Family Travel: Why (and When) You Should Travel with Kids

The Reasons Why You Should Travel with Children

I think I should file this post under "very privileged blog post topics", because travel of any kind is a luxury, especially family travel. But I know from my own personal experience and those of friends that there are a lot of questions and uncertainty about taking your first trip with your children, no matter what age they are.

Deciding when to travel with a baby, an infant, a toddler or school-aged kids is a daunting (and expensive!) decision but I do think there are some things you can consider to help you decide your "why" when it comes to travelling with children, because like getting a tattoo or base jumping, it's definitely not something you should do just because everyone else is doing it.

So why travel with children? And when is the best time to start doing it? These are the questions I hope to help you answer for yourself in this post. And for more inspiration, you can read all of my family travel blog posts here.

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. I make a small commission off any purchases made but they don't cost you anything extra, and often I do a lot of research to find you the best possible deal in the link - yay!

Why I Travel With My Son

At the time of writing, my son is nearly three years old. He took his first flight aged 3.5 months on a quick trip back to the UK (where I am from and) where most of my family live (we live in Amsterdam, Netherlands). Since that time he has visited twelve different countries on three continents, and has travelled through a handful of others. He has been back to the UK for family visits more times than I can count and he has been to Thailand twice! Unbelievably to me now, we completed three long-haul journeys with him (Australia, the Maldives and Thailand) in less than a year when he was 1.5 - 2.5 years old.

I don't write this list to earn praise or to impress anyone, I write it to show that we have travelled quite a bit with our boy, and we've learned a lot from it, even though there have also been periods of time when we purposely didn't travel (I'll get to that later). What all this travel, however, has taught me is that there are good and bad airlines to travel on with kids, so be sure to check out this list of the tried and tested best airlines for family travel.

We have travelled for necessity (e.g. family weddings or other occasions) but mostly we have travelled for pleasure. Before my son came along my partner and I were avid travellers and were even nomadic for the best part of two years. We were always keen to keep travelling when we had children - what can I say, we like holidays! - but we weren't naive enough to think that it would be just as easy or simple. We also expected the journeys we went on to change - drastically.

No more complicated and adventurous journeys (see you later long layovers and three week snowboarding trips!), and of course we could wave goodbye to those beautiful, peaceful adults-only luxury resorts we treated ourselves to. But there were other perhaps more meaningful reasons to travel with kids....

I wrote recently for a contribution to this post that when I travel, I feel alive. Time slows down. I am more mindful of my surroundings. I find travel challenging, and the challenges have definitely multiplied since doing it with a young child, but I still find it a rewarding and incredibly satisfying growing experience. I find it easier to remember things from the holidays we take as a family and I want my son to have that; those stand out memories and moments that he can look back on and think "I was happy then" or maybe even better "we were happy then". I want him to learn that experiences are worth more than possessions. I want him to LIVE a full life.

That is the most selfish of my reasons why I travel with a young child. Other reasons are perhaps more predictable. I want him to learn more about the world. I want him to experience other cultures, other foods, other languages, other ways of life. I want him to see that people come in all shapes, sizes, colours, descriptions. I want him to know there is more out there. I want him to know that we are not alone in this world, nor must we ever think that we are.

Why You Should Travel with Your Children

There are hundreds of posts and articles outlining the many benefits of travel for children and travel as a family. The fact that you clicked on this article and are reading these words suggests to me you already know or suspect that there are many good reasons for travelling with children both for them and for you. But my best advice is not to "go along" with these or any other reasons to travel with kids, unless you really feel it in you gut. You have to want to travel with kids in order to enjoy it and there is actually nothing wrong with NOT travelling with children. 

Travel as we know it now is a very modern phenomenon and is not essential to any child's well-being, or even a fulfilling upbringing. Spend any amount of time just walking down the street with a toddler and you'll see just how fascinated they can be by insects, flowers, cars, bikes, and annoyingly, dirt. Heck, dirt is the best to a toddler. Don't think that your child has to visit 20 countries before they are ten in order to have had a informative childhood. That is not the case. That is why I was/am reluctant to count countries for my son (I just did as an exercise for this post). That's not what travel is really about for me.

Also, you don't have to travel far. My son has had just as much fun in our local park as he has had on days when we were in the Maldives, Thailand or Singapore. In fact, there have been several big things we've done for or with him while travelling that he's absolutely hated - a speed boat ride, the sea plane to our island in the Maldives, countless beach days in beautiful sunny places. On those days, at those moments he would have gladly swapped a trip to our local soft play or even playing in our own front room with those experiences. So don't think you have to be adventurous, or extreme or even travel abroad in order to give your kids something of value.

Ultimately, only you can decide why you should travel with your child or children. But do it for a reason that you are fully behind and you feel to be true in your gut. I've learned the hard way that this is the best way to make any kind of parenting decisions.

When is the Best Time to Travel with Children?

