On the Trials of Toddler Travel, A Few Words to the Wise

Traveling with toddlers is a special kind of crazy. But if you prepare properly, it’s totally tolerable.

My husband’s family lives just shy of a 15-hour drive from us. We’ve always loved traveling to see them. Sure, it’s not super exciting being in the car that long, but it can be an adventure. You get to take in so many sights and see so many travelers. No two trips will ever be the same.

Two summers ago, we made the trip with our newborn. At just seven weeks old, it seemed crazy to some, but it was honestly seamless. I was still on maternity leave, and our little girl loved to sleep. And sleep. And sleep. We took stops for snacks, stops for our older daughter to stretch and scream, stops for the baby to eat and change diapers, and then, we’d be off again.

Fast-forward to last summer: Our baby was now 15 months old. It was, to put it mildly, rough. Calling it an adventure is akin to the way people call a horror movie a thrill, when really, it’s a nightmare.

We stopped CONSTANTLY. Our girls needed time to stretch. Our oldest just needed time away from her sister. The snacks we brought didn’t last. The toys we brought weren’t entertaining. No one cared about taking in the sights outside the car, because no one could think about anything other than the whining, crying toddler inside the car.

My husband and I were just about to book our summer stay for this year when we realized…we’ll be taking a trip with a two-year-old. Cue daunting thriller music.

We. Are. In. Trouble.

Time to call in the experts. Partnered with our experience, I think we can make this work. We now know a few things that should (fingers crossed) make this trip run a little smoother:

Leave early

Get the car all packed, and check – and double-check – you have what you need. Then load your little ones in the car. They will (hopefully) fall back to sleep, and you can get a good head start on your trip. Plus, the lighter traffic will help you cover more miles. Just be prepared for a quick breakfast and bathroom stop when they wake up. 

Find distractions

This seems like an obvious one, but think of how much goes into one day with your toddler. They say the average two-year-old has an attention span of five to eight minutes. Sure, sometimes they can be distracted by something and then go back to what they are doing, but still, that requires a LOT of activities.

The single best purchase we have ever made, in our life, were DVD players for our car. The set clips to the back of our seats and allows each of our girls to watch their own movie. Our oldest makes it through over half a dozen movies by the end of our trip, and our youngest watches “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” episodes on repeat.

Outside of movies? Toys, games, books, and more toys, games, and books. We pack a large beach bag with goodies and stash it on the floor between our girls. Every time someone gets a little bored or whiny, reach into the bag for a lifesaver. Want to draw something? Want to look at this book? (And stash some surprises in there. Nothing turns a frown upside-down like a new coloring book or a snack they don’t get to enjoy at home.)

Convenience is key

Try to find travel-friendly toys and accessories. Snack cups help avoid messes and can help make sure your little one isn’t endlessly eating. A drawing board or dry erase board works much more efficiently than lots of floating crayons. It may even be worth it to invest in a travel tray, if you travel often. This can help kids keep toys contained and have a surface for play.

Don’t forget to make things convenient for you also. Keep baby wipes, tissues, and snacks within reach of your seat. You don’t want to pull over every 10 minutes to climb around in the back of the car.

Plan your stops

Obviously, there are times you have to stop and fuel up or take a bathroom break that you didn’t plan. But try to set up a fun destination for lunch or dinner that your kids will enjoy. It may seem like it’s best to just plug away and get the travel part over with, but that’s guaranteed to make the trip worse for everyone.

Even if you’re just sitting in a fast-food booth, go inside and sit down and eat. Give the kids a chance to run around and get out of the car. Some people prefer to stop at parks to burn some energy, but I give that strategy mixed reviews. What kid is ever ready to leave the park when you are? And that’s after hours of playing.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon at a park and then get back in the car for hours. (I also don’t want to listen to my kids for hours begging to go back to that park.) So while I fully embrace making stops, I definitely opt for pit stops and not mini-vacation stops.

Honor personal space, sleep, and kid rituals

On long car rides, we’ll often end up staying overnight somewhere. It’s worth finding a place with enough space to accommodate your family’s sleeping habits and other needs. Hotel rooms usually do not, unless you want to sleep in a big bed with all your children piled on top of you.

We are not a family that co-sleeps. We don’t even share a room with our little ones on vacation. But in a hotel – unless you want to spring for the executive suite – one room is what you get. This was so out of the ordinary for our toddler that she jumped on the bed and kept trying to run off the end of it. We couldn’t make a big enough barricade. The next morning, everyone was tired and grouchy. It made the last leg of our journey so much worse.

Another helpful tool on this trip would have been a mini overnight bag. It’s not fun to drag four giant suitcases into a hotel that you’re sleeping in for a few hours. All you need are the essentials: some toiletries, pajamas, and clothes for the next day.

Also, if your child has some kind of bedtime ritual, stick with it, no matter where you are. Bring that book you always read or the blanket she has to sleep with. It will help!

Above all, don’t lose out on great family adventures and lifelong memories because you assume it’ll be too difficult to get there. Plan well, and go.

3 Tips for Traveling With Kids and Family

I’m glad I dared to travel with my baby. Here are the top three lessons I learned that I plan to employ for future adventures.

