“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson
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When Progeny BITA popped into existence, we were faced with a choice:
- Put our traveling plans on hold for a few years.
- Change the way we travel.
- Learn how to travel with a baby, now a toddler.
Travel is a big contributor to our happiness portfolio, so option 1 was immediately discarded as being too ridiculous to contemplate. For option 2, we considered eschewing long haul flights in favour of short domestic sojourns mixed in with road trips. The problem with this option is that none of my family are based in the Americas, so I would have to settle for seeing them much less often, and so option 2 soon found itself canoodling with option 1 in the trash.
Progeny BITA is not quite three yet, and this is the list of cities and countries she has been to, and the age at which she visited them:
- Denver; 7 months
- Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, Dusseldorf; 9 months
- San Juan islands; 15 months
- Botswana and Zimbabwe; 17 months
- Denver again; 21 months
- Madrid, Barcelona, Elche, Altea, Guadalest, La Adrada; 2 years old
- New Orleans; 2 and a half years old
Progeny BITA has been on planes big and tiny, boats and trains. I think it is fair to say that we now have a certain expertise in the realm of traveling with a toddler, and in this post of epic dimensions I’m going to share our hard won knowledge, tips and tricks.
While this isn’t a travel blog, it is a blog about our journey to FIRE, and that journey involves investing in experiences along the way. Investing in experiences is a value that is held dear amongst the financial independence community, so travel tends to be a popular pastime amongst the readers of this blog (and, in some cases, a lifestyle).
This is a monster post. It comes awfully close to being a book. Here is what I recommend:
If you have small children, or are about to have small children, and you intend to travel, skim through this post today to get a sense of what it covers. Then tuck it away somewhere safe and pull it out when next you are planning a trip to dive into the nitty and the oh so very gritty details.
Getting Your Head in the Game
Different does not equal difficult
Here are some of the reactions we have got when the conversation turns to one of our trips:
- (Raised eyebrows, high pitched voice) You guys are crazy! I would never do that.
- (Sympathetic tone) Oh! That must have been really hard.
- (Shaking of head) I bet you needed a vacation after your vacation.
- (Judgy voice) That must have been quite disruptive to her routine. Did she struggle to adjust when you got back? (I deserve a medal for not being rude to this person. I feel that I get altogether too few medals for my good behaviour on a day to day basis).
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the way you think about travel with your toddler. If you approach this as a scary/inconvenient/difficult task, then that is exactly what it will be. Some prophecies are self-fulfilling. It isn’t difficult; it is just different than what you have been used to in the past. If you adjust your plans and preparations to allow for this difference, travel can still be the awesome experience that you know and love.
It won’t be smooth sailing. Your baby’s ears might hurt during takeoff. They might have a diaper blowout in the plane. They might throw a tantrum because the seat is blue. So what? Are you going to let one incident ruin your holiday or put you off traveling for half a decade? That seems like a foolish choice. And it is important to remember that it is a choice. You can’t control what might go wrong when you are traveling with a toddler. You can control how you react to it and what effect you let it have on how you feel.
I find that a lot of parents are put off by the idea of a long haul flight with a teeny person and at least part of the reason is embarrassment. It is one thing when your toddler pitches a fit at home. You are the monarch of your domain. It isn’t that hard to stick to your guns until the storm subsides. On a plane, under the judgemental gaze of your captive audience that same tantrum takes on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. People who are flying long haul in coach, with their knees altogether too close to their noses for comfort, aren’t likely to be in the best of moods. When your kid is the reason that everyone’s discomfort is getting kicked up a notch, you can’t be blamed for wishing there was a big red eject button you could press and get the fuck out of the situation. I get it.
Here is reality: you are likely to be on the plane with other people who have children and grandchildren. They have been where you are and they feel empathy more than they feel annoyance. I’ve had people offer to hold my child, and people who start up spontaneous peek-a-boo games with her. The important thing is that you, as a parent, are reactive to your child’s needs, and try to anticipate tantrum cues. That is the best you can do. I have found that the vast majority of the people who try to make me feel like shit about traveling with my baby are figments of my overly-sensitive imagination. There might be the one guy who gives you the evil eye. You know what he can do? Fuck right off.
Remember that at ages three and younger what your kid is going to enjoy the most of all about this vacation is all the time they get to spend with you. Don’t worry about doing kid-specific things. Everything is new and interesting for them at this stage. Walking down a street is a near overload of sensory input. If you are having a good time, and they are getting to go places with you, everyone is going to be happy.
Tackling Travel with a Toddler
We are going to explore the 3 Ps involved when vacationing with a kid in tow:
Plan: choosing your destination, booking your stay and transport, planning what you will do on your vacation.
Pack: what should you take with you for a successful journey?
Plane: executing the actual journey to your destination of choice and back.
