“We’ll never travel again.” That’s what my wife and I were thinking as the third pregnancy test screamed “positive.” We were having a baby, and our wandering days were over, we thought. Or at least until the kid was out of the house.
Travel was part of our identity. Growing up as an American overseas, my family traveled many times a year. My wife spent a semester in high school abroad in Brazil. We left the country yearly as a couple. Did we really have to give it up?
Turns out, no. Our daughter was born, and one of her first outings was to FedEx Kinkos to get her passport photo taken. We booked flights to Havana for when she’d be 12 weeks old. She is now 2 and has flown over two dozen times — and we’ve learned a few dozen things along the way.
Before you go
Shift your expectations
Write down, literally, how you used to travel pre-baby. Remember and celebrate those memories. Then throw it out. Traveling with a baby and toddler requires letting go of expectations. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun; it’s just different.
Before our baby, we’d book our trips with adventure-travel activities like zip-lining, hiking and snorkeling, all things unrealistic with a baby or a toddler. However, adventures can be had if you see wandering as exciting on its own.
Another mental shift is the pace at which you can go. A few months before my wife became pregnant, we flew to the Balkans for two weeks, driving to four countries and eight cities. It was go, go, go. With a baby or toddler, you must factor in naps, feeding, even diaper changes, all of which can slow your speed significantly. It’s important to appreciate that the value is in being together and exploring new places.
Plan for everything
Remember that your baby needs all the documents you need. When your baby is born, apply for a passport. The baby is never too young to do this, and it lasts five years. If you go to a foreign country, check to see if a visa is required. If it is, your child will need one, too.
Sometimes, the younger they are, the easier they are to travel with. Booking a plane ticket is the biggest perk here, because babies fly free until they turn 2. Take advantage of this. Before this cutoff, our daughter flew on more than 16 planes, saving Mom and Dad thousands of dollars. After they’re 2, you pay full price on most flights (a few airlines, like Southwest, offer reduced fares for young children).
Where we stay changed, too. We found that remaining in one city and in a walkable part of town was easier for everyone. Call ahead to see if the hotel has a Pack ’n Play (traveling with a heavy portable crib is no fun), or pick a kid-friendly Airbnb.
Having kids means carrying more things. You have a diaper bag. A car seat. A stroller. It’s a lot of stuff. Pack strategically. Research whether your destination sells diapers and snacks and buy them there. Plan to wash clothes there and leave the extra outfits at home.
When we traveled with our daughter as a baby, we found we rarely used a stroller. Packing an Ergobaby carrier was easier and lighter. It also allowed us to keep her in the carrier during her naps, giving us freedom to visit museums and plazas. Now that she is a toddler, we pack a lightweight, cheap stroller that we wouldn’t mind abandoning if it becomes too cumbersome.
Some of essentials in our bag:
- ThinkBaby sunscreen
- Baby wipes
- Car seat (We got this one free from our neighborhood parents network)
- Travel baby sleeper
- Baby soap
- Baby thermometer
- Night light
- Fully stocked diaper bag
- Baby Tylenol
- A NoseFrida
- White noise machine
- Extra shoes
Flying is different
At both stages of the child’s infancy, flying is not the same. When our daughter was a baby, flying was easy, because she’d sleep every few hours, including on the plane. My wife would breast-feed her on takeoff and landing to mitigate her ears from popping.
Some parents like to sit near the bulkhead, but we never found that useful. It gives you more room to stretch, but it also prevents you from storing a diaper bag in the seat in front of you. For the number of times you’ll go in and out of the diaper bag, it’s not worth putting it in the overhead.
Flying with a toddler is totally different experience. It’s all hands on deck. If you don’t plan a flight around your toddler’s nap, your focus is entertaining: download videos, bring toys, ask the flight attendant for a coloring book and crayons (most airlines have them). Just don’t expect to read that book you packed or watch the movie you wanted to see.
We sit in the back to have easy access to the bathroom, and the extra noise from the plane serves as natural white noise for when our daughter is loud or when she needs to take a nap. Also, the people who won’t appreciate a kid onboard tend to sit in the front, reducing the number of glares thrown your way.
While you’re there
Keep your routine
Once you’re at your destination, it’s important to keep some resemblance of your child’s schedule. In Cuba, our daughter still took two naps a day and went down for the night by 8 p.m. The beauty in that is with a baby carrier, they can nap as you explore. The downside is once your baby is down for the night, either you and your partner hide in the bathroom with a bottle of cheap wine and Netflix, or you take turns going out by yourself.
Staying in the same time zone makes toddler-traveling easier, too. We recently booked a family trip to Panama City to stay on Eastern time. If you must change time zones, start to adjust your child’s schedule a few days before leaving. When going to Seattle (three hours behind our home in Washington), we start to put our daughter down at 11 p.m. rather than 8 p.m.
Bring friends or family
Sometimes adding people to the trip can add to the insanity — or your sanity. When we went to Toronto, we invited two friends to join. My wife and I took turns staying home each night allowing the other three to go out. It worked well, because that gave the person left behind time to themselves to read and relax over a glass of wine.
Since your baby can nap in the carrier, plan activities that won’t wake them up. Rather than zip-lining, consider wandering through a neighborhood. You may not go snorkeling, but you can still read a book on the beach. Visiting museums and art galleries work well since they are often quiet, air-conditioned and encourage slowing down.
Once our daughter became a toddler, she developed opinions on what we did. On a trip to New York City, we noticed her becoming frustrated. We were doing too many activities that we parents wanted to do. From that trip on, we planned to visit a playground to do something she’d enjoy.
That gave us time to sit on a bench and plan our next move.