For many of us, the last few months have been filled with opportunities to travel. I traveled twice in November with my almost one-year-old son, first solo to NYC, and then with my husband for a family wedding in Mexico. There was a lot of trial and error during those trips, some successful planning, and a good dose of improvisation.

All in all, I’m glad I dared to travel with my baby. Here are the top three lessons I learned that I plan to employ for future adventures:

Have a plan for your time at the airport and in the air

Planning for one-parent trips make it that much easier and enjoyable when actually accompanied by another adult. I was particularly nervous about traveling solo to NYC with my son, but I ended up doing very well. In the days leading up to the trip, I tried to visualize each step before actually arriving to the airport.
For example, how to push my stroller and suitcase at the same time until getting to the airline counter? Then, in line for security, what to do? My plan was to first take off my shoes, next, take the bottles and formula out of the diaper bag, then put my baby in his carrier, fold the stroller and place it on the conveyor belt, and then do the same with the car seat. I had to presume nobody would help (even though someone always will), and had convinced myself that I would need the physical strength and stamina to do it all.
My son, Solomon, who had just started to walk with help, wanted to explore. And I wanted to keep him relatively active and happy. Yes, airports are no doubt the most germ-friendly facilities out there. But if you’ve already decided that traveling is worth it, go with the flow. I made sure to have wipes ready for his hands and face, and as soon as I arrived at my destination, I changed his clothes and washed his hands. I also wanted to avoid changing a diaper on the plane (except in the case of a major blow-out) and made a point to take care of that about 10 minutes prior to boarding.
Finally, do something nice for yourself. Candy? Nuts? Doughnuts? A little treat (that you can hold with only one hand) goes a long way.

Yes, it’s a trip, but it won’t be a vacation

 Some trips are not designed as vacations. For example, I went to NYC to be part of a special evening honoring my mentor’s outstanding career. I spent three days introducing my baby to old friends and was able to go for one or two walks in Central Park. Everything else was straightforward, the normal baby-and-mommy routine.

Real vacations are different. You’re eager to relax, you expect leisure time, maybe some sleep, etc. That is not what going on a vacation with children – at least toddlers and babies – means. This is not to say it can’t be enjoyable. Amazing, special memories will be created during baby’s first beach trip or hike. But you won’t rest, and you’ll come back tired. It’s good to be mentally prepared for that.

If you’re craving a vacation in that ancestral sense (that is, before you were a mother), wait until your baby’s old enough that you feel comfortable leaving her with a grandparent or aunt and take real time off for a couple of days.

Curb your expectations

You have plans to go away with family – aunts, uncles, grandparents, and perhaps even great-grandparents. Really great. I mean it! You assume they want to spend time with the baby, and they absolutely do. But “spending time with the baby” can and will mean different things for different people.

Perhaps you think it’s one or more of the following: a full hour playing and reading stories with the baby; going down to the beach for the only 45 minute window that your infant can actually be out in the sun; or hiking with the baby at baby-carrying speed.

Maybe it means someone else changes a couple dirty diapers, or puts baby down for a nap or two, or takes her out of your room in the morning so you can enjoy a one-time-only additional 30 minutes in bed. “Giving mommy and daddy a little time to themselves” might also fall under your description of “spending time with the baby.”

Some family members will do things like these, and others won’t. They love your baby, and they are excited to see her. But for some, it’s enough to hold her for 10 minutes (not an hour), and diapers and nap time are out of the question. Some will want to take a nap when you go for a hike or want to have lunch when you go out in the sun. Remember, they’re on vacation, not on call for childcare.

Yet, travel! Go out, explore. There are amazing things to see, extraordinary friends and family to visit, and so many memories to be made with your child out there in the world. Traveling can create opportunities for us to embark on journeys of discovery – to learn about ourselves and our incredible children, to understand family strengths and weaknesses, to try new things, and of course, to reaffirm that we can fold a stroller with only one hand.

How to Survive a Long Flight With Little Kids

Getting on a plane with a small kid is one of the most stressful parenting experiences ever. These 14 ways to entertain them can help.

One of the more stressful parenting endeavors is getting on a plane with small children. If you have a baby or toddler who doesn’t understand the importance of the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign and can’t yet read “Harry Potter,” you need to come prepared with distractions.

Here are a few ideas to keep small kids entertained – gleaned from my own flights with small children.

1 | Magazines in the seat pocket in front of you.

My husband and I spent a good chunk of time on one flight playing a game of, “Let’s find the dogs and cats in the the SkyMall magazine” with our one-year-old. As an added bonus, you may also find that cat hammock you never knew your pet needed.

2 | Plastic cups, napkins, and straws.

There is some novelty to be had in these basic objects – and the good news is they hand them out for free on a plane. Stack the cups, play peek-a-boo with the napkin, or let your little one spend some time crinkling a cup.

3 | Snacks that take some time to eat.

Puffs (doled out one at a time) for small kids, or lollipops for older ones, can be good options because they take some time to eat.

4 | Let other people hold the baby.

When our first son was young, we were sometimes lucky enough to sit by people who were happy to hold the baby for a little bit. On one flight, a flight attendant offered to walk our crying baby up and down the aisle for a little while. We let her. Take advantage of people who are willing to help.

5 | Your smartphone camera and photo album.

