I didn’t grow up in a traveling family, so I never imagined myself being one developing go-to tips and tricks for traveling with babies and toddlers. And yet, here I am.
As a child, we went on an annual family beach trip; my best friend and I got a trip to New York for our 13th birthdays, and my family went on a cruise and to Vegas once with friends.
That was the extent of my travel during childhood. More than a lot of people, but still, I never imagined traveling enough to struggle with jetsetting with a baby or toddler.
But then graduate school happened.
I was sitting in a grant writing class one day when I saw an email come through about a short summer study abroad to Italy. I had wanted to study abroad in college, but it wasn’t financially feasible, so I hadn’t done it.
Italy was also at the very top of my bucket list.
My heart nearly stopped when I was this email. Bucket list item checked, plus course credit for an affordable price? No brainer. Surely my loans would cover that!
I had applied before the class was even over. When I got out of class, I called Husband (then Boyfriend) to tell him what I’d done. He wasn’t in grad school. He had a real, grownup job, and was kind enough to assist me so I could make this dream come true.
6 months later, I was in Rome, which to me, was much like being in Heaven. Husband-then-Boyfriend met me at the end of the trip and we jaunted up to Switzerland. I was hooked.
Travel was my new passion.
I yearned for travel. It beckoned me. I would sacrifice nearly anything to get just one more trip into my life. For years, Husband and I traveled anytime we could–to Europe, Central America, within the States. A cool academic conference was happening somewhere far away? I didn’t care where; I just wanted to go.
Why the lack of interest in kids? We wanted to travel!
We’d return from one trip and say, “We need 3 more good trips before we have kids.”
It was always 3 more, no matter how many trips we took.
Eventually, we decided to give that whole “trying to conceive” (TTC) thing a go.
We traveled as normal throughout the TTC process. At an academic conference, I said to Husband, “How cool would it be to tell a kid they were conceived in Hawaii?”
Husband looked at me skeptically. As if to say, “We are NOT telling our children where they were conceived.”
Alas, no such luck.
This experience made travel tough. When you’re scheduling your life around cycles and tests, it’s hard to get away much.
By the time we finally had Jack, I felt like I had lost so much of myself.
I’d gained so much weight I was unrecognizable to myself. My body had not felt like my own for years, I was a stay-at-home mom during a fortunately long maternity leave, which made it abundantly clear that I am not made to be a stay-at-home-mom.
(Kudos to those of you who are; that mess is HARD!)
I had serious postpartum anxiety along with a more moderate postpartum depression. I needed SOMETHING to make me feel like myself again.
And so, we turned to our dear old friend travel. At 20 months old, Jack has been on 4 major trips–2 to Utah for us to ski, 1 to Italy, and 1 to California. He’s also been on smaller trips to the beach, weekend getaways to the mountains and nearby cities, etc.
Along the way, I’ve picked up a number of tips to make traveling with a baby or toddler easier, and I’m here to share them with you.
1.) Extra hands are life!
My mom has never traveled much but has always wanted to, so she’s usually more than happy to accompany us on trips. Having the extra set of hands is huge. She’s our built-in babysitter on a ski trip, and we’re so thankful for that.
When we went to California after Christmas, we went to visit friends. They had a toddler of their own, so giving Jack someone to play with made all of our lives easier. There weren’t technically extra hands–we had the same ratio of 2 adults/4 hands per toddler. But having other people around somehow made it feel like there was extra help, and we enjoyed the trip more for it.
Whether you take someone with you or find them en route, extra hands are SO HELPFUL on flights!
You may not have extra hands with you, but take people up on their offers for help. Say yes to the kind flight attendant who wants to walk your kid up and down the aisle, or hold them while you go to the bathroom.
My friend Sarah does this a lot on flights. Sure, she’s a random stranger to the person she’s offering to help, but you’re on an airplane. Where are they really going to go in the 2 minutes that you allow that kind stranger to hold your baby?
