What is the perfect age to take your child on a trip? I think any age is works if you have the right mindset. Here I will breakdown the various age groups and share some mishaps we had. Despite them, I would do it again. I do not accept the excuse that a kid will not remember a vacation if you take him/her too early. It's true they may not, but you will! And more importantly you will have had an awesome bonding experience with your child and will have opened up their brains to new learning opportunities. Studies show that a 90% of a child's brain develops in the first 5 years, so you have a lot to gain by giving them travel experiences when they are young!
Babies—they are the easiest to travel with, especially if you nurse and you do not need to pack food. Babies can’t move, you can put them in the Bjorn and go anywhere you want to go and they sleep alot. The best part is you can still go anywhere you want for your trips. If you cannot give up your nights out, hire a hotel babysitter or go on a cruise and utilize the childcare. We did not let having a baby alter our travel lives at all because we altered our mindset and didn't worry about routines like bathing before bed, eating at certain times and so on.
We took our first trip with our first baby when she was 7 weeks old and the only shocking thing was the diaper bag, stroller, carseat combo at the airport. Once we had that figured out we continued and at 6 months we had her in Europe and Mexico. This continued with the others (kid #2 was in Hawaii at 3 months, at 2 months kid #3 was at Disney, #4 was in NYC at 7 weeks.) although with each added kid things did get harder and the amount of stuff got greater!
Mishaps we have had with babies--
**After sleeping the entire day we sat down for a romantic dinner at Tavern on the Green in NYC when the baby decided to wake up and scream. We ate in shifts with the other person holding the baby outside the restaurants and gave up on expensive dinners.
** We had a baby who seemed perfectly happy and was eating great but had diarrhea for several days on a trip. On the formal night on a cruise she was sitting in the upholstered chair at dinner and blew through her diaper, bloomers and down the chair. We wrapped her in napkins, ran out, put her in pj’s, returned and continued the dinner.
Toddlers-- definitely the hardest age to travel with unless you change all expectations and live for the moment. For example, pushing the stroller and chasing birds can be hours of entertainment if you let it happen. A no-touch museum is not so entertaining at this age. We used the stroller at night for sleeping and would push the sleeping child into restaurants so we could enjoy dinner, rather than attempt to eat a nice meal while dealing with a likely overtired child. And of course, always carry 5 different snacks with you to buy you time when needed and tons of activities for the plane.
Mishaps we have had with toddlers—
**Puking - every kid - every trip, or at least that’s what it seemed like. The worst was waiting for luggage with toddler in backpack who proceeded to puke down dad’s back. He had no option of changing until the luggage came.
**On a transpacific flight our daughter dropped her pacifier and it fell under our seats and got mixed up with the stuff that belonged to the sleeping people in the row behind us. We spent the next 12 hours hoping for the best and didn’t find it until we landed.
2-3 year olds-
Not a bad age to travel with, minus the hundreds of items you need to bring to keep them happy and entertained. Find the children’s museums, parks, hikes and beaches and wear them out during the day. Do not anticipate getting to do anything you actually want to do on trips and plan your destinations with their ages in mind. We again used the stroller for naps so we didn’t have to return midday and would wait until the child was asleep in the stroller at night to eat sit down dinners.
Mishaps with 2-3 year olds.—
**Potty training while traveling. Of course we always had extra clothes for the kid but wasn’t prepared when toddler peed while sitting on a lap before the plane took off and all the parent clothes were in the checked luggage.
**This seemed to be the age where they would refuse to go to bed in a hotel and in turn would keep everyone else in the room awake. We often had a kid moved to the empty bathtub to fall asleep to get them to stop.
In my mind this is when the good traveling can start. I do not buy the “not old enough for a certain kind of trip” mentality. They are ready, they are sponges and generally they still believe in you enough to not question what you are doing. We always got books on our destinations and taught them about where we were going before the trip and planned activities they would like. For one child this was French impressionist art museums which shows that your itinerary doesn’t have to be dummied down at all. Her souvenir that trip was a Monet poster that still hangs over her bed so I will conclude that it had a lasting impact. The first time your 3 year old screams from the London city bus “There is Big Ben!” you will see exactly how worth it traveling with your little one is. At this age our rule was one big activity a day followed by parks, exercising or swimming. We ate a lot of picnics rather than restaurants and tried to be back to the hotel at a reasonable time at night.
Mishaps with preschoolers-
**While eating out our 4 year old forgot to pull her tights down far enough when going to the bathroom and managed to pee all over them. It was freezing and going bare legged wasn’t going to work. Solution was to run to the nearest store and buy a new outfit and continue our day.
