My #1 Best Tip for Traveling With Kids (+ Other Tricks I Keep Up My Sleeves)

July 13, 2018


Yup, that’s it. That’s all that stands between you and travel bliss. (Okay, not entirely, but it does help. Stay with me!) I know, I know, the vacation itself is a gift and calling them presents makes it sound a little bit like bribes for good behavior. So, call them “surprises,” then. Whatever the term, small, new (to them) items make long trips more enjoyable for everyone.

I started with little board books and small, hand-held (silent!) toys on my first solo plane trip with my daughter, Josephine, when she was about a year and a half old. Now she’s approaching seven, and it’s solidly turned into a tradition—one we both look forward to. Here are a few of my guiding principles:

  • I plan ahead and stockpile things well in advance so I’m not scrambling to collect surprises at the same time I’m scrambling to get us all organized and packed. Little travel games, activity books, tiny stuffed animals or figurines, and the like. I’ve had a lot of luck finding fun, reasonably-priced things at stores like T.J.Maxx and Marshalls, and I love to check The Strategist for ideas—especially their gift guides by age.
  • Once your kiddos are old enough, start wrapping the surprises. Even if it’s just packaged in kraft paper, it adds an extra element of fun for them and is an easy way to space out the gifts and still keep them a surprise.
  • If you’re flying, opt for fewer, smaller items. If you’re driving, you’ll likely have more room to play with. For my family’s recent tour around Michigan, I dedicated car bag with something wrapped for each day’s travels.
  • My daughter loves to read, so this trip her surprises were all books. Chapter books, work books, Mad Libs, and a travel journal.

More of my go-to travel tips:

  • Always have a snack on hand. I know a number of fellow parents who follow this principle on a regular basis, but I find it extra-helpful when traveling. Plans change, meals are less predictable, and, at least in my family, “hangry” is a real thing (including me!).
  • Bring travel packs of wet wipes. Yes, my daughter is well out of diaper age, but I will never stop buying wet wipes. I have a stash at home, some in our cars, and they’ve earned a place of honor in our travel bags because they come in handy all. of. the. time.
  • Keep drawing materials with you. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve been able to stretch out a meal or hang out in a long line without complaints due to keeping a pad of plain paper and crayons on me.

don't forget the caffeine (for you! not your kids!)

  • Keep an extra layer on hand. Don’t let an overly air-conditioned spot or a change in weather result in unnecessary unhappiness.
  • Keep a zip-top bag in your bag. I know, this is a little strange, but it comes in handy surprisingly often for the remnants of a particularly messy snack, a wet bathing suit, or an article of clothing that somehow got jelly all over it.
  • Consider loosening up some of your rules, whatever those might be for you. Personally, it was a long time before I let Josephine have any screen time, which made it an especially big treat for her to play with age-appropriate apps on my phone when we traveled. I’m a big proponent of encouraging polite behavior and proper table manners at restaurants. While I never allow screens at the table, traveling or not, I do loosen up on trips and let her bring a book and read at restaurants when we’re traveling.
  • Due to all of the above… Embrace that you’re going to have a full bag at all times.

Plane-specific travel tips:

  • If your kiddo is still stroller-aged, gate check it! Having a stroller makes getting through the airport so much easier (I kept doing doing this past the point of when she really needed a stroller!).
  • I’m on the fence about bringing along car seats on planes. I did it a couple of times and then quit. You can gate check them, or use them on the plane, but since I didn’t use them in-flight, if you’re renting a car at your destination, I think it’s easier (and not that expensive) to rent a car seat, too.
  • If you are gate-checking either or both of those items, I liked to bag them (to prevent the stroller from unfolding or anything getting any grimier than it already is). I used this stroller bag and this car seat cover, they both worked exactly as intended, though in hindsight, I likely would have done a car seat cover with wheels.
  • Consider packing an extra outfit for everyone in your carry-on. Luggage can get lost and, as I learned from one of my favorite bloggers, gross stuff can happen.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Getting your luggage into the overhead bins, an extra set of hands, whatever, just ask! People are almost always happy to be of assistance. It takes a village!
  • Don’t feel like you need to bribe your neighbors. I mean, if you want to make goody bags for your fellow seatmates just because it sounds like fun, go for it. But certainly don’t feel like you have to. Babies cry, toddlers squirm. (Can you blame them? Flying isn’t exactly a luxurious experience for most of us.) It’s a part of life, and sure, some people might be cranky about it, but the vast majority will be understanding and compassionate.

