10 Tips for Traveling with Kids: Lessons from our Iceland family vacation
a dventuring with kids can seem daunting. Before our kids were born, my husband and I had both traveled a lot, including wilderness backpacking, weeks long canoe trips, long distance road biking, skiing and other adventures both local and international that don’t easily translate to traveling with babies in tow. We both always dreamed of having a family and introducing our children to nature, travel and an active lifestyle. Six years and 3 daughters later, we still have dreams of adventuring as a family. Like many parents of young kids, we often miss the carefree and easy traveling of the past. While it’s certainly a different experience traveling with young children, it can be even more rewarding to see the world through their eyes as we lay the foundations for a lifetime of adventures ahead.
Here are 10 tips learned from our recent family trip to Iceland.
1. Choosing a Destination
I recommend choosing a place that the adults would like to go. You’re the one spending lots of effort, precious vacation time and money on your trip - choose somewhere that you really want to go. In my experience, if you choose based on what seems “kid friendly” everyone will be disappointed. Once you have some ideas of possible locations, then look into how feasible each location would be with kids. We chose Iceland because the natural wonders are very accessible, there is a huge variety of outdoor activities, there are affordable and direct flights from our city and the time change isn’t too dramatic for a short trip.
2. Building the Foundations
Once you’ve chosen a location, start talking it up to your kids. Get maps and point out the places you will visit. Read books about the area. Look at pictures and videos. Learn traditional children’s games. Talk about what foods and activities to expect. We find that getting our kids excited for the trip ahead of time makes the trip itself much easier and more fun. Kids usually feel more comfortable when they know what is going to happen, so it can take some of the stress away to be able to reference the things they were excited about before the trip. In Iceland this method really helped get the kids ready for each day. “Today is the day we will see a geyser!” “Can you believe we will touch a glacier today?” If your kids will need specific skills to enjoy the trip, it’s also best to build those ahead of time. We try to keep up our outdoor skills year-round - if you want to build little adventurers, get them swimming, biking, climbing and hiking as much as you can before your trip is even planned.
Our youngest on the trip was just 10 months old at the time.
3. Where to Stay
AirBNB is where it’s at! We have found that traveling with kids it is so much easier to be in a home environment compared to a hotel or other accommodation. Having a kitchen, more than one bedroom and laundry makes a world of difference. Many air BNBs have amenities like cribs, hot tubs, swing sets, fire pits, etc. So you can exhaust the kids on the swing set, roast marshmallows as a family, put them to sleep in their own room, then stay up looking for the northern lights in the hot tub and make the breakfast that kids are used to in the morning - just for example. This is so much better than begging the older kids to please be quiet while the baby is asleep and then eating take out in the bathroom (anyone else have this experience in hotels?)
The other advantage of staying in a home is that you can stay in places that don’t have traditional hotels. In Iceland we spent some of our time in an apartment in Reykjavik just moments from many of the downtown sites, some time in a beach house at the edge of one of the famous black sand beaches and our last night in a cottage near the Golden Circle that felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. When you stay in neighborhoods and towns instead of tourist centers, you get a more time at the places you want to be instead of checking in and out of hotels. One of my favorite times in Iceland was taking my 6-year-old out to the black sand beach in the evening after the younger kids had gone to bed. It was a five-minute walk from our house and we were the only ones out on the beach at sunset. We marveled at the rock formations, dug in the sand, collected lava rocks, and ran from the ominous tide. On our way home she took notice of the elements of the town that were different from our home. We spent mornings playing at local playgrounds or having coffee and pastries at a local bakery, rather than in hotel lobbies.
4. Set Attainable Challenges
One of the biggest changes to adjust to when going from travel without kids to travel with kids is reconceptualizing what is a reasonable challenge. Thinking back to our first overnight bike trip with our then 3 year old, we significantly overestimated how much we could ride in one day. Don’t underestimate the time needed for potty breaks, digging in the dirt breaks, snack breaks, etc. Also, carrying a child in a pack, paddling for two or towing a bike trailer is physically demanding so plan shorter routes. Keep in mind how exciting it is for kids to reach a goal and set attainable ones. It’s very disappointing for them to have to turn around without reaching the end, even if they are very tired. In Iceland, we made sure that the exciting moments of a hike weren’t too far away so that the kids could reach the goals they set.
Trading jelly beans at the foot of a glacier. Small treats can be a great reward for reaching goals.
5. Balance new and familiar
It’s super exciting to experience new places and cultures as a family. For us, balancing the new things with familiar and comfortable things helps a lot. Our kids were huge fans of lava bread, Icelandic smoked salmon and Icelandic yogurt. They were also really happy to have a few cliff bars from home. Our kids love swimming, so we made it a point to swim in Iceland every day. We all enjoyed experiencing some local pools and it was comforting to the kids to have time every day to do what they love. We always visit local playgrounds when we travel. It’s amazing how different playgrounds are around the world and it’s always an interesting cultural experience.
6. Make it fun - games, rewards
Kids love to win. A little pre-planning in this department can have significant pay off in terms of getting kids to cooperate (or even be excited) about the challenges on your trip. Before going to Iceland I made each child an “Iceland Bingo” card that had boxes including “learned how to say hello in Icelandic,” “saw a geyser,” “touched a glacier,” and “tried lava bread.” The game lasted throughout the trip and encouraged them to interact with new people, try new things, and get themselves ready in the morning to “go check off more boxes.” Because we like outdoor adventures that can be challenging for kids, we are used to working in their currency: treats. My 6 year old understands that the experience in itself is a reward: “I can’t wait to get to the glacier because that will be so amazing, but I also can’t wait to see what the treat will be.” The 4-year-old pretty much just hikes for candy at this point, but she always has a great time in the end.
Homemade Iceland themed bingo.
It’s easy to fill an itinerary with back to back activities and excitement. Don’t forget to build in some rest time. When we ask our kids about their favorite moments from Iceland, we definitely hear about the geyser, the waterfalls and the hikes, but we also get a lot of unexpected answers including a walk around the neighborhood, the bunk bed at our AirBNB and hanging out at the local pool. Don’t underestimate the power of down time.
8. Relax the routine
At home our life is pretty routine. Like many families with young kids, we have very reliable schedules. When traveling we find it best to relax those hard and fast rules. Kids will fall asleep when it is not nap time. They will wake up too early. They’ll be hungry at the wrong moment. Go with the flow. When you happen upon a perfect little bakery - have a backwards dinner (dessert first!) If they fall asleep in the car, pull up to a scenic spot and relax. Skip the bath. Wear pajamas outside (or clothes to bed.) Keeping up with the home routine while traveling is exhausting for parents and kids. We all enjoy the break.
Our 4 and 6 year old had a great time discovering Iceland for themselves.
9. Prepare for difficult moments
I always prepare for any trip to be about 50% terrible and 50% amazing. To me, that calculus is still worth it. Difficult moments with kids happen anywhere, and I’d rather be traveling. If you prepare for and expect the “terrible” moments, they actually tend to be a lot less significant. In the end, Iceland was about 95% amazing. Bring treats, snacks and lots of empathy for these little people who are way out of their comfort zones.
One of the ways we like to help our kids understand the places we visit is by choosing a local cause to contribute to. Our kids absolutely loved the natural places in Iceland. Instead of buying souvenirs, we discussed making a family donation to an Icelandic conservation organization. The kids were proud to know that they are helping to protect these beautiful places for the future.