Traveling with children who are in preschool or kindergarten can be absolutely marvelous. Kids are such curious creatures at this age and interested in what's going on in the world around them. That said, patience is the name of the game when you're on vacation with 3- to 6-year-olds; they'll want to check out every bug on the hiking trail and every crab on the beach.
So, one overall piece of advice to keep in mind when you're on the road with young kids: factor in extra time and try to be flexible. If your social butterfly is having fun meeting local kids at a neighborhood park, consider foregoing the children's museum you had on the agenda. It's your kids' vacation, too!
Here's some more advice for traveling with 3- to 6-year-olds, including pre-trip planning, potty-training tips, and ideas to make your travels go smoothly on the plane, on the road and on the ground:
Before You Go
Get your kids excited about your vacation by reading books about the destination. Nancy Solomon, a contributor to the Ciao Bambino hotel-review website and mother of four, says even pre-readers can get something out of picture books: "Before a trip that we took to Washington, D.C., I bought a bunch of books for my children. Then as we were touring around, my 2-year-old yelled, 'Clifford was there,' as she saw the Washington Memorial." Solomon has compiled links to her Amazon lists of suggested reading for destinations at Ciao Bambino. Also ask your local librarian for ideas for different age groups.
Introduce foreign foods at home. If you're lucky enough to be traveling to a locale where chicken nuggets and plain pasta and butter won't be on most menus, have your kids try some gyros, paella or enchiladas well before you set foot in a new country. (That said, if you're staying in a vacation rental with a full kitchen, packing a jar of familiar peanut butter and a box of spaghetti isn't a bad idea either.)
Check in with your child's teacher. One great part about traveling during the school year with young children is that a week of missed preschool or kindergarten isn't going to derail their academic careers. Still, communicate to the child what your plans are, and find out if your child might do a special show-and-tell presentation with a favorite souvenir when she returns. For more advice on taking your child out of school, see our article here.
Look into reciprocal museum memberships. Linda Kramer, who pens the blog Travels with Children, suggests purchasing a membership to your local museum that is good at other sites in the nationwide Association of Children's Museum Reciprocal Program Network. This is especially helpful if you're road-tripping. "A one-hour stop at a children's museum is a good way to break up a long trip," says Kramer. "If you have reciprocity, it won't cost you anything besides potential parking fees."
Scope out the bathrooms. "The first thing to do at any theme park is pick up a map marked with restroom locations," says Beth Blair, blogger at The Vacation Gals. But the same holds true for a hotel lobby, arcade, restaurant or movie theater. "Better to know where the bathrooms are, so you can dash as needed at a moment's notice."
Carry stickers in your purse. These aren't rewards, but rather they're used to cover up the automatic-flushing sensors on unfamiliar toilets. "Sometimes kids wiggle around and trigger the sensor to flush before little bodies are finished," says Jennifer Close, a mother of two and founder of Two Kids and a Map. "A little sticker lightly placed over the sensor prevents the toilet from flushing mid-use and traumatizing your newly potty-trained child." Just peel off the sticker and throw it away when you're done (lest you totally confuse the next toilet user).
Make bathroom visits before take-off. Blair, a former flight attendant, insists that her kids, ages 4 and 5, "try to go" in the airport before getting on a plane, and if there's time, they make a stop in the plane's lavatory while the rest of the passengers are boarding. "Leaving your seat too soon after take-off is against federal aviation regulations if the seatbelt sign is still on," says Blair. "Some flight attendants won't allow you to get up, even if it's an 'emergency,' so don't chance it."
In the Air
Have your child wear training pants on the plane. This is a tough one; if your 3-year-old is typically dry during the day, you may not feel like you want her to "regress" by wearing Pull-Ups. Plus, you might get resistance from your child who loves her big-girl undies. But as noted above, it's "better to be safe than sorry" with diaper-like undergarments if she is strapped in her plane seat and really has to pee. Similarly, if your child isn't toilet trained at night, and he's lulled to sleep by the plane's engines, you might be facing a messy accident if he's not wearing training pants.
