Tips for Traveling With Kids, Part I: Talk About the Trip In Advance

This is Part One of a five-part series on tips for traveling with kids! Be sure to subscribe so you won’t miss the other posts in this series!

Our family loves to travel. Ever since we first became foster parents, we have traveled several times each year. From road trips to cross-country flights, we cover a lot of earth with our children—including those who share our last name and those who are only with us for a season of their lives.

In fact, whenever we travel, if it is at all possible, we bring our foster children with us. While there have been a few times when we were not able to due to visitation schedules, we find that traveling together has provided wonderful opportunities for bonding and empowering our children. One of our little ones took her first steps at Chicago’s O’Hare airport during a layover, with a crowd of fellow travelers cheering her on. Another child has been invited into the cockpit of our plane several times. The grin on his face in the photos we have says it all! We have introduced two children in foster care to the Atlantic Ocean. And when we brought one of our foster sons to meet his distant relatives/adoptive parents, who lived on the opposite of the country, the whole family came along.

Whether flying cross-country or heading up to Mt. Rainier for a long weekend, we love including every child in our home.

Over the years, I have honed my strategy, and in the next few posts, I’ll share my tips for traveling with kids (and making it as fun as possible for everyone—including me!)

Tip 1: Talk about the trip in advance.

This is important for all kids, but especially for kids who come from trauma. Surprises are not fun for them. Unknowns are particularly hard. Talk about your plans. Show them where you’re going on a map. Use a calendar to count down the days til you travel. Let them be involved with packing (more on that in the next post).

Even with preparation, be prepared for some dysregulated behaviors. If your child is prone to anxiety, preparing for a big trip will almost certainly trigger those feelings. That’s natural, but by pressing on with patience and guiding your child through the stress, you can help build their confidence and equip them for new experiences. (High protein snacks and water help too!)

Whenever we are bringing a child on his or her first airplane trip, we have them watch this video from TSA on what to expect at security:

In my experience, kids get excited when they get to see “Stop, Screen, Go!” in real life.

Remember, kids mirror their adults’ emotions much of the time. If we are nervous and stressed out, our kids will often be nervous and stressed out. But if we are confident and upbeat, kids usually follow our lead. In all the times we have flown with our kids, we have never had one who was afraid or waylaid by anxious behaviors.

Preparing kids in advance is just the first step toward smooth sailing when traveling as a family. In the next post, I’ll share another tip!

Fellowship of the Table on the Road

Last Tuesday morning, I left my children with my parents in Virginia and started driving northwest. We had gotten word that my grandmother, whom I call Meme, was nearing the end of her life, and I wanted to see her one last time. I drove for over ten hours, stopping only for a few very quick bathroom and refueling breaks, straight to the house where she has spent the past year or so, a wonderful end-of-life care home facility (that is more of a “home” than a “facility”), where I joined my aunt and cousins, who had been with her for several days.

The plan was for me to spend the night and then drive back to Virginia the next day. However, it became very evident that instead of me going back to Virginia, my parents and children needed to come to Michigan. The end was very close.

For the next several days, with my uncles joining us, we camped out in the living room of the Serenity House of Commerce Township. We each took turns going in to sit bedside with Meme, reading passages from the Bible to her, singing hymns, and just talking. By the time I arrived, she was already sleeping, and she never really woke up. However, when I left that first night, I went into tell her one last time that I love her and that I would be back the next day, and she opened her eyes ever so slightly and said “I love you” back. Those were the last words my Meme said to me, and they were among the last words she said, period.

Pure gift.

The hospice nurse predicted 24 to 48 hours. My parents left Virginia Thursday morning with my kids and drove up, arriving around 10:00 PM. My dad was the last of her seven children to make it to the house, and she died about 12 hours after he arrived. We all believe she was waiting for him.

Over the next several days, more and more family arrived from Massachusetts, Washington, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, Virginia, and, of course, Michigan. We took over a Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and there, in the common area of the hotel, the Fellowship of the Table began. Over the next several days, not only did we plan and hold a funeral and reception for Meme, we also had a birthday party for my niece, who turned eight over the weekend, as well as a retirement party for my uncle, whose last day of work was the day Meme died.

