Tips for Travel with a Baby or Toddler

Look, I know there are probably a thousand different versions of this out there already.  But I figure when you’re a parent getting ready to subject yourself to travel with an infant, well, you can never hear too many experiences.  N’s currently visited 14 US states & districts, 11 countries and territories, and 4 continents, so if nothing else, we have experience with sheer numbers.I’ll go ahead and start with my disclaimer that these are things that worked for US with OUR baby.  I’m sharing these tips in hopes that they will help you manage, give you peace of mind, or help you believe that it is, in fact, possible and enjoyable to travel with children.  But I make no guarantees that these suggestions are either universal or foolproof.  What I’m trying to say is, take what I say with a grain of salt.
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One of my biggest pet peeves is when people assume that just because you have kids, you have to remain chained to your house for the rest of your life, or at least for the next 18 years.  This is just SO not true.  Sure, adding kids to the mix means a little extra planning and preparation, but I’m anal enough that that just adds to the fun.  So when you run into the 87th person to say, “WOW!  I can’t believe you’re traveling with a child!” you can just smile graciously and tell them about your wonderful trip.

1. Know Your Child. 

I put this first because I cannot emphasize it enough – all of this is really SO dependent on YOUR child.  N happens to be fairly flexible in where and when he sleeps and eats.  He is not extremely shy, nor is he really super attached to his own crib and stuffed animals.  Don’t get me wrong – he definitely sleeps better when he’s at home and it’s quiet and he’s in his own bed.  But he won’t NOT sleep elsewhere.  He’s also fairly flexible with food – he’s willing to at least try most things.  So what happens if you don’t have a flexible child?  Does that mean you can’t travel?  Not at all.  It just means that you will need to make sure to make him or her comfortable along the way.  Maybe that means staying in one hotel for several nights, and returning there midday for naps.  Maybe that means packing an extra backpack with favorite blankets and toys.  Whatever it is, you are the best person to know your child’s routine and dependency on it.

