Today, I’m sharing a list of tips for traveling internationally with small kids.
My husband and I recently took our girls on a three week trip to Europe. You can check out our itinerary here.
Our daughters are three and four years old, so I can understand why this sounded nightmarish to some people. HOWEVER, I can’t overstate what an amazing time we had. We had so much fun exploring and bonded so much as a family. I will cherish the memories forever. The girls thrived too–not only were they good sports (mostly), but they really enjoyed themselves. They ask us ALL THE TIME when our next trip is.
Of course, a long trip like this isn’t for everyone. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, by all means, leave the kids with the grandparents!
My goal with this blog post, though, and my platform in general, is to empower other parents to go ahead and book the family trip if you want to do one.
I get it; traveling internationally with small kids can be intimidating. But it can be done, and, more importantly, it can be FUN.
Be warned: this post is a behemoth. Still, I’m hoping this list of 30 tips for traveling internationally with your kids is helpful!
This blog post focuses on planning and executing. Including how to choose an itinerary that makes the most sense for your family. I also added getting your kids excited and invested in the trip and tips for surviving the flight and beating jet lag. Also, learn how to structure your days in a new city. I have another blog post that is all about PACKING–I wrote out every single thing I packed for my kids here.
(Also, I wrote a list of tips for traveling internationally with a baby here. There is some overlap with this post, too, but that post has more tips for dealing with baby gear, feeding tips, and nap schedules).
This is first on the list because it should be the very first thing you do if you are even thinking about planning an international trip. The processing times have been crazy this year, even when you pay extra to expedite! So, do yourself a favor and get the ball rolling on getting an updated passport for your little one. I recommend grabbing an appointment at your local post office. Put it on your partner’s calendar (you both have to be present at the appointment!) and start gathering everything you need. Trust me on this one.
I’m putting this near the top of the list because you’ll want to get moving on this to-do as well.
TSA PreCheck is one of the easiest, best ways to improve your travel day with small kids.
If you really want to take it to the next level, apply for Global Entry which can save you hours at customs.
At a minimum, download the Mobile Passport app and create a profile prior to the trip. You can upload a picture upon landing back in the US. Use a much shorter line to get through customs. I’ll be honest: this did not work for us on the way in. My guess is because Charlotte looked absolutely nothing like her 6 month old passport photo and the system wouldn’t process her. But it’s free and definitely worth it to try!
Check out my international travel checklist for more administrative tips here.
When planning your itinerary, I recommend choosing a mix of cities and more relaxed areas.
Big cities can be so much fun with kids: more (and better!) parks, lots of fun stroller walks, access to museums and a wide range of food choices. We kicked off our recent trip with 4 nights in Paris. Then, we wrapped it up with 2 nights in Rome, and we absolutely loved our time in both places. (Paris especially was fabulous for kids–read more about that here).
However, we would have absolutely burned out if we didn’t have other types of locations on our itinerary. After four hectic days in Paris, we flew to Croatia. We spent four nights on the peaceful island of Korčula which was just what we needed. We spent almost every day at the beach, and the girls were in heaven. After Korčula, we were ready for an adventure, so we headed to explore Plitvice National Park. You get the idea. (This blog post gives a great overview of how we chose each location on that trip).
My advice is to write out a huge list of all of the places you’re interested in going. Then, lay out your itinerary to allow for a few different vibes alternating throughout. We noticed that our kids did really well with switching up the energy every few days.
(If you’re looking for some location ideas, head to my travel page and scroll down and check out the “Itinerary Inspo” section).
One of the best ways to mitigate excess stress is to plan your trip during a less crowded time. I would, honestly, do whatever you can to avoid traveling to Europe in July or August. We’ve done it before and probably will again at some point. However, it’s a whole different ball game, especially in more touristy areas and big cities. Also, you’ll be dealing with hot weather in a lot of places, and that can be difficult with kids too. Traveling in summer is hands-down the most expensive time of the year, too.
May or September would be my first choices, when you still have a pretty good chance of enjoying good weather with less crowds.
That said, fall and winter can also be wonderful times to travel internationally too. A moody tour of the Cotswolds and London in late October? Swoon! A Christmas market rampage through the Black Forest and Alsace region in December? That’s a yes for me, always.
If you can, limit the number of “travel days” on your itinerary. This means limit the days where you are packing up, moving to a new location, and unpacking/settling in at that new location. No matter how breezy that one hour flight or three hour drive seems, it will end up taking the better part, if not all, of the day. Travel days are tough on small kids.
