Traveling with kids is bound to be stressful and complicated… or is it? Karen Akpan, “The Mom Trotter,” and Bethany Braun-Silva, Editor at Parenting.com, are sharing tried and true travel hacks to make your family spring break a breeze — whether you’re headed to Hawaii, overseas, or just the next city over.
Family Travel Hacks: Spring Break
Christie Hudson: Anyone who’s ever boarded a plane with small children knows how daunting it can be. No matter how prepared you are, you still fear the worst. Cranky kids, running out of snacks, blowouts, or God forbid flight delays. In this episode of Out Travel The System we’re diving into, you guessed it, the topic of family travel. My guests today say that even though traveling with kids can be a whole lot of work, it’s still possible to enjoy the journey. I’m Christie Hudson, senior PR manager for Expedia, guest-hosting for Nisreene Atassi. The topic of family travel is close to my heart. A few months ago, my husband and I took our two small kids on a trip to visit family in Austin. We spent the week leading up to the flight making preparations and lists, doing laundry, stocking up on infant Tylenol and diaper cream, and loading a tablet with every “Paw Patrol” episode ever made. Even with all of our preparations and lists, our expectations were low — very low. Then miraculously, the four-hour flight from Seattle to Austin went great. Our 10 month old slept. Our three and a half-year-old watched shows and snacked. I even read a little of a book I’ve been trying to finish for six months. We got a little smug, so we were not emotionally prepared for the disaster that was our return flight, complete with a 3:00 a.m. wake up call, a teething cranky baby, and a toddler incapable of drinking or eating without spilling all over himself.
I know I’m not alone in this experience, which is why we’re bringing in the experts today: Bethany Braun-Silva, editor of Parenting.com, and Karen Akpan, who blogs as “The Mom Trotter” and the founder of the group Black Kids Do Travel. Between the two of you guys, your kids range in age from about four to seven, and Karen, your travel squad consists of four kids. So I can’t wait to dive into your tips.
So, Bethany, your kids are now seven and four right? Looking back, how did you find traveling in the baby years? Were your babies good travelers? Are any babies good travelers?
Bethany Braun-Silva: Yes. I think it reminds me of the story you just told. We got super lucky with my older son so traveling with my now seven-year-old, we started traveling with him when he was just weeks old. We took a trip to Miami from New York City, which was a 24-hour one-way trip, and it was really great. I mean, it was overall a positive experience despite the constant road-tripping and driving. He was a great traveler, and since then he has continued to be a great traveler. My younger son, who’s now four, is a little bit more high maintenance in the travel department, and he gets motion sickness even on planes.
Christie Hudson: Oh no, poor kid.
Bethany Braun-Silva: We had some puking events on our recent flights and he’s just a little bit more energetic, which is a sort of a nice way of saying he’s a handful. But nothing has been so bad that would ever deter me from traveling with them. It is absolutely our favorite way to spend time together as a family.
Christie Hudson: Does it feel like road tripping is maybe a better option for that stage of life?
Bethany Braun-Silva: It depends. I mean there certainly are some health and safety guidelines with keeping kids in car seats for a long time. You do have to stop quite a bit. I actually prefer air travel for that age because it’s quick, it’s easy, and they fly free. Now that they’re a little bit older, they can sit in a car for a longer period of time, they’re able to play games and interact and look out the window. So now that they’re a bit older, road tripping is definitely our preferred method. Although we do have quite a bit of air travel planned for this year.
Christie Hudson: Well Karen, I know that you probably have a ton of tips to share in this space too. So in addition to your son, you often, I understand, travel with his cousins. This means you often have two six-year-olds and two five-year-olds with you when you’re traveling. Speaking from experience of just having one boy and a little girl, that is a lot of gear and snacks and energy. So how do you guys manage? What makes travel fun?
Karen Akpan: Traveling with all four kids, I would say is definitely hectic. I would say the one thing that we pack the most of is snacks. The kids snack a lot, so running out of snacks is a problem. Overall, we enjoy spending time together, that’s my biggest thing about travel. The kids are homeschooled, so they’re learning so much from every trip we take and every place we go, and everything they see they’re asking questions.
