Tips for Traveling with Toddlers

About a year ago I wrote a post on tips for traveling with babies and I thought I’d take a moment today to share a few thoughts on how that has transitioned into toddlerhood.

Here’s a photo of us traveling solo when it was as easy as an ergo! I travel plenty for work (back and forth from San Diego to a corporate office near San Francisco) and Liv has always come with me, which is awesome.  It’s wonderful having family in that area to help with babysitting while I’m in meetings all day and then to come back to her at night.

But now Liv is two and our traveling needs have expanded. As have the tricks up my sleeve.

Traveling with toddlers. It’s one of those things that you can plan for, prepare for, agonize over, but you really don’t know how it will all play out until you’re there sitting on the plane, train or well on your way for a family roadtrip. I’ve been pretty fortunate with Liv, for the most part she’s an all-star traveller with few hiccups over the past two years, 50+ flights and I don’t even know how many miles we’ve logged for work, visiting Grandpas and Grandmas (each set at least a day’s drive away), and for vacation.

I think it’s safe to say that much of travelling is all in the mindset of the parent and what approach you take to packing your kids up to hit the road. If you don’t stress about a journey then it won’t be stressful, if you pretend it’s a necessary part of life your kids will feel that sense of calm and will (hopefully) respond in the same way. But if you get overly anxious about an upcoming trip (or even, heaven forbid, avoid planning one because of kids) there’s almost a guaranteed level of wreckless nerves that will get in the way. In these situations, prior proper planning prevents… well, you know how it goes.

Here are also some sneaky tricks that I’ve learned to help make traveling easy, peasy!

1. Preparing for your trip. For kids that don’t travel often, the idea of a big airplane, train or long car trip might be daunting. We have the below Olivia book and Liv loves it. We also frequently point out airplanes and trains and talk about what its like to go on a journey.

2. Time to spare.
Give yourself extra time for extra trips to the bathroom or extra long walks to gates, etc. Time is always my best friend. Liv and I have security lines at the airport down pat (take off shoes, pull carseat out of stroller, out comes the laptop from my carryon, snap stroller shut and slide through x-ray, unbuckle Liv, carseat facedown through x-ray…) but sometimes you can’t anticipate the unnecessary gaps and waits and it’s far better to enjoy a Starbucks treat on the other side rather than race (oh we have ran, we have ran. I have played the baby card.).

