Tripping up

Family vacations make memories—here’s how you avoid the challenges that come from travelling with children

By Heidi Tattrie Rushton
Photos by Steve Smith/VisionFire Studios

Laura Snow, of Waverley, N.S., is a freelance writer and mom to two daughters, ages 12 and 14. She and her husband started taking their children on trips with them when they were infants. She says that by now they have experienced almost every travel challenge you could imagine.

“We have been stuck in traffic for three hours in New Jersey when the girls were nine and 11, got lost in Ontario using my car’s outdated GPS when they were 10 and 12, have had car diaper explosions and delayed flights,” Snow says. 

Her favourite story involves forgetting her youngest daughter’s blanket at the airport when the family was travelling to Florida to visit her grandmother. “We called and called but no one could find it,” Snow says. “[My daughter] wasn’t going to sleep well without it so my grandmother and I went to Walmart, bought stuffing and material and hand sewed her a new one.”

They’ve been all over North America together; Snow says the biggest lesson they have learned is to approach travel challenges with a calm attitude. “Plans change often when you’re travelling with kids,” she says. “It’s best to learn to go with the flow.”

This approach has taught their children to be adaptable in unexpected situations. But for many children, trips to unfamiliar places, using unfamiliar methods of transportation, trigger stress and anxiety.

Dr. Anna Campbell, a registered clinical psychologist at the IWK Health Centre, has some suggestions on how to prepare children. She says families should start with having a conversation about the trip. 

She suggests reviewing the different things that will happen while travelling can help reduce anxiety about unfamiliar events and situations. “Often, when kids are anxious, they may generate lots of possible, and often unlikely, negative scenarios,” she says. “Once parents are aware of the worries that are fueling the anxiety, they can talk to their children about other possible outcomes, how they may cope with feared scenarios, and help them develop some calming statements.”

Gradually exposing the child to the source of their fear can help, too, such as visits to the airport to see planes taking off and landing or looking at photos and videos of their destination.

Keep your kids smiling by keeping them involved in the planning process of the family trip.

Campbell suggests teaching children some relaxation strategies before the trip such as deep breathing, imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. Also, keep children’s schedules on track as much as possible during travel. 

“Children, like adults, are better able to cope with anxiety when their physical needs are well taken care of,” she says. “Focus on ensuring your child continues to get the same amount of sleep they require at home, and focus on encouraging healthy meals and snacks while travelling.”

Working with a travel agent is one way to ensure a trip is able to keep that schedule in check as much as possible. Nicole Skidmore is a certified travel professional with GOwithHIPPO Travel. 

“If you can only travel a certain time of year, or are seeking direct flights or are set on a location or room category, booking early will give you the most options,” she says. She also suggests if a long flight is unavoidable, families should consider an overnight flight so children can sleep on the plane.

Families may also need to gather legal documents or fulfill certain health requirements, such as immunizations, before international travel. A travel clinic such as the one in Burnside, which is run by Capital Health, can help with those requirements, too.

“Passports are the most important travel documents when travelling internationally,” Skidmore says. “I recommend your passport be valid for at least six months on return as some countries will not allow entry if your passport expires within those six months.” She also recommends getting any necessary visitor visas before entering the country to avoid border delays. Also, find out if you need an international driver’s licence, if you plan on renting a vehicle. 

Families who are travelling without both legal parents or guardians require a Consent Letter For Travelling Abroad from the parent who is not with them. Information about travelling internationally with children can be found on the Global Affairs Canada website. Samples of the consent letter are on the website, too. 

Skidmore also suggests talking to a travel agent professional about the destinations and accommodations that are best for families and getting the children involved in the preparations.

“Don’t just make plans for the whole family,” Snow says, “Try to get the kids involved in the process. It will teach them how to read maps, the cost of travel, how to choose a good hotel, which museums everyone is interested in and why. There are many ways to make travel more educational and your whole family will enjoy the activities more if they have some input into what you choose to do.”   

More travel tips for families:

•  Photocopy all legal documents and leave a copy with someone at home.

•  Notify credit card providers of travel plans.

•  Consider getting travel insurance in case an unexpected event derails a trip.

To learn more about the documents required when travelling internationally with children, visit