2. Plan, Plan, Plan.
Maybe before kids you were the type to fly by the seat of your pants and decide your itinerary along the way (that was totally me…not).  This may not work so well with kiddos in tow.  We knew exactly which cities we’d be visiting each day, how long each of the car rides were (we didn’t do any marathon driving sessions, planned stops, and knew exactly how long to anticipate being in the car each day), and where we’d be staying.  We certainly didn’t want to be driving around in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand not knowing if there was a hotel in a 100-kilometer radius.  We also took a GPS with us and had addresses punched in beforehand, which was infinitely helpful and cut down on a whole lot of stress.  Planning can also help you arrange your schedule so that you don’t have 3 action-packed days in a row, which will be exhausting.  Try to include some lower-key days for everyone.
3. Be Flexible.
This may seem to contradict the previous tip, but really, they go hand in hand.  Being flexible means you have done your research and you have several options.  If the baby’s cranky, maybe reconsider going to a museum.  If the weather’s crummy, you don’t want a wet and cold and grumpy child on a boat tour.  If the kiddo is napping in the car, maybe give it another 30 minutes before dragging him out to walk around the city.  But planning beforehand allows you to be flexible – you’re not showing up in a city wondering where and what you can eat and stay and see.  You’ll be less stressed knowing your options, and being able to choose from them, rather than giving up in frustration and not doing anything at all.
4. Underpack for yourself, Overpack for the child.
The first part is pretty self-explanatory – pack as little as you can get away with for yourself.  Trust me, there is ALWAYS something you can cut out (remember the old adage about packing all you think you need and then cutting out half).  You do NOT want to be hauling around 6 extra pairs oh heels along with your baby and his stuff.  By overpacking for your child, I do not mean 12 extra onesies (although a few extra is probably smart, especially with a smaller baby).  I mean plenty of snacks and entertainment.  Don’t take a huge favorite book, but rather, take a couple of small new books.  Stickers, pens and paper, and masking tape are all winners.  We had a portable DVD player (N doesn’t usually get to watch TV, but I
figured international travel was an exception), which we used not once
on our whole trip.  Still, I would rather have had it and not needed it
than desperately needed it and not had it.  Little snacks, like raisins and sunflower seeds and baby goldfish are all great because they take a long time to eat.  We always made sure to have milk on hand.  Bring several medicines that you may need – baby Advil, a nose suction, teething gel, whatever you could see yourself potentially needing.  You don’t want to be stuck trying to find it somewhere else and risk giving your baby something new while abroad.
5. Find smaller ways of packing.
While you’re making space for that extra toy car, think about other ways of creating space.  We have a Kidco Peapod (many places don’t seem to sell them anymore, but you can find them on ebay), which is basically like a little baby tent.  It’s WAY smaller and lighter than a pack ‘n play.  If you don’t carry the pump and blow up mattress (I don’t like them, anyway) and just use a blanket, you can stuff some extra stuff in the bag, like diapers or sheepskin pillowcases you’re bringing home.  Bassinets (along with car seats and strollers) are always free to check, so with such a small option, it’s worth it to bring one.  Fit all your stuff into carry-on sized suitcases (this is especially useful if you’re flying a really really terrible airline – cough, United – that can’t get you checked in in time and thus can’t check your luggage and you have to run through the airport with all your stuff).
6. Stick to as much of a routine as you can.
Even though you might be in a different place each night, try to keep whatever you can consistent.  N still sleeps swaddled.  I know.  It’s crazy.  But he’s always been a SUPER active baby, and has always had a really hard time settling down for bed, but once he’s swaddled, he goes right off to sleep.  He can easily get out of it, but to him, it’s just a comforting bedtime signal.  We were NOT about to change this before or during our trip.  We also took along the sound machine and tried to keep bedtimes and morning routines fairly consistent.  We tried to do car rides around when he would need a nap.  Kids need lots of active time during the day, so we always made sure there were ample opportunities for walking and running and climbing.  Still, be flexible in your routine – if you get in a little late one day, don’t have a panic attack.  If baby’s getting antsy, just go outside for a bit.  If the kiddo won’t eat any dinner or has filled up on pretzels, it’s not the end of the world.
7. Strollers (and carriers) are awesome, just not the huge ones.
If you don’t have an umbrella stroller, for heaven’s sake, get one.  We have a Maclaren Triumph and love it.  It’s compact and light and we can hang a backpack on the handles when N is sitting in it during the day.  In airports, N would be in the carrier, and the stroller would haul both backpacks, the Peapod, and the car seat.  I’d push (with N in a carrier) while Dan pulled both of our rolly suitcases.  We were doing a good bit of driving and walking, so both the car seat and stroller were pretty necessary, but depending on your trip, you may not need either.  Still, the stroller is useful for not breaking your back, if nothing else.  Speaking of, carriers are fantastic.  We have an Ergo and we made MANY comments on how it was maybe the most useful thing we packed.  So great.  When N was younger, the Moby was so, so helpful – it allowed me to walk around tours and go on safari rides while comfortably and discreetly nursing the baby and letting him sleep.
8. Plan on doing laundry.
Guess what?  Washing machines exist in other countries, and you don’t need to pack enough underwear for your entire trip.  Trust me, with messy babies and snacks and planes, you’ll want to wash your stuff.
9. Have an airplane plan of attack.
Think ahead of time how and when you’d ideally like your baby to sleep, and try to shoot for that.  Sure, it won’t work perfectly, but at least you won’t be sitting there thinking you’re going to be singing songs for the entire flight until baby randomly falls asleep.  I know this is crazy for an 18-month old, but N is still well within the weight limit for the airplane bassinets.  He sleeps infinitely better (and so do we) when he’s in a bed and not our arms, so we requested (and got) those seats on both long flights.  On the shorter flights without bassinets, we had regular seats and had him (probably illegally) sleep on the floor at our feet.  He slept much better there than in a car seat, but again, know your baby.  If it’s an option in your budget (it certainly wasn’t in ours), you can consider buying an extra seat, or if not, you can always request at the airport to try to be put in a row with an empty seat and ask if you can bring the car seat on if you want.  Know that walking the aisles is an option, but don’t do it too early in the flight – otherwise kiddo will know it’s available and always want it.  Know when meals are and when landing is, so you have something to look forward to, if nothing else.
10. Don’t stress!
People have had children forever.  Most people are very nice and understanding and will be helpful rather than mean (and if they are mean, well, just stick your tongue out at them).  Kids are generally more adaptable than we expect.  And best of all, kids are great at having fun in any situation.  I honestly think this makes traveling with kids even MORE fun than otherwise – they find the fun and excitement in even the smallest things, and help you enjoy the whole experience even more.  Sure, they love playgrounds and beaches and feeding kangaroos (so do we), but they’ll also be entertained by fish and ferry rides and all kinds of “adult” things.  I mean, how are kids going to learn to enjoy adult activities like travel and cities and architecture and sitting quietly in restaurants unless they’re allowed to experience them and practice?  So don’t be scared – do what you can to prepare beforehand, and then just have fun.  The trip, and your kid, will probably exceed your expectations.

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