When you picture travel with toddlers, what do you imagine? Recently a friend told me, “Well, you know, it was really getting past the time when we should be traveling with my daughter.” At the time, her daughter had just turned about 15 months.
I don’t think it’s a secret that traveling with youngsters from ages one to three can be challenging. Well, OK, fraught with peril is a more accurate description. Before they can walk, kids can be distracted, newborns can be lulled to sleep by the roar of the airplane engines. Over age 3, the world of kids clubs and acceptability opens a lot of travel doors. In between lie 2 years where travel with toddlers seems a Sisyphean feat. Still, though, isn’t it best to show our kids how to be good travelers?
Danny Kaye said, “To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” How do we teach our children properly if we never expose them? We learn best when something is taught earlier in life. Besides, nothing good was ever easily won. I’ve written before about why I travel with my toddler, and every trip we take re-affirms my commitment.
You can make your life much easier when traveling with little ones. I’m going to share several of the tips I’ve learned along the way.
1. Adjust Your Expectations about Travel with Toddlers
Ah, this is the key to making it easier to travel with toddlers. Before kids, you could jet off to Iceland in the middle of winter to see the Northern Lights, and be home Tuesday morning, jet lagged but starry-eyed. Nowadays, the only stars you may see are the glow-in-the-dark stickers on your little one’s bedroom ceiling. When you start having difficulty strapping your little one to your back in whatever papoose you choose, that would be the time to relinquish the “8 countries in 7 days” fantasy. Even if your kid sleeps 11 hours at night straight through at home, this never happens when traveling. Jet lag affects all of us, and if you have too rigid a schedule, you will find a lot of crankiness and irritability and melt downs. And not just your toddler’s meltdowns, either.
So, take a cue from Ferdinand and stop to smell the flowers. Research a lot of activities, but don’t schedule them back to back. Remember that fresh air can cure jet lag, so find some open spaces to run around, or playgrounds where you can meet the locals. Make a list of “must dos” and try to plan around that. Give yourself enough time in each location, and try to stick to naps.
2. Bring snacks
Lots of snacks. Gummy fruit snacks, pretzels, popcorn, granola bars, those little fruit and veggie puree pouches. Nothing can help soothe sore ears during plane descent like snacks. My little V usually relies on lollipops and freeze dried yogurt melts. If you package the snacks in reusable toddler-friendly containers, you can then re-use the containers later on as a non-breakable plate at restaurants.
Along this same vein, try to carry some of their favorite beverages. A spill-proof water bottle that can be refilled is an obvious choice. If they love chocolate milk, though, try to find some shelf-stable ones that you can pack. Airline security does allow you to bring toddler/infant food, but you can actually find a lot of the shelf stable ones in the airport.
3. Choose where to stay
I think choosing where to stay with your kids can make all the difference in making it easier to travel with toddlers. Certainly if you have a big family a vacation rental is probably the way to go. You have more space for (hopefully) less money. Along with that, though, you may have to shoulder some inconveniences. You may have to bring your own pack and play or inflatable toddler bed. You do not have someone else to do the housekeeping before you leave.
Hotel chains recently have worked very hard to cater better to younger guests. Omni, Ritz Carlton, and several other chains have new programs designed for parents of infants and toddlers. They have pack and plays, special toiletry kits, sometimes milk and cookie delivery. I like the suite hotels, too, to make it easier to travel with toddlers. They often have more space and a kitchenette. If you do stay at any hotel, I recommend you request a refrigerator when you make your reservation. Also ask to see if they have laundry facilities available.
4. Stop Potty Training
OK, I realize this is controversial. We all want our kids potty-trained as early as possible, right? Who really wants to lug around a deluxe box of Huggies on every trip? Still, though, in light of trying to make travel with toddlers much easier, break out the pull ups. At least for the flight or the car ride. You know how much trouble you have holding it while waiting for the fasten seatbelt sign to turn off? Remember that the hallmark of a toddler’s personality is impulsivity. There you go. They and you will be relieved at how much easier it is to keep them well-hydrated when you’re not trying to rush them to a tiny airplane bathroom. Jet lag doesn’t help kids want to use the potty, anyway.
Once you get back, you can always break out the potty training books again. The journey back to diaper-free is much shorter the second time around.
Now, if you travel often with your kids and need to potty train on the go, check out this excellent article from Jenny Lynn of The TraveLynn Family: Tips for Potty Training on Holiday. #3 and #7 are my favorites.
5. Decide Basic Necessities
By this, I mean to make a decision on what you actually plan to get out of a trip with your toddler. Do you need a relaxing break from work? Maybe visit a relative who hasn’t seen your kid since birth? A friend’s wedding? Do you just want to show him or her something you loved in college? Keep that one goal in mind and plan around it. Then check out the next recommendation.
