My 15-month old toddler is proudly collecting her passport stamps. My husband and I LOVE traveling, and we made a pact when we had our baby Nainika that we wouldn’t let parenthood get in the way of our passion. Instead, we chose to expose her to as much travel as possible, because I truly believe that it impacts children in a positive way. I traveled a TON growing up since my parents were expats overseas. I may not have concrete memories of all my trips, but somewhere deep inside me is ingrained an appreciation for culture and adventure that was planted at an incredibly young and impressionable age.
We get lots of questions about how we manage traveling internationally, and my number one most important tip is:
It’s going to be a lot of hard work and you’ll have to deal with some truly tough moments, but just keep reminding yourself why traveling as a family unit is important to you. If you begin your journey with a negative, stressed out attitude, then your experience will likely just be that. The key is to be positive and just recognize that this is going to be a different type of trip than past solo adventures and you will have different things to appreciate. If you focus on cultivating a positive mindset, then your child will imbibe that same energy. A sense of humor helps too! You’ll need it to stay calm during all those blowouts and meltdowns. 🙂
#2 most important tip: DO NOT OVERTHINK IT.
Parenting in this time and age is truly a blessing and a curse. We are exposed to a plethora of information in the form of books, blogs, online forums, social media, parental networks, etc. that can be immensely helpful. At the same time, it’s information overload. My parents didn’t research this stuff as heavily as we do today, and they were just fine. It’s important to be prepared of course, but do you need to buy every single travel-friendly product and toy out there? No. Sometimes the less you do, the more relaxed and ‘go with the flow’ you’ll be, which is the exact attitude you need to survive on a trip with toddler.
That said, here are some practical tips that have worked for OUR child on some of our past travels. She has traveled to Paris at three months, Western Canada at six months, and Sicily at 15 months with various domestic trips in between, and these tips have worked well for us. Of course every child is different and has unique needs, but hopefully this is a helpful guide for planning your own successful family adventures!
- RENT AN APARTMENT: We’ve gone both the apartment and hotel route, and renting an apartment is so much easier when traveling with a baby or toddler. Whether you use Airbnb, HomeAway, or Vrbo, you can find affordable places with a kitchenette (extremely important for us since our toddler has allergies), second bedroom/and or living room area for chilling when the baby is asleep, high chair, and a crib. You will be spending a lot of time in your apartment, so makes sure it’s comfortable and roomy. Having a balcony is a HUGE asset so that you can feel like you’re outdoors while your toddler is napping or sleeping!
- THINK THROUGH FLIGHT TIMES: When traveling internationally, it’s really helpful to book an overnight flight. We’ve done both overnight and daytime flights, and the second can TRULY be painful when your toddler is active and awake and just wants to walk around and explore the plane.
- PICK YOUR TRAVEL DESTINATION WISELY: Sometimes this isn’t in our control if we’re traveling for a family wedding or pre-determined vacation. However, if you can, pick your destination with your toddler mind. Traveling east is always easier from a time zone perspective, because it’s not the end of the world if your toddler sleeps and wakes up later than usual. When we took Nainika to Sicily for example, she just went to sleep around midnight and slept in till 11 am which enabled us to go out for some late dinners and drinks. Keeping her as close to her normal schedule made it so much easier for us to transition when we were home! Traveling to California from Chicago was a challenge, because Nainika would be sleepy by 5 pm and wake up by 5 am. Not fun.
- PACK EFFICIENTLY: We love using packing cubes for Nainika’s stuff, because it keeps her tiny clothes altogether in one place — we usually do jammies in one, daytime outfits in another, accessories/socks in another, etc. Also, please be practical. I know there are a zillion adorable little dresses or outfits that you want to pack for your toddler on vacation, but they will likely just be in comfy long sleeves and pants to protect them from sun exposure when you’re out and about. Just pack 2-3 impractical dresses/outfits so you can capture those priceless pictures, and be sensible about the rest. But DO pack an extra outfit per day to account for messes. Other important items to pack:
- Sanitizing wipes for airport/on flight diaper changes
- Travel-sized noise machine
- Crib sheets
- Medicines/thermometers/diaper cream
- Tupperware (super helpful if you’re taking food for your toddler to restaurants)
- Sunscreen, sunhat
- Bath towel and bath soap
- Enough diapers and wipes to last a couple days, in case your luggage doesn’t make it on time (speaking from experience)
- Sippy cups, bottles, and formula (for when milk isn’t easily accessible)
- BUY A TRAVEL STROLLER, DITCH THE CARSEAT: The travel stroller is a must. No need to carry around your bulky American stroller in narrow foreign alleyways! We purchased the Summer Infant 3D Lite Convenience Stroller and it works just fine. It’s lightweight, easy to maneuver with one hand, and does well on cobblestone. Yes, there are probably better, more expensive options but when we’re lugging it around the globe, it doesn’t make sense to invest a ton. As for the carseat, unless you’re planning a road trip or in a country where safe carseats are not easily available for rent, then there’s really no need to lug around a carseat. The lighter you travel, the happier you’ll be.
