Dad Travel Hacks
Lessons from the Road
What are you doing for spring break? One of the most painful realizations about the dad life was when I realized that there’s no avoiding the chaos of the school-led travel schedule. Those of us who have chosen to spawn offspring have to endure the maximum pain of travel during school breaks. As if traveling with little ones wasn’t difficult enough. Well, with this in mind I crowd-sourced some learnings from my official network of dad friends to gather resources, tips and tricks to avoid at least some travel related pain. Hopefully this is helpful. Head nod, see you guys out there.
Travel Gear. This inflatable pillow will turn a coach seat into a layflat for a toddler. These suitcases do a similar type of thing and can also offer rides when kids get tired. I hate traditional diaper bags, but love the Patagonia Black Hole Totes for the job. They don’t look awful, they are light, washable and easy to carry as a tote or backpack. We always have Dramamine, Benadryl, water wipes, snacks and extra clothes in ours. We also bring extra clothes for us when we traveled with littles. That’s a good thing when your toddler pulls your pre-flight mimosa into your lap on the front end of a 5 hour flight.
Divide and conquer. We’ve used this program almost every time we have been to Kauai and it always makes things easier. Instead of cramming kids onto the rental car shuttle we send one person ahead and one stays with all of the children and luggage. Then we pick everyone up in the rental car and go on our way. There are no points for suffering.
Boring. It’s ok for kids to be bored — it’s part of life. You don’t actually need to fill every moment for them with a screen or a game. I’m interested in letting their mind pause or even wander.
Travel stroller. It’s sort of funny to think back on the days when we were expecting our first child. There’s so much emphasis on making sure you get all the right gear without knowing what it’s actually going to be like to live with a kid. It’s just something we all deal with and you don’t know what you don’t know. We ended up with two strollers and the one I tend to appreciate more is the Babyzen Yoyo which is super light and easy to pack. (Jamie Apostoulou co-signs this below.) You can even get it in an overhead bin easily or in any rental car trunk. This is the killer application as far as I am concerned. If you are going to travel at all, this is one thing you will definitely appreciate.
Work hard to pack intelligently. We went on a weekend trip with an extremely reduced amount of packing and it was pretty amazing. Seems obvious, but don’t bring more stuff than you need. There’s a Target and CVS on every corner. You can pick up something you really need if it comes to that.
Night moves. This is mentioned below in Ed Loh’s advice, but we try our best to travel at night. It has been without fail less stressful. When it is dark the kids are just so much more likely to sleep and be calm. The other day I drove for 3 hours with both kids and no one said a word the entire trip. We made a point to run them around the playground that afternoon, but traveling at night works.
Make mistakes and adjust quickly. Like I said above, you don’t know what what don’t know. When it comes to car seats we have done it all and made all of the mistakes. We’ve packed the car seats, brought them on the plane and rented them at the destination. I can tell you with confidence that bringing one on a plane is the worst possible thing you can ever imagine. I hate carrying a f/cking car seat 10 feet in our driveway let alone down the aisle of a 737. Don’t ever do that. I think with one kid you can buy a travel bag and check it to your destination. If you have two kids, you probably want to rent them and get on with your life.
Potty on the go. Self explanatory. We use this thing frequently for car trips it and makes life easy.
Healthy snacks. Airport & airline food are terrible, inconsistent and for a little one, likely inedible. Unless you're crossing an ocean and seated up front where the food & service match the ticket price, pack a solid supply of snacks and food items you know your little one likes and put them in your bag ahead of time. Sounds obvious, but it's an easy oversight when heading out of the door.
Pajama Prep. Whenever we're taking an overnight flight, we'll put on a fresh pair of pajamas under our daughter's sweater or dress so she's quickly comfortable.
Audible for kids. Instead of screens we've been opting for ebooks. Longer content and a great sleep inducer on the early morning or late night trips.
Ride coat tails. A lot of time in other countries, diamond status doesn't mean much and you're likely to get stuck in a long queue, especially at immigration. We all know what jetlag is like for kids, putting them in a long, slow, boring line only adds insult to injury. Don't be shy about highlighting the fact that you're traveling with a small child or children and would like to bypass the line. Most countries, especially in Europe, place Mothers and small children at the top of the priority list and will be happy to accommodate the request. The same is true for many museums with long lines, i.e. the Louvre, etc.
