Traveling With Kids: A Planning Parent’s Guide To The Great Unknown

For someone who lived abroad for 13 years, has so far traveled to over 60 countries, and traveled constantly for work, I'm traveled out! Getting on a plane to see the world is no longer a top priority. Therefore, traveling with kids is towards the bottom of my to do list.

However, if you have a pre-retirement checklist for post-pandemic life, traveling with kids may be on the top of your list. Therefore, it's a topic worth discussing, especially if you have very young kids.

One thing I've been made fun of by some parents was my refusal to bring my boy on a plane before he turned two. I met a father once who proudly proclaimed he took his daughter on 10 roundtrip flights from San Francisco to the East Coast before she turned two. That's certainly impressive. But why?

When the lockdowns started, the only thing that bummed me out in relation to travel was not being able to see my parents as usual. Pre-pandemic, I would fly to Honolulu twice a year on average. They would also come visit once a year on average.

We didn't plan to travel for all of 2020 and 2021 anyway since our daughter was just born. Given kids can't remember much before age 5 anyway, traveling with young kids is really for the parents. Kids are usually happy being anywhere so long as they have a safe place to play.

However, traveling with kids is definitely in the cards with 2022 and beyond. Sure, the Omicron COVID variant is now raging on. But preliminary signs are that this latest variant is less potent.

Why We Aren't Traveling With Kids On An Airplane Before Age Three

Here are the reasons why I don't want to travel on an airplane with kids before age 3. Right now my kids are 3 and 6. Further, flying during a pandemic is not exactly the safest thing to do with unvaccinated children. That said, as of 2023, the pandemic is over.

1) Feel bad for fellow passengers if traveling with screaming kids and a crying baby.

I will feel bad for my fellow passengers if either of my kids cries or throws a tantrum on the plane. The chances of them fighting over a toy, the iPad, or something else is pretty much guaranteed with two little ones.

A screaming baby is also annoying, despite the invention of sound-canceling headphones. On the flip side, a friend told me I shouldn't care since I will never see my fellow passengers again. Others have also said plenty of parents travel with young kids, so more screaming isn't that big of a deal!

2) Potential torture for kids.

One of the reasons why young babies and infants scream on a plane is due to the air pressure changes during take off and landing. Bigger kids and adults have the ability to regulate ear pressure by pinching their noses and blowing or moving their jaws. Kids under two do not.

Breastfeeding or bottle feeding supposedly relieves the pressure, but the baby has to cooperate. And maybe it won't work as sometimes the air pressure gets stuck throughout the flight. I feel bad torturing my neighbors and my baby.

3) We are traveled out.

As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I have no desire to travel anymore. After my wife retired in 2015, we visited 20 countries all throughout Europe and Asia. We'd like to visit Egypt and Jordan one day. But maybe in five years time.

Given we are already traveled out, traveling with young kids really won't be enjoyable for us. It will feel like we're doing extra work without any childcare help from an au pair or nanny.

4) Sleep training difficulties.

Time zone changes and a different bed can really screw up a child's sleeping habits. It usually takes anywhere from 6 months to up to 36 months for a child to regularly sleep through the night. Having to retrain infants or toddlers how to sleep is painful, especially if they are not good sleepers in the first place.

Our pediatrician has said repeatedly that sleep training is not one-and-done and is often needed after vacations. We took a 4-day family trip to our vacation property in Tahoe last October and none of us got any sleep. Both kids woke us up multiple times a night. Thankfully we all got some good z's when we got back home to SF and everything for the kids was familiar again.

5) There are no COVID vaccines for kids yet.

Yes, the data shows kids don't get negatively affected by COVID as much. But what if your kid is the one that does suffer if he or she catches the virus? We are perfectly fine to wait until a safe COVID vaccine is available for kids. Putting our kids on a plane before then feels off, even if most adults are vaccinated at some point.

The easiest solution for all points except the ear pressure issue is flying private. However, not many of us can afford to do so. As of 2023, there are COVID vaccines for kids, but they are still very new. Hence, I'd rather just wait longer for the kids to get a vaccine or spread the shots out longer before traveling.

A Brief Guide To Traveling With Kids By Age

As relatively new father to two young children, I fully admit I'm way more cautious than most parents. When we took our son to swim lessons as an infant, the swim instructor told us to dunk our kids under water. Screw that! At 17-months old, there was no guarantee my boy would keep his mouth shut and not choke.