- BULKHEAD ROW BULKHEAD ROW BULKHEAD ROW! Call ahead or show up to the airport three hours early to try to get the bulkhead row. This is sooo key when you’re traveling with a toddler. It gives you the extra room that you’ll need, and a bassinet if your child can still fit in it. If you call ahead they may make you pay extra, but we’ve usually had luck just showing up early to the airport. We got extremely unlucky one time when there were like 15 babies on the plane and we did not get the bulkhead row or bassinet…so just depends on whether you want to risk it! Same goes with purchasing an extra seat. If you’re risk averse and would rather spend the extra money for a seat, then do it. I’d rather save and hope the bulkhead row or an extra seat opens up!
- PACK SNACKS, BUT DON’T STRESS ABOUT TOYS: You will need snacks. Lots of them. Especially if your child has any allergies, it’s always safer just to pack a bunch of snacks to keep them distracted and entertained. Don’t go crazy with toys though — just 3-4 new toys is perfect for keeping them busy, but they will more likely be excited about people watching and being in a new environment!
- DON’T FEEL GUILTY ABOUT SCREEN TIME: This is a tough one for me, because I whip out my phone/iPad pretty often when we’re traveling and feel super guilty about it. But you gotta do what you gotta do. I got a free one month YouTube premium trial before our Sicily trip which was a genius move…I just saved a bunch of Nainika’s favorite videos for offline use and would use them to distract her whenever she was about to have a meltdown. Worked like a charm every time.
- USE A BABY CARRIER IF IT WORKS FOR YOU: Everyone told us to use a baby carrier when traveling so you can be hands free. We love our LILLEbaby carrier, but we never really used it prior to our trips..big mistake. I do recommend bringing a carrier (especially if you plan on hiking, etc.) but just make sure you and your toddler are comfortable using it beforehand. We only used it once or twice on our trips, and I just wish we had prepared more beforehand to get more use out of it!
- SLEEPING HACKS: First and foremost — let your child run around as much as possible prior to the flight to tire them out. On the flight, I try to create the same bedtime environment that we do at home when it’s time to sleep. This means lullabies, a bottle, her favorite stuffed elephant, and putting on a sleep sack. They get easily distracted on the plane, so try to hang a blanket as a canopy over your seat to eliminate as much lighting as possible. Getting a toddler to sleep on the plane is not the easiest thing in the world, but just stay calm — they will eventually fall asleep! If a carrier works for you, try taking him/her to a quiet part of the plane and rocking them to sleep. Just stay calm 🙂
- JETLAG: There’s no magical cure for jetlag even for adults. Depending on where you’re traveling to and for how long, it might not make sense adjusting your child to the new schedule right away. When we’re in Europe for example, we just stick to our regular schedules and have later bedtimes and wake times. Works great for us since we like doing late dinners and sleeping in on vacation anyway! If you’re staying somewhere for a longer period of time and need to adjust, then make sure to get your child out and active in the sunlight during the day so they’re worn out in the evening. This might mean missing a nap to get them tired earlier and that’s OKAY. Their schedules are not going to be perfect and it may take a couple days to get them adjusted.
- DO NOT OVERSCHEDULE: Our strategy for managing toddler travel itineraries is to schedule just ONE activity/sight per day (excluding meals, of course). You are not going to be able to cram in multiple sights with your toddler, so don’t stretch yourselves. The struggle with toddlers is that they need plenty of time to run around and release energy. They also need to nap! One sight per day gives you the flexibilty you need to run back home for naps, relax at restaurants, and give your kid time to run around in town squares. This is why we usually just go to one place when traveling with Nainika, so that we can feel relaxed and give ourselves plenty of time to see everything we want. And make sure to scope out parks and playgrounds! This is their vacation too, but they will likely just be as happy people-watching and being in a new environment.
- SLEEP SCHEDULES: If you’re able to stick to your child’s regular schedule when on vacation, then I applaud you. We try to stick to Nainika’s two naps as much as possible, but this usually doesn’t happen. As long as we could squeeze in one solid nap at our Airbnb, then everyone’s happy. My advice is to get out the door as soon as everyone’s up in the morning and explore until you see tired signs from your toddler. Then head back to your apartment/hotel and let your child nap or relax. Sometimes they’re so wired up that they won’t be able to nap, but just giving them some downtime in a quiet place can be enough to get them rewired for any evening plans you may have. Try to get their room as dark as possible and turn up the white machine during naptimes and bedtimes. They will likely take longer to sleep in the new environment – if they’re sleep-trained, try CIO for at least 15-20 minutes (but check up on them often). I’m always guilty of bringing my toddler into bed with me when on vacation, but if I stay strong and let her cry it out, she DOES fall asleep in her crib.
- DINING OUT: This is usually the highlight of our trips, so we don’t skimp on dining out even with our toddler. That said, you have to be smart about it. Don’t schedule a late reservation at a fancy schmancy Michelin star restaurant — it will make you and everyone around you uncomfortable. My advice is to schedule an early reservation, eat al fresco if you can (everyone’s louder outdoors!), bring toys/snacks, and don’t feel guilty about screentime. And if you’re in Italy, you can do whatever you want, because everyone is BABY OBSESSED and your waiters will be entertaining your child for you 🙂
So there you have it — my most important tips for surviving international toddler travel! Stay calm, be patient, and enjoy the beautiful moments. There’s nothing more amazing than seeing the world through your child’s eyes.
I tried to cover as many different areas as possible, but there are obviously a zillion different things to consider, so just drop me a comment if you have any specific questions. And don’t forget that every child is unique and you know his or her needs best, so take these tips as guidelines. I’d also love to hear what your most important travel tip is in the comments section too!