Compact Stroller. If we need a stroller, we use the Yoyo stroller by Babyzen. It's compact, fits in the overhead, is internationally recognized by airlines, looks nice and has a ton of accessories (i.e. a sleeping bag for cold weather). Not a big secret, but it's saved us several times and avoided the doomed gate check. We do the same thing for the car seat.
Rimowa kid flex. We use the Rimowa w/a cushion to cruise through the airport (see attached) if traveling w/out a stroller.
I’ve got a 2-year old so traveling - road or flight - is a game of distractions.
First, always run the kid before the journey. Get em tired. Schedule that time into your planning.
Pack the snacks that take a while to eat - Cheerios, blueberries, goldfish, etc. Works on that pincer grip, too.
Wrap up a little surprise for them to open. We usually get a new book, a sticker pack, something like that.
I always wear a field/work shirt with two chest pockets when traveling now. Sorry no “rad dad”cargo pants, or zip-heavy joggers. Having phone, Kleenex, extra snack, little toy, etc. is much easier to access in those pockets - especially when sitting on a plane and kids in your lap.
On your kids 4th birthday buy a box of these gloves and some washable markers Dad can blow-up the gloves and kids can customize them HOURS of fun on the road!
Uber offers a car seat option - a lifesaver for getting around NYC quickly (when nap or meal time is descending).
Busy restaurants make great spots for kids because they have a lot to look at, and the noise helps drown out any potential outbursts!
We always book a suite with a separate living room, so we can hang out and enjoy some room service once the baby goes down - a luxury we would never take the time to enjoy if we were traveling alone.
Book stores are always a hit for young and old, so finding a great book store that you can enjoy while your child browses the kids section is essential.
A couple quick tips that come to mind.
For road trips, you can buy an iPad holder that attaches to the front seat headrests via velcro. Our kids each get an iPad and their own headphones. While they watch their movies my wife and I can listen to music or a podcast or just listen to nothing and enjoy the scenery in peace and quiet.
Our guys are old enough to use these travel car seats by Mifold. They're simple to fold up and throw in a suitcase. So much easier than lugging a large booster with us.
Drafting dots. My wife gets the credit for this one. I don't know if she got the idea from someone else or came up with it herself, but when our boys were toddlers we would bring a roll or two of drafting dots, the more colorful the better. They'd plaster the plane seats in front of us during the flight. They were easy to clean up and never left a sticky residue.
Seating. Unless you have a newborn that will truly be in your arms during the whole flight, buy a seat for each child. It's worth having the space for crawling around and having a buffer between you and other travelers. If you're able to get them together in a block we'd go three on one side then one parent across the aisle and we'd switch off being with the kids throughout the flight.
Car Rental. Yes, just get the minivan. You'll be glad you have the extra space so additional family members can ride with you and spend time with your kids and you never know, you might find your next dream car.
Ziploc Bags. We always travel with big ziplocs at the ready for wet clothes, dirty clothes, trash etc...
Spare clothing. Of course you're packing extra clothes for your kids, but usually it's the parents that are covered in god-knows-what at the end of the flight. I always brought an extra spare black pocket T to change into upon arrival.
Kid Podcasts. These are a lifesaver and engage your kid's minds and curiosity beyond screen time. Our favorites are Brains On! and Smash Boom Best
DIY Travel Lego Kit. This was a hand-me-down from a co-worker that is ingenious. He made it for his boys and passed it along to ours. Take a plastic pencil box with a hinged, snap close lid and a flat top. Glue a flat lego piece on the top so that there's surface to build on and then let your kid fill the small box with the bricks and pieces that they want to create with. It's both contained and easy to travel with.
When I was traveling solo a ton, if you turned over my carry-on tote, the only thing that would fall out would be smaller bags. Bags in bags. Still the key with a baby. Maybe more so. The more little bags you have to stash wet stuff, fallen toys etc, the less crazy you'll feel on a plane with a baby. Topo Designs makes amazing bags of all sizes. The taco bag is great for pacifiers!
