How To Keep Your Sanity When Traveling With Small Children

traveling with kidsLast week I attended a 3-day conference that ended on Saturday night. I had to be up at 4am the next morning for a flight to Detroit. Needless to say, I took the opportunity to take a serious “power nap” and felt like a NEW WOMAN after the 3-hour flight. BUT…if I hadn’t been “prepared” (ear plugs, eye mask, blow-up neck pillow thingie), I might have felt a little differently.

You see, there was a woman traveling with 2 small children (bless her heart!) who were NOT happy during most of the flight. My heart really went out to her. I didn’t do A LOT of traveling with my kids when they were small…but I did it enough times to know it’s STRESSFUL!

So, I decided to reach out to my friend Reagan for some sage travel advice. Reagan has traveled EXTENSIVELY with her two boys (now 7 and 5) ever since they were tiny babies. I knew she would have some great ideas….because basically she’s an amazing person AND an amazing Mom. :-)

She didn’t disappoint. Here are Reagan’s tips for keeping your sanity when traveling with little ones:


  • Have a bag/backpack for each child. I call it “The Arsenal”. DVD player, books, crayons, favorite toy. Headphones are good for the plane and car if they are watching a movie.
  • I add snacks in their bags as well as carry some of my own just in case. I bring whatever will make them happy at the time. I don’t try to do the “healthy thing” when we are on the plane or long distance in the car. Sometimes candy just works.
ziploc baggies
  • I bring an extra change of clothes and undies in a big ziploc bag. That way if the clothes they are wearing get wet or pukey, I can zip them up and not smell them. It’s good to have this for each child too, because when one kid throws up, you know the next one will smell it and hurl right after. :)
  • I ALWAYS have wipes. They will be used about 50 times a day.
sickness bag
  • I take the “sick” bags that are on the plane and put them in my own car. Just two days ago, my youngest got carsick driving from our house to Salt Lake City because he didn’t eat breakfast, and I grabbed the bag just in time for him to use it. Way to go Gunner!
  • Depending on how old the kids are, I like to talk about the expectations of the trip. Where we are going, fun activities we will be doing, who is going to be there, how we need to behave. They get excited about all that lies ahead and they remember their manners more. If we need reminding a few times, then I start to threaten and take away favorite toys. Such a bummer when you don’t listen.
  • Deep breathing helps YOU if your child is in a full blown panic on the plane.

I find that when I smiled and said sorry to people they were more understanding. I ALMOST resorted to buying a Starbucks or McDonald’s for the people seated around us when when my baby was 2. He was a nightmare on the plane. But now he is 7 and is the best traveler ever. They grow up SO fast!!! The hard part is over before you know it.

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  1. Jo Anne says

    A very long time ago when I traveled from northern California to southern California (about 8 hurs) by my self with my two young children ( 8 and 9 years old) I got brown paper lunch bags. I marked one brown paper bag for each child and for each hour of the trip. I then put a small toy or game or crayons, etc. in the bags. That way, every hour they got to open a bag and had something new to entertain them for that segment of the trip. Of course, this was pre portable electronics. It really did work like a charm.

  2. Karrie says

    Big thanks to all the parents out there who keep calm during the inevitable melt down that occurs when toddlers are over stimulated. All my years of traveling with kids, I took Tylenol and ate something decent prior to traveling. You need to be on top of your ‘game’ to deal with all the issues that come up traveling in crowded, hurried conditions.

  3. says

    I was just about to get on your website and look for travel tips when I got this in my email. Do you have any tips for car travel? I am taking a 6-8 hour car trip with a 9 year old (with adhd) and a super hyper 3 year old, both boys. I’ve never done it before and really need advice. Thanks, Diana

    • itismedia says

      We drive from Georgia to Delaware (and back) almost every year and my step-daughter lives 4 1/2 hours away and we go to get her every other weekend so we have LOTS of experience in the car!

      If you have a portable DVD player, one of the things my kids LOVE (my kids are older, but we have been doing this since they were younger than yours) is Redbox. They are EVERYWHERE! On long trips we let the kids checkout any movie (usually two at a time), within reason and they watch them in the back. Once they finished them we would stop and let them do it again.

      I also cannot stress stopping. Let them get out and walk around every couple of hours. We take picnic type foods and find a rest stop and for lunch and/or dinner eat at a picnic table. The rest stops have clean bathrooms, there are places for them to run around, yell, act like kids, etc… and you get a little break. Going to a restaurant is torture! You just had them sit in a car for hours and now you are asking them to sit and behave in a restaurant.

      We add 2 hours to our trip (the ones to Delaware) just for breaks. We see a sign for something cool, we stop. Someone needs to go to the bathroom, we stop. You get the picture. =+) It is better to take longer than to arrive early and everyone mad at each other.

      I also pack bags with paper, pencils, game books (like the ones at the dollar stores with tic-tac-toe, connect the dots, etc…) and little games, etc… I also second pajamas! Add their favorite pillows and blankets and you are guaranteed at least one nap (PEACE)

      Good Luck! We love car trips because it gives us all a chance to see things we haven’t before and to connect, we are trapped in a car together after all.

    • Barb says

      For the 9 year old, what about the alphabet game (looking for letters of the alphabet, in order on signs you pass) or the license plate game (ex: letters on the license plate are EGS–make up what it stands for…”Ellen goes shopping”).

    • Erin says

      Diana, my son is 5 with adhd (and gets carsick) and I totally understand the anxiety of a first trip with kids. This spring break we decided to do the unthinkable and drove from Montana all the way down to San Diego,CA (and back) for our first family vacation since he was born.