3. Preboard and always bring your carseat to the gate. If you are pregnant you can be one of the very first to board (just grab a little card from the gate assistant when you arrive). If you are traveling with children under the age of 4, there’s usually a family preboarding time as well. Definitely take advantage! If you are pregnant and bring your little ones – extra bonus! Especially for Southwest pick-your-own-seats flights.
One of the very first stops I make when we reach our gate is to pick up a stroller gate check tag and to check on how sold out the flight is. That will help me gauge where I’ll be sitting, if I can bring Liv’s carseat on board (back when she was under 2) or if I should volunteer for the next flight (I have definitely opted to wait 45 minutes at the airport for the next flight home in exchange for a free travel voucher – there’s plenty to do and see at an airport with kids).
4. Snacks within easy reach. I love our snack traps because it means pretzels and dried mangoes will not be roaming the plane or car floor. It’s probably a safe bet that you’ll come across a food stand or restaurant on your travels, but there have been situations in foreign places where a recognizable snack has made all the difference for Liv’s demeanor. Busy hands and lots of chewing are key to keeping a toddler occupied and happy. I’ve portioned out snacks so that Liv has been slowing munching for hours at a time.
Skip the sippy cup (unless it’s absolutely unnecessary) because it will squeeze all over the backpack you’ve packed it in and you, instead opt for a bottle of water with a secure cap. They’ll let you bring it through security at an airport for a little one. If you must have a baby version, try a skinny kid’s canteen that will slide into the outer pocket of your carry on and choose one with a lid that is rock tight.
Great snacks to pack include: cheerios, dried fruit (raisins, craisins, mango, pineapple), trail mix, goldfish, wheat thins, apple slices, grapes and really most anything that is not sticky, does not require a spoon and is easily packed in a trap like the one above.
Bribery isn’t so terrible on a plane. Start with a full bag of M&Ms and reward great behavior with a single M&M as you go.
5. Multi-use carryon. In my post on traveling with babies, I raved about the diaper bag/briefcase/carryon that I worked with an Etsy designer to sew to meet all of our traveling needs (and at a price point that was less than most diaper bags!), but I’ve found that I needed something a little larger these days.
I found the above backpack at Urban Outfitters online, I don’t believe it’s available any longer but it’s an ideal size to hold my laptop, camera equipment and any other carry on needs (here’s one that looks similar). Plus there are plenty of external pockets for snacks, lipgloss, power cords, you name it. The best feature is that I can wear it on my back so my hands are always free.
Tips for what to pack for a toddler: extra diapers/wipes, an extra change of clothes (or pjs – the smaller the space it takes up the better), a thin baby blanket (being cozily nestled under a blanket makes it easier to sleep, calm down or stay put), snacks, water bottle, a few special toys. But my suggestion is that your toddler should carry these themselves (see tip #10).
6. Carseat. Mentioned this earlier but it’s worth mentioning on its own because once you’re on board, carseats can be a life saver. We often fly Southwest domestically and usually the plane is half full. This means that prior to age two (and the requirement to purchase a seat) I always brought the carseat with me to the gate (strapped in to our stroller) with the hope of snagging a seat for her gratis. 90% of the time it worked. A carseat means they are strapped in, playing in a confined area and you might even get to enjoy a magazine or two (bonus).
But it’s not the end of the world to fly with a little one on your lap. I highly recommend an ergo or moby for easiest transport (and again, the whole idea of strapping them down :)) and – biggest tip – don’t give up that middle seat next to you until the very last minute. When the plane was too full for them to promise me a seat for the carseat and we had to gate check it, I usually plopped Liv down in the middle seat next to me (choose window + middle if your babe is still in diapers) and let the plane fill up. 9 out of 10 times a passenger would miss their flight and we would keep the middle seat (more room to play). If you give it up too early there is a business man somewhere on that flight with extra room for his briefcase.

Now that we have to purchase a seat for Liv I bring our Combi carseat on board (which fits perfectly in our BOB and is the only compact toddler carseat I know that can travel so darn easily. Plus it’s super light. Light carseat is key!) There are so many great carseats brands out there that are very heavy and very difficult to haul around (let along down an airplane aisle solo) but if you have one of those guys, give something like this a try so that you can still pull toddler around the airport and move carseat easily. I’ve also heard great reviews for this product. Be sure to double check that your carseat will fit on the airplane and is one that is FAA certified. I did much research before purchasing the Combi carseat and I am pretty sure it’s the only toddler sized carseat that fits comfortably into a stroller.

If you travel sans a large stroller like we did when we went abroad (we brought this smaller Maclaren with us instead – great travel stroller!) and choose to bag check your carseat, here’s a solution you might try if your child is still under one.

7. When flying internationally, go bulkhead. Call ahead and reserve that sweet little section at the front of each compartment of the plane. You’ll appreciate the extra floor room when they get ancy and want to spread out, and if they’re small enough (20 months or so and younger), flights will often have mini baby beds for tired kids. We let Liv fall asleep on us and then transferred her to her airline-provided cocoon.

8. Plan around sleeptime. This is awesome for car rides if you have toddler/baby  that sleeps easily in the car. We try to time our lengthier car trips for right around 2pm (Liv’s nap) or late at night when I know that the sway of the car will put her fast to sleep. When she wakes up, we’ve made significant progress! Sometimes this works like a charm for plane flights and sometimes it backfires (picture the suuuper tired toddler who just can’t fall asleep – Liv’s only a super plane sleeper if she’s in her carseat or attached to me via an ergo, if she’s flying without either chances are she’ll be awake for the duration).

9. Take advantage of take off. In my experience, the only chance of little one falling asleep while flying is during the assent to 10,000 feet. Use the trip down the runway as a chance to softly sing songs, stroke eyebrows or do whatever else it might take to send baby off to dreamland. As soon as those wheels leave the ground the change in cabin pressure will magically cause eyelids to flutter.