2. Do research in advance about age-appropriate activities.
Having a list of playplaces, parks, story times, libraries with music classes or toddler rooms, can make all the difference. Your little one’s life is SO different while traveling, so if you can build in entertainment specifically for them, you’ll find 3 amazing things that happen. 1. They’re happier overall. 2. They wear themselves out. 3. As a result, they adjust better to time changes and SLEEP BETTER!
3. Adjust your expectations.
When we took Jack to Europe, we somehow expected to travel the same way we always had–hopping around a lot, plenty of time in a rental car, eating out every meal, and exploring all day.
That was cute of us.
The fact of the matter is, when you have a baby who doesn’t nap well in a stroller, you can’t go all day. And even when he does nap in a stroller, it’s not as good a nap as it would be in a crib. He still took 2 naps a day at that point, and we needed to account for that, which we didn’t.
If I could go back in time, we’d spend a long time in 1 or 2 places, rather than bouncing around.
We’d build in rest breaks during his nap time, or plan for some people to enjoy a specific activity while the less interested member of the party stayed back during that naptime.
We learned this lesson the hard way–falling asleep on tables, and throwing up at night from sheer exhaustion. That was unfair to Jack, and just dumb of us.
Don’t be like me; learn from me.
There are never too many, or too much variety, of snacks. Take them everywhere. They’ll save you on the plane, in the car, on a train, in the stroller, at a restaurant, at the park. Everywhere.
But DON’T feel like you need to pack them all from your house! Remember, there are grocery stores where you’re going. Take what you need, plus a little reserve, and buy the rest there.
The same advice goes for diapers. Why waste precious suitcase space and weight when you can take what you need and then buy there?
5. Arrange to rent baby gear, not take it!
Seriously, take what you need for travel only. Toys to get you through a flight or long car ride? You bet! A must-have stuffed animal or book? Obviously.
But nothing more!
Going on a mountain vacation where there will be lots of hiking? Baby-wearing backpacks and jogging strollers are HUGE and take up so much space! Who wants to pack for that?
Taking a simple vacation? Great! You still need a lot of sh*t for a little one. A crib, monitor, sound machine, toys, books, high chair, caresat, and maybe more. If you have a really little one, you might need things like a bathtub.
On our recent ski trip, we decided to try out a new baby gear rental company that had recently reached out to me for a quote about places to play in Atlanta.
Babyquip is sort of the like the Uber of baby gear rental.
Rather than only existing in a limited number of areas (like most gear rental companies), they have individual contractors who rent baby and toddler gear.
This structure allows BabyQuip to exist in far more locations, and is probably the reason that they’re expanding rapidly since they opened just a few years ago.
Right now, they’re located across North America, and as long as I have a little in tow, I will never travel without renting from them again.
We arrived at our ski condo in Park City, I opened the door, and Jack instantly ran to the push toy. Once he realized there was a whole box of other toys, he sat down in his toddler-sized tailgate chair and got to playing. He was in Heaven.
And I was in Heaven too.
I walked into his bedroom to find a full-size crib with a thick, comfy mattress, meaning he would sleep well each night (an experience we rarely have when he sleeps in a pack-n-play). They’d also already setup a monitor, sound machine, and humidifier, important at such high altitudes.
6. Stick to your schedule!
Is your child on a sleep or nap schedule at home? If so, do your best to stick to it while traveling. Overtired littles don’t sleep as well, so one bad day can throw you off for many days to come.
I learned this one the hard way when Jack threw up 3 different nights on our Europe trip. Remember that Jack projectile vomiting in Europe thing I mentioned? That boy needed his schedule!
And if that means you have to go to 5pm dinners, well . . . at least you’ll beat the rush.
Remember tip #3. Adjusting your expectations is key! Sorry, parents, but this is not the same trip you’d have taken pre-baby.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be amazing!
What’s your biggest tip for traveling with a toddler? Share with it in the comments below, so we can all learn more about baby travel!
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.