If someone had told me that vacations with toddlers can be filled with lots of stress before I had a toddler of my own, I would have thought they were exaggerating. Yet during our recent trip to Maui, Hawaii I often found myself so overwhelmed that I questioned if I ever wanted to go on another vacation again until my daughter was at least seven 🙂
It didn’t help that baby J got a cold a couple days before we left, which added to her misery of teething, being jetlagged, and dealing with a long flight. Thankfully, things got better after a few days, and we managed to have a pretty good time after all.
Looking back at it though, I wish I’d planned out our trip a bit better to cut down on stress both for baby J and for my husband and me. That’s why I decided to write down a few tips for making traveling with toddlers less stressful.
I’ve divided these tips into three categories – what to do a few days before the trip; what to do on the plane; and what to do at your vacation destination. Some of these tips reflect things that I tried and found useful during our trip, and others come from my ever expanding “Wishful Thinking” category 🙂
If you’re traveling with an even younger child, see my tips for traveling with a baby that I shared when my daughter was 9 months old.
A few days before the trip
1. Start working on adjusting the bedtime schedule, 10-15 min a day. To help your toddler get used to the timezone difference, it makes sense to shift their normal bedtime routine to start 15 minutes earlier or later, depending on the timezone you’re traveling to.
If you’re flying east, move the bedtime back by 10-15 minutes a day until the vacation bedtime is reasonably close to when your child normally goes to bed. If you’re heading west, switch the bedtime forward. If you’re flying north or south while staying in the same timezone, keep the bedtime routine as usual.
2. Make a list of things you need to bring for your child – clothes, sunscreen, toys, etc. Raise your hand if you wait to pack until the last minute like I do! 🙂 I’m sure you know how easy and frustrating it can be to forget something important as you’re heading out the door. That’s why I start making a list of my daughter’s things to bring with us a few days in advance, writing them down as I remember them throughout the day.
Another list-making strategy: think of your child’s everyday routine (or what you’re planning to do each day on vacation), and write down things they’ll need for each activity. Going to the beach? Swimsuit, sunscreen, water shoes (my daughter lived in these during our most recent vacation) – check! Going hiking? Comfortable shoes, bug repellent, comfortable outfits – check!
3. Tell your kids about the trip you’re about to go on, even if they’re still babies. The more they know, the more they will be prepared, even if it doesn’t look like they understand much yet. I always tell my daughter that we’re going on an “adventure”, even for pretty mundane trips – I’d rather see her looking for wonder in everyday things than whine because she’s bored.
4. Make a plan for how to get around the airport with your toddler if he isn’t walking, or not walking well yet. It’s easy to forget that you’ll need to carry your child too as you’re thinking about getting your luggage through the airport.
Are you going to need both hands to roll a suitcase and a carry-on? Consider putting your toddler in a baby carrier if she’s still on the smaller side (I swear by our ErgoBaby 360 carrier for my 1.5 year-old daughter). Is your child more of a stroller fan? Then pack your luggage accordingly so that to have a hand available to push the stroller. Tip: most airlines check strollers at the gate for free.
Original image credit: Caroline Selfors for Unsplash
5. If traveling on the plane and checking the car seat – get a car seat bag. This is one item that’s easy to forget about when packing for a trip, yet comes in handy for protecting your checked car seat from damage during the flight. This car seat bag on Amazon has convenient shoulder straps for carrying it around the airport. Plus, its bright orange color makes it easier to spot on the conveyor belt.
6. Check if the place where you’re staying provides a crib for your child. If your little one tosses and turns a lot during sleep, a regular hotel bed won’t do because he can fall off easily. Most hotels offer a baby crib free of charge as long as it’s reserved in advance. If you’re booking an AirBnB, check in with the host about the crib availability. For our recent vacation, I contacted our AirBnB host a few days before our arrival, and they let me know that our unit had a pack ‘n play for baby J.
7. Look into babysitting services. I know, leaving your child with a stranger in a hotel can be sketchy, but hear me out! Vacations with kids can be tough – you may even realize that it’s not a vacation, it’s a trip 🙂 If you’re wishing for a relaxing (read: kid-free) date with your partner, then getting a babysitter (or finding a drop-in daycare service) may be just what you need.
A lot of vacation destinations have babysitting services for hire – you can find them by googling “[your destination area] babysitting service”. Of course, read all reviews and recommendations for each service/person, including on third-party review websites. Make your reservations in advance, and you’ll have some quality grown-up time to look forward to 🙂
On the plane
1. Bring new or well-forgotten toys. Kids tend to love everything new, so pick a few new or well-forgotten toys to occupy their attention. Avoid presenting them all at once – too much variety at once can be distracting. Instead, take out one toy at a time, and show your toddler all the fun ways they can play with it.
2. Bring snacks. This one is a no-brainer, but I’m putting it here as a reminder that it’s hard to find your kid’s favorite snack when you’re thirty thousand feet up in the air unless you’ve brought it with you. This is especially important for vegan families like ours – I have no idea if the snack served during the flight will be vegan-friendly or not. (Biscoff cookies that a lot of US airlines serve are vegan, by the way, except for the chocolate ones.)
3. Bring sanitizing wipes. I’m not really a germophobe, but I make an exception for airplanes since they are a lot like Petri dishes for bacteria. When we first get to our seat, I use sanitizing wipes to wipe down all surfaces that my daughter can reach (I always have these alcohol-free sanitizing wipes on hand). Then I wipe her hands before every meal and/or snack, and after walking up and down the aisle. It’s easier to do this than to suffer the consequences of her getting sick later.
