Congratulations to our friends and family members on making it to Spring Break! Whether you're an educator, a parent, a child, or just a single traveler about to head out for your April vacation - making it through the winter is something to celebrate! We hope and trust that you'll have a lovely, relaxing trip.
The Aventura family will benefit enormously from America's Spring Break this year. In just four days, Soccer Dude's best friend "Mini-Müller" is flying with his lovely mother all the way from California to Spain to spend one full week of school vacation with us!
Since we were all kids once, anyone can probably imagine the excitement building in our home right now. Soccer Dude, our wonderful and silly nine year old fútbol player, has already begun to smile from ear to ear. He has been counting down the days since Christmas! Right now he has a skip in his step, a twinkle in his eye and he can barely sleep at night... so busy adding up the hours and minutes until his best buddy arrives.
After nearly nine months - and six thousand miles - apart, this will be a reunion for the ages! We're really looking forward to showing Mini-Müller and his amazing mama the very best sides of Barcelona and Spain, and have all kinds of fun activities planned. What a joy it will be to share photos and stories soon from their visit!
Before they can get to us though, our friends must embark upon a LOOOONNNNGGGG journey!
With this in mind, and because we will be blessed to have several additional families visiting us from home in Spain this summer, I've decided to put together a post sharing our favorite strategies for keeping children happily occupied during long flights, train rides, taxi rides, bus travel and even when eating in restaurants.
Whether you're flying 11 hours from Los Angeles International Airport to London or just popping up or down the coast for a day at your local beach, these simple tips may help make your trip with children a better experience. Some of the suggestions may be new for you, and others will probably seem like basic common sense.
I'll also include an extra tip about travel identification that gives me huge peace of mind when traveling with my own kiddos.... and important advice for traveling abroad with children when both parents won't be flying together.
This information has been invaluable for our family as we've traveled around the world since our children were tiny!
The Fun Bag
One of the things my children love the most about traveling, believe it or not, is 'the fun bag'. Before we embark on a big journey, I typically pop off to the local 99c store, Michael's craft store or Bed, Bath & Beyond... a European equivalent would perhaps be Tiger. At this type of store I purchase an inexpensive fabric bag (the best kind have drawstrings) that can be easily stowed in the front pocket of a carry on suitcase, or thrown quickly into a backpack. Another suggestion would be to get a drawstring sports bag, the kind you might use to carry your child's soccer uniform and water bottle in to their team practices or games.
Once I have the bag, which I prefer to buy cheaply, I can begin filling it.
I create one fun bag for each child and individualize each bag to his or her interests. Since I have three children, I typically create three fairly different fun bags (because my kids are of different ages and have very different interests). I keep the items small, inexpensive, replaceable and disposable so that there will be few to no tears shed if my child happens to misplace his/her fun bag on our trip.
Here are some of the many items I have included at one time or another in the past in fun bags:
The beauty of a 'fun bag' is that you can always replenish it along the way, and leave behind items that are broken, missing pieces or no longer useful. I also appreciate how easy it is to affordably customize a fun bag, so that each child can enjoy a unique experience suited to their own personality. Your child will always have something to do, and maybe you can actually enjoy the ride too!
Another key element is surprise. While I do allow my kids to offer suggestions for their favorite kinds of items that might 'show up' in a fun bag, I try to keep the contents of the bags a surprise until we are seated on the airplane, train, or other area where it would benefit everyone (including those around us) if my children are well behaved. The surprise factor really helps to keep the children engaged and entertained for long flights or train rides, and it also prevents them from playing with (and tiring of) the contents of their fun bag before the actual trip.
Bring Your Own Food
I actually don't mind airplane or train food at all, especially since you can order your meal in advance. There are always gluten free options available by pre-order on my favorite airlines, and while they may sometimes be very simple meals (chicken and rice, fish and rice) I find them to be perfectly acceptable.
However! Depending on any airline, train company or even restaurant to supply your kids with the foods that will keep them relaxed and happy can be a very risky business! It's a slippery slope because if your child doesn't like the food the travel company has provided, he or she won't eat.
If he or she doesn't eat (as all parents know) your child will become grumpy, uncomfortable, loud, possibly whiny or hyper, and in all likelihood irritating to everyone around him or her. Children who go too long without eating (or who eat only the dessert portion of the meal) become a little... crazy. (Or maybe A LOT crazy!)
There's an easy fix to this potential disaster though. Simply plan on buying food in the airport or train station; or, if you are allowed to do so, bring it from home! (Most airport security will not let you bring your own food through, but most train security will!)
