Remember when I wrote a post about packing for travel with a baby, and then another about flying with a young baby, well I blinked and now I'm back writing a bunch of tips about travelling with a toddler because that so quickly became our new reality.
That said, some of these are duplicates of what I wrote in my other posts on long-haul flights with a toddler (an 18 month old to be exact) and how we dealt with jet-lag too with aforemention toddler. And if you only want to know about what gear we swear by to help us when travelling with a toddler, here is a packing list of all the best gear and gadgets we have used during long-haul journeys with our toddler son.
But after the round-trip to Australia, our trip to the Maldives (three flights each way) and a handful of other journeys with our little man I feel like we've got a lot of this travelling with a toddler malarkey down to a fine art... Actually, no. There's nothing artistic or fine about travelling with a toddler. It's nearly always a hot mess, but we are mostly well prepared for this hot mess and it definitely doesn't put us off travelling, which is the key thing, I guess.
General tips for travelling with a toddler
So here you go, these are my best tips for travelling with a toddler in a way that our worst case scenario keeps everyone alive and the best case scenario is that stress is kept to a minimum and there may even be time for mum and dad to enjoy a glass of wine (or two) in peace.
Time your flights well, if possible.
If you're taking a long-haul flight, I'd highly recommend you do it at night to give your little one a fighting chance of sleep, and you a few hours of peace. If this isn't possible, then go for the braver approach which would be to arrive in the evening of your destination. The mission then is to keep your little one entertained and awake as much as possible during the flight so you can all go straight to bed at a normalish time and pray this keeps the jet lag demons at bay. Either way, think about what time of day or night it will be when you fly and prepare for your kiddo's routine to dictate how he will behave etc.
For us, it's worth spending a little bit of extra money on the shortest, most direct and comfortable airline we can afford in order to have space, comfort and help before, during and after the flight.
Consider getting their own seat for long-hauls (even before they're two)
I've previously mentioned this on my blog and I've repeated it over and over again to parents with children under the age of two who are preparing for a long haul journey. Get them their own seat. Yes, it's a fair bit more expensive, but what price can you put on knees you can still feel after spending thirteen hours with a wriggling, kicking, pooing monkey on them? Being able to put our son in the middle of us and give him his own space for all his crap, I mean, toys is worth a lot to us and it meant when he was sleeping so could we. He still climbed on us every now and again but then we could stretch out our legs and spread out without making enemies with our neighbours. We also got to have a set of three seats all to ourselves.
Don't force sleep on them during the flight
Another tip I've previously shared; don't try to force sleep on your little one. This not only sets you up for a fall but it can be very difficult to establish a routine if they have slept lots and lots on the plane, If you're heading to a very different time zone, you are much more likely to set up a new routine or acclimatise your little one to a different time zone when he or she is tired. Of course, if they sleep on the plane, great! But don't make it your sole purpose in life to get your son or daughter sleep when you think they should because planes are exciting for little people and you can't control the cabin's lights or fellow passengers (Hello, LOUD snoring people!) so give yourself one less thing to do and just let your kiddo decide if and/or when he's going to get some shut eye.
Screens are your saviour!
The above tip is very closely related to this one because if your kid is like ours, as soon as they've got an iPad in their lap, they will become disinterested in almost everything else other than this magical device. They certainly won't want to play with it for ten minutes then put it down next to them, stretch out, yawn and go to sleep. Ha! Never! All parents are different and have different feelings when it comes to "screentime" but seeing as my partner and I spend a lot of time on screens for work and we use them to manage a number of different things in our house, we've always thought it naive to try and keep our boy away from our phones and tablets. I would much rather he have supervised access to these things, use them to play games that help with his development and also get in the habit of using TV as a relaxing, family activity, then have him not understand what they are and what they're for. (Now I'm going to step off my parenting soapbox!) Whatever your feelings on the matter, it's fair to say that a tablet is a saviour for many travelling families and we are one of them. Charge your device up, load it up with suitable TV shows (we download his favourites via the Netflix app), make sure your not connected to the Internet (because don't underestimate a two-year-old with access to the App store) and hand it over.
Personally, we wait until our little guy is really restless, unhappy or bored before we give him the iPad but it's also true that I've been known to give it to him when I'm feeling restless, unhappy and bored in the security queue at Schiphol!
