Travel is educational and fun, as much or more for children as it is for adults. Traveling with children has its own challenges that differ from the demands of adult-only trips. The best approach will depend on the combination of the means and duration of travel and the child's age and personality, but there are some basic tips that will make traveling with children easier, less stressful and more fun for all concerned.
(1) Keep them fed and watered.
This is crucial, and the younger the children are, the more important it is. You will avoid an immense amount of crankiness and all kinds of behavioral difficulties if you remember to keep the thirst and hunger at bay. There are no hard and fast rules as to what foods or drinks to supply and what to avoid. If your child is sensitive to some foodstuffs it's a good idea to avoid those, but otherwise the main objective is to make sure they are not hungry or thirsty. Too much sugary food is never very good, but it's better than no food or drink at all. Fruit is excellent if you can get it, as is a plentiful supply of water. Snack foods that take a long time to consume are also great as entertainment (grapes, raisins, potato chips, pretzels). However, if your child suffers from travel sickness, limit junk as it tends to induce nausea.
(2) Involve them in the process.
Children like to be useful, especially the smaller ones. If you involve them – seriously – in the business of traveling, rather than just transport them from place to place, they will be less bored and might even be genuinely helpful. From carrying some of the cabin luggage to entertaining smaller siblings, figuring out the entertainment system to watching out for the flight announcement or the highway exit, let them feel useful, and you might find they actually are. Keep them in the loop if something goes wrong, so they won't scare themselves silly with imaginary problems.
(3) The journey is the destination.
Many things that are mundane and frustrating for adults are supremely interesting for children. The minutiae of travel fascinate them. Airports, ferry terminals, motorway service areas and railway stations, not to mention hotels, are endlessly attractive, because they are different, as are fellow travelers. Travel emergencies, even as dramatic as a canceled flight or a need to sleep on an airport floor, which are, essentially, a pure nightmare for adults, can be a source of education, entertainment and stimulation for the kids.
(4) Forget embarrassment.
Don't worry too much about what other people think of you. This doesn't mean you should let the kids run riot along the length of the train carriage or make masses of noise when everybody else is trying to sleep, but, frankly, children have as much right to travel as business people or retired vacationers. If other passengers are willing to engage with your kids, let them chat and (if they have kids) play together.
(5) Stretch the legs.
Walk about when and if you have a chance. If you are driving, plan frequent stops, even if just for a five minutes stretch. If you are on a plane, do get up every hours or so and make them do it. Never stay on board when the plane is stopping for refueling or a scheduled stop. Train is the best means of long-distance travel for children as it affords easy opportunity to walk and change the scene a bit. Use it: even very little physical exercise helps.
(6) Consider entertainment.
Boredom can become a major issue when traveling long-distance with children. If flying long-haul, the on-board entertainment system will often be sufficient for all but the most jaded, but even then it's good to have something for a change. On a train, boat, bus or in a car, you will need to supply diversions. Children who can read and play video games should bring a couple of books and a hand-held games console. An MP3 player is very useful, and if you load audiobooks as well as music, it can be surprisingly effective for even small kids. For any long-distance journey (10 hours or more), taking a net-book computer is an option to seriously consider. This can be loaded with movies, cartoons, audio books and music. Bring earphones (one each and one spare) and if you have more than one child to entertain, a splitter device that allows you to plug in two sets at once is very useful. Playing cards are great for older kids (and adults). Paper (a plain notebook) and some pencils and crayons are great for drawing and games like city, county, country and the hangman. Entertainment in the car is often the biggest problem as many children get car-sick when reading, playing a console or watching action on screen. Audio is the best choice then (you might still be grateful for the earphones), as well as drive-time games, from 20 questions to a Slow Boat to China, and various versions of I spy for the younger ones.
(7) Establish ground rules.
Travel can be hazardous and tricky, especially when you factor in tiredness. Make sure they know the rules:must do what they are told, the little ones must hold your hand, the bigger ones must stay within sight. Plan what to do if you become separated and teach them how and who to ask for help. Make sure they know your mobile phone number and have it switched on when negotiating railways stains, subways and airports.
(8) Be prepared.
In addition to food, water and entertainment, have some basic first aid items handy: plasters (band-aids), disinfectant gel for hands, damp tissues or baby wipes, small toilet roll or a few packets of tissues. If you are traveling with a female teen, carry a sanitary napkin or a tampon just in case. Painkillers (paracetamol or ibuprofen, aspirin cannot be given to kids under 12), an antacid, travel sickness and diarrhea remedy might all come handy.
Additionally, take a change of light clothes *for everybody* even if you are checking the rest of your stuff in. This applies to ferries, planes, trains and coaches alike, and even in the car it's useful to have a bag of "for the road" stuff handy. Frankly the risk of the children spilling something (or even being sick) on you is as high as the risk of them spilling something on themselves.
If your kids are little, take their stuffed animal or a comfort blanket. Children who are not completely toilet trained are better in a pull-up (you can still take them to the toilet but just don't want to risk an accident on take-off or after falling asleep in the daytime).
For overnight journeys, a pillow (small normal one rather than those silly curved travel things) and a sleeping bag or a fleece blanket are great, not just for warmth but also for comfort. If you are not going to use them at destination, bring some cheap or old ones and simply discard on arrival: it will be almost always worth the extra cost.
(9) Don't make assumptions.
Things that seem hard might be easier than you think, and things that seem no problem might be hard. Children are different from adults in many ways and react to travel differently. Lack of sleep is much more likely to be a problem for you, and other adults, than for children, especially small ones. Discomfort in a plane seat is much of an issue for a 6 foot tall man or even an average sized woman with stiff joints, while children can just curl up and will feel like you would in business class. On the other hand, foreign food might be more of an issue for a five year old than for you.
(10) Stay chilled.
And finally, regardless of their age, children are excellent at picking up the emotional vibe that the parents give. If you dread a journey with the kids, and if you imagine it as a sequence of nightmares, it's likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, approach the trip in a spirit of adventure tempered by basic sensibility, the world will be your (and your children's) oyster.
The author is a mother of two and traveled extensively with her children, including a 30-hour series of flights through twelve time zones, a 28-hour train trip without a sleeper berth and a 20-hour drive across Europe