I do think this depends a lot on the total number of days you plan to be abroad. When Charlotte was a baby, we took a shorter trip to France and Italy. Since we only had 9 nights to work with, we decided to choose just two locations. These were the South of France and Lake Como–see the guides here. That way, we only “lost” one day to travel in the middle of the trip.
For this most recent trip, we had 20 nights to work with, so we were a lot more comfortable having more travel days and switching locations more often. We purposefully booked back-to-back four night stays at the beginning to help everyone ease in. We also did our best to avoid too many two night stays.
I firmly believe that train travel and Ryanair flight hopping is a rite of passage. However, nowadays Tyler and I prefer to rent a car. We love having the flexibility of being on our own schedule. We don’t need to stress about completely packing up and making it to the train station with all of our gear and such. With kids, flexibility is crucial.
If you are into the idea of renting a car, you might craft an itinerary that would be entirely “roadtrippable.” Dropping a rental car at a different location than where you picked it up can be expensive (especially when it’s a different country), but when you factor in taxi fares, train tickets, plane tickets, and luggage fees for all of your mid-trip travel days, it ends up evening out.
If you do decide to rent a car, consider renting car seats along with the car! We left our car seats at home, and this helped streamline our luggage situation so much. We didn’t have to lug around two extra things through the airports and up and down steps to our apartments, etc.
Also, we used Welcome Pickups to pick us up and drop us off at the airport in Paris and requested car seats with the reservation. And we didn’t use Uber or taxis in Paris at all while we were there–just walked absolutely everywhere. It was so nice. And then we flew to Croatia where we picked up our rental car along with our rental car seats that we used for the rest of the trip.
This is a very important tip. It took our girls (and us!) three nights to fully adjust to the new timezone, and the first two nights were horrendous. I recommend planning to stay at your first location for four full nights for a few reasons.
First, this allows everyone a chance to move through those first few days of jet lag without the stress of having to pack up and head out right away.
This also gives you wiggle room in your sightseeing itinerary. Having those extra days will make it so you can leisurely explore without having to cram everything in or worry about losing time if you sleep in once or twice.
Lastly, scheduling four nights at the beginning gives you a buffer in case your travel plans get messed up and you arrive later than you originally intended (this is happening more and more lately, it seems!).
We have always tried to book our long haul flights at night. 10+ hours is simply too long for a small child to be confined to an airplane seat, so we try to break up the flight with a “big sleep” in the middle of it. If you’re traveling from the US to Europe, flying at night is the most seamless way to get used to the timezone. Your child will hopefully sleep on the plane, and then you’ll land in your destination in the morning. Then, you’ll have to just get through that first day and put them to bed as late as you can possibly make it.
The other advantage of flying at night is it gives you the whole day prior to the flight to tire your child out as much as possible. The more energy they expend that day, the better they will sleep on the plane.
I’m writing this one to myself. This tip is for me. Maybe one day I’ll get it through my head that a dead sprint through the Frankfurt airport is not the way to start a European vacation. We were minutes from missing our flight and definitely would have if we hadn’t ran through the airport like idiots. We had a two hour layover, but our flight was delayed coming in so we only had an hour to get off the plane, go through customs and security, and take a shuttle to another terminal. It was NOT cool. Anyway, the point is this: just because an airline is offering a connecting flight with a 90 minute layer does not mean that you should book that flight.
If you do have a long layover ahead of you, do a little research ahead of time to see if there is a play area in your terminal. You might even go so far as to look into lounge access. (Chase Sapphire Reserve members qualify for Priority Pass which gives cardmembers access to lounges all around the world!).
I always try to think about what it will feel like when we get back to our accommodation after a long day of exploring. And when I think about traveling with my daughters, I know that the best possible thing for everyone is to give them their own separate space to sleep in.
This ensures that Tyler and I can get them in bed at a reasonable time and still be able to talk, eat a late dinner if we need to, read, work, and/or enjoy a glass of wine. Having that time each evening to hang out in our own space was crucial.
We have stayed in hotel rooms with the girls before, and while it’s fun every once in a while to have a family sleepover, it is not fun to do it for more than a night or two at a time, in my opinion.
We booked two bedroom apartments in every single location for this trip because we knew that having enough space for everyone to sleep soundly would be so important. The girls are used to sharing a room at home, so they shared rooms on this trip too. I think it helped them feel more comfortable in each new location too.
Outside of space for sleeping, having apartments with kitchens saved us a lot of money on the trip. We didn’t cook dinners in, but Tyler made eggs for the girls every single morning for breakfast (more on that below). Also, we kept cucumbers, apples, and other easy healthy foods on hand for the girls. We also stored leftovers to eat the next day if we wanted.
