Family travel mistakes and how to avoid them

As we put thought into our upcoming travels, we’re reminded of the lessons learned while traveling with young children – also known as our family travel mistakes. We’ve taken our boys to quite a few places over the last few years and each trip has taught us something new.

In many cases, we’ve learned what NOT to do.

Today, we want to share some of the family travel mistakes we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned from these travel experiences. We share many of our travel stories on this blog and social media channels, which opens the door to plenty of feedback and questions from other traveling families.

The big takeaway from these comments, tweets and messages is that we are not alone.

Every parent wants to make their family travel experiences enjoyable and memorable, but things don’t always go according to plan.

In an effort to share the learning, here are a few family travel mistakes we’ve made. And how to avoid them.

Note – this post was originally published way back in 2016. It was updated in Jan 2023. 

(1) Don’t try to do everything in one day

In other words, SLOW DOWN.

Don’t try to replicate the way you used to travel before having children. Things are different now, so try not to squeeze too many activities or sightseeing into one day. This is one of the easiest family travel mistakes to make, and it’s also one of the easiest to correct.

We plan our big activity or adventure in the morning when everyone is fresh and recharged. Then we break up the day and spend quiet time back at the hotel/apartment.

It’s important to accept the fact that you can’t see and do everything on your wish list.

The most enjoyable family travel experiences we’ve had are the ones where we’ve set proper expectations for each day. The worst thing you can do is put yourself in a position where you’re constantly feeling rushed or disappointed because you didn’t check every box on the list.

Why bring unnecessary stress to your trip? Slow down. Embrace the little moments and set realistic expectations.

(2) Get accommodations with separate sleeping

Consider this, if everyone is piled into a standard hotel room you’ll likely need to go to sleep when your children do. What else are you going to do? You can’t leave the lights on. You can’t watch a movie or have a conversation. If you do, it will be tough for your kids to fall asleep. And you can’t leave them alone in the hotel room by themselves.

To ensure everyone gets a good night’s sleep, it’s best to find accommodations that have separate sleeping areas.

We look for accommodations that have one or two bedroom suites, instead of the standard hotel room that come with two queen-sized beds. You will likely pay a little more for this convenience, but a good night’s sleep is an essential ingredient for successful family travel.

In some cases, you might actually spend less money by staying at an apartment rental. Most apartments come with a kitchen, which is super convenient when traveling with little ones, especially when one has a food allergy.

Having access to a fridge, stove and microwave makes a BIG difference.

If you’ve never booked an apartment rental before (and there are a lot of you out there!), a good place to start is VRBO. Give it a try. We prefer this website over AirBnb. Vacation rentals are a great option for family travel.

(3) Get accommodations in a central location

Building on the above point, it’s always a good idea to be located close to attractions, restaurants, amenities and transportation.

Before having kids, we typically stayed in hotels or hostels located outside the city center to save money. We’ve learned that’s a big mistake when traveling as a family.

When you factor in the cost of taxis, transportation or parking, it doesn’t take long for those savings to evaporate.

You never know how much time you have before your kids burn out. 

Being close to the things you want to see and do will increase the amount of time you have to actually explore and have fun. It also gives you more flexibility if things go sideways.

If your kids have an accident or need of a nap, it’s nice to be close to your accommodations.

When booking near tourist attractions, be careful not to get sucked into tourist traps. You can save a lot of money on restaurants that are located a few blocks away from the popular attractions.

Related: Taking a Cruise? Here’s what you need to know

(4) Jet lag is real. Plan for the worst, hope for the best

Crossing oceans can be tough on little ones. Who am I kidding, it can be tough on big ones too.

The first time we traveled overseas with Braydon was a real eye opening experience. Literally. He had his eyes wide open at 3:00 AM. This lasted for 3 nights. Not fun.

Since that trip, we’ve learned to give ourselves a few days to adjust.

We don’t plan any big activities the day after we arrive. Instead, we take it slow and let our moods dictate how the day will play out. We also look for nicer accommodations that have a swimming pool. If no pool is available, we make sure there is at least a bath tub in the room.

Soaking in a swimming pool seems to really help the adjustment period.

It’s okay to do nothing while everyone adjusts. Give yourself permission to use the first travel day as an adjustment day, even if that means watching movies and ordering room service.

Don’t put unrealistic expectations on the first 24 hours after arrival.

(5) Choose your seats at the time of booking

This is a big one, especially for long haul flights. Don’t risk being seated in separate areas. Most airlines will group families together in the same row, but don’t rely on this. If you don’t choose your seats at the time of booking you might end up sitting on opposite ends of the plane.

We travel as a family of four, so there have been a few times when we’ve been seated in different rows. If you wait until check-in to select your seats it may be too late to find seats that are grouped together.

Flight attendants will usually help when this error occurs, but it means asking other people to move and it creates unnecessary tension during the boarding process.

And, if you do have to switch seats, and your luggage is in an overhead compartment that’s behind you, it delays the off-loading experience and can be quite frustrating for everyone.

You may be required to pay extra to reserve your seats, depending on the airline and distance.

Yes, it’s an additional expense that’s annoying, but we pay the fee to ensure we get the seats we want. Both boys love the window seat, so it’s important that we get at least one window seat on every flight.

Travel Tip: Normally when you reserve seats by redeeming Miles or Points, the seat assignment fee is included, so there’s no extra charge to select your preferred seats.

