Travel doesn’t have to stop when you have a family. Showing your children the world is as rewarding as it is inspiring. But travelling with kids can be both fun and frustrating in equal measure and it’s so much easier and more enjoyable if you’re got a load of fabulous family travel tips to help you.
Family travel is as much about making happy family memories as it is about having exciting new experiences. Don’t be afraid of adventure – kids are much more adaptable than you’d think – but family travel is also about exploring your local area too. It’s about going on walks with the kids where they pick up a stick and pretend it’s a wizard’s wand or a knight’s sword, or visiting a local castle.
We think family travel should be fun for everyone in the family. We always look for places that appeal to both kids and adults alike. We all want to enjoy ourselves and experience something new together.
We’ve come up with a wide range of travel tips and tricks for family travel after over 10 years of travelling with our two and we’ve asked some of the UK’s best family travel bloggers for their fabulous family travel tips for children of all ages.
Don’t expect holidays to be the same as they were before having children. They won’t be. They might even be better.
PLANNING A FAMILY TRIP
Don’t plan a holiday just for the kids or as if you don’t have children at all. It’s a good idea to take your children’s personalities into account when choosing a destination but remember that it’s your holiday too. Let your children get involved in the decision making. You could even have a family discussion about where to go and what to do.
When you’re choosing places for day trips, have a think about what really fascinates your kids and see if you can fit that into your itinerary. It’s because of our children that we’ve been on dragon hunts at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and had a giggle at the ruder parts of Tudor History at Hampton Court. Things like this make the trip more fun for everyone in the family.
If you’ve got a child in a pushchair, look for places where you’ll be able to easily push it around. Some cities, like Lisbon for example, are full of steep hills and stairs which aren’t easy to navigate.
Lisa from Travel Loving Family says, “When planning a family holiday, don’t think you have to stick with two weeks of flying and flopping on a beach. Even if you have young kids, with some planning and research it is definitely feasible to enjoy more adventurous types of holidays – our best ever holiday was a week on a river boat in France with our two boys, aged 4 and 7.”
Laura from Have Kids Can Travel says, “as your kids get older, don’t presume you know best; get them involved in the choosing of the holiday and the activities. Teenagers enjoy being part of adult decisions, and they’ll often have some great ideas of things to do and places to go that you’ll never have thought of.”
DON’T BE AFRAID OF ADVENTURE
Be adventurous. You can do far more with children than you’d think. Children are remarkably adaptable.
Jenny from Travelynn Family says, “My top tip is not to wait until the kids are older for adventure. Those early years can be such a sleep deprived blur, so do something amazing to create special memories. It’s not as hard as you think travelling with young kids!” Jenny should know – she and her husband have taken their boys (now aged 3 and 4) hiking in the Himalayas and on sleeper trains across India. They’ve meditated with monks in Thailand and traversed sub-Saharan Africa in a Land Rover for four months.
Kirstie from Family Adventure Project agrees. “Travel is the ideal opportunity for both parents and kids to experiment with adventure. It’s not just kids that need skills to adventure safely. Parents need them too. We need the confidence to lead our mini family adventures, to show them how to explore safely and bravely, and to give them the know-how that they need to be safe when they’re out and about on their own.
Let them suggest adventures and experiences and don’t try to talk them out of it. If you don’t have the skills to help, choose reputable companies to lead, and do it as a family. When our kids were toddlers we taught them to sand surf and when they were tweens they jumped into canyons and paddled white water. As teens they are more fearless and accomplished than we are.”
Encourage your children to be independent and pack a few things in a bag they can carry themselves, whether a rucksack or a small suitcase with wheels. My two love their Trunkis which they can wheel through the airport themselves. But do double check what they’ve chosen to pack. Mine have tried to smuggle in a wand, ten soft toys and the entire Harry Potter collection before now.
There’s no need to pack all your baby and toddler equipment when you go away. There are several companies now who specialise in hiring out baby equipment including car seats, high chairs, pushchairs and travel cots.
Always carry wet wipes. You can clean almost anything with them: dirty hands, mucky faces, excess sand and suncream stains.
If you’re flying with an airline that charges extra to put your luggage in the hold, cut down on the amount of big suitcases you carry with you by packing some of your clothes in smaller cases that you can take on as hand luggage. This is also a good way of ensuring that you’ve got some spare clothes with you if your luggage gets lost en route.
FLYING WITH KIDS
Allow extra time at the airport. The whole family will feel stressed if you’re rushing and the queues for everything are longer than you’d planned for.
Try and limit queues wherever possible. The longest queues are often at check in. You can check in and drop your bags off the day before your flight with most airlines. This is a great option if you’re staying at the airport hotel. If you’re able to travel with only hand luggage you can bypass the queues entirely.
