Recently, CNN published an article entitled the 5 Rules of Traveling with Children that touched off quite the kerfuffle among traveling families. These wandering families, many of whom I consider role models, were appalled and downright offended at the advice given in the article. Naturally, I trotted off to read the article, confident that I would be as equally offended, but as I read, I realized that these highly offensive rules were rules that I had followed myself when I first began traveling. In fact, in my early years of traveling with children, CNN’s “rules” were like my ten commandments, and I followed them as staunchly as if an ancient dude with a long white beard had presented them on carved tablets.
Of course, that was a decade ago, way before this article was penned, and yet these rules (or myths) of traveling with children are prevalent enough that i followed them naturally and someone even got away with writing them down in a main stream news article. Wondering about this led me to think about the rules that we have made and broken as we have learned to travel with our kids. And I couldn’t help but be curious how those rules compared to the rules set out by the CNN article.
CNN Rule #1: The Younger the Child the Bigger the Suitcase
Babies are a horrifying, fear-filled experience that can so easily be botched without repair. At least that’s what the baby gear industry wants new parents to believe. They are counting on this feeling of helplessness to sell those wads of wipe warmers, and bouncy, nature sound chairs that promise to make new parenthood breezy and fear free. And parents generally buy into it, because they don’t want to be seen as neglectful parents and what if they are stuck in the middle of the night with a screaming baby and room temperature wipes?
This feeling of uncertainty tags right along when you begin traveling with a baby. In my early traveling parent experience, I fell victim to this and brought along way more than I actually needed for the baby. But, all that extra baggage wasn’t really for the baby. All he needed was a clean tushie, a full tummy, and carte blanche access to raising the airplane window shade over and over. All that other stuff was for me. I needed it to feel secure in my ability to handle any situation that might be thrown at me while traveling.
I can easily look back and smirk at my former pack mule self, but over packing for the baby during those early travels was a learning experience all on its own. It gave me confidence to get on the first overseas flight, and the experience to know which things really could be left behind.
It's lunch? I thought it was bedtime!
CNN Rule #2: The younger the child, the harder it is to get over jetlag.
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t lived it myself, but the younger a child is, the easier they are to bring along on a trip. And as for jetlag, nobody has it better than the baby. Babies can and will sleep anywhere. Just pop them in a carrier or stroller and go. Getting younger children adjusted to a new time zone may take a little creativity on the part of the parent, but with a bit of patience, you will find a way for everyone to get at least enough sleep to make it through the day. The excitement of being in a new place and seeing new things will keep both young and old energized.
CNN Rule #3: Travel to a destination that serves French fries.
It always seems like all the really good travelers are out trying out ethnic delicacies, while we seem to be seeking out the pizza and burger chains. Part of this has to do with my admittedly limited culinary palate, but much of it had to do with trying to provide some sense of routine for little kids. Kids thrive on routine, and traveling pretty much throws that right out the window. Eating familiar food, albeit less adventurous, is one way to give new travelers a taste of home when everything around them is different. Luckily, even eating fast food can lead to more adventurous tastes. We found that the kids really enjoyed Croque Brie served at McDonald’s and that led to loving brie en croute in France. Now that the kids are older, they are more comfortable with traveling in general, so they are willing to branch out into unfamiliar tastes. Still, I don't regret the days of eating less adventurous meals. If we had been convinced that we needed to travel a certain way that included only eating local food, we would have missed out on tons of trips. Passing up pate for a few French fries was worth the memories!
CNN Rule #4: You can’t have too much in-flight entertainment for young children.
If you go back to Rule #1, you’ll remember that I used to be a big believer in bringing it all. I lived by the motto that if I didn’t need to stand on my suitcase to get it to close, then I still had room to stuff one more gee-gaw that might entertain for five minutes. I’ve since learned that not only can you bring too much stuff, you can bring all the wrong stuff. This list of the totally wrong stuff includes toys that sing annoying cartoon songs, toys with 5 million parts, and anything that rolls. I’ve been guilty of packing them all, but luckily the embarrassment of crawling down the aisle of airplane to retrieve all the missing parts and rolling balls triggers a chemical in your brain to start packing smarter. Older kids can get plenty of entertainment out of a handheld game system, while younger kids are happiest with the simplest of playthings. Kids of all ages seem most content just to spend time talking and playing with their parents. Since you’ll be bringing that form of entertainment along without taking up any extra space in your bag, you should take advantage of it.
CNN Rule #5: Strollers are as much a bane as a boon.
In my travelling world, strollers, like politicians and taxes are a necessary evil. Once I got to the point where I had more kids than I could carry, I relied on my stroller for safety (and sanity). Unfortunately for my reality, there are so many places that just are not stroller friendly, though, like cobblestone streets, places with stairs, and lots of public transportation. I learned quite the hard way that it was impossible to navigate my giant double stroller through the NYC subways. But rather than ditch the stroller idea all together, we purchased two umbrella strollers to get us through the trip. Looking back we probably could have solved that problem a myriad of different ways, but that was the solution that made the most sense to keep us traveling at the time.
The Rules have Changed and We Have Changed
At the end of the day, hard and fast rules for family travel just don’t work. Families are too individual and no two trips are the same. What works for one family would never work for another, and what worked like a charm last year, won’t have any success this year. As we have traveled, we have evolved and hopefully gotten a bit savvier as we have learned what “rules” work best for us.
The one thing I know with certainty from the years of following the rules, breaking the rules, and making new ones: kids are resilient and capable, way more so than their parents. Kids can adapt to any environment, any challenge, and any new task. Traveling serves to teach them to harness this skill and carry it into adulthood. With that in mind, it doesn’t matter what you have to do to travel, just find a way to travel. Even if you need to tote four suitcases too many and stop at every McDonalds from here to Germany, just do it. Do it your way and learn in the process.
As we were (and are) learning, we have relied on the advice of others, some tried and true ideas, and some good old fashioned winging it to keep us exploring. It was in the experimenting, the trying and failing that we were able to become confident family travelers. We never could have achieved that by trying to follow someone else’s set of rules. We had to make our own way.
When I said this article made quite a stir, I wasn't kidding. See what these other amazing traveling families thought about these five rules of travel.