Family travel hacks | The Wide Open Road

Family travel hacks for a fun 4-day journey home

We just returned to The Netherlands after an 8 month stay in Costa Rica. We traveled four full days with two young children to get home. From Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica to its capital San José, and flew via Houston (sleep over) and New York to Holland with our two kids (2,5 and 4,5 years old at the time). There are some family travel hacks we use to make every trip fun, no matter how long the journey takes. We’d like to share these tips with you and hope they might be useful for you if you are traveling with young kids soon.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open RoadAlthough we traveled in the midst of a situation where countries had to deal with the effects of the Corona virus, we had a really good trip this time. The airports were empty.. Almost no people around. We had to wear face protection and the kids could not really touch things anywhere and wash hands constantly. When we arrived to New York we started seeing a lot of people from Asia fully covered in white suits, face protection, face masks and gloves. We had prepared the kids for this but it is still somewhat frightening, also for us.

We prepare our journeys well, we don’t ‘just leave and see where it goes‘. We prepare our mindset too: patience and fun are the key words. In this way, we discovered that a a long 4 day travel with young children can really be a joy too. In this post below we share nine of our best family travel hacks.

  1. design a journey of mini-trips upfront for enough sleep, time to relax and little stress
  2. put activities in your trip for kids to look forward to
  3. research the airports and hotels of transit for activities
  4. make a children’s travel calendar to explain what is going to happen and when
  5. implement some airport waiting line tricks
  6. explain, explain, explain: communicate with your kids in the moment
  7. bring airplane survival food
  8. design an aircraft gift carousel
  9. create a place to sleep for the kids aboard the aircraft


In the post below, we share how we implemented these tips.

1. Design the journey upfront for enough sleep, time to relax and little stress
Before we travel we ‘design‘ the trip based on the available flights. We break it up in sections. How many hours we spend on the road (door to door), can we fly directly or do we need one or more transits? What type of transportation do we use, how long per transportation? This results in an overview of ‘mini-trips‘. The goal is not to travel fast. To the contrary. The question is: how can we finish the entire trip with enough sleep, enough time to relax, the least amount of stress?

This time, in June 2020, we were restricted by the effects of the Corona virus. There were not many flights to choose from. In fact, there was only one flight going out of San Jose to Houston in the United States. From there we had a connection to Amsterdam. We chose to drive up six hours to San Jose from the place where we lived (Puerto Viejo de Talamanca) and spend the night in a hotel close to the airport. The next morning it was only a short 10 minute drive to the airport to check in for the first four hour flight to Houston. In Houston we had booked an airport hotel (the Marriott was the only one available) to spend the night. The next morning we checked into a three and a half hours flight to New York. We spend several hours on the airport to eventually board a seven hours flight to Amsterdam during the night. Designing the trip this way gave us enough time to sleep and relax.

Our mini-trips:
– Wendy, our befriended schoolbus driver, picked us up and we drove to the hotel in San Jose and slept there
– We went to the airport and fly to Houston in the United States
– We went to the airport hotel and sleep there
– We went to New York and eat there
– We went to Amsterdam and sleep in the plane
– We met our family in the airport
– We drove home

Every mini-trip we finish, we celebrate and high five to. It sounds futile maybe, but it really helps if you help each other through difficult parts of the journey, when unexpected things happen. Like a 2,5 hour wait to pass customs in the US, without luggage trolley, without baby stroller and 2 very tired young kids that had to walk by themselves.. If you can help each other see the light at the end of the wait, it is half the journey. Be aware of that responsibility too when you choose to travel as a family.. It is not only about the kids having a good trip.

2. Put activities in your trip for kids to look forward to 
It is very helpful to design several ‘activities‘ into your ‘mini-trips‘: like an airport picknick (photo above) before or after customs, taking the terminal train to the hotel, bathe in the bathtub in the hotelroom, go swimming in the hotel, going to the observation deck to watch the New York skyline from the terminal, eat fries with ketchup in the airport food court and many more.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open Road

If you manage to look at your trip as a series of activities and make it your intention to have FUN in the journey, it will be a more relaxing journey. This mindset prevents you from feeling overwhelmed and being ‘done with it‘ or with having the kids glued to a video game or screen the entire trip. Having activities to work towards help to have fun together when everyone is tired. It is one of the most important family travel hacks we can share.