Christie Hudson: I feel like having four boys around, you probably have a bag of snacks in your purse at any given moment. Like just on a random Tuesday, not just when you get on an airplane.
Karen Akpan: Oh, yeah. I always, oh, always have some.
Christie Hudson: You have Cheez-It’s coming out.
Karen Akpan: Everything. I mean, anything you can think of, I have, I have fruit, I mean everything.
Christie Hudson: A mini-fridge, a cooler. Bethany, what about you? What do you try and bring if you’re going on a plane with the kids?
Bethany Braun-Silva: I mean, iPads are given. I know different families vary on what their allowances are for screen time, but I feel like that goes completely out the window for traveling. There are no limits when we’re 20,000 feet up in the air.
Christie Hudson: I 100% agree with that.
Bethany Braun-Silva: You can be on the screen as much as you want. But my kids really do enjoy little coloring books, activity books. They make these Crayola mess-free markers, so it writes clear on every other surface except the paper. They get a really big kick out of that. Karen said it. Snacks are huge. I mean, I pack a lot of snack bags. Obviously you can’t bring drinks on a plane, but you can pack snacks. I pack sandwiches. I mean, I have a whole bag just for food. Even on the little screens that they have in front of your seat, you can play these games. They have word searches they are interactive. You can play seat to seat tic-tac-toe and we’ve played that for hours so they love that. That’s a really great innovation for parents on planes, I feel like.
Christie Hudson: I think what you said about screen time is a good topic because I know a lot of people who are very strict, or at least conscious, of how much screen time their kids get. The way I think about it on a plane is, as an adult, I tend to be on a screen the entire time if I’m traveling by myself so I don’t want to put unrealistic expectations on my kid that they’re going to manage to stay entertained sitting in one spot for five, six, seven hours. Usually, I tell them to turn it off when he’s snacking so that there are at least small intervals of not watching Paw Patrol.
Bethany Braun-Silva: Yeah, and you have to also keep in consideration, I mean, there could be 100, 150 neighbors in close proximity to you. I’m very much of the mindset that kids, little ones, big ones, have just as much right to travel and they’re kids — we’ve all been children at one point, but you also want to be considerate. So if a screen keeps my kid quiet rather than throwing a temper tantrum for an hour and a half, two hours, you’re welcome and I’m happy.
Christie Hudson: By now we’ve probably all seen this on social media, where parents of a young baby hand out little care packages on a flight with earplugs and candy or a drink card, that sort of thing, almost pre-apologizing for the fact that their baby might cry. What are your thoughts on that?
Bethany Braun-Silva: Oh my gosh, don’t we have enough work already as parents traveling? I mean, please, I think it was probably cute the first two times I saw it while I was scrolling down Facebook or Instagram, but to now have that be the expectation is insane. There’s nobody more stressed out by a crying baby than the mother, especially on a plane. So I mean, to add the thought that you might have to pack 10 or 15 care packages for somebody who just might not get it what it is to be traveling with kids, is unreal to me.
Christie Hudson: No one’s more stressed than the parents. So maybe everyone should be buying them the drink tickets? In my experience though, people are pretty kind. You may get an eye roll or an apprehensive look here and there from somebody who realized they’re sitting in a row with a bunch of kids around, but for the most part, I’ve had a lot of sympathy. Have you guys had the same experience with your kids, or have there been any more unpleasant ones?
Bethany Braun-Silva: I mean generally it has been pleasant. I had one experience when I was one and I ended up going to feed him his bottle in the bathroom because there was a woman on the plane that just was not understanding what was happening. I don’t think I would do that now as a more experienced mother of two, but we were also in the air and I was trying to avoid confrontation.
Christie Hudson: On the same topic, Karen, tell me a little bit about why you started Black Kids Do Travel, that community? What kind of specific travel experiences are you sharing with each other there, and was there something that happened during your travels that kind of made you start it?