New or new-to-them toys for the journey
Indeed, usually before the iPad comes out we give Baby Bird a new (to him!) toy or a few books he hasn't read in a while. I try to always take a few of his favourite toys away from him secretly in the run up to a trip and have them in his hand luggage, and I find a sticker book is always a hit with him.
Get vegetarian meal for your kid if they're fussy about strong (spicy!) flavours
Depending on where you're travelling to, you may want to consider ordering a vegetarian meal for a plane journey as sometimes meat options can be spicy or unusual in flavour. Of course, your little guy may love spicy food, but we have often found the vegetarian option is a safer bet for our guy with more familiar and predictable flavours.
Research airports for facilities for children
For our last few trips, I've started doing something I've never done before; researching the airports we are travelling from or through. Before having a child, I always felt I had enough to keep myself occupied that even a six or seven hour layover didn't worry me, as long as I could find water and a toilet in the terminal building. Now I have a very active toddler as hand luggage, I don't have the luxury of sitting on a cold airport floor writing my books for hours; I have to entertain him, or at the very least, ensure he doesn't drive other people crazy. Hence my recent Google searches for children's areas in Sydney, Male and Dubai airports. Most major hubs will have facilities for children, but you may find they're not close to where your depature gate is so a little research where they are will save you a few minutes of uncertainty (which is never fun for an over-tired jet-lagged parent with furry teeth whose just wantched ten back-to-back episodes of Peppa Pig.)
Don't overthink what they need for a journey
I find that some two year olds are still quite oblivious of what is going on around them, and where they're going and what they're doing, while others will demand a running commentary of everything that is happening, with illustrated notes. Our son is currently more like the former and he is happy to go along with what is happening, but gets very excited about cars, planes and trucks (roughly in that order!). But what I'm always amazed by is how I feel when we've completed a journey because every single long and difficult journey we do together reminds me that he is just happiest when we're all together, and when are you more forced to breathe the same recycled air as when you're sitting on a plane, or in a train or in a car? As long as I can throw him a bone every now and again (to use a terrible child-dog analogy!) he really doesn't need much more entertainment than just hanging out with me and his dad, something he doesn't do for concentrated periods of time very often. I'd strongly advise you to relax and remember that as annoying as it is for you (thanks to aforementioned Peppa Pig episodes, or having a surprisingly hard toddler skull burrow into your thigh for several hours as he naps) they are possibly having the best time of their life.
Packing tips for travel with a toddler
Pack well in advance
Top of my list of tips I write but don't always take myself is this one: PACK IN ADVANCE!! As much as I'm sure you love running around early in the morning or late at night trying to find your flip-flops in the back of your cupboard while trying not to wake a sleeping toddler next door, I think we can all agree that having a packed suitcase (with possibly, hopefully everything you need in it) ready and standing by the front door a smug ten minutes before you leave the house is the very definition of living your best life. It is for me, at least. Personally, I find packing the carry on luggage can't really be done until the day of travel itself, so knowing I have at least have enough underwear packed for the time away is one less thing to worry about as I try to squeeze in a month's supply of toddler snacks in a zip-loc bag.
Take minimal luggage!
Now my boy is a little too heavy (and active!) to be plopped in a baby carrier, we find ourselves using the buggy a lot more when working our way through airports or even just travelling around a new place on foot and so when it comes to the journey, we are down at least two hands out of four available for carrying, pushing and holding stuff. This means we have one of our carry-on bags as a backpack and one wheelie case with larger and heavier items in. For long-haul journeys we also have a roller suitcase for my son, but he actually quite likes holding that as we push him the buggy, though he wouldn't pass any driving test with his steering! Any more than this and you are basically forcing yourself to become a pack horse, and don't rely on the space under or in your buggy because you never know when you're going to have to fold it up or carry it up or down stairs. (I recommend a backpack, kids' suitcase and fantastic pushchair below!)
Have at least one change of clothes for the journey
While explosive yellow poos are no longer a problem for us since my son's legendary newborn weeks, we still find ourselves faced with filthy or soaked clothes after he gets a bit over-eager to try Mum's sparkling water or both his parents ignore the snot waterfall that is his nose for a few minutes. Having an extra set of clothes is also a good plan if you're going from a cold to warm climate, or vice versa.
