10 Tips for Traveling with Kids

1. Research

My husband is well-known for his thorough (one might even say obsessive) research before a trip. In the past,  I have had the luxury of mocking him while still enjoying the benefits of his labors. However, for the recent trip to Pittsburgh he stayed home to work. I realized as I was planning the trip how much work the research he does is and how helpful it is.

Based on the recommendation of friends, I had originally planned on staying near John’s camp in a small town and going to some local sights. This was sort of the lazy version of trip research. Two days before we left I decided to look up some possible things to do in Pittsburgh, just out of curiosity. I discovered the National Aviary, which I knew David would love. That led me to look for other things and I quickly realized that Pittsburgh would be a better trip for us.

I ended up using Hotwire to find a hotel. I was happy with the hotel and the discount but I primarily chose the neighborhood to be near the Aviary and Children’s Museum. A little more research on my part and I would have discovered that although we were close to those locations the neighborhood wasn’t really walkable due to the highway. (The picture above shows the highway curving around the hotel.) We were right next to the baseball stadium and pretty much in a location with very little charm or neighborhood appeal.  It ended up being fine, but I think if I’d done the research ahead of time I would have picked a different area of the city.

2. Snacks

I’m a big believer in snacks. Neither our 4 yr old or 2 yr old eats a lot at meals. Whenever Ruth was unusually grumpy we’d look for something to eat. And it almost always worked.

3. Bathrooms

My rule with the kids is that every time we saw a bathroom, we would go. Don’t ask “Do you need to go?” That’s a rookie mistake. Every time we left somewhere, we’d go to the bathroom first. If your kids are like mine, this won’t prevent someone from needing to GO! right that minute at the most inopportune time with no bathroom in sight, but it might cut down on the number of times that happens.

4. Know your own limits

When traveling as a family, we don’t usually worry about naps. Our experience has been when tired enough, our kids will fall asleep (in strollers, on the metro, on a lap at dinner). But this time I was alone and I needed the rest. So we went back to the hotel and napped.

Likewise, when traveling as a family, H. usually researches meal options and tries to choose local places and avoid chains or necessarily “kid-friendly” places. However, this time we ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe. It provided outdoor seating and a free fountain show during dinner that distracted the kids and gave me a break from being the “on” parent all the time. Was it true Pittsburghian cuisine? Nope. But that’s ok.

5. Save money where you can

This wasn’t a frugal trip by any stretch of the imagination. There were a lot of ways I could have spent less. But I tried to save when I could.

This was the first time I used a discount website for a hotel room. I used Hotwire and was quite pleased at the deal we got (a savings of $75 off the stated nightly rate). The hotel was clean and comfortable and the staff were nice. The location (see #1) was slightly less than desired but it was what I requested so that was my own fault.

Research places you are going and discounts you can get. We saved a lot by taking advantage of the reciprocal membership benefits at the Pittsburgh Zoo and the National Aviary. These discounts weren’t advertised, I had to ask at both places, but it got us free admission both days.

As I mentioned above, neither David nor Ruth eat that much at meal times. So usually I ordered two kids’ meals and then ate whatever was left over. This was actually plenty of food for all of us. It did mean that I had to eat a lot of pizza and burgers and fries but it was only a couple of days. On a longer trip I’d have been more concerned about our nutrition choices but for a few days I figured I could let it go.

6. Indulge a little

This ride is the kind of thing I usually say no to. Yes, it’s only 50 cents, but it’s 50 cents for a 10 second ride (and a pretty lame one). But sometimes it’s nice to surprise the kids with a yes and indulge in a little silliness. I also splurged by ordering an “on-demand” movie one night. It would have been cheaper to go to a theater but the experience of watching a movie in the hotel room while eating dinner was a highlight for David.

7. Free-Range Time

H. and I came up with the concept of free-range time when we traveled to Paris with 18 month old John. It has since served us well. Basically, any museum/exhibit/sightseeing time needs to be balanced with time to just run around. Playgrounds are great for this. So are parks. But our kids have also enjoyed free-range time in other odd places (rolling down a ramp in a deserted theater, jumping on and off a slanted concrete slab, playing on a subway). I think kids need a certain amount of unscheduled time and time to just run and jump and play. Our trips go much better if we make sure they get it.

8. See things through their eyes

David loves taking pictures so often I let him carry the camera. This served two purposes: it kept him occupied at times when he was bored  and it encouraged his interest in photography. I also appreciate seeing what his perspective of the trip was. Yes, you get a lot of pictures like the one above (not to mention many extreme close-ups of strangers). But we also got pictures like this:


It’s also good to figuratively see things through their eyes. Squatting on the ground ignoring the beautiful waterfall? It’s not that they can’t see it. It’s that they found a tiny salamander they are fascinated by. Countless times I had to remind myself to slow down and just let them have fun .

9. Encourage their interests

Without every really discussing it, H. and I have developed the same approach to sight-seeing with kids. We try not to cater to them in the sense that we avoid “adult” places but we do look for things that we know they will enjoy. We realize that travel (even if it’s just a field trip downtown) is different with kids than it was without. A lot of times this means going somewhere like the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum that I wouldn’t go otherwise. In the best of cases, I find the place enjoyable for me as well as them.

Other than looking for generic sights that we think they might like, we try to play to their interests. With John, this meant going to see Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum and dinosaurs in many different Natural History museums. With David, it mean the aviary. It meant making sure of all the things we did at the Children’s Museum, we went to the art room. It meant letting him take pictures.

10. Kids Love Water

Whether it was the waterplay area at the Children’s Museum, the misters at the zoo, or the fountain show at dinner, water made them happy. They even loved the huge glass-doored shower in our hotel room. When I reserved the hotel, I made sure to get one with a pool. This seemed a little silly given that we’ve been swimming pretty much every day this summer. But when asked what his favorite thing was David said the pool. (John said the same thing about camp.) This was a tiny little hotel pool with way too much chlorine, but they loved it. It also provided a great way to cool down at the end of the day.

11. A bonus tip: Take a book!

I always have a book with me. Always. I made the mistake Day 2 of this trip of leaving the hotel without my book. There were many times during the day when the kids were engaged with something (on the playground, in the waterplay area) where I wished I had my book to read. So learn from my mistake and take something to read, it will make you more willing to say yes to “just another minute”.

6 thoughts on “10 Tips for Traveling with Kids

  1. I was surprised that you even took a camera. The family trait must be wearing off on you. That picture of the highway near the hotel looks like something H. would have taken. We are glad that you did–it’s great to be able to share some of it with you.

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