Bring your child's car seat along. If your preschooler is accustomed to napping well in his car seat, by all means lug it on the plane with you, especially on an overnight or long flight. Similarly, some children just appreciate that familiar piece of kid gear in an unfamiliar place. The FAA approves most car seats for air travel, too. And if you don't want to bring your own from home, you can rent them through companies and web sites such as BabysAway.com which has locations all across the U.S.
Check your car seat and use a CARES harness. On the other hand, if you don't want to bring a bulky seat on the plane, you can check it, typically at no cost like a stroller at the gate. Blair suggests putting it in a big lawn-sized trash bag to check; even wrap it in some bubble wrap to protect it in transit. Then, invest in a Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES), for your child over age one and weighing between 22 and 44 pounds. This belt-and-buckle harness that retails for about $75 is the only safety restraint certified by the FAA.
Prep your children. If your preschoolers are new to flying, be sure to let them know about the strange sounds they might hear, or the funny feeling in their tummy they might sense at take-off and landing. Prep them for the plane shuddering during turbulence, too, and let them know that's perfectly normal. Review the rules of flying (no kicking the seat in front of them, use your inside voice) well before you set foot on any aircraft. Check out TSA Kids for more information and a few fun ways to prep your kids for take-off.
Walk the aisles -- with caution. Former flight attendant Blair says she's seen some nasty bumps and bruises on kids who are out of their seats when unexpected turbulence hits on an otherwise smooth flight. Getting up to stretch and move around is good for everyone on a long flight, just be careful and don't get up more than necessary.
On the Ground
Don't stop the car if everyone is happy. Conventional wisdom says to plan rest stops about every two hours when you're traveling by car with young children. Kramer disagrees: "No matter how hungry you are or how much you need to use the bathroom, keep driving while your kids are happy. Only take a break when they start to fuss, and then make sure you fill up your gas tank, eat or buy snacks, and use the restroom, so that if your preschoolers happen to fall asleep, you don't have to wake them. The more miles you can cover while kids are happy or sleeping, the faster your trip will seem."
Pack surprise gifts. This advice can apply not only to long road trips, but also any vacation with airport layovers or many restaurant meals. "Buy a few small toys and wrap them up," says Amy Querido, who writes about her family's frequent travels at The Q Family Adventures. "Then during the trip, ration them and give to your child one at a time. They will enjoy unwrapping the gift as much as playing with the toy itself."
Bring out unexpected treats as needed. Sure, you want to make sure your kids eat healthy on the road to stay healthy on the road, but sometimes special sugary treats for an extra-long trip can help keep everyone in a Zen place. "A big bag of Tootsie Pops got us peacefully through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana on the return of a 3,700-mile trip," says Kramer.
Stick to the nap schedule. If your preschooler is a napper at home, by all means try to adhere to that routine on vacation. "Plan sightseeing breaks as needed," says Querido. Chances are, you'll be happy to put your feet up and rest for an hour or two, as well. Everyone's happier after a mid-day break in the action.
If you're eating out, eat early. "You'll avoid the crowds -- both locals and tourists -- if you you're seated at a restaurant for dinner by 5 p.m.," says Close. And according to Kramer, ask for the check as soon as your food arrives. "Just in case a meltdown occurs and you need to make a hasty exit."
Get your lunch at a grocery store. "My kids hate to sit in a restaurant for an extended period of time, so we try to eat at only one restaurant a day when traveling," says Close. Load up on kid-pleasing fruit, veggies, string cheese and lunchmeat, then find a park for a picnic, she suggests. Picnic fixings have an added bonus -- the grocery store is typically much cheaper than eating at a restaurant. And isn't saving money on vacation always a good thing?
Visit our Traveling with Kids 3-9 Forum for further discussions and advice.
This article has been updated as of December 23, 2013.