Karen Akpan: Well, my son was the reason why we started it. He had asked me as we were traveling where were all the brown people and I was like, that’s a good question. I want to know too. I just wanted to create a community of black families traveling just to connect with other families around the world. This community grew into something more than I ever imagined. It’s just a place now where people can just talk about “where can I go? Where is it safe for me to go? Where’s a good place that I can take my kids to?” Those are questions, real-life questions, that people deal with on a daily basis.
Christie Hudson: How do you talk to your kids about things they experience out in the world?
Karen Akpan: I’m very open. That’s one of the things I talk about all the time. I am very, very open and very truthful. I don’t hide anything. If something happens, they know. One of the things I talked to them about as something that happens quite often is just people coming up and taking pictures of them. They do this all the time. They’ll come up and try to take pictures of them and maybe touch their hair, and they know already how to react to that. Sometimes it depends on how comfortable they feel with that person, but most of the time they know to say, “no, we don’t approve of that. We don’t appreciate it.” They’re very vocal about that now, but it’s just something that we deal with all the time.
Christie Hudson: It’s a shame that they have to. I feel like it’s making them so confident, though. Like you said earlier when we were talking, travel can be such an educational experience for kids. So for people who are nervous about whether it’s worth it to kind of brave all of these different logistic challenges and the expense — because it is expensive to bring everybody along, what are your thoughts on how much your kids are getting out of all these experiences that they’re collecting?
Karen Akpan: I feel like it’s changing them. They’re growing. I’m amazed by it.
Christie Hudson: What were some of your kids’ favorite places?
Karen Akpan: Number one I would have to say, would be Morocco. They still talk about Morocco. We went there last year, we visited the Fes and then we spent the night in the desert and camped, the experience was just magical. It was like an eight or nine-hour drive to get to the desert and the kids did amazingly well on the drive. I was blown away because when I initially booked the tour, the guy said, “Hey, the kids are really young, are you sure you want to do this?” I said, “I sure do,” and it was worth every bit of that drive. They got there, they were excited. We camped, we rode camels in the desert. Just the whole experience staring at the stars, playing drums at night, the culture, everything. I think it was definitely one of our top trips to date.
Christie Hudson: Wow. Karen, so a lot of people have certain destinations in their heads as being family-friendly. I think of Hawaii or amusement parks, Disney, that kind of thing. I feel like you have an interesting story on where you brought your son on his first trip.
Karen Akpan: Yes. Every time I tell people they’re like, “What?” because I took him to Vegas. People don’t realize that, but Las Vegas is very kid-friendly. There are kids that live there, so obviously there have to be things for kids to do there. There’s so much to see other than The Strip. People go to Vegas and they go to the same place all the time. If you venture away from The Strip, you’ll find plenty of things to do from children’s museums to hiking trails and just playgrounds and so many other things to see and do. The kids love going there.
Christie Hudson: I love the idea of taking a traditionally adult destination and rebranding it as kid-friendly. What you said about there are kids that live there, so there must be things for kids to do, that is such an interesting observation that I never really connected before. I am with you, though. I told a story in our intro episode about taking our 18-month old to New Orleans. I had never been there and I didn’t want to wait 18 years for my kid to grow up or for it to be appropriate for him to come, so we went. We didn’t stay out till 3:00 a.m. on Bourbon Street, but we still saw the French Quarter and we ate and drank, and we had a great time. So to your point, your itinerary might look different, but you could still go to the same destinations. Is that kind of your philosophy when you think about where you’re going to take your family on trips?
Karen Akpan: Yes, 100%. I try to break those myths and like you said, New Orleans, too. That’s honestly my favorite place. I took my son there for his first mom and son trip. We do one every year and the first one we went to New Orleans and we loved it. I felt like New Orleans is very kid-friendly.
Christie Hudson: Yeah, there’s a beautiful zoo, a great aquarium. The parks are amazing. It’s very walkable. It’s awesome. What are some of the places you’ve gone to with your kids other than Vegas that maybe seemed a little intimidating at first, but you would encourage people to think differently about?
