When you’re brave enough to travel with a toddler

A parent in one of my classes once reframed this whole travel with kids thing in what I thought was a helpful way. So here it is, a gift to you.

When you travel with a child, it’s not a vacation.

It’s a trip.

Expectations duly lowered? Good. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are some field-tested ideas for helping you remain (relatively) sane as you prepare to fly with your little one.

  1. Passport photo tip for little wigglers – Instead of having them sit up for the pic, lay them down on a white blanket or poster. Worked like a charm at our local AAA office.
  2. Book nonstop flights whenever possible – I know some destinations don’t offer this option, but if you can avoid a layover, do it. It’s already a pain, and adding your kid to the mix makes it 150% more painful. Not to mention the fact that if there is a weather delay or mechanical problem, you run the risk of getting stranded somewhere other than your home or destination.
  3. Book an aisle seat – Or, if you’re traveling with your spouse/partner, an aisle and middle. It makes it easier to get out and access the all-important bathroom. You could also take the risk of booking the aisle and window, hoping that nobody will book the middle seat; if nobody does, you have the whole row to yourself (and thereby accomplish #15 below), and if someone does, offer them the plum window seat so your family can sit together.
  4. Getting to the plane – Wear your little one through the airport to keep your hands free. Get TSA pre-check (or Global Entry, if you plan to travel internationally, as it includes TSA) to save time and stress going through screening.
  5. Wipe down that tray table – It’s the dirtiest part of the plane. I’m not super germaphobic, but even this grosses me out.
  6. Water bottle – Nothing fancy needed – a regular plastic one will do. Kept my kiddo entertained for a 3-hour flight once.
  7. Post-it notes – Draw on them, stick them to the tray table (after you’ve wiped it down, see #4), make little paper airplanes, etc.
  8. Color coding labels – Cheaper than stickers, just as much fun.
  9. Blue painter’s tape – Handy for childproofing on the fly and impromptu games.
  10. Convert an old smartphone into a travel iPod for your kid – fill it up with music, games, and videos – you can download great content from Amazon Prime and Netflix for viewing offline.
  11. Bubble pop – There are a bunch of free iPhone and Android bubble pop apps (my kid’s favorite has animals in the bubbles that make animal noises when they pop). Actual bubble wrap is also great, but will eventually all get popped.
  12. CozyPhones – Comfortable headphones sewn into a fleece headband. The kid ones even look like animals.
  13. Wrap some old toys and dole them out at strategic intervals – The unwrapping is always the most fun part anyway. You could always splurge on some cheap new toys from the 99 cent store and wrap those too.
  14. Load up on snacks, easy on the liquids – Save disposable plastic food containers (Noosa-sized works well) to pack your favorite travel snacks so if you lose one, you won’t be out a $4 Munchkin snack catcher.  Bring some grapes for the little one to chew on during take-off and landing to ease the inner ear pressure. And generously skip the flight attendant’s generous offer of a beverage for your tot; a tummy full of juice plus turbulence leads to the need for #14…
  15. Pack a change of clothes for them and a spare shirt for you and your significant other. Store them in your diaper tote in a wet/dry bag. Trust me on this one. Also, make sure your seat has an airsickness bag…
  16. Balloons! Or an inflatable beach ball! Takes up zero space and makes for a great toy on the plane, on a layover, or at your destination.
  17. If you choose to bring children’s books, select ones with a lot of mileage. “I spy” books by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick, Richard Scarry’s oeuvre (newly updated to be less sexist, thank you!), and Where’s Waldo are all timeless options.
  18. Wanna have even more books to read to your kid on the flight but don’t feel like lugging hardcopies? The Los Angeles Public Library has you covered! With your membership you get access to downloadable rentals of all kinds of books, including children’s ones (and audiobooks, for older kids). 
  19. Gotta pee? Traveling solo? Don’t want an audience in the teeny tiny bathroom? Press the call button and ask a flight attendant to mind your kiddo while you relieve yourself in peace.
  20. Your child’s own seat (if you can afford it) – When they are old enough to be able to sit, this does make a big difference. I know that “under 2 fly free” is a big selling point, but on the flights where there has been a spare seat for my kiddo, she has sat peacefully enjoying her personal in-flight entertainment. I even read a few pages of my book – luxury.
  21. Packing cubes help keep everything organized while you pack and travel – keep everything in its place and maximize packing space! Consider making a personal packing list to make trip preparations a breeze.
  22. If there’s a carseat waiting for you at your destination, don’t shlep yours on the plane – use LA Curb Express to valet you to your terminal, after which they’ll park your car for you until you return!
  23. Make an airplane friend – On a recent flight that was severely delayed, my little one buddied up with a girl of similar age. They whiled away the hours on the terminal floor coloring and playing games, and even had a “playdate” on the plane where they watched a movie together. We parents took turns looking after the kids while one of us went to the bathroom or checked in on the flight’s status. After the flight, my daughter talked about her “plane friend” for days!
  24. Put your own mask on first – Your child(ren) will take cues from you on how to feel about this whole flying business. If you’re anxious and stressed, they will be too. So do what you need to do to make the experience as stress free as possible for you: wear comfy clothes, get a grown-up beverage on the flight, etc.  And try your best to put aside worries about what other people think about you, your kid, and your parenting; remember, you have just as much right to be on the plane as everyone else!

And finally…

25. Consider a staycation – My husband and I joke (if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right?) that traveling with our tot is basically MacGyver parenting. We have to improvise everything, we have no access to any of our standard parenting tools (rocking chair, separate bedroom, permanent diaper change area, childproofed danger zones, etc.), and we have no childcare.  Why not take advantage of the comforts of home and get some R&R the old fashioned way? A massage, a night out, perhaps even a movie in an actual movie theater. If it’s an option, take advantage of it! I know some travel can’t be helped, and it’s important to see family and friends who don’t live nearby. But if you can ever avoid a flight, particularly during a high-traffic travel time, consider sparing yourself the headache and kicking it at the homestead in comfort.

Happy trails, parents.  And remember, for those of you about to head into the fray, it’s a trip, not a vacation.


Related reading:

Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!

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