Our best family travel tips for 2021 will help you to navigate an especially complicated travel world. Along with the normal stresses of traveling with kids (hello meltdowns!), you have ever-changing restrictions, border closures, and different rules in different states. Below are our best family travel tips for traveling with kids in 2021 and every year after. These travel tips will help you stay safe, healthy, and having fun while traveling as a family.
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1. Plan Ahead
When traveling with kids, one of our best family travel tips is simply to plan ahead. Remember showing up somewhere and then finding a place to stay? That doesn’t work very well with kids. It’s best to have a game plan ahead of time and know exactly where you are going and how you are going to get there.
In 2021 this is especially important. Changing regulations means reduced capacity and lots of closures. Hotels may be open but their restaurants and pools may be closed. Restaurants may have reduced capacity and close earlier than they normally would. Attractions are requiring timed tickets that sell out. Check the details and make sure you have a plan, preferably one that can be changed or cancelled without penalty.
This summer of 2021 will be particularly crowded in the US. Many families are planning road trips to avoid international travel which translates to booked hotels and busy National Parks. There is an unprecedented shortage of rental cars- families are even resorting to renting U-Hauls because they can’t find a car rental.
We will be joining the crowds on the roads this summer. Check out our Epic Cross-Country Road Trip Itinerary: 8 Weeks Coast to Coast.
The International locations that are currently open will also be busy. In general, limited options mean lots of crowds. This is not the summer for spontaneity. Plan ahead and prebook everything you can.
Recheck restrictions right before you leave as they are changing often. If traveling internationally, make sure to recheck border restrictions and testing requirements to avoid quarantine at your destination. Rules have been especially vague about unvaccinated children crossing borders.
Make sure that you have travel insurance! We prefer Safety Wing, you can read our thoughts on travel insurance on our Travel Resources page.
2. Bring Safety Essentials
Make sure to stock up on masks for everyone, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes for wiping down tray tables, seats, and anything else the kids may be in contact with. While science has moved away from the most worrisome germs being transmitted by touching objects, a little extra cleaning never hurts. We plan to wash masks in the hotel sink- dry laundry sheets are ideal for this, we use these.
3. Don’t Overpack
This can be a tough one. Try hard not to overpack. Most places you go, you’ll be able to pick up whatever you are missing. With young kids, it’s best to send items ahead or rent on-site when possible. When visiting family in California, we have ordered diapers and wipes to be shipped to our destination. That means we only had to carry enough supplies to get us there.
4. Prepare for Jet Lag
Jet lag can be rough on kids and adults alike. Plan at least a day after arriving in a new time zone to adapt, with no pressure to go anywhere or see anything in particular. Walking around outside can help kids stay awake a bit longer, but be prepared for them to crash. It’s also a good idea to have food on hand in case little ones wake up hungry in the middle of the night while their bodies are adjusting.
5. Get Kids Excited for the Destination
Traveling with kids goes more smoothly when everyone’s excited and has an idea of what to expect. Read stories about your destination, watch a movie set in that destination, or ask kids what questions they have and google the answers together! Learn a few phrases in a new language and practice them together.
6. Set Daily Expectations
Kids often thrive on schedules and knowing what comes next. Explain the plan for the day, and give them choices when it makes sense. The older the kids are, the more they can be involved in planning the itinerary. With younger kids knowing what to expect can help get them excited for the day which makes it a lot easier to get everyone out the door in the morning.
7. Stay Safe
To keep us all safe, we all wear ID bracelets. We love our RoadId bracelets- they come in fun colors and the silicon bands come in three sizes. The kids’ bracelets include their name, blood type, any allergies, and a cell phone number for mom and dad. If we ever get separated, I don’t have to worry about whether the kids will remember our phone numbers. If any of us need medical attention, the important information is there, as well as easy contact numbers.
Make sure to make a plan in case you get separated at each busy location. Discuss a central landmark to meet up, and what to do if you get separated on public transportation (like a subway). We always tell our kids to stay put, that we’ll circle back to find them. Make sure they know the separation plan, and how to find a safe adult to ask for help if needed.
8. Pack your Day Bag
Having a few essential items in your day pack or carry-on will go a long way towards keeping everyone safe and comfy. Plan to pack an extra set of clothes and extra underwear for younger kids. Create a mini first aid kit- don’t forget Neosporin, bandaids, tissues, and chewable fever tablets. Carry a wrap or travel towel that can be used as a blanket in chilly planes or busses.
Check out our full post on The Complete Family Packing List for Day Packs.
9. Carry Snacks
Snacks are super important when traveling. Tummies are off from new food, schedules are different, and everyone gets grumpy when they are hungry! Snacks quickly revive kids energy level and can turn around the mood on the trip.
Heading out on a road trip? Read 40+ Easy Road Trip Snacks for Kids & Toddlers.
