(Ranjana Wingender Armstrong, CEO and founder of Nugget, with her kids)
According to a new study of over 2500 parents across the US done from the travel company Trafalgar, over half of parents (66%) say they would cancel Christmas this year to travel instead, with majority (78%) noting they would rather spend their money on a vacation instead of holiday gifts. So with that in mind, the holiday season is the perfect time to pack up your bags and bond with the family. The same study showed that parents’ stress doubles during the holidays and they can nearly eliminate that stress by traveling instead.
If you're getting out of town with the brood (good for you!), then it helps to know some of the best travel tips for families so your journey is as seamless as possible. We got the inside scoop from Ranjana Wingender Armstrong, CEO and founder of Nugget, a new guide to family travel that’s simplifies how parents plan their family vacations. Ranjana travels the world with her kids Finn (4.5 yo), Archie (2yo) and Max (2 mo) and has many insider tips on how to make your next family trip a truly happy experience.
Were you an avid traveler before having kids?
Yes! I’ve always loved traveling and got hooked at a very young age. Growing up in Europe (I am born and raised in Germany) it was so easy to travel to another country and experience a different culture. My parents would travel with us to Denmark for multiple weeks every summer and different parts of Europe during our other school breaks. I took my first solo trip as a teenager and never looked back. My husband shares my passion for photography and when we met, I finally had a buddy to travel with and take photos.
How many trips have you been on with the kids?
I’ve probably done 20 or so international trips plus a lot more domestic ones; half of them solo with just the kids. Finn has been to China, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Archie has been to Portugal, Russia, and Mexico.
What's been your favorite destination with the kids?
That’s a tough one. I truly enjoyed every destination for different reasons. I’d say Russia probably surprised me the most. I was blown away by the cool playgrounds in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And the high-speed train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow has a dedicated kids’ section in the front of the train, with a playmat on the floor (that gets swapped out after each ride!), toys, blankets, and kids’ lunch boxes. Plus you get to see the train driver! Aeroflot has also been one of the most child-friendly airlines I’ve ever flown with. Their kid’s meal was awesome and Finn still has the goodie bag he got for the long haul flight (he uses as his camera bag). In Portugal, I loved that almost all major sights have a dedicated line for families and even if they don’t they will whisk you to the front of the line if they see that you are visiting with little kids.
What are your secrets to packing with kids?
Packing cubes! Each boy has his packing cube so it’s easy to find their outfits. And I bring a spare one for dirty clothing. I also try to stay in places that offer laundry so I don’t need to bring too much clothing. For most trips, I will only pack a few diapers and buy those in the destination. And I am all about involving the kids. My oldest has been carrying his own carryon bag since he’s been 3 years old. First, the bag had just his bottle and a cuddle blanket but now he carries an iPad, headset, books, and snacks. All things I don’t need to carry. And he feels like a grown-up. A win-win all around.
How do you handle having a baby on a long flight? Any tips?
The question should be how do you handle a baby and a toddler on a flight! Flying with one baby is remarkably easy. I find a two year-old much harder because they want to move and aren’t very good at following instructions. For a baby, I recommend bringing a carrier so you can walk with her if she gets fussy. I found nursing during takeoff helped my boys fall asleep and if we took a flight around bedtime they were generally sound asleep by the time we reached cruising altitude.
When I travel alone with the kids, I buy a seat for the baby so he can sleep in the car seat and I have my hands free to help the other boys or go to the bathroom. I also find that there are always people willing to help, especially if you are flying alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t turn down anyone wanting to help. And always pack a spare outfit, if not two. We’ve had diaper blowouts on almost every flight. If you are bottle feeding, make sure you have enough formula to get you through any delays or missed connections. You don’t want to run out.
Are there any insider tips about staying in a hotel with little ones?
Bring a baby monitor. If your hotel has an onsite restaurant or a nice bar you can enjoy some adult time while your kids sleep. And try to get a room with outdoor space so you can enjoy a glass of wine or a good book on the terrace/balcony while your kids are sleeping or napping. Also, convenience is key. Don’t book a hotel at the edge of town to save a few bucks. You want to minimize the time you spend commuting, so I strongly recommend you book a hotel that’s close to where you want to be.
Any tips about setting up the hotel room so it's more kid-friendly?
I always create a changing station on a desk or dresser. I find that so much more convenient than changing the baby on the bed. I also find it helpful to bring a headlamp so I can change the baby at night without waking the other boys. A headlamp is also great if you need to pack early in the morning or late at night and don’t want to wake the kids. And on that note, a night light is also helpful for little ones to find the bathroom in the middle of the night.
(Photo courtesy of @rileys_travels)
What are the 5 essentials you pack in your carry-on for the kids?
Snacks (my kids get hangry!), water bottles, cuddle blanket and lovies, change of clothing, a few extra plastic bags (for soiled clothing, dirty diapers, etc.), lots of wipes, and a few of their favorite books. When I was potty training Finn, I also traveled with a portable toilet seat. When I had only one kid, I used to bring a lot of toys, but with three kids and two still in diapers, you have to focus on the essentials!
What is your philosophy about traveling with kids?
Traveling with kids is about experiencing a place together, not about checking off the major sights. In order to have a good trip, you want to travel at their pace. Before I had kids I would get up early and kept going all day until late in the evening, making sure I saw as much as I could. You can’t do that with kids. They will get cranky and it’s exhausting for everyone. When you travel with kids it’s really important not to overschedule. When I travel with my kids I pick just one thing I want to do for each day and I pair it with something for them. I also try to remain flexible. I love planning what we’ll do but sometimes the kids (or myself) are just too tired and all we do is get a coffee and then walk to a local playground or park with them. It’s totally okay with me because I can still soak up a bit of the local atmosphere.
Is there anywhere you would not travel with the kids?
Right now, while the kids are little I wouldn’t travel anywhere that requires Malaria or Yellow fever vaccines. I am also holding off with some places because I know they will enjoy them more when they are a bit older.
What are your favorite travel websites for booking vacations with children?
I love Nugget (of course). Our contributors always have the most interesting places, whether it’s a unique itinerary for the Silk Road or an in-depth podcast interview with a local parent. My bucket list is growing week by week. I also love Instagram for inspiration and insider tips. There are so many inspiring families out there and their insights are often more helpful than any Tripadvisor review. I am also a big fan of Kid & Coe for family-friendly vacation rental. And I’ve been eyeing this awesome river cruise in Brazil, from Our Whole Village, but for that one, my kids need to be older.
Do you have any hard and fast rules about traveling with the kids?
I am a lot more strict at home than on the road. Traveling with kids is all about being flexible and in tune with what they need. At home, the boys are on a pretty consistent nap/sleep schedule and I try to have the little one’s nap at home in their bed. On vacation, bedtime tends to be later and sometimes we skip naps. But overall I try to make sure they get the rest they need, at least every other day. It’s more enjoyable for everyone. On the plane, I let them watch as many videos as they like. They don’t watch TV at home so they get super excited about flying. I also let them pick snacks for the plane. They love it, especially if it's something they normally don’t get.
Looking for somewhere to take your next family vacation? Read this to find out the best kid-friendly destinations around the world.