5 tips for traveling with toddlers

I just got back from a nine day cross-country trip that involved four flights and more than 12 hours in the car…with a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Am I crazy? Probably, but it was actually (mostly) a ton of fun!

My husband and I decided early on in our marriage that travel was important to us, even with the complications that kids add to life. Visiting new places and learning about their history and culture is something that we both love, so we’ve learned how to make travel possible, and even enjoyable, with toddlers.

Vacations change with kids. There’s no doubt about that. It takes a lot more planning and preparation than when I was single and I could pack everything in a single backpack. When I travel with my kids, I plan as much as possible ahead of time: what time to leave, what snacks and activities to pull out at a given time, where to stay, what to do, etc.

Still, I also have to keep in mind that they are kids…which means they are somewhat unpredictable…so I accept that I may have to throw out my whole strategy at any given moment.

That being said, if you’ve been wanting to get out and see some more of the world, but you’re nervous about taking the kiddos along, read these tips for how to travel with toddler and still keep your sanity intact.

5 tips for traveling with toddlers

1. Change your expectations of travel

If the only way you are going to enjoy traveling is to sit on the beach and read a book for hours or to visit amazing museums and art galleries, DON’T take your kids on vacation with you. Find a babysitter back home, and go off on your own adventure. To travel with kids, you have to change your expectations of what your trip will look like.

Expect to slow down your pace, and for everything to take longer than it seems like it should.

Expect to pass up some activities that would be fun but aren’t kid-friendly, but realize that there ARE a lot of toddler-friendly things to do if you get creative (bonus tip: take time to get out of the big cities you visit to find great activities for families in nature…hiking, picnics, beaches, etc.)

Expect that your enjoyment of the “night-life” any city has to offer will probably be limited to huddling quietly on a hotel bed watching Netflix on your laptop with headphones while hoping that the kids don’t wake up.

Expect tired and cranky kids who aren’t on their best behavior, and be patient with them. Recognize tired/hungry signs and take a breath and assess how you can get everyone back up to full speed.

2. Time it right

Whenever possible, travel when toddlers are sleeping. Both of my kids still take an afternoon nap (yep, even the four-year-old. Don’t ask me why, and don’t hate me. I’m just going to milk it as long as I can), so we try to drive during naptime as much as possible.

On our last trip, we drove from Tampa, Florida down to Key West (a seven-hour drive). We timed it so that we left at lunchtime and ate in the car, then the boys napped for an hour or two, and by the time they woke up, we were over half way there. They watched a movie for a bit, we got out for dinner, and then we finished the drive. With that strategy in place, we only had about 15 minutes where our almost-two-year-old cried, wanting to get out (and that was just because he has having a hard time falling asleep for his nap). I’m not into the drive-all-night-long thing, but at least nap time gives kids some rest and adults some quiet. Everybody feels more rested by the time we get to our next activity.

3. Bring lots of snacks…and not just junk food

When we travel, I know that hungry kids are going to be cranky kids. I always bring some non-perishable, at least semi-healthy snacks:

  • applesauce pouches
  • Goldfish crackers
  • dried fruit
  • fresh fruit
  • granola bars

I try to find snacks that they haven’t had before (like rainbow goldfish crackers, or a special new candy). Be careful not to overdo the sugar. I totally keep a reserve of Dum-dums for rough moments (suckers are my secret weapon because they take longer to eat than most other candies), but I try to make sure they don’t just eat junk the whole trip. If we fly somewhere, I’ll take a trip to the grocery store the first day and stock up. We save money this way, too, because we eat breakfast in the hotel most of the time and make sandwiches for lunch some days. Little kids don’t eat a lot at most restaurants anyway, in my experience, so I’d rather not waste money on their meals.

4. Bring stuff to do

Small kids (and bigger ones, too) are not going to sit quietly and look out the window for a three-hour (or more!) plane or car ride. Here are some of the best quiet activities I’ve found for my boys to do while traveling.

 

  • Sticker books
  • coloring books (tip: bring colored pencils instead of crayons in the car, so they don’t melt)
  • Travel felt board
  • Books (tip: choose paperback so they’re lightweight)
  • Small cars/dinosaurs/planes/dolls/figures
  • Window clings (play with them on the car/plane window)
  • Magic invisible ink coloring books

 

I usually try to start with some of the activities above (they’re also great to keep kids occupied in the hotel or while waiting at a restaurant), but I also am a complete believer in using electronics. At home, I limit screen time, but when we’re on a plane, you better believe that my boys watch movies and play games on the iPad or on my phone. If you want something more educational than Fruit Ninja, my favorite apps for 2-4 year-olds are Endless Alphabet, Daniel Tiger, and My First Puzzles Dinosaurs.

5. Make room for down-time

I love to do lots of research before my trips out and maximize my time in new, interesting places (my family makes fun of my extensive use of spreadsheets), but I’ve also learned that with kids it’s important to schedule in down time. It might not be possible for kids to get naps in a bed every day, but I try to schedule a few days where we can head back to the hotel to get a good solid nap before heading back out for fun in the evening. On the busier days, they can handle just crashing in the stroller or car when they get tired because they’ve gotten good sleep the days before.

Even if your kids are past napping age, go to a park, go swimming at the hotel pool, or find a big empty lawn where the kids can run free (note: with toddlers, I HATE spending downtime in the hotel unless they are sleeping because they always want to play with the phone, or jump from bed to bed, or any number of other potentially problematic activities). Just like adults, kids need unscheduled time where they can just do what they want for a little bit.

I am always surprised at how flexible my kids are on vacation, but there are still rough moments. Whenever vacation stops being fun, I take moment to reassess what we’re doing wrong. Usually, we’re pushing ourselves too hard. Once we take a break, rest, and eat, my red momster vision clears and I start to enjoy the trip again.

So, be brave. Plan the trip you’ve been wanting to do; just plan it with kids in mind. We’ve never regretted a trip we’ve taken with our kids, nor the amazing memories we’ve created.

Bon Voyage!

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