Take a video or picture of your kid with your smartphone and then let him see it. Or just let him scroll through your photos and videos. Yes, it can be this simple at this age.

6 | Stickers.

Toddlers can spend some time working to pull them off the sticker sheet and then decorating some paper, clothes, or your forehead with them.

7 | A new toy wrapped as a present.

Unwrapping it will take some time and playing with it will take up some more. Something like these Squigz can be a good option since they can suction onto the tray table in front of you.

8 | Apps.

All screen time restrictions should be lifted on an airplane. It’s an unusual occasion and if it makes your life easier, then use it. We like Duck Duck Moose and Night and Day Studios apps for really young kids, and LEGO DUPLO and Toca Boca apps for older toddlers or preschoolers. My kids have also gotten a lot of mileage out of ZOOLA Animals – one version is just pictures of different animals and the deluxe version allows you to feed and dress animals (a giraffe can don purple butterfly wings).

9 | Sing songs.

Pre-kids I wouldn’t have belted out a few verses of “Wheels on the Bus” on a plane. Post-kids, if it prevents a meltdown – anything goes.

10 | Walk up and down the aisles.

When young kids are getting restless, sometimes a change of scenery will help.

11 | Headphones.

Often helpfully located in the seat pocket in front of you, these can provide some distraction. Let your little one try them on themselves or you. Just don’t expect them to actually listen to music with them.

12 | Make silly faces.

Bonus points if you can get the strangers seated near you to make a few, too.

13 | Drawing.

At a minimum, you can draw animals on a napkin with a pen. Or you can get more advanced and bring things like Water Wow! drawing books or mess free marker sets like Color Wonder.

14 | Books

 Bringing some of your little one’s favorite books can be a good distraction.

Should You Bring Your Child’s Car Seat on the Plane?

The FAA does not require kids under 2 to have their own seat, or for kids of any age to fly in a car seat. So should you bother lugging it with you?

Many parents seem to view the airplane car seat as a litmus test for good parenting. The FAA does not require any child under age 2 to fly in his or her own seat, nor any child of any age to fly in a car seat. But somehow, parents who don’t put their kids in car seats (or worse, fly with lap infants) are reckless, selfish travelers who are better off staying home.

Is that a fair assessment of parents who choose not to bring a car seat on the plane? Air carrier flights are safe. Really safe.

For example, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which tracks accidents for all types of US transportation, recorded 34,678 transportation fatalities in 2013. Airline fatalities accounted for just 9 of those deaths, which resulted from two air carrier accidents. In 2011 and 2012, there were zero fatal airline accidents. Given an average of roughly 650 million passenger embarkments on US air carriers each year, the risk of death in an airplane accident is incredibly small.

Those arguing for car seats on airplanes, however, are more concerned about preventable injury during turbulence. Such injuries are slightly more common than aircraft accidents, but are still remarkably rare.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported that between 2004 and 2013, there were 153 passengers injured by turbulence. To put that in perspective, there are 149 seats on a roomy configuration of a 737. The number of injured passengers on US flights due to turbulence over a ten year period would just slightly overfill that plane. Nearly 30,000 commercial flights embark each day in the US. In other words, passengers on commercial airlines are injured at an astonishingly low rate.

Crew member injuries complicate this picture of turbulence injury. From 2004-2013, there were 168 crew injuries aboard US carrier flights – roughly the same as passenger injuries, but across a much smaller population. It’s possible that the injury rate is so much higher for crew members because they are either not wearing seat belts or standing.

We know that fatal air carrier accidents are extraordinarily rare, that air carrier turbulence accidents are only slightly more common, and that crew members are injured more frequently than passengers. The higher turbulence injury rate for flight crew members suggests that wearing seat belts, or at least sitting, does prevent some turbulence injuries.

What we don’t know is whether a car seat would provide an additional measure of safety over seat belts. The injury rates on airplanes are so low that there is not a large enough sample to compare the safety of seat belts and car seats. There is, however, plenty of data available to draw that comparison in cars.

In 2008, economist Steven Levitt found that for children ages 2-6, car seats were not measurably more effective than seat belts in preventing injury or fatality. In 2015, Lauren Jones and Nicholas Ziebarth replicated Levitt’s study and found the same results.

It is possible that, because airplanes behave differently than cars, car seats might be differently effective on planes than in cars. A turbulence accident, for example, is much different than a vehicular accident because there is no impact. The typical turbulence injury is the passenger who hits the bulkhead, not who is thrown forward in the plane. It is possible that the harness restraints in car seats might prevent more upward movement than lap belts.

Given the incredibly low risk of in-flight injuries, the question of whether or not to bring the car seat on the plane is less of a flight safety question and more of a destination safety question. Even if you are convinced by Levitt’s and others’ findings about car seat use for children over age 2, you probably still want a car seat at your destination, given that it’s required by law in most states.

What’s the best way to get a car seat to your destination?

Bringing your car seat on the plane

Having a car seat on the plane might make your flight a bit more pleasant. Your child won’t be falling out of the seat, or learn how to unlatch the seat belt and start running down the aisles. If your child is accustomed to falling asleep in the car seat, he might take a long nap on the flight.

Just know that the presence of a car seat ensures neither complete safety nor a smooth flight. The moment of turbulence might also be the moment you picked the baby up to nurse or soothe. Your child may be moderately safer in the car seat when on the plane, but in the rush to get on the plane you may not install it correctly, negating that safety benefit.