There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, worse than dealing with a hangry toddler when you don’t have access to a kitchen. Having a kitchen everywhere we went put us in the driver’s seat. We could feed the girls when they needed to be fed which made a world of difference in team morale.
I’ve always said that the two most important skills in parenting are hype building and the art of the well-timed snack. Hype building is so important with trips like these. We spent months talking nonstop about our Europe trip with the girls. We poured over the pages of this map book and went through the itinerary so many times that both girls had it memorized to a T by the time we left.
I also gave the girls a few books about the locations we were going (specifically, about Paris, Rome, and Croatia, but there are tons of great options on Amazon). These books aren’t groundbreaking, but they did help the girls get excited about various landmarks and sites. I’ll never forget Emmie screaming “COLOSSEUM” as soon as we rounded the corner in Rome.
This was Tyler’s brilliant idea. He made up a very simple scavenger hunt/bucket list for the trip and wrote out 3-4 things in each location that we were going to do. We talked about the scavenger hunt a lot before the trip. We’d walk through the itinerary with them and have them list out the things on the scavenger for each place. Then, we had the girls check off each thing as we went. Think: drink hot chocolate in Paris and see a waterfall in Plitvice–we’re talking soft balls here.
This got the girls SO excited for each location. We printed the scavenger hunt list out prior to the trip and glued it into the front of their travel scrapbooks that we took along with us so they could check things off as we went.
We packed a little scrapbook for each of the girls on this trip to help them document our travels in real time. This was a little bit of a hassle and did take up space in my suitcase, but it was so worth it. And while it may or may not have helped them remember anything, I know they will love looking back on these when they are older. And I think it must have made something stick at least, right?
The girls collected tickets, stubs, and postcards as we went to include in their scrapbooks. They got so excited about this. Usually, on the last night in each location, we’d take some time to put together their scrapbook pages from that place. Tyler and I would help them write a few memories or things they loved.
When we got back from the trip, they were SO excited and proud to show their books to our friends and family.
I linked everything I used on these in this blog post.
This tip sounds ridiculous, I’m sure, but stay with me. I think one of the reasons our kids did so great on this trip is because we’ve made a habit of being out and about with them. We’ll do walks in La Jolla, take them to the mall, browse bookstores, eat at coffee shops and restaurants, drive to the airport 2-3 times a week to pick up and drop off our car (for Turo).
Are they always well-behaved on these outings? Of course not! But they are used to just tooling around and coming along for whatever it is Tyler and I want to do. This helped them adjust to the travel lifestyle immensely. The takeaway advice is this: try to get your kids in the habit of doing “adult things” in the months prior to the trip.
We do our best to get the girls involved and engaged at the airport. This can be a valuable tool for avoiding meltdowns.
Traveling can provide many life lessons about public transportation and logistics. We show them the luggage conveyor belt, the boards with all of the flights, and, of course, all of the planes lining up next to the gates. We make sure to explain who is in charge: at security, at the gate, and who the pilots and flight attendants are. The more they know, the more they are willing to go along for the ride.
Emmie is a lot more “go with the flow” in these types of situations than Charlotte is. We really had to work with Char on being patient in the airports on this trip. We found that the more she understood what was going on, the more apt she was to relax and wait around.
So, we always let the girls hold their passports when they are getting on the airplane as the person working the gate counter does the final ticket check. They get a huge thrill out of this. In that same vein, we try to have them be in charge of their own backpacks too. The more ownership they have over the day, the better.
With these longer flights, I think it’s always a good idea to come up with a plan/schedule and communicate it really clearly to your kids. We told the girls many, many times that we were going to have a “big sleep” (that’s what they call night time sleep) on the airplane, so it didn’t come as a shock when we told them it was time to go to bed. Way ahead of time, they knew that we were going to have them try to fall asleep after the in-flight dinner.
We brought pajamas, small pillows, blankets, and their favorite stuffed animals to help them feel cozy and “at home” on the plane and throughout the trip.
I got a lot of grief about this on TikTok this summer, but I want to mention it here on this list. OBVIOUSLY, talk to your pediatrician beforehand!
We gave our kids melatonin on the flight and the first night in Paris to help them fall asleep. I think melatonin is totally fine every once in a blue moon. I’m not sure how strong it is anyway–it helped both girls fall asleep, I think, but they were still up a bunch that first night, so take that with a grain of salt.
We are a lot more relaxed when it comes to screen time when we travel compared to when we are home. We did bring iPads for them to watch shows on the airplane and long drives.