4. Bring a change of clothes. Things may go wrong at any moment: your toddler may have a blowout, pour her beverage on herself, they might throw up, etc. It’s best to be on the safe side and bring a change of clothes or two for them.
While we’re on this subject, pack some extra clothes for yourself too: the first time we flew with my daughter, she projectile vomited on me, so I had to borrow my husband’s sweatshirt to change into because I didn’t have anything else. You never know what can happen 🙂
5. Take walks if necessary. A long flight can be tough on adults, and even tougher on our little ones who can’t sit still for a moment! When the seat belt sign is turned off and the conditions are fine, take a walk up and down the aisle with your little one to help him get his wiggles out.
6. Screens are ok if need be. A lot of parents ration screen time at home, and that’s totally understandable. However, if you’ve ran out of the toys, had a snack, went for a walk, and there’s still a couple hours left before you reach your destination, a little screen time is not going to turn your child into an unruly monster later in life.
When bringing a tablet or a phone for your child, don’t forget a pair of headphones. I got these kid-friendly headphones for my daughter before our recent trip to Hawaii: they have a volume-restricting capacity to protect little ears, and a convenient sharing jack on the side to connect to another pair of headphones – great for siblings!
7. Stay positive, even if it’s hard. Kids have that unique ability to sense their parents’ mood and adapt it for themselves. If you present your long flight to them in a positive light, they might actually believe you 🙂 There are positive moments in every experience, so if you seek them out together with your child, you’ll see that things aren’t really that hard.
At the destination
1. Ease up the rules if needed. Yes, we all have our rules and structure at home, but now you’re on vacation! Of course, don’t let your kids off the hook completely, but little things here and there aren’t always worth the fight. Those are the things that make this vacation feel special to your toddler, and take the pressure of having to control everything off of you.
What’s more important to you – saying no to ice cream before dinner, or seeing a huge smile on your daughter’s face as she’s eating it?
This being said…
2. Structure your child’s daily routine to resemble what she’s used to at home. Even when easing up the rules, it’s worth keeping the framework of your little one’s daily routine in mind. Things like mealtime, nap time, bedtime should stay roughly the same to help your toddler get some rest. Aside from that, fill your days up with as much fun as you want!
Rob and baby J on a walk during our vacation in Maui, Hawaii
3. Plan out the activities you’d like to do each day, but stay flexible. Getting a rough outline of what you’d like to do each day will save you the stress of dealing with a bored toddler. It’s always more comforting for kids to know that another fun activity is coming next. This doesn’t mean that you need to book dozens of tours/rides/hikes, etc. for every minute of the day: if you present something very simple, like downtime in your hotel room, in a positive way, your little one will take it.
At the same time, be ready for things not always going your way – that’s a general rule for life with kids, isn’t it? 🙂 If some part of your daily plan didn’t go right, so be it. (Honestly, this is one of my big struggles as I’m quite rigid with my plans, but I’m trying to work on it.)
4. Sunscreen – apply liberally. Nobody wants a cranky sunburned kid! For warm vacation destinations, cover your toddler with sunscreen before going outside, and reapply after swimming. For vacations in cold places (ski resorts, etc.), put some sunscreen on her exposed body parts because she can still get sunburned from the light reflecting off the snow.
A note about sunscreen: avoid aerosol sprays because small children can inhale unhealthy amounts of sunscreen fumes (if I use those on myself, I always hold my breath). Lotions or non-aerosol sprays are more kid-friendly. I’ve been using Babyganics baby sunscreen, both lotion and non-aerosol spray, on my very pale daughter since she was 6 months old.
5. Check restaurant menus online before you go. The subject of food for kids on vacations is worth writing a whole another post about 🙂 but let me say that a lot of stress can be taken out of dining out if you know in advance whether or not the restaurant you chose will have foods that your toddler will eat.
For our vegan family this is especially important. Luckily, we almost always can find something vegan in restaurants. For example, during our vacation in Hawaii we found out that vegan food on Maui is plentiful.
A fruit stand at A’a Roots vegan restaurant in Maui, Hawaii
6. Offer local foods/fruits/vegetables to your kids – you never know what they might like. Food is a big part of exploring a new place, and each meal presents an opportunity to discover something new. Even picky eaters may surprise you by liking something they’ve never tried before. Best case scenario: offering new foods will expand their food preferences. Worst case: they’ll just say no, but even then you won’t lose what you’ve already achieved with other foods.
7. Curb your expectations! This is probably the most important tip of all. During our recent vacation to Maui I repeated this phrase so much that it became my mantra 🙂
Yes, vacations with toddlers will never be as laid-back and stress-free as traveling with just your partner or friends. You may find yourself longing for the simpler days of vacationing without kids in the past, and even feel like you’ll need another vacation after this vacation.
I’ve experienced all of these feelings and more during our recent trip, and felt the familiar tinges of mom guilt over that. What helped me was focusing on the positives as much as possible. Yes, my daughter may have screamed in the car all the way back to our place from the beach, but at least she had a great time on the beach playing with sand and rocks. Yes, I may have gotten up twice during the night to comfort her, but at least I had a chance to sleep in and have a nice breakfast.
It may sometimes seem like vacations with toddlers are so much trouble that they’re not even worth attempting, but trust me: with a bit of planning and a lot of deep breaths and counting to ten you might have a pretty good time after all 🙂 I hope that my tips from this post help you get it all figured out!