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.
Don’t assume children will sleep on long international flights!
When we traveled to Italy with our eldest (at 16 months old) I was so flustered that he would not sleep on a red-eye flight! I was so stressed! We learned our lesson quickly though. Now when we travel (with three children) I never assume my children will sleep, so I’m prepared for that eventuality. For some reason they rarely sleep en route to a destination (even to Thailand!) but coming home always seems a bit better. Maybe its the excitement? Regardless, it seems easier to not have any expectations around how much your children will sleep 🙂
Great advice! Everything you said is definitely true, traveling with young kids can be difficult but if you stick to these guidelines, it will make everything much easier.
#2 is my go-to. Spending an extra $20-$50 a night for our sanity and some alone time is definitely worth it. Great post!
Camille Martin says
Very useful post. I have one kid & we are planning a long trip. I will definitely follow your advice. Thanks for sharing.
Anne @ TripMemos.com says
I agree with taking it slow. Adding my own to tip towards that –
If you’re going to a theme park, try splitting the visit into several shorter ones. Many places offer a multi-day ticket that isn’t that much more expensive. When we visited Legoland California with the kids back in 2009, adding another day only added $10 to the price of the ticket. It was well worth it. We went twice and felt like we had a LOT of time to explore at leisure.
I also agree about vacation rentals. It provides you with space and also means you stop at the same place for longer, giving kids time to settle in and relax (well, ok, it’s good for the grown-ups too 😉 ).
So many solid tips here … excellent post!
Thanks for the post. Though I am a solo traveller but still found it interesting. There are some useful tips like :
1.Slow down and accept that we cant see everything in the wishlist in one trip.
2. Hotel and flight bookings.
Also, I have friends who travel with family so will share this post as it will useful for them 🙂
Sanjeet Veen says
Nice tips, very helpful for formality traversals.
Thanks for the awesome post.really liked it, very useful tips.
Mark @ NWFamilyTravel says
Great tips that any family can use when traveling. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
Depending on the airline, I find avoiding the bassinet seats to actually be more comfortable due to the fixed arm rests on most bassinet seats
Candace Glenney - Travel Masters Saskatoon says
Great post…agreed on all counts!
Gagan Chauhan says
Awesome post, Cam & Nicole! Very inspiring…I’m almost done packing my bags after reading your article. I’m sure my sister is going to love it too! Cheers and thanks for sharing.
Aadith Sasi says
Thats a great post with useful points, generally we do make these mistakes. Thanks for sharing 🙂
End to End Travel Outsourcing says
Great tips. It was fun reading it. Would definitely love to follow these tips.
Megan Eileen says
Love these packing tips – they always come in handy! Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed the read.
Packing is always a challenge when travelling with kids. I think making check lists comes in handy, because it’s so easy to forget something at home.
This is a great post! My favorite is the part about getting direct flights. Most of the time, we want to pay the cheaper price without thinking of the benefits of paying a bit more – especially when we are bringing our kids with us. Another fave of mine is choosing practical accommodations. I use Airbnb a lot too! It’s way cheaper than renting at fancy hotels. You get to have at least 2 rooms, a fridge AND a kitchen where you can cook your own food. And finally, nothing beats a good planning + the packing tips! Love them all!
Great tips! We have three kids aged 1-6 and have learned a lot about travel along the way too! Where the accommodation used to be the least important part of a trip it is now the most important. We find we end up spending a lot of time in our accommodation between naps, down time, and early bed times, so it doesn’t feel wasted if we love it. I always opt for a ground floor apartment or home with a back yard so there is room for kids to run and play. Also some type of gorgeous view to enjoy when kids are in bed or napping and we can’t go out. Heated pool or beach in short walking distance is also a plus. And finally a good coffee shop/bakery to walk to as well as hopefully somewhere nice to get in a run close by. A long wish list, but this way we don’t feel disappointed when we only get to explore our destination a little…. Boy have things changed since having kids ha ha!
Emily Hansen says
These are such helpful tips, Cam and Nicole! I particularly love the tip about jet lag since me and my kiddos get that often when we travel overseas. One thing that we definitely do to avoid getting that condition is to leave home well rested. But sometimes, it’s not enough.
Make a photo copy of your passport/ID and put it in your carry on. If you lose your wallet, this will be helpful to get back home!
Thanks so much for the tips! We are heading to a six months world trip with our little boy (eight months) in April! Wish I have found your blog earlier!! Thankfully that I have prepared most of the items you have recommended. Start to be very nervous now!!
Totally agree with everything stated in this post, especially not trying to do it all in one day. Rest and downtime are important.
With the jet lag, I’d say take advantage of those days where everyone is awake at ungodly hours to explore the city you’re staying in a bit at sunrise. It is absolutely gorgeous, it will be nearly empty, and you can take loads of incredible photos. You don’t need to go far at all, just a little walk. As it starts to get busy, everyone is usually ready for a nap, so no harm in heading back for a sleep. Great tips though! And Cheers from another Canadian, albeit one living in Germany. x
I’ve always hated dealing with jetlag.
Thanks for the post! Any favourite snacks that you pack for airplanes and trips? Our daughters are going to be almost 4 and almost 2 when we head to Ireland this summer (thanks for the great road trip post!)
Hi Cam & Nicole, I’d say this is the most interesting and useful article. Keep up with the good work. As you travel with your family, which place or country you feel is the safest among all? Thank you
Brian Hastings says
Awesome post! Thanks for sharing the knowledge and keep up the good work.
Darrien Hansen says
I like that you explained how you should make separate sleeping arrangements for you and your children when on vacation. I am interested in going on a vacation with my family, but I am worried that my older children will affect our sleeping schedule since they prefer staying up late at night. Maybe we should find a place to stay that allows everyone to have their own personal space.
Gary Francis says
Sound advice! We travelled with our kids from a young age – otherwise either we wouldn’t have travelled or we would have left them behind (which we simply wouldn’t do). But now they are worldly-wise travellers who see no barriers to international travel.
Cobi Sharpe says
Didn’t have to make it too far into this post to see the first mistake we made. Trying to do too much in a short amount of time. Need to be realistic with little toddlers!
Trying to do everything in one day. I’m guilty of that one. I still remember Lisbon. I wasn’t popular fatty that. Great tips guys. #TravelBlogTuesday.
Bernie and Jess Watt says
Great tips. We’re at the cusp of all this and it’s a reminder that we won’t be able to run around the world with no sleep, flying by the seat of our pants.
With or without kids, going slow is the real deal. Holidays should be relaxing. And I agree paying extra keeps our sanity. The savings are not worth it in so many cases. Love this honest and practical article.