10 Tips for Traveling with Kids

My Top Ten Favorite Travel Hacks for Vacationing with Kids10 Tips for Travelling with Teenagers

We just returned from our second two-week trip through Europe with our kids and although we had a few small mishaps (aka setting off the train station alarm in Brussels) we also picked up a few great hacks to share.

While making an adventure like ours (15 days, six countries, seven hotels, plains, ferries, trains and automobiles) work is helped by the fact that I travel globally about 100 days per year for work, I think these easy tips can make family travel with kids less stressful for any family.

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Visit the Google Information page to view the busiest days and times to visit.

  • Research, Plan, & Prepare: There are a number of times where spontaneity is delightful – an unplanned evening out, or day at an amusement park for instance – but an extended family vacation is not that time. Do your research, use tools like Google Flights, and Google localized business pages to plan for the best value on your airline tickets, or best time of day to visit museums and popular attractions.
  • Pack Light, Use Local Amenities, & Buy as You Go: When traveling with children use the rule of twos: only bring the amount of luggage and gear that can be carried with two hands per person: that means four people, no more than eight pieces of luggage or gear (that includes suitcases, carry on, purse, strollers, or diaper bags). Hotels offer cribs, rental car companies offer child safety seats, and diapers are available in every city of the world. Don’t let your luggage dictate your adventure!
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Everything we packed for four people on a two week trip to Europe.

  • Bring the Best: To help the packing light process along, CURATE! Only bring the best: the shoes you love to wear, your comfiest most fashionable clothes – not the T-shirt with the stain for lounging around bring the silk pajamas, and pack the makeup you use every day, don’t “try” something new on vacation. 
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    I like these cosmetic pot jars for skincare, hair gels, and liquid makeup.

    Consider repotting items into smaller containers if needed. Travel is not the time to bring your “good enough” items because you’ll find yourself feeling less energized and more weighted down, instead bring your best stuff and USE it. That’s the whole point. Marie Kondo your vacay and only bring the items that spark joy.

  • Book Flights Early and Reserve Your Seats in Advance: The time to save money is NOT by booking the lowest cost econo seats that give you seat assignments at the airport, that guarantees unnecessary stress (I’ll go into tips on saving money on travel in a later post).  Buy your way out of travel stress. Book directly through the airlines (more on that later) and select your seats, and potentially your flight days and times, based on the most desirable locations, get aisle seats, toward the front of the plane, and read up on the inflight amenities so you know what to expect.

Pro Tip: For the best prices, book flights mid-week, always including a Saturday night stay, six to twelve weeks in advance, and ALWAYS book seats that allow you to review the seat map and select your seats first.

  • Book Flights the Right Way: An airline snafu can throw your entire adventure out of order, and correcting that snafu becomes exponentially more complicated if you book through a third-party site because, if your flight gets canceled or rescheduled to an unworkable time and needs to be rebooked you’ll have to call the third party, who will then call the airline, and all that game of telephone wastes your valuable travel time. Trust me, it isn’t worth the $10 you’ll save, and you’ll have access to more perks (like travel apps and lower cost upgrades) when you book directly through the carrier. Airlines really are the best way to get the best deals, especially if you’re flexible about the time of day, days of the week, and when applicable the airports (I.e. Miami vs. Fort Lauderdale).
  • Understand Your Hotel Amenities: Read the fine print on your hotel booking, is there a resort fee? What does it include? Is there a free breakfast? What hours is it available, will you actually be at the hotel to enjoy it and make it worth the extra cost? The best way to maximize your hotel stay is to read all the little details on the “about” page, calibrate your expectations, and know all the little extras you’re entitled to, I.E. a welcome drink, free internet, complimentary coffee or happy hour reception. Today’s hotels offer a lot of little perks you’ll only learn about by reading the fine print. But, just as these little extras can really add to your experience, hidden fees can bump up the cost for parking, daily hotel taxes, and resort fees which can be as high as $60 a night!
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    Working on our “Daily Briefing” travel itinerary.

    Go slow to go fast: It can be tempting to go-go-go and try to pack every activity into your itinerary, figuring out your route on the way, but with Kids (and husbands) this can turn into sun-baked meltdowns. Instead, create a daily plan of activities you’d like to do, in order of proximity (remember transit times, lines, and security) and outline a rough but flexible time of day to hit each spot, then choose one or two as your “must do” and the rest as “would be nice”. That way, if you show up to the Churchill War Rooms in London to see a line around the block, you can easily decide to skip it and move on to the next, less crowded activity.

