By Maya Kachroo-Levine
Updated July 11, 2020
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Traveling with children can make for some of the most rewarding trips. I once sat next to a woman on an airplane who told me that she was so worried about having children because she thought it would impede her ability to travel. A few years later, she said, she brought her two-year-old to Portugal for the first time. She told me it was the best trip of her life, because she got to experience every new scent, taste, and scene from a child’s perspective. Traveling to Europe might not be new to you, but if it’s new to your children, it can completely change a destination in your eyes.

That being said, traveling with children is not without its challenges. Travel logistics take on a whole new level of convoluted when you factor in kids. If they’re young, there are feeding schedules and bedtime rituals to navigate while abroad, and if they’re elementary school-aged, the constant question becomes: How are we going to keep the kids occupied?

To outline the top mistakes to avoid when traveling with children, we consulted a family travel expert. Samantha Brown is a prolific Travel Channel host and an expert when it comes to being a traveling mother — and carting the whole family along. With Brown’s insight, we’ve put together a list of 10 things you should never do when traveling with kids.

1. Not Leaving Enough Time Before Your Flight

The question of when to leave for the airport is an argument as old as time — or at least as old as the Wright brothers. But if you have children, the answer should always be earlier than you think. Even for a domestic flight, leaving two hours at the airport isn’t unheard of with children. “Always remember you have to get through security and make it to your gate, which takes longer with little ones,” says Brown. “And have enough time for a bathroom break!”

2. Forgetting to Pack Snacks and Water

According to Brown, “You’ll need time to get snacks and water, if you don't already have them.” While she brought this up specifically in the context of flights, taking your children for a full- or even half-day of sightseeing will always require reinforcements. Nothing slows down a walk quite like a hangry toddler, and when you’re abroad, you’re not guaranteed to find a snack that they’ll actually eat. Carry a few options in your bag (generally, small packs are ideal because it allows you to keep multiple without carting around a duffle bag).

3. Pre-boarding

Samantha Brown recommends avoiding pre-boarding at all costs. “When you pre-board, you subject little kids to the most stressful part of the entire trip,” says Brown. She is a mother to twins, and pre-boarding when they were one-year-olds was enough to turn her off the entire concept. She reminds parents that fliers are at their most frenzied during the pre-board process. “People are stressed out and worried that their bag isn't going to get in the overhead bin,” she says. When she was toting one-year-olds onto the plane, “the sound and the vibration of those bags going in [the overhead bins] made both children cry.”

4. Keeping Your Children on Your Lap While Flying

To buy the extra ticket, or not? That’s the real question. Samantha Brown is firmly in the camp of buying children their own seat whenever possible. Of course, she says the financial reasons for keeping a child on your lap are understandable. But if you’re able to fit the cost of your child’s seat into your travel budget, she highly recommends it. “I understand people's financial reasons for keeping a child on their lap, but for longer flights and even red-eyes, this is a really bad idea,” says Brown.

5. Assuming Buffets Are an Easier Dinner Solution

Brown’s biggest advice for eating out on vacation? Avoid dinner buffets. “A dinner buffet just means that I am still in charge of getting everybody's meal. I'm the mom, waitress, and runner,” says Brown. “Children are overwhelmed by their choices, which doesn't make it any easier.”

She says you can do a breakfast buffet, if you must, but dinner buffets are a hard no. Why? “By the time everyone has eaten, I finally sit down with my plate to a table of restless children, or my meal has gone cold. If I have to flag down a waitress for a glass of wine or to clear the four plates that I had to assemble myself, I am very unhappy,” she says.

6. Not Doing a Safety Check as Soon as You Get to Your Hotel Room

Safety first even — and especially — on vacation. Brown says one of the biggest mistakes you can make while traveling is “not checking out the windows, balcony doors, and balconies of your hotel room immediately when you walk in.” Her advice is, “Before anything else, put everything down and do a safety check of the room.”

7. Not Leaving Enough Time Before Checkout

Brown’s rules about getting to the airport early also apply to checking out on time. Checking out as a solo traveler or a couple can be time consuming enough. Checking out with a family of five? That’s a whole other ball game. To prepare for the fact that you might run a little late, ask the front desk the night before if you can check out half an hour (or an hour) later. Start the packing process the night before, so that the next morning, you can focus on getting everyone a hearty breakfast and then out of the hotel room.

8. Not Dividing and Conquering

Here’s the thing about family bonding time: It doesn’t need to happen every minute of every day. If you have a two-parent family, sometimes splitting up makes transportation easier. Brown specifically likes to divide and conquer when boarding an airplane, “with parent number one using the pre-board [process] to load everything on and get the seats ready,” and parent number two boarding with the children. Brown recommends that “parent number two waits until the very last person of the last zone is called.” She says that if the kids board last, the plane hopefully “departs from the gate 10 minutes later — not 45 minutes.”

9. Overpacking Your Day

Don’t be overzealous about your itinerary. When planning a trip, it can be tempting to cram everything in, holding on to a “what if we never come back?” mentality. With children in tow, you have to fight that urge. Yes, you can still get to the excursions and sights you most want to see, but be aware that getting from one activity to another will take extra time, and it’s okay to tame your itinerary down a little.

10. Not Prioritizing Rest for the Whole Family

Brown emphasizes the importance of finding time to let the children rest, so you can relax, too. She cites getting children their own seat on the plane as one of the biggest reasons she’s actually able to rest on a flight. “When a child is in a car seat in their own plane seat, they are as safe as they can be, and they are comfortable and feel secure, which allows them to sleep,” says Brown. “I still have nightmares of carting two car seats onto the plane, but once everyone was settled, we all got some rest.”