Each time I click over to Amazon to ogle this book that's just come out with my essay in it (shameless self-promotion), I get a helpful handful of "suggested reading" titles along with it, and lately they've all been about traveling with kids--like this one: How to Fit A Car Seat on a Camel and Other Misadventures Traveling with Kids. I'm not sure what Amazon thinks the connection is, since the there has been no relationship whatsoever between that book getting published and an increase in our ability to travel to exotic places as a family. Coincidentally, last night my brother called me for some advice about a topic close to my heart: how to keep two small children (almost 2 and almost 5) entertained on a super-long plane trip to China, where my sister-in-law's family lives.
This was a bit outside my area of experience, since the farthest we have traveled with the two kids was Greece, with a stopover for a few hours in the really hot and chaotic Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. When I got off the phone with my brother, I told Scott that he had called for some advice about traveling with small children. Scott's gem of wisdom for my brother was this: Don't go.
I've written before about how I do enjoy traveling with the kids. I don't enjoy every hour of it, or even every minute of it. I enjoy the process of getting there and the adventures involved, and the fact that I'm witnessing, firsthand, my kids living experiences they might never forget. Even if they are too small to remember the details, travel shapes us all, small or big--it works its way into our minds and hearts, altering how we look at things forevermore. And for me, knowing this fact somehow keeps me sane at the darkest of hours; it's the glimmer of hope at the the end of a long and dark tunnel, the one you find yourself in when you're stuck at the back of an airplane, smack next to a stinky lavatory, with a screaming 13-month-old using your face as a ladder so he can get to the light and fan controls.
I did have some kernels of advice for my brother, gleaned from many flights, train rides, car trips, and even boat journeys. After I got off the phone with him, I came up with a few more ways to keep kids entertained on long trips, and thought it might be helpful to list them here, for the possible benefit of all of those with summer travel plans, whether they be exotic or very ordinary.
Stickers and notebooks. Pages of cheap dollar store stickers (or the stickers you can find in the evil mega-stores' dollar sections) and inexpensive notebooks have salvaged many tense moments. It's amazing how busy small kids can get with stickers and the permission to stick them all over a pristine white page of paper. With older kids, you can have them create their own themed sticker book, along with drawings and stories.
Scotch tape. Like stickers, we've found that tape is fascinating for kids, and it's often off-limits at home. I'll buy several tape packs at the dollar store and give one to the kids along with cut-out pictures from magazines. If you're not on an airplane, or if you are and your scissors haven't been confiscated by airport security, then bring extra magazines and let your older kids cut out the pictures themselves. One train trip I spent a good hour with T. cutting out cartoons and letting her tape them into a notebook.
Play-Doh. I always travel with a few canisters of Play-Doh, or some balls of it in Ziploc bags (easier to fit into a diaper bag or carry-on). Play-Doh has an incredibly calming effect (one time when we had too much airplane turbulence, I grabbed a chunk of T.'s purple Play-Doh and kneaded it like crazy until I felt calmer). And to make it even more exciting, pack a little bag of Matchbox cars or plastic figures and let your child's imagination go wild. When L. was a toddler, he spent tons of time creating Play-Doh roads on his airplane tray table and driving his cars over them. One time, during a stopover at an airport, he made a Play-Doh volcano and had it "erupt" all over the cars, burying them under blue and yellow lava.
Bring a tray table or lap desk when traveling by car. It took us a while to figure this one out, but a lap desk is great in the car for the kids to use Play-Doh , or to prop up their books and stickers while they work. Also, we've found that a large, hard picture book can double as a lap desk in a pinch--so bring one along in your carry-on if you can.
Color Wonder markers. These are amazing for travel. They don't mark anywhere but on that special Color Wonder paper, so you can doze or read a book while the kids color, without policing their every movement. When we took an eight-hour boat trip a couple years ago, T. shared her Color Wonder books with five or six other kids traveling on the boat. I'll never forget the sight of them all spread out in the aisle, coloring their hearts out. Even though they all spoke different languages, somehow they were all united under the powers of Color Wonder.
Pack lots of snacks. We always bring along some favorites, as well as some snacks the kids have never had or aren't usually allowed to have (fruit snacks are great travel companions--they are usually off-limits at home, and the kids pounce on them as though they were manna from heaven). Also, don't assume your kids will eat the airplane food, even if they are the most flexible and adventurous eaters in the world. Be sure to pack your own filling snacks--cereal bars, bags of dry cereal, dried fruit if the kids are old enough, and crackers. If your kids refuse even the most kid-friendly airplane food, at least they won't go hungry.
And finally...Extra clothes--for you. Parenting books always tell you to pack extra clothes for your child, but they never warn you that you may need a complete change of clothes, right down to your socks. Airplane (and train and boat) lavatories are small and cramped, and it's supremely difficult to position a pint-sized bottom onto a toilet seat under such conditions AND avoid getting your socks and shoes peed on. Trust me on this one. It can happen.