Toddler Travel: Tips, Tricks, and Lessons Learned

We just returned from a trip to Vermont to visit my old high school and my grandmother’s summer cabin, which has been a part of summers in our family for some 60 years now. Our last trip as a family was a bit rough and not all that relaxing, so I was nervous about more travel, this time across the country. This trip, however, turned out to be fun for all three of us, and we all came home feeling refreshed. Why the difference? I think it was part luck, part adjusted attitude and expectations, and part experience from past trips.

I wrote a travel tips post last fall after a trip when BabyC was 11 months old, and I think I still agree with most of those. However, traveling with a 19-month-old is a bit different, and I thought I’d share some of the lessons learned along the way.

Airplane travel:

Don’t expect your toddler to nap on the plane. This used to be the holy grail of travel for me. We used to plan flights around nap time. We’d try to keep our time in the airport exciting and stimulating so that BabyC would sleep on the flight, and that actually worked pretty well most of the time. But now that BabyC is a toddler, this strategy has backfired on us a few times, and we’ve adopted a new one: Encourage sleep whenever she’s tired. It is better to board a plane with a cheerful, well-rested toddler and spend the entire flight playing games and singing songs and looking out the window than to have an over-tired, over-stimulated toddler who fights sleep with every ounce of remaining energy. When BabyC sleeps on planes, we love it, but we no longer count on it. My Two Hats published a post on Travel with Toddlers just before we left for this trip, and she included the same tip, which was a timely reminder for us.

Don’t expect an iPad to entertain a toddler for a flight. At least not my toddler. For our last trip, I loaded up our iPad with toddler apps, but BabyC was not interested in any of it. In fact, when I urged her to sit still and tried to draw her attention to all the fun the iPad had to offer, she seemed to just get a little crazier. This may not be the case with all toddlers, and if yours is entertained by technology, I say go for it. On this trip, I pulled out the iPad once, in a desperate moment towards the end of our 5.5-hour flight from Newark to Portland. BabyC was actually sort of into the Sesame Street video I played for her, but a few minutes later, the flight attendant told us to put away our electronic devices. BabyC didn’t want to turn off the video at that moment, and for a few seconds I pictured our family being escorted off the plane in disgrace following an iPad deprivation tantrum. Thankfully, BabyC recovered, and we found something else to do for the remainder of the flight.

Do bring several carefully chosen, novel toys and books. Pull these out one at a time when your toddler is searching for something new to do. Here’s what worked well for us on this trip:

  1. A small magnetic doodle pad like this one. This was a hit with BabyC. She did lots of drawing and erasing herself, and on the way home, she and Husband reviewed all of the farm animals that we’d met on our trip, drawing and talking about cows, chickens, and horses.
  2. Small sticker books. BabyC enjoyed pulling all the stickers off a page and piling them on her own shirt, then rearranging them on the airplane armrest, then Mama’s arms, etc., etc. It was a bonus that one of our sticker books is full of farm animals that BabyC now recognizes and can name (“Mooooo”).
  3. Buckles. BabyC has been really into buckles lately – the buckles on her booster seat, her bicycle helmet, and our backpack. So for this trip, I bought several plastic buckles from REI and threaded them on small vinyl straps. She buckled to her heart’s content and turned the straps into belts, necklaces, and bracelets. Note that this activity requires adult supervision, since the straps pose a strangulation hazard.
  4. This Playmobil Recycling Truck. I’m a new fan of Playmobil’s 1.2.3 line of toys, made for ages 18 months and up. This toy is small enough to fit in our backpack and be driven on an airplane tray table. It has a removable driver who can sit or stand. The back of the truck is a shape sorter with two holes that fit the two different recycling containers. Lots to do on this small toy, and BabyC loved it.
  5. A cup of ice and an extra plastic cup, obtained from our friendly flight attendant. For the second trip in a row, this activity probably consumed BabyC’s attention more than any toy that we brought for her. She liked moving the ice back and forth from one cup to another, and when her hands became blue from the cold, pouring them back and forth and in Mama’s lap.
  6. When all else fails, let your toddler pull apart your wallet.
  7. Or have some fun trading hats.
  8. And don’t forget about all the sights and sounds of airports and airplanes. We had a lot of fun pointing out trucks and airplanes on this trip, as well as talking about babies, especially crying babies and sleeping babies.

On the ground:

Place matters. On this trip, we were in a beautiful place with lots of time for unstructured outdoor play. Outside, BabyC could mostly climb to her heart’s content, and we didn’t need to say “no” or set many limits around her play. She was happy, we were happy, and at the end of the day, she was worn out enough for a good night’s sleep.

Plan as little as possible. We stayed in two places over the eight days of our trip, and we tried to limit our time in the car or doing activities. We just enjoyed spending time with each other and our friends and family and soaking up time in these special places.

Talk about your plans. When we did have big plans for the day – a long car ride, a special outing, or boarding an airplane to head home – we started talking with BabyC about it several hours in advance so that she was mentally prepared. Travel offers many opportunities for fun for toddlers, but I know that BabyC thrives on routine, and she deserves a warning when that routine changes.

Sleep. Obviously, we don’t have complete control over this one. However, looking back on this trip, I realize that one of the major reasons why it was so restful was that BabyC slept through the night, every night, and napped fairly well. This was a first for us. I’ve come to expect some night waking and early mornings when we travel. I’m sure that a big part of this is just developmental – she’s reached an age where she feels more secure sleeping in a strange place. However, one thing that we did that I think helped was work on room darkening. We knew that the sun would rise earlier than we wanted to be up, so we hung heavy blankets over the windows. If this helps your kiddo sleep better, it is a valuable tool to making transitions across time zones and catching up on sleep after a long day of travel.

