Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, elementary-aged children, preteens, and teens all present unique opportunities and challenges where travel is concerned. While our children are now teenagers, when Jeremy and I started this blog, our kids were in elementary school. Whenever we were running short on blog content, we would go back to our journals and write posts about traveling with toddlers and preschoolers. This blog covers a lot of ground, so I decided it was time to write a post that would talk about the pros and cons of traveling with children at different stages of development.
If you have read many of our travel posts, you will quickly realize that we firmly believe that travel with children is more than possible, it is fun! This is not to say that your travel will be all roses in full vibrant bloom, you will also encounter some drooping petals and a few thorns. Fortunately, we have found that the good almost always outweighs the bad!
(Side note: traveling with kids can also be less expensive that one might expect, though we largely don’t address that aspect in this particular post. We’ve used many miles and credit card hacks over the years, and found that going overseas can be both far more interesting and less expensive than, for instance, the typical family Disney trip).
Travel with Babies and Toddlers
While we haven’t traveled much with small babies, it isn’t all that different than traveling with a toddler. You will likely need to bring specialized gear for both, neither will be able to walk long distances or help with bags, and neither will be able to deal with being uncomfortable and unhappy. The key to having a nice vacation while traveling with a baby or toddler is to make good choices in packing and to think about what makes your child sad or angry. Happy baby/toddler usually equals happy travels!
Pros of Traveling with Babies and Toddlers
The biggest advantage of traveling with babies and toddlers is that you still get to see the world! If you wait until your child is “old enough to appreciate it,” you are also waiting until they are old enough for school and other activities to get in the way of travel.
Which brings me to my next point: when traveling with a baby or toddler, you are not tied to the school calendar. Take advantage of it! June, July, and August are hot, crowded, and expensive. December Break might be cold, but is definitely crowded and expensive. Depending on the location, Spring Break is going to have reasonable weather, but will still be crowded and expensive.
Fall, particularly in September shortly after Labor Day, is an ideal time to travel! Most kids are back in school and the weather is still quite nice. Late spring is also a fairly good option, although you will still need to be careful about cold and snow in some northern countries. In either case the crowds are more reasonable and you will get shoulder season prices for both air travel and accommodations!
Of course, even if you find the right time to travel, no one wants to spend day after day with a screaming baby touring museums. Fortunately, there are plenty of other options that will make the whole family happy.
One of our favorite places to travel with toddlers was Switzerland, and while we didn’t do a blog post specifically when they were toddlers, this was a place we returned again and again with kids.
Hawaii is also sure to delight!
Cons of Traveling with Babies and Toddlers
One of the biggest cons of traveling with a baby or toddler is going to be long flights. The child’s ears are going to get plugged up on takeoff and landing, there is going to be the angry adult that doesn’t like their seat to be kicked or bumped, and your kids are probably too young to be able to watch TV for 12 hours in a row. Just do your best, and remember that when one of your neighbors tells you how much better his kids behave than yours, he doesn’t have them actually traveling with him. Unexpected things may happen when a small child spends many hours positioned just a few inches away from the next seat!
Another con include the need to travel with specialized gear. Diapers, wipes, a stroller, and possibly a car seat are only the basic items that you are likely to need!
Babies will get their clothing and bodies messy and will require either a ton of changes of clothing or the need for you to find a laundry solution. If you will be staying in places with only a shower, you might need to consider whether you want to risk hold a slippery baby or bring an inflatable bathtub. There are tons of little details that will make your travel destination easier, but it comes at the cost of space in the luggage.
Worst is that babies and toddlers will cry or whine whenever and wherever they feel like. They will get tired and cranky. Fortunately, most of these things can be mitigated with careful planning.
Planning museums and indoor activities for times that your child is happiest is also key. You will need to know your child’s attention span and don’t stay much longer than that amount of time. While a couple might be able to spend days at the Louvre, if you have a toddler, two hours might be asking a lot.
You will also need to carefully consider food. If you have a picky eater, you may need to be okay with your child just eating rice and a vitamin. But if you have an adventurous eater, the sky is the limit! One of our kids actually tried an octopus on a stick! Yum!
One of the biggest safety concerns that I had while traveling with a baby was water safety. In North America and Europe, this is rarely an issue, but many countries in other parts of the world have lots of amoebas in the water. If your child drinks any of the bath water or swallows water while brushing teeth, you are likely to have to deal with stomach issues on your trip. Not fun!
While in most cases the cause of illness hasn’t been the water, I have mopped up more vomit while traveling than I would prefer. In India, one of our boys and I ate some day-old unrefrigerated sweets – with milk in them – and were quite ill the next morning.
In Spain, one of our kids couldn’t tolerate the local milk and would vomit every time he drank even a sip of it.
In Italy, one of our kids had a dinner that didn’t agree with him.
But, even with all of the mishaps, we have some amazing memories, and the pros definitely outweigh the cons!