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
Be Cognizant Of Your Phase in Life
When you start planning your vacation keep in mind where your child is from a developmental perspective.
On our first trip with Toddler BITA she was still immobile. So, she was content to be worn in a baby carrier or pushed around in a stroller. By the time our second trip rolled around she was a crawler, and had limits to how long she would tolerate her new-found abilities being curtailed. Under these changed circumstances, planning a trip that required her to stay in her carrier for hours on end would probably not have been a happy trip.
Here are some baby phases to consider when planning out your next destination:
- Are you breastfeeding? If so, is your destination breastfeeding friendly? Would you be comfortable feeding your baby in public?
- Recently potty trained toddler? Make sure your destination will allow frequent access to decent public restrooms.
- New crawler or walker? Are there parks you could stop at, weather permitting? Maybe consider a beach or lake front destination instead of lots of city walking.
- Toddler still naps in the middle of the day? Will they nap in the stroller? If not, is your place of stay close enough that you can pop back in for a midday siesta?
Once you pick your destination be sure to look up the rules for traveling with a minor. As an example South Africa requires that if you are traveling with a minor you carry and be prepared to show an unabridged birth certificate that shows the names of the parents in full. If only one parent is traveling with the child then in addition to the birth certificate, the parent must carry a parental consent affidavit signed by the other parent. And all this holds even if you are only transiting through South Africa, as we were on the way to Botswana.
- Pay more attention to flight timings than you ever have before. Having a flight that straddles your regular nap time or bedtime is the best possible thing. On the other hand a flight that needs you to board right in the middle of your normal nap time makes things a little bit harder.
- If your baby is young enough, try and book a seat in the bassinet aisle. The weight limit for a bassinet varies by airline, but generally tops out at 20-25 lbs.
- The TSA-pre and GOES programs are worth their weight in gold when you are traveling with a small child so that you don’t have to wait in endless lines at security and immigration. There are some credit cards out there whose perks include getting the membership fee for these programs reimbursed. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is one of them. Also, with TSA-pre, you don’t have to take off your shoes or take your laptop out of your bag, both of which are most excellent things when you are carrying a baby.
Stay and Transport
With kids apartments can be a much better option than hotels. Having your own kitchen that is not subject to arbitrary timings is a godsend. Airbnb makes booking a house or apartment much easier and cheaper than ever before. I’ve also used booking.com with success. Search in advance for grocery stores that are near your vacation home. You’re going to want to be able to get your hands on certain essentials on short notice.
Message your Airbnb hosts and ask if they have kid stuff available for you to use: we’ve had success with cribs and toys, and one time even a stroller!
If you are planning to use a rental car ask if they have car seats available. If you plan to bring your own car seat, keep the size of your car seat in mind when choosing your ride. Many countries have cars much smaller than what we consider the norm in the U.S.
Another thing to watch out for is the fact that the car seat belts may not lock in the event of a crash. All cars sold in the U.S. have had to have locking seat belts since 1996. This isn’t true everywhere else, and if you install a car seat using a non-locking seat belt, that isn’t a safe installation. All but one of the cars that we have ever rented in Europe has had non-locking seat belts. Luckily there is an easy fix: a locking clip.
This article is an excellent resource on when to use a locking clip and how to install it.
If you are bringing your own car seat, I strongly recommend procuring this little device from Amazon:
This is a T-shaped strap that allows you to strap your car seat to your baggage, and have one less thing to carry. Your toddler can even sit in the seat (and mine loved that because it was a novel way to be transported around the airport). It does not work with infant car seats.
Another thing to consider if you are going to check in your car seat is some sort of protective bag. If there is any chance that it might be raining at your destination or at any of your transit locations, remember that baggage frequently lies waiting on the tarmac, exposed to the elements. Imagine reaching your destination and trying to persuade your child to sit in a soggy car seat. Sound like fun? No, I thought not.
Things to do
If you are the kind of person who likes to plan their vacation days out in considerable detail, here is my advice to you:
Small children can mess up a schedule and if you have a day full of planned activities (and, heaven forbid, activities that are prepaid), you are setting yourself up for failure, grumpiness and disappointment.
It is ok to plan for one or two must-sees, especially if you need to book them months in advance, but leave the rest of your schedule fluid. Make a menu of things that you want to do and see, and then on a daily basis pick from the menu depending on how the day is going.
Google is your friend. Searching for <destination name> with a toddler is surprisingly useful. Many parents are traveling the globe and a subset of them blog and post to forums. The information is out there if you go looking. Benefit from the successes and failures of those that went before you. This article, for example, is a nice list of child friendly things to do in Amsterdam.
We don’t center our vacation activities around Toddler BITA, but we do try and treat her as we do every other member of the family. We do things that I want to do, and see things that Mr. BITA wants to see, so it is only fair that we throw in some things that would interest Toddler BITA.
