Traveling With Toddlers: 16 Tips to Make Your Vacation Go Smoothly
These expert travel hacks guarantee a happy trip for the whole family.
Flexibility, electronic devices and lots of snacks will make traveling with toddlers a lot smoother.(Getty Images)
Millennials are traveling more than any other generation, according to recent studies by the United Nations and other organizations. In fact, MMGY Global's 2019-20 "Portrait of American Travelers" found that those born between 1980 and 1998 continue to travel even after having children, with most millennial families anticipating taking about four trips next year. In 2018, 57% of millennial families partook in a growing vacation trend known as "Wings & Wheels," which involves flying to a destination to then begin a road trip.
Still, even the most vacation-savvy parents know that toting toddlers on land and in the air requires almost double the preparation of an adults-only trip. To help, U.S. News interviewed travel and parenting experts to compile 16 tips for traveling with toddlers that are sure to smooth the way for you and those around you.
Use a Car Seat on Road Trips
Book a car seat for your toddler when you reserve a rental car to ensure availability. Or, check to see if a local AAA office has complimentary loaners available. You'll want to use booster seats for older children ages 4 to 7 to keep them secure until they fit into standard seat belts. For additional information about child safety restraint systems (CRS), visit BuckleUpforLife.org.
Book the Safest In-Flight Options
Children younger than 2 years old typically travel for free or at reduced rates as a "lap child" when held by a parent, but experts recommend buying a seat and securing your little ones in a Federal Aviation Administration-approved CRS or infant vest. "Everyone from the FAA to [the] Academy of Pediatrics says young children are far safer in turbulent skies when restrained in safety seats," says Eileen Ogintz, creator of online travel resource Taking the Kids and author of "The Kid's Guides" series of travel activity books for ages 6 to 12.
Stock Up On Treats Before Departure
Nicky Omohundro, creator of the outdoor blog Little Family Adventure, describes snacks as "true toddler currency," deeming them a must-have component of any family vacation. Barb Webb, mother of three and founder of the Second Season Travel blog, agrees. "Pre-packing these items saves you a bundle, too, as you'll avoid having to pay premium prices at travel stops," she says. Whether traveling by car or plane, easy snacks like dry cereal, pretzels and baby carrots (boiled for a few minutes to eliminate choking hazards) are sure to please. A refillable water bottle or sippy cup is also a necessity.
Travel With Toddler Hygiene Essentials
A well-stocked diaper bag can be a lifesaver when traveling with toddlers. Wet wipes provide a basic level of hygiene for all ages, while plastic zip-close bags can store items ranging from toys and snacks to wet bathing suits and soiled shoes – and even garbage or diapers, in a pinch. You should also always carry a change of clothes for yourself and your toddler in case of unexpected spills.
Reconnect Without Electronic Devices
Family vacations are an ideal time for everyone to unplug and enjoy time together. "Electronic items may seem like a good choice," Webb says, "but they require constant monitoring and charging, which can detract from your vacation." Instead, look for easy-to-pack interactive books, bingo sheets and small animal-, science-, superhero- or sports-themed toys. This time together can also be a great opportunity to inspire kids with new topics.
Learn Something Together
Still, if your family considers screen time a vacation, make it work for you by learning something new. Download the PBS KIDS Video app for free access to thousands of videos, many of which are more educational than in-flight programming options. Or, if your back-seat passengers are prone to motion sickness, stick to audio. Try a new podcast like "Book Club for Kids," which includes author readings of kid literature and interviews with other children. Audible has audio book recommendations specifically for family road trips as well. Just don't forget to pack earbuds for siblings.
Choose Quiet Activities for Flights
Entertaining toddlers on a plane, where you have to be mindful of other passengers and can't pull over for breaks, is challenging. Quiet, engaging activities like coloring books and art projects with linoleum, felt, magnetic or adhesive cut-outs keep little hands and minds busy. Also consider holding something back; surprising toddlers with new or forgotten toys is a sure way to grab their attention, at least for a few minutes. If all else fails and a tantrum erupts, offer to buy drinks for the passengers around you – they were all kids once, too.
Pack a Single Family Suitcase for Efficiency
Adults traveling solo with a toddler or other children should pack one family suitcase to keep things simple. "I find it helpful to pack each child's clothing by day into packing cubes," Omohundro says. "It makes the morning routine more streamlined and efficient." You also won't have to lug several bags on your own while traveling, and you'll keep one hand free to lead tiny travelers through the airport.
Bring Multipurpose Items
Unless your toddler uses their baby blanket for security, don't bring it on your trip. "A beach towel is a better option," Webb says. "Use it as a blanket on the airplane and then as a towel or mat for the pool, beach or park during your travels." Another popular multitasker is paper tape, which can facilitate minor repairs, separate siblings' turf and be enjoyed as a rolling toy. For your youngest travelers, get a soft-sided, multitextured activity bar to secure to their stroller, crib or car seat. Some of these bars even feature removable toys.
Encourage Kids to Carry Their Own Belongings
If they're up to it, toddlers may enjoy carrying a small fanny pack or backpack through the airport. Encourage kids ages 3 and older to bring along their toys and clothing in a child-size rolling suitcase. This can be a helpful way to lighten your load – and it will make your kids feel grown up at the same time.
Fit in Naps When Possible
One of the best ways to avoid a cranky toddler is to encourage napping. Maintain a routine to help young ones get some shut-eye, such as changing them into sleepwear and putting them down with a favorite security blanket or stuffed toy around the same time every day. "If you can schedule your flight or long drive around their nap time, it can often lead to a very peaceful and quiet ride," Webb says.
Be Prepared to Sightsee With Toddlers
A portable stroller or child carrier fitted with a sunshade, drinks, snacks and trinkets is a sightseeing essential. Some child carriers also double as highchairs in restaurants. "If you know you'll be standing in line, a small jar of bubbles, stickers, a hand-held fan or fidget toys can come in handy," Omohundro says. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is said to carry savory snacks like olives and macaroni and cheese to tide her children over during long public appearances and state visits.
Reserve Accommodations That Suit Your Needs
There's an accommodation for every family, regardless of their budget and needs. Some parents like hotels and resorts with swimming pools, restaurants and playrooms for rainy days. Meanwhile, larger families may prefer vacation rentals with cooking facilities and special perks. Helpful resources include Airbnb's "family" sort filter and the Kid & Coe website, which lets you choose from 1,000-plus curated properties around the world that may offer amenities like concierge services, baby equipment rentals and tours designed for traveling families.
[See: 17 Amazing Kid-Friendly Hotels.]
Take Toddler Travel Supplies for Your Hotel Room
Having familiar items in your hotel room or rental home will help your toddler rest more easily in a new environment. Ogintz suggests bringing a toddler's crib sheet and night light from home to provide extra comfort. To keep curious kiddos safe in their new surroundings, cover wall outlets with masking tape, secure the remote control and latch the toilet seat cover, if needed.
Prepare Your Toddler for New Sights, Sounds and Tastes
If you're traveling to a new destination, gather pictures of landmarks, play local music and try serving regional recipes in anticipation of your upcoming adventure. Ogintz recommends showing toddlers photos of relatives or pets before arriving to make them feel more comfortable around strangers. Kids ages 3 and older may want to help with planning your trip, so be sure to share destination brochures and photos with them.
Last but not least: When facing travel hassles, remain calm and carry on with your plans. If your original schedule falls through, adapt to a new one with a positive attitude. Children will model your behavior, and positivity will help them make happy, lifelong memories of their first family vacation.
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