Meanwhile, every other parent followed her instructions. To their surprise, some of the kids instantly burst into tears. I figured, whether we dunk our son under water at 17 months or at 5 years old makes no difference. Might as well wait until he fully understands how to hold his breath.

Given all the reasons above explaining why we aren't anxious to travel with kids, let me set up a timeline for when you might want to consider traveling with kids.

Age 0 – 12 months: Take advantage of all your city has to offer

In the first year of life, take your baby with you via car, carrier, or stroller around your city. You'll be surprised at all the amazing things your city has to offer if you spend time playing tourist.

Not feeling the need to travel may be one of the biggest benefits of living in a big city. For example, the other morning I took my son to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. It's a short drive away and free on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before 10 am. The tea garden is as beautiful as any tea garden I've seen when I lived in Osaka, Japan.

If you live in a big city, there are endless amounts of things to do. Have fun playing tourist with your baby for the first and second year of their lives.

Age 12 – 18 months: Take a short trip equal to his nap time

Once you've become accustom to exploring the local parks and museums with your little one, it's time to pack the car up and go somewhere within a 1-2 hour drive from your city. 1-2 hours is usually the duration of a baby's mid-day nap. The goal is to depart about 15 minutes before your baby's normal nap schedule. By the time you hit the highway, chances are good he'll be sleeping.

Traveling with kids by car is so much easier than by plane. Just thinking about preparing our kids for a plane ride stresses my wife out. Packing up a car, unpacking the car, standing in line to check-in bags, go through security, wait for your luggage, gather your luggage, then rent a car with child safety seats is a real PITA!

We took a road trip up to Sonoma Valley with our son when he was 15 months old. It was only 1 hour 20 minutes away, and it worked great. He slept through 95% of the drive up. We ended up playing in the vineyards, swimming in the house pool, and doing some short hikes together.

My wife was happy to be able to overpack since we were just loading up the car and didn't have to worry about airline restrictions. Since it was our first trip with our son, she wanted to be more prepared than less. We brought way more than we needed and had no stress about things like running out of diapers in the middle of the night.

Related: Best Age To Have A Baby Based On Biology And Economics

Age 18 – 24 months: Take a trip equal to her nap time plus one hour

After your little one has become accustomed to sleeping in the car during a road trip, it's time to test her patience a little more with with a slightly longer road trip. It can be up to one of the spouses or adults in the back to entertain her during the time she is awake.

Some babies don't mind being strapped down in a car seat for hours, but some will cry bloody murder. Our friend's daughter screams unconsolably anytime she is in a car seat. This will be your test of endurance.

We took our son to our place in Lake Tahoe a couple times, 3.25 hours away. It worked fine because he napped for two hours and then stayed strapped in for 1.5 hours. However, on the way back from the first trip, he puked. We had to pull over, clean him up, and then hang out for a bit so he could regain his bearings.

You won't really know how your child deals with motion sickness until they start to travel. But once you know their sensitivities, you can adjust accordingly. Now we know to avoid feeding our kids at least 1.5 hours before we hit the road. And, we always have anti-nausea meds on hand and stick to gentle snacks like bread or crackers if they need to eat before we arrive.

Age 24 months at the Earliest: Maybe take a trip on a plane!

Traveling With Kids: A Neurotic Parent's Guide

At around 24 months, your little one should be able to understand basic instructions. Two-year-olds should begin to verbalize their desires more easily as well.

Some might even be potty trained. Hah, don’t count in it. Therefore, with better understanding comes a potentially easier time to travel.

Further, 24 months is the age when many doctors say it's OK for kids to spend time on screens (iPads, phones, TV). Therefore, on a five hour flight, your little one might be able to sleep for 2-3 hours, eat for 30 minutes, and entertain himself with an iPad for the remaining duration. Screen time is still not encouraged, but it works for killing time.

Travel Once You No Longer Fear Injury

Here's another thing to think about when traveling with kids. At what age will you stop worrying your kid will injure themselves or worse. Before age three, kids are often bumping into things, tripping over things, and stepping off ledges accidentally.

After age three, I've noticed the ability to be more careful increases thanks to better cognition, vision, experience, and coordination skills. However, parents still need to be very watchful, especially in a new environment.

Now that our son is four, I'm sure he'll be more excited to get on a plane. Will he nap and sit still on plane rides longer than three hours? I'm not so sure. At least I know he won't cry and disturb other passengers. But we won’t be finding out any time soon.

Two Or Three Years Is Not A Long Time To Wait

Traveling with kids can be a good experience, but what's the rush? For the first two or three years of your child's life, there are plenty of things to do and explore within a three-hour drive. Why not take advantage, travel simpler, and save some money in the process?

