15 tips for family travel with children (and infants)

Over the years, we have booked hundreds of families on fantastic combination vacations. Along the way, we have learned the tricks to make the whole experience a bit sweeter for the families and a little less stressful. After all, a holiday is a holiday, and you want it to start the moment you leave home.

Here are our 15 best tips to help make family trips with your children go smoothly. 

Be prepared for the unplanned

Family travel with children means you must be prepared for the unexpected. There will be a need for bathroom breaks, change of clothes, and food emergencies at times that are less than ideal.

And this is something you need to allow for. You will sometimes be caught off guard, but your schedule and everyone’s mindset must roll with the events as they unfold.

And, yes, there are a few horrible instances that may be familiar to many. Ear infections, for example, together with take-off and landing, are not a good combination.

Booking infant/toddler airplane tickets with or without their own seat

If you are flying long-distance, we recommend paying for a seat for your infant or toddler. It will cost you more but will give you a better experience onboard the flight and be appreciated by your fellow travelers.

While most airlines offer up to a 90% discount for children under two years if you book without a seat, remember your child must sit on your lap during the trip. Sounds ok? It is not that fun for long-haul flights.

In addition, infants booked without a seat have no baggage allowance in their booking.

It is pretty easy to do a test run at home. Put a 2-hour movie on the TV and place your child on your lap.

Suppose it goes well – great. If not, you may want to budget for a seat for your child when you book your flights. The discounts are still quite good. 

Look for family discounts and shortcuts

We all want the best deal possible, as family vacations are expensive.

Look for discounts on entry prices, fast lanes, and priority access when traveling with children. It never hurts to ask, and you may be surprised by the answer.

You will often find that you get extra attention when traveling with children. For example, a free upgrade to a larger room at your hotel or bottled water and a pack of cookies upon check-in.

Traveling with children can and will open doors. Ask when you check in or make your purchases. Look at 2-for-1 offers, kids-eat-free, or similar campaigns.

First aid is your first line of defense

A well-put-together first aid kit will help turn a nasty incident into a calm state of healing. 

You probably know from experience that applying all the familiar potions and band-aids to ease the pain will help restore calm.

Most of us will pack sterile gauze, sterile cleansing wipes, a fever reducer, and an electrolyte solution to restore lost fluids and minerals.

You know your children best, and from knowing them, you will see what you need to pack in your first aid kit. Bringing the whole first aid kit may not be practical when you are out and about. A better idea is to take a lighter version of the first aid kit on all outings.

Bringing a change of clothes (for you as well)

When your child is a toddler, you probably bring extra clothes in your hand baggage to cover up for accidents. 

And when you do, remember to put in some extra clothes for yourself. Accidents happen, and sometimes it is difficult to recover from a sick child all over your shirt.

When your children get a bit older, it still makes sense to bring a change of clothes, especially with active kids in warmer climates.

The good news is that cool-looking backpacks will most likely be greeted with enthusiasm by your children. Suddenly, you have more people to help carry what you need to bring.

Book child meal 

Airplane food may not be a culinary experience, and most people complain a bit and then at least pick at it to pass the time. But one thing is for sure; most children do not enjoy the adult meals served onboard.

Opt for the child meal available to order when booking flights for your children. Make this request with the airline at the very latest 48 hours before your check-in.

Snacks and water bottles for family travel

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about onboard the airplane, on a long train ride, or any other type of long journey on public transportation – bring lots of snacks and water when traveling with kids, as things always take a bit longer than planned.

And it pays to have decent water bottles you can refill during the day. 

Snacks will save the day and make a fantastic trip better when there is a need for something before, in between meals, or even at a restaurant when some menu options do not make kids happy. However hard you try.

Request bassinet for infant

If you are traveling with a baby without a seat, you may request a bassinet at the time of booking.

To request a bassinet, you need to have

  • have a reservation without a seat
  • meet the age requirement (often up to 9 months)
  • meet the weight and size requirements

The weight requirement varies from one airline to another, but around 9 kilos (20 pounds) is quite common. 

The size of the bassinets can also vary, but measurements are approximately 75 x 33 x 22 cm (29.5 x 13 x 8.8 inches).

Still, on long flights, I recommend that you consider booking a seat to ensure a pleasant trip because

  • request for a bassinet can never be guaranteed, and there may be many other families onboard with a baby in need of the same bassinet
  • there is a limited number of bassinets available on any flight

Inform the airline about booster seats, a car seat, or a travel stroller onboard as soon as possible

The airline industry is a service industry, and the staff will work hard to make you feel welcome and make your family travel experience comfortable.

But, do not surprise the airline staff by showing up with a booster or car seat and a stroller unannounced.

Equipment such as car seats, strollers, and ride-on suitcases should be entered into your booking if you intend to bring them on board. It will not cost you any extra if within your luggage allowance for your ticket class, but these items need to be handled separately from regular luggage, and the airline needs to know in advance.

If you leave it too late, you may be denied taking them onboard, especially if the flight is full.

The stroller will most likely be checked at the gate, as you will not need it onboard. You will pick it up as you arrive at your destination.

Car seats are top-rated to bring onboard, but please ensure that your model supports the standard across-the-lap-type seatbelts most airlines use.

Some airlines will, for safety reasons, not permit car seats that need to be secured by a three‑point seat belt or shoulder harness.

If you, on the other hand, intend to check them in, they can often be checked in without being counted as part of the standard baggage allowance – and for free. You can check these items at the ticket counter or the gate.

Always check in online the day before travel

When you have made a flight booking for family travel, always check the personal information entered before you pay.

