Family Travel: The Happy Version!

Jessica Taylor Díaz

Jessica Taylor Díaz

Chief Behaviour Scientist, Cofounder Lumi, a behaviour change company

Traveling and vacationing is so fun and relaxing! While this can be true, when you become a parent, sometimes the scales shift more towards chaos than tranquillity. I think we often choose amnesia after trips with babies and toddlers. It’s like that amnesia we let settle in after childbirth and those initial months in a zombie-like state. How else could we psych ourselves up again and bravely say “it’ll be fine; I’ve got this!”



Travel Picture

                                                                           Photo by Edu Lauton on  Unsplash

Family Travel: The Happy Version!

I’ve often planned a trip, felt the headache of a plane or car ride with kids, and then chosen to move on and forget about that blip in time. But there are things we can do to help us prepare for a better experience. These strategies come partly from my knowledge base in behavioural science, but also from my real-life struggles as a parent.

Side note: I’ve written from the perspective of someone traveling via air, but these ideas can really be applied to any form of travel. Best of luck to you, and I hope you all have wonderful summer vacations, and more. Cheers!

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1 week to 1 day before:

Pack the essentials.

Pack a few extra essentials (i.e., two extra clothing sets for your allegedly potty-trained toddler) and keep them handy in your carryon.

Include a few items that make each traveler happy, including the adults! Novelty helps. This might mean buying and saving a special item for each person, or slyly hiding a few exciting items (if your kiddos are little) for a month prior to travel.

Since traveling with kids can be stressful, pair travel with something that brings you joy. This concept is referred to as ‘pairing with reinforcement’. Examples could be downloading new music or an audiobook, packing your favorite treat, buying a new book or magazine, or saving your favorite (and comfortable, and washable) outfit for traveling. Or maybe you do all the above. Your partner, if you’ve got another adult to share the load, should also plan to do the same.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

                                                                                                  Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Final prep (day before and day of travel):

Set clear expectations. In applied behavior analysis and in early education, we often call this “priming”. This will vary based on the age of your children, but let them know what to expect. For a young toddler, maybe it’s: “First we are going to drive to the airport and go on a fun airplane, and then later we get to see grandma and go swimming!”

Share general rules early, and then again right before they become relevant. First, make sure you have your child’s full attention (at least body orientation, but ideally some eye contact). For example, you might talk with your children about general airline rules, such as how we need to stay in our seats when the pilot tells us to do so. Thank them for listening to you. Help them be an active participant, by asking them what they think they should do during travel. Give time for questions and answer as honestly as you can.

Reinforce the good! More on this later, but try to catch your kids following the rules whenever you can. Did they follow your directions when it was time to leave the house? Call it out! Did your daughter do something kind to help your son? Give a high-five and a thank you. Build some positive momentum, as soon as you can, and keep the “catch the good” concept going throughout travel.

Prep yourself: Calm parents tend to inspire calm in their kids. Your family members can feel your emotions and sense more than you might think. It is absolutely worth it to take some time to mentally prepare yourself for travel. Maybe this means some nighttime or early morning yoga or meditation. Maybe this means asking your partner to give you 5 minutes of alone time to take some deep breaths (or watch funny videos) before leaving the house. Do what you can to start as the best version of yourself.

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Here we go!:

You will notice some repetition as we go here, and this is intentional. Important reminders for travel: continue to remind your kids of expectations. Check for understanding (questions anyone?) and call out the good! This includes thanking your kids for listening to all these boring rules.

First/Then Contingencies: Also known as the Premack Principle, humans tend to do work in anticipation of reward. A simple example: first we work, then we get paid. Or maybe we do our job well to get positive feedback from our mentors. First/then contingencies are such a helpful principle for parenting.

Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

 Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

How this works in an airport environment:

· “First let’s get through security, then we will all sit down for a delicious snack!”

· “First we will get into our seat on the plane, then we can pick out our favorite book or toy.”

· “First let’s go to the bathroom to change your diaper, and then 2 chocolate chips!”

· “First, we need to wait for our rental car, then you can watch [TV show] on your iPad.”

· (For the parents and caregivers): ‘First our family will survive security, and then I will order a large Frappuccino’ or ‘First our family will endure this day of travel, and then I will have a cold beer at our hotel.’

Photo by Victor Rutka on Unsplash

                                                                                                     Photo by victor Rutka on Unsplash

Side note: try to find humour in the small catastrophes as they arise. Pause in the moment, and maybe (if it’s not horrendous) think about how it might be a funny story later.


If you are traveling with a partner, lean on each other, and do your best to lift each other up. Seek out joy and humour. Solo parenting? Text a friend or family member with highlights (the good and the bad). This can help you feel some support in the moment.


Reminders: Continue to set expectations, give room for questions, and reinforce anything positive you can. This includes reinforcing the absence of challenging behaviors. For example, if your child is not crying, yelling, or hitting their sibling (or you), give them a shoutout: “You are having such a great day! Thank you for being an excellent flyer!” For older kids, it might be validating challenges faced throughout the day thus far.

Family Travel Blog

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Of course, you are likely not done with your escapade upon the plane landing. But, your energy and patience (and everyone else’s) is likely depleted. Now is the time to ramp up that positive reinforcement, and if you have anything special left to incentivize the family, use it! Show pictures of your destination or remind your kids of fun things you have planned. Refuel with snacks, favorite drinks, and physical affection; this applies to both your kid(s) and you. Again, a calm parent (and not a hangry one) will more likely inspire calm in those around them. Take a deep breath when you need to. Let your kids “catch” you practicing your own coping strategies. Continuing in the same vein, vocalize your feelings to help inspire them to do the same: “I am feeling so tired”, or “This has been a long day.”

Let things go: Now isn’t the time to call out the rolling eyes, or the crossed arms. A little whining can be ignored as well.

When the day is done, practice self-compassion. Traveling with kids is hard, even when things go smoothly. Try to reflect on a positive moment or two, and for the rough patches, maybe identify something you would do differently next time. Laugh about what you can. Then, let it go, and expect some amnesia to settle in soon.

Final thoughts: if you are aiming to go a little deeper, dig into your values both prior to and during your travel. Specifically, think about your values that correlate with parenting. Maybe you value compassion, or you aim to be a calm and patient parent. Write it on a post-it note and look at it the day before travel. Put it in your purse or wallet. Repeat it to yourself throughout your trip (silently), especially in difficult moments. That mindful pause might be just enough time for you to react in a way that aligns with your values.

To view a variety of family day trips from London click here

Family Travel Blog

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