10. Toys are overrated. Sure, a favorite toy or a new novelty game can keep a toddler entertained for a bit, but if you were to pack enough toys to entertain for an entire journey (airport, airplane, car, train, you name it), you’d be lugging around a bag the size of your suitcase. I love the idea of giving little wrapped gifts throughout a long plane flight as a way to distract – but the thought of carrying all of those gifts around on vacation for the flight home sounds like a waste of precious suitcase space.

Instead, I like to let Liv pack her small backpack with her choice of a doll, crayons (triangular crayons can help to keep you from retrieving rolled drawing utensils from under your neighbor’s seat), sticker book (Liv LOVES sticker books, keeps toddlers occupied for a long time), a little ball of playdough in a ziplock bag or an eye-spy game (like Where’s Waldo) for slightly older kids. We pack one or two books as last-ditch resources because they can be read over and over with different made up games to play (searching for animals or squares or the color pink). But the rule is that it all must fit in her backpack.

Very favorite game to pack? Sticker books!! Seriously, airplane/car/train gold.

11. Technology. Let’s face it, regardless of how great we are at keeping our kids from soaking in hours of television on a regular basis at home, travel is the one opportunity to cash in on all of that missed opportunity. I have three short videos on my iPad that Liv gets to look forward to when we travel and she can amazingly watch the same one 5 times without getting bored! As a special treat, sometimes I’ll download a new episode and her eyes light up when she finds it inflight. My favorites: Backyardigans and Blues Clues for toddlers. When she’s a little older with a longer attention span we might move on to Disney or Pixar movies, and maybe even iPad apps. :) We’ve experimented with headphones and my favorites are anything inexpensive, small, and that fits like a headband over the ears (rather than earbuds).

When we traveled over to Europe, Liv had a five minute attention span for videos. This is when learning how to take pictures with the iPad or playing silly interactive apps can help pass time. We once survived an entire flight just by rereading the safety manual (you know, the plastic one in the back of everyone’s seat) while looking at different pictures, colors and that sort of thing. In hind sight I wish I had built up her screen time resiliency, and while it might seem counter intuitive, I totally suggest trying to stretch out that iPod engagement time prior to a long flight.

12. Last but not least, be kind to other travelers. As much as I love traveling with a toddler, it can be tough to sit next one on a long flight. As a traveling momma, I usually aim to sit in the middle or the back of the plane (that’s where the rest of the families congregate), watch Liv’s feet vigilantly for accidental kicks to the seat in front of us (you’d be surprised at how few parents catch this, Liv and I have a special ‘legs up!’ rule where she has to keep her legs folded up into her carseat for the trip, otherwise she can’t help but throw an excited kick out when she sees something fun), and quiet voices are a must. There’s nothing like traveling next to a four year old who constantly yells ‘clouds!’ or ‘mom, more juice!’. On crowded flights we often look for nice looking grandmas to share our aisle with, too :).

We’ve since kicked the binkie habit, but here’s the little traveler sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the ride.

There you have it! A few thoughts on traveling with a toddlers. I love, LOVE to travel with Liv and her joining our family has not stopped or deterred roadtrips, airplane rides, you name it. We are hoping that travel becomes a natural part of her life.

Happy traveling!!!

PS Here’s a link to a similar post on traveling with a baby and one on traveling on a budget. All of our travel adventure posts can be found right here.

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  1. says

    Great tips! I wish the snack trap worked for us. T quickly learned that all she had to do was hold down the little flaps and shake it to get all the snacks out all over the place. As far as the carseat thing goes…I was looking into one of those straps to turn your carseat and rolling carry-on into an airport stroller, but it’s good to know which carseat will fit into a stroller too!

    • says

      Forgot about that guy! I’ve just added it to the post because although I haven’t tried it, I bet it’s a really helpful device if your sans stroller.

      Sooo happy Liv hasn’t figured out that snack trap trick!

  2. kellie says

    She is the cutest traveler!! What are you going to do with two travelers when it is just you?!


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