**While boarding a train in Paris our 4 year old was holding hands with our German friend who met us there. A group of teens, who was causing a distraction for a pickpocket scheme, chopped their arms apart and our daughter ended up on the outside of the closing door. We pried the doors open and got her through but all had a scare with that one.
Elementary Age Kids—
My very favorite age group to travel with and also to get in on the travel planning is elementary kids. Let each kid pick the things that interest them and make a plan where everyone gets a bit of what they want. We have done jeep tours, zip lining, boogie boarding, sewer tours, shopping trips, shows, swimming with dolphins, soccer stadium tours, Olympic stadiums and much more all because someone was interested in it. At this age you can start to add adventure activities like skiing, rafting and big hikes. as well. Kids can go longer at this age and, you don’t have to bring as much to entertain them. They can also pack themselves so the pre trip preparations are easier (subscribe to see our upcoming blog post on packing).
This is the perfect age for your trips to become more educational too. We have found that going on walking tours and hiring a guide can really enhance the travel experience at this age. In Paris, we went on a few walking tours. After an hour at Notre Dame our 3rd grader turned to us and said, "I just learned more from that than in a whole month of school!" When our Rome tour guide explained the Roman times as "lasagne layers" and proceeded to show them an excavated site where you could see the different "layers" of the history their understanding was obvious.
We have a special tradition with our kids when they are this age. Each child gets to pick a parent and a location to go when they finish 5th grade. It has been an absolute joy to share their special trip with them. One was NYC for Broadway shows and the next was Universal for the Harry Potter experience. Kid #3 is planning hers now.
Mishaps with elementary age-
**We were night skiing in Colorado when the fastest kid missed the sign that said "no chair lift access after this point". He ended up at the base of the other village, which had shut down all of the lifts and was phoneless. The solution was to ask someone to use their phone. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the call but later heard 3 messages. The third being, “ I don’t really know what to do so I’ll just take the bus to try to get back to the village.” He made it and we bought a flip phone for him to carry when skiing.
**We often fit 6 people into a room designed for 4 (shhh - don’t tell anyone!). The two floor people either get air mattresses or what has now been deemed the “crap bed” (random cushions from within the room that we put together as a make-shift bed). Our little one woke up one morning and the couch cushions had moved apart and she was on the ground. She started telling us about the crack where the cushions separated but it sounded like crap, so now whoever gets the cushion bed is now in the “crap bed”.
Middle School Kids-
In my mind, it is almost as bad traveling with a middleschooler as it is a toddler. Reason #1 is their phone. Nothing is more maddening to me than finding a kid on their phone while sitting somewhere that is supposed to be life changing. My kids learned very quickly that this wouldn’t fly. If you are not strict about this they will literally miss the entire vacation. My compromise on this is that they can be on their phones for 1 hour in our hotel and also if we are traveling. They do miss many fleeting things on car or train rides because they don't look up at all. Middle schoolers also have a tendency to tell you when they don’t want to go somewhere. Our son made it very clear that every city in Europe was exactly the same….a river with an old town on one side and a newer area on another with a castle or fortress on a hill, churches, art museums and cafes. That was day 5 of a three week trip, and despite understanding his point of view it did not make the trip easy. The one bonus to this age is that you can leave them in the hotel room (or car) when you want to go out at night without kids! When our first child was babysitting age, we did get back a little bit we had missed on trips with the family which almost made up for the attitude. I have found beach trips, adventurous days and amusement parks seem to always be a hit at this age. Meeting friends places seems to help as well.
High School Kids.-
If you have trained them well, it is almost like traveling with your closest friends once your child is in high school. They are engaged again, great at planning, willing to go on adventures and genuinely awesome to be with. Plus, as the parent of a child this age, there is the added positive pressure to get in the big trips you haven’t done yet so you can give them the experiences you want before they leave, which benefits both them and you!
Our travel tradition continues when our kids enter high school and get to pick a solo trip with the other parent. For this trip they get a budget and get to plan the entire thing. Our oldest ended up finding a Disney Cruise on a random week in January we had days off that was under the budget. Kid #2 is starting to plan his trip now and is hoping to find the same deal.
Unless you plan to give up traveling once kids are part of your life, you can make it work. Our first pediatrician told us that you are not on a vacation if your kids are there, you are on a trip! There will be a time for us when all we will have are vacations without our kids. For now, I'll take as many trips with them as I possibly can. Those memories are something that will outweigh the extra work it may have taken to make it happen. Our day to day lives are crazy and every moment away is a cherished moment.