  • Skip The Lines: One way to derail a family vacay is to expect people to complacently wait in a line for some must-do activity, restaurant, or boat ride. Instead, book Activity Passes in advance that let you skip the line or the ticket window, research after hours your options (like visiting the Colosseum at night). Every time I walk out of the Vatican Museum to see people waiting in a three-hour line to get in I shake my head. Ten minutes of advanced planning can get you out of that line and into the Sistine Chapel without incident, and usually with only a nominal additional charge. Visit the websites for each of the locations you plan to visit and research if appointments are available for the sights you’d like to see – especially in Italy where reservations to the most popular sites are an absolute MUST and don’t cost extra.
  • Spring for Space: When booking hotel rooms, read the room descriptions that list square footage. Go for the larger room if possible, that extra ten feet, or with older kids, second adjoining room, can add so much extra luxury and comfort to your vacation.  I’d forgo an extra night of vacation rather than downgrade to the smallest most economical room available.  I know that people often say that “Hotel rooms don’t matter, you’re only in it to sleep” but, SLEEP is critical! Which leads me to my final tip.
  • Schedule Sleep: Tired cranky families fall apart on vacation, meltdowns, runny noses, forgotten passports, brothers throwing fisticuffs in Vienna hotel rooms – this all comes from being overtired.  When planning a trip it can be easy to overlook the importance of eight uninterrupted hours of sleep (at least most nights) but don’t! If you have a busy day the night before, arrange for a leisurely morning the day after.  I know that we all want to maximize our go-go-go fun-button-punching while on a trip, but getting that little extra sleep will ensure that you can maximize your travel fun and minimize mishaps that come when your brain is run down from too much going.

What did I miss?  What are your favorite travel tips to remember?

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One Year in Review

The LaBelleValise blog is now one year old.  This blog started as a travel log on all the places work, life, and wanderlust takes me and over the past year the adventure has been better than I hoped.

Here are a few of the highlightswpid-20141203_115451.jpg

Christmas in Berlin

Planes, trains, and automobiles – I am in the midst of a 30 day journey that will take me from the red rock deserts of Southern Utah to the domed spires of the Milan cathedral, from the salty shores of the Adriatic sea to the warm Caribbean waters of Jamaica.

I’ll pause and post when I return to civilian life, but for now, my greatest hits.

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Ballin’

Last week was definitely one for my adventure log, unfortunately it was also accompanied by context which makes it all sound far less exciting.  But first…

Friday morning, last, I awoke at 6:00 am, showered, shaved, and shampoed, grabbed my trusty green carry on, my white patent leather Ted Baker tote, and a go-cup of coffee and headed to the airport for an 8:53 AM flight to Chicago.

That’s when the texts started rolling in – cancelled flights, delayed departures, and nine of my colleagues, four models, and one celebrity spokesperson were all de-routed from our final destination, Chicago, due to one bozo’s breakdown.

Undeterred, I pulled into the economy parking lot and dialed the Platinum Medallion line at Delta.  “Angelette” and I mapped the perimeter of Chicago and determined that a flight to Detroit, departing an hour after our originally scheduled flight, had six available seats, followed by a three and a half hour drive to get to Chicago.

Doable, but not ideal, and who among us was expendable?

That is the moment when the old adage kicked in, “It isn’t a problem if you can solve it with money.”

Heads together, cell phones blazing, a plan was concocted: charter a jet for ten to Green Bay, Wisconsin and drive the rest of the way, then send the six least critical of the group to Detroit to drive the rest of the way to Chicago (knowing of the possibility that flight would be cancelled as well).

wpid-20140926_143306.jpgLuckily, for my adventure bucket list, I am considered critical, and off to the private plane I went. Then the waiting started, the flight attendant cancelled, delays on the jet in Aspen, more waiting, as we left the six less critical at the main airport, with a destination of glamorous Detroit.

After a quick freshen up in the private airport lounge, at 2:00 pm, and feeling rather baller, I climbed aboard a Bombardier, Challenger en route to somewhere in the Mid West. We were hoping for clearance to land in Chicago, but knowing that Green Bay and a long-ass shuttle ride to Chicago would probably follow. At 6:30 pm, when we touched down in Green Bay I consoled myself that “Hey, at least I got to fly private.”

Until I got the email from the disposable-six that they had been able to secure seats on 2:00 pm Chicago flight, and were happily waiting at baggage claim for their luggage as I was climbing on board an 11 passenger van, bag of Chex Mix in hand, and no bathroom in site, in the middle of the Friday rush hour commute … my ball was feeling pretty deflated.