Ask if there’s a dedicated family lane when you go through security. Some airports allow families to go through security more quickly than the other passengers.
Most airports have free WiFi so bring along tablets, phones and iPods pre-loaded with stories, music and games to entertain the children. Make sure all these electronic devices are fully charged before you get to the airport and pack chargers in your hand luggage to use at the airport as needed.
We always pack activity books, sticker books and small toys. Finger puppets can also be entertaining on long delays and flights. We bring along a couple of books for each child, both for them to read and look at and for us to read to them.
The thought of flying anywhere with small children can seem quite stressful. Take the time to make the flight a more pleasant experience for you too. Try and recreate the atmosphere of flying first class even when you’re travelling on a no-frills airline. Make up your own bespoke toiletry bag filled with things to make you feel special like a hydration spray, tinted lip balm and eye gel in a smart wash bag.
Pack a gourmet picnic on the flight to make the experience more indulgent. Having a variety of foodie treats to hand is guaranteed to make your flight feel a lot more luxurious and the kids will love their special food while they’re looking around at everyone else’s sad airline sandwiches.
Read this post for more Tips on Making Your Flight More Glamorous.
Cerys from Rainy Day Mum says, “be prepared for a delay or cancellation. So always save something back that your kids can use, pack some extra snacks and keep your swim wear and lighter weight clothes in your hand luggage so if you are delayed or diverted on the way to somewhere warm you have clothes to deal with it.”
Hungry, bored and tired children do not make good travel companions so be prepared to tackle all three. Bring along snacks and keep boredom at bay when you’re waiting for flights or meals by having sticker books, activity packs, little games and books handy.
Be prepared for your children to be overexcited on the first day. Don’t underestimate the sheer amount of noise children make on that first couple of days by the hotel pool. While you’re trying to pretend they’re not yours, remember they will calm down.
Carrie from Flying with a Baby says, “email yourself a copy of your travel documents and insurance and carry with you the local emergency numbers and jot down the nearest hospital details. After having my passport and purse stolen, this made proving my identity super easy and meant I got an emergency travel document very quickly. On another trip, our eldest was burnt by accident with scalding hot tea from a well known coffee chain, and not one member of staff came to our aid – having a local hospital jotted down beforehand would have saved us some time.
Another reason to have it written down as well as on your phone means you can access it with no signal or a flat battery.”
Always pack a basic first aid kit. You can find out what’s in our essential travel first aid kit here.
CITY BREAKS WITH KIDS
We love taking our children to visit cities and you can find all our family guides to European cities in the City Guides section of the blog.
We’ve had some of our best family holidays on city breaks. It’s the perfect way of combining culture with exciting new experiences. You can turn a grown-up trip into a fun adventure for children by mixing cultural visits to museums with trips to parks, foodie treats and finding fun ways to get around – like going on boats or cable cars.
Slow down. This is one of my favourite family travel tips, especially on a city break. It’s better to see a few things well with engaged and interested kids than rushing around lots of sights with tired, cranky children.
Try to avoid queues for cultural attractions by booking in advance or visiting at less popular times. In Venice, for example, we found that there were virtually no queues for popular places like St Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile in the late afternoon. Those same places in the morning had queues of hundreds.
Take a look at the Ultimate Guide to Venice with Kids for more tips on visiting Venice.
It’s important to find the right balance between activities and rest time. When you’re visiting a city, break up the cultural activities with trips to playgrounds or challenge yourselves to find the best place for ice-cream or hot chocolate. In a city like Paris you can visit a museum then go and sail wooden boats or watch one of the puppet shows in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
For more ideas of things to do in Paris with kids, take a look at The Best Things to do with Kids in Paris.
Get your children to find out a bit more about the place they will be visiting before you go. Ask them if there’s anything they especially want to do there. It was my oldest son’s wish to visit the Doge’s Palace in Venice that led us to discover the fantastic secret tour of the palace that turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.
Culture can be fun with kids. Lots of museums have special activities for families offering lots of interactive fun like treasure hunts or art workshops. Take a look at How to Make Museums Fun for Families for more ideas.
Guided tours can be a great way of engaging children’s interest that bit more when you’re visiting a cultural sight. Some guided tours are even specifically aimed at families.
Buying food for a picnic in a street market can be both fun and educational. In cities like Seville and Barcelona where there are amazing food markets, we’ve asked our boys to choose the food for a family picnic and have a go at ordering it for themselves from the various stalls.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY
There’s no need to spend a fortune when you’re travelling with kids in big cities. There are lots of fun, free activities you can do. Take a look at The Ten Best Free Activities in London for some ideas of things to do in London.
Lots of museums have free admission and even those that don’t often have free entrance once a month – especially in France – so it’s well worth checking when these are before you go.