My answer to this question is again similar to the one I've just given. It's effectively really simple but is also multi-layered. The best time to take your children on a journey - for whatever reason - is when you're ready. Unless you really, really, really have to (because you're relocating or need to see family etc) don't travel with a child until you feel completely ready to do so. Becoming a parent is a big enough change (at least it was for me!) and I absolutely prescribe to the belief, if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it. In other words, don't make your life more complicated or challenging than it already is. Don't travel because you feel you have to get your baby on a plane as soon as possible. Don't do it because you found a good last minute deal and you have all this time off for maternity/paternity leave. Don't do it because another family thinks it's a great idea you all go together. Don't do it because your partner wants a holiday, but you're not sure you're up for it yet. Don't do it unless you feel it's something you not only want to do, but are ready to do.

But on the flip-side, if you are feeling adventurous and ready to do some off the beaten track travel with a young infant, this post summarises some of the best destinations to travel to with a baby.

Travelling with children (especially young infants or pre-school aged kids) can be extremely demanding on parents and believe me when I say the first time you embark on any long journey with a child, and especially a "holiday", you will experience a number of shocks or even disappointments. My first few trips with our son were almost heart-breaking in that I looked forward to them as I would a holiday I'd longed for in my pre-parenting years, but the reality was that travelling with him as a baby aged 9 and 10 months) was actually harder work than being at home.

Yes, at the time I was struggling with post-natal depression and anxiety, and these disappointments and struggles eagerly fed those demons. I'm not saying I wish I hadn't done those trips because I spent both of them with friends and I have happy memories from them too, but I think having those hard experiences actively put me off any travel with my son for another six months, which of course is nothing in the grand scheme of things but we are a family who are lucky enough to travel every other month (at least) either back to the UK or on a little adventure, so this felt strange and sad in itself, but it was necessary.

I think the first trip I really enjoyed with my son was ironically the longest trip of all - to Australia. Our journey there was a 23 hour marathon (in which he only slept a maximum of five hours!) but because we were staying with family who also had young children and we had done a lot of preparation for the journey and our time in Sydney, and because we had very low expectations, it proved more fun and enjoyable than we expected. I also have to add that at the age of 18 months this was also the time that my son began to get more value out of an iPad, playing games and watching TV shows for more than five minutes at a time.

That was a big game changer in terms of passing the time during a long flight, and also giving us the opportunity for rest and downtime once we were in Australia and completely exhausted and jet-lagged. I also think that we were rewarded for paying for his own seat for the flight so we all had a bit more space to stretch out and relax during those never-ending long-haul journeys. (I share more tips like this for flying long-haul with a toddler in this post.)

Now I'm not saying you should wait until 18 months to go travelling with your child, because I also think the many hours of flying our son had done before also meant he was somewhat used to being on a plane and going through airports etc, but I don't think you should feel any pressure to start early.

Travelling with young children is not the same as travelling on your own or just with adults so let me shatter some illusions you may have... I mean, help you be best prepared for what travelling with kids is really like because when I say only travel with your kid when you're ready what I really mean is be ready not for the good parts of travelling with your child or children - the memory-making, the sunshine, the new experiences, the delicious food, the shared sense of adventure - I mean, be equally ready for the not so good part of travelling with a child.

What Travelling with a Child Is Really Like

No more holidays. Kinda.

The biggest shock for me about travelling with my son when he was a baby was how far from being a holiday it was. Personally, because he was not a great sleeper (and this was invariably worse when we were in a strange or foreign place) and because I was struggling with post-natal mental health problems at this time, the trips we did in the first year or so of his life were arguably the complete opposite of what a holiday looks like to me, or used to look like. At least at home we had our rhythm, we had familiarity, we had other parent friends to spend time (and moan/drink!) with, and for two days a week he went to daycare and I had something of a break when I worked. When we travelled in that first 18 months of his life we often had none of these things and I found that VERY HARD. That's without even considering the additional stresses of packing for travel with a baby, navigating airports and planes with a baby, waking up an hour early (or more!) because of a time difference, and things like discovering halfway through a two hour car journey that your infant son hates being in a car seat. Good times! Again, I'm not saying I regret those trips because I don't, but I am saying that I was shocked how un-holiday-like they were for me and how much of a disappointment that was. I wish I'd been prepared for that a bit more.

Kids react to change too.

As I've mentioned above our son definitely would sleep worse as a baby when we were in a place he didn't know. While he has never been particularly comforted by routine, it's also definitely true that he was sensitive to change and was really unhappy and would cry a lot when overtired, which can happen a lot to young children when travelling. All that ever-changing stimuli? That can really tire a baby out even if he or she isn't moving or doing much. I hate to admit it because it sounds like I'm parent-bashing (and I'm 100% not) but it's also true that babies react to their parents moods and when travel can easily cause stress or arguments among parents, it can also influence a little one's state of mind. I bet you never want to leave the house again after reading this?! Well, bear with me...

Unpredictability is the new normal.

As soon as I accepted that travelling with kids was something I could prepare for but not completely control, I found it a lot easier to relax into any challenge or obstacle that came our way. Okay, maybe relax is the wrong word. Let's go with "have less resistance to". I do my bit now by packing the things we may need and preparing for explosive nappies or dirty clothes, but ultimately I can't prepare for everything... and that's okay. This attitude has spilled over into my daily life so thanks travel for that!

