Traveling With Kids: A Survival Guide

Planning keeps kids calm and comfortable -- and preserves parents' sanity.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 12, 2004
5 min read

Ask any parent: Whoever designed the car-seat-and-stroller combo was a genius.

Remember the "old" days, just a few years ago, when they were not yet available? Andrea McCoy, MD, sure does. Her husband and very young son flew to meet her at a conference. "He had bags hanging from the stroller, the car seat over his shoulder with my son riding in it -- he was practically airborne! It was really quite the sight."

McCoy, who is chief of pediatric care at Temple University Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, says travel with kids can be enjoyable.

Most importantly, "make sure you bring what your child will need on board -- food, drinks, medications," she tells WebMD. "A baby who gets uncomfortable, if they have teething pain, for example, will suffer until you land."

Also, bring something for a toddler to chew/swallow to help with air pressure changes. An infant can be fed during these times, McCoy says.

Another bit of advice: Spring for a plane ticket for your child. "Many families don't want to pay for a seat for their toddler, and I understand the economics," she says. "But having enough space is important -- not only for you, but for the people around you. Also, a baby is much better protected strapped into a car seat and a plane seat, rather than in the parent's lap."

To get your summer vacation off to a healthy start, here are a few more tips:

  • Assemble first aid supplies -- hand wipes, thermometer, aspirin or Tylenol, bandages, antibiotic cream, rubbing alcohol for bug bites, lip balm, an antidiarrheal, and an antacid. If motion sickness is a concern, ask your doctor about medication. There are both over-the-counter and prescription options available.
  • Ginger root, lemon drops, peppermints, and soda crackers can also ease a queasy stomach.

  • Melatonin may aid sleep and cut jet lag (take at bedtime before, during, and a few days after, following all instructions).Your health professional can help determine the proper dosage and whether melatonin is right for you.

Also, take vitamins. Keeping up your immunity is important. Strange places, strange germs -- you might not be resistant, says Hyla Cass, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind-Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time. Her advice:

  • Bring lots of vitamin C, and take two grams (2,000 mg) daily a couple of days before leaving. Large doses of vitamin C have been found to decrease the duration and severity of colds. Bring the kids' multiple vitamins. Kiddy vitamins contain nutrients that help balance a child's mood.

  • Don't leave medicines in an open suitcase on the floor. If you have babies or toddlers, make sure all medications are secured.

Also, pack calming treats. "Sleep, diet, hydration," Cass says. "Those are the big three when traveling." She advises you avoid sugar, caffeine, and alcohol -- all of which trigger adrenaline rushes. Bottled water is the best choice; keep some in your bag.

Quick, healthy, kid-friendly snacks:

  • wheat crackers

  • nuts

  • string cheese

  • hard boiled eggs

  • carrots

A car seat/stroller combo certainly makes travel easier -- and it's worth the investment, if you don't have one. You'll be well prepared when you reach your travel destination.

  • Plan to stow the stroller on board at the gate, and take the car seat aboard.

  • Get a child-sized rolling suitcase for kids over 5; kids love to help carry.

  • Check whether the airline allows a bassinet on board and if special child's meals are provided.

  • While waiting for your flight, don't try to confine kids to a chair unless it's very crowded. Go from window to window watching the planes. Or supervise them in the play area at the airport.

  • Take kids to the bathroom before boarding.

  • If the baby starts screaming, she may be clearing her ears from the altitude. This is a good time to nurse or bottle-feed your infant.

Before you head out, let kids run around a while -- to burn off energy. During the trip, don't bypass fast-food playgrounds or parks. Travel with kids is especially enjoyable during nap time, when parents can enjoy peace and quiet.

  • Pack the kids' stuff on top in the trunk so it's easily accessible en route. Store toys in a slip cover with a pocket that hangs over the front seat.

  • Keep toddlers in a car seat (booster types are advised for post-toddlers), along with comfy pillows and soft covers.

  • Let older kids map the route with a small road atlas. "OK, kids, we're in South Bend, what comes next?"

  • Bring a mixing bowl in case of car sickness. Tuck in a roll of paper towels and even a portable potty for the littlest ones.

  • Start a new road game when tempers flare.

Let kids look up the destination city on the Internet and plan some outings and must-sees, says Carol Weston, author of For Teens Only and the travel-related teen book, Melanie Martin Goes Dutch. "Kids like some independence. But have rules about the minibar."

  • Buy a deck of cards. "These can be whipped out anywhere!" Weston says.

  • Pack their favorite toys and blankets, says Cass. Bring lots of underwear and swim suits. "The jeans and heavy things, you might have to economize."

  • Hit the library. "We love books on tape in the car," Weston says. She recommends the audiotape of Of Mice and Men. Her girls, 12 and 13, also loved D'Aulaires'Book of Greek Myths.

  • Music CDs are a must for headphones or in-car entertainment. "It's your kids' vacation, too, so be fair," Weston says. "A little opera, a little rap. Bring both."

  • Pass out travel diaries at the beginning of the trip, Weston advises. "Cute little individual notebooks. Kids may keep it going even if they don't write in a diary at home." She also stocks up on postcards at rest stops and deals them out to the kids while waiting for food to arrive. "Here, write to Grandma."

Another lifesaver: When you travel with kids, have a secret grab bag. Each kid gets a little wrapped surprise -- markers, matchbox cars, puzzle books, stickers, activity books, mazes, threading cards (yarn), magnets, Go-Fish cards, silly putty, trading cards, and the like. This is for emergencies only. You also can designate gifts -- "Open only when we get to St. Louis."