If you’re staying in a hotel for more than a couple of days, look for a room with a kitchenette so that you can keep costs down by making some meals yourself.
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re staying in a hotel, a large suite for all the family often costs less than getting two small rooms. We’ve often stayed in family suites with two separate bedrooms or a bedroom and two spare beds made up in the sitting area for the kids. It’s usually worth looking for a suite with a balcony or terrace so that you’ve got somewhere to sit and have a drink and a chat – or even a meal – while the children are asleep.
Self-catered apartments are almost always better value for larger families. We’ve found apartments really useful on a city break where we’ve had a lot more space than if we were staying in a hotel.
Make the experience even more enjoyable by staying somewhere quirky. We love finding fun and unique places to stay. You can stay in a castle, a cave, a lighthouse, a horse box, a gypsy caravan or a houseboat – the options are endless. Take a look at some of our favourites in Fun Places to Stay with Kids and The Best European Castles for Family Sleepovers.
HOW TO MAKE IT MORE FUN
Treat the trip like an adventure. Things will go wrong but that’s part of the experience. Go with the flow and everyone will be happier.
Get your children to capture their own memories with a phone or a cheap digital camera.
Nell from Pigeon Pair and Me says, “try to build in some activities that make you laugh. Travelling with kids can be stressful. Taking time out to laugh together gives a boost to those happy hormones that help everyone relax, and bond. We always try to have at least one day where we’re zipping down water slides, splashing in waves, or (on our most recent trip) doing something a bit off-beat, like pedalling a rusty trolley cycle down a disused railway track in the Danish forest. It’s a great way of storing up happy family memories for the future.”
Eat lots of ice-cream. Eating ice-creams on holiday is the best kind of treat and they’re great for bribing good behaviour.
MAKE IT MORE MEANINGFUL
Get your children to reflect about what they’ve seen and done each day. Mealtimes can provide a good chance for the whole family to talk about their day. Ask them questions like what was the best thing they did or which was their favourite part of the walk. You could even encourage them to make a travel journal or scrapbook of their holiday.
Don’t just follow the guidebook. Often the best way to get to know a place is to listen to the locals. Where do they eat? Where is their favourite place to visit?
It can be fun learning something together as a family. Quite a lot of tour operators now offer learning experiences for families. You can learn to cook in Thailand, find out all about survival skills in the rainforests of Borneo or learn how to play polo in Spain.
Learn the basics of the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s fun for children to say “Good morning” and “Thank you” to the people they come into contact with. And the locals will love them for it.
Try going on what we call ‘Travel One-to-Ones’. One parent takes one child and does something special together like a trip to a castle they’ve always wanted to visit or a weekend away. This is a great opportunity to spend some quality time with just one child and is a wonderful bonding experience.
HOW TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR YOURSELF
Be flexible. It’s good to plan lots of things to do but don’t be too strict with your list. If you’re open to possibilities you might discover some wonderful place you haven’t read about. It’s these chance discoveries that can be the highlight of your trip.
You don’t have to do endless activities to keep children entertained. Kids need to chill out too. Children can be just as happy crabbing for an afternoon or on a beach building sandcastles and splashing about in the sea as charging around from water park to zoo. It’s a good money saver too.
Children and crowds don’t always mix. If we’re visiting a busy city, we’ll do our best to avoid the queues and try and explore the more off-the-beaten-track parts of a well-known city. In the busy summer holidays we look for the quieter hidden gems where you can have an amazing experience without the crowds. We’d rather visit Sifnos or Folegandros than Santorini in Greece. Or the tiny island of Gozo in the Maltese archipelago rather than one of the more famous Mediterranean islands. Sometimes the best places just take a little more searching…
Ting from My Travel Monkey says, “Kids are so adaptable. It’s often the parents that project their fears and worries onto the children. Myself included. Try to relax the rules when you go away – there’s no point rigidly sticking to routines because inevitably you’ll end up stressed and worried. It’s exciting for little ones to stay up a bit later and to eat chips and ice cream at every meal! Just remember normality can resume once home!”
LET YOUR TRAVEL STYLE EVOLVE WITH THE AGE OF YOUR CHILDREN
Travelling with very young children has its advantages. As Leona from Wandermust Family says, “make the most of travelling with children while they’re young, portable and you don’t have to pay for airfares.”
Jennifer from Jenography has this great advice: “Let your travel style evolve as the children grow. For example, when we travelled with my daughter as a baby and school age child, I brought everything but the kitchen sink when we travelled and we preferred certain types of destinations (obviously they needed a kids’ pool!). Now we love to take carry-ons only to skip the wait at the baggage carousel and we’re just as likely to do a street art tour as shopping as trying a great restaurant. (The fact that I can now “travel light” is perhaps the biggest surprise!)”