Having to pack for a flight to a place where you don't own a home can be difficult. The packing list for going on a road trip is big enough.

Just like how you only need to give up at most five years of your career if you want a child, you really only need to give up 2-5 years of airplane travel too.

You can certainly travel on an airplane before your little one turns two. But your trip likely won't be as pleasant compared to if you wait.

Instead, your mission should be to try and convince the grandparents and other loved ones to come visit you. With most grandparents now fully vaccinated, this should be easier than before.

Cost to travel versus US inflation is way higher

Waiting Until Age Five And Older To Travel With Kids

I'm now a father of a five year old and a two and a half year old. I still haven't taken my kids on a plane because there is simply so much to do locally. We can go to the beach in San Francisco, see the snow in Lake Tahoe, and see animals at Safari West.

Kids don't remember much before they are five years old anyway. Therefore, if you want the best travel experience with kids, wait until your youngest is over five years old. Then you can turn into a travel blogger and deduct your travel expenses as I plan to do.

The Importance Of Living In A Great Place

One of the biggest realizations after writing this post is that I love living in San Francisco. It is mainly because San Francisco and the surrounding areas have so much to offer that we've stayed since 2001. The wealth-building opportunities are great given there are so many high-paying jobs and startups here. However, it's really the activities, weather, food, culture, and nature we love the most.

Traveling with kids is not necessary if you live in a great city like San Francisco

For example, we look out to the ocean from where we live. Therefore, whenever it's over 70 degrees, we head to the beach. And each time we're at the beach I feel like I'm in Hawaii. Except, instead of having to spend seven hours of travel time getting to Hawaii, we can go to the beach in under 15 minutes.

We can order any type of cuisine and have it delivered to our door in an hour. San Francisco consistently ranks as one of the top three cities in America for cuisine according to Conde Nast. But yes, I still miss the poke at Fresh Catch in Honolulu, even though we have several poke joints here.

We also don't have to go anywhere for great exhibits and shows. Cirque du Soleil and many of the famous art exhibits come to San Francisco. So do the Blue Angels every year during Fleet Week. Watching the America's Cup one year was so cool. And so was watching the President's Cup at Harding Park, the US Open at The Olympic Club, and the Warriors win multiple NBA championships. Oh yeah, the SF Giants won three World Series as well!

When you live in a great city, there's less of a desire to travel with kids because there's already so many things to do at home. There's a reason why roughly 27 million visitors came to San Francisco in 2019. Therefore, during the next pandemic, at least choose to live in a place that has moderate weather and great outdoors.

Ask Yourself Who Is Travel Really For?

Be honest with yourself. When your kids are babies or toddlers, traveling is mainly for your own sake or your disabled grandparent’s sake. Traveling with kids takes a tremendous amount of patience and effort. Sure, your under 2-year-old kid may fly free if she sits on your lap the whole way. But I'd happily pay not to have to fly with young children.

If you want the best bang for your travel buck, wait until your kids turn five or older before traveling. At least after age five, they can actually remember and appreciate their trip! However, this ideal travel age does get more complicated if parents have multiple kids.

Yes, I know I'm being a little too analytical with this post. But there are plenty of parents and potential parents just like me wondering what the best course of travel is with an infant. Perhaps this article can help. Don't be fooled by the pictures parents with young kids post over social media about how fabulous traveling with kids is.

I'm probably going to wait until my boy is six years old before we take our first flight to Oahu. This way, his sister will be four. By then, we should be able to manage the trip more easily. Both kids will hopefully remember some of their trip and appreciate the new scenery as well.

With a family of four, we'd try and snag four Economy Plus seats. Flying First Class would be nice. However, First Class only has two seats next to each other.

Live Abroad With Kids For A More Stimulating Childhood

Retiring Early With Kids: A Nearly Impossible Task

The Best Way To Travel For Free And Lower Your Taxable Income

Living In An Expensive City Can Make You Richer, Happier, And More Diplomatic

Readers, what are your thoughts on traveling with kids? Why do some parents travel so much with kids before age 3? Why not just get grandparents and others to come visit them instead?

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28 thoughts on “Traveling With Kids: A Planning Parent’s Guide To The Great Unknown”

  1. Sam I’ve been reading your blog since before you had children…. I remember because I used to look for articles about balancing finances with 2 young children…. Private school.. 529’s etc but never found anything then realized you didn’t have kids until after me.