10. Breakfast is Key
Starting the day with a solid breakfast helps everyone head out with the right attitude. If lunch is late, or the kids are picky about what they are eating, we don’t worry if we know they had a good breakfast. We like instant oatmeal when possible (just add hot water), or yogurt with berries and granola. When we first arrive somewhere, we make it a priority to stock up on snacks and breakfast foods. Our kids are early risers, so having food ready for them quickly in the morning makes our day go smoother.
11. Plan to Be Flexible
Don’t try to stuff too many activities into your plan. Expect to have a quiet day after arriving in a new time zone to manage jet lag, and a backup day if something goes wrong. The more flexibility you have built into your plan, the more you can rearrange things with grace when things don’t go your way.
We were very excited to go to the National Zoo in Washington D.C.- it was our first stop once in town. We got there, found many of the animals were not in their enclosures, and then S came down with an earache and we had to leave. Our plans for the day were canceled, but after a nap and some cartoons in the hotel room, she was soon feeling much better and we had a great trip overall.
12. Tackle Top Priorities First
Plan to head our to your “must-do” activity first thing in the day. Plan for a a second activity that may or may not happen depending on energy levels. Make sure you have an extra day with nothing important planned, so if something gets pushed back you have a second chance to attempt it.
13. Choose Places Everyone Can Enjoy
Choose attractions that everyone in your group can enjoy. Usually, anything involving nature or animals works well for all ages. If you are visiting someplace a bit more intriguing for the adults than the kids, follow it up with a playground or plaza with a fountain to balance the focus of the day so everyone gets to do something they are excited about.
14. Vary Your Activities
One of the easiest ways to keep kids engaged and entertained is to vary your type of activity. So for example, take a hike one day, then walk around a town or visit a museum the next. The kids will stay more engaged than if you try to do a similar activity for two days in a row.
15. Schedule Quiet Time
Naptime in our house evolved into quiet time. Quiet time is one hour every day where everyone does their own activities quietly. No screentime is allowed. The kids can read books, play quietly with toys, nap, or write in a journal, but it has to be alone. I’m a bit of an introvert- I need time where no one is asking me for anything or needs an argument settled or a timer set for sharing anything. We all need time to recharge, and then we come back together with patience restored and play much better together. Figure out what works best for your family, set your own rules, and give each other a bit of quiet space.
16. Schedule Exercise
Kids need time to run around and be physical. That may be on a playground, or around a plaza, on a beach, or even at the hotel pool. They need to let their brains rest and their bodies stretch. Plan for this and everyone will sleep better and be in a better mood.
17. Travel Slow
Give yourselves time to process and explore beyond the highlights of a place. There was a weekend in New York City when all my kids wanted was to follow the dogs they saw being walked on the sidewalks. When E was 2 she stopped in front of a violin player on the sidewalk in Cambridge, MA. She stared and listened for 20 minutes. I would never have expected her to be so captivated. Make time to follow whatever catches their attention. If you aren’t rushing, and have scheduled in some flexibility, you’ll have an easier time following the kids’ lead.
18. Accept that Things Will Go Wrong
If you accept that things will go wrong, you’ll have a much easier time rolling with it when they do. Things will get left behind, kids will get sick, planes will be delayed. It’s all part of the magical adventure that is travel.
Once, when visiting New York City for Thanksgiving, we made a plan to have Chinese food for dinner. We arranged for friends to meet up with us, and headed out, only to find the restaurant shuttered. We ended up having a fantastic meal at the Mexican restaurant down the block, and now consider tacos and margaritas a perfect Thanksgiving meal for our family!
19. Give Each Other Breaks
If traveling with kids and two or more adults, each adult may need alone time. For me, this may be visiting something that doesn’t interest the kids or taking a quiet walk around town with my camera. My husband is a morning person, so he may go for a run in the morning, or simply go out alone to get coffee to bring back to where we are staying. Especially on longer trips, give each person space to explore a bit on their own.
20. Practice Gratitute
We try to end each day with a round of Best & Worst. Each person takes a turn to tell the family what the “best” part of their day was, what the “worst” part of their day was, and anything else that they are “thinking about” or is “on their mind”. We usually do this over dinner. You don’t have to have a “worst”, but each day you must have a “best”. We are sometimes surprised by what comes up!
It’s a great way to reflect on your day and practice gratitude. No matter how rotten the day was, we always come up with something that was “best”, even if it’s just being together in that moment. Sometimes we help remind each other of the best parts of the day.
It also gives the kids a chance to share anything that they are worried about, or have questions about- especially during the “on your mind” portion. It’s also great for them to listen to how we feel about our day- to see that adults also have good and bad days, things we worry about, and things we are grateful for.
21. Just Go
Enjoy it! Your kids will never be this age again, make some memories, and laugh together over the frustrations. There are a million excuses not to go- to wait until the kids are older, or until finances are better. Just go. You can do this, plan ahead and go have fun!
There You Have it!
Our 21 best family travel tips to celebrate getting back out there in 2021. From planning ahead to embracing slow travel when you can, we hope these tips help you to have a great family vacation, and make great travel memories with your family. We are excited to get back to traveling with our kids, and we hope you are too!