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Traveling with Young Children

by Ryan Guina

My wife and I just returned from an out of state vacation, our first with both of our children, ages 1.5 and four. Two years ago we traveled with our oldest daughter who was two at the time, and we stayed with my parents. That was a relatively easy trip, and we didn’t need to book a hotel, rent a car, or worry about too much. But this was our first overnight trip traveling with both of our daughters. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but in the end, the trip went surprisingly well. Traveling with young children can be an adventure. Hopefully these tips can help make your next trip a little easier!

Flying vs. Driving

Travel with ChildrenWe would have had a 20+ hour drive, which would have meant a two-day road trip down there and another two-day trip on the return leg. Or, we could drive an hour and a half to the airport, spend a couple hours in the terminal, and take a two and a half hour flight. Then of course, rent a car and drive to the hotel. Altogether, we were looking at two twelve hour days, or one seven hour day for each leg of the trip. We chose the latter, which cost more, but saved us an enormous amount of time and emotional energy. When are children are older, we may consider driving as we can take our time and turn the trip into part of the vacation. But when our children are both under age four, time and convenience are the most important factors for us!

Flying with a Lap Child

If you have a child under the age of two, you may be able to take your child on your lap during the flight. Airline travel is safer than driving, and easier than most people think. We decided to take our youngest on board as a lap child. There are pros and cons to this, but some of the deciding factors came down to traveling as a family, and saving money. We flew on Southwest Airlines, so we had three seats in row. If we had bought four seats, we would have had to split up (which we will likely need to do in the future).

When flying with a lap child, you need to make sure you inform the airline in advance. For Southwest Airlines, you need to call and have the child’s name and DOB added to your itinerary. You also need to bring proper identification for your child, which includes a copy of a birth certificate, passport, or shot records. You also can’t print a lap child’s boarding pass from home, so you will need to check in at the airport to get a boarding pass for the child so he or she can get through security, and onto the plane.

A bonus for traveling with Southwest Airlines is that they don’t charge you for up to two checked bags per person and you can check a car seat free, and it doesn’t count against your bag limit. We packed everything into two small suitcases. Hauling two suitcases, a full-size car seat and a booster seat, in addition to carry-on bags and two small children was an interesting experience!

Renting a Car – and a Car Seat?

When you are renting a car, be sure to get one that will meet all your size and safety needs, and be large enough to accommodate car seats if they are needed. We rented a small SUV, which was only a few dollars a day more expensive than an economy car. It didn’t get as good of gas mileage, but we were all more comfortable in the larger vehicle, and there was room to spare for the car seats.

Speaking of car seats, many car rental agencies will rent car seats to you if you don’t want to take your when you travel. This can be a great convenience, but it comes at a cost. The company we used charges $15 per day to rent a car seat. We needed a car for 5 days, so that came out to $75, plus taxes and fees (and if you know anything about car rental taxes, they can approach 20% in some localities because cities *love* to tax hotels and car rentals!). We opted to travel with our own car seat to save the extra dough. The good news is most airlines will allow you to pack a car seat without any extra luggage charges. But be sure to double check with your airline before you take a car seat – just in case. The last thing you want to find out is that you could have rented a car seat for a few dollars more than you had to spend to check it as luggage.

We also brought our GPS from home to save on the GPS rental fee. Be sure to pack your GPS or use your smartphone if yours has a GPS app. This will make your life easier and save you a bunch of money!

Choosing a Hotel with Young Children

This can be tricky. I remember traveling as a family when I was younger. My parents would often rent a hotel room with two queen size beds and we would all double up (and one of us usually ended up on the pull out couch as well!). But things may not be as easy when you have young children. For example, my youngest daughter goes to bed around 6:30-7:00 most nights. That is very early and something we had to consider when making travel arrangements. We decided the best thing to do was rent a family suite for the trip. The room included a bedroom with a King Size bed that was closed off from the living room area, which included a pull out couch, and a full kitchen. This gave us the option of putting our youngest daughter to bed earlier and allowing everyone else to stay awake awhile longer without disturbing her. (She did stay up way past her normal bed time a few nights, but overall she did very well).

Thankfully, there are a few hotel chains which offer these types of rooms, and more importantly, they aren’t as expensive as you would think. We found the rates to be about 30% higher than single hotel rooms with similar ratings. I’m sure this varies by hotel chain and region, so look into it. Some hotel chains to look into include:

  • Embassy Suites.
  • Holiday Inns (some locations; check first).
  • Homewood Suites.
  • Hyatt House.
  • Residence Inn.
  • SpringHill Suites by Marriott.
  • TownePlace Suites.

We booked everything through Expedia, which we always find to be incredibly competitive. I also recommend checking out Priceline, Travelocity, et al. Just be sure to read the terms before booking because some tickets are non-refundable.

Bring Toys & Activities to Occupy Your Children

My wife packed an assortment of activities for our children, including coloring books, activity books, snacks, toys, and even some “presents.” She wrapped a few small items for each child to open at different stages of the trip. This is a great way to give them something to anticipate, and the “present” makes it more fun to open and use. You can wrap anything, including notebooks, crayons, small toys, snacks, etc.

Be Flexible

As I mentioned above, our children normally go to bed very early. But it wasn’t possible to get our children to bed at their normal bed times every night due to family obligations. It wouldn’t have worked anyway since they were usually wound up from all the excitement! We kept a lot of snacks and toys on hand, made a few quick runs to the store for various items, and generally went with the flow. Not everything can or should be scripted, and you can’t prepare for every possible situation – especially with children!

Overall, we had a great time and I think we will be much more prepared to travel with our children on similar trips in the future.

Do you have any more tips for traveling with children?

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Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt


Published or updated June 19, 2013.
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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ryan Guina

We only took one big trip with our first daughter. This is our first with both children. They actually did really well. In general, children thrive on routine, but the tend to adapt to new situations very well. It’s helpful to try and keep some routines or triggers they expect. Such as bedtime routines, a favorite stuffed animal, etc.

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2 Thomas

We have yet to travel with our new extended family. We went from a family of 2-3 on most occasions to 5. Flying will be costly as we will be paying for 4 tickets with our little daughter in our lap. Not sure if its the best options. With driving though most trips are going to take a lot longer and instead of straight drives we will now have to stop for more then just to get gas. Toys and food are a must and I agree you have to be flexible.

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3 Bombardia

Oh jeez tell me about it. My brother and I were driving to LA, and my niece just wouldn’t stop talking. We had to find a reststop every hour – took forever to get there.

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4 Derek @ MoneyAhoy.com

Flexibility is the number one thing we always try to remember. Also, bring a trash bag and an extra set of clothes that is easy to access.

I don’t know how many times we’ve had kids get sick and puke all over the van while driving!

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