A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Mom Bloggers Share the 18 Things That Are Lifesavers While Traveling with Kids

Traveling with children can be fun but challenging. Avoid meltdowns and back-seat squabbles with these tips from mom bloggers for taming your kids.

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Let them eat cake!

Cake for road trip snacks for kids? Everything in moderation, right? Erin McGann of Erin at Large lets her kids pick local snacks while traveling. “I really let them pick anything,” says McGann. We’ve discovered some truly amazing things at bakeries and vending machines this way!” No worries, fellow moms, it’s a once-a-day occurrence. McGann’s other suggestion is to let the kiddos choose whatever fruit they want when they stop at a local farmers market. Choosing a fruit provides a fun distraction and break in traveling.

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This isn’t your typical, “Dear diary, today I had to sit next to my little brother who drove me nuts for 100 miles.” This is an interactive journal meant to be shared. McGann suggests buying a basic travel journal with colored pencils and a glue stick. “When you’re on the go, they are responsible for finding bits to put in them—business cards from cafes, coasters, fliers, tourist maps,” says McGann. “They can spend that restaurant dead time to put things in their journal. It’s a great way to talk over what you did that day.”

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We usually associate a carabiner with the rock climbing crowd but Elizabeth Newcamp of Dutch, Dutch, Goose! has several uses for saving the day while traveling with kids. “I typically have one clipped to my keys to keep them in my purse and then one to the boys book bags to keep their water bottles attached should they fall out the mesh side pocket,” says Newcamp. “I’ve used them to fix a broken purse strap, attach a baby toy to a high chair, create a little handle running off the stroller for them to hold, hold a bunch of shopping bags and even just used it as a toy for the kids to play with in a pinch.”

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Plastic bags

Large resealable plastic bags of all sizes are a traveling family’s best friend. You’ll want to splurge and get the trusted brand name ones for durability. One of Newcamp’s favorite uses is for clothing. “I use zip lock bags to pack the kids clothes and keep outfits together. Each morning the kids can just pick a bag out of the suitcase and get themselves dressed.” Pack extra bags for keeping wet items from the beach, to carry snacks or sandy toys. Another option for messy containment is to pick up a roll of dog poop bags. “They are perfect for diaper changes, wet clothes, vomit and anything containing a mess. I can put all our trash in there and then just toss it at the next trash can,” says Newcamp.

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Sing a soothing song

Even if you can’t carry a tune, your kids can be lulled into quiet time or sleep with a song. “A week before you leave on your trip, choose a soothing song to sing to your child every night at bedtime that they associate with calming down,” suggests Bailey Gaddis, CHt, HBCE, of the blog Your Serene Life. This go-to methods helps mom and kid settle down after a weary day of traveling. If you have a fidgeter, Gaddis suggests telling your child to close their eyes, watch your face or have them focus on a calming object so they don’t get distracted.

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Scavenger hunt

Sightseeing can become boring for kids which usually leads to meltdowns. Gaddis gives her son a scavenger hunt to keep him engaged. “I make a list beforehand of common plants, animals, structures, or objects we’re likely to come across as we sight see. I then read him the list on the way to get him excited about the activity,” says Gaddis. If the kids run through the list before you’re done sightseeing, just add more on the fly.

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Gaddis spends a few minutes every morning meditating on how she would like the trip to play out and attaches those positive emotions to positive outcomes. “This will send you into your trip exuding a positive attitude that will be absorbed by your children,” says Gaddis. While traveling, Gaddis meditates with her son each morning. They close their eyes and visualize how they want the day to go. They share what they visualized, including the emotions, challenges, strengths and family bonding. “My son tells me what flavors of ice cream we’ll eat at the end of day!” To further appreciate the travel experience the pair often meditates during the day. “We also have meditation moments throughout the day, where we take a moment to really take in how beautiful a flower is, how interesting a piece of tree bark is, what our hand feels like in a cool creek or ocean, and anything else that helps up slow down and be present in our vacation,” says Gaddis. “I’ve noticed that this also helps prevent us from feeling like our vacation flew by—in a good way!”

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Balloons require time and energy to inflate and take up very little space in a suitcase—which is why Suzane Brown of MomPowerment packs them on every trip. “It’s great to have them for the hotel or in the airport,” says Brown. “We blow them up and do games like keep the balloon of the floor or hit them with a book. We let the boys take the lead for balloon fun,” says Brown.

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Books with a purpose

Books are a popular item to pack when traveling with kids but choosing the right books can make a big difference regarding bedtime and travel time. Brown packs an old favorite book for familiar bedtime rituals and a new book for downtime while traveling in a car, plane or train.”When it comes to books, our boys get to pick a favorite or two for bedtime. I buy the Look and Find books, based on their current areas of interest or related to something we will see while traveling so that I have the surprise element,” says Brown. “The new books are to keep things interesting, so that we’re not reading the same ones over and over and often give us something to do when we’re tired and need something that requires low energy from our boys.”