Assuming that you correctly install the seat (and are therefore more skilled than this author), you will have done so in the window seat. If traveling with two parents, that means your child will invariably want the parent in the aisle seat.

Checking your car seat

Here’s the argument typically offered against checking your car seat: Car seats get handled as well as other luggage, and in some cases, baggage handling is akin to an accident. Your car seat was shipped from somewhere (a distribution center, a re-seller, often in a simple cardboard box with little other packaging) and sustained all the bumps along the way. It’s difficult to prove that your car seat will be just as effective after a short stay in a cargo hold followed by a trip through baggage carts and belts, but car seats are built to withstand much bigger damage.

What is well-documented, however, is that by checking a car seat you risk aesthetic damage. If you’ve spent a lot of extra money on that seat, damage to the upholstery will be expensive to repair, and not all airlines will replace damaged baggage.

Sending a car seat to your destination

If traveling to visit family, consider just shipping an inexpensive car seat. All car seats sold in the US, no matter their price, are required to meet the same safety standards. The difference in price does not make the seat safer, but the upholstery or cushioning might be more appealing to kids, or more likely, their parents.

If your child is only going to be using the seat for a small portion of the time, a $50 car seat for his grandparents’ vehicle can save you a lot of time and energy. And if shipping the car seat means you have a free hand for a carry-on suitcase, you’ll break even in just one trip without baggage fees. If staying in a hotel, you can usually ship a car seat directly, though keep in mind some hotels add a charge for large packages.

The Verdict

I am not an expert on car seat safety, nor an economist computing extensive risk-benefit analyses. (I hope Emily Oster will tackle the data about car seats and airplanes in an upcoming project!) As Oster argues in her excellent “Expecting Better”, my aim here is not to tell you what you must do when traveling with a toddler, but rather to present a more accurate picture of the risks involved in either choice so that you can make a more reasoned decision.

Based on my review of the pros and cons, my inclination is to fly seat-less. You may weigh the positives and negatives differently than I do, and therefore come to a different conclusion. I’ll point out that it’s rare to see families with three or more children lugging car seats around the airport. I often look to larger families to check my own overly anxious, first-timer behaviors. I suspect car-seat-plane panic is one of the many ways unseasoned parents fret over extremely unlikely dangers.

Perhaps the larger takeaway here isn’t whether or not to use a car seat, but how to think about risk with our children – and what we lose when we’re trying so hard to avoid risks. We take risks when we feed our children their first hard foods. We take risks when we let them crawl up the stairs unsupervised. We take risks when we travel with kids in strollers. We take risks when we travel with kids in cars. But we accept all of these risks because they bring with them potentially huge rewards: the joy of watching those tiny teeth chomp their first carrots, the sense of accomplishment when reaching the top step, the adventure of traveling to and exploring a new place.

In any activity, no matter how mundane, risk is involved. What’s left to each of us to decide is how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. For me, the joy of watching my husband and son read side by side on the plane, after first watching them, unencumbered, chasing each other through the airport, is worth that risk.

5 Ways Traveling With Kids Will Improve Your Marriage

There may be more yelling from the backseat than before, but traveling after having kids can deepen the bond between you and your spouse- if you let it.

I wish I could say that my husband and I traveled the world before we settled down to start a family. We did your typical yearly vacation to tourist attractions in the U.S., but nothing over-the-top.

No trips to Italy to boat the canals of Venice. No decadent pastries in Paris as we strolled the sidewalks at night. Although, there were some exotic moments on our first cruise to the Caribbean. We had some steamy nights watching the sunset over the ocean for the first time. We stole a kiss when we saw the Statue of Liberty. We were child-free in those days. 

Today, we have a toddler son. Today, traveling means putting many selfish desires aside to accommodate this little person we chose to bring into the world.

I had no idea that when we all took our first few trips together as a family of three, my heart would soften towards my husband and I’d be ready to make out with him every chance we got. How – you may ask – did I feel this way on a vacation with my husband with a screaming baby in the backseat? Let me explain.

1 | Nostalgia from your previous travels will emerge.

I didn’t realize how much I liked to travel with my husband until we traveled together with our little for the first time. During those first few trips with our toddler I saw a side of my partner that I had forgotten about. He was sexy to me as he navigated our trip. Sometimes you forget your spouse is sexy when you hear about boogers all day. I remembered that my husband thrives on figuring out the best place to go for dinner on a Friday night in a new place. I recalled that he’s more worldly than I am when it comes to understanding when and where to tour a hidden treasure on the far side of town. Character traits I once found attractive resurfaced.

2 | You will see an ugly side of each other you haven’t seen before. Then you will apologize to each other like you haven’t before.

When we used to travel, we would have our moments of anger towards each other. Typically a silent treatment followed by a usual “act like nothing happened” conversation. This still happens with a little one running around. When you’re traveling with a toddler, screaming is bound to happen. And on a trip in a car, you can plan for lots of screaming. 

We realized quickly how our anger affected our child. And then asking for forgiveness didn’t just mean getting over ourselves for the sake of the trip. It meant showing our son what it’s like to walk in forgiveness and love each other and choose to have a good time on vacation. 

