Dec 052015
Toddlers love playing with things with a tinge of danger!

Toddlers love toying with danger, like these cannons at Bunratty Castle, Ireland!

If you ask anyone, “Is travel with a toddler hard?” the resounding answer is usually, “YES. ARGH, YES.” Don’t despair, however. By using the following tips that our family has learned the hard way, you do NOT have to be trapped at home for the entire youth of your munchkin. Ready? Let’s learn.

Happy traveling toddler!

Devi showing his happy traveling toddler side.

1) Don’t overthink it — just book your trip.

A person who thinks long enough about the challenges of having a child in the first place would probably be too terrified to have kids at all, right? Well, as someone who already has a child, you likely understand that the joys of offspring outweigh the madness. The same is true for travel with a toddler: Just take action for your trip to happen (purchase those plane tickets or book that hotel), and you WILL find a way for your adventure to work well. Yes, there will be stressful times while traveling with a toddler, but the memories and experiences make it worthwhile — I promise!

These little hands loved exploring in Ireland.

These little hands loved exploring in Ireland.

2) ALWAYS be prepared for liquid spills of all kinds.

During every moment of your travels, have the following easily accessible: diapers and wipes, a change of clothes for your toddler (and yourself, to be safe), plastic bags for wet or soiled items, and cloth or disposable wipes to clean up every manner of toddler mess. On the first day of our Ireland road trip, Devi vomited all over himself and his car seat right as we pulled up to the Cliffs of Moher. Foolishly, we had nothing on hand to mop up the mess. From then on, we made sure to be prepared… which was wise because Devi puked all over the car again three days later in Limerick! On the flip side of this “output management,” don’t forget input: Always have toddler snacks and drinks nearby to avoid Meltdown City.

Parent life: At a castle in Ireland, feeding baby from a broken milk bottle wrapped in a diaper to catch the spills.

At Bunratty Castle, feeding Devi from a broken milk bottle wrapped in a diaper to catch leaks.

3) Acknowledge that Nap Jail is real. 

You can’t skip nap time. All will pay the price if you do, and it’s not pretty. Given this, be realistic about your itinerary and either plan to have your toddler back in his hotel crib by mid-day, or have on hand a compact reclinable stroller (click for the one we like) or car with a car seat that your pumpkin can pass out in. Of these options, I’d rank the hotel choice as first because it’s more quality sleep, but it really can cramp sightseeing plans, so if you’re a two-person parenting couple, one can stay back in the room with the little sleeper while the other explores.

This sign sums up how I feel about being stuck in a parked car with a sleeping toddler.

This sign in Ireland sums up how I feel about being stuck in a parked car with a sleeping toddler.

The sleeping-in-the-car option is second because it’s also a more solid sleep than a stroller, and has the advantage of keeping you on your itinerary. Let’s be real, however: it’s more comfortable for the adults involved to spend 2.5 hours chilling in a hotel room than a car, unless you’re actually driving during that time. The last option, the stroller nap, is the best for keeping your itinerary going, but if our Montreal family travel experience was any indication, stroller naps can produce such low quality and interrupted sleep that massive meltdowns may rear their heads by the end of the day that will mess up your evening plans anyway. Your mileage may vary!

Little loves, passed out after an intense day of Ireland sightseeing.

Little loves, passed out after an intense day of Ireland sightseeing.

4) Know that NOTHING is toddler-proof.

So… we were in this Ireland castle hotel, and Colin uttered these famous last words: “You know what’s cool about hotel rooms? They’re essentially baby-proof.” At that exact moment, Devi sprinted up to the glass-topped bedside table and tipped it on top of himself. The lamp sitting on it bounced off of Devi’s head and onto the ground, and the glass table-top detached from its legs and fell (I kid you not) INTO DEVI’S OPEN MOUTH. By an absolute miracle, all parties involved, from our son, to the glass rectangle, to the lamp, were completely fine… but from then on we realized that we could not let our guard down with our toddler for a millisecond. And THIS is why travel with a toddler is so deeply exhausting.

A toddler is constantly looking for opportunities for mayhem.