For several days, in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, the fellowship of the table continued. We brought in food and beverages and enjoyed hours and hours of conversation, card games (pinochle is a family tradition), and much, much laughter. Everyone contributed something, from bags of carrot sticks to dates and nuts, cake, wine, pizza, beer, and potato chips. For my niece’s birthday party, there were butterfly decorations and mylar balloons from the Dollar Tree near the hotel and a chocolate cake from the grocery store down the road. For my uncle’s impromptu retirement party, it was another small grocery store cake that we had “Congrats Brian” written on, along with a card we all signed.

The point was not how good the food was, how beautiful the decor, or how ideal the circumstances. The ambiance was the people.

The point was not how good the food was, how beautiful the decor, or how ideal the circumstances. The ambiance was the people. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and grandkids, brothers and sisters, all gathered to celebrate life.

We need to do that more.

We need to stop waiting for the right time, the clean house, the perfect menu, and the planned-out guest list.

We need to seize the moment and gather around a table together. I love a good menu, I love setting a beautiful table, I love thinking through who to invite.

But some of the best times of fellowship are the ones nobody planned.

Paper plates, a store-bought cake, a hodgepodge of snacks and take-out containers can be the makings of some of the best meals, if the goal of the meal is to gather and connect.

Paper plates, a store-bought cake, a hodgepodge of snacks and take-out containers can be the makings of some of the best meals, if the goal of the meal is to gather and connect.

If you’re reticent to invite people to gather around your table because your house is not “company ready” or you don’t have time to prepare a beautiful meal or set a gorgeous table, let my family’s recent experience inspire you.

It doesn’t matter.

Just gather. The people will be the ambiance.


Road Trip Tips for Traveling With Kids

My family just took our first “epic” road trip, driving from Seattle to Breckenridge, CO, for a family reunion. It was a great trip! Remarkably, we experienced no melt-downs and everyone seemed to have a really good time. More than that, we did a lot of singing, laughing, and connecting on the road. We made some really special memories during our three days of driving!

As I’ve been reflecting on what made the trip go so smoothly, there are a few things that I know made a huge difference. I recommend the following for any family traveling with small kids!