You are going to annoy other people. So what?

This was arguably the biggest reason I didn't want to fly with a baby, and I still have moments when my boy is having a tantrum or is cranky and I am lightning fast to worry about what other people around us are thinking. This is sad but somewhat natural in our day and age, and of course I have to admit that before becoming a parent I was absolutely one of those people who would pray to not have a child or baby sitting anywhere close to me on a plane. Kids cry and that's annoying. But even then I knew that kids cry. Full stop. It's okay for kids to cry and it's okay to feel annoyed. What's not okay is for that annoyance to spill over and add to the parents' problems and I'd like to think I never was that person. As I wrote in this post, kids are not (always!) arseholes for crying, but adults who complain about kids crying or make parents lives harder in any way because their child or children are crying are absolutely arseholes.

I try to always remember this when travelling, and I also try to do what I can to not interfere with other travellers, like getting through security quickly and efficiently (as I always have), but I also give myself the grace to acknowledge that I'm travelling with a child and I'm allowed to take a little extra time to accommodate this. That is honestly all you can do as a parent. As with everything, it's important to know what you can control when travelling with kids (i.e. what you pack, how you pack it, etc) but to let go of what you cannot control (i.e. other people's impatience or susceptibility to getting annoyed.)

All the gear, no idea?

Some people swear by having everything they could possibly need in an emergency with them when travelling with children.

I am not one of those people. 

Yes, I believe in having a few things that will make your life easier when travelling with a toddler or a baby (and I wrote packing lists for them too!) but I have a stronger belief in having the least amount of stuff possible. For me, having my hands free to hold passports, catch crumbs, hold my little man's hand when he wants to run away, is far more important than having multiple toys or the latest gadget or gear I supposedly need to keep my kid happy. Aside from his iPad, changing stuff, lots of snacks, a small first aid kit, and a couple of toys (literally just a couple) I know all my boy really needs (and actually wants!) is to be with us and that you can definitely do on a flight!

Things feel foreign (because they are)

Your first trip with a child will feel strange and new and scary because IT IS. Even if you go back to a place you know well (which was my case when I took that trip to the UK) you've never made that journey as a parent before so remember this and cut yourself some slack if it doesn't go as smoothly as you hoped. As with doing anything, I have definitely found that the more I do something the more I get better at it, and family travel will be the same (see below!).
The worst that can happen actually may not be THE WORST

Before I began flying with my son, my worst nightmare for a plane ride with him would be projectile vomit. He was not a sickly baby at all - I can count the number of times he spit up or vomitted on both hands - but when he did vomit it was often projectile so this was a semi-real fear. How would I deal with it? How would I clean it up? What if we had to sit in vomit for the remainder of a four or five hour (or longer!) flight? 

Well, my worst nightmare did happen. It was on an internal flight in Iceland that was dramatic and a little traumatic for many reasons (which I will explain another day) but as I carried my son in my arms and walked down the aisle to disembark, so very relieved that we were doing so, I looked down at him for a split second and saw a very orange, very furious flood of vomit head straight up at my face. I turned away in time for the full assault to land in my hair and on my coat shoulder. Much of the rest bounced back on to him. Because I was so desperate to get off the plane, I just kept walking while barking for my partner to find some wipes immediately. Outside on the tarmac, in temperatures hovering around freezing, I wiped my son down and wrapped him in a muslin blanket I had in our bag. He then went with my partner to board a bus that would take us to the terminal. I then took my coat off which was soaked more than I thought and got to work trying to get as much of the vomit off as I could. Icelanders getting off the plane were staring at me for crouching on the floor rummaging in a bag with no coat on.

Long story short, we had to wait another 18 hours before we were back home in Amsterdam and I could properly wash those clothes. Opening up that suitcase was a little frightening, to be honest. The whole experience was not one I want to repeat, ever, but if I had to, I now know I'd survive. I'd get through it. It was my worst nightmare, and it came true, and I dealt with it the best I could. Again, that's all I can do.

Easy travel is not cheating...

We are not adventure junkies or backpackers or long-term travellers by nature. We like comfort, good food, beautiful surroundings to be close to civilisation and yes, a luxury hotel every now and again. This is how we choose to travel and that's our choice to make. We also often choose more expensive flights because their times suit our boy's routine, and we have come to prefer the option of babysitters or kids club in a decent resort or hotel over staying in an Airbnb or villa. For me now staying in a hotel where I don't have to cook, clean or do washing is my definition of a holiday, and I don't see travelling in this way as a lesser experience for any of us.

It gets better and better and better... 

Yes. Definitely. No matter when you start travelling with your child or children, I believe that it will get easier and easier, and better and better an experience. That's certainly what's happening for us. Every little journey we go on now has been better than the last in terms of our boy behaving and/or us being able to deal with challenges or obstacles, and in terms of getting the most out of the trip both individually and as a family.

What's your experience of travelling with kids? Do you think there's a best time to start? 

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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