I try to make sure my children always have access to a protein-based snack and some fruit, no matter where we are or how long we are going to be there. A handful of honey-roasted peanuts and an apple make a world of difference to a child that is about to LOSE IT big-time. Other options include sliced cured salami, small sandwiches, granola bars, veggie sticks, potato chips (although these can be messy), and croissants.
Essentially, the food you bring should be customized to your own child, especially if they have allergies or food preferences. I cannot emphasize enough how much bringing your own food along for the ride can make even the worst situation better.
Stuck on a subway that has broken down, with your hungry five year old? You'll be so thankful you have food and water with you. Has your airplane been delayed on the tarmac for an hour or two? Bingo, you're winning, thanks to those granola bars in your handbag. Thirty more minutes until your bus or shuttle arrives? Hurray for string cheese!
It may seem like extra weight to lug around, but once your cutie pie gets hungry and cranky, that food will be worth its weight in gold!
Play Mind Games (with and without paper)
When all else fails, don't forget that children can be amused and distracted for hours by playing simple mental games (some of which require pencil and paper, some that don't). Examples include:
Kids also love hearing stories from their parents or other adults about what life was like 'when you were young'. Even though I still feel about seventeen inside, my children see me at 41 as quite elderly, haha! So, I can keep them fascinated for a long time telling them stories about life 'back in the olden times' before cell phones, home computers, the Internet, downloading movies and music, etc. (How ever did we survive? Hahaha!)
In the end, children are resourceful and can make a game out of nearly anything if given the opportunity! Traveling provides a wonderful time to encourage their creativity.
Travel Necklaces for Kids = Peace Of Mind For Parents!
When you travel internationally with kids you want to be sure that if there is ever a surprise problem or accident, your children can be identified quickly and returned to you or your family with ease.
However, it isn't the best idea to have your children carry their own official passports or identification cards - especially not the little ones. When my children were four, six and eight, they very frequently forgot their books, toys and belongings nearly everywhere we traveled!
Accordingly, I always kept all their passports safely tucked into my own waist money belt, safe from pickpockets and other mishaps.
Still, sometimes we traveled in crowded cities like Rome and Madrid. There were plenty of moments when we could have gotten separated from an adventurous child who'd decided to wander off for a moment. Getting lost in a foreign city where you don't speak the language might be exciting for some adults, but for young children it would be quite scary.
Due to this reality, I invented the 'travel necklace' concept for our family. You could really call it anything you like! Each time before we embark upon a summer of international transatlantic travel, I go to REI (or any other travel store) and purchase each child what the companies (like Eagle Creek) call a 'neck wallet'. It's really just a soft carrier that goes around your neck and can be worn comfortably under your shirt without being seen.
I buy the cheapest, softest one of these for each child that I can find (best if you can find them in different colors so they are easily identifiable if you have more than one child... but one benefit of using the flesh-colored neck wallet is that it really becomes camouflaged under the child's outfit).
I then go to the local copy store and make a color xerox of the front pages of each child's passport, and have them laminated. Once the lamination is no longer warm, I take a Sharpie or permanent marker and write down my international cell phone number and my husband's cell phone number on the reverse side of the laminated passport page, along with an address where we may be reached in the country we are visiting. If we're going to more than one country, I give the address that would be simplest to use to track us down.
I fold each lightweight, laminated passport page with contact information and place it into the neck wallet for that child. From the second we leave California, my children wear the neck wallets (we call them 'necklaces') and I rest easy with peace of mind that if my children and I ever become accidentally separated, it will be very easy for authorities to identify them and find me or their extended family members.
Depending on the age of your child you can opt to put some emergency money into this necklace as well, in case they need to buy food or to pay to use the bathroom or make a telephone call. My children always have their ID and a few Euro coins with them when we travel in Europe outside of Barcelona.
Traveling With Kids Without Your Spouse? Visit A Notary First!
Perhaps not all countries are the same, but in the United States there are laws about whether one parent can take their child(ren) out of the country alone. Legally (although I don't know if it is always enforced) you may be required to show proof via notarized letter that you have permission to leave the country with your children if you are not traveling with your spouse. (I assume this is due to complicated custody battles and parents who have 'kidnapped' their own children to keep sole custody. Yikes!)
Every time when I have traveled internationally with my children separately from my husband, we have always visited a USA notary first to verify in writing that both parents are comfortable with this arrangement and approve it. I've only been asked to show this proof once or twice in all of these years traveling separately, but better safe than sorry! I can't imagine arriving at an international airport to be told that I don't have the right to travel with my own child (without notarized proof that my husband agrees)... or vice versa. Receiving that bad news a few minutes before boarding your flight could roil even the best vacation!
We hope and trust that these little tips and strategies can help your family plan for wonderful travel adventures during your spring break, weekend getaway, or coming summertime months! As they say here in Spain, 'Que le vaya bien!'
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