3 |  You learn to save money while traveling.

When my husband and I traveled before said toddler, we bought airline tickets without a blink. We made hotel reservations with a loose budget in mind, but luxury at the top of our list. Living off of two incomes was a breeze – not much to think about when financial decisions came up.

Now we live on one income and trip-planning has become a science. I can tell you the best sites to visit for the cheapest hotel rates at places that won’t make your skin crawl. Wanna know the quickest and cheapest spots to eat on Route 66? I’m your gal. We can make $1,000 stretch more now on a trip to the Grand Canyon than we ever could before.

4 | Your definition of “fun” on vacation changes.

I used to think eating a $100 steak at a top-ranked restaurant in Chicago was a fun event for a vacation. Now? Listening to Raffi sing “Bah Bah Black Sheep” while my son giggles in the backseat and I mimic a pitiful-sounding sheep is pretty fun. Six flags with my husband would be a blast. Now? Going to the nation’s largest fair and checking out the petting zoo (with a discount card mind you) is pretty amazing. I mean, my son had never seen a rabbit up that close before that he could pet and hold. Wide and amazed toddler eyes are a thing you’ll never forget.

5 | A held hand at the right moment will remind you of who you are together.

When my husband and I used to walk on the beach watching the sunset on the ocean, thoughts pretty much went towards getting frisky later. My husband and I still like to get frisky, but when you have kids, sometimes friskiness isn’t a option. Sometimes finding the moment to communicate genuine desire is fleeting.

When you’ve been riding in the car for ten hours and the baby finally falls asleep, you look over your last few days together and all you can do is lean over and hold each other’s hand. The quiet, “I love you” escapes your lips and you’re not even thinking about sex. You’re reminded that you guys are a team and without each other, you’d be losing in life right now. That means a lot more than a walk on the beach followed by sex. OK, sex would still be nice but maybe in a few days when you’ve caught up on some sleep?

10 Ways to Ensure Your Next Family Road Trip is a Success

Family road trips don’t have to be a National Lampoon-esque disaster. Especially if you keep these tips in mind.

What comes to mind when you think family road trip? For me, it’s squabbling kids and things going wrong – the things that TV shows are made of.

What if I told you road trips could be awesome with a bit of prep work? With trepidation, we broke in our first minivan by taking our seven-, four-, and one-year-old on a road trip from Calgary to Vancouver Island. I was surprised at the amazing family memory it has become.

Unlike our pre-kid days, we couldn’t just jump in the car and see where the wind took us. Despite our mutual spontaneous personalities, we knew this trip would take some work before hand. If you’re considering hitting the open road for a family adventure here are the things that worked for us.

1 | Take your time getting there

We knew with three kids under eight things never go as planned. We decided to incorporate travel time as part of the adventure. We planned for one week at our destination and one week of travel time stopping for a three-day visit with the family on the way.

The hotel pool slides remain one of the trips biggest highlights for the kids. I’m not sure what it is with kids and hotel pools but it broke up a long drive and gave them something to look forward to after a long day in the car. We also had the time to stop for picnics, hikes, and even a wolf sanctuary.

2 | Optimize car time

I did so much prep work for this trip I actually bought a laminator. The older kids both had binders with games, coloring and activities. Pinterest supplied an unending stream of games and activities to do in the car. New markers and special snacks set this drive apart from just running errands at home.

3 | Create anticipation

Family discussions centered around our trip for weeks before we went. We watched videos of animals on Vancouver Island and perused the websites of places we wanted to go. We looked at maps, read books about whales and the ocean, and anything else I could relate to the trip. By the time we left, the trip was already special in their minds.

4 | Plan double the activities and places to eat so you can be spontaneous

Some people are planners and I greatly admire them, but my husband and I are more of a “what do you feel like doing today?” sort of couple.

We decided to cater to our personalities, but also the kid’s need to have some structure by loosely planning our days. We made a list of everything we were interested in doing. When we arrived, we checked out the weather, gauged how the kids were feeling and decided what to do each day. We limited ourselves to one big outing each day and planned for downtime to create balance.

5 | Prioritize finances

When we first thought about going to the Island I had in mind sitting on the lawn and relaxing while looking out over the ocean. We looked for places to stay that would feel like a home away from home. We quickly realized that with kids – and considering our budget – that probably wasn’t going to happen.  

We slashed our rental budget in half by staying in a small apartment and planning only to sleep and eat there. This gave us an extra few hundred dollars to pay for admission fees and eating out.

6 | Have a project or theme

Having something to collect tied the trip together for us. My girls knew they were going to do a school project on the trip so everywhere we went they took pamphlets. They also took videos and pictures to create a slideshow to send to their classmates.

My theme was coffee. I Instagrammed all the unique, independent coffee roasters we frequented each morning.

7 | Make it memorable with pictures, videos, souvenirs

We took lots of pictures at each stop along the way. A favorite family activity is still scrolling through the snapshots and remembering the good times we had. We also made room in the budget for meaningful mementos. The stuffed sea otter from the aquarium and tin of tea from our high tea experience still remind us of the trip.

8 | Plan for down time

I know myself and I know my kids. We all get easily overstimulated so I made sure that every day we had some down time, even if that meant coming back to the apartment and watching a movie.