Karen Akpan: I would say a place like Istanbul. We went there and people were just like, “You’re taking your son there? What are they going to do there?” That was one of the places that people were pretty surprised that we visited, and oh my God, that was probably one of the best countries we’ve been to. The food, the people, everybody was just so nice. They love kids, they would hold his hand, they would pick him up. It was great. I don’t have any limits to where we go, I don’t have any limit at all. If I get a good fare to someplace, we’ll go. That’s just my philosophy. We go where it’s cheap and figure out what to do there and then have fun.
Christie Hudson: That’s amazing. I consider myself a little bit adventurous, but we haven’t even tackled an international trip with the kids yet other than Canada, which barely counts. So I really admire that and I’ll have to get more specifics from all the places you’ve been. So one of the places that a lot of people think of as very family-friendly is Hawaii. I’m actually going there soon, so I personally need some of these tips too. Bethany, I know that you went and you took your kids, and I would love to hear a little bit about that trip. How did you prepare? How much did you leave unplanned? Can you tell us about that?
Bethany Braun-Silva: It was definitely our favorite trip to date. The flight is long, especially from New York City, but what we did to accommodate for the time change is that we were lucky enough to give ourselves a burner day. So we got in, checked right into our hotel and slept and just sort of regrouped for the week ahead of us. Without that day, I think we would have gotten off to a rocky start. Hawaii is definitely one of the most family-friendly destinations out there. Every positive thing you’ve heard about the place, it’s true, from my experience. We definitely took advantage of all the family-friendly offerings, but then we left one day completely unplanned. We rented a car and we drove up the North Shore of Hawaii, and it was really a fantastic experience because you can beach hop. You just sort of park on the side of the road, run out, experience a beach, drive up another mile and a half and do the same thing. We spent the whole day with no map, no GPS, just following this small road up north and it was fantastic. By the end of the day, the car was filled with sand, the boys had just their swim trunks on. It was one of the most fantastic, spur of the moment days that we had there. We found really great places to eat that we hadn’t planned for, and I do recommend definitely doing that. It really gives a sense of spontaneity and fun and adventure to your trip, which was great because the rest of the time we were loaded with planned activities.
One of our favorite things to do when we go on a big trip like Hawaii or to a resort, a lot of these places do have kids’ clubs or built-in activities for kids. I know some parents might be hesitant because you’re dropping your kid off with people you’re not familiar with, but generally, they are so safe. They’re there for that reason. So I would definitely recommend taking advantage of those offerings and dropping your kid off at kids’ club for a couple of hours while you and your spouse can relax and get some moments. They’re really great programs. We actually did a Club Med trip and they had trapeze and they learned French.
They got all those crazy things that they wouldn’t get normally, but on vacation, they got these special classes that you would pay $1 million for in NYC.
Christie Hudson: I feel like your date night was probably kind of lame in comparison to what they did all day. You’re like, we ate a meal. Bethany, what are your top tips for preparing for a trip and maybe things that you kind of keep in mind or bring with you to make the trip go smoothly?
Bethany Braun-Silva: For traveling with young kids, they make these amazing strollers now that actually fold up so small that they can go in the overhead bin. So that was not available to me, or I just didn’t know about it when my kids were so small, but I would definitely invest in a small stroller like that. We traveled to Hawaii from New York City, which is a 13-hour flight with a major time difference. I invested in something called the Fly Tot, which is essentially a blowup cushion that you put right in front of your kid’s seat and it sort of turns it into a bed. So that’s great for toddler age and even kids that are a little bit older, because then their feet aren’t dangling, they’re more comfortable.
Christie Hudson: So they’re not lying across you and your spouse while you’re trying to relax.
