Don’t Call It a Vacation: Mistakes I’ve Made Traveling With a Toddler

When our son was four months old, we got him a passport. He was still totally bald and I had to guess on a hair color for his application. (I guessed wrong, by the way.) By the time he turned two, we’d been on lots of trips–including a few international ones–as a family.

Since our early adventures, I’ve learned a lot about how to travel well with a baby or toddler. Mostly, I learned the hard way. So, today, I’m sharing some of my mistakes–little and big–in the hope that my traveling fails don’t have to be yours.

Checking Your Kid’s Luggage — Mistake!

On our first big trip with our then five-month-old baby, our suitcases were nowhere to be found when we landed. It was Nova Scotia in April: dark and cold. Yikes. Missing luggage sucks when you’re a grown up, but with kids it can be downright scary: no cozy sweaters, diapers, formula, or travel crib. Our luggage showed up a few hours later (whew!), but I learned an important lesson: anything remotely important for the kiddo goes in a carry-on suitcase.

Not Getting an Airline Seat for a Toddler — Mistake!

When our son was eighteen months old, my husband and I found outrageously cheap tickets to Spain and immediately bought them. As budget-minded travelers we were thrilled about the great deal and equally pumped that our kiddo would still be under age two at the time of the trip, so he could fly free on our laps. Perfect. Well, we didn’t think about the fact that six months later, he’d be so much bigger and so much more wiggly.

As the trip neared, I started to obsess about the long overnight flight in a tiny airplane seat with a thirty-pound toddler on my lap. I called the airline, but tickets had tripled in price.

It wasn’t until I met a mom (also a seasoned traveler) at a park sandbox, that I was put more at ease. She suggested upgrading to bulkhead seating for some extra legroom (and toddler wiggle room). And holy moly, was she right! We managed to switch to a bulkhead row for our return trip and our son actually took a nap on the floor in front of us. We paid a bit more for those seats, but that nap was worth every extra dollar.

Doing Too Much — Mistake!

This mistake is so easy to make. When I’m exploring a new place, I want to see EVERYTHING. I want go everywhere, stroll every neighborhood, see every site, and try every food Anthony Bourdain recommends. TripAdvisor top picks? I’m there.

But traveling with young kids requires a different pace. Small travelers need time for naps, snacks, plenty of stops at playgrounds or open spaces, and to be back at the Airbnb in time for bedtime.

Yes, I’m bummed we didn’t make it to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, but I’ll never forget the conversations we had with the Spanish families we met while our son played with new friends at playgrounds. A more relaxed pace means we saw fewer famous sights, but we were able to enjoy where we were in a deeper way.

Calling Your Trip a Vacation — Mistake!

Traveling with a toddler or baby can be exhausting. I remember mornings on a trip to Mexico, when our son was about a year old. Up before dawn, we’d pace the cobblestone streets as the sun rose, trying to kill time until even a coffee shop opened. I remember thinking, We’re on vacation, so why am I so tired?

So in the spirit of managing expectations, I’ve stopped thinking of trips with our toddler as vacations. I’ve let go of visions of lounging poolside with piña coladas and meals at fancy restaurants. Traveling with a little one isn’t usually going to include a lot of relaxation.

Instead, my husband and I look for ways to enjoy ourselves that also work for our kiddo. Quick stops for tapas (many quick stops for tapas, in fact) perfectly matched our toddler’s attention span in Spain. In France, we wandered through the empty streets of a tiny village, splashing in fountains, and eating grapes off the vine. We don’t plan completely around our toddler, we just learned to make sure our adventures are going to be fun for all of us.

One Mistake I Haven’t Made — Thinking it’s Not Worth it

Traveling with a baby or toddler is a lot of work. It can be expensive and requires a lot of planning. You may come home exhausted. To top if off, your kid probably won’t remember any of it. So why bother?

I believe that traveling is one of the best things I can do for my child–and for myself. Being somewhere new provides an incredible opportunity. It’s a chance to put aside the roles we play at home, the physical things that define us like cars and houses, and our day-to-day habits and routines. We leave behind job titles and full calendars. Without the things that we sometimes hide behind, it’s just us. It’s just our family.

A change of location widens our perspective. It’s especially impactful for the littlest travelers. There are new tastes, smells, and sounds to explore. Things look different. Language sounds different. The day unfolds in a new way. Travel proves that the best way to understand the world is to experience it.

So, take the leap, buy those tickets, and go have an adventure with your little one. Just don’t check their luggage!

Traveling with a toddler.

Amelia
Amelia Cook Fontella is a writer, teacher, designer, and entrepreneur. She lives in a cozy little house on Madison’s east side with her husband Rob, kiddos Frankie and Luisa, and a puggle named Starla. Amelia has an MFA in creative writing and regularly teaches in the Madison area, including her own Get Inspired Workshop classes. Amelia and Rob own Green Table Media where they help small businesses and community organizations tell their stories. Amelia adores traveling the world, exploring things in her own backyard, going swimming, and just about anything to do with creativity, writing, and the arts. She’s good at finding other people’s lost things and makes a mean brandy slush.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I would not recommend lap children sleeping on the floor of an airplane, since you are technically their ‘seatbelt.’ Most airlines would never allow a child to sleep on the floor, especially during turbulence. A carseat is always the safest place for a child in a plane. This is bad advice. 😐

    • Courtney, you’re definitely right that using an approved carseat is one of the safest ways for a kiddo to fly the friendly skies. An FAA-Approved Child Harness Device (CARES) is also a good option. If folks want to see official FAA recommendations for flying with little ones, here’s the link: http://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children. Cheers and safe travels, everybody!

  2. Great article, thank you! I am making my second international trip with my 17 month old in April. What did you do for your little ones ears with the change in cabin pressure?

    • I agree, great article, well said! I have enjoyed travelling w my little ones as well, but yes, we should not call it vacation lol.

      We used to time milk feeding time with cabin pressure change, so they were swallowing and helped prevent the painful ears 😊

    • Chris, we usually try to do milk in a sippy cup (or bottle, depending on the age) at take off and landings to help with the pressure changes.

  3. Thanks, I have done a bottle when he was an infant but I wasn’t sure if a sippy cup would work the same. I appreciate the feedback.

  4. Advice for a 3hr flight with a 14mo old? He’s a mover – definitely can’t sit still for too long. Will I survive with him “on my lap”? Or should I invest in an extra seat? Any particular airline “better” for toddlers? Will flying at night/bedtime help him sleep? Thanks for any insight 😂

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