When we drove past Milwaukee the collective bellies of the group started grumbling with hunger, and it was decided we’d grab burgers. Thanks to Yelp a burger house with great reviews was located, and in we tromped, a Mormon, a Model, a Millionnaire, and a Mix of Mumbling travelers who’d rather be sitting in our hotel rooms enjoying room service.

That’s when we met Destiny … Literally … Friday night in Milwaukee means Drag Queen Bingo with Destiny … and I loved it!

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Gypsy Cabs and a Rape Whistle

I arrived in Qingdao, China at midnight on a half-full flight of sleepy business men who hadn’t checked luggage. I moseyed my way over to luggage pick up alone and registered the odd fact that the baggage carousel lights were out, but the slow whir produced my lonely green TravelPro and black crate full of marketing materials anyway and I grabbed them in the dark without much fuss … probably because I was the only passenger in the airport retrieving luggage.

I made my way through the dimmed terminal to the “Taxi” lane (出租车) only to discover that at 12:30 am on a weeknight, there are no taxis at the Qingdao airport. Shit!

Qingdao Airport

There are many places in the world where you can arrive at 12:30 and even without a taxi make your way to a nearby Novotel for a shower and a pillow. Not so in Qingdao.  When I say their airport is in the middle of nowhere I mean mountains, trees, industrial complex, NOWHERE! Hence the name, Qīng () in Chinese means “green” or “lush”, while dǎo () means “island”. I had arrived on the green island in the middle of the night, and Jeff Probst was not waiting there to help me find my tribe.

When traveling and something goes wrong, or could go wrong, I like to do what I call “sink the ship.”  I immediately imagine worst case scenario and work myself out from there.

In this instance, I had a Chinese cell phone and it was mid-day back home if I couldn’t get a hold of the hotel concierge, I knew I could call home and have someone contact my Qingdao hotel and ask them to send a car for me. I could also go back into the airport and camp out until taxis arrived in the morning. So, worst case scenario really wasn’t disastrous.  I was pulling out said cell phone when I was approached by a very average looking cluster of Chinese men in ubiquitous short sleeved dress shirts and slacks.

Taxi?” One of the men asked, using what I became confident was the only English world he knew.

Yes! To the Qingdao Shangri La.”  I replied, feeling relieved that my original assessment that no taxis were available proved incorrect. I pulled out my hotel reservation to show him the written characters for the address to where I was going.

He pulled out his cell phone, typed in 300 Reminibi (about $45 US) and I nodded in agreement.  Then he started to wheel my wobbly cart past the rental car stands, and past row after row of parked cars, and my Spidey “don’t-talk-to-strangers” Sense kicked into high alert.

“Taxi!” I said loudly, trying to communicate that I did not want to ride to my hotel in the vehicle of some random stranger.

“Taxi.”  He said, pointing to himself, and continuing to roll my luggage.

We arrived at a very average looking silver car, but definitely not a licensed taxi or private airport transport service and he popped the trunk. At this point, if this man’s goal was to kidnap me, he could easily have done it without continuing the pretense of loading my luggage, we were too far from the terminal for the nobody who was around to hear me scream, and although I like to think of myself as scrappy, at 108 pounds he could have easily overpowered me into his car.

So, I sank the ship again, worst case scenario he’s an opportunistic gypsy cab, would-be human trafficker and wants me to get in the car without alerting the security cameras, since cameras are everywhere in China. That in mind, I made a big show of taking a pretend picture of his car’s license plate (my Chinese burner phone was so antiquated it barely sent basic text messages, but he didn’t know) then pretended to text the photo to a friend.  I wanted him to believe that if he did abduct me into white slavery that he would at least have to do so with the hassle of the police knowing he was the last person I had been with.

We climbed into the cab and I immediately pretended to call my “friend” in China and speak to them in Chinglish, using the four Chinese words I know in order to make it seem as though I was meeting a Chinese-speaking friend at the hotel (and was apparently very mad at some old woman 老巫婆 “old hag” being the only insult I know).  Then, I hung up and called home and explained the situation in English, and talked my way through a thirty minute taxi ride over the river and through the woods to my hotel.

There are few times in my life I have been as relieved as I was when I saw the lights of Qingdao in the distance, and then even more so when I saw the neon lights of the Shangri La – once I can see the hotel I can walk there, worst case scenario I abandon my luggage and make a run for it.

Shangri-la_Qingdao

We pulled near the Shangri La, and then things got shady.  He turned around and began speaking with me in the Chinese I don’t know and then showed me his cell phone, with a new number on it – 500 Reminbi (80 USD) which from all my pre-trip internet research I knew was a complete rip off.  I probably would have let him jack the price up a few bucks, but doubling the price when the hotel was in sight, rookie mistake.