We aimed for one restaurant meal a day, leaving the other to be something like sandwiches at the park. I had realistic expectations of how enjoyable eating at restaurants would be so we ordered in a couple times and just ate at the apartment. I didn’t have to cook, and they didn’t have to behave in a restaurant. Perfect.

9 | Know when to say no

There was so much to see and do and so little time. Although we budgeted a fair amount to activities, we also wanted to stretch that money. There were a few things we would have loved to do but weren’t necessarily something everything in the family would have enjoyed. By saying no we avoided some stressful parenting situations and have a list of things we can look forward to doing when we go back without kids.

10 | Make something to commemorate the trip 

My daughter made a big poster to show all the places we drove, visited, and stayed. It was fun to relive the trip, stopping to contemplate all the cool things we’d seen.

Photobooks are another great way to collect all the memories in one place. They tend to bring up the joy of the trip anytime you pull one off the shelf.

We don’t travel as a family very often, so when we do, I want it to be memorable and meaningful. I knew we succeed with this trip when my daughter asked if we could go again. When I told her we were thinking of Disney Land next time, she responded: “Oh ya, Disney Land would be fun, but I really want to go to Vancouver again!”

5 Budget-Friendly Tips for Hitting the Open Road this Summer

On a family road trip, the good outweighs the bad, and even the bad always makes for a funny memory. Here are 5 tips for making the most of it.

The countdown is officially on at my house! My family limped, clawed, and dragged our way through the end of school to summer vacation. And now we’re ready for our road trip!

This is our first summer back in the U.S. after three years overseas, and one of our biggest takeaways from our time in Europe is the fact that the United States is . . . BIG.

Really, really big.

And after visiting more than 20 European countries, I’m ashamed to admit that the number of U.S. states we have visited pales in comparison, which brings me to our summer plans — the Great American Road trip! I’m talking national parks, national monuments, the World’s Largest Whatever, a few great diners, and miles of open road in between.

No strangers to the road trip, one recent summer, we drove 5,000 miles. In preparation for our upcoming “windshield extravaganza,” I’m reminded of a few road trip nuggets that’ve helped us along the way. No matter your destination, these tips can help make for a more enjoyable (and affordable) trip.

1| GET ON THE SAME PAGE.  

This is step # 1 for a reason. Let’s say your family loves a good road trip. They love the idea of getting away from it all — a few hours on the road each day, plenty of time at the destination to explore, hike, swim, relax and play, with leisure time to spare.

Meanwhile, you, who also loves a road trip might be thinking, we’ll knock out 600 miles today so tomorrow we only have to do 400.  We’ll see X, Y, and Z along the way, and get to the hotel by midnight.

See the disconnect?

Before you set out on the open road, ask yourself and your family these questions: How far do you want to go every day?  What are you hoping to accomplish on this trip? What do you think is a realistic amount of time in the car each day, given the attention span and abilities of everyone involved?

When I think about being on the same page, a purple sand beach comes to mind. On a previous road trip through California, my husband had a particular purple sand beach on his list of must-sees. We were already hours behind schedule, and by the time we finally arrived at this beach, it was DARK. One child was sleeping, and the other needed to be.

When I first realized how late we were going to be, I automatically assumed this beach was off the list. But as I sat in the car with my sleeping son and watched as my husband and daughter disappeared down a dark, wooded trail to the beach with nothing but a dim flashlight, I learned then and there to never assume anything.

The takeaway? Discuss these things before you set out. Manage expectations. Set limits. Give yourself permission to deviate from the plan when necessary. Figure out a set of rules that everyone can agree on.

(Fun fact: In the dark, purple sand looks exactly like regular sand. Truth.)

2| SHARE OWNERSHIP.

Give everyone ownership of the trip. With the exception of babies and toddlers who can’t yet tell you, Yes! We can’t wait to visit Niagara Falls, let everyone have a say-so in what you do and see along the way.

I find that my children are more engaged when they are involved in the planning and choosing of what we do and see. Provide travel books ahead of time for each person to browse, and then compile a must-see list.

For young children, take the time to tell them what’s available that you think they would enjoy.  There will likely be a lot of overlap in what people want to see and do, which works out great, but when each person also has the anticipation of seeing or doing their special thing that they picked, something extraordinary happens: the kids are more patient, more interested, and generally happier when we do something from their must-see list.

Also, depending on the ages of your kids, finding books that have some connection with where you are going is a great way to increase interest and engagement (think non-fiction, but not travel books for this). 

We did a road trip through Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic and as we drove, we read aloud from an autobiography of a Holocaust survivor. It truly was one of our most memorable trips. Reading about an experience while being in the very place where it happened made the trip more meaningful for all of us.

Visit the library before you go, and find books tailored to your travels. Maybe you’ll be following the route that Lewis and Clark took when they came West — read about it along the way! Passing through the Sacramento, CA. area?  Maybe check out a book on the gold rush of 1849. Wherever the destination, there’s likely a book that would pair well and with a little planning, you can be prepared with some relevant materials for you and your kids. 

Include everyone in decisions about what and where to eat. Even very young kids can voice an opinion on what they feel like eating. And if they know that in two hours you’re going to be at the restaurant they helped pick out for dinner (thank you, Google), they’re more excited, and better able to resist the urge to ask, “Are we there yet?”