    We travelled to Honolulu when our first child was 7 months because my mother was dying from cancer. We did not know how well the baby would travel but with all my airline miles, we flew first class and it was surprisingly a pleasant flight with jr. Our 7 month old was curious and engaging on the flight. Never once cried, ate fine, slept fine, and “bubble talked” with anyone he made eye contact with. We spent 2 weeks in Honolulu and he got to meet tutu just in time as she passed away 1 month later. We have countless photos and still tell him about how his tutu waited all this time to meet him. From that trip on, we knew he would be a great traveler. Before he was 1 years old he flew 25,000 miles as we went back to Honolulu for the funeral, and when i got promoted at work, I had to fly in the dead of winter to the northeast for 1 week. Jr. Was 8 month old by then, we packed up and I brought the fam with me for the week. Then Obaasan passed away and it was another flight to Honolulu.

    Basically we travelled a lot because we have always travelled and doing so with jr. in tow was easy – because he slept fine, ate fine, wasn’t fussy.

    Now we have 2 kids, both are still under 10 years old but they are travel pros…. Car travel or plane travel. for every trip they get new goodies in their travel bag which include coloring books, sketch books, travel games and snacks and a headset for the movies.

    Travel is different for every family but we have great memories and lots of photos the kids can reflect back on when they are older since all of their grandparents are now deceased. When the grandparents were alive, they were too old and set in their ways to travel to the mainland.

  2. My husband and I travelled with our 8 month old baby girl to Italy, Greece, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. I thought it was the perfect time to travel with a child. She was on cloud nine being around both of her parents 24-7 for almost four weeks. She was easy to baby carry and she couldn’t run away or disagree with our agenda. A baby’s sleep schedule is so flexible at that age, so the time changes didn’t even phase her. Traveling with her as a two year old was much more difficult! I’d travel with a baby over a toddler any day. We have wonderful memories traveling as a new little family. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    1. Great! I didn’t think about the benefits of both parents being around their baby 24-7 as a benefit of travel because both of us are full-time parents.

      Does your daughter remember any of her travels?

      1. She won’t remember our first family trip but we will never forget her being kissed by the pope at the papel audience or baptized in the Jordan river. She will just see the pictures.

        She might remember our trip to Germany, Poland, etc. in the spring of 2020. We were in Germany when the president announced that travel from Europe was going to be shutdown. It was a stressful time for me trying to get rerouted to get home and worrying about getting sick. But a two year old can’t read headlines and was a ray of sunshine in the haze of uncertainty.

  3. Just curious why specifically Egypt and Jordan are next on the travel list for you – maybe for another post?

  4. Great insight and advice, Sam. We’re waiting for the vaccine to be available for our boys (1 and 3), or even better, for infection rates to drop to a level we feel safe putting them on a plane. We’re Hawaii bound in November, so fingers crossed that one of those two will be the case by then.

    1. Sounds like a plan! Sounds like vaccines for kids that age will be more like 2022. You going to Hawaii for vacation? Where do you guys plan to stay?

      We thought about the Aulani Disney Resort on Oahu, but muy pricey. And the 3-bedroom units are not available.

  5. As a parent of a 9 and 6 year old, the main inflection points for easy travel with kids are:

    1) Potty trained. Diapers and turbulence no bueno.
    2) Can watch a movie beginning to end, or at least multiple TV shows.
    3) Is done with the running around toddler stage.

    If you’re past at least two of these you are good to go!

    If you can travel with none of these complete, you are a saint or have a very special child!

    1. Wise words!

      For us… being potty trained and being able to not injure themselves are the two keys!

      I’m pretty sure our son could watch an hour of screen time if we let him. But we don’t. But on a long flight, we probably will!

  6. I think 3-4 is just about the right age to start traveling. They understand more and can usually behave for a short flight.
    Our son is 10 now and he visited several locations with us – Costa Rica, Mexico, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam. He prefers to stay home and play games but we make him go with us. He enjoys it when we’re there. The key to traveling with kids is to just make them do what you want. Don’t give them too many options. :)

  7. So I’ll start with saying covid changes my decision dramatically and I won’t be traveling on a plane with kids with that risk.

    That being said kids adapt to what they are use to. Our kids have traveled all over the world with us and with the exception of melt downs in customs off a red eye were only a problem on the first or second trip. We still drive 10 plus hour trips with them every year with no issues. The drive will still be done a few times this year.

  8. I think there is a big difference between traveling internationally and traveling in the US. We have gone on several trips with our kids when they were under 3 with no issues. But we also did have some shorter flights that went horribly wrong. We found the secret was to pay for the extra seat and use car seats. This emulates the car enough that our kids were more pacified and unable to wiggle about.