A toddler is constantly looking for opportunities for mayhem.

5) Get reinforcement adult help whenever possible.

Given that there is only so long that a human can “not let his or her guard down for a single second,” I highly encourage you to activate backup support to maintain sanity during toddler travel. Any expense incurred is worth it. A great option is to hire a pre-screened babysitter for a night or two, be it through your hotel (as we did in Canada so Colin and I could see the Montreal Jazz Festival), or through a respected agency that vets all its sitters like A different option — one I’m increasingly in love with — is to bring family members or friends along on at least part of your trip. That way you can swap who watches the little mischief-maker so everyone stays fresh. Bringing Colin’s parents along on our Finger Lakes, New York adventures was the best decision, and converted our trip from an exhausting slog to relaxing joy.

We spotted these cows on Ireland's Sky Road in Connemara. Don't hire cows as babysitters.

We spotted these cows on Ireland’s Sky Road in Connemara. Don’t hire cows as babysitters.

6) Ask for a hotel room with a crib privacy situation.

The other exhausting thing about travel with a toddler is being stuck in a tiny hotel room with a child’s snoring face right next to you from 7pm until 6:30am. After far too many nights of sitting in the dark and whispering from Devi’s 7pm bedtime until our 10pm one, Colin and I became adept — and forceful — at requesting hotel rooms which provide a noise and light barrier between the crib and the adult bed. My new favorite accommodations search tool is Tripadvisor (click to see how you can now book through it!) because it has a “Family-Friendly” button under the “Style” filter which has saved me several times from accidentally booking a hotel that hates kids, and a “Free Breakfast” button under the “Amenities” filter that you’ll thank me for when your toddler screams he’s hungry at 7am and you have zero desire to leave the building.

In a great hotel room in Cong, Ireland. (Yes, my son is using a remote control as a telephone.)

In a great hotel room in Cong, Ireland. (Yes, my son is using a remote control as a telephone.)

Pay attention to the shape of your hotel room. Of course, the ideal is a hotel suite with a separate room for your toddler‘s sleeping pleasure, but to avoid breaking the bank, the second best option is a regular room with an L shape: a long entryway just inside the door where you can place the crib out of sight from the main part of the room. The third best option is a regular rectangular room with enough space and furniture so you can place the crib on the far end and drag the desks and chairs around it to screen it off. (Note: Putting the crib in the bathroom may seem like a good idea at 7pm, but becomes problematic when it’s time to brush your teeth!) Oh… and make sure your hotel room has a fridge! Cold milk and dinner leftovers are precious at 6am when your child wakes up before the hotel dining room is open. Call or email the hotel ahead of time to see if they can upgrade you to these elements if they’re not readily offered.

Just another day on our Ireland road trip.

Just another day rockin’ out our Ireland road trip.

7) Consider booking an apartment instead of hotel. 

Though hotels have perks, booking a whole apartment can be more economical and comfortable, as apartments usually have multiple rooms (privacy!) and a kitchen (which saves money and time since you can grab food at a local supermarket and self-cater instead of always eating out). Services to book condos include: HomeAwayTripAdvisor RentalsAirBnB (if you want $20 off your first booking, click here to use my AirBnB discount), VacationRentals.comVRBO, and more. Just check out the gorgeous photos of the oceanfront condo we rented in Puerto Rico for less money than a hotel room to see why this travel scheme makes sense!

Hello, new airplane friends!

Hello, new airplane friends!

8) Be prepared for airplane rides.

See my previous article about how to travel with a baby for why and how to take your car seat onto the plane for free whenever possible, and how to help your child drink liquids during takeoff and landing to avoid ear pain. In addition, I’d advise bringing a front backpack like an Ergo, multiple sippy cups with milk and water, snacks, and whatever toddler travel amusements float your little one’s boat. Try to book the flight for night or nap-time, and aim to walk around the plane aisles whenever allowed. We lucked out on our flight to Ireland in that the staff allowed us to sit on the open floor near the bathrooms for over an hour, playing with the magazines and walking in circles, as that really kept Devi happy and occupied.

Family on the airplane!

Family on the airplane!

