging cord!
  • Travel documents and wallet
  • Headphones for both of us (one noise-cancelling set, one ear-bud set)
  • Snacks
  • A few small, wrapped toys to use in a emergency

Will we forget something? Of course! But we are not traveling to a remote or desolate destination. We’re traveling to a major international airport. As long as we have enough diapers to get us through any delayed flights and tarmac-sitting, I think we will be OK.