Buckle-up, my Sparkle family! It’s time for summer travels! School is over and summer travel plans are well underway, so we have been thinking about all the best ways to help you make it easy. My kids are now 17 and 20 and take their own trips, but I have fond memories of our travels when they were little. I want to lay out all of my time and kid-tested favorite recommendations for easier travel with littles.
Tips for preparing for travel with kids
When it comes to planning travel with kids, we often think of the adventure starting the day we leave home. The truth is that a little prep-work and pre-planning can be the key to a smooth, low-stress trip. We can give kids a chance to adjust expectations around their regular routines and mentally prepare for their upcoming trip. This not only makes our lives as parents easier, but also gives our little ones a chance to reorient and feel confident in what’s going on around them.
Here are some of our favorite suggestions for how to get the family ready to go:
Talk with kids about what they’d like to do during the trip or at the destination.
- For younger kids: “What do you want to do most when we get there?
- For older kids: “If you could plan this trip entirely, what would we do?” Consider adding in some of their suggestions! Giving kids a sense of ownership in the trip increases enthusiasm and participation on many levels.
Invite kids to help with the prep.
- Make a list of things for them to pack or chores to do before travel. This can be written or, for pre-readers, created with images. We made ours with checkboxes so that our kids could check them off when complete. Then set them loose to do the work!
- Pack bags together, giving them options for things to bring. Eg: “Would you rather bring the orange bathing suit or the red one?” “Of these three, which dress would you like to wear to Gramma’s birthday party?”
Build your on-the-road activities together.
- Whether it’s a bag of fun projects or simply a favorite stuffy, invite your kids into planning what they’d like to do.
- Add some new projects or activities to the bag, and let them know there are fun surprises to anticipate. We always liked to find a new card game, a fresh coloring book, or some small hand-held board game to add to the trip.
- Make a playlist of your favorite travel or sing-along songs as well as a Storybox playlist of your favorite Sparkle stories.
Our favorite things to bring in our travel fun bag.
One of the first questions that comes to mind when we start making travel plans is “What goes in the suitcase?” It’s important to have everything that you need for your trip or vacation, and it’s equally important to have everything you need for an easy travel day (or days) readily at hand. So what should that list include?
Favorites for younger kids:
- Play silks
- Finger puppets
- Dolls or stuffed animals
- Picture books (find some of our favorites here)
- Sewing cards
- A magnetic white board with letters, numbers, or picture magnets
- A travel lap desk, colored pencils, and coloring books
Favorites for older kids:
- Chapter books
- Notebook or clipboard with paper and colored pencils
- Art box for older kids filled with things like: modeling beeswax, origami paper, rubber bands, string, pieces of string for knot-making, yarn for finger-knitting, washable window crayons, a bit of foil, stickers, pipe cleaners, markers, etc.
- A travel lap desk and paper dolls
- Knitting or crocheting projects
We also liked to play games:
- Play one of our Three Best Sparkle Car Games
- Play the alphabet game: look for letters in order from A to Z on signs and buildings as you pass. (For added challenge, make license plates off limits.)
- Create stories together with Story Seashells or Story Cards
- Enjoy the old-school classic: Mad Libs!
Don’t forget the snacks!
Here are our best for car travel and for air travel). We’ve covered the physical items, but there’s another more intangible item we must include. In all of the hustle and bustle, don’t forget to make opportunities to help kids bring their natural sense of wonder and awe along on the journey! In the Martin & Sylvia story “Airplane,” brother and sister join Momma and Daddy for a trip to Florida to visit Granny. Martin can't wait, but Sylvia hesitates. Long hours of sitting still don’t sound like fun for her. But when it is time, she is surprised at what sort of magic is possible in a ticket line, an airport terminal, and indeed, on a plane ride. Cultivating that sense of wonder can help support a smoother travel routine while also providing an opportunity for connection, excitement, and learning for kids.
