I’ve traveled extensively with my daughter. She was 10 weeks old on her first flight, and has been on 31 flights since (not to mention numerous trains, boats and buses), all before her 2nd birthday. I was fairly petrified embarking on our first plane journey together, from San Francisco to Sydney, and so I wholeheartedly relate to people’s fears of traveling with a kid in tow. It has the potential to be a nightmare.
However, I have to admit that traveling with a kid hasn’t been nearly as harrowing as I expected. I’m not suggesting that every flight has been a journey of uninterrupted bliss, but these hacks have made the process totally manageable.
That being said, everything I have learnt is on the basis of traveling with one happy and healthy child. Some of these tips may still apply to families traveling with two or more children, but I don’t want to preach on a subject I am yet to experience! Anyway, here are my tried and tested tips for making travel with an infant or toddler more fun for the whole family.
1. Choose the mode, and time, of transportation carefully.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice about where or when you go on your next vacation (like if you’re visiting family or traveling for an event), but if options are available to you, think outside the box - you don’t necessarily have to fly! Train travel is a great option for crawling and toddling kids. We've had a blast on overnight trains with sleeping cabins and dining cars. If you’re going on a road trip, schedule the long drives according to your child’s nap-time. Long drives are usually doze inducing, and if you set out with soothing music to play in the car, a shade for the car seat to prevent annoying glare, your child’s comfort toy, and bottles of milk, your chances of success are substantially improved.
2. If you decide to fly, choose the red-eye for all flights over 3 hours, and watch out for sore ears.
Whether or not your baby is a good sleeper, most children are likely to sleep better and longer at night. And a sleeping baby is always easier to manage on a plane. For this reason, if your journey is more than a few hours, I’d always suggest flying overnight. If possible, organize a bassinet for your baby (explain). If you can justify the expense of buying your child their own seat, that’s obviously a bonus for you and your child. Either way, prepare your child for bedtime just like you would at home, with pajamas, a sleep sack, feeding, and so on.
Also be mindful that a lot of kids suffer ear pain from the changes in air pressure on flights. Nursing, bottle feeding or encouraging your baby to suck on a pacifier before takeoff and landing are the best ways to avoid this painful problem.
3. Be the last person on the plane.
I’m not suggesting arriving at the airport at the last minute, but there’s absolutely no reason for you and your kids to be restrained in a plane cabin for any longer than absolutely necessary. Let the airline staff know you’re around, and then let your kid burn off some steam playing near the departure gate. Expending some energy before a long haul flight will probably help them sleep better too.
4. Ziplock bags are your best friend.
You never know when you’re going to be faced with dirty diapers, wet clothes, or exploding tubs of yoghurt (why do I still pack these in my baby bag?). In these moments, ziplocks save the day. We learnt this lesson the hard way, when our daughter had an exploding diaper by the luggage carousel. My husband, who was carrying her, had no option but to undress and throw away his shirt, and our daughter's entire outfit. It wasn’t a pretty scene, and now we always travel with a stash of ziplocks.
5. Travel with the right snacks and toys handy.
Refined sugar is not great for kids ever, really, but especially not on a long drive or flight when you’re hoping they’ll have a nice, long sleep. Low-sodium popcorn is a great ‘treat’ for the plane. We avoid giving our daughter popcorn at other times, so now she associates having it as a special treat for long journeys. Fruits like blueberries and grapes are good too. Individually wrapped portions of cheese, savory crackers, and vegetable sticks are also work. You're looking for healthy snacks that won't create a massive mess.
A wide variety of small, noise-free toys is your best bet for entertainment. Things like miniature figurines, stickers, crayons and coloring books all do the trick.
6. Jetlag is a reality for kids too.
Jet-lag can be torturous, for adults and children alike. The best way to combat jetlag is to sleep in your new time zone as you would at home, which means avoiding naps (for adults) and going to bed at your usual time. If you go to bed too early, you’re likely to wake up in the wee hours of the morning. Hello jet-lag.
To help prevent the onset of jet-lag, you may find yourself having to stimulate your kid to keep them awake until their normal bedtime. It’s tough in the short-term, but it's ultimately better to deal with jet-lag before it sets in.
7. Your baby’s nap-time is sacred.
If there’s ever a time that your baby’s daytime nap needs to be honored and respected, it’s while you’re traveling. It’s not reasonable to expect a child to behave well on vacation if they’re exhausted... It’s hard enough for adults to hold it together!
If your child can have a quality daytime nap in their stroller, then you’re all set. My daughter slept happily in her stroller until she was around 18 months old, then all of a sudden she stopped. Getting used to this change took a bit of adjusting, but you have to roll with the punches. If your kid needs to be in a cot to get a proper sleep, then you just have to suck it up and return to your accommodation in the middle of the day and organize the nap. There will be days where this isn’t possible (like on days you have a long drive planned), but if you can make it happen, you should.
It can be tempting to overdo it on vacation, and jam in too many activities in each day. This is a false economy when you're traveling with a kid. Whatever sightseeing you miss out on while you’re waiting for your baby to wake up from their nap, is ultimately less important than the nap. The reality is that everyone is going to have a better experience if your child is not delirious and grumpy from fatigue.
8. Garbage bags + masking tape = excellent black out blinds.
You may find yourself in accommodation without window coverings (this seems weirdly common), or in a place where the sun rises a lot earlier than you’re used to at home. Both of these issues can be a huge impediment to a good night’s sleep. We’ve learnt the hard way, and now we travel with a bunch of heavy duty garbage bags and a roll of masking tape. You can cover just about any window or skylights with the black bags, and paper tape doesn’t damage walls and paintwork.
9. Avoid hotels.
When you’re traveling with a kid you need space, and ideally a washing machine. Unless you can justify staying in a multi-room suite, and using the hotel’s in-house laundry service, you’re better off in an Airbnb or vacation rental.
Even if you’re a pro at packing light, babies come with their fair share of gear. In an apartment you’ll be able spread out, stock the fridge with supplies, your baby will have space to move around play, and you’ll be able to have some separation between your travel crib and your bed. But most importantly, you’ll be able to tackle the endless production of dirty laundry in the comfort of your own vacation home!
10. Adopt a kid-friendly approach to dining out.
You’re likely to be dining out a lot more regularly on vacation than your baby is used to, and so it’s only fair to consider how you can make mealtimes as family-friendly as possible. Weather permitting, picnics are a great option. Restaurants with gardens are great too.
When my daughter had learnt to sit up, but was not yet crawling, we used to bring a small picnic blanket to restaurants. She’d sit on the floor with some toys while we had a quick meal. It was a little unconventional, but it worked really well. These days we try to dine out early, when restaurants tend to be less busy, and call ahead to reserve a table with a high chair. If we’re somewhere where local customs call for late dinners, like in Spain where things get started at around 9pm, we have a big lunch!
11. If your child has a comfort toy, being an identical spare.
I think parents will universally relate to this tip, so no further explanation is needed :-)
Good luck and happy traveling. The memories are worth the effort!