An early morning wake-up call couldn’t dim our enthusiasm for taking my five-year-old great-nephew Elijah (we call him Eli) on his first plane trip. I’m not sure who was the most excited — Eli or us.
Eli has had a love of airplanes since before he was two. Whenever he visited us, he loved watching them take off and land at San Francisco International Airport. Mr. TWS and I encouraged that interest and talked to him about the joys of going places by plane. When Eli asked if we would take him on a plane ride someday, our brains went into planning mode. First, we checked with his mom (my niece) for her permission. Then, we checked Eli’s kindergarten schedule, our schedules, airfares, and accommodations. We came up with a short getaway that was perfect for sharing this momentous travel experience with a special five-year-old boy.
Destination: San Diego
Just a one-and-half-hour flight from San Francisco, San Diego seemed to us the perfect choice for a young first timer. Because we hadn’t been there in many years, we thought San Diego would be a great place for us to revisit and we knew that there would be plenty of activities for kids.
Getting ready for take-off
Since we were going to have only one night, we scheduled an early morning outbound flight and a late evening return to make the most of two days for the trip. When we woke Eli up, I said, “I’m sorry to get you up so early” and he replied reassuringly, “That’s OK.” Then he looked outside and seeing it was still dark said, “Do people really go places at night”?
We had spent a little time letting Eli know what to expect at the airport, particularly about airport security, and he handled the whole process very well. After we told him our gate number, he was eager to help us find it calling out the number of each gate we passed and excitedly letting us know when we reached ours.
Just watching the planes take off and land and pull in and out of the gates at such a close vantage point was exciting for Eli. But there is no shortage of other things at the airport, particularly for a five-year-old first-time traveler. Mr. TWS took him on a walk through the terminal pointing out planes at the gates, shops, and art. He enjoyed it so much that he asked me to go with him again so he could show me the same sights.
Eli was proud as he carried his own ticket and gave it to the gate agent. The simple act put a big smile on her face (and his) and made him feel quite grown up.
Mr. TWS told Eli that the first thing he should do when he gets on the plane is to look to the left and see the pilots in the cockpit. He did exactly that and was greeted by the pilot with a big “Hi Buddy!” He was a little shy and serious, but also thrilled about the meeting. The next adventure was finding our seats. We pointed to the number on the ticket and where to look in the plane for a match. He easily located the seat, sat down and immediately fastened his seat belt, an important part of the instruction from Mr. TWS.
Eli felt very special to have the window seat, and it was a big part of his enjoyment and excitement during takeoff, landing, and the flight between.
Soon after takeoff, we experience a bit of turbulence. When we first hit a pocket that shook the plane, Eli was surprised and said, “What was that”? Mr. TWS calmly explained how it was just like riding in car when you hit a bump on a rough road or if you’re on a boat and riding on the waves. Eli understood that and continued to enjoy the flight, never worrying about any further turbulence (which was fairly minor during the rest of the flight). We think that with his first bumpy ride behind him (and reassurance about and an understanding of turbulence), he’s prepared for future flights without fearing turbulence.
As frequent flyers, we all know how sensitive ears might be during descent, so we gave Eli a piece of gum to help his stay clear. Sure enough, shortly into the descent, he said, “What’s happening to my ears?” and while he continued to chew his gum, we gave him some additional tips. Mine — to hold his nose and blow a little (usually works for me) and Mr. TWS’s — to yawn wide and often. Since we told him that this was normal, he calmly tried both and was able to keep the unusual sensation from becoming a painful problem. Once on the ground, he let us know that he could hear better again.
When we deplaned in San Diego, Eli thanked the pilot for flying him to San Diego and had a nice little chat with him.
Where we stayed: Room with a view
The big hotel was a new experience for Eli as well and there were many things at the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay hotel and grounds to explore. Overlooking Mission Bay, the view was fabulous and the boats and other activities we could see from the balcony of the room were fun to watch. But the pools were the big attraction for Eli as he looked down during the day and also at night. We hadn’t planned for time in the pool to be part of the trip activities because of the cool weather forecast but with a heated pool and an adjoining hot tub, it made sense to indulge Eli’s desire to spend time in the water. He really enjoyed it, particularly the slide into the pool and making new friends in the hot tub.
Keep it simple: What we did in San Diego
There are many things to do with kids in San Diego and on a short trip you should be selective, practical, and flexible. There are excellent resources for San Diego activities for kids such as the comprehensive list of activities in our friend’s blog, The World is a Book. However, we decided to keep it simple in the short time in order to eliminate any stress around commitments, time constraints, reservations, and waiting in lines.
Head to the beach!
As it turned out, the biggest hit for Eli was spending time in the water despite the cool temperatures. He had a blast playing with the waves and running around in the sand. So we ended up maximizing that aspect of the trip. On the first day, Eli was still wearing his jeans as we got to the beach, so we took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants, and he headed toward the shore to chase the waves outward and then let them chase him back. Of course, his jeans got a bit wet, and then wetter, and finally he did a face plant and his shirt and everything else was soaked so we got him into his suit and he played for hours.
Old Town San Diego
We didn’t plan to spend much time exploring Old Town San Diego but Eli, camera always at the ready, found many things of interest including buildings of the old west, shops, restaurants and floral and cactus displays. And so, we spent a bit more time than expected before and after dinner in the area.
Point Loma and the Cabrillo Monument
On Saturday morning, Eli had the pool at the top of his activity list, but it was too cool in the early morning (though I’m sure he would have thought nothing of it). So we had a quick breakfast and decided to go for a drive to explore Point Loma. The views were spectacular, and we all enjoyed visiting the lighthouse and the Cabrillo Monument.