Pass the time by reading and sharing some basic facts about the city or area, pull up the restaurant website and read the menu (this also helps keep things on track once you get there), and talk about what you hope to see at your next stop.  It may go without saying, but the common-denominator here is communication. 

People of all ages do better when they are in the loop and know what’s going on!

3| GROCERY STORE PICNICS.

Eating out is one of the biggest costs of a family road trip. Three words — grocery store picnic —are the backbone of a successful road trip. Grocery stores are in nearly every town, no matter how small, and offer options for everyone to eat what they want at a fraction of the cost of a traditional sit-down restaurant.

Take your grocery items to a local park or riverfront and have a picnic. Let the kids play and run around for a bit before piling back in the car. When my family travels, the goal is to avoid eating in restaurants (this includes fast food) whenever possible, which helps keep costs in check. 

Bring some items from home that don’t require refrigeration. Peanut butter, a loaf of bread, crackers, oranges & apples are always staples when we travel .

4| CHAIN HOTELS.

Chain hotels, while sometimes lacking charm and local culture, are a great tool in the road trip arsenal. There’s comfort in consistency and predictability, and this is what chain hotels almost can provide.  Especially for children (and even for adults), the closer reality is to expectation, the better the outcome.  Since most chain hotels are pretty similar, this takes some of the unknown out of the picture, which for some can be a source of stress.

Other benefits to a chain hotel are that they are often located in suburban areas, just outside the city, so they can be easy to get to at the end of a long travel day, and they tend to be very close (walking distance) to public transportation. Parking is usually free, or nominal, and you can just leave your car and take the train or bus to and from the city.

Join whatever “priority” or membership club the hotel has, as there is always some benefit to this. If Wi-Fi is not free, hotels usually waive the fee for preferred members, and Wi-Fi is essential to planning your travel for the next day. Best of all, chain hotels almost always include breakfast — a variety of innocuous food that everyone will eat. EAT this food. You’ve already paid for it.

5| BE FLEXIBLE AND ROLL WITH IT.

Car trips are an adventure, there will be highs and lows. Your kids will pester each other when they get bored. You’ll get grumpy. You might drive the wrong way down a one-way street and find three lanes of traffic heading straight for you. We did. You’ll live through it.

Your car might develop vapor lock and stall out just inches away from a 1200-pound moose. Ours did. You’ll live to tell about it. 

You might contemplate jumping out of your vehicle moving at high speed when things get to be too much. Ok, we never did this, but we definitely considered it.

On a family road trip, the good almost always outweighs the bad, and even the bad always makes for a funny memory when it’s had time to fade a bit. Perhaps Dan Stanford said it best, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” 

You’ll also share countless moments and laughs, bringing you closer together. And your kids will definitely remember the journey – maybe even more than the destination.

Here’s to the open road. Safe travels!

How Summer Travel Helps Promote Outdoor Play

The benefits of outdoor play are endless. But sometimes being stuck in our routine makes it less of a priority. Traveling can bump it back to the top.

As I watch iridescent orbs float through the sunset sky I think, “Wow.”

In the age of iPads, iPhones, and numerous other electronic devices, something as simple as blowing bubbles can still stir up so much excitement. Although we live in a world of overstimulation, kids really do love the simple things in life and I think deep down, so do adults.

The peace and joy that comes from reconnecting with nature and loved ones; the feeling we get every time we leave our busy lives behind and embark on a new adventure. With travel we aren’t only creating awesome memories – we’re giving the gift of a childhood unplugged.

A mama friend made a comment recently about noticing an improvement in her child’s behavior when given less time on his video games. This made me realize that I’ve observed this change too, including when I reduce my daughter’s time on YouTube due to her high-levels of sass. Then I asked myself, “Why?”

I’ll admit, sometimes gadgets are a total lifesaver. I’m a big fan of iPads during family travel because they hold so much entertainment during plane, train, and road trips. Was it really just the electronics causing attitude issues or something else?

I started thinking about my travels and how I use electronics on the road versus at home, and how the day is spent in between uses. I also started thinking about how my kids seem better- behaved on the road versus at home, which is probably why I like to travel so much. 

Then it hit me: the great outdoors! Numerous studies have shown that there are many benefits to being outside, especially for kids, and when we travel we spend a significant amount of time outside exploring. I began to think that maybe the combination of extra time in nature combined with the lack of electronics was the answer. I did some investigating and what I found is quite interesting.

Benefits to playing outside:

Outdoor play offers not only physical benefits like increased balance, endurance, and hand-eye coordination, but has also shown to improve cognitive and social/emotional development.

1 | Improves mental health.

There’s a lot of research to demonstrate that people who live near green spaces have improved mental health. Taking it a step further, a 2000 study by Nancy Wells in the Journal of Environment and Behavior shows that children’s stress levels reduce within minutes of seeing green spaces. There is a drastic change in children when removed from highly urban areas to more open spaces.

The Episcopal Center for Children explains that outdoor play reduces stress and lowers a child’s risk for anxiety and depression. It can also ease some symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is something to think about for parents with children who have special needs. Incorporating time in nature into everyday life, as well as family travel, can have great results. 