Have more nappies than you think you'll need
If you're little person is still in nappies, I would highly recommend packing more nappies than you think you'll need for the duration of your trip, especially if you're going somewhere where you'll have limited or no access to supermarkets, like we exeprienced in the Maldives.
Have more snacks than you think you'll need, for the journey and beyond!
What does a toddler love more than an iPad or a forehead to floor tantrum? That's right, snacks!! So fill your boots with them. Or rather your bag because full boots are probably a security risk. This is also a good tip for those with kids whose taste buds are "sensitive" to change, like ours. We always find our kiddo takes a few days to trust new food in a new environment, so if I have a few extra healthy snacks for both the time we're away as well as in- and out-bound journeys, I can not worry about him starving or getting scurvy.
Have room in your hand luggage as re-packing is never as organised - also some airlines give you toys/activity packs
I don't mean to brag, but I'm kind of a big deal when it comes to neatly packing a bag that has everything my son and I need for a long-haul flight, and I nearly always know where everything is when one of us needs something (my partner on the other hand is still in training) but after we've pulled my son's water bottle out, taken the iPad out of its pouch and unleashed a few toys, getting everything back in can prove more difficult than a cryptic crossword, IF I haven't given myself some space as contingency. You'll also find that you accumulate things even while your toddler munches non-stop through your snack supply - free gift toys from airlines, some masterpiece artwork your kid created out of napkins, your partner's duty-free aftershave (*insert angry face emoji*) - and I don't know about other parents but trying to pack up after their toddler in a rush at the end of a sleep-deprived 12-hour night flight is not my idea of a good time...
Have a spare plastic bag for dirty clothes
Going back to that point about toddlers not being immune to outfit changes, you should have a spare plastic bag or two on hand for dirty clothes, and/or any rubbish your toddler accumulates. Yes, you can ask a member of cabin crew (if you're flying) but for how long do you really want to hold onto that piece of half-chewed biscuit while you wait?
Have a few resealable clips or sandwich bags for abandoned snacks
Things to pack for travel with a toddler
For a full list of all the gear and gadgets we rely on when travelling with our son, this post has much more detail, but below are some of the essential items we use all the time.
- If they're small enough (limit 15kg) this table mounted seat is still worth having for when you travel with a toddler. Yes, it's pricey, but it's incredibly light, portable and easy to put on. We reckon our son will get another six months of use out of this and we still use it at home when we go to restaurants that don't have high chairs.
- Jetkids Bedbox - So since I shared about this on this post, we've seen that a number of airlines won't let you use the bed funtion of this carry-on case for kids but it's NOT ALL of them. While this function is my favourite part, and it helped my son sleep a lot on our flights to and from Australia, I have to say that the suitcase is still worth having when they're two or older as they may then be tall enough to sit on it and get pulled along when they're tired, which toddlers always seem to get when you're walking around an airport (but not after running miles and miles in a softplay centre, obviously).
- Earlier this year, we bought the YoYo BabyZen collapsible pushchair (after moving from a groundfloor to a third floor apartment in Amsterdam) and while great for around town, I think it's easily THE BEST buggy for travel with a toddler. It folds up quickly and easily; you can carry it on your shoulder (and at around 5kg it's not backbreaking immediately!) and when fully collapsed, it's small enough that it can even go in overhead cabin baggage bins. You can read my full review of the best travel stroller here.
- We've got one of these hooks on the handle of our pushchair and it's so useful for those bits and bobs you try not to pick up on the journey, but inevitably do!
- This iPad holder was a bit of a spontaneous buy and I was convinced it's ugliness would lead me to throw it straight in the bin, but it's actually a fond member of the family now as it both protects the iPad and helps Baby Bird hold it (so we don't have to!).
- This is very similar to the bag I/we use as our carry-on/changing bag and it can fit all of the essential things we need for a long journey, while also having space for my laptop and lucky me, a few other luxury items that I can hopefully enjoy for a few minutes in a ten-hour journey, like headphones and my Kindle.
- And these are some of the toys, books and activities we've used with great success during long-haul travel either on a plane or at an airport. Sticker books, mess free colouring pens, Duplo car (so he can build and race), any kind of peekaboo book (my son loves these), and a book with lots of detail so you can play "spot the..." together. This one is a big favourite but it is quite big!
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Frances M. Thompson
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