Also, if you're on a tightly defined schedule with your baby, ease up when you're flying. It will be ok. Let them sleep and eat when they want. My daughter's a total busybody and had trouble sleeping or eating at her usual times because she was so distracted. But if you go with the flow it will usually work out. Usually!
When flying, buy and wrap a small present for each hour of the flight… each hour, they get to unwrap and play with a new gift. (Cheap gifts recommended if you go to Australia!) It will kill at least 15/20 minutes an hour… that’s a third of the flight taken care of!
-Don’t turn your back on the games you played with your own parents, before technology took over our society. I-spy is a favourite, Word association!
Always travel in Crockett & Jones shoes. Very reliable, and one less thing to worry about!
Overall, your mileage may vary, so to speak. What works with one family won’t always work for another. What works with one of your kids might not work with the other(s). Trial and error. There is no wrong answer.
AirBNB — we use it almost 100% of the time. Everyone gets their own space, and it’s usually cheaper than doing so at a hotel. Plus, it lets you live like a local a little bit.
If you have to stay in a hotel, try and find one with some amenities your kids will love. A pool is a no-brainer, but we recently stayed in a hotel in Dallas that had free tabletop arcade games — my kids entertained themselves with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong for hours like it was 1985.
We’ve mostly done road trips, due to COVID. My general advice is to break up the trip, and think of it as several small trips. (Even if it’s only one day of travel.) I highly recommend researching playgrounds on your route in advance. (You can do this easily on Google Maps, even once you’re on the go.) Letting the kids run out their energy while you eat Whataburger (or whatever) outside is much better than scarfing it down in the car, trying to make time.
Speaking of the car, there are a lot of kid-friendly podcasts. Two episodes of Story Pirates will buy you something like an hour of tranquility, which is clutch on a long drive. (We also like Circle Round.)
If you’re flying, this could work for younger kids: Someone once told me they wrap up old/ forgotten toys their kids already have, and give them as “presents” on a flight. Clever.
Generally, remember your job isn’t to make sure your kid feels good or entertained all the time. Your job is to give them a safe space to express their (often big) emotions. Sometimes you have to let them be mad or sad about something, and just let it play out. It takes time and patience to do this, two things often in short supply when you’re traveling. But sometimes it’s better to have the full-blown meltdown now instead of a long-festering one all day long. (To be clear, I mean your kid here, but you should also feel free to melt on down as needed, too.)
I’m not going to judge anyone for pulling out a phone or an iPad from time to time. Traveling is hard, and sometimes you just need a break (and so do your kids). I’m a big believer in parental restrictions with YouTube Kids. There’s a lot of shit out there, frankly, but if you take ten minutes you can set parameters so the stuff they watch is safe, positive, and fun. My son was obsessed with Alpha Blocks and Number Blocks, these two shows that are like a BBC-made Sesame Street. It’s hard to describe but they’re just songs about spelling and counting… starring blocks. Kids love that shit.
On that note: Headphones for kids are worth every penny.
You deserve grown-up time, wherever you’re going. Find a babysitter by asking a friend who has lived or stayed in the city, or looking on Care.com. If you’re staying at a short-term rental, the proprietor might be able to make a recommendation (you’re probably not the first parent staying at their place). Or you might be able to ask a concierge at a hotel (I’ve never done this).
Look up family-friendly restaurants. We’re long past the era we grew up in, when a McDonald’s PlayPlace was the only playground option for our parents to scarf down a quarter-pounder in relative peace. Here in Austin, there are multiple (!) breweries with real-deal playgrounds, and/or large fields where kids can roam and play. Enjoy a well-earned beer while your kids run around.
Similarly, a lot of grown-up places still have kid-oriented things. A couple years ago, we went to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver (amazing, by the way), and they had a free session where kids were given art supplies and encouraged to make their own pieces as we walked through the museum with a docent. It was really fun and hands-on, and it meant that my wife and I got to explore the museum while our daughter got to do arts and crafts.
Ask around. If you’re at a playground or whatever, chat up another parent (ideally a local) and find out what things they like to do with their kids. This is a great way to get recommendations you won’t find on Google.