Dirt is good too! I don’t know about you, but my kids love to wallow in the dirt and it makes me cringe. Well, I’m going to start embracing my kids need to be dirty, because the mycobacterium vaccae in soil mirrors Prozac’s effect on neurons.

When kids are feeling at ease, they tend to behave much better. With outdoor play children are not only improving their physical skills, but overcoming obstacles and building self-confidence. 

2 | Improves social and motor skills.

So self-confidence builds self-esteem, but the confidence is gained by overcoming challenges. When kids explore outdoors they have to use their imaginations, acquire new skills and learn to problem solve. By playing outside children are also gaining attention and working memory benefits.

Here is where the difference between video games verses outdoor play is best demonstrated. Video games have pre-programmed rules and kids just follow along, never really understanding why the rule exists. According to a report by Rae Pica in Early Childhood News, when children play outside they have to create their own games and rules, creating a deeper level of understanding.

This also plays into improved social skills, because with these invented games comes learning to work together, dealing with conflict and problem-solving. Remember grassy areas reduce stress, so we are all good!

3 | Improves physical health.

Playing outside requires kids to use their bodies. The physicality of outdoor play by nature improves flexibility, muscle strength, and coordination. They become aware of their bodies in space which benefits motor skills and balance. And running around helps kids stay fitter and leaner. 

In addition to physical fitness, nature does wonders for the general health of the body. For instance, being outside is a great immune booster. Yes, kids get sick less the more time they spend outside.

How Family Travel Promotes Outdoor Play

Travel takes us out of our routine and, depending where we travel, we tend to spend more time outdoors than we would normally at home. Sure, the use of iPads comes in handy during long- haul flights, but it is not the day’s main form of entertainment.

When we arrive at our destination the exploration begins. With no one rushing off to work or school, we awake each morning excited for what the day holds, what adventure lies ahead.

Family travel comes in all shapes and sizes. Travels may last a weekend, a week, a month, maybe longer. Whether our travels take us into the wild or the wilds of urban sprawls, there is always opportunity for considerable time outdoors.

Botanical Gardens and Parks

Traveling to big cities one might question where outdoor play would enter the equation, but cities have many options to spend time in the open-air. The key here is the travel mindset, nothing on the agenda but to explore. Not only is there a lot of time spent walking around the city, but there are usually great city parks to enjoy as well as beautiful botanical gardens.

No matter how amazing the destination, the highlight for my kids is always the playground. We were recently in Glasgow, Scotland and ended up spending a lot of time in the botanical garden. The kids loved running in grass, exploring the paths along the Kelvingrove River and playing on the playground so much that it became a good bargaining chip for good behavior later. If they behaved at the restaurants and tours, they were rewarded with extra play time at the botanical gardens.

The great thing about city parks is that it may require very little travel for many of you. Be a tourist in your hometown and enjoy the nature around the corner. “Make sure your child gets at least 15-30 minutes of outdoor play each day,” says Dodd White, president and CEO of Episcopal Center for Children. “If you live in an apartment building or don’t have a yard, try to get to a neighborhood park a few times a week, and leave your technology at home or turned off.” 

Camping and RVing

It doesn’t get more outdoors than camping. We often take RV trips with the family, and the kids are probably the best-behaved on these trips. When camping there is not a lot on the itinerary that isn’t outdoor related, so the time spent playing outdoors is pretty much endless.

The kids love the RV trips, because they’re relaxing and no one is rushing off somewhere. Camping gives us time to just be. We get to fully enjoy all the elements. Play among the earth, feeling the wind in our hair, roasting marshmallows and telling stories by the camp fire, frolicking in the water.

The slow-paced nature immersion that camping provides is not only fun, but is actually really good for our brains. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University Utah, discussed the three-day affect in National Geographic. Believe it or not, our brains do become fatigued and three days absorbed in nature acts as a mental cleansing.

Beach Vacations

Beach camping or staying at a fun beach resort provides fun in the sun and is extremely beneficial for physical and mental health. All that running in the sand and splashing in the waves is sure to be a blast and burn up lots of energy, but a study by J. Aaron Hipp in the Journal of Environmental Psychology shows that there are actual health benefits to a trip to the beach, including a shot of vitamin D and increased endorphins.

Salty seas have many benefits as well. The sea contains many minerals like magnesium, potassium, and iodine that help provide a healing effect as well as a detox for the human body. Salmon showed in a 2001 study in Clinical Psychology Review that swimming actually reduces stress and anxiety in addition to the physical health effects of non-impact exercise.

The beach is where our family spends the most time outdoors. Not only do we live near local beaches, but we also do a lot of beach camping and traveling to other prime beach resort destinations. Surprisingly enough, there are usually grassy areas near the beach, which really is the best of both worlds.

The takeaway from all this information is that everyone can benefit from time outdoors among nature. Do you have to travel far to get out of the concrete jungle? No, but our day-to-day lives are very busy and we usually don’t make time for decompressing outside.

When we travel we’re in a different mindset, a semi-relaxed state already. We aren’t rushing to work, getting kids to school, finishing homework, and making dinner. Routine, routine, routine; it’s driving us crazy and our kids are growing up too fast. Travel provides us the opportunity and time to reconnect with our family and nature, leaving you and your kids feeling refreshed. A childhood unplugged is often a happy one.