As far as possible, stick to a routine that is similar to the one you have at home. Right now, for us this means: wake up, cook breakfast in the apartment and eat it, morning roaming, back home for a nap, evening exploring, dinner and then bath and bedtime.
Three golden rules:
- Remember how many hands you have. You have available, at best, only 3 adult hands to push or carry or lug whatever you bring with you. One adult hand needs to be dedicated to holding your toddler’s hand. Envisage all the stages of your journey where you will be responsible for moving all your baggage – long term parking to the airport, shuttle stop to check-in desk, baggage claim to uber pick up point etc. – and plan your baggage accordingly.
- Do not plan to pack the night before. Give yourself some buffer. I remember the night before one of our trips Toddler BITA spiked a fever and decided that she would not, for love or money, budge from her position sleeping on my chest. I had to wake up at 3 a.m. and pack. Not a great way to start a vacation.
- For the love of all that is holy, use a checklist. You are likely sleep deprived. Do not rely on your memory.
Plan to have at least one carry on that will fit under the seat. This is where you will pack food and entertainment for your little one, and you need it handy. It can’t be in the overhead bin, where it may not be accessible when the seatbelt sign is on.
Now, on to what you need. In this section I will describe a few items that warrant an explanation. At the end of the section I provide a comprehensive downloadable checklist.
- Two changes of clothes for the baby in your carry on and at least a change of shirt for each adult. Babies throw up, and poop and spill food on themselves and on you.
- Decide if you are going to take your stroller. Airlines (at least every one I have ever traveled on so far) allow you to check a stroller and car seat free of cost if you are traveling with a child. We did one trip without a stroller, and we regretted that decision. If you are taking your stroller consider the weather at your destination. If it might rain or be snowy get the appropriate protection for your stroller (a warm insert or a rain cover).
- If you and your baby are used to it, a baby carrier is a wonderful thing. We used ours extensively when Toddler BITA was little. For one trip to Europe that spanned December and January we used this to keep Toddler BITA snug in both her carrier and her stroller. The carrier is also useful for the flight. If your baby is fussing and you need to stand up and carry him/her for a while (where, if you are unlucky, a while = hours) you will immensely grateful if you can use a carrier and let your arms rest.
- The no liquids for you TSA rule is not in effect when you are travelling with a baby or a toddler. You can bring a lot of milk in your carry on. I usually bring a bunch of single-serving milk boxes. That way I don’t have to worry about the milk going bad if the journey is long, or about being stuck sans milk if we face delays. As you go through security tell them in advance that your bag is filled with liquid and one parent is going to have to be prepared for an uncomfortable thorough pat down. They will also swab your hands, collar and bag for traces of explosives. Assuming that you did not play with dynamite the previous day, the inconvenience is worth it to have at your fingertips all the milk you need.
- More snacks and fruits than you think you will possibly need. A hungry child is a demon from hell. Include snacks that are normally forbidden. Segregate your snacks into little containers (or buy single serve packs to take with you). That way you can easily fish out a limited amount of snacks at a time, and also offer a variety of snacks as the flight progresses.
- Many empty plastic bags. You never know when you might need to segregate wet clothes, or need a trash bag, or want to save a half eaten fruit for later.
- Ensure that you have something for your kid to suck on during take off and landing. When Toddler BITA was little, she breastfed at those times. Now I carry a pack of lollipops.
- Imagine that you are on the plane, and you hand your kid their pacifier. They drop it. You bend over, hit your head on the seat in front of you, grope in the darkness underneath, curse under your breath and attempt to retrieve the damn thing while all the while your child ramps up their level of shrill complaining. When you do finally find it you aren’t particularly sure if it is good parenting to shove it right back in their mouth, germs and all. A few minutes later, rinse and repeat. Instead of putting yourself through this particular circle of hell, invest in a thingamajig that allows you to secure things things like pacifiers and other small toys. Oh and while we are on the topic of pacifiers, if your child does use one, carry a million. Tuck them into your pocket, purse, and every carry on. They will run away or be kidnapped or whatever fate happens to befall the goddamn things, so you, like a good boy scout, should be prepared and your backups should have backups, and those should have backups too.
- If your toddler is potty trained, but will not sit on an adult potty yet, this little travel potty is a must have. If you procure only one thing to aid you in your travels, let this be it.
The Potette Plus folds flat and is really light. It can be used as a little potty (it comes with liners that you hook on to the legs, and then throw away after the deed is done) or opened flat and used as a seat reducer on a big potty. Pure genius. And if you run out of the custom liners, no worries. Any old plastic bag will do.