    Thankfully my kids now are both almost over 4 and it has gotten much easier to travel in general, car, plane or otherwise.

    But I do agree, there is enough within a reasonable drive for most people. We have spent the last year exploring our state and everything it has to offer. We have done more locally than ever before and it’s been great.

    We may actually try for an international trip next year or the year after if all goes well in the world with the pandemic. But we shall see. For now, we are continuing to avoid plane travel, and opt for the car.

    1. Good luck on the international trip! May the force seriously be with you :)

      Car seat is a consistent recommendation, which we will do for our daughter if we fly. But nah, still too early for them.

      But for me, I’m ready this summer, but have nowhere to fly to. So sad.

  9. Jim @ Route to Retire

    Somehow we’ve been pretty lucky. We took our daughter on her first flight as a baby and timed everything right so she passed out before we took off and didn’t wake up until we landed. That was a lifesaver for us and everyone else on the plane.

    Since then, she’s probably flown more over the years than most folks ever will. Although not perfect, she’s always been great on planes. People used to tell us after we would land that when they boarded they prepared for the first seeing us with a baby but we’re happily surprised… so were we! :-)

    Unfortunately, that’s really all it comes down to is luck. We were lucky with our daughter but she very well could have been the crying baby on the planes, too. Glad we don’t have to worry about that anymore!

    1. Congrats for having a good traveler and getting passed the stage!

      I think if we only had our son, we would be marginally more inclined now at 4. But our daughter is 16 months old, so we’re just going to keep things simple.

  10. We travelled with our girls to Scottsdale, AZ, every year from the time they were born. Mom in law has a seasonal residence, so the girls learned to swim on these trips and spend quality time with their grandparent.
    Once our youngest reached 7, we started to do annual family trips, primarily with my mom (their other grandparent). We took the girls to Kauai, the Bahamas, Cancun, Disneyworld.. in fact, one of the funnest vacations was a simple road trip to South Dakota! It was wonderful to give them these experiences.
    It was also very neat to include my mom on these trips. Aside from a second set of eyes, and an equal number of children and adults, I know that these trips meant the world to my mom.
    I would implore your readers with young kids to travel and if possible, include a grandparent. I wouldn’t change any of decisions to travel with our girls.

    1. Sounds like great trips. You are lucky to have a MIL who is enthusiastic about being a grandparent. Having a great hone to go to is nice too as not everyone has that.

      What about your parents? And we’re you traveling with the girls before they were 3?

  11. Children under 2 fly for free on the lap of a ticketed adult. I have flown domestically on Southwest airlines this way. The baby’s birth certificate to confirm the age was checked. Doesn’t make traveling any easier, just cheaper!

  12. I traveled overseas when I was 2 and I don’t remember a thing. If we didn’t have a photo proving it, I would think my parents were joking. But I do remember traveling after age 5 on road rips and plane rides.

    Some parents aren’t bothered by traveling with kids, but I’m not that way. I much prefer local outings and the occasional short-distance car trip. I think traveling with kids will be fun once they are old enough to actually follow directions, carry their own luggage and don’t need diapers or car seats anymore!

  13. This is a really informative and I enjoy reading your articles. Do you know anything about the cost of adopting a baby? Any major differences and cost of adoption within US vs. international?

  14. I don’t disagree with any of the points here, but everybody’s situation is different. We traveled with our two children (separated by three years) a couple times per year starting at around nine months of age. We didn’t do it for ourselves, and certainly not for our children, but rather for the grandparents. One set of grandparents (on the opposite coast) can’t travel due to health issues, and the other set of grandparents (South America) due to a combination of health and visa hassles. One good part of this was that the time difference was never more than three hours, so sleeping habits didn’t get so messed up like they would for going to Europe or Asia.

    I would add that as a young man, I used to get so upset when people’s children screamed on airplanes (how dare they!), but that I have more empathy now. In my opinion, the key here is that parents need to accept that the trip is going to be terrible, and that they need to give their children 100% undivided attention when they need it, and it is usually possible to get through even long flights without making a scene. When our kids were little, every flight we would get complimented by other passengers about how well behaved our children were.

    And while I’m rambling on, I still remember 20+ years ago my righteous indignation on the Shinkansen when a mother was changing her baby’s stinky diaper on a nearby seat, perfuming the area. Little did I understand at the time the logistical nightmare of changing yucky diapers on a train/plane!

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