There's a general myth that you can't travel once you have kids. Not true. As a parent of a 3-year-old who has been to three foreign countries – yes, Canada counts! – I'm here to tell you that travel can be done, as long as you plan ahead and take things slowly. Plus, seek out deals that pay for themselves and then some. Here are some of the best strategies I've found to save and survive while traveling with a young child.
1. Pack smart
These are ideas I've tested and honed on our travels:
- Let each child have a small backpack (but let them know that they have to carry it) and fill it with their toys. Once they are done, go through it and take the toys that absolutely cannot be lost and put them into your backpack.
- Also in your backpack, pack an extra change of clothes for each kid. It isn't just the toddlers who have accidents. Small spaces and turbulence means drinks are knocked over easily.
- Time to break the screen time rules! A digital device preloaded with kid-appropriate content and earphones is a livesaver. It's a small space on an airplane. If the kids are fussy, you want something to occupy them (to keep you and the other passengers sane). Since screen time is for travel only, kids do not develop a habit and it's okay.
- Pack (and use) wipes and hand sanitizer. Minimize germs. It's no fun to be sick on vacation.
- Don't be shy about asking the airline attendant for extra snacks for the kids. If you are nice about it, most of them will help you out. (The only exception might be budget airlines such as Spirit or Allegiant, which I wouldn't recommend for traveling with young kids anyway.)
- Consider bringing fewer clothes and doing a little laundry while vacationing — you'll save room in your suitcase. Just bring a small bottle of liquid detergent and you can wash up in the sink if there aren't laundry facilities where you stay.
- In the space I save packing fewer clothes, I pack old books and coloring books. At the end of the trip, I leave the old stuff behind.
2. Get to the airport early for fun and relaxation
You've saved time by signing up for TSA preapproval (see no. 6 below). Swing by the airport lounge to grab snacks (also no. 6). Next, head to the gate early for front-row seating to some spectacular action: watching people working around the airplane. Luggage on conveyer belts, people guiding airplanes with orange sticks, planes taking off and landing. Even my kid, who isn't normally into vehicles, loves watching. Sometimes, when she waves to the airline workers out on the tarmac, they smile and wave back.
3. Check your stroller and car seat
Checked bag fees add up (and carry-ons crowd the plane). You can check a stroller and a car seat for free for each child who is flying. Check the car seat at check-in and get that bulky thing off your hands as quickly as possible. (Pro tip: Some airlines, such as Alaska, have large, thick plastic bags you can put your seat in for protection.) Hang on to your stroller and check it at the gate, so that you can wheel the kid around the airport to help her fall asleep if the plane is delayed and it's naptime, or if necessary, make a sprint for security if you're running late.
4. Buy a membership to a science or flight museum before your trip
Memberships at science museums such as Pacific Science Center or the Museum of Flight, which participate in the ASTC passport program, offering reciprocal admission at similar museums in Portland, Vancouver, Orlando, Toronto, Providence, Boston and many other cities.
- Through the Association of Children's Museums, membership to many children's museums also allows you to enjoy reciprocal benefits. Find the Washington list here.
- Zoo memberships typically get you only 50 percent off at reciprocal zoos, which isn't as good of a deal.
5. Book a hotel with a kitchenette and a pool
When you have young kids, hotels with a kitchen are a must. It means you can grocery shop instead of eating out, which not only saves you money, but allows you to make healthier food choices. We travel so much that the novelty of eating out has worn off. Plus, we never get enough fruits or veggies at restaurants.
Finally, look for a hotel with a pool. Swimming pools are destinations in and of themselves for a kid like mine. (Just have time for a stay-cation? Check out these Seattle-area hotels with great swimming pools.)
6. If you travel quite a bit and have good credit...
Sign up for a Chase Sapphire Reserve card. First, the downside: There is a $550 annual fee. Ouch. Initially, that fee made me hesitate, but now that I am enjoying the perks, I wish I had signed up for this card earlier. Here are the perks that are working for me:
- You get reimbursed for the first $300 in travel purchases (which means that your annual fee is essentially only $250).
- You get 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months.
- You earn three times the points for money you spend traveling and eating out, so this card is earning me about $100 a month in travel for what I normally do anyway.
- You get reimbursed for TSA PreCheck (up to $100 every four years). Little kids (at least mine, anyway) hate to wait. When we get to security, we waltz right up to the front of the line. This is a huge bonus.
- You get complimentary access to airport lounges worldwide. It’s always a good idea to score some extra snacks for the little ones before boarding. Several lounges are available at Sea-Tac.
- There are no foreign transaction fees. Want to drive up to Vancouver for a fun weekend? Just bring your card.
7. Switch to Google Fi phone service
Google Fi, a service by Google that uses wifi and cellular networks, is great for international travelers. You can make calls to other countries at little to no additional cost, and get international texting from the US included free. All plans include data, calls and texts within the US, Canada and Mexico. No need for purchasing or renting SIM cards! Again, I wish I had known about this earlier:
- Flexible and Unlimited Plus plans come with international data in 200+ destinations.
- An added tip related to Google mapping: You can download Google map directions to a destination using wifi service and then turn it off during the duration of the drive. Without wifi or using data, Google Maps will still dictate turn-by-turn directions to the place of interest. This tip works with any smart phone, and not just Google phones. (It won't redirect you if you miss a turn, though.)
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2018, and updated in June 2022.