Just like learning how to take care of a baby for the first time, learning to travel with one (or more) kids is an exercise in trial and error. With a few hundred thousand miles traveled with my two kids, we’ve had lots of trials and I’ve made lots of errors.
From my own experiences, and those of other travelers in the TPG Family Facebook group and beyond, we’ve compiled a roundup of mistakes many parents make while learning how to travel with kids.
Trusting airplane seat assignments to work themselves out
It’s logical — you pay for tickets for yourself and your children, designate them as children on the reservation and assume the airline will seat you next to your toddler. Right? Wrong — or at least not always right. While airlines do try and seat children with parents, it doesn’t always happen automatically. Don’t assume you’ll end up next to your kids. Be extremely proactive at stalking seat assignments, both for the sake of your kids and those around you. (This is how you can make sure your family gets seat assignments together.)
Not having a puke bag at the ready
I’ve done the walk of shame off the plane covered in vomit more than once. Trust me, that one time you don’t have a sickness bag at the ready within three seconds of reach, you’re going to regret it. Now, when I’m on my A-game, my youngest daughter sits with a blanket covering her on the plane so that I at least have that ready to catch any midair emergencies. A bag is never far behind.
Not packing extra set of clothes — for yourself
Most parents know to keep a change of clothes handy for their baby or toddler, but forget that they could also need an extra outfit at the ready … until it’s too late. (See above.) Accidents of all kinds can happen while caring for a kid at 36,000 feet, so keep one handy change of clothes at the ready for yourself.
Not bringing a stroller
So your 3- or 4-year-old walks everywhere at home? Mine, too. But the steps they log at home and the steps you need them to log in Europe, at Disney or even to get around a huge resort are apples and oranges. If you are taking a trip that involves more than a very modest amount of walking, you probably need a stroller on the road a full one to two years beyond when you would use it in your normal life at home. (At a theme park, you may need it until your kids are old enough to ace spelling tests.) Here are our top strollers for travel.
So you packed a device for your kids to watch or play with and it’s actually charged — very well done. But if you forgot headphones, those around you may be less than impressed hearing that third My Little Pony episode or nonstop video game background music. Kid headphones are very inexpensive, but don’t forget to pack a pair for each kiddo (and maybe a spare), as we all know how sharing will turn out.
Believing in airplane food
Airplane food is not all created equally. Some is really good. But most of it is … not really good. Adding in a traditional kid palate and the tendency for some airlines to either not offer — or forget to load — kid meals means you really need to not rely on an airline to feed your kids anything substantial. At best, you’ll get mushy chicken fingers. On an ultra long-haul flight, hanger will almost certainly set in if you don’t BYO food for your kids.
Saving money by adding a connecting flight
There’s lots of really solid ways to save money on travel. (Using points and miles are high on that list.) However, making your family’s flight schedule sub-optimal by choosing really early or late departures or adding connecting flights is not wise. When your kids get older, go for those less expensive flights, but signing little kids up for more arduous itineraries than necessary is a mistake.
Flying with a lap toddler
Flying with a lap infant is one thing. Snuggling, sleepy, nursing babies can sometimes do better in arms than in their own seat. However, squeezing that last free flight in with a lap toddler just before they turn 2 years old is something some parents regret. We booked a trip one month before my youngest daughter turned 2, and I booked her own seat literally on the way to the airport as I realized what a terrible plan this was. Thank goodness there was saver-level award space at the last minute, or instead of sitting happily in her car seat, that 23-month-old would have been unhappily squirming on my lap for a four-hour flight. In other words, just because an airline lets you do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
While we are on the topic — be sure and bring a birth certificate if you are flying with a lap infant. While some airlines don’t always check, others do. Southwest in particular is notorious for requiring a birth certificates for lap infants — even infants obviously under the age limit.
Under-stocking formula, diapers or wipes
There’s how long a flight (or cruise, or train trip, etc.) is scheduled to take and then there’s how long it actually takes. Sometimes the plan and the reality are very different from each other. If you only plan for enough diapers, wipes and formula to get you through the planned journey, you may be woefully unprepared for the reality of the journey. Bring extra when it comes to the essentials — and then a little more.
I won’t tell you how many diapers we went through on a transatlantic flight when my 1-year-old started having tummy troubles shortly after takeoff, which then continued through the rest of the night. Let’s just say, it’s good I rounded up our diaper supply count.
Underestimating jet lag
In the TPG Family Facebook group, a family shared that it took their kids four days to get over jet lag on a trip to Africa. Unfortunately, their entire time in Africa was only five days long. They say it can take a day for each hour of time zone change you make. I’m not sure it always has to take quite that long, but if you are crossing an ocean, there’s going to be a major adjustment to be had, so be conservative in what you expect your kids to be able to handle and what time of day you expect them to be active.
Counting on seatback entertainment
Notice something wrong with this picture? Well, if you were counting on the airline to provide inflight, seatback entertainment there’s a big problem. Very few domestic airlines reliably have seatback entertainment across the fleet, so it’s best to assume there won’t be any and simply be pleasantly surprised when there is functional entertainment.
While we’re talking about inflight entertainment, remember to pack backup power supplies for everyone’s devices, too.
Whether you are crossing oceans or just going to Florida, the root of 89% of all family travel meltdowns (in my very unscientific guesstimation) is over-scheduling and the resulting over-tiredness and short tempers. Don’t believe me? Just walk around Disney World where families have scheduled out FastPasses, meals and more months in advance and watch what happens when they try to do it all. You can’t do it all — or, even if you can, you shouldn’t.
Thinking hotels will offer cribs and connecting doors
We’ve picked on air travel a fair bit, but there are plenty of mistakes that can be made when it comes to lodging and kids. If you need a crib or connecting rooms at a hotel and noted that on your reservation, it’s reasonable to think that those things will happen. But sadly, that’s just not always true. Call the hotel to confirm, and then on the day of travel, call again.
We once arrived to an airport hotel very late at night thanks to a delayed flight. Our then 3-month-old was beyond done with the day and was pretty hysterical. She was the kind of baby that was a light sleeper — there was no such thing as transferring her when she was sleeping without her waking up, so we kept waiting for her crib. That crib we requested months in advance? It was MIA for two hours, which at 12 a.m. with an angry baby might as well have been 102 years. Had we known it would take that long, we would have moved on to Plan C, but we made a mistake and assumed it would be there any minute. It wasn’t. I can still hear the cries of that night (and probably so can our room neighbors — sorry). If you want to play it safe, you can bring your own travel crib.
When you travel with kids, you may end up covered in mess, praying for sleep in the middle of the night in a foreign land and temporarily promise yourself (or your spouse) that you’ll never travel with the kids again. But that moment passes. The worst mistake you could make when it comes to kids and travel is to skip it and stay home. It’s sometimes hard — really hard — but it’s worth it. Learn from those who have come before you and try to avoid some of these mistakes that we almost all have made at some point. And if you can keep your cool (or something close to it), that is really the most important thing when things go awry.
This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.