Tips for air travel with kids
Air travel introduces unique challenges because we have less control over our itineraries. There is always plenty of waiting — in lines, lobbies, and of course on the actual flight. On top of that, we don’t have the option of making frequent stops to stretch our legs and take breaks.
My best suggestions:
Your oxygen mask goes on first.
What I learned, first and foremost, is that the more relaxed I am, the more relaxed the family is. So parents, do “put on your oxygen mask first.” If it’s food you need, pack it or buy it. If you’re traveling with two or more adults, tag-team and take breaks and take walks in the airport, or put on a sleep mask and snooze on the plane. Also, accept the love and help of other passengers! The grandfather in the seat next to you is often genuinely thrilled to engage with your three-year-old, so don’t hesitate to let them chat.
Plan for engagement.
Have your list of games and activities that you can spool out over the trip. Keep a list, so when you get tired, you remember your options. Save a favorite toy or project for the last hour. Make small snack bags so there are surprises over the course of the flight. Create a surprise playlist of brand new audio stories. And if your child is a devoted listener, plan enough for the entire ride.
Remember: you can’t control everything.
As we know, flights get delayed. Passengers get cranky. Children cry. Give everyone space to have their experience, and let go of trying to keep everyone happy. As a recovering uber-people-pleaser, this has offered me the most grace.
Tips for car travel with kids
“Buckle up!” “Keep your hands to yourself.” “Stay on your side of the vehicle.” “We will get there soon!” These phrases are all-too-commonly issued from the front seat to the back seat. This is as true for big trips as it is for getting to school, to practice, to the store, to our friends houses. Each type of trip involves strapping into a car and then … driving there. Many of us don’t enjoy the “getting there” but it simply can’t be avoided. So … what to do?
All of the same rules for air travel apply here, but also:
Plan for the needs of your people.
Make realistic travel plans. The adults want to GET there, but long hours on the road can be hard on littles who need to move. Try to take everyone into account when planning driving days. So what if it takes you nine hours to do the six-hour drive? You might get to add in a stretch stop at a cool overlook or get refreshments at a delicious local bakery.
Ask for what you need as a parent and caregiver.
If you need to take a breather and stretch your legs, do it. If you want to drive, or don’t want to drive, say it. If you need to eat, or need water, or need to have a cry, ask for the space to do it. I’m a big believer in NOT pushing through.
Occasionally shake up the energy.
When things start to feel stuck, open all the windows of the car at once for some fresh air. Encourage everyone to yell or sing loudly out the window. Stop the car in a safe spot and have everyone run around it three times, or, if space is tight, jump up and down nine times.
Stick to some of your home routines.
Little children find comfort and security in familiar routines — and a lot of adults do too! If you have a regular bedtime routine, keep as many elements as you can, even in the hotel room. Same for morning. If you wake everyone up to a favorite song, sing it as always. If you like to say grace at mealtimes, but you’re eating in the car, be sure to do it anyway!
Create road-trip playlists.
One for when you need motivation. One for when you want to sing. One for when it’s shut-eye time for the passengers. One blast-from-the-past for the parents.
Call for regular quiet time.
Tell your car-full: “For the next 15 minutes, we’re all going to be quiet. You’re welcome to close your eyes, or look out the window, or read a book. But there’s no talking.” And then model this quiet time by doing it yourself!
And — the best of all — listen to audio stories!
All of our stories work brilliantly for car rides. Whether individual stories or full series, they will all entertain children and give parents a break. If you take a moment to curate your “Story Box,” you can build the perfect playlist for your trip.
We've rounded up our best, most compelling stories — some about travel adventures, but not all — for your listening enjoyment. There is a list for each age group to get you inspired, but don't feel limited to only these. I will often follow a theme for our trip playlist — maybe it's about family if we are going to see family, or about camping we are heading out for a few days in the woods. I remember driving to the ocean and curating a list of ocean/water/pirate-themed stories. The possibilities are endless.