About 8 years ago I was heartbroken, unemployed, and living with my parents when I was trolling Craigslist for babysitting jobs and came upon an intriguing ad. "Travel Nanny needed for 9 month old baby on a two month trip to Morocco." I couldn't believe my luck, it was just what I needed. Cut to a few weeks later: my bags were packed and I was on a plane to Marrakesh. I met up with a family that was filming a travel documentary; the dad was the host and the mom was the writer/producer. My job was to take care of all things baby 24/7. And so we went from city to city, desert to sea, with my little guy, Sid. We had such a great time that I joined them a couple months later in Norway, another wonderful experience. Since then I've traveled all over the place with several families, and as someone who loves to travel, it's the best perk! Just last year I went to Austin, TX for the first time!
Traveling on a really grueling schedule with an infant is not fun, you guys. But it's doable. And if I can schlep a baby through the Sahara Desert, then you can go on vacation with your kid. The first piece of advice I can give is to go in with a positive attitude and an open mind. Believe me, I know this is easier said than done, I get SO CRABBY when I have to fly. Just ask poor Theo and Maeby. The only thing keeping me together when I travel for work is that I have to act like a professional. But trust me when I say that when you expect your kid to melt down and be a little shit on a plane, he will. Give your kids the benefit of the doubt and they may surprise you.
When the plane is ascending and descending, you can help ease your infants ear pain by nursing or giving her a bottle. If you have an older child, give him a lollipop to suck on, or a piece of gum if he is old enough. It will have the same effect and the treat will help him forget the discomfort. Distract them by looking out the window, reading a new book, or singing a song. Once the flight is underway, having some new books or small toys are great for keeping them busy. And nothing beats a coloring book!
One of the most common reasons for in-flight or in-car meltdowns is hunger. I am hangry all the time so I get it. Try to have healthy snacks that will fill them up when meals are coming at irregular intervals (or are nonexistent, thanks all airlines!) Apples, granola bars, yogurt, and bananas are easy to toss in your bag and can save the day when there is impending doom.
Whenever possible, try to schedule a flight that coincides with your child's nap or sleep schedule. It might not always work, but for the most part if a flight overlaps with a nap, you could possibly get a couple hours of relief. When I was little, we would always travel to San Diego to visit our cousins at night. My mom would give us dinner and a bath, put us in our pajamas, and we would load up the car and hit the road around 8pm. That way we'd all fall asleep, my parents could have some peace and quiet, and when we arrived they'd just tuck us right into bed.
Try not to plan any major trips during difficult developmental stages. Obviously this isn't always possible, life happens, but if you can avoid it things will be easier. If you potty train them and then a few weeks later go on holiday, it's definitely going to be harder to keep a regular schedule and help them through this transition. They will undoubtedly regress a bit and that could potentially add stress to a travel situation.
Even if your kids are quite small, I have found that it really helps to keep an open line of communication with them about what is happening. I remember even as a small kid I hated being told what to do and where to go. Don't just drag your kid from place to place, tell them stories about where they are going and why, and include them in the conversation about the different locales. In a similar vein, let each child have their own backpack filled with what brings them comfort or can keep them busy. Giving them a disposable camera can help them feel invested in where they are, and keep them feeling busy and important. If your kids are a bit older, encourage them to keep a travel journal. This is a great way for them to practice their writing skills, encourage them to pay attention to the details of the trip, and help them stay entertained during delays or long car trips.
Don't forget a pack of medicine and always have baby wipes on you! Don't be afraid to go at a slower pace and don't feel like the only way to prevent insanity is to pop your kid in front of your iPad. Conversely, don't feel guilty when you need a break and have to pop in a movie for your kid. If you are relaxed and calm, your kid will feed off that energy.
Lately, many people I work for have been staying in apartments or homes when they travel, as opposed to hotels. Your family will have a larger space to play and relax, it is often cheaper, and many of these homes are specifically designed with families in mind. They are child-proofed and come stocked with toys and activities so you don't need to pack your entire playroom into your suitcase.
If you are going the hotel route, call ahead and see if they have any baby cots or play pens that can be set up in your room. When I was in Morocco, we brought a little tent for Sid, but I think we only used it once. Or just pile in the big bed; which was my favorite part when I was little. My sister would never let me sneak into her bed because she has always been a starfish sleeper, but when we were in hotels and had to share a bed she had no choice but to cuddle with me! Muahaha! To this day when we visit each other and have to share a bed she sleeps terribly and I sleep wonderfully, delighted by sister snuggles.
Make sure you research ahead of time so you know if you will need a car seat, or if you will only need to bring a stroller and/or sling. I find that gate-checking a stroller is sometimes more trouble than it's worth, and would recommend just checking the stroller before you go through security and then tossing the baby in the sling. Of course if you have more than one child that needs to be wrangled just bring that stroller on through and check it at the gate!
Give yourself plenty of time getting to the airport so you aren't stressed about being late. The more stressed you are, the more likely everyone is to have a freak out. This will also give the kids some time to stretch their legs and wander around and go to the bathroom before boarding the plane.
Family vacations are inevitably going to have hiccups, but remember that a horror story could one day turn into a funny memory that you laugh about around the dinner table for years to come. Deep breaths, you can do this!