Top Tips for Taking a Trip with a Toddler
So You’re Taking a Trip
Traveling with a little kid can be a joy. We talk to so many more people wherever we go, and have way more personal and authentic interactions than we ever had traveling the two of us. Just tonight while we were picking up dinner at the Lebanese place down the street, the man making our wraps cut up a cucumber for WP to munch while he showed us pictures of his own son.
On the other hand, someone once told me that when you’re traveling with kids you’re never on vacation, you’re just on a trip. And on tough days I reflect on the fact that by having a child I’ve made what amounts to my first 18 year commitment. Existential reflections aside, the long duration of childhood, the modern Western construction of it anyway, has more pressing implications for travelers.
Neither “Baby” nor “Kid”
Specifically for my current purposes, it means that “traveling with kids” can be a very unhelpful thing to Google. I thought “traveling with kids” was what we were doing this year until I realized that all the tips and tricks in this category were focused on interactive science museums, restaurants with crayons, and the like. My child is 11 months old and will gladly eat your crayons.
So I tried searching for “traveling with babies” and found suggestions similarly unhelpful. A lot of them revolve around how many museums you can see while your child sleeps or stares into the middle distance. I remember those days. When WP was about two months old we took a tour of an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I breastfed WP one handed while stroking my chin critically as we strolled around and interrogated the art. Those were the days.
Now we have a child in what strikes me as a particularly no-man’s-landy in-between age when it comes to travel. We left on our trip when WP was 8 months old. She had been crawling for two months. She hates being confined, starting to do Flashdance-style full body thrusts if left in the stroller for more than 30 minutes.
But the stroller or a carrier (which she prefers, facing out only, the most back-breaking of all the position options) is necessary because she’s also not totally walking. She took her first steps on her 10 month birthday and has begun toddling in earnest over the last week (new record: 34 steps, the perfect number to find the nearest thing that hasn’t been childproofed).
Which I guess means we officially have a toddler.
Traveling vs Being on a Trip
A quick search on “traveling with a toddler” will get you a lot of tips for long haul flights. Many of them involve encouragement to not feel bad when your kid melts down on the airplane -- because you’re more stressed out than the other passengers! Facepalm. I do understand why some people just choose to stay put.
But getting from point A to B aside, how to navigate the trip itself with a toddler? How to pace your days? What sites to see and what to skip? What destinations are best anyway? And how do I book a babysitter?? I’ve gotten plenty of tips by word of mouth but have had trouble finding a lot of this information online.
I’ll summarize some top learnings I’ve had so far here, but I’ll also try to be good about calling out insights in my posts on different topics, in posts tagged parent and plan, and in the weekly recaps. Consider this a start. Hope it’s helpful!
Top Toddler Travel Tips
I am generally a person who likes accomplishing things. This is not shocking if you look at my background. I also used to take on this mentality when traveling. Let’s do the things! Back to back! In a row! What if I’m here only once and miss something??
This mentality does not work well when traveling with a toddler. Your toddler does not think like this. Even ours, who will see a waitress she likes and dive into her arms, and who is fascinated by new things, gets a bit bewildered and stressed when there is too much change, particularly as she has gotten a bit older.
Babies do not know where they are. If you are holding them, they are like “cool.” Older kids can understand English (or whatever). But WP in this in between age is cogent enough to know when change is coming, but not to understand when or why or what’s coming. She has been known to pull things out of our suitcases, which I used to think was just a random game, except the other day she got super stressed when I was putting stuff into my suitcase and I realized that this act is the harbinger of upheaval in her life (actually I was just living out of my suitcase at that moment and we weren’t going anywhere, but this she does not understand either).
All of this is to say: pick a place and stay there. Yes, you will miss out on other places and things. But your toddler will likely be less stressed and you can use this improved attitude to buy yourself some time at a restaurant so maybe you can both eat dinner simultaneously for at least part of the meal. Traveling with a toddler is all trade offs. We find that staying in a single place for minimum 5 nights and preferably 7 or more means a less stressed kiddo, and plenty of time to see the major sites in between naps.
Change Up Bedtime
If you are going to deal with a time change, then use jet lag to your advantage. WP went to sleep at 7pm and woke up at 6am when we were in SF. This worked fine while we were working. We had some relaxed time in the morning to wake up together and have breakfast before work. We could come home early enough to spend some time with her and then put her to bed. And if we wanted to go out to dinner, we’d hire a babysitter whom we’d pay a stupid amount of money to watch TV or play on her phone while WP slept.
But we knew that finding babysitters would be trickier while we traveled. And that we didn’t want to be confined to our short term rentals every evening after 7pm. So when we flew from SF to Rome and were navigating a 9h time difference, we used this change to reset WP’s bedtime. She now goes to bed around 930pm and wakes up around 8am. This means we can easily go out to dinner at 630 or 7pm and can be back in plenty of time for bed. And this later wake up of course also has the added bonus of meaning that when we’re not waking up at 6am every day when we have no job to justify it and tourist attractions and most cafes are still closed.
It’s worth mentioning that this meant time shifting her naps of course, too. She’s currently taking two naps, the first one at about 11a and the second one at about 4p. And when we do hire a babysitter, we now generally do it from 6-9pm so we can go out to dinner solo, and we can still be back in time to put WP to bed ourselves. (Bonus - we are paying the sitter to actually play with her, not on their phone!) When we are in a place long enough to have a repeat sitter, we’ll stay out later and have them do bedtime without us.
The system is not perfect but it’s worked really well for us, and I think we’ll stick with it for the year.