Be flexible. Planning a wall-to-wall agenda like you did in your pre-kid days is a recipe for disappointment. Prioritize what’s truly important / can’t-miss, and console yourself that you’ll be back again one day. The real goal here is rejuvenation and breaking up the monotony of day-to-day life — for you and your kids. Rushing around never puts anyone in a good mood.
Post-trip, I always try to jot down a few key moments or memories somewhere (even if it’s just my phone) while they’re still fresh. I then put these in a bigger document I plan to send to my kids when they’re older. It can also be fun to pick a few fun photos and have them published as a book with Blurb or something similar. These have brought a lot of joy over the years.
Finally, not to be overly sentimental, but the reality is that, at some point, your kids are gonna move out or move on or both. Treat this like an opportunity to open their eyes to new and different experiences, even if it’s just a daytrip down the road. This time won’t last forever. Savor it.
I think it's good to accept the fact that little kids are not going to sleep well the first night of travel. they are going to be weirded out by a new place, getting up, freaked out, etc. Neither you nor them will sleep well the first night. The sooner you accept it, the better. The second night, they are tired from not sleeping the first night.
To aid with sleep, we always take a noise machine with us so as to block out strange noises. This is our go to.
If you are going on a long flight, like to Asia or Europe, you can give your kids benadryl. Yes, you can drug them. Judge me later. However, it would be wise to test out first. A small number of people have an opposite reaction to benadryl, instead of making them drowsy it makes them hyper. For example, if you decide to give your child Benadryl on the plane to Hong Kong, thinking you are good for 8 hours of sleep, but instead have a small child running down the aisles...maybe you should have done that test run first...
Get a travel stroller that folds up to fit in the overhead...you'll save tons of time and impress most people around you as well. When the kids get older, sell it and probably make your money back.
This tablet holder fits on the back of car headrest and is great for long roadtrips, because it saves little kids' necks and helps with car sickness.
...also good for saving little kids' necks on long road trips, this hilarious looking head strap.
We usually rent houses through Kid & Coe vs airbnb or VRBO, primarily because rentals come with books and toys. There's nothing my kids like better than other kids' toys.
The only thing they might like better is other towns' playgrounds. It's such an easy and cheap way to entertain kids on vacation. My kids (three boys 4, 6, and 8) prefer it to hiking or museums.
"Vacation cereal" (ie the small-box variety pack of sugary cereal like lucky charms or cocoa puffs) is another cheap and fun thing that we do only on vacation, so my kids look forward to it.
Road Trip? Make it a midnight run. We've done a few trips from LA to the SF Bay Area to see family - about 6 hours if you don't stop. Much longer with a nursing, fussy infant. But if you're comfortable driving at night (which also reduces traffic), plan the trip around bedtime. We did this a few times and have only had to stop once for a diaper change and quick bottle feeding. Total game changer.
See what the hotel has to offer. We took our son to Pebble Beach for the Concours d'Elegance last summer, when he was about 10 months old. Lots to pack and think about; I called ahead to the hotel and found out they had a pack'n'play, crib and mini fridge they were happy to put in the room, at no extra charge. All we had to bring were linens. Yes, it was a fancy hotel, so your mileage may vary.
Speaking of pack'n'plays, if your kid is the first in the family, consider gifting one to your grandparents or favorite relatives. They're less than $60 on Amazon, and can be used for other grandkids, etc.
Flying with your kid and food? Baby foods are OK, but by-the-book TSA agents can technically confiscate ice packs or gels that aren't frozen solid. They'd have to be a real piece of work to do that, but it's legal, a friendly TSA agent told us.
The Doona rear facing child seat/stroller is the greatest invention on planet earth for traveling. It can be wheeled up to the gate (and gate checked) or down the aisle of larger planes (probably not a CRJ). It fits in any car (and Uber - 30 secs) and the cheapest budget airline (we strapped it in on an Allegiant flight). Only downside is that it doesn't have any storage - you'll need to buy the accessories for that.
Baby straps and pacifier retainers are excellent for the kid who is in the throw everything/all the time stage. We attach these to toys and plastic sippy cups, and strap them to the stroller, baby carrier, even high chair in restaurants.