Bethany Braun-Silva: Exactly. Now that my boys have gotten a little bit older, I’ve had them pack their own little backpacks. Of course, I make sure to check it right before we leave so it’s not just filled with baseballs and footballs, which is what inevitably will happen, but that they get a little bit of ownership in their traveling experience. I think just that sort of general parenting advice, as much ownership as you can give kids, I think that it makes for a better experience for all. They’re invested and they’re excited. Then, of course, a blanket, pack some kind of little blanket since planes get cold. Those are my essentials.
Christie Hudson: Karen, what are your essentials?
Karen Akpan: Definitely when my son was younger, a carrier, that was a lifesaver. For me, it was so much easier just to put him in there and put him on my back and then have two free hands. I put him in the carrier until he was four. Recently, I actually had him on my back because we took a red-eye flight with a connection. He was sleepy and I was still able to wear him on my back at six years old. We pack kids travel pillows that’s different than the Fly Tot, it’s the first-class pillow. The boys are literally almost seven and still sleep on it. We put two of them in the seats and I have them laid across so they sleep like they’re in their own bed. It basically covers up the whole front of the seat, so it’s like a first-class seat because it basically turns into a bed. We’ve been using that and it still works for us, which is really nice. Snacks and backpacks, headphones, you definitely don’t want to forget that.
Christie Hudson: Those are amazing tips. I did not know about these seat-to-bed transformation tools. I kind of wish they had that for adults for all of us in coach back there, that’d be great. Karen, you said you’ve taken your kids to Turkey and Morocco. What do you do about picky eaters in other countries where it’s going to be unfamiliar? I don’t think that they’re serving chicken nuggets at every restaurant, which would be a problem for my toddler, frankly.
Karen Akpan: We don’t really eat out much. I cook a lot of food at home. I cook a variety of foods at home, so the kids are familiar with eating different types of foods. So when we travel, we never even order off the kids menu, to be honest with you. Even when we eat out here, we don’t. We usually order from the adult menu and then we’ll just have the kids share a meal. But my philosophy is you have to try everything. Only one of the kids gets picky sometimes, but then I always suggest that they try something. 50-60% of the time they’ll say, “Hey, you know what? I actually like how this tastes.”
So I think traveling has really, really helped a lot with how they eat. They eat everything. We spent a month in China and I thought maybe my son would get tired of it. He ate authentic Chinese food every day and loved it. Then we came back and he’s been asking me to learn how to cook Chinese food so that we can make it at home all the time. I know that travel has really given an opportunity for the kids to try new foods and like them.
Christie Hudson: What makes a destination a good one for a family road trip? Anyone can jump in.
Bethany Braun-Silva: So I think it’s probably one of two things. Either you’re going to have a place that was on your road trip bucket list or a place where you might not have ever thought of before. I have a trip planned with my sons for two years from now. I know that’s quite a ways away, but we are going to follow around our favorite baseball team on one of their summer road trips. We won’t be on their fancy bus or jet, but we’re going to drive around and follow the New York Mets. They travel to Kansas City, Chicago, D.C. We’re planning a week to do that and they are super excited about it even though it’s quite a way away.
Christie Hudson: That’s very brave and very cool. Karen, what about you? Do you drive around? Do you take road trips with your kids?
Karen Akpan: Yes, we take a lot of road trips. As much as we love traveling internationally and flying, we love road trips. We recently did a 10-day RV trip from Los Angeles to Vegas to Utah, back down to Arizona, and then back to L.A. What we did was we’d wake up and then drive and stop at the National Parks and do some hiking and then whenever we got tired, we’d find an RV park around and stay the night. One of the things I love about RV travel is I don’t have to figure out booking a hotel or what we are going to have to dinner because we have our bed and kitchen and everything else right in one.
Christie Hudson: I feel like my son would absolutely love an RV trip. He would think it was like the coolest thing ever that we were in essentially a house on wheels.
Karen Akpan: The kids did. They were blown away. It was the first time we’ve done this and they loved it.
Christie Hudson: That’s really cool. What do you guys do for entertainment on road trips? Do your kids listen to audiobooks? I remember when I was a kid we took a lot of road trips and we did like the license plate game, or you would do “I spy” out the windows, or you would just like get in a fight with your sibling for a while and annoy everyone. What do you do to keep the kids busy?