You can read some of our travel tips here:
- Packing and Laundry: The Complete Guide
- Luggage Choices
- Stroller Choices
- Hiking with Babies and Toddlers
Travel with Pre-Schoolers and Elementary-Aged Children
Many people have the attitude that when kids arrive, you are doomed to spending every vacation at Disneyland. While we do enjoy visiting the Magic Kingdom, there is so much more! I still remember posting a picture a picture of our boys on Facebook. One friend commented that the EPCOT Center was looking a bit more real than he remembered. Not only were we in China, but we with the ticket deals we got and low costs in China, we probably spent less money than one would have on a Disney vacation!
Pros of Traveling with Pre-Schoolers and Elementary-Aged Children
After your child reaches about 4 years old, travel suddenly gets much easier! Your children will start pulling some of their own weight and will begin to be capable of making long-lasting memories. Every year, you will find that you have more and more options for exciting travel!
If you are traveling with pre-schoolers, you will still get the same timing benefits as with babies and toddlers, but you will start to lose some of the gear requirements that you had before. If you plan carefully around booster seat needs, you should still be able to take advantage of this wonderful time period!
One of the happiest and saddest moments of traveling with kids is when you decide to ditch the stroller. Traveling with a stroller is a hassle. Standing at the bottom of a staircase in a hotel or subway station with a stroller in tow is a nightmare. What joy you will feel when you realize you do not need to carry both your child and the stroller up that long flight of stairs!
On the other hand, the first time your 5-year old gets tired and wants you to carry him from lunch until bedtime, you will be wishing for that stroller.
Fortunately, by late elementary age, your children should be much stronger and more capable. The older your child gets, the more helpful he or she will become. One of our kids loved helping out with bags that were much too big for him!
While at home, train your child to be able to walk long distance and carry their own weight. In addition to occasional hiking trips, we would often plan walking excursions of 1-2 miles each way to a coffee shop, ice cream store, toy store, or something of at least mild interest to our kids. If your child is still in a stroller, consider leaving it at home or encourage your child to walk as much as possible. This training comes in handy while traveling! There was one time that we accidentally made our 4-year old hike – mostly downhill – for over 10 miles! (Oops!) But thanks to our long weekend walks at home (albeit with treats at the middle/end), he was able to do it.
This is also the age where it starts to become safer to travel to countries with bad tap water or other health concerns. Your child may still need constant reminders not to drink the water in the shower, and you may need to hide their toothbrush and bathroom cup until they actually need it, but odds are that you will be able to prevent water borne illness.
Each child is different, but at some point your child should be old enough to not rub their hands into filth and then suck on their thumb. Of course, if you are traveling to countries with high cleanliness standards, this may not matter. In Switzerland, you will find pristine trains where you won’t mind too much if your child eats a dropped cheerio off the floor. And in Japan, you may even be comfortable with the idea of eating in a sparkling clean public bathroom, even if the locals would be horrified by the idea. The cleanliness of these two countries are incredible! But then there are all the other countries where you might need to pay more attention vs your home country.
In any case, by the time your child reaches upper elementary age, do all the travel you can! This is a fun age!
Cons of Traveling with Pre-Schoolers and Elementary-Aged Children
The biggest con is that when your child starts elementary school, your travels are now tied into the school calendar. You will be traveling at the same time as every other parent and the prices of both transportation and accommodations will reflect it. At least you can still travel, but it will come at a price!
There was one year that we decided to homeschool our kids and were able to work around this issue! We were able to travel to India in January; Peru after Labor Day; and New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Asia in the spring. Avoiding the crowds, heat, and more was amazing!
If you consider taking a gap year, it is easiest in mid to late elementary school. Your kids will know how to read, you should still be able to remember the material that they are supposed to be learning, they will be old enough to make some really amazing memories, and if you accidentally mess up their academics they are still young enough to recover.
Travel with Pre-Teens and Teens
Travel with teens is awesome! That is, it is awesome if they don’t whine about time away from their friends and the other opportunities they are missing at home. Teenagers are teenagers, but if you can convince them that spending time with their parents is fun, you will have an amazing time!
Pros of traveling with Pre-Teens and Teens
At this age, your children are likely to be quite opinionated and capable of picking interesting locations for travel (e.g. Iceland). Involve them as much as you can in the planning, and you are much more likely to have an excited travel companion.
Your child is also much more physically capable. Rather that you carrying everything up a long flight of stairs in a hotel or subway, your athletic teenage son will carry both his bag and your bag. When you go hiking, you can put a bunch of the spare water in your kids’ day packs. What a delight!
Cons of traveling with Pre-Teens and Teens
The biggest con of traveling with a teenager is their schedule at home. In high school, kids may want to spend their summer working, playing sports, or taking some sort of college-prep class. Travel will likely take them away from this.
Friendships are also very important to teenagers. If your kids have friends that are also spending lots of time away from home during the summer and school vacations, you will have fewer complaints, but when your teenager feels he is missing out, expect a lot of moaning! Sometimes a teenager will think that seeing a movie with a friend is preferable to a trip to Florida!
Travel with Kids is Awesome
No matter what age or stage your child is at, you can still have excitement! While “kid” vacations can be fun, there is no reason to only take those type of vacations for the next 18 years. You have so many more options! Think about your unique situation, and you will be able to have much more interesting family vacations than you have been told!