The primary reason for this is because Tyler and I wanted to be able to enjoy ourselves on long drives and if we went to a nice restaurant, etc. Small kids demand a LOT of attention, and I’ll be the first to admit that letting them watch a show here and there is a welcome break.
The girls knew that they weren’t going to watch shows at lunch or at short cafe stops, but we would let them watch shows on our phones on silent at dinnertime if they behaved well that day. In our family, screentime is a privilege to be earned, not a given part of their day. This was a lesson we learned the hard way with Char early on, lol.
The best way to handle it, especially if you have a kid who gets addicted really easily (like Char), is to be so, so clear with the schedule. For example, at the beginning of a long drive, we’d say, “Okay, we are going to color and read for an hour, eat lunch, and then take a nap. Then, after you wake up, you can watch a show until we get to Tuscany” (or wherever). Our kids respond really well to a PLAN, so this was kind of how we managed the iPads.
We haven’t ventured into games on the iPads, and I think I will probably hold off on that as long as possible. But they watched lots of Peppa, Paw Patrol. Dumbo, and Lady & the Tramp on this trip. Don’t forget to download everything beforehand!
You’ll want to pack a ton of snacks for the plane. Every parent in the world knows that snacks are an activity all by themselves, and your child may turn their nose up at the in-flight meals. We packed pretzels, Goldfish, bars, meat sticks, apple chips, etc. for the plane ride.
I wouldn’t stress about packing a bunch of snacks in your suitcase, though. You can buy snacks and treats anywhere, and it’s fun for kids to test out the grocery store offerings in a new place. The only snacks I packed in my suitcase were meat sticks (protein can be harder to find on the go) and a handful of Lara bars.
I go through this more in depth in my post about packing for a long trip with kids, but it’s worth mentioning again. We packed coloring books, sketch books, retractable markers and colored pencils, and some sticker books. Our girls, like all kids, are Busy Bees, so we wanted to bring enough stuff to keep them occupied on the flight and in our Airbnbs in the morning while we were getting ready.
We didn’t really do this on purpose, but I think it’s a good tip: prior to the trip, get your kids in the habit of coloring in the morning when they wake up. Our girls have been in a major coloring phase this year. It’s the first thing they do when they wake up in the morning, and because we packed a bunch of coloring stuff for them, they kept to that same routine throughout the trip too.
On the first day, the biggest goal is helping your child make it to bedtime. That’s it. The only thing on your agenda should be getting fresh air and some yummy food (also, coffee for mom and dad).
After you check into your Airbnb, drop your stuff and GO. Don’t let anyone lay down, or you’re done for. If your kid really needs to nap, they’ll snooze in the stroller or in the car on the way from the airport. Everyone will be delirious and emo, but avoid napping in your apartment/hotel room AT ALL COSTS.
Beeline it to a local eatery (I recommend scoping a place before the trip), feed those babies, and then head to a local park. Let your kids run around or lay around or do whatever they want. The most important thing is to just let them be.
Then, when it’s a reasonable bedtime for the new time zone, head back to the apartment, bathe them, and let them go to sleep.
Ultimately, it took three nights for them to sleep all the way through and get on the right schedule, but the second two nights were much better than the first one.
Since we slept in late most of the days we were in Paris at the beginning of the trip, we did not go back to the apartment for naptime. We wanted to get the girls nice and tired for bedtime those days and decided it would be better to keep them out.
After the first day or two, we did go back for naptime most days. Originally, I thought we’d keep going with the no-nap thing, but Emmie really does need to sleep still and made that very clear to us. She could have slept in the stroller, and she did on our last day in Rome, but we all needed the rest anyway.
Generally, we’d be out all morning, come back for rest time (Char either slept too or did her quiet time which she does at home still), and then go back out for more sightseeing and dinner.
I think small kids can definitely handle a stroller nap here and there, but it felt more sustainable for us to have that downtime each afternoon and give everyone a chance to recharge.
One cool thing that happened on this trip is that our girls learned how to sleep in the car. Before this trip, they RARELY, if ever did that. We felt so lucky that they finally got the hang of (or perhaps, resigned themselves to) car naps. We had a handful of long drives over the course of the trip, and the girls napped for hours at a time on those days in the car which was so nice.
It’s important to remember that your days are going to look much different when you’re traveling with kids than without.
When you’re planning out your day-to-day itinerary, make sure to alternate between adult activities and kid activities.
For example, you might visit a museum in the morning which would probably qualify as an adult activity. After the museum, you’ll want to visit a park or do something outside so your kiddo can burn off some steam. I wouldn’t make a kid sit through a long lunch at a nice restaurant after being on their best behavior at the Louvre all morning–at least my kids, anyway.
