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.

What We Learned About Being Poor From Living in a Camper Van

It’s no instagram-worthy #vanliving trek. But there’s a lot to be learned from traveling around in an old, weathered Winebago.

We’ve been on the road for 61 days and it looks nothing like the #vanliving photos we’ve seen on Instagram.

It’s not about the fact that we’re traveling as a family with a toddler, which limits the backroad freedoms we once had to go 4x4ing with reckless abandon. It’s because the rig we drive makes it look like we are poor, and we are now being treated very differently by the people we encounter.

While the point of the trendy move into tiny homes is to learn to be happier with less, could we learn to be happy as less? 

My husband, 18-month-old daughter, and I moved into a 1990 Toyota Winnebago Warrior camper van because we wanted to go on a grand adventure and spend more time together as a family. In a three-day long garage sale, we sold all the possessions we had on Kauai to start living in a rig only 12 years younger than I am.

We named our rig “Summer,” a nod to “The Endless Summer” movie and to the idea that we could discover our own road to happy. What we’ve actually discovered is the raw truth about how to be a good human being and, more importantly, how to truly be a good example for our daughter.

***

The maroon upholstery on the inside of our rig is a few shades darker than the Winnebago logo sticker falling off the side of our car, which now reads “INEBAO” as though it’s a brand you’ve never heard of.

Summer’s weathered beige exterior is accentuated by the missing battery compartment from the time I hit a pile of rocks coming out of Mission Lion Campground near Ojai in California. I covered the gaping hole with rows of black duct tape a few days later.

We’re nothing fancy compared to the other RVs we’ve seen on the road this summer, those sleek, shiny modern rigs with big-screen satellite TVs. Yet, it’s precisely because of what we drive that we’ve had the opportunities to see who we really are and to see how many judgments we carry around with us.

Summer, in all her aging glory, invites a different socioeconomic class of people to connect with us than we’re accustomed to. We’ve gone from being on an island that charges $6 for a bottle of kombucha, and where Mark Zuckerberg paid $66 million for a plantation near our previous home, to leaving unfinished meals on the hood of our truck longer than we intended to because our active toddler required us to pay attention to her immediate needs.

Occasionally, we’ve even had to live on the streets.

There’s a phenomenon in vanliving called “boondocking,” in which you clandestinely find a place to park overnight for any number of reasons: the campgrounds are full, you’re looking to save money, you’re tired and just need a place to crash.

One night, we spontaneously decided to leave a campground outside Atascadero, California, because the temperatures were so high, none of us were able to sleep through the night. It was late as we headed northbound. Shortly into the drive, our daughter woke up in her car seat, inconsolable.

We realized we had to stop. But, where?

My husband pulled off the freeway on a random road in a nondescript town. He drove for a short while until he found an auto mechanic shop. When he parked, I looked out the side window, wincing at the blaring industrial lights cut only by neon signs. Most of the words on storefronts were in Spanish.

“There are a few other cars parked here,” he whispered. I followed the direction he was pointing and saw a number of broken down cars. “I don’t think we’ll get in trouble if we stay here overnight. Besides, there’s another old RV over there and, well, Summer blends right in.”

As I made my way to the back of our rig to set up our daughter’s bed, I saw a young man holding what looked like a beer can approaching our passenger side window.

Oh no, I thought, making quick judgments about him and what he wanted with us.

“You guys gonna park here overnight?” he peered in.

My husband quickly got out of the RV to speak with him. Our daughter had just fallen asleep and we didn’t want anything to wake her up.

A few minutes later, my husband returned.

“What did he want?” I asked, worried.

“He wanted to let us know that the shop opens at 8 a.m., so as long as we leave before then, we’ll be fine,” my husband said. “He told me he’s parked a couple of cars away, and that he has a daughter sleeping in his car, too.”

I felt sheepish. Judgy. Ugly inside.

“He was out there looking for a cat that won’t stop meowing,” my husband continued. “He was afraid it would wake his daughter.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. This stranger and I wanted the same things. He was looking out for his daughter, just like I was doing with mine.

That night in the parking lot the three of us slept more peacefully than we had at many of the campgrounds we’d stayed in.

