6 tips for traveling internationally with children under 5

Advice for flights, packing and sleeping that will help you keep your cool

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

As soon as my children were able to fly, I strapped them into a baby carrier and hopped on a plane. Whether it was a short city break by ourselves or a long-haul overseas trips with grandparents, we have always bonded as a family by getting away from the distractions of day-to-day life. Exploring new places, meeting new people and taking on new experiences together provides us with unique opportunities to connect.

Now that countries are easing entry restrictions, we are ready to start exploring again. We are finally booking international family getaways — and we are not the only ones.

“Families have desperately missed out on quality vacation time together, and they are making up for it now,” says Christie Hudson, senior PR manager at Expedia Group.

From 2019 to this year, online searches rose for properties with cribs (65 percent), child care (45 percent) and connecting rooms (20 percent), according to data Hotels.com shared in March. In terms of where parents are taking their children, Expedia international flight demand shows that Americans are booking flights to Mexico; major European cities such as London, Paris, Rome; and Toronto or Vancouver in Canada.

Following the recommendation of an independent panel of scientists, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday authorized Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for infants and young children, so more families can be expected to start planning their postponed trips.

Whether vacationing with toddlers and babies is new, or you’ve been grounded so long that you’ve forgotten how, traveling with little ones isn’t as hard as it sounds. Here are a few tips for keeping your cool while traveling internationally with kids under 5:


Assess the covid risks

When choosing where to visit with the children, I always consult the map of covid-19 risk levels from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some insurers will not protect your trip when visiting countries listed as Level 3 — “high” risk — or above. And for me, the benefits do not outweigh the risks when it comes to my children’s health.

As soon as it was possible, I vaccinated my 5-year-old son against the coronavirus. As a family that travels regularly, it made sense. In addition to being vaccinated, my son wears his mask in public places (including on planes), sanitizes his hands often and knows to give people physical space. As a parent, I try to avoid destinations that I know will be packed with tourists or require a lot of time indoors.

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Stick to shorter flights

The thought of treating your kids to an adventure on the other side of the world may sound exciting, but it might not be the best choice for your family right now. Long flights that cross time zones can be tough for toddlers, and managing multiple meltdowns will not be the best start to your holiday.

Connecting flights should also be a consideration when planning your family getaway. You’ll want to avoid the struggle of juggling bags and pushing strollers full of exhausted children while rushing between busy gates and terminals. The panic and the tears — from you and your kids — aren’t worth it. Wherever possible, opt for the direct flight.

You should also be thinking about getting around once you’ve reached your destination. Is public transportation easy and safe? Will you have to jump in and out of taxis, installing and uninstalling your car seat? Will there be a good mix of inside and outside activity, a space for your toddler to burn some energy and a comfortable place to get some rest?

Choose a destination that will offer fun and relaxation for both you and your child. Accommodation with dedicated children’s activities will ensure your little ones are entertained, and kids club or babysitting options will give you the opportunity for some adult-only time.

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Prepare, prepare, prepare for the plane

With a bit of preparation, you and your children can have a smooth, stress-free flight. Give your child a pacifier or sippy cup during takeoff and landing. The sucking action will help equalize their ears to the change in pressure and reduce the possibility of pain.

A hungry toddler is an angry toddler, so always have snacks on hand. Fruit squeeze packs, granola bars and other easy-to-carry, mess-free snacks are a great idea. Ensure that you order your in-flight food ahead of time, so it arrives right at mealtime. This will help to avoid tantrums while you wait for the couple three rows ahead to choose between chicken and fish. Finally, for bottle-fed babies, kids under 2 can bring full bottles and sippy cups through security and onto the plane.

Entertainment is key: A tablet loaded with children’s programs, interactive apps or read-aloud books will hold their attention. Try gift-wrapping a small, inexpensive toy for them to open every hour in the air. This will offer a distraction and give them an activity to look forward to.

Pack an extra set of clothes for you and your little one. Spills happen, diapers explode, and food will inevitably find its way onto fingers, faces and your shirt.

Avoid a panicked rush by allowing yourself more time than usual to navigate the airport. Not only do you have more people to manage, but services such as parking, passport control and security may be strained with the sudden increase in travel and shortage of staff.

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Prioritize sleep

Try to plan activities around normal napping and bedtimes. If you have sleep routines at home, stick to them as much as possible. Invest in a portable noise machine and a travel blackout blind. Pack a comforting crib sheet that smells like home. The more familiar the space feels, the better.

Take turns nap-sitting in your room, or plan activities that you know your baby will sleep through (perhaps a drive or walk) at their regular nap times. Some babies will sleep soundly in the stroller or in a carrier, so use this sleeping superpower to your advantage.

If you’ve decided to cross time zones, remember that this change will affect toddler and baby sleep, too. Depending on the length of your stay, you may or may not want to slowly adjust their naps to the new time.


Pack light

Your baby needs less gear than you think, and you don’t want to carry their nursery through the airport. Find out what you can rent or borrow at your destination. Many hotels and resorts will offer cribs, formula and distilled water, and some car rental services also offer car seat rentals. Many international destinations have independent rental companies that can supply you with anything from car seats to highchairs to beach balls. Just make sure that all rentals adhere to U.S. safety standards.

Travel with a light travel stroller, sling or baby carrier. Many travel strollers fold up into overhead storage size for easy transport both en route and when you arrive. Carriers or slings can be helpful for navigating busy crowds, leaving your hands free for handling luggage or taking a quick selfie.

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Plan on spoiled plans

Although easier said than done, try to relax and go with the flow. Little ones will mirror your anxieties, so the more you relax, the more they will relax, too. Whether it is a missed nap or a late meal, remember that you are on vacation, and the day-to-day rules don’t need to apply. Embrace the uninterrupted time with your kids, get to know them a little more and focus on making memories.