6. Recruit Others to Your Cause
The best vacations we have taken have been with friends or family. Someone else is there to walk your thirteen month old up and down airplane aisles, or run out to pick up some milk, or babysit while you go to your wedding or have a relaxing date night. In my case, it’s at least someone else to take photos as I have usually forgotten my camera.
So, call up some grandparents, cousins, siblings, friends. Go visit some of those people. Your travel experience will be valuable and much easier.
7. Consider a Staycation
How often do you get to be a tourist in your own town? You don’t have to travel far to teach your kids how to be travelers. Stay in a nearby city, explore a National Park, visit a museum or indoor playground you’ve never seen. Enjoy yourself.
8. If you Hate to Fly, Don’t Fly
That is, if you have any choice in the matter. Obviously, emergencies, holidays, whatever emerge and you need to get somewhere quickly–use the airlines. Otherwise, keep in mind that kids take their cues from you. If you are a nervous wreck because flying (understandably) makes you anxious, you may not have the easiest flight, and with a kid next to you, you need to be aware. You really shouldn’t be hitting it hard at the airport bar thirty minutes to take off, unless you’ve taken advantage of #6.
Feel free to drive, take a train, a ferry or a cruise ship. If you are comfortable and having fun, your toddler will, too.
9. Book Flights Early and Spring for the Extra Seat
Book early and make sure you pick seats that are together. Why is it always that one guy who refuses to switch middle seats? Is 23 B really such a special seat? Do you win the lotto if you sit in 23B? So try to book early and ensure you can get seats together.
Now, about the extra seat. I know, flights are not getting cheaper. They seem to be nickel and dime-ing even the air you breathe on some airlines. I know how tempting it is to listen to the “kids under 2 don’t need their own ticket on domestic flights” spiel. But listen. Kids under 1 are tiny, generally. Even if they squirm, you can maneuver around them. Once they start walking though, you really benefit from the extra seat for them. Here’s why:
- You can bring your car seat on board so you don’t have to check it or rent one. I know, a controversial matter but have you seen them chuck luggage into the baggage area of the plane? I feel like a checked car seat is a damaged car seat. We have strapped our seats to our roll-a-board suitcase with bungee cords, and it works perfectly. Plus my kid can sleep in her car seat. Win win win.
- More space. Obviously. But dream about it for a moment. This way you have a little more room to fish crackers out of the diaper bag, retrieve errant toys that have been flung to the floor, and maybe stretch out for some naps. Here’s hoping.
- Your kid can feel a little more independent. Especially the 18 month–3 year old toddler set really values the little things that they can do themselves. They get their own tray table, they can play with their toys in their own space, maybe they can even request their own apple juice. I had a lot fewer things spilled on me once I sprang for my daughter’s extra seat.
10. On Packing
I think every blog out there has several “all inclusive packing lists for travel with toddlers.” I say narrow it down to the following items:
- Clothes–for you and for them. I have forgotten to bring more than one shirt on a seven day trip before, whereas my daughter had 18 changes of clothes. Ahh, balance.
- Diapers–see #4
- Medications–see #11
- Snacks–see #2
- Something they love that will make them remember home. A stuffed animal, a special blanket, a pacifier. Sleeping in a different bed isn’t easy for any of us, and kids usually thrive on routine.
- Toys and/or Activities. No toy will occupy your toddler’s attention for an entire 6 hour flight. Bring more than an ipad. Do fill up the iPad with downloaded movies and TV shows (airplane WiFi is too unreliable). Bring an assortment. Avoid crayons as they roll. Try Magic Ink or Water Wow books–they are much more contained and less likely to stain. Bring a few new toys, or “new toys they haven’t seen in a while,” and if you have time, wrap them up for a little more entertainment.
11. Medicate when Necessary
As a full disclosure, check with your doctor first before any medicines. Still, tylenol can help a lot with ear issues when flying and the inevitable fevers that seem to arise the minute you land somewhere without a 24-hour pharmacy. Try benadryl about 3-4 weeks before your trip, as some kids have a paradoxic reaction where it makes them crazy wired. I know that from personal experience. If your little one gets motion sick, try Motion Eaze drops behind the ears or children’s dramamine. These few things don’t take up a lot of space but can help prevent late-night emergencies.
Final Thoughts on How to Make Travel with Toddlers Easier
Nothing in life is perfect. Still, though, traveling can help build resilience and gratitude in kids. Though their capacity for empathy sometimes seems to be lacking, interacting with others who are different from them builds their view of the world. Plus, being out of your routine helps you, too. I’ve learned a lot about my family by traveling with them, and I think you will, too.