Six Rules for Traveling with Kids

This summer was a doozy. What I thought was going to be a chill few months at home, ended up being a whirlwind of traveling with kids—from Vancouver, Idaho and California to cheering on the US at the World Cup in France. Some of it was for work and some just for fun, but I’ve always been a bit of a nomad and I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to get out and experience someplace new with the kids.

To be fair, traveling with kids is a messy adventure of trial and error (and more than a few jetlagged tears). Still, I love getting to explore the world with them and any added stress has always felt worth it in the end. Over the years, we’ve learned from our mistakes and established some “rules” of the road—both for the kids and the adults—to help make our trips go more smoothly. Read on and let me know if you have any other great travel tips to share.

Gen traveling with kids

Rule #1: You Pack It, You Carry It

When you’re traveling with kids, you need to bring a lot of stuff to entertain them. And, of course, mom and dad usually get stuck carrying everything and the kitchen sink. To lighten our load, I instituted this rule, and it’s helped our kids be more mindful of what they are bringing with them. It also gives them autonomy and a sense of independence since they know exactly what they have and where it’s located. This is especially important for Odette, who is going through a major I-wanna-do-everything-myself phase. When we travel, she has her own small backpack filled with snacks and activities that she carries. We stuff her backpack with books, dried fruit, Annie’s cheddar bunnies, and string cheese, and she is a happy traveler.

Odette carrying suitcase

Rule #2: Arrive to the Airport Early

Since kids can’t stretch their legs much on an airplane, I make sure they “get the wiggles out” before boarding. We always arrive early so they have time to run around and explore (within reason) and burn off some energy. I’ve even gone so far as to organize a scavenger hunt near our gate. They love it, and I love that they exercise their bodies and minds before takeoff.

Rule #3: Sweeten Them Up

While I’m typically a proponent of healthful eating, my sugar and soda restrictions pretty much go out the window when we are on the road. It’s not a free-for-all by any means, but I’m definitely more relaxed than usual when traveling with kids. In France, the boys got a Coca Cola with dinner if they were good each day. And I always make sure to pack gummies and lollipops for the plane. Hey—bribery goes a long way on endless travel days!

Shep with suitcase

Rule #4: Just Keep Moving

Jet lag is a beast no matter what your age. I’ve found the best way to combat it while traveling with kids is to keep them moving until bedtime. In France, we arrived at our hotel at 3 p.m and desperately wanted to take naps. Instead we hit the streets for a sunny walk to the Eiffel Tower, where we explored the park and took pictures of the famous landmark. (I’ve also read that “grounding”– AKA kicking off your shoes and walking around in the grass – is great for jet lag.) After all that exercise and fresh air, we had dinner and the boys went to bed at 8 p.m. Paris time. We lucked out, and they slept all night long. We tried to stick to their normal bedtime the rest of the trip. It really helped them adjust to the new time zone.

Rule #5: Be Adventurous with Food

Our kids may eat more sugar than normal while on vacation, but they also eat a larger variety of foods. My long-standing trip rule is that they can’t order hotdogs and hamburgers for their meals. They have to try something new. In France, that meant they did eat their fair share of steak frites, but my 7-year-old Tom also ate escargot. How brave is that?!

Odette with suitcase

Rule #6: Follow Their Lead

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but we had tickets to the Louvre in Paris and never went inside. Why? The boys were having too much fun picnicking in the park outside the museum, playing with dogs, and throwing bits of food to the rats. (See? Embarrassing.) While part of me knows that we could have done all of those things here at home in Austin’s Zilker Park, the other part of me knows how important it is to follow your kids’ lead. Playing in that park made them so happy, and that makes me happy. I think one of their highlights from the trip was playing tag with a French girl about their age in Lyon. They may not have spoken the same language, but they made it work with the international language of kindergarten. Further proof that the best parts of traveling are usually the simple, unplanned ones.

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  • Soph

    Yes! Including them in the planning too. If we visit this city, which activities would you prefer in these three. I don’t have kids, but I sure wished my parents included us that way. Keep sharing those bits of your life, Geneviève. I sincerly appreciate them, it’s a daily source of friendship… xx Soph

    • Loraine

      What great rules! Mind you now it’s my grand kids I’m taking on trips but I’ll use these rules from now on! I wish I would have thought of any of them when my girls were younger..Also when my girls were younger, we would have a family meeting about our ideas of where to go sometimes, or we’d look up different ‘touristy’ attractions where we were going and they felt so included in on the whole trip and all the plans, (places to visit, where to eat for lunch/dinner) .They had a say in those things so it added so much excitement for them. Of course age factors in but it’s an idea for anyone that might want to try it 😀

  • Lisa Reames

    I pretty much follow the same rules you have posted. Sky picks out his activity books and we bring the charger for his tablet. He carries goldfish/gummies/snack crackers. I usually have plans, but allow for Sky to make some choices. He’s always in for a good adventure.

  • Mariana Ramirez

    I am not a mom but… i am a teacher and the you pack it yoj carry it applies to school trips. As in If you bring anything other than ehat we specifically said will be needed for the trip you carry it. As teachers we already have a ton of stuff to carry already.