But the highlight was hiking on the rocky trails many right on the water’s edge such as those near the Point Loma tide pools. My favorite moment happened a bit after I warned Eli to be careful of slipping as we walked up a sandy path. As we were headed back down, he stopped to tell a family coming up, “Be careful up there; it’s slippery!”
We took a drive around beautiful La Jolla (north of San Diego) and had lunch there on our second day. Nearby the restaurant was an area of the beach (La Jolla Cover) where the sea lions gather. Eli didn’t seem to be bothered by the rather unpleasant smell as he walked among the sea lions to see them up close on this glorious afternoon. Then it was time for him to hit the beach again where he would have gladly stayed much longer if we hadn’t had a plane to catch.
Kid-friendly restaurants don’t have to be typical family restaurants. Adults and kids can have the food they want in a comfortable ambiance. We enjoyed two restaurants for lunch and one for dinner that had great options for adults and good kids’ menus. The ones that we tried and would recommend:
Draft Mission Beach
3105 Ocean Front Walk
San Diego, CA 92109
Cafe Coyote Restaurant
2461 San Diego Avenue,
San Diego CA 92110
1235 Coast Blvd.
La Jolla, CA 92037
Mission Bay restaurant tip: Despite appearances, not all restaurants allow kids. We heard that the Sandbar had awesome fish tacos. I’ll bet they do, but after we sat down at a table near the open windows, we were told that we would have to leave because customers must be 21 years old. When we stepped outside, Eli asked, “Did we just kicked out of that place”? It became a running joke with the three of us during the rest of the trip that Eli was going to get us kicked out of a place again. He loved it, and when we dropped him off with his mom the next day, he said (and he said it proudly): “I got us kicked out a restaurant!”
Back at the San Diego airport, Eli was now like a pro — helping move our bags onto the conveyor belt, walking through the scanner, and patiently waiting for bags on the other side.
When it comes to flying, Eli seems like a natural. He found himself a fairly comfortable spot to lay his head and promptly fell asleep soon after takeoff as he watched the lights of San Diego disappear below. Mr. TWS in the adjacent seat was asleep as well. Wide awake, I contemplated how much fun our San Diego excursion had been.
We thought that it added significantly to Eli’s experience to provide him with a camera so that he could take pictures of his own for the trip. We let him use (and have complete charge of) one of our old point-and-shoot cameras and gave him only a single direction — to take pictures of things he liked. He took 180 photos! We’ve included some of his photos below.
There were excellent views of the Hyatt pools from our room, and Eli got a lot of photos of them at different times of day.
He seemed to have a particular fancy for cacti, stopping to shoot several close ups, especially during our evening in Old Town San Diego.
He also loved taking photos of Mr. TWS and me in various locations — the car, the elevator, walking along a sidewalk, etc. Of course, he couldn’t resist a selfie either.
I hope that Eli will make it back to San Diego someday and that he’ll smile as he remembers our time with him there.
Our tips for traveling with a five-year-old:
Based on this experience, we share these recommendations. We’d love to hear tips from those of you who have traveled with children, too.
- When renting a car — remember the car seat. Although we had seen reviews warning about problems with the condition of car seats available at rental agencies, we decided to have one provided by Budget at the airport in San Diego rather than have to travel with one. We’re glad we did because the car seat we were given was clean and of good quality and having one provided really simplified things.
- Think about your transportation to the airport. Normally, Mr. TWS and I take a taxi to SFO. One of the deterrents this time was that with a five-year-old we were going to need a car seat for him in the taxi. Already having decided not to bring one on the trip, we looked for another way. Our decision to drive to an off-airport parking lot and then take their shuttle (no car seat required) to the airport worked out well. It was economical, convenient, and service at De Anza Parking was great. I would consider this option in the future for short trips, with or without a child in tow.
- Prepare the child for travel. Spend time prior to the trip explaining some of the processes involved such as rental cars, shuttles, aircraft information, security procedures, and in-flight activities. Then explain things as you go along. Eli was totally paying attention to everything that was happening and was like a sponge picking up the information.
- Enjoy the airport. There’s always much to see at the airport outside the windows and in the terminal — shops, art, and people from around the world.
- Get them involved. Give the child responsibilities such as helping to find gates, presenting tickets, and carrying appropriate luggage or other items. Eli enjoyed these, he learned, and he will be able and willing to do these in his future travels.
- Maximize activities on the plane. Looking in the cockpit when boarding, finding seats, fastening the seat belt, pointing out airplane features, reviewing the safety card, watching activities on the tarmac, and keeping excitement building for the first-ever take off were all part of the adventure and added to Eli’s fun.
- Explain common in-flight experiences. This demystifies things that might be otherwise alarming, such as turbulence and the effect on the ears of changes in cabin pressure, and makes them seem commonplace rather than a reason to be anxious about flying.
- Capture the moments. Buy an inexpensive disposable camera or let the little traveler use an old one of yours to enable him/her to capture the special moments through their his/her eyes.
- Enjoy the ride. Whether on a road trip or high in the sky, encourage children to observe and appreciate the scenery along the way. Although I can understand that games, movies, and other distractions are sometimes necessary (for many of us on long flights), a child can be just as interested in the real world around him and seeing new sights.
- Plan an agenda but be prepared to be flexible. Anticipate and be flexible spending time on whatever might turns up. Serendipitous activities can often be the most fun.
- Share the excitement of travel. Convey your excitement about traveling. Be part of opening a young person’s mind to travel whether to see distant lands or to explore close to home.