Breastfeeding Mothers Trying to See the World
When I was breastfeeding and pumping, I brought the pump with me on a couple of our trips. You know what I did not realize? Voltage is country dependent, and most power converters do not convert voltage. The power supply for my breast pump was rendered (ahem) powerless. You know what you don’t want to be faced with in a country where language is a challenge? Trying to shop for a power supply unit that is compatible with your breast pump. If you need to bring your pump, bring an alternate power supply for it. I used the Medela Battery Pack for 9 Volt Pump in Style Advanced Breast Pump.
Traveling to a cold country when you are breastfeeding can be a challenge. You need to be able to feed your baby when you are out and about all day (at restaurants, in coffee shops, in museums etc.), but you also need to be wearing enough layers to stay warm. I found these nursing tank tops invaluable for layering.
I alluded to this earlier but I think it bears repeating. Breastfeeding norms vary across the world. In some places it is celebrated and you will be greeted with big smiles and supporting nods when people see you feed your child. In some places it is as normal as putting food in your face, and you won’t get a second glance for doing something so ordinary. And in some very sad places you will be greeted with an eeks! Feed your baby in the toilet! Do your research before hand.
Entertainment for the plane
Bring a couple of familiar favourites. Add to those things that your kid doesn’t normally get to play with. These don’t have to be a bunch of new toys. Here are examples of things we cobbled together that have been successful on a plane.
Put toys that are a ‘set’ in a ziploc bag so that they are easy to fish out and stuff back into the bag. Another idea is to wrap each toy up to prolong the excitement.
Not everything has to be DIY. Here are some good candidates for a plane that can be procured and will not break the bank.
Foam Magnets are great because they are super light. I divided ours into 3 sets to keep it interesting. We take along a little metal box to stick the magnets on (and in, basically on every surface).
To keep the game going longer, tell stories with the magnets. Let the magnets interact with each other (the cow eating the flower, the volcano erupting etc.).
Finger puppets are good for storytelling too.
An etch-a-sketch provides sustained entertainment. We’ve also had success with these cute coloring books. You fill the ‘pen’ with water and draw on the sheets. When the sheets dry, the ‘paint’ disappears and you can use them again.
Pack books, a mix of old and new.
Sticker sheets are a good idea. The gel cling stickers can be used on airplane windows. These Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Sheets are pretty great too.
Remember that you also have a second flight to get through – the flight back from your destination, so save some toys for the return journey. I pack a set in our checked in baggage to use on the way back home.
So your bags are packed, and you’re ready to go (admit it, you started humming the song). This last section covers tips for successful airplane travel with your little one.
- When you get to security be sure to point out the bag that has the extra liquid for your child.
- Once you get to your gate, if your child is mobile do whatever you can to tire them out. Chase them around, race from your gate to various stores etc. A tired child is the best kind of child. You want them to nap for as long as possible.
- Most airlines will allow families with small children to board first. Boarding first means that your child needs to be captive on the plane for that much longer. If you need the overhead bins for your carry on items, take advantage of the early boarding. If you do not, board as late as you possibly can.
- If you are traveling with a child under 2 and you have chosen not to book a seat for the child, be sure to introduce yourself to the flight attendants and tell them nicely that if there are any open seats on the flight you would like to be considered. On two of our flights there were open seats and the stewardess worked her magic so that we got three seats together. Win!
- If you use a bottle, make sure you have your bottle prepped and ready before take-off and before the plane starts its final descent. Once the seat belt light comes on you will be a sad panda if you don’t have your bottle handy.
- I transfer a single serving of snacks into the mouth of this monster bowl and Toddler BITA delights in fishing them out. The design prevents spill. Novelty is the name of the game, and Toddler BITA only has access to this monster on a flight.
- If your child is newly potty trained, keep track of the last time you took them to pee, and then take them again every couple of hours. The idea is to go often enough that you are never in a situation where they really need to pee but there is a long line for the loo or the seatbelt sign is on. Make sure to go use the toilet before ‘normal’ busy times. For example, as soon as you are done with dinner, hand your tray to your partner to balance precariously on top of theirs and make a beeline for the restroom. There are always lines to the restroom once the trays are collected, so don’t wait for that.
- The magazines and safety brochures in the seat pocket in front of you are like a tiny library. Toddler BITA reads and re-reads them and enjoys the process of pulling them out and then putting them back in a gadzillion times.
- I have apps for babies on my iPad and we let Toddler BITA amuse herself with them on flights. She was thrilled with this. Again, I will stress the importance of novelty. She never gets any screen time normally, so screen time on a flight is greeted with a large dose of enthusiasm. Screen time only started working recently though. When we tried at about two years old, she had the attention span of a gnat and kept pulling the headphones off her ears.
- When the seatbelt light is off and it isn’t any kind of meal service time, let your toddler roam the aisles with you in tow and stretch their legs.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
The world is too large, and our lives too short to put exploring on hold for half a decade (or more, if you have multiple kids). I hope you take your toddler by the hand, go forth with confidence and make a wealth of memories together.