We recommend always having your (valid) passport when booking a flight. You’d be amazed at how many people forget the spelling of their name or that they have two middle names.

Being careful when you book your trip will avoid mistakes. And you should check in online the day before - or earlier if the airline allows it - as it gives you a final chance to verify that all is correct.

Family travel with the kids means that there are many details to pay attention to:

Dates and times 

Customers will go back and forth searching for the best alternative for their trip and then –  finally – book the wrong choice in the confusion that can follow. Watch out if you are traveling internationally to a different time zone. The day of arrival can differ from the date of departure, depending on whether you are traveling east or west.

Destination

So you are going to Melbourne, great. Are you booking Melbourne, USA (MLB) or Melbourne, Australia (MEL)? There are countless examples of cities worldwide that share the same name. Do pay attention and book the correct city as well as the airport.

Passenger names

Verify and check to spell against passports. If you have more than 28 characters in your full name, including blank spaces, contact the airline to find out how to enter your name correctly.

Passports valid

Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months after your return. And yes, make it a habit and check even if you do not need to enter passport details in the booking.

Visas, entry requirements, and vaccinations

Contact a specialist or the country’s embassy to find out what is required for entry as a tourist. Especially since the pandemic, rules and regulations are subject to change anytime.

Seating

Are you seated together, and do you have the seating constellation you want? If you are happy to be allocated any seat, this will not cost you anything, and you’ll find your seat number when you check-in. Most often, it will have been preselected by the airlines.

If you have purchased a flight ticket in a price class where you can choose your seat number, do this as soon as possible for the whole family. There is always a risk that you will be spread out on the aircraft if you do not do this despite being on the same reservation number.

If you have a budget ticket without seat selection included, consider purchasing the upgrade to choose your seats. If you cannot do this successfully online, ring the airline or your travel agent directly, and they will help you.

Baggage allowance

Do you have the correct baggage allowance? Check weight and dimensions, as being overweight will cost you a fortune at the airport.

Book one great hotel room or cabin or two connecting

A family vacation means you will spend more time in your room as children get tired and need nap times while you take the opportunity to relax and rewind.

With this follows that you want a room that is big enough but also functional. 

You want the children to play or sleep, but what about you? You surely do not want to be stuck in a corner with headphones and a book.

The ideal solution has often been connecting rooms, especially if you have older kids.

But the trick for finding the best solution has always been to plan and contact the hotel directly. Describe your needs and wants, and you will be surprised how helpful they recommend rooms with larger bathrooms, smarter floor plans, and the like. 

We are not talking about upgrading to a different room category; simply finding the most suitable room in your chosen room category.

And now and then, we do get a free upgrade. Not often, but every time is equally special.

Let the hotel know your needs and wants

As with airlines, hotel staff will do what they can to accommodate you, but you have to allow them to prepare.

Do not arrive at check-in and assume they have an infinite stock of baby cots, bassinets, strollers, and car safety seats.

Let them know ahead of time and give them a chance to deliver with excellence when you arrive. 

Plan from leaving home with the intent to travel slow

Your mindset is essential for a successful trip with children.

It starts at home on the first day of travel. You have already checked in online the day before, and now you head to the airport well before your flight.

When you arrive at the airport, you head to baggage drop, and then it is time to go through security.

The point is that you need to look at each part of the trip, including getting to the airport on the day of travel as part of the trip. 

If you do this, you can also try to make each part the best. Why should you only start planning after you arrive at your destination?

Instead, plan for all parts of the vacation and plan to travel slowly.

When your plans allow for traveling slowly, there will be no stress when there are emergency stops for changing clothes, bathroom breaks, etc.

Help make the flight a fun time for your children.

You owe it to yourself, your fellow passengers, and your children to try to make the flight a fun and exciting part of the holiday.

Do not rely on inflight entertainment systems and coloring books from well-meaning flight attendants. This will not be enough.

For the flight to be successful, we recommend downloading movies and games to tablets or cellphones. Test before you leave home to ensure it works perfectly.

And make sure that you bring headphones that your child is used to wearing. 

Coloring books, decks of cards, and playing “I spy” type games are other popular favorites to pass the time.

And then there is a general principle, do not introduce “new” on an airplane.

No new shoes, headphones, clothes, snacks, etc. The potential short-lived joy from a successful surprise comes nowhere near the consequences of a disappointing delivery.

On airplanes, and even on a short flight, you want to play favorites with no risk of disappointment. Have your children choose a couple of favorite toys and help pack some of their travel gear in a small backpack. It will make a long trip to that new destination seem exciting.

Traveling with children helps you make the most of your day

When you travel with young children, you will most likely wake up early most days.

Your family trip means you can make the most of an early start and benefit from starting your day before everyone else and beating the crowds.

An early start also helps when we travel to warmer parts of the country or world. When everyone else is sweating it out midday, we feel great taking those early morning activities in the shade, such as long hikes. It also helps you reset your body clock if you suffer from jet lag.

How to start planning your cruise

If you are still in the planning process and need help deciding on the best cruise for you, these articles will help you along the way.

They are full of good advice and travel tips to help you book the perfect cruise for you and your family:

Our pick – The 6 best family-friendly cruise lines

Best Cruise Deals and How To Get Them

British Isles Cruises for the whole family

12 Ways to Make the Most of A Cruise Vacation

Meet the author: With more than 20 years experience from the travel industry, Mattias offers tips, expert advice and a unique perspective anchored in having worked with market leading cruise lines, tour operators, consolidators, airlines and hospitality suppliers. Read more..