In 2011, our family moved to Munich, Germany, for two years for my husband’s postdoc. It was an amazing opportunity and since David and I didn’t want to waste it, we spent a lot of time traveling with our young kids–in many ways, we were perpetual tourists. Now that we’re back in the U.S., our family continues to explore new places, and we’re always trying to strike a balance between kid-focused activities and things we parents want to do.
I’m not going to lie–traveling with kids can be hard. Sickness, meltdowns, whining, lack of interest…all this and more can happen, and often at the most inopportune times. On the other hand, there are so many good reasons to travel with kids. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bond as a family and create lifelong memories, it broadens kids’ horizons and exposes them to the wider world, it’s culturally stimulating, and it strengthens kids’ ability to adapt to change (to name just a few benefits). Taken as a whole, we’re happy to keep on doing it, challenges and all, and we hope it inspires our kids to be curious learners and life-long travelers.
If you’re interested in getting out and exploring cities with kids, here are my best tips.
12 Tips for Exploring Cities with Kids
1–“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” My main advice is simply to be flexible and enjoy the journey, bumps and all. Things won’t always go as planned and there will be frustrations, but those disappointments don’t need to spoil the whole experience or the wonderful memories you’ll make.
2–Simplify and prioritize. Don’t plan to do as much in a day as you could do without kids. In our family, everyone is happier when we focus on enjoying what’s manageable rather than pushing ourselves to do it all. Also, be prepared to keep visits to cultural attractions like museums brief if necessary–but even short visits can be worthwhile.
3–Take breaks. We learned very quickly that our kids do much better when we give them time to unwind and get their wiggles out. We stop often at playgrounds or just let the kids run free in parks. (As a bonus, this helps us experience the city a little more like locals than tourists.)
4–Divide and conquer. If you’re traveling with a spouse, give each other an occasional break from the kids. One person might take them to a park or back to the hotel for naps or quiet time while the other visits a museum or joins a walking tour (for example). Sometimes, David and I will divide up the kids–when we visited the Art Institute of Chicago, David took care of Theo, our toddler, while I toured the museum with the older boys.
5–Kids need sleep. As much as possible, try to maintain a consistent bedtime–well rested kids are usually happier, more amenable kids. It’s helpful to do the same bedtime routine you do at home. As for napping, you know best how important it is for your child to sleep during the day. Sometimes we’ll take a break to give a child a full nap, but other times we’ll schedule an activity that allows the child to sleep in a stroller/carrier/car seat while the rest of us are on the go (such as long-distance traveling, walking, hiking, or visiting a museum).
6–Offer Treats. Traveling can be demanding for kids–personally, I think they deserve some rewards in return! We like stopping for ice cream, and we have friends who take their kids to McDonald’s every day. We also love introducing our kids to local favorites–from pretzels in Germany and churros in Spain to street hot dogs and deep dish pizza in Chicago.
I also like to keep a small supply of treats on hand for emergencies. When visited Madrid, David and I became pressed for time and couldn’t take turns going to the Prado Museum. We brought our toddler with us and fed him a Jelly Belly approximately every minute (maybe less).
7–Bring an effective stroller or carrier. My most important priorities when choosing how to transport a young child are finding something that 1) he can sleep in comfortably; and 2) he can’t escape from. A stroller with a reclining seat and a canopy is a must. Durable wheels, storage space, and foldability are also necessities. Sometimes we travel using only our Moby Wrap, Ergobaby carrier, or Kelty Child Carrier (a frame backpack)–as long as it’s sleep-worthy!
8–Choose your accommodations wisely. We try to stay in hotels or apartments that offer breakfast and have an available fridge. If we’re staying more than a few days, I like to find an apartment with a kitchen. Besides being more cost-effective, I know my kids will eat more healthy foods if they eat meals we prepare.
If we stay in a hotel, I also try to find a room with a door that separates the sleeping area from the living area so older people can stay up after the little ones go to sleep.
9–Shop at grocery stores. Stop at local grocery stores (another great place to witness everyday life) to buy snacks as well as meals if needed.
10–Engage your kids. Before you go, talk to your kids about your destination and build up their excitement. You can locate it on a map, read books about it, and watch movies set there. You can also check to see if museums or other planned attractions offer special programs and activities for kids. Finally, give older kids a journal to record their experiences.
11–Use public transportation. Not only is public transportation usually cheaper, faster, and easier than driving a car, but kids LOVE it. And it’s yet another excellent way to observe a slice of everyday life in the city.
12–Be Safe. When we travel to a new place, we pick a designated spot where we should meet if anyone gets lost. We also remind our kids that if they need help, they should find a mother with kids. As an additional precaution, you can put a slip of paper with your local address in your child’s pocket.