Bethany Braun-Silva: They have this really cool game now called road trip bingo, where essentially it’s just like regular bingo, you have to make a five across a line, but it’s cows or a red car or a farm or a barn, something like that. So my kids really get a kick out of that. We took a road trip from New York to Pittsburgh, which certainly isn’t crazy long, but it’s about eight hours, and we did it straight through with just little stops along the way for gas and whatnot. There are lots of really cool things for them to see and look out the window. My kids are city kids so for them, just sort of glancing out the window is entertainment. I love road trip bingo and then they have also just a little travel games that are fun to play too, like checkers and chess. We kind of keep it old school when we travel via car, which I think is really fun.
Christie Hudson: Yeah, that sounds very nostalgic for me. What about you, Karen?
Karen Akpan: My kids are homeschooled so being on the road is the perfect time to do schoolwork. I’ll have the kids draw pictures of something they can see. What we did when we visited the National Parks, I would have them draw a picture of their favorite rock or monument or whatever they saw that they really liked there.
Christie Hudson: What about family singalongs? Is anybody starting any of those?
Bethany Braun-Silva: You know, I did that with my parents. My kids are not so into that.
Christie Hudson: You’ve tried and it’s just a solo?
Bethany Braun-Silva: We play 20 questions and it gets really silly. So we’ve had a lot of fun doing that it’s definitely not your typical 20 questions. One time, I think we all were just picking different kinds of sandwiches. Maybe we were hungry or something, but that was a lot of fun. It’s like a time to be silly, because also everyone’s sort of contained and strapped in so they can’t get too hyper, but we can get fun.
Christie Hudson: That’s so cool. I need to try that. Any final thoughts you would leave listeners with in terms of air travel or trips?
Bethany Braun-Silva: I would just say take the trip. I read something the other day about parents asking if they should take their kids out of school to take this trip. I would say go for it when they’re young. You might not be able to do that when they’re in high school and studying for SATs and college admissions, but those moments are fleeting. Pretty soon they’re not going to want to go on trips with you and hang out. So I say really embrace it, these are moments that are priceless with your family.
Christie Hudson: Totally agree. Karen, anything from you?
Karen Akpan: Don’t listen to what people have to say about a place. For me, that’s my biggest thing. If you want to go somewhere, go and experience it for yourself, because no two people will have the same experience anywhere. As long as you’re spending time with your family and your kids, those memories are memories that will definitely last a lifetime.
Christie Hudson: I think that’s so important to keep in mind. We’ve talked a lot about how kids can make travel more complicated and sometimes less pleasant, but I think it’s worth mentioning that for myself and for most parents who’ve done it, it not only makes your trip more complicated, it also makes your trips so much greater. With all things in parenting and adding kids to the mix makes the highs higher and the lows lower, and I think it does that for your trip too. Yeah, there’s going to be some rough patches, but you also get to see all these experiences through your kid’s eyes, and as cheesy as it sounds, that’s like having it on the stereo, it amplifies everything. I love it. Thank you guys so much for joining.
At the beginning of this episode, I shared my story of two very different flights. One that made me want to travel more with my kids and one that made me want to cancel our upcoming trip. What’s amazing to me is that my strongest memory from those flights isn’t negative, it’s the one where my husband and I got a case of the giggles, deliriously, with tears rolling down our faces, trying not to wake our sleeping kids or spill our plastic cups filled with V8 and vodka. The adrenaline of waking up at 3:30 in the morning, I think, and packing everything into the car, getting the car seats and strollers and bodies through security and onto the airplane, it was worth it. We were left feeling tired, but also victorious, and excited to be taking an adventure together. So thank you guys for being part of our village to talk about family travel. We’re going to do it again soon, looking at the summer road trip. I’m Christie Hudson, filling in for Nisreene Atassi, on Out Travel The System, brought to you by Expedia. Happy travels!