20 Tips for Traveling With Toddlers

A very long time ago, in a land where babies didn’t crawl or talk, I wrote a post about how to travel with an infant solo.  The infant I was referring to in that article is now a full-blown human being.  She talks, she eats more than just pureed carrots, and she has a mind of her own.  They told me that would happen, the mind-of-her-own part, but nobody told me how much more of a challenge parenting would become when the time finally arrived.  You think it’s difficult when they need a diaper changed or a pacifier in their mouth around the clock, but then they learn how to say “No” and it’s a whole new ball game.  The dynamics have most definitely shifted in the traveling ball game as well.

This post is about a year in the making, but lo and behold: I give you 20 tips for traveling with a toddler. Some for the car and some for the airplane, because it’s a lot easier to travel with a toddler and yet each arena brings it’s own challenges. If you’re traveling this weekend for Memorial Day, or over the summer, you might even want to Pin It for future reference!

1. Give them the window seat.

This way they’re trapped into the row by you, and you’re guaranteed at least fifteen minutes that they’ll be distracted by something outside the window, completely unaware that they’re trapped.

2. Make friends with the flight attendant.

The difference between a flight attendant who likes you and one who thinks you’re out to break every rule in the book is a game changer.  So smile, be polite, and promise that you will most definitely put on your little monster’s seat belt just as soon as she stops drawing on the wall with her crayons.

3. Order just one drink, not two.

Tempting though it may be, your toddler will probably not give you the space and quiet deserved to sip a cup of hot tea while you casually read the latest novel.  Notice how I didn’t put a novel title there? Because my toddler doesn’t let me read them at home, much less while we’re on a plane.  So order just one drink to split between the two of you and save yourself the headache of trying to juggle two while they beg for you to open the peanuts.

4. The iPad case.

This one applies for the car or the airplane.  A great iPad case is a must if you travel for any length of time. We have this one, and we love it. It’s easy to slip on and off, it comes with a built in stand, and it’s got enough foam to protect it against the inevitable punts across the living room or airplane cabin.  We also have this attachment to strap it to the back of our headrest in the car for long road trips, er, visits to the grocery store, er, ALL THE TIME.

4. A snack bag and a fun bag.

When we’re flying, I pack one bag for snacks and one for fun stuff.  Since she doesn’t need diapers or eight changes in clothing anymore, we’ve got the space to condense into one bag, but I like being able to know exactly what’s in each bag.  Because the hardest part about traveling with a toddler is 1) keeping them entertained and 2) keeping them fed.  So one bag for each allows me to respond quickly and not waste the precious time between politely asking for a cheese stick and a full-blown meltdown in the aisle.

5. The pee-pee dilemma.

You don’t really know suspense until the fasten seatbelt lights comes on, the flight attendant announces we will be taking off shortly, and your toddler announces she has to go pee-pee.  Seriously, worst-case scenarios fly through your mind until those wheels miraculously leave the ground and you can rush your little one back to the bathroom without any humiliating incidents.  Save yourself the terror and take the kiddo to the bathroom RIGHT before you board. Whether they say they have to or not.

6. Still skip the stroller.

Even though Cora weighs a bit more now and she doesn’t like the Boba anymore, I still vote against bringing a stroller.  It’s better if they walk off the energy between layovers anyways, and to me strollers are just such a hassle to unpack and repack every time.  Anytime I’ve been forced to bring mine along I just end up using it to push around my bags and carry Cora anyways, so I’d rather just use myself as a human pack mule and suck it up for the 20-minute walk to our next gate.

7. Toddler headphones.

Before I had kids, I thought one of the most obnoxious things was when kids had their devices on full volume for everyone to hear.  We don’t ALL want to listen to Dragonball Z, punk.  Thus, I bought Kidz Gear Wired Headphones for Cora to be able to listen to her favorite movies in peace without bugging other passengers.  She thinks they’re the coolest thing ever, and I like that they have volume control so her little eardrums are protected.

8.Delay the seat belt as long as possible.

Refer to #2 for this one. You must have a good relationship with the flight attendant first, but try to wait as long as possible before strapping your toddler in.  That way you have a better chance of them actually being strapped in for the .005% possibility they might be flung into the air during takeoff.  Sorry if that actually happened to your kid, I guess I just like to taunt fate a bit.