Our activities:
– Swim one last time in the pool before Wendy arrives (mini-trip 1)
– Pack your toys and go to the taxi with Wendy (mini-trip 1)
– Eat fries on the way to San José (mini-trip 1)
– Swim in the pool when we arrive in the hotel (mini-trip 1)
– Swim in the pool one last time when we wake up (mini-trip 2)
– Sit down and eat breakfast (mini-trip 2)
– Pack your toys and go to the taxi (mini-trip 2)
– Check in waiting line game with mom (mini-trip 2)
– Customs waiting line game with mom (mini-trip 2)
– Watch a video on the phone and wait to board the plane last (mini-trip 2)
– Sleep on the plane (mini-trip 2)
– Get the bags and take the airport train in Houston Int’l (mini-trip 3)
– Check into the hotel, bring the bags up and take the train to go eat (mini-trip 3)
– Take a bath in the hotel and sleep (mini-trip 3)
– Pack your toys and go to check in by train (mini-trip 4)
– Watch a video on the phone and wait to board the plane last (mini-trip 4)
– Sleep on board (mini-trip 4)
– Play on the airport, go to the deck to watch the New York skyline (mini-trip 4)
– Eat donuts and fruits in an airport picknick (mini-trip 4)
– Watch a video on the phone and wait to board the plane last (mini-trip 5)
– Eat on board of the plane (mini-trip 5)
– Isa helps make the mattress, drinks milk and sleeps on board of the train (mini-trip 5)
– Vesper drinks and sleeps on two chairs in his little tent (mini-trip 5)
– 1/2 hour before landing, we wake Isa (mini-trip 5)
– Give the kids some aircraft survival food we brought for breakfast (mini-trip 5)
– Land, walk through customs and get the bags (mini-trip 6)
– Finally finally see our family (mini-trip 6)
– Play with grandparents and nephew in the airport (mini-trip 6)
– Eat a croissant and drink a juice (mini-trip 6)
– Sleep in the car (Vesper) (mini-trip 7)
– Play a video game in the car (Isa) (mini-trip 7)
– Arrive home, check out their rooms and play with the new toy.

3. Research the airport and hotels
To get inspiration for your activities, we suggest to research the airports and hotels you will transit through on the way home. Know what is open and which services are available. For example, we read that Houston International Airport has a train that connects the terminals. Our kids love trains and it was one of the ‘activities‘ we planned into our arrival to Houston: get the luggage from the belt and take the train to the Marriott hotel. A big hit with the kids they enjoyed a lot. Both hotels had pools that were open. Another great activity during the trip! Researching upfront helps designing nice activities in your journey, which you know upfront will be available. A travel hack we learnt especially with this latest trip home as we slept in two hotels and took three planes to get home.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open Road

4. Make a children’s travel calendar to explain what is going to happen and when
Young children don’t have much understanding yet of the concept of time and are mostly in the moment. One of the family travel hacks that helped us a lot in having easy travel days is explain them what we would be doing, how long it would take and where we’d be going. We created a kids calendar to explain the different ‘mini-trips‘ of the journey to them. Every mini trip is explained with a simple icon on a circle: in the taxi to San Jose and sleep in the hotel, fly in the airplane and sleep in a hotel, fly in the airplane and eat fries, fly in the airplane and sleep, see grandparents again. Every time we arrive somewhere, we put the calendar up. At the end of every mini-trip they can cut off that part of the calendar. We don’t put in the events as it will become too much for them to grasp. A calendar like this has worked very well for us to explain travel to them upfront of the events that will take place over time. For them it is much easier to understand what is coming. A big help and one of our best family travel hacks!

5. Communicate with your kids!
We see it a lot: parents that drag their unwilling and screaming kids with them, not saying a word. We’ve done it ourselves. As soon as we started EXPLAINING them what we were going to do, much of their discomfort, screaming, laying down on the floor and yelling disappeared. An important travel hack for us became to explain what we are going to do (wait in line, give our luggage and passports to a lady/ or man, move to a new line, wait and put our hand luggage through a scanner). Also, we explain what we expect from them: walk with us when the line moves, or sit in the cart and take a look around until we are the first ones in the line. Explain that we cannot leave the line and that we will have a picknick when the waiting is over.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open Road6. Airport picknick & waiting line tricks
– Announce an airport picknick áfter customs and luggage drop-off waiting lines;
– Split the kids while in line: one child with each parent;
– Share pieces of fruit while in line, give a bag of nuts and dried fruits to each child;
– Play the game ‘I spy with my little eye..‘ (4 years and up);
– Offer them magnetic toys to play with while in line (while they sit on the floor or in a stroller) (2 years and up);
– One parent sits on the floor outside the waiting line, near the counter with the kids and they play with their own toys.