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Little girl looking out window of campervan

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***

When we arrived in Ashland, Oregon, my husband drove our daughter around for her afternoon nap. When she woke, he could see her face was flushed. He parked Summer beneath a tree-lined street in a lovely neighborhood, then went into the back of the rig to unbuckle her so she could get some air. She was sweaty in his arms.

A few minutes later, a woman came out of her home. “Are you planning on staying here?” she called out. “Because that’s illegal and I’ll call the police.” 

“We’re just stopping for a few minutes,” my husband said, calmly. As a Waldorf teacher, he’s accustomed to diffusing potential conflict with ease.

Moments later, another woman came out of a nearby home. “Are you staying here overnight?” she demanded. “Because you’re not allowed to do that!”

“No,” my husband responded, more adamantly. “My daughter is hot and I’m just trying to cool her down. We’re about to go to the park!”

They looked into the window of our rig and saw our daughter, her big brown eyes and caramel hair. “Oh,” they replied, obviously softening their temperaments. “It’s okay for you to stay for a little while then.”

They nodded to one another in approval, then went back into their homes.

***

We’ve now arrived at a run-down motel and trailer park in Sandpoint, Idaho, once named one of the most beautiful small towns in America. We’re helping my husband’s friend manage his motel that’s fallen into disrepair.

Given our surroundings, Summer fits right in. Do we? Actually, yes.

Because now we’re working on replenishing our savings after spending a large chunk while on the road. We shop at the thrift stores. We bring our daughter out into nature, because it’s a free activity. By any appearance, we are the same as the people staying in the motel.

One of the RV renters comes in to our manager’s office regularly. He has a bulbous nose, and it is apparent he has not showered in a while. Whenever he shows up, he offers something he has: tips on when the library bookmobile will be in town, a candle for our daughter, popsicles from his own freezer.

“I can take you guys to the local food bank and show you around there,” he told us when we first moved in. He is friendly and considerate, and wants nothing from us in return.

When our daughter sees him, she shouts, “Unko, Unko!” It’s her toddler way of saying, “Uncle, Uncle!” She has no judgment about him or anyone else we’ve encountered, and she is teaching us how to do the same.

The currency that matters most to our daughter is love and the ability to be together as a family. For every mile we travel, we get closer to realizing that if we truly want to pursue a real adventure, we need to go beyond the places we thought we would see and become different people than we thought we would be. Otherwise, we’re missing the most beautiful sight of all: a genuine connection to humanity.

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?

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!

NYC is one of the very best places to bring a kid

My family just returned from an impromptu trip to New York City. (Impromptu as in we were going stir crazy here in Vermont and needed a reprieve.) NYC is one of the very best places to bring a kid. There are a million things to see, try, taste, and do. And just being in New York is an experience, especially for people who didn’t grow up there.

New York is remarkably family friendly. (And is becoming more so – Manhattan recently experienced a baby boom). That said, one of the great things about an NYC adventure is that it rarely needs to be dumbed down into a kiddie trip.

On our recent 72-hour visit to New York with our six-year-old, we spent many hours in MOMA (free on Fridays), the Metropolitan Museum, and at the Hayden Planetarium. We ate incredible food (with a mandatory best pizza quest), walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (an awesome experience for any curious kid) , viewed skyscrapers, looked up our genealogy in the New York Public Library, browsed the Strand Book Store and Forbidden Planet comics, and visited the Lego store at Rockefeller Center.

It’s never been easier to visit and explore NYC with your kids. There are hundreds of guidebooks, websites and apps dedicated to exploring the city. I especially recommend the RedRover app.

Red Rover is a powerful tool for easily finding kid-friendly activities and events happening around you. It works as promised, has a great design, and it’s easy to use. Essential for any trip to New York with a kid. Learn more.

Regarding books, The Little Bookroom Guide to New York City with Children is great for grownups. Not For Parents New York City: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know is great for younger kids.

Other thoughts:

I recommend buying your kid their own map to the city. Show them where you’re staying and some of the site you’re seeing. It’s theirs to keep. If they want to write on it, let them.

Our family discussed what we wanted to see and do in the city. A side benefit of this was that it helped our kid understand that she’d be doing a lot of walking.

Avoid your kids pleading for expensive, cheezy souvenirs and toys by  setting allowance and spending expectations before the trip. Here are tips for managing allowance might come in handy.

NYC Travel Journal
Our kid had fun keeping an NYC travel journal.