  • Susan Ladigo

    Thanks for sharing the tips on just about everything. I am getting ready for my first trip to Rome for JIB11 next May and even though it will not involve kids, I am struggling with how and what to pack since we plan a pretty busy itineray to visit Venice, Florence, Milan as well as days in Rome during the convention. I am worried about dragging my luggage everywhere since we are staying at Monasterys several nights and the check-ins are almost always in the afternoon. That will make most of our day cumbersome and there is just no way I can pack everything for a 2 week trip in a back pack. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  • Holly Fullmer

    Love these rules as they are geared towards everyone having the best experience possible! Gen I had a specific unrelated question. In the picture of Shep sitting on his suitcase, he’s holding onto a piece of furniture. Is that a dresser/chest, or shelves? I really like the look of it and am curious if you can tell me more. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us!!

  • Christine B

    I don’t have the opportunity to travel often (kids are 9, 10, and 17) but when we have traveled similar rules apply. Except the food one. My picky eater (age 9) often won’t try new foods and forcing it would just end up being a power struggle that ends up with angry grown-ups and a hungry and cranky kid. So I’ll encourage him to try new food, but won’t push if he really wants those chicken fingers, it’s ok. The cruise we went on when he was 3, thats all he ate. I figured there was still time for him to work up to trying new things when he got older and he often does now but sometimes the comfort of something you know wins out especially with so many other new things to experience.

  • Elanor Rimassa

    I especially agree with #6, “follow their lead” when they are young. One reason to travel with kids is to make memories and their memories will feel better to them if the experience goes smoothly. Sometimes experiencing a place through the kids can give YOU an unexpected experience that the grownup wouldn’t have thought of. Once we travelled to NYC and the highlight of the trip was the Lego Store because that’s what my son wanted to do most.
    I have found travelling by plane with kids to be tiring because I have tried to be present and engaged with them while they are stuck in their seats. Once we were stuck on the runway for 2 hours before a flight to Seattle when they were both under 5 years old. We played word games and make believe and talked the whole time which kept them from getting bored and whining ( with people around them.) We are so not as experienced travellers as you guys are, so every trip is a big giant deal.

  • Suganti

    This is all so true! But we do carry our iPads as another means of ‘keeping them busy’ especially on a plane ride. But they also like to play games or watch a movie during our air travels. But definitely not on road trips. It would be last thing they use when everything is done and only movie is allowed. No games or reading so they don’t strain their eyes. That’s my rule on road trips. And by experience I can say that letting your kids lead sometime helps you enjoy the trip. We have changed/skipped plans when the kids find something they love and want to spend extra time at some place. I love this post and something I can totally relate since we do the same.

  • Maggie

    My kids are older but we always did the You Pack It, You Carry It. Saved my back, I think! LOL. Plus, they always tried new foods. Never got to take them to France; my favorite place on the planet, but hopefully we can return someday. Love your blog, Gen. Really enjoy seeing all of your adventures with your beautiful family. Namaste.

  • Angela

    Thanks for sharing your travel tips with kids! We did a three week trip to England with 5 days in France in July as well. Our daughter is 8 and our son is 4, and sticking to their bedtimes was also very important for us to ensure everyone was happy the next day. We went to Paris for only a day and tried not to push it too much even though we wanted to see and explore more. Hopefully we will make it back again when they’re older and will have more interest. You’re right though, you have to be flexible and try not to plan so much. Great blog post! 🙂

  • Stephanie

    When I travel with my son and we will be still for a long time I usually get some small treats and activities and wrap them. He enjoys opening the gifts then doing the activities and I can usually get about 15 minutes out of each new item, sometimes more. Before we know it we are at our destination and on to the next adventure.

  • Sherry Byrd

    I really enjoy reading about your kids! They seem to be so well adjusted. This blog was particularly fun, but I wish you’d included road-rule tips! Although most of your rules can be adjusted to fit the road. My daughter has two kids; 6 year old girl and 20 month old boy. I will be forwarding your advice to her! Thank you, Genevieve, for sharing your life and adventures!

  • Heather

    Hubby and I are flying out to San Francisco from the UK in February so I’ll use these tips with him lol although I’m excited to say we’re leaving the kids with my mum! We’re FINALLY going on our honeymoon, 15 years after getting married haha 🤣

  • Jacqui

    These are great ideas! I’m wondering if you have any tips for traveling with a baby. My husband and I are going to Copenhagen in December and will be bringing our 6/7 month old. Any tips?? Thanks!

  • Valerie

    Great ideas! We travel a bit with the kids too (not overseas yet) but I love the idea of letting them lead sometimes. Some of the best vacation days have come from allowing my little ones do that. I just never gave it much thought other than, “they seem so happy….I want that to continue.”

    Also they love packing and carrying their own items. Makes them feel way more in control and comfortable during what is usually a hectic time.

    Thanks for the useful tips about jet lag too. I will keep these in mind when we finally get that trip overseas set up. 🙂

  • Lisa

    This is a great list! I particularly liked number 6. Most important is to be present and happy, which this truly captures! Sounds like France was a great experience for all of you! 🙂

  • Sylwia

    Loved this! Super helpful especially before my upcoming solo flight with a toddler to Europe 🙂

  • Adrienne Rogerson

    Before one museum visit I came up with the idea of creating an art themed bingo sheet with the hope that it would get my daughter to really start looking at art and artifacts. It’s so easy to adjust for all ages like find a blue flower or a portrait with a dog or painting by a French artist. A BINGO gets a special treat from the gift shop. My daughter admitted that it made the visit more interesting and she wasn’t as bored as she thought she would be.
    Another little game we have played was “spot the cherubs “ on castle tours in Germany and in Edinburgh is got switched to “find the Unicorns “. My goal was to keep her engaged and to open up her powers of observation.

  • Jenny

    Your boy Tom has guts for trying out snails. Bravo! 🙂

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