Traveling With Toddlers: Five Ways To Make It Easier

by Jessica Flannagan
My husband and I traveled extensively before having our first child in 2011. In our minds, traveling with kids couldn’t possibly be much different. We were wrong. Traveling with children is significantly more complicated and requires a lot more planning, but giving our children the experience of travel and getting myself the wanderlust fix is worth it. With the right preparation and mindset, traveling with toddlers can be a positive experience. 

We’ve traveled with our children throughout the United States. And  even took our son to Sri Lanka when he was only two and a half years old, while I was five months pregnant. It was an amazing experience for all. Yes, we traveled to the other side of the world with a 2-year- old and an active two-year-old at that. In total, we traveled for just over 26 hours each way with flights and layovers. 

Here are our tried and true tactics for traveling close to home or across the globe with small children. 

Tip #1: Pack smart

  • Pack light. If you can limit your carry-on luggage to only one for your family plus a backpack or two, you will have free hands to keep your toddler close.
  • Bring your own carseat. While it’s a challenge to haul, many countries simply don’t have the same safety standards. We purchased a strap that allowed us to hook our carseat to our carry-on luggage for easy hauling between flights and at our destination.
  • Pack a change of clothes in the carry on for each person traveling. With a toddler, you never know when a change of clothes will be needed.
  • Bring any key comfort items. Don’t forget your family’s necessities. For us, that was a white noise machine. We knew we’d need it at hotels for our son and us to sleep well while dealing with jet lag. 

Tip #2: Be prepared with plenty of airplane activities

  • Books. We brought our son’s two favorite books. This easily occupied at least 20 to 40 minutes several times on the long flights.
  • Movies. At that age, our son rarely got to watch TV and movies so we loaded our iPhones and my laptop with movies for him as a treat. One of our long flights also had a great in-flight system.
  • Flash cards with animals, dinosaurs and fun facts.
  • Restroom breaks. Our son was mostly potty trained when we traveled so we went to the restroom often to give him a chance to stand and move a bit.
  • Drawing. We brought a small notepad and some coloring books.
  • Photos. Our son loved looking at photos of himself so we let him look at photos on our phone for short periods of time on the flights.
  • Toys. When traveling across the country (or world), you can’t pack many toys. We brought two small toy animals and played with them a few times on our flights.
  • Sleep. You’re laughing? So am I. This would be a miracle for most parents. We got lucky and our son slept quite a bit. The engine sound was the perfect white noise to help him (and us) rest often.

Tip #3: Use snack time to your benefit

  • Make snack time an event. When the airline provides a snack and drink, make it fun and make it last. I loved counting on snack time to give us 20 minutes or so of a “break” on each long flight.
  • Real fruit fruit snacks. Added sugar is not your friend when you are dealing with a toddler in a confined space, but there are some great fruit snacks made with dried fruit that can be a treat for young children but not give them the sugar rush and crash.
  • Fruit, especially cut up berries, bananas and peeled clementines.
  • Whole grain crackers and hummus.

Tip #4: Emergency activities and snacks for those inevitable tough times.

I like to plan for the worst case scenario. With our son that could’ve been a very loud and out of control tantrum if he didn’t get much sleep. In what I call “a toddler emergency situation” we can use the following to distract/entertain.
  • Special crackers or treat. Small graham crackers were our son’s favorite snack and vitamin c lollipops were also something he loved. He didn’t get them often so they could be used when all else failed.
  • Screen time. I know. I know. It’s not ideal, but it can be a lifesaver. Our son had never used our iPad before our big trip, so we downloaded a super simple toddler app that had a sticker game. It was really helpful on the longer flights when he was just done traveling.
  • A small special toy. I brought along a couple of activity kits from the dollar section and saved them for “toddler emergencies.” We only used one on the flights, but it was nice having them ready just in case.

Tip #5: Make the layover your friend

  • Exercise. Walk around the airport as much as possible while on the ground.
  • Play areas. We researched ahead of time to find play spaces at the airports. Minneapolis has a great option. Dallas has four play areas. And London’s Heathrow airport has several play options as well. We took advantage of several of them. 
  • Special airline lounges. We purchased access to a lounge at Heathrow Airport because our layover was nearly five hours on the way home. It was amazing to be able to shower, eat a healthy breakfast and all take naps in reclining chairs between flights.
  • Healthy meals. While most international flights do offer meals, many domestic flights don’t. Sitting down for a healthy meal is always helpful to our son and us.

Bonus tip!

OK, I’ll finish with my plan. The real trick to surviving a long journey with a toddler is patience and low expectations. We went in on our trip to Sri Lanka with very low expectations. I did not assume our son would sleep. I did not assume any part of the 24- plus hours of travel would be easy. I just knew that we would make it through one way or another.
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