How to Survive Traveling with Children Without Going Crazy

Whether you’re traveling with your own family of four, or gathering friends for a week-long getaway, group travel can mean discounts and great company—but also presents a special set of challenges.

How to wrangle multiple family members or friends for an on time departure and pleasant trip? Especially for mixed groups including children, it helps to be prepared.

To ease your journey, we asked experienced group coordinators and frequent travelers for their best tips on how to get everyone there with your sanity intact.

As a bonus for those staying in a vacation rental, we also included a chef’s tips on stocking your kitchen to make sure no one goes hungry.

1. Assign Responsibilities According to Everyone’s Strengths

Everyone in your group has something to offer, and assigning responsibilities is a great way to reduce your stress while keeping all party members alert and in line.

Consider your group members’ strengths and use them to your advantage: Is someone really good at keeping track of details? Put them in charge of flight times and gate numbers. Heading on the road? Engage a teen by putting him or her in charge of directions.

If you’re traveling internationally, take advantage of a group member’s foreign language skills by putting them in charge of communication.

Pick out the responsible one to keep the group together, the artistic one to take the photos, and the comical one to keep the group entertained along the way.

Don’t forget to include little ones, who can help with the simplest tasks. This can include watching for walk signals, keeping an eye on mom’s purse, or even counting steps down the block to keep them entertained.

If everyone in the group is made to feel like they’re an essential member, your group has a better chance of becoming a cohesive, well-functioning unit.

2. Traveling With Kids? Break Up Boredom With Scheduled Surprises

This excellent tip comes courtesy of Disney Cruise Guru Alisha Molen: “I did a cross country flight with my three young children (Seattle > LA > Orlando), and created ‘gifts’ or ‘surprises’ for each to open at different points along the way.”

“Doesn't have to be fancy stuff,” says Alisha. “Kids just love the anticipation of the surprises.”

Since Alisha’s trip was to Disney World, most of the gifts were Disney-themed. “A coloring book, a word search, a surprise Disney movie on the iPad, and some healthy snack combined with a treat were a few examples.

The trick is not to give out all the surprises at once. “I spread them out by 30 minutes or so along the way by gift wrapping them, or including instructions in envelopes, then writing the time that each could be opened on the front.”

Not only did distributing the surprise gifts keep her children from growing bored with what was on hand, having a surplus gave Alisha easy ammunition to keep her three kids in line.

“If they started misbehaving, encouraging good behavior was as simple as saying ‘If you can stay seated for another 10 minutes, you’ll get your next surprise.’”

Alisha says that, even though her kids are much older now, they still talk about those gifts and surprises. “It made the tedious task of traveling feel like Christmas.”

3. Make Spotting Each Other in a Crowd Easier With Visual Elements

If you’ve ever taken a group tour, you’ve probably been made to wear matching shirts emblazoned with the company’s logo. It turns out their sole intention isn’t to embarrass you or get free advertising, but to make group members easier to spot in a crowd.

Jennifer B., maker of adorable cat beds and balls, suggests that a hat can achieve the same effect without forcing your friends or family to commit the sartorial crime of printed t-shirts.

“When traveling with a large group, give each member a matching costume element to wear,” she suggests. Jennifer says that hats are usually the best choice.

“Get a matching hat for each member to wear: These will make it easy for members to recognize each other from a distance, and can also be helpful if anyone in your group needs to be identified by airline customer service, bus drivers, hotel staff, etc.”

If your group includes children, the hat trick is doubly useful. “You can use a permanent marking pen to write a phone number inside the hats that kids are wearing,” suggest Jennifer. “Show the kids that the number is in there, so if they get lost, they can show the number to an adult.”

Another easily-spotted option is scarves. Or, just ask group members to all wear a similar color to help them stand out.

4. Put Everyone in Charge of at Least One Bag

“Let children help pack their own bags so they can pick a couple of things that they really want and will keep them entertained,” suggests Grainne Kelly, a former travel agent and inventor of BubbleBum, the world’s first inflatable booster seat.

It might be a book, electronic device or even one of the many travel games that are currently available—the idea being that kids are less likely to lose track of their bag if it contains some of their favorite items.

“When you get to the airport, let children be responsible for their own bag or small backpack with their chosen goodies,” says Grainne. “Of course, the smaller the child, the smaller the pack, but everyone carries their own.”

How does this help? If children are carrying their own stuff, they get to feel grown-up and are more likely to behave as such. Plus, it’s less for you to carry and more hands-free to direct them safely onto trains, escalators, etc.

5. Multiple Children in Tow? Approach Airport Security With a Plan

How you approach a security checkpoint depends on how many adults are in your group.

“If you have more than one adult to manage them, then it’s no problem at all. You just send the children through one at a time to the other adult who has gone through first,” says Grainne.

What if you’re the only adult traveling with more than one child?

According to Grainne, the best method is to “send the children through first so they don't follow too closely behind you and you are forced to do the whole walk-through dance over again. Older children should be able to put their own carry-on through the x-ray. Remind them that they are in charge of their own bag.”

See Also: How to Get Through the Airport Faster & With Minimal Hassle

Above all, remember to explain how the security check works before you get there, and remind them again while you are standing in the line. Knowing what to expect will make it go much smoother.

