Academic Conferences and Travel with Small Children

I will admit it outright; the last thing I want to do is take my kids to a conference. Conferences are a whirlwind of meetings, discussions, presentations, and networking opportunities. I find myself swept up in the chaos of them, so much so that I often forget to drink water or take a break for myself.

Unfortunately, I have had to travel with my children to conferences on a number of occasions. Sometimes my husband can’t watch them at home due to his work schedule or, more recently, a child is nursing and will not take a bottle. Thus, children get taken along for the ride of conference craziness.

This year, I have traveled to two conferences with children. The first was in Baltimore and the second was in San Francisco. My son was 6 months old when the Baltimore and still nursing very frequently. I brought my mother along for the trip, which made everything go fairly smoothly besides running out of a few meetings, sessions, and dinner-dates early due to my son needing to nurse. He did not take a bottle, which I first welcomed because I enjoy the special nursing relationship a mother can have with their child. However, now that I am nearly 16 months into our nursing relationship, I’ve realized that it is getting much more difficult to wean my son or limit our co-sleeping arrangement.

That brings me to my San Francisco conference, which involved a road trip from Idaho to San Francisco with my 1 year old, my 3 year old, and my mother because my son still nurses and does not take milk out of a cup. The trip was fraught with drama from the onset – we all contracted the norovirus for the third time this year (yuck) and the morning we were supposed to leave my daughter started throwing up with it. We waited for the virus to pass, then got on the road for San Francisco. Once we got there, my mom went two days without getting sick, and then caught the norovirus from the kids. That stunted my meetings and ability to attend conference sessions, but I did make my own session and a few other social meetings, so all in all we survived and had a fairly fine time in the city with a few bumps in the road.

I drove back to Idaho all by myself with both kids in tow. I admit the thought of that drive made my stomach turn, but I figured the worst that could happen is that we would take forever to get home and stay over in hotels for many days. Parts of the drive are difficult to navigate (especially at night when it is very dark and little lighting on the roads), remote, and, in some parts, very rough and treacherous. We made it back safely, though the trek threw my children’s sleep schedule off and they are still a bit wound up several days later thanks to spending nearly 4 days in a car.

Based on these experiences along with spending over a month in hotels this year on other work-related travel with my kids, I have some tips to share with others who embark on a similar journey. Please feel free to add to these lists in the comments section. I am curious to hear other tricks of the trade for parents who work and travel a lot with children!

Tips for Traveling on the Road with Kids

  • Bring lots of snacks – puffs, snack bars, dried fruit, water, goldfish crackers, and gatorade are all great little treats to keep everyone happy, including yourself.
  • Use a car DVD player if you can afford one, and make sure you know how to run it on Fastplay and/or you have a remote you can use to keep it running. Fastplay makes sure the DVD restarts automatically after it is over.
  • Bring a kid’s potty, especially if you want to get in and get out of a rest stop quickly. I was driving at night, and usually had one kid asleep when the other needed to go potty. This saves you the time and hassle of getting out of the car and/or waking the other child/ren if one of them needs to go to the bathroom.
  • Keep a bag of toys, pacis, snacks, diapers, wipes, toilet paper, small snack containers (the ones with the lids that don’t come off easily and spill the snack everywhere) filled with treats, and clothes up in the front of the car with you in case you need to hand something back to the kids.
  • If you are going a long distance and want to avoid stopping one million times, have a checklist of things you need to accomplish at each stop. For me, this has meant diaper change for baby, nursing for baby, potty reminder (and possible potty trip) for toddler, snack break, and a chance to stretch our legs if the rest stop is safe and well populated.
  • If you need to go to the bathroom and have several small children in tow, stop at a place that has grocery carts that fit into the store’s bathroom. Place one kid in the seat of the cart and the other(s) in the big portion of the cart, then use the restroom with all of them in it. Alternatively, bring a big stroller, but often those do not fit in the restroom.
  • Pack trashbags in the car AND in your luggage. You never know what will end up soiled, and you will want to pack at least 2 or 3 trash bags to keep the soiled laundry separate from the “dirty” but “non-soiled” laundry. I always pack a trashbag for my dirty clothes, anyhow, even if traveling alone.
  • Stop and stay the night at a hotel if you are tired or stressed to the point you need a break (if you can afford it). It is hard to travel with small children, and it is much safer for you to stay the night somewhere than to stay on the road while stressed out and tired. Take care of yourself first – you are the one driving.
  • Always pack a stroller or baby carrier unless your kids are absolutely too big to fit in it anymore. The bigger the stroller, the better. You will need this if you want to haul luggage yourself or avoid paying a bellman to help you bring your luggage to your hotel room.
  • Pack sippy cups and keep them in the car, even for the preschoolers who might be out of the sippy cup phase. This will prevent spills in the car.
  • Be careful not to keep heavy or dangerous toys in the car. If you stop suddenly, they could injure you or your children.
  • Keep an emergency kit in the car if you don’t already have one.
  • In case of car sickness, pack a “puke bucket,” towels, a change of clothes, and bottles of water to clean up the mess. Towels and water are always good things to keep in the car in case of any sort of mess….parents who have small children know what I am talking about.
  • For toddlers and preschoolers who are potty-trained during the day but not during periods of sleep, put them in a diaper on the trip. Some, like my daughter, will refuse to go in it, but if they by chance fall asleep in their carseat, this will prevent them from peeing in it.
  • Crying from what my dad used to call the “peanut gallery of the car” (aka the kids in the backseat) is probably inevitable at some point on the trip. Face it, we as adults get tired, frustrated, and exhausted being in a car, but it is not culturally acceptable for us to mope or cry at the wheel. Kids express their emotions in primal and authentic ways now foreign to us as such emotions have been “enculturated” out of us, so accept that crying will likely take place. Figure out a plan of action as to how you want to handle it. Will you pull over? Are you able to drive safely when you hear crying? What strategies will you use to calm yourself and your children? Will there be points in the drive where it is not safe to pull over? How will you handle that?

Tips for Staying in a Hotel Room with Kids

  • If you can afford it, stay in a hotel with refrigerators. Nothing is more miserable than paying $14.00 for a cup of milk at 10pm at night from room service because your toddler needs it and refuses to go to bed without it (and believe me, I speak from experience). Find out where the local grocery stores are located, and buy what you would normally eat as a family.
  • Better yet, stay in a hotel with kitchens. We love the Marriott Residence Inns franchise because they are relatively cheap (especially weekday rates), they have a great rewards program, they have rooms with kitchens, AND they always upgrade us for whatever reason. The last two stays at different Marriott Residence Inns we were upgraded to a town home and a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom suite – no extra charges. The have fabulous breakfasts that come with the room rate, too. And most of them offer free dinners during weeknights as well as free food throughout the day (bananas, muffins, apples, cookies). We can’t say enough good things about their franchise.
  • Ask the hotel if they have high chairs you can keep in your room. This is a lifesaver if you have a toddler or baby.
  • Sweet talk the people who work at the hotel’s front desk and maid service. Sometimes this will get you free snacks, free milk cartons, or other goodies you might need for kiddos.
  • In a similar vein, be courteous, thankful, and kind to everyone you encounter. Some people don’t like kids (heck, I didn’t “love” kids until I had some of my own), and you aren’t going to change that no matter how awesome your kids are. If you can swing it, give people who are helpful (at hotels or on planes or just at different points of your trip) small thank you gifts, such as a candy bar or a thank you note you’ve written in advance. People are more willing to help you if you are kind to begin with.
  • If the hotel room doesn’t have a refrigerator, ask to store milk and other perishables in the hotel’s fridge. The worst they can say is no.
  • Pack strategically. Think ahead when packing your stuff, especially if you are traveling alone with kids. What can you physically carry to an elevator with two small children (or more) in tow? What if there isn’t someone to help you? Some hotels have only one person working at the desk who cannot leave to assist you. When you arrive at the hotel, what will your kids absolutely positively need out of the suitcase (a comfort blanket, a snack, their toothbrush, their pjs?)? Pack those absolutely necessary items at the top of the suitcase so they are easily accessible.
  • Pack a portable DVD player and/or DVD player that connects to the TV in the hotel room (most will connect with a simple cable). That way, you avoid paying exorbitant fees for “Dora” or “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on demand, which can run you at least $3.99 an episode!

One thought on “Academic Conferences and Travel with Small Children

  1. Pingback: Dealing with the Tenure Clock and Academic Parenthood | tenure.track.mama

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