Better yet, we found that our kids did the best on the days where we started at a park–or the beach or anywhere they could just play. This is a great way to get some wiggles out before a long walk in the stroller or whatever’s on the agenda for the day.
We always use Google Maps when planning our trips. This is such an easy way to keep track of recommendations. As I read through blogs or come across a restaurant or landmark I want to hit, I’ll save it on our Google Maps. That way, once we are in a location, we can easily pull up the map and see what’s near our current location.
We started using this tool a few years ago to keep track of parks too. We must have starred 20 parks in Paris before our trip, so we were able to find a nearby park for the girls when they needed a break.
Pro tip: when you’re looking for a restaurant, I’ll search “kid” or “kids” in the reviews on the Google listing to see if I can get any intel on if it’s a good spot to bring the girls too.
This is one of the most important tips on this list because this will set your family up for success each day while you’re traveling and exploring a new place. Tyler made the girls eggs almost every single morning. Our kids (all kids?) behave and concentrate better when they have protein in their systems. Also, this took the stress out of scrambling to get out the door and find food every day. We’d fill them up with eggs and fresh fruit and then give them a croissant or pastry from our first coffee shop stop of the day. This made our mornings SO much more relaxed and less hectic.
You just don’t know when the mid-morning hunger pang is going to hit, and God be with you if it hits in the middle of a long drive or walking tour. We packed peanut butter sandwiches for the girls almost daily, even if we only planned to be out for a few hours in the morning.
We brought a few Stasher bags for each of the girls on this trip. Most days, I’d end up packing sandwiches, sliced up cucumbers, and pretzel sticks for them to snack on throughout the day.
In the long run, this saved us a ton of money because then when we’d sit down to lunch we could get away with just giving them bites of our orders.
This tip is crucial. I’m of the mind that it never hurts to ask about family lines and entrances. (Of course, you should always ask in the most polite and kind way possible, but you know this already).
This worked really well for us at all of the airports and many of the airlines we dealt with as well as places like the Orsay museum in Paris. Many places simply waved us through when they saw the stroller which was so nice.
We noticed that most places were very accommodating to families. Like, they’re not going to roll out the red carpet or anything. However, we just noticed a cultural understanding for families with small kids.
Public bathrooms are not as common in Europe/elsewhere as they are in U.S. I was definitely nervous about this heading into our trip, especially because Emmie has only been potty trained for about six months.
We always used the bathroom before we left our apartments (duh). We made a habit of “trying” to go whenever we did see a bathroom, be it in a museum or in a restaurant or (rarely) at a park. The girls got kind of annoyed with this. However, we just made it a rule for the trip: if we see one, we use one, LOL. And I’m pleased to report that we made it the whole trip without an accident!
I recommend bringing a stroller even for slightly-older kids. We were *so* close to not bringing a double stroller because Charlotte doesn’t sit in one anymore at home. My sister generously offered us her Uppa Baby G Link double travel stroller, and I’m so glad we took her up on it. It was just so nice for Charlotte to have the option to sit, especially in Paris, Florence, and Rome when we were clocking 17k step days.
Do be aware that many places are not as accessible as they are in the U.S. We had to carry the stroller over many, many staircases. I recommend researching towns/locations ahead of time to determine whether or not a location would be stroller friendly. (For example, we left ours behind on our day trips to Plitvice National Park in Croatia and San Gimignano in Italy).
We brought our Ergo 360 carrier with us, even though Emmie rarely goes in it at home. We brought it to use at the national park which was neither stroller nor toddler friendly, and I’m SO glad we had it with us. The carrier is great for cities with a lot of stairs too.
Every family is different, obviously, but Tyler and I do not want to set the precedent that our kids get souvenirs everywhere we go.
With this trip, we were really clear with the girls that we wouldn’t be buying stuff to bring home with us. We’d just say, “The trip is the present!” and then redirect to “What’s next on the scavenger hunt?” or whatever. Of course, they still asked, but eventually they figured out that we weren’t budging on it. We did let them pick out postcards for their scrapbooks in many places.
We did make two exceptions–we love a “surprise and delight” moment, after all. When Tyler and I did our little date in Florence, we got them these embroidered aprons as a surprise. And then on our very last day in Rome, we took them to this amazing toy shop. We surprised them with letting them each choose one thing to bring home. (They both chose a dress-up dress lol).
The point is that we had set the expectation that we weren’t going to buying a bunch of stuff for them. That saved us a LOT of drama throughout the trip.
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