9) Invest in toddler travel gear that actually helps. 

You don’t need to spend much to greatly improve your travel life with a little one. Here are the key products that have made the difference for us.

I highly recommend you invest in this wheelie attachment for your convertible car seat.

I highly recommend you invest in this wheelie attachment for your convertible car seat.

(Note: These are affiliate links, so if you purchase anything from Amazon after clicking through, there is no extra cost to you, but a small percentage goes to help support this website.) 

  •  Get a cheap, light convertible car seat for travel and leave your nice one at home. We’ve been content with this Travel Car Seat which costs less than $60. Happily, the cover pulls off for washing, which was nice after Devi’s vomit incidents. It’s also great to have this extra seat back home for babysitters, taxis, etc.
  • Wheelie Transport for a Car Seat (modeled by Devi to the right) is key for rolling a convertible car seat around airports and short distances around town with its cute in-line roller skate wheels, and it folds down to near invisibility. If the $77 price tag is problematic, consider splitting it with a few other families if you have different enough travel schedules to fairly share it between you.
  • A super lightweight Umbrella Stroller is brilliant to have once your toddler gets too, er, hefty to comfortably be carried on your back in an Ergo Baby Carrier for extended periods of time. I’d still suggest bringing the Ergo, however, as there are some bumpy paths like forest hikes or cobblestones where the backpack is priceless for lugging your tot.
  • Gate Check Bags for Car Seats and strollers are not essential, but definitely give some extra peace of mind during plane transport. Plus, they can be used as dirty laundry bags during the trip!
  • If you’re potty training, this portable potty is our favorite because it takes regular disposable plastic bags as the “toilet bowl” and also converts to sit on adult toilets, plus packs up super small.
  • Pick toddler drinking vessels that are durable, don’t spill, and are easy to wash in a hotel sink. After field research, here’s the link to our pick for the best sippy cups for travel.
What do you mean I can't move to Business Class?

What do you mean I can’t move to Business Class?

10) Do things during your trip that make YOU happy.

Surprisingly often, it’s a waste of time, money, and brain cells to cater your travels to what you think a child would want to do. Devi is just as happy watching highway traffic (“Truck! Truck!”) as touring historic buildings of Old Quebec, as attending a Birds of Prey show specifically geared to kids. To efficiently see a lot of sights that you desire without waiting in lines, consider money-saving admission bundles like the CityPass and GoCard for popular cities. The moral of the story: As long as you respect basic toddler needs like naps, diapers, safety, and snacks, your vacation itinerary should have activities that provide YOU with awesomeness. Happy parents, happy child!

Can you see Devi tucked under Colin's jacket at Brigit's Garden in Galway, Ireland?

Can you see Devi tucked under Colin’s jacket at Brigit’s Garden in Galway, Ireland?

11) Do not discard solo travel, new parents!

Sure, you have a beautiful and brilliant toddler, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up adults-only vacations! There are various configurations to make this work economically, from one parent staying home with the child while the other vacations alone or with friends, to loving grandparents watching the little one. Regardless, know that the 9 day trip I just took alone in Dubai while Colin cared for Devi back in Boston was one of the most rejuvenating and enjoyable weeks of my year, and allowed me to be a much happier and more present mother and spouse when I returned home.

Travel with a toddler is great, and so is solo voyaging.

Travel with a toddler is great, and so is solo voyaging.

In closing, I simply have to share this final photo with you as proof that all this advice is worth heeding. Do be warned that this image is rated “V” for Vomit, as it displays Devi’s gleeful grin directly after upchucking his Irish porridge as we pulled up to King John’s Castle in Limerick. Luckily, by this point in our Ireland road trip, Colin and I had learned from our mistakes and thus had wipes, a change of clothes, and plastic bags directly on hand. We rapidly hosed off our little guy and his car seat, and went on to have a fabulous time in the castle. I give you, therefore, a closing quiz: Looking at this photo, will YOU be prepared for a toddler travel moment like this? By following the above tips, I think you will!

Devi, very gleeful after the second time he vomited on himself in the car in one week.

Devi, gleeful after the second time he vomited on himself in the car in one week.