7. Airplane survival food (1,5 years and up)
– a banana, lime and avocado: mix it for a great fruit snack, doesn’t need refrigeration :-))
– several small bags with unsalted nuts (variety of nuts) and dried berries
– a big bag with pre-cooked pasta (we always opt for pesto pasta with mini tomato halves)
– a big ‘tupper‘ with grapes cut in half
– apples to share
– a big bag with individually packed sandwiches for the entire family
– a small bag with fried chickpeas (our kids love those!)

Airplanes and food. A challenging combination. Especially with kids. We were always hungry when we landed somewhere and felt like we did not eat and drink enough aboard the aircraft. The kids don’t really eat the food, or throw it everywhere you don’t want it to go. Or, they just fall asleep right before the meals are handed out… and they would be screaming hungry when they’d wake up (in the middle of the night far before breakfast would be served). Our biggest mistake was to give our daughter heaps of sugar and sweets (we did not bring any other food aboard), which ended in puking all over the airplane bathroom. Nowadays, one of our family travel hacks is to pack a variety of small bags with ‘airplane survival food‘ for kids so we can hold on to our own bed schedule and wake up schedule. Try to think what moments kids typically eat in their normal time zone. What is a logical moment for kids to ask for something to eat in the plane? Take a cup and a small food recipient to eat from for each child. While in their aircraft chair, they love to have a recipient to put things in and take things out.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open Road8. Airplane gift carrousel (kids up to 2,5 years old)
Until kids are about 2,5, it is most likely that parents need to entertain them while in the aircraft. Even going to the toilet as a parent, is almost impossible (screaming child: ‘I want to gooooooo with you!!!!‘). You will be walking around the cabin (each parents does 20 minutes, then comes back and switches for the other parent to take over). With a high energy child, it is almost impossible to sit down in a chair with the child. Screens are really not helpful in this age, as the attention span of such young children is no more than 5 minutes or so. If you are flying anytime soon with a child in this age range: don’t be discouraged. Flying with young children is very doable. What really helps is getting your own mindset right: accept the fact that the first years of their lives while traveling in an airplane, there is no time to relax, sit and read (hahaha) ánd that you’re going to do your utmost to make it a fun journey. We looked for ways to have our children play by themselves for just a few minutes, every time just a few minutes longer.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open Road

One of those family travel hacks that worked really well for us is an airplane gift carrousel for them: a small bag with gifts to unwrap: peel off stickers (big hit!), 3 little wooden cars in carton garages, large beads in a cup with an easy to remove cap, small magnetic clips that build into a form like a square. Every hour (or so), the child can pick a small gift from the bag. A nicely wrapped gift (use giftpaper with favourite animals/ heroes/ colours on it) gives you about half an hour of peace. A nine hour flight will become endurable in that way.

Family Travel Hacks | The Wide Open Road9. Create a place to sleep for the kids aboard the aircraft
When we fly intercontinentally, we make sure the kids have eaten properly and enough before making their ‘bed’ ready. For our eldest, Isa, we put down an inflatable mattress on the floor at our feet. If you are lucky with the flight attendant monitoring your row, it is possible to put your child in this place when the aircraft has reached cruising altitude and the seatbelt sign has been turned off. Vesper sleeps on the chair next to me, Diana. Since we book a chair for each of the kids, the chair of Isa is available as she sleeps on the floor. Our son has two chairs to sleep on. Our daughter started sleeping the entire flight (7 hours), when she was little over 3 years old. Our son sleeps about 3 hours on an intercontinental flight (he currently is 2,5).


This post explains how we implement our own family travel hacks and how we prepare for and execute a trip like this. If you have any questions, please drop us a line. Are there any family travel hacks you use when traveling with kids? We are very interested to learn from you so please share in the comments!

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