Sanity-Saving Tips for Traveling With Preschoolers

Planning a family vacation with preschoolers? Here are 8 must-know tips for an awesome trip.
By Matt Villano
Jan 29, 2014



AW6W09 Little traveler pulling his own luggage.. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown.

Jan 29, 2014

Time to plan the next family vacation? Before you start sweating (er . . . thinking about) the details of getting away with tots in tow, our guide will give you the courage you need. Trust us, you’re going to have a blast! That’s because . . .

It’s worth the effort. Ever wonder if your 3- or 4-year-old will even remember the trip you worked so hard to make happen? She will, says Michele Blume, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Hermosa Beach, CA. While, biologically, it’s hard for kids younger than 5 to remember specifics like the name of the resort or what the plane ride was like, “It’s all about implicit memory—the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of being in a new place with Mom and Dad. These can have a big impact later on, affecting how she feels about herself, how she sees the world, how her curiosity grows, and how she adapts to new situations.”

Flying with kids can be easier than you think. With seat-back televisions, in-seat video games, and WiFi at 30,000 feet, airplane travel is more child-friendly than ever before. We like Virgin America, with kid-specific TV programming and unlimited snacks in the main cabin. On JetBlue, they’ll get a reading activity kit that was developed with PBS Kids.

Luxury hotels now cater to young kids. After years of targeting business travelers, many luxury brands are starting to focus on a different customer: the young family. For instance, if you dream of kicking back at a Four Seasons, know that all preschoolers get a welcome goody at check-in, and the hotel offers special kids’ menus from which children 5 and younger eat free. Plus, their camp, Kids for All Seasons, offers way more than the standard arts and crafts and swimming. Think ping pong, billiards, Lego tournaments, a bouncy house, and baking classes.

Public transportation is your friend. You may see a subway car or bus as mundane transport. Your preschooler, though, sees them as something entirely different: adventures. So linger in train stations, watch a city go by out the bus window, and marvel at car ferries. Embracing these experiences makes the journey part of the fun. And it makes hard luck like traffic or a just-missed train that much easier to endure.

Getting hands-on saves the day. Under-5s love museums that give them the chance to do stuff rather than just see things. For an up-to-date list of some of the best kids’ museums in the United States, click here. Bring crayons and sketch paper (or an iPad) to give your child the option of getting creative with exhibits on his own terms.  

Vacation rentals + picky eaters = happy mom. Rental townhouses or any property with a full kitchen is an alternative to traditional accommodations worth considering. You can prepare food the way you know your kids like to eat it, at times when it’s convenient. No, cooking isn’t exactly relaxing. But it beats trying to find a grilled cheese to bring back to the room at 11 p.m. Try

You CAN avoid meltdowns. It’s natural to want to maximize your time when you visit a new place. With preschoolers, however, less is more. Downtime is critical to sanity, says Raquel Anderson, Ed.D., a behavioral health specialist with Pediatric Partners in Miami. It can be as simple as hanging at the hotel pool, walking around a city with no plan other than to explore, or relaxing in your room watching a movie.

All you need is a minimal routine. Preschoolers are creatures of habit, so maintaining some rituals from home will help ease any anxiety they might have about the unfamiliar surroundings. If you typically read a book before bed, for example, bring some! If your child gets hungry every day around 10:30 a.m., plan for that. If your trip includes late nights and erratic mealtimes, just be aware that it may take up to a week to get back on schedule at home. Which will be fine. Promise. 

Plus: Discover more great family vacation tips!

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Travel and Vacations