6. Avoid Any Cases of “Hangry”

Urban Dictionary defines the word “hanger” as “a lethal combination of hunger and anger”—while children are particularly susceptible, even the mildest mannered adults can succumb to feelings of “hanger” if forced to go on too long without food.

While TSA does prevent you from bringing on liquids, most travelers don’t know that it’s totally okay to pack sandwiches, trail mix, chips—any food that isn’t liquid. Of course, making snacks can be difficult in the rush to get out the door. At the very least, stop by a restaurant in the terminal and purchase to-go items.

One thing you should not do is depend on in-flight service to quell building hunger. That’s because tarmac delays, turbulence, or other in-flight emergencies might delay the distribution of snacks. (It happens more often than you’d think!)

Bottom line: Be prepared by bringing food. Your entire group will thank you.

7. Navigate Ground Transfers by Planning Ahead

Finding a taxi that can fit more than four might prove difficult, especially if you need room for car seats or extra luggage.

To transport your large group from the airport to a hotel or grandma’s house, there are a couple of options:

Hire private transport. Chauffeured vehicles aren’t just for executives, and most companies offer a fleet that extends beyond the classic town car to include family-friendly SUVs, like Escalades.

Depending on the size of your group, you might find this option to be relatively on par in price to haggling with local taxi drivers. Plus, you get all the perks of a white-glove service.

If private transport is too spendy, consider taking a shuttle. If your hotel doesn’t offer one (or, or you’re staying at a private residence), there are private shuttle companies that service most airports. (Many shuttle drivers will assist you with your luggage. Don’t forget to have several $1 bills on hand to tip.)

8. Strategically Stock Your Kitchen

In Vacation Rental vs. Hotel: How to Decide What’s Better for Your Next Trip?, we share one of our favorite perks of booking a vacation rental: An in-suite kitchen.

Eating home-away-from-home-cooked meals is seriously cheaper than dining out three times a day. However, buying groceries for a large group takes some serious strategizing.

Adam Pechal, Chef and Culinary Director of the Murieta Inn & Spa, says the key is dividing up labor: “Appoint one person for each important duty: cooking, cleaning counters, washing dishes, making supply runs. If you have multiple cooks, they can trade off the chef role each night.”

Another key, says Pechal, is a well-stocked kitchen. Here’s his weeklong shopping list to feed a party of five or six people for one week:

Produce List (Lasts Two to Three Days)

Potatoes go with everything, so throw a five-pound bag into your cart. For aromatics, pick up two large onions and a head of garlic.

Add four big heads of romaine, four cucumbers, and a pound of carrots (which you’ll shred) for appetizer salads. Then grab three pounds of tomatoes (for sauces and omelets) and three pounds of whatever vegetables look the freshest.

For quick breakfasts and snacks, pick up a couple bunches of bananas, a dozen apples, and a couple pounds of berries.

Meat & Fish (Lasts Three Days)

Pick out some fresh fish for the first day, and 25 pounds of meat—split between chicken, beef, pork, lamb, sausage, and bacon—for the next few meals. It sounds like a lot, but a lunch portion is four to five ounces, and dinner is six to eight. Also, grab a few packages of sliced deli meat for quick lunches and snacks.

Dairy & Eggs (Lasts Three Days)

Start with five-dozen eggs (that’s two per person per day). Then grab milk (three gallons), butter (one pound), and assorted cheeses (three pounds). If anyone’s lactose intolerant, make sure you know ahead of time.

Dry Goods (Lasts All Week)

These are your pantry staples: pasta, beans, grains, canned goods, olive oil, vinegar, cereal, crackers, condiments, and spices. In most cases, you only need one package (think one bottle of mustard, one bag of sugar, etc.).

But this is where some degree of planning matters most: Are you going to have pasta every night, or rice-based dishes? Load up on whatever food you’ll be happy eating once everything else runs out.

Also important, suggests Adam, don’t forget to take stock of what’s already in your kitchen before the big trip to the supermarket. You don’t want to double-buy.

9. Finally, Agree on How to Split Costs Ahead of Time

If your “group” consists only of immediate family members, splitting a check isn’t an issue. However, how to handle money when multiple adults are traveling together?

There are basically two strategies for dealing with group expenses: On the front-end, or on the back-end.

Most of us are used to settling tabs on the back-end. But, like divvying up a check after the meal, there’s usually some problems with coming up short.

My suggestion is to get the money out of the way ahead of time by deciding on a budget and pooling resources in the planning stage. This method is most useful if you’re all going to be sticking together for the majority of the trip in, say, a cabin getaway or group excursion.

If that’s the case, figure out an approximate amount that you’ll need, then collect it before your trip starts. This strategy prevents a lot of problems, such as breaking off into smaller groups, awkward money conversations, and stifles runaway spending.

As a bonus, if you do come in under budget, just divvy up the remainder and pay it back at the end of the trip.

Picking the Right Group Makes a Difference

When it comes to a group travel, not everyone will have the same interests and likes for each activity—but you should have a solid grasp of each person’s expectations.

Consider if everyone is happy to go at the same pace, whether that’s trying to see and experience as much as possible, or enjoy a more relaxed schedule.

Is anyone a determined early riser who will be upset if the group isn’t out the door by a certain time? Are there any dietary differences that could make finding food that works for everyone more difficult?

While personal choices are bound to vary, be sure to have a detailed discussion with the people involved to sort out any differences beforehand—and avoid any hassles later on.

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Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.