You and Your Partner Should Probably Split Up
Not permanently (I cannot speak to that) but often. If you follow the advice about staying in one place for awhile, then you’re not desperate to see everything all at once before you leave. You can take it slower, which also means you can do things separately. When we are in a place for a few days, Mike and I will switch off “periods” (each awake stretch between her naps is a period, like at a sporting event, which is what it feels like - the whistle blows and it’s a full contact sport til the end of the period) or days. So you can go to a museum without it involving a wrestling match or a crawl-sprint for the exit. You can sit at a cafe with a book. You can have a glass of wine with lunch and no one will knock it over.
Two-on-one parenting I find to be less efficient than one-on-one (everything a discussion!) and at times actually more stressful for the kiddo, as she doesn’t have anyone’s undivided attention. Splitting up means that WP gets some dedicated dad or mom time, and dad or mom gets some much needed alone time.
It’s actually a tip we got from another couple who traveled with their toddler for a year and I think it’s probably the single best piece of advice we got. We would have figured it out eventually, but I think we would have felt a little more confused or guilty about straying from the family vacation ideal before we realized that we are NOT on typical a family vacation, we’re on a weird life thing.
I was so confused by how I was supposed to be feeding my child when I was a new mom in San Francisco. What is baby led weaning? Why do I have to make my own purees? What foods to introduce first?
The first restaurant we went to in Italy the day after we arrived, the owner insisted on making WP her own full portion of spaghetti all’amatriciana. We finally talked her out of it, but I remember being totally floored that someone would think an 8mo could eat a bowl of pasta. Then I figured well… what if she could? And this was the beginning of WP eating everything we eat.
She still does have formula every day (and a little breastmilk in the mornings) but mostly she eats food. We have the staples at home (yogurt, eggs, fruit) but if we’re out at dinner, she’ll have some of whatever we are having. Recently at a Christmas Market she ate half a cheeseburger pinched into bite size chunks (she would have eaten more but it seemed unwise). She was fine.
This makes things so much easier. We always have some formula with us and some back up foods like rice cakes and a clementine. But in general we count on at least one of us ordering something that she can share (or we order an extra scrambled egg on the side). It’s way easier and way more fun to eat together.
There Are Babies Everywhere
Wherever you are from does things in ways that you are used to and comfortable with (chances are you knew where one could buy diapers even before you had a baby) but it does not have a monopoly on babies. If you are traveling to a major city, particularly if you are traveling domestically or going to Europe, you do not need to bring any supplies beyond what will get you through your plane flight and a day of adjusting, plus things you will be happy to have in the middle of the night.
You can buy diapers, wipes, purees, formula, clothes, pacifiers, bottles, whatever. Because different countries have different customs and regulations around medicine, it’s advisable to travel with a thermometer and infant tylenol and any other things you might want at a moment’s notice. But other than that, you can generally get what you need where you’re going as long as you’re flexible on brand.
We’re going to Morocco in February and I’ll likely have an update on this here as we prepare for travel in a different region, but so far we’ve found everything we need in every European city we’ve been to, usually within a 5 minute walk from our house.
Locate the Play Spaces
Most of the time my partner and I are like “Hey what do you want to do today?” “These three things, how about you?” and then we plan our day. We don’t always want to do the same things, but they tend to fall in the same categories which involve art, architecture, food, culture, etc.
WP does not have the same priorities. Even though WP can’t answer that question out loud, she doesn’t have to because we know the answer. It’s “baby swings.” And if we don’t incorporate at least some of her preferences into the day, eventually she will get a bit grumpy.
Early on in Rome we found the playground nearest us with swings (and other fabulous toys) and we made a habit of going there with her regularly. And when the weather turned chilly we actually used indoor play spaces as a factor in choosing Amsterdam as a destination. An article I read on kindercafes sealed the deal and I plotted them on a map to help us choose an Airbnb close to at least one.
I scour the internet and ask, ask, ask moms I meet in every city if there are drop in playgroups or music classes that we can bring WP to. She’s generally a happy kid, even if she’s being carted around to museums and restaurants, but she positively glows when she gets to go to a playgroup, playground, or petting zoo. So it’s worth taking some time away from sightseeing to factor those into our week, too.
Ruin One Nap Per Day (Max)
This is predicated on the fact that your child is a decent sleeper. We worked hard at it, and got lucky too, and WP is generally an excellent sleeper. She goes down around 930p, wakes around 8a, and takes two 90 minute naps, one at 11a and one at 4p (reminder that we reset her bedtime from 7p to 930p to fit our current lifestyle). She is a better baby when she sleeps well. Because her sleep is so patterned and predictable, we can generally plan around it so she gets all her rest at the house in her travel crib.
However, sometimes this is not possible. Perhaps it’s the train schedule, or the flight you have to catch. Maybe there is just only one time you can go to that museum or you’ll go nuts if you have to spend another day mostly in your Airbnb. There are good reasons to ruin naps.
I use “ruin” loosely. WP will not nap in the stroller, but she will nap in the carrier. So if we want to stay out during one of her naps (or it’s a travel day) one of us will wear her when it’s time for her to sleep. She will usually sleep for about 40 minutes in the carrier, about half her normal nap time. It’s enough, but it’s not great. So our rule is, do that no more than once per day and not two days in a row.
We’ve found that if we stick to that, then we have a bit of flexibility, but she will get enough quality sleep that we’ll all have a better time.
Stay tuned: I’ll keep adding tips as I learn them!