9. Talk them through the airport.

A long layover can feel like the best day ever to a toddler and the worst nightmare for a parent.  They just want to run and play and explore, and you just want to sit down for twenty minutes.  I recommend talking to your toddlers all through the airport so they see what there is to explore and you don’t necessarily have to GO to see every one of those things.  Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

10. Take the layover.

A lot of my friends debate whether or not to take layovers versus a longer direct flight on their trips.  My vote is always for the layover.  Even though your overall trip might be shorter, I would rather have that time to release a little energy, have a change of scenery and adjust if any major catastrophes have occurred on the first leg.  For example, if you run out of fruit snacks midway through a four hour flight, the next two hours might involve a lot of screaming.  BUT if you have a glorious layover built in, you can save the day with a stop to an airport convenience store!

11. Fly either really early in the morning, or really late.

This one is a no brainer if your child is still napping.  And Cora miraculously is always really happy when we wake her up at three in the morning to catch a five a.m. flight. Knock on wood, because we have one tomorrow.  To them, I think it’s kind of an adventure to be up at such odd hours, and hopefully the adrenaline will last just long enough that they then pass out for the flight.

12. Play the bag game.

Once you’ve arrived to your destination, the wait for you bags to come out can feel EXCRUCIATING. So talk with your toddler about what color our bag is, what it looks like, etc. Then point out the colors of the ones that come out first, until you can triumphantly exclaim as you spot your own. It burns a little time, and it’s probably teaching them educational skills, y’know.

13. Change of clothes still applies.

DO NOT think you are exempt from this yet.  Actually, I will probably still pack a spare set of clothes for Cora until she’s 37.  It’s just that important.  And if you don’t, you will SERIOUSLY regret it when that prune juice (or worse) goes all down the front of your toddler’s shirt.

14. A brush for the little ladies.

Cora is no longer entertained by throwing socks on the ground like I mentioned in my first post. WHY couldn’t that phase last longer? Now I bring a little hairbrush because she loves to do my hair, play with her own, and brush her doll’s mane as well.  That’s at least 20 minutes of calm, controlled fun.

15. Chapstick.

Cora also loves to put on Chapstick so I always pack different flavors to try and explore.  Again, it’s all about burning time here with things that will offend other passengers the least. And I have yet to meet a traveler who was seriously offended by strawberry lip gloss.

16. A mirror.

This one is self-explanatory for a little girl.  If she’s got her brush, and she’s got her chapstick, she’s going to want a mirror.  And to a two-year-old, it’s pretty fascinating technology to be honest.  The point is to pack tiny, interchangeable toys AND keep them hidden from her for a few days before the trip so they feel brand new!

17. One new toy and one craft.

Cora is still a spoiled only child, but I always buy one new (small) toy and one new craft before we fly anywhere.  Typically I’ll find something at the dollar store or Target’s dollar area.  Think stickers, crayons, activity books, Polly Pockets, and I even bought bubbles once.  As long as it’s something novel, it will keep them entertained for a good while.

18. Don’t risk it on the snacks.

This is not the opportunity to discover if your child likes snap peas.  Just bring what she likes, what you know she’ll eat.  That way there’s not a horrendous toddler meltdown just as the captain turns off the lights for everyone to take a peaceful snooze.

19. Now is not the time to rock the boat.

Disciplining a toddler on an airplane is one of the riskiest things you can do.  I understand you don’t let them draw on the front of their backpacks at home, but trapped on a plane is not the time to stand your ground.  Unless your child is a serious risk to himself or others, I always say don’t rock the boat.  My main exception to this is if Cora is kicking the back of someone’s seat or some other unacceptable behavior.  But if she picks her nose and eats it, I won’t make her cry over it while we’re in mid-air.

20. Beware revealing too much too soon.

I once traveled with a family to California who had not yet told their young children that they were going to Disneyland.  Mind you, these children were already en route to the happiest place on earth. No clue. Not one. At the time, Cora was about six months old and I thought that was a bit cruel.  Don’t you want them to be excited and build up to this moment? Now I get it.  If you tell a two-year-old you’re going to go swimming tomorrow, you will then be asked 116,493 times until you go swimming: “WE GO SWIMMING NOW?!”  So keep a little mystery alive, parents, for your own sanity.


What would you add to the list?





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