  1. Easy Does It With the Schedule. We allowed ourselves three days to cover about twenty-two hours of driving time. We certainly could have pushed it and done the whole trip in two days, but instead, we broke it up and allowed ourselves the luxury of stopping often for bathroom breaks and stretching our legs. And planking (see photo below).
  2. Motels/Hotels With Indoor Pools. We drove for three days, which meant we stopped for two nights in motels/hotels. I mapped about 7.5 hours of driving time each day and used Priceline a few days before we hit the road to find sweet deals on a Super 8 in La Grande, OR, and an Embassy Suites hotel in Salt Lake City, UT. Both hotels had indoor pools (important so you can guarantee swim time no matter the weather. This was great in SLC, where we arrived during a lightening storm!) and breakfast included with the room. For a family of five, that is a huge value! The kids got to look forward to swimming at the end of a long day in the car, and we made sure they got the all-important exertion needed to ensure sleep! NOTE: Always call ahead before booking to be sure the hotel’s pool is working. I learned that the hard way on a past trip, when we arrived and discovered the pool was undergoing maintenance. I won’t make that mistake again!
  3. Warm Fuzzies! I borrowed this from my daughter’s school as an incentive for my children to treat one another with kindness and keep whining and complaining to a minimum. Each child had a jar with his/her name on it. Every hour, on the hour, we did a “check-in.” If they used kind words, refrained from whining and were generally pleasant to one another and Mom and Dad, they got a “warm fuzzy” for their jar. At the end of our trip, each child got $.25 for every warm fuzzy in his/her jar. It worked SO WELL, and gave each of them some spending money for the trip. (Our two-and-a-half year old was less impressed by the money and more impressed by the colorful warm fuzzies in his jar!)
  4. Treat Bags. I asked my Vibrant Happy Women community for road trip tips, and this was one of the things shared with me. It took some planning ahead and a small investment, but it was worth every minute and every penny. About two weeks before the trip, I started visiting my favorite thrift stores (Goodwill, Value Village, a.k.a. Savers) and Dollar Tree, where I picked up small toys, clean crafts, sugarless gum, fruit snacks, and lolly pops. I bought brown paper lunch sacks and put one small treat in each bag, about twenty total per child.  I labeled three large gift bags per child and put all of the small sacks in the bag. Every hour, after we did our “warm fuzzy check-in,” I gave each child a sack to open. They LOVED this, and they knew they had something to look forward to each hour. Some hours rolled around and the kids were still playing happily with what they had already gotten, or they were napping, so we did skip a few hours. But I had the treat bags ready to go for when they needed a pick-me-up during the long hours in the car. Some examples of things in their bags were:
    • Frozen character dolls (Goodwill)
    • License plate game
    • Mr. Potato Head (Goodwill)
    • Travel Size Spirograph-knock-off (Dollar Tree)
    • Ninja Blow Darts (Dollar Tree) – they stick to car windows 🙂
    • Books
    • Sticks of sugarless gum
    • Fruit snacks in individual bags
    • Blow Pops
    • Magnetic Letters and a cookie sheet (Dollar Tree)
    • Toy insects, toy motorcycles (Goodwill)
    • Crayons, Paper, Clipboards, coloring books
  5. Daily Intentions. This is a good practice for every day, but especially when you’re about to be in a van or car for many hours with a group of people. Before we started out each day, once everyone was in the car and buckled in, we took a moment to ask each child, as well as Mom and Dad, what their intention for the day was. (We use the “fruit of the spirit” list from the Bible as possible intentions). We each choose one or two to focus on and remind one another about for the day. (This is part of my daily practice, when I finish yoga and pray, I set my mind on something to aim for throughout the day.) While our two-year-old doesn’t quite get it, our four- and nine-year-olds certainly do! They each chose “kindness” as their intentions. My husband chose “joy/fun and kindness,” and I chose “joy and gentleness” for mine, as I can get a bit harsh and short-tempered when I’m in stressful conditions (like a hot, crowded van with a lot of noisy kids!) It really helps to say aloud what your intention is, and since we’ve all shared them with one another, there is a level of accountability when we start to veer off course.
  6. Audio Books! I recently began listening to the Read Aloud Revival podcast and I just love it. It’s so inspiring! I’ve been trying to make an effort to cut back on screen time and amp up our family’s literary education, and this road trip was a perfect time to borrow some great books on CD from the library. We listened to The Magician’s Nephew (Book 1 of the Chronicles of Narnia,) Little House in the Big Woods, and Little House on the Prairie. It was great to rediscover these beloved stories with my kids, who were completely entranced by the narratives. Bonus: no motion sickness from staring at screens!
  7. Music, Singing, and Pointing Out New Terrain. We sang along with the Moana soundtrack about eight (OK, twelve) times, as well as some of our favorite kids’ songs (“The Wheels on the Bus,” “Down By the Sea,” etc.), and we pointed out all sorts of things we saw, from animals (look at the cows! the horses!) to machines (see that tractor? Look, a train!) to new terrain (deserts in Utah, canyons in Colorado, and mountains all the way). All of life can be a series of teachable moments, if we are intentional.
  8. Snacks. Duh! We packed a cooler with fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs (peeled), and water. We also packed goldfish crackers, popcorn, and peanut butter on cheese crackers. These snacks helped keep bellies full and spirits up. No hangry kiddos in our van!

I hope this helps if you’re planning a road trip. A bit of planning ahead and intention can go a long way to making a long road trip a really fun, rich, educational bonding experience for your family. And now that we’ve done this trip, I can’t wait for the next one!

What are some of your favorite tips for making family road trips awesome? Share them in the comments below!