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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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 Care.com. 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.
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.
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.
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: HomeAway, TripAdvisor Rentals, AirBnB (if you want $20 off your first booking, click here to use my AirBnB discount), VacationRentals.com, VRBO, 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!
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.
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.
(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.
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!
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.
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!
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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