My son will turn 2 years old in July, and he’s already been on nearly 30 flights. While we celebrate his birthday, we say goodbye to his free rides we’ve taken full advantage of (for those who don’t know, babies until age two can fly on parents’ laps free of charge). It’s been a nice ride, to say the least. We’ve taken him to France (from Paris to the French Riviera), Mexico’s Riviera Maya, Florida (three times), New York City, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Kansas City and Minneapolis for countless trips to see his grandparents. He’s traveled more than his four grandparents have in their lifetimes (combined) and much more than my husband and I did before becoming travel addicts.
Most people respond in disbelief when they hear about our traveling toddler. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Born to two parents who believe the opportunity to experience new places and cultures is one of the greatest things in life, we wanted nothing more when we became parents than to share these experiences with our child.
Our traveling ways aren’t for every family or every child. But with careful planning, deal scouting, sensible itineraries and a sense of humor, family memories can be made across the globe.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but our quick guide to happy traveling with a child in tow:
- Don’t mess with naps and sleep time. Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you throw all routine out the window. Yes, some things will be different on the road. But a tired toddler can certainly trip-up travel plans, so allow for shut-eye when you can. A stroller is an easy solution; we have countless photos of our son napping in front of famous places (like the Eiffel Tower).
- Bring along the comforts of home. Our favorites: his bed sheet, blanket and teddy; books and non-noisy toys (easier in-flight); a hooded sweatshirt (nice for napping); sippy cup and non-perishable snacks (enough to last as long as the flight and transit); pacifier and bottled milk for babies (something to suck on helps little ears during takeoff and landing; nursing works well too); and a change of clothes in the diaper bag (you never know when or where a diaper blowout or food spit-up will happen). Also, it’s helpful to know the TSA will allow liquids to pass through security when a child is in tow, though they might test it first. Just be sure to put those liquids in their own clear, plastic bag and put it through the scanner separately.
- Consider the help (or hindrance) of a car seat. For a child older than 2 requiring their own airplane seat, a car seat is recommended. For a child younger than 2 without a paid-for seat, the car seat keeps baby safe on the way to and from the airport and can even be attached to wheels for maneuvering through the airport. Know that some cities do not allow babies in cabs without a car seat. So what’s one to do if the child is going to sit on a parent’s lap in-flight? Check the car seat either at baggage check or at the plane. Airlines do not charge for car seats or strollers as checked baggage (thank goodness).
- The airport is a gym. Arrive early to save your sanity and consider the airport a great place to wear out a child pre-flight. Our child loves to greet everyone with a smile, check out the airplanes, test out the moving walkways, fill a few diapers and nosh on airport food before a flight. By the time he gets on the plane, he’s ready to settle in, read, relax and hopefully, sleep.
- Take time to relax post-flight and throughout the trip. Avid travelers soon learn when a child is involved that jam-packed itineraries no longer exist when a child enters the picture. We used to hit a dozen tourist sites a day before children; now, try maybe three in a day. Parents need to be realistic and not test their child’s patience nor their own. We take time for naps, meal breaks, hotel room breaks, park breaks, whatever is needed to keep it cool. We’ve had success with our son sleeping in his stroller while we carried on or stopped for a glass of rose in Paris, but we stick with early evenings so that bedtime is a constant.
- Look for hotels, condos and rental homes where the family can spread out. We never imagined how much we’d appreciate hotel refrigerators, suites with a separate bedroom and living room, or a rental apartment with a full kitchen until we had our son. Small hotel rooms no longer work so well for us. Kids need room to roam and parents need room for suitcases, a crib and a quiet space to put that crib while mom and dad chill out, watch TV or plan the day ahead. The perfect space in our opinion is one where parents can close a door between where the child is sleeping and the parents are relaxing -- yet still close enough to keep an eye and ear on them.
- Share a meal. There’s no need to buy a young child their own, expensive dinner. For as little as most kids eat, they can share off of what mom and dad are eating, or have an appetizer to themselves. Most restaurants are kind enough to accommodate as well with extra cups, plates and napkins to clean up after a little traveler. And don’t be silly; this isn’t the time to check out a five-star, seven-course restaurant. Keep it simple. Sometimes a deli or grocery store can make the best meal of all shared in a park (or even in a hotel room after a long day).