The busy summer travel season is upon us. Do you have plans for traveling with your family this summer? Any tips and tricks to share? I can’t get enough of these…

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23 thoughts on “Toddler Travel: Tips, Tricks, and Lessons Learned

  1. I love it, Alice! THANK YOU for a post that finally goes beyond the typical baby gear that everyone already packs. I might print this to use for our big move to NYC next month. Two lap babies on a plane = stress central. Love the stickers and buckles ideas, especially, as most have them lying around the house. Glad your trip went so smoothly!

    • Oh gosh, flying with two babies? You have my great admiration! Our time on the airplane was not all perfect – working on a post on what didn’t go so well. If you’re flying with two, are you buying seats for them? Or for one of them? That’s something I’d consider for a long flight, as much as the cost is outrageous. We didn’t, but we ended up with an extra seat on our return trip, and it made all the difference.

      • Yep! We got one extra seat. They don’t allow you to have two lap babies next to each other because of limited oxygen masks, so my husband and I usually each take an isle seat. It’s always incredibly stressful, though, so we gave in and bought a third seat this time. Oh, before I forget, one travel tip I swear by that I forgot to mention is JuicePlus+ since my toddler’s eating habits tend to get all out of whack on trips. I’m such an advocate. Are you familiar? I’m thinking of doing a post on it soon. I thought you might be intrigued since you write a lot about research-based topics. Here’s the website: https://www.juiceplus.com/nsa/content/ClinicalResearch.soa?site=cn53548.

  2. Sounds like this trip was more relaxing than the last one! This post made me smile because when I’ve flown with my toddler, his favorite activity was ALSO playing with the ice in the cup… and spilling it… and dropping everything on the floor (a favorite activity in restaurants too). A pen and paper work wonders.
    Another tip I’ve heard (and used) is to apologize to nearby travelers in advance about your child’s impending fussing, seat kicking, etc. It seems to help smooth any potentially-ruffled feathers, and can also enlist sympathetic helpers and distractors.

    • Pre-kids, I was the kind of traveler that has always preferred to politely say hello to my neighbors and then bury myself in my book for the rest of the flight. Those days are over for a few years, I guess. I think you’re right that taking the time to introduce ourselves and apologize in advance is a great way to start a flight. I’m not always good at that, so I’m going to remember that one. And maybe we should bring along some earplugs to offer to our neighbors as well? That would at least make them laugh:)

  3. When I took my then 18 month old from here (Australia) to Washington State, I wrapped up some dollar store toys and put them in her carry on. Every hour she was allowed to open a new toy, which kept her amused, and was also quite exciting for her. I got that tip from a blog about travelling with kids (which I found through google before I left): http://www.deliciousbaby.com/ .
    It worked quite well, and playdoh was the favorite.

    • BabyC still eats playdoh, but maybe I could make her some good food-based playdoh before we leave for a trip. Definitely going to try the wrapping up of toys next time!

  4. Wonderful tips! I’m flying this summer with a 5-year-old and a 6-month-old. When the older one was a toddler, she adored anything new. I used to pack little fun things in plastic Easter eggs and wrap other items in wrapping paper. The opening was as much fun as whatever I stashed in there. They weren’t elaborate; masking tape is great for sticking places (or practicing letters for older kids) and Post-Its are great fun, too. Tiny board books were always a big hit.

  5. All good advice! My one word of warning. Be careful about the wallet thing! It sets a bit of a precedent for unrestricted access to it. I learned that the hard way after having to play detective around the house to retrieve my credit cards. Perhaps get her her own little ‘wallet’ with little cards in it? (Although I do admit, Mummy’s wallet holds much more of an appeal.)

    • Your warning is right on. Wallet access is a special activity only reserved for travel and always with supervision. At home, the wallet is off-limits. I did buy BabyC her own wallet, which has been a big hit. See my post on it here. We didn’t bring her wallet on this trip just because she hasn’t been as interested in it lately, but she did hijack my friend’s purse for a full 3 days of our trip. Something about wallets and purses that they just love…

  6. Love it. Agree with the whole text. I have two kids (now they are 1 and 3 yr old) and I travel often with them. They really enjoy it every time. Really important to set your expectations: when traveling with a kid you won’t be able to do everything as if you didn’t have them around. You won’t have as many things accomplished and it will take you
    longer to do each and every thing. Have that in mind, plan for that and enjoy the kids because they just grow so fast!

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  10. Thank you for your blog. I always enjoy reading it. We are gonig to be traveling in 3 weeks with an almost 7 month old, and will be going from Arkansas to Boston. I have been very nervous about the whole trip and working desperately to plan it out, but am still so worried about how he’ll behave! We have purchased his own seat, so hopefully that will help some. Any advice on traveling with an infant? Especially any breastfeeding and travel tips?

  11. Those are all great tips, thank you so much. I have a 3 yr old and this will be her first plane ride. i am definitely taking your tips and making sure we have everything ready. i appreciate you insight and also hearing from other moms and their experiences. thanks again and I will again about how it went.

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  13. Pingback: Traveling with Kids: It Isn’t All Bad (plus 7 tips to keep it that way) | Science of Mom

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