Fill us in below with your best tips for traveling with kids OR your worst travel story (we’ll all been there).

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Claudia T
    Claudia T
  • whiskito
  • 702551
  • Ttrockwood
  • labingha
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


Claudia T. September 14, 2018
Although I don't bring favors for everyone, I like to pack some small individual wrapped chocolates (like giardelli squares or lindt truffles) and when I pull it out, if my plane neighbor is looking, offer one. Makes goodwill but is also easy for them to turn down.
whiskito July 23, 2018
When I was kid, the never-seen but much-beloved "Travel Elf" was responsible for the little new toys/games that would materialize on long trips. These were doled out one by one over the course of the journey, just when we were starting to get antsy, which gave them an element of novelty. Ascribing the items to the Travel Elf helped stave off excessive "gimme gimme gimme" whining and avoided the bribe/gift mentality. It also gave us a fun, imaginative story we would spin out: how had the Travel Elf known we loved Mad Libs? was the Elf going camping, too? how had the Elf snuck all these things into my mom's bag? did the Elf ever bring things for my parents? (yes; usually books).
Lindsay-Jean H. July 23, 2018
I love this! What a fun idea.
702551 July 14, 2018
While handy, some of the aforementioned tips are definitely not parent-specific.

An extra layer is de rigueur where I live (SF Bay Area) as well as traveling because going back to your hotel room burns up valuable vacation time.

The zip lock bag tip is quite useful for childless travelers. I (bachelor) always travel with some 1-quart, 1-gallon, and 2-gallon ziplocks. Good for isolating things that might leak or things that you want to protect from odors (or letting odors out).

An old photographer's trick it to fill up an empty plastic bag with sand and use it as a makeshift camera stand (think tripod).

At some point during my travels, I end up packing purchased food items in the 2-gallon bags.

The wet wipes thing is also quite applicable to childless travelers. I always have a few around to wipe airplane tray tables, seat arm rests, TV remotes, etc. Similarly, I am always swiping larger paper napkins, etc. during my travels.

What is omitted here is the usefulness of traditional cloth handkerchiefs. Beyond blowing your nose or wiping your brow, they are very handy as subway strap extensions (for short people), makeshift handles for uncomfortable plastic bags, headgear. If large enough, they might function as a shawl to cover bare shoulders for entering churches (especially in Catholic ones in Europe).

They can be used in many situations where having a tiny little cotton/paper wet wipe impregnated with some repellant ersatz commercial fragrance might be imappropriate.

The Japanese use handkerchiefs to wrap packages, etc. for easy carrying, something that is rarely done here in the USA.

And here are a few tips for childless travelers:

Umbrella: get the smallest one you can find. If it starts to rain, hold it over the crankier person. It'll make both of you happier in the end.

Earplugs and/or noise-cancelling headphones. They won't eliminate all of the atrocities of flying coach class, but they will lower the cacophony to a bearable level. Parents are left out, they can't wear these since they are attending to kids.
Lindsay-Jean H. July 23, 2018
Thanks for sharing all of these cv!
Ttrockwood July 14, 2018
We took a long car trip with my nephew when he was too young to read to himself just yet and we discovered by accident that he loved books on tape! He was so happy just to listen to the same book on tape several times and then proceed to tell us alllll about it
Lindsay-Jean H. July 14, 2018
Books on tape are a great idea!
labingha July 13, 2018
My family is planning a trip to Costa Rica with a 6- and 4-year-old and this is very helpful!
Lindsay-Jean H. July 14, 2018
So happy to hear that, happy travels!