So what’s YOUR take? If you’ve traveled before with a toddler, what advice would you add or edit? If you haven’t yet tried the trials of toddler travel, what are your questions or comments? Do share!

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  38 Responses to “Travel With a Toddler: 11 Tips To Make it Less Insane”

  1. Hehe so familiar with this kind of stories and tips! 😉 embarking now on a different challenge: Toddler + baby travelling, so surely will pay frequent visits to the Meltdown city 😉 Greetings from London!!!

  2. I’m going to Weiden, Germany,for 6 weeks this summer to visit my daughter and grandson. We are planning on a tour of Italy during that time. We may or may not take the one-year-old. Right now we plan on taking the train overnight to Rome then catching trains for each destination. I appreciated this article and sent it to my daughter. Any specific advice? Thanks again for great info!

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Rebecca! At this point I’ve put all my tips into this article, but perhaps an Italy or Germany specialist might have further ideas. Have a wonderful trip, and let us know how it goes!

  3. Your puking-in-Ireland accounts brought back memories of my toddler puking in the car as we maneuvered Tuscany’s winding roads. By some miracle, we happened to have empty Ziploc bags on hand for the soiled clothing (we ALWAYS have a change of clothes). At that point, I swore to always have empty plastic bags with us wherever we go! I’m also a huge advocate of bringing along a grandparent or other family member on your travels. Multi-generational travel is so enriching for all involved, and it allows Mom and Dad more of a chance to relax and enjoy.

  4. I have done a LOT of travel with babies (maybe more than 20 countries). The best thing we purchased was a baby travel cot. Good quality, and easy to set up / pack up. Converted the carry bag into a backpack.

  5. Great tips and I so agree, more than anything just go for it… it’s often much easier than you think it will be, and the more you do it the easier it gets! 🙂

  6. Great post! Travelling with a toddler can be challenging but it is definitely worth it! At least most of the time…. 🙂

  7. Ahh! 1000 X Yes! Great advice. Finding and storing milk is always a struggle and nap jail and early bed times is always like juggling fire bowling pins. Thanks for the great tips and laughs.

  8. Excellent tips! It’s so true, traveling with a toddler is something you can never be fully ready for, you just do it! I agree it is so worth it. Your tip #2 reminded me I keep meaning to order a few Sham Wow towels for our travel bag. We have a few at home and use them all the time!

  9. Your advices are definitely useful for someone like me, who always with a cute little kid on travel. Fantastic Article! Thanks.

  10. Hey Lillie!

    Great article, wow there are some epic tips in here – I can tell that you’ve been through it all, seen it all and have come out on the other side with these wonderful suggestions for those travelling with toddlers. Great piece.

    I cannot believe that Devi pulled down the lamp, knocked over the table and took the glass in his face, but nothing was harmed?! Lucky.


  11. Hey Lillie, I’m not a parent but gained some understanding of what parents go through. And surely some tips I can share with my friends who are parents!

  12. Your mantra of naps, diapers (bathroom breaks), safety, and snacks translates nicely for any traveler regardless of age!

  13. Fantastic tips Lillie – my sister travels with her toddler all the time, and he’s probably got more stamps in his passport than me at this point!! They quickly learnt to travel with back ups for all kinds of spills too – I think she even carries a change of clothes for herself everywhere they go 😀

    And fantastic point about not having to give up solo travel – I know that I’m lucky enough to have plenty of support here at home from loving grandparents when I end up having kids, so I’m sure they would jump at the chance to hold a sleepover if we were heading out of town for a few days on a trip 🙂

    Photos are adorable btw!!

  14. Totally #6! We have wheeled the Pack n Play into the bathroom before if it’ll fit in order to enjoy the night and not have to whisper. Also, that photo of the bottle wrapped in a diaper is priceless. 🙂

    • Hehe — I love that photo, too. Devi threw his bottle to the ground inside Bunratty Castle and the bottle cracked and milk went everywhere on the historic floor, but we hadn’t brought wipes, so we had to wipe it up with diapers. Then Devi started crying for milk, so we patched up the bottle with the diaper. Oh, sigh.