He pulled past the porte-cochère and picked up speed, continuing to speak in rapid Mandarin and pointing to his phone. At which point, I did what any innocent little Utah girl would do, unrolled my window, pulled out my rape whistle, and blew that thing with all my might.

The “taxi” slammed to a stop, and he began to back up, gesturing with his hand to keep it down, and pretending to laugh it off as if we’d just had a misunderstanding.  He delivered me to the door and sheepishly grabbed my luggage.

I handed him 300 Reminibi instead of the agreed upon amount, with a knowing look, and we both went our separate ways.

 

Qingdao

 

Now, when arriving in an unfamiliar city after standard hours, I always book a car and driver – though it didn’t work as well in Turkey at 4:00 in the morning, but that’s another story.

Airport Zen

Surviving An International Flight with Kids: Europe with Teenagers

Park and Ride drop offs; shoes-off-tech-out security screenings; gate change; screaming kids; and octogenarians who have never flown before all collide into one frenetic, frustrating, infuriating pulse during the experience that is airplane travel.

But, when you travel as frequently as I do (just got my Platinum Medallion welcome kit five years running, Damn Diamond always just out of reach!) if you let the airport get to you, you’ll start to look like your passport photo. So, I like to practice what I call, “Airport Zen.”

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Airport Zen takes focus, and practice – much like any meditative practice. Finding it for the first time is a struggle, maintaining it is even harder, but when it’s there it offers a perfect little mental oasis inside the traveler’s hell known as the airport.

Finding Airport Zen in Lines

Lines? An opportunity to breathe in for three, hold for two, and release for six; during which time I zone in on someone or something pleasant to look at (advertisements for a juicy steak, a child behaving like children do, a couple in love) and observe the world around me.

Repeat: At Airports, Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

Security? I move intentionally, not allowing myself to assume the anticipatory posture of “hurry up and wait”. I always wear slip on shoes and the same no-pockets-no-mistakes linens pants with no belt or jewelry when I fly, so I can skip the harried wardrobe change at screening and I have only to pick up a tray (at the exact moment it is needed) place my laptop and toiletries case inside, leave my passport and boarding pass on top, then breathe again and follow the person in front of me. All in a deliberate, intentionally relaxed fashion, forcing my shoulders not to clench and my teeth not to grind in annoyance at the cattle call around me.

Airport Zen in Flight

The Flight? When I board the plane I consider my seat a protective nest for the next 2-12 hours and I settle in, just like in yoga, and focus on finding my “posture” – the most comfortable way to sit in non-reclining 33B. I un-shoe down to my comfy travel socks (the kind I keep a ziplock bag for so I can wear them in airplane bathrooms and not care how dirty they get), request a blanket and pillow, then pull out a book for the rest of the take off process (the real kind, with pages, that turn off the electronic buzz and open my mind to a pretend world of interesting people.)

Once in air I order two glasses of water and a glass of wine, drink it slowly, and meditate on nothing.

This relaxed approach makes flying a “practice” rather than a burden, and helps me arrive at my final destination refreshed and ready to hit the ground running at a break-neck pace.

But, how does Airport Zen work with kids?

Airport Zen with Kids

To be honest, it kind of doesn’t – because kids are humans with their own needs, wants, and agenda. But, a few tips can increase the likelihood of success.

  • Airport Hack One: Buy your way out of inconvenience whenever you can possibly afford it – Uber, SkyCap, Upgrade to Priority Boarding, Pay for Clear if you fly more than three tines per year but don’t have status (Amex Card Holders get a discount).
  • Airport Hack Two: Don’t Bring “That”: Whatever annoying, bulky, awkward “want to, don’t need to” device you’re thinking of bringing – DON’T unless: you will have a dedicated hand that can carry it through the airport, it will be DEFINITELY used at least 50% of days, it would cost you more than $75 to buy it on your vacay if you decide you need it. See airport hack one. Thus includes ANY drinks or containers that carry drinks you might forget about (you can buy them on the other side).
  • Airport Hack Three: Consider shelling out the $$ to visit an airport lounge or at least a convenient restaurant; start your vacay the second you leave home to get everybody in a celebratory mood.
  • Airport Hack Four: Check in online, stalk seat assignments in the weeks leading up to your flight to get the best choice, and involve all fliers in the process. Everybody over age five should be personally responsible for getting their body on the plane – which means you should have age-appropriate conversations about what to expect at the airport, when, why, and how to respond.
  • Airport Hack Five: Screens, all the screens, pretty, pretty screens!

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