Related: Do you bring your baby car seat when you travel?

(6) Pay more for direct flights. It’s worth it.

Whenever possible, book direct flights. Why put yourself through the agony of connecting flights? 

Now, we completely understand that direct flights are not always an option. But if there is a direct option – take it! Even if it costs more. You will be so glad you did.

On our trip to Puerto Rico we had connecting flights in Dallas-Fort Worth. We ended up staying the night at an airport hotel because the connecting flight didn’t arrive in San Juan until 2:00 AM. Not an ideal situation with little ones. This made for an extremely long travel day(s). The same thing happened on the return flight home. It was a painful experience.

In this example, there was no direct flight available from Vancouver to San Juan, but it reminded us to choose destinations that offer direct fights, even if it means paying more.

In fact, that’s one reason why we chose to travel to Ireland.

(7) Don’t rely on airlines or hotels for entertainment.

We learned this one the hard way.

Now, we always bring a tablet loaded with games and shows. In fact, we always bring 3 tablets. One for each boy and one for us.

The current state of the airline industry is pretty sad. Gone are the days when service was a big part of the in-flight experience.

Nowadays, you get one beverage and, if you’re lucky, the food cart will still have a sandwich available for purchase by the time it makes it to your row.

In-flight entertainment systems are hit and miss these days. 

Personally, I don’t understand why an airline would choose to not provide entertainment to its passengers, especially for flights longer than 3 hours.

We flew to Hawaii on West Jet and there was nothing available – no television screens, no tablets to rent, no magazines, no newspapers. And this was a brand new plane!

We were unprepared because we made the mistake of assuming that basic entertainment would be provided. That was a very long and very boring 6 hour flight.

Don’t make the mistake of relying on entertainment at hotels either.

Believe it or not, there are still some hotels that charge guests for WiFi usage. It’s so annoying. At home, we use our tablets to watch Netflix or YouTube.

We don’t even think about WiFi availability… it just works. The problem with this mindset is that it’s too easy to forget about Plan B. What happens if there’s no WiFi available?

We make sure our tablets have cartoons on each device. That way we aren’t held hostage if the WiFi isn’t working or is unavailable.

(8) Cheap flights can be deceiving

Everybody loves a great deal. It’s hard to resist a ridiculously cheap flight. But often times these cheap flights depart and arrive from remote airports that can be located quite far from the actual destination.

This happened to us when we purchased a connecting flight in Paris, France.

We found a cheap flight from Paris to Glasgow on RyanAir, but the departure airport was Orly Airport and we had arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It took us almost 2 hours to get to the other airport and we spent an additional 50 Euros in train and bus tickets. The airfare savings disappeared quickly.

Keep in mind that when your flight is delayed more than 3 hours with Ryanair or another operator, you are entitled to flight delay compensation in Europe according to European law.

Now, as a solo traveler, departing from a remote airport might not be a big deal. But when you’re traveling with kids, and all the crap that comes with them, this creates unnecessary stress for everyone. It might actually cost you more when you factor in taxis, buses or parking.

Lesson learned – sometimes it’s worth the extra $100 to save a few hours of pain.

Related: 13 Tips for Successful Baby Travel

(9) Give yourself enough time between flights.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it’s worth mentioning that you should always give yourself enough time between connecting flights.

If you travel frequently for business, you likely seek the shortest layover time possible. While that strategy may work when traveling solo, it’s not a good idea when traveling with young kids.

Everything takes longer with kids. 

Going through security, eating at a restaurant, using the bathroom, boarding the plane. It always seems to take twice as long with kids.

It’s wise to give yourself at least 1.5 hours between connecting flights, but we prefer 3 hours. The reason we like a little more time is because we like to eat a real meal at a restaurant and we like to give our boys time to run around the airport.

It also gives us a safe buffer in the event that the flight is delayed.

Related: 15 Baby travel items we travel with (and you should too)

 (10) Don’t book too late, or too early

It’s a delicate balance. You want to get the best price so you wait a few days, or weeks, to see if the price will come down. But, in the process, you run the risk of losing seat availability.

Experts say that the best time to purchase flights is between 6 to 8 weeks before the departure date.

Before kids, we had no problem sacrificing flight availability for price. We would take the cheapest option even if it meant doubling the travel time or leaving a few days later. We were much more flexible back then.

Now that we travel with kids, we want to arrive at our destination as quickly as possible. We avoid connecting flights and we prefer to depart and arrive at reasonable hours.

We don’t do 6:00 AM departures anymore.

To secure these ideal flights, we have to book early. The sacrifice is that we sometimes pay more for these desirable flights. We feel it’s a fair trade off.

Of course, you can always wait for last minute deals, but we’ve never found these to be worth the stress of not being able to properly plan. Plus, last minute deals typically have weird departure times and lots of connecting flights.

Don’t forget the small stuff!

You never know what will happen on your trip so you need to be prepared for everything.

So, when I say small stuff, I’m referring to the less obvious items like nail clippers, liquid dish soap, Children’s Tylenol, band-aids, lolly-pops, zip-lock bags, kid’s sun glasses, sun block, plastic bowls and cups, batteries, etc.

Take the time to make a list of all the things you think you’ll need.

Then, make sure you actually pack these items!

What about you? What family travel mistakes have you made?

Share your family travel mistakes in the comments section below.

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