      I made sure to bring the good car seat that raises him higher than his basic booster so he could see out the windows easily (something that meant a lot to him) I also packed LOTS of snacks (healthy and not so healthy), juice boxes and kid sized bottles of water which saved us lots of money and low blood sugar tantrums. I avoided books, movies, etc in the car since it doesn’t help with the car sickness but if that’s not an issue in your family I would highly recommend both (I did pack them but we saved them for the hotel instead). I also made sure to dress him comfortably, such as sweat pants and t-shirt or pjs, and brought along his favorite comfort items such as his favorite pillow, small blanket, stuffed animals and a few other toys. We also talked a lot to him through the trip. If we excluded him from conversation for too long he would get really worked up trying to get our attention and drive us crazy. But if we kept him involved, pointing out things we saw, asking his opinion on where we stopped to eat, talking about what was still to come on the trip and what he was looking forward too, etc.. he stayed pretty well happy. Rest stops were our friend!! We stopped every couple hours (which can make a longer trip but with a kid who has adhd it is WORTH IT) and I would make him get out and potty even when he would complain he didn’t need to and then let him run around the grassy area (in my sight and away from the parking lot) for about 5-10 minutes to burn some energy (this was his favorite part) before getting back in the car. The only time we had a real issue with the car sickness was through LA because the stop and go, stop and go, stop and go traffic on the interstate (next time we will avoid rush hour) took a terrible toll on the poor guy. Luckily I had a good stock of plastic grocery bags in the car that got us through the 4-5 times he lost it through LA until we got to Disneyland. All in all we had a good trip that was over 2,000 miles and lasted 10 days with minimal damage to our sanity. One very important thing to remember is to be patient with your kiddos. Car trips can be long and boring for an adult but even worse for a kid. So if they do act up more than normal or in situations they normally wouldn’t, just take a deep breath and maybe stop for a break if you can. I hope this helps in some way and good luck on your trip!!!!

    • says

      I second the stops, and stopping at ANY place with grass or space for a kid to run, vs inside at a restaurant. And I love to pack those foam swords you can buy at toy stores… pack for the adults as well as the child… they are $3-6 apiece. Run around trying to get each other, and you will stretch those cramped muscles and get the blood flowing. Everyone is laughing and running about and wearing off energy. And the adult drivers feel SOOO much better after doing that with the kids (we tend to get out of the car, and sit in a restaurant in the same position and drink a coffee! silly us!). Another thing is a wee foam football… though you need to be careful not to throw it where there is traffic at stops. And re the portable dvd players: fantastic! And most stores in gas stations sell cheap films… splurge, the kids will love it.

      Another thing I did was get a cheap plastic tray, glue a foam placemat beneath, and drill a hole near both corners of one long edge. You can put a bungie cord behind their carseat, the tray on their lap, hook the bungie hooks through the holes, and for about $3 you have a fantastic place to color, play with small cars, hold their dvd player etc. Leave the cord behind their seat and just unhook one side to get in and out. Worked for us for a three day trip.

  4. says

    One of the BEST trips I ever had with my then 2-year-old (and very energetic) boy was when I got brave and asked other passengers to trade seats with us. We were sitting a ways away from another family (that we didn’t know) and they had 2 boys that were just as crazy as mine and they kept catching each others attention and making a HUGE racket. I figured loud together was better than loud spread out – and it worked out even better. They all had a new playmate for a few hours and shared toys contentedly the entire flight. Hardly more than a delighted shriek from time to time. We lost many a toy on that flight but I don’t care one bit. Worth it for the sanity saving strangers – and I would bet the other parents felt the same!

  5. Colee says

    (Im hoping this is from Reagan Leadbetter. I miss her!) All these are AMAZING tips! We flew to Europe with my oldest son when he was 2. I think my saving grace was a set of crayola color wonder markers (the markers that will only write on the crayola paper) and paper. He wasn’t allowed to have markers at home and he LOVED them. So I would suggest a new toy or something they dont usually get at home.
    (if that is Reagan Leadbetter… I miss you!!)

    • Jillee says

      Yep. That was from the one and only Reagan Leadbetter. I think we ALL miss her! :-)

  6. Stephanie says

    We do most of these things when traveling with our 6 year old. He took his first airplane trip at 3 months old and did great. The one thing I would add is to let you child wear their favorite PJ’s on the trip. Whether it’s in the car or on a plane, they are much more likely to snuggle up and snooze for at least part of the trip if they are completely comfortable. While the uninterupted quiet is definitely a benefit from these little naps, the real plus is they tend to be in a good mood after they wake up and are more likely to be happy they are on an adventure.

  7. itismedia says

    I am a mom of 4 and thankfully they are older now, but I have to say the picture with the Red Bull in it cracked me up! All I could think about was the squirrel from Over the Hedge on an airplane. I know she is probably not plying them with it, but I got quite a laugh this morning. THANKS! haha Diane

  8. Crystal says

    With my husband in the military I have done many flights to Europe and back just my son and I. He is now 3. Balloons were our best friend. You can blow them up while waiting for a flight, the kid can’t hurt anyone and most people will play with him. And you can just pop it before the flight, nothing extra to carry.

  9. Jess says

    I was at the new Indianapolis airport. It is only 3 years old and they made it bigger than what they need so they can grow into it. It was wonderful because it meant that there was a whole wing of a terminal not being used. I let my 2 year old run around and get her energy out without disturbing other pasengers! Some other airports like the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport have kids area with some things for them to climb.

  10. Laurat99 says

    Especially when flying, if you are able to help a struggling Mom, do it. If she is reminding her kids for the 1,000th time to remember their manners, cheer her on for doing the right thing. And on the plane, 9 times out of 10, if her kid is misbehaving, she is utterly mortified and wishes they would magically behave.