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.
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 1 and 4.
1) Feel bad for fellow passengers. 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.
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.
A Brief Guide To Traveling With Kids By Age
As relatively new father, 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.
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!
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.
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. However, many are still waiting due to the variants.
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.
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 five years old before we take our first flight to Oahu. This way, his sister will be almost three. 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.
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?