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Need to buy some time on a train or plane? Legos save the day for the Brown boys. Contrary to what you might think (little pieces everywhere) these little packets of wonder can be kept in a tidy pile. “Our boys usually keep all the pieces in the bag or box and pull out what piece they need in that moment. A trick that helps is to use a piece of felt you buy from a craft store. It keeps the pieces from sliding around on a slick tray table on a plan or train,” says Brown.

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Timed surprise gifts

A vacation and presents? What kid wouldn’t sign up for that trip? Alisha Molen of Picture the Magic creates themed gifts for her kid’s to open at different points along the way. For example, when the family traveled to Disney World, most of the gifts were Disney-themed, like coloring books, snacks and a surprise Disney movie on the iPad. “Getting the timing right is important. I found that for most items, an interval of 30 minutes or so was about right. Just enough time for them to engage with their latest surprise and then inevitably get bored with it,” says Molen. She made it more interesting by gift wrapping them or putting items in manila envelopes with tags that read, “Do not open until 11 am” or “Open when we cross into Kentucky.” “It made the tedious traveling feel like Christmas. If the kids start misbehaving, you have ammo to help keep them in line!”

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Gummy snacks

Kids can get frightened by the popping and bubbling of ears during take-off and landing. Chewing gum is an option but Kim Reiner of Oh My! Omaha found gummy snacks work a lot better for her kids. “I’ve found giving my kids gummy snacks at lift off works so much better than gum. They’re less messy and the different colors and shapes keep them occupied.”

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Fun rest stops

There’s nothing fun about a rest stop with sketchy bathrooms and a broken vending machine. Reiner has found that well-planned stops save a road trip for her kiddos. “I like knowing where on our route is a good park, quirky shop, or a “world’s largest” oddity,” says Reiner. “On our recent trip to Wichita, I planned two stops, the world’s largest porch swing in Hebron, Nebraska, and a medieval castle-like picnic structure in Coronado Heights overlooking farmland in Lindsborg, Kansas.” Rest stops that provide more than the coveted clean bathroom can become a memorable feature in a vacation. To find the quirky and fun places, Reiner uses “off the beaten path” types of travel books, travel blogs and Pinterest.

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Packing cubes

Staying organized while packing is an art, and Christy Emanuel of Stained with Style thrives on packing cubes to cut down on the frustration of all the kids looking in one big suitcase to find their socks. “Everyone has packing cubes in a specific color,” says Emanuel. “When we get where we are going, everyone or every day has a color. Everything we needed like socks, underwear, shorts, shirt and sweatshirts for each person, was right there.”

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Spot treater

Kids and messes go hand-in-hand. Cut down on packing a dresser worth of clothes by saving the clothes you do pack. “You can’t always wash your clothes right away when you get a stain, but you can treat it. Then, when you are able to launder your clothes, they will actually come clean instead of stained,” says world traveler Lisa Shusterman of Around the World in Easy Ways. The stain stick can in very handy as she needed her kid’s clothes to last an entire year while traveling.

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Cucumber slices

Samantha Brown, world traveler, television host and mom of twins never leaves home without packing thick cucumber slices. She prefers these kid-friendly snacks over the dry and salty offerings on planes or at rest stops. “I had them with me on a plane trip where had to wait three hours on the tarmac! In this situation it’s nice to have something that keeps kids hydrated without having to go to the bathroom and stand in line with ten other airline passengers waiting to go,” says Brown.

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Duct tape

No, it’s not for the mouths of screaming or back-talking offspring, but actually for helping kiddos stay safe. “It’s a one stop child proofing tool,” says Brown. She uses it to tape over electrical outlets and to keep drawers shut. It also comes in handy to secure dangling chords on lamps and shades out of reach for curious kids. Kids love duct taper for a different reason.”There’s something about its super sticky texture that kids love and until Ellis duct tapes Elizabeth to a hotel door I’m bringing it,” says Brown.

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Wheels in motion

If your toddler-in-motion turns their nose up at riding in the stroller, pack one anyway. Carissa Bonham of Creative Green Living found this out when her son was three years old. “Even though three might still sound like a prime stroller age, the truth is that my son hadn’t even sat in his for more than a year and he was also huge for his age,” recalls Bonham. One long day at the airport changed that though. After a meltdown, the stroller was taken out of retirement. It’s great for nap time or, as Bonhams says, “to push your kid and all the stuff right up to the gate for gate check, and it will be waiting for you when you disembark,” says Bonham. “We have continued to use this hack when traveling and it’s saved my sanity when flying with my kids many times since, especially when flights are delayed or kids need naps.”

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.