      Interesting you mention the Pack n Play, since we’ve been using a smaller travel crib that we really like, but as Devi is getting bigger, we may need to transition to the Pack n Play.

  15. Your baby is so cute thanks for all your advices they are very usefull for everyone that have kids

  16. I’ve done lots of long-distance traveling with small kids, so here are some random thoughts.

    1- Just do it. Sure, they might get more out of going to destination X when they’re older, but they’ll always get SOMETHING out of it. And so will you.

    2- On long plane rides, pack their favorite things. My son will do anything, including sitting down and putting on his seatbelt, for raisins. We also lack an empty notebook and tons of stickers so he can stick them on the pages (or his seat, or my face, or whatever). Be prepared to bend the rules a little for those really long plane rides. Raisins and airplane cookies for lunch? Sure, kid.

    3- Yes to packing for spills on planes. Extra clothes for the kids and at least extra shirts for the adults. Because they will pour it on you. We also travel with a sippy cup on planes and have the flight attendant fill that, even though our older son is normally adept at regular cups. Those airplane tray tables are slick, and an open cup inevitably ends up getting knocked off and going Everywhere.

    4- Yes to the umbrella stroller for airports. However, check your transit – both Dubai and Abu Dhabi provide complimentary (and swank) strollers for use between gates. So you might not need to bring yours. When we’re out and about, we prefer putting children in a big backpack. In fact, we bought our large suitcase specifically because we could put the backpack in it and then pack around it.

    5- Schedule what you want to do, but think of an element in each one you think your child will enjoy. Then highlight that thing. If the order of your days is flexible, let your child pick what you do each day. (“Do you want to go see fish (aquarium) or go on a picnic (botanical gardens)?”

    And when all else fails, deploy the IPad.

    • SUCH good advice. Thanks, Mary!!! The iPad piece is an important one. At first we were very “No Screens, Ever,” but we are starting to see how it’s a vital tool to have in the pocket in a pinch for everyone’s sanity.

  17. Thank you for acknowledging “Meltdown City!” This is one of the most well done “travels with toddlers” posts I’ve seen, and although I have teenagers now (who are their own kind of special) it brought back tons of travel memories!

    • Thanks, Jen! 🙂 I put a huge amount of time into writing and editing it, so I really hope it saves others from making some of the mistakes we made!

  18. That seat with wheels definitely did not exist when I was a toddler! My mom would have LOVED it considering my parents flew to France with two toddlers for a couple of summers in a row. I also hated naps which I think drove my parents crazy since they could never catch a break.

    Another tip which may not apply to your situation: make sure your toddler speaks the language of the country he or she is visiting in case they happen to wander off. If he/she gets lost in Carrefour (French Walmart), he or she will be able to tell store personnel their name and age so they can broadcast it on the store’s speakers for the parents who had no clue their toddler was lost in the first place to come retrieve their kid.

    And yes, that really did happen to me! Most traumatizing 15 minutes of my life haha.

    • Ah! Good tip! Since our toddler doesn’t really speak coherently (well, in his head he makes perfect sense), maybe a little “contact if found” tag would be helpful?

  19. One of your best articles yet – a labor of love! I especially like the phrases “input/output” and “Meltdown City” 🙂

    • Thanks! It took 10 months to write because I wanted it to be as complete and useful as possible… and now I realize it’s still missing a whole section about traveling with a slightly older toddler (ex: one who’s potty trained), but I suppose I can always write a new article encompassing all that fun!

      Meanwhile… Colin and I use the term “Meltdown City” so much, I forgot others might not have heard it! Hah!

  20. Great tips! The first tip is probably the most important as, no matter what, it always works out. I was just looking at photos from our first cross-country road trip with a toddler AND two huge dogs. If I’d thought about it ahead of time, I might never have done it. But it was the beginning of a very beautiful thing.

  21. Great tips! A lot of this resonates with our cross-country travels to visit family with one, and then two, kids. It was great reading this. Traveling with kids is no joke, but you’ve done a nice job of laying out the most important parts, especially maintaining naptime 🙂

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