As a frequently traveling mom of two, I dread the winter travel months a little bit. While heading home for the holidays is tons of fun, the merriest time of year also coincides with cold and flu season. Chances are good that someone in the family will come down with a cold or other minor illness just before a big trip or while we are already on the road.
Traveling with kids can be tough enough, but traveling with sick kids is even tougher. Somehow my family has managed to survive all types of minor illnesses over the years in our travels – colds and coughs, ear infections, stomach ailments, and more. We now sometimes refer to trip by the sickness someone got during it – like the burst eardrum trip to Disney’s Aulani or the stomach-bug-in-an-Uber in Panama.
But we also lived to tell the tale and so can you. Here are the essential tips you need to know about travel with a sick child – whether on a road trip, by air, or anywhere else.
(Editor’s Note May 2022: This post was last updated significantly in 2019, when the implications of traveling with a kid under the weather were very different than they are now. Obviously, no one should be traveling – especially not by air – with a case of active COVID-19. Consult with your family’s physician if someone in your family is ill while you are traveling and be sure to obtain detailed expert advice about your specific situation. I recommend always traveling with enough rapid antigen tests for everyone in your family so you are able to make informed decisions about whether to continue with travel already in progress. See my other COVID-19 packing list recommendations here. )
Tips for Travel with a Sick Child
1. Check with your pediatrician.
First things first – I’m not a doctor and chances are neither are you. But I do come from a family of many doctors. That means I have the good sense to know to check with one before traveling with a sick kid to make sure it is safe. For mild illnesses, your pediatrician will usually give you the go-ahead as I’ve gotten several times before.
But it is nevertheless important to call! A physician can offer specific advice about your child’s exact ailment to make the travel experience less unpleasant. A physician will also be able to recommend a course of action in the event your child takes a turn for the worse later in your trip. This will enable you to take steps before you travel to be prepared, like researching whether there is an urgent care clinic or pharmacy near where you are staying.
2. Check with your airline.
One of the hardest dilemmas parents face when traveling by air when a child gets sick is whether to cancel the trip. Airlines have exorbitant change and cancellation fees that most families can’t afford to swallow. It’s often easy to delay a road trip a few hours or even a day or two, but you often just don’t have that luxury with flights.
Nevertheless, sometimes your child is just too sick to travel when a flight time draws near. Although many times you are out of luck and out money (unless you have travel insurance), airlines can sometimes surprise you and be compassionate. It never hurts to give your airline a call, explain the situation, and even offer a doctor’s note to see what the airline might possibly do to make the situation less financially onerous. If you are flying Southwest Airlines, always call or just cancel online because the airline does not charge change fees! That’s one of the major reasons Southwest gets more of our family’s air travel business – it’s built-in insurance.
Speaking of insurance, don’t forget that if you booked your flights with the right credit card, a cancellation might be covered by that credit card’s insurance. I put most of my flights on my Chase Sapphire Reserve card for just this reason, because it has more robust included travel insurance than most other cards on the market. See my guide to the best travel credit cards for families to evaluate all the perks!
3. Pack the right medicines (in your carry on!).
Before hopping on a flight or getting in the car for a long trip with a mildly sick child in tow, you need to be prepared with the right medicines. You never know how accessible a pharmacy will be at your destination or what they will have in stock. Airports in particular sometimes have very little to purchase, and what they do have is often adults-only dosages or types of medications not safe for younger kids.
Pain relievers in child doses like acetaminophen or ibuprofen are something I never travel without no matter what time of year. In winter months, kid-friendly cold medicines are also a must-have (but watch the age appropriateness of a few of them – many aren’t approved until your child is 6 and older). It’s also a good idea to have medicines for common stomach bugs.
Remembering the right medicines is half the battle but also remember to pack them in your carry on bag. You need to make sure the medicines you need are always accessible, particularly in the case of a flight delay or lost bag situation. If you are forced to check your carry on luggage due to space restrictions, always make sure you retrieve medicines before surrendering your bag.
Finally, remember that medicines are an exception to the TSA’s 3.4 ounce liquid restriction. You may need to undergo special screening to bring them for your kids, but you are absolutely allowed to take them through checkpoints if medically needed. Bring a doctor’s note if you are particularly concerned (and keep all prescriptions in their original bottle).
4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Fevers that accompany colds and other minor bugs also have a dehydrating effect, as does air travel. The two can work a double whammy on your child and make the sickness much worse. Pack a reusable water bottle for each child before any trip and fill it up in a water fountain once you pass through airport security. That way you are never waiting for the airplane drink service to keep a sick child hydrated.
5. Watch out for those ears!
Young kids often have trouble with ear pressurization on airplanes even when healthy, but equalization is even harder when they have a respiratory or sinus-related ailment. For babies, I always made sure to give a bottle or nurse on take off and landing to help with ear pain. For older children, a water bottle, sippy cup, applesauce pouch, gum or anything to chew on helps.
6. Pack clothing changes.
Sickness can strike at any time and in any place – and in all shapes and forms. Usually respiratory bugs like colds are the most common illnesses my family has encountered while traveling. But our kids have also been hit by their fair share of stomach bugs too. I have tried hard, but will ever forget the time my toddler caught a short-lived but nasty stomach bug while we were in Panama. He picked a particularly inopportune moment to throw up all over me while we were riding in an Uber headed out for a day of sightseeing. Even colds and coughs can sometimes have the unfortunate side effect of a young child losing his or her lunch. Kid sickness is just messy.
The result? I still pack changes of clothes for myself and my kids in our carry on bags or daypacks whenever possible. I also throw in some Wet Wipes and a Ziploc bag or two in case we need to clean up a mess. Finally, I also always double check the seat back pocket anytime I sit down in an airplane to make sure there is an airsickness bag at the ready. Because you just never know!
7. Take it easy.
When you are traveling with a sick kid, be prepared to deviate from your planned travel schedule. Kids need rest to get well. This often means, of course, missing out on that extra outing or attraction you really wanted to see at your destination.
I remember well spending nearly an entire day in Mexico last year sitting in the hotel room so my son could get well from food poisoning. We missed out on an amazing beach excursion, but that just means we’ll have to plan another trip and go back, right? (I’ll find any excuse to justify traveling more!)
The good news is that kids bounce back really quickly from most minor illnesses – faster than adults. If you take that rest and allow their little bodies a break to heal, you will usually be out and about again before you know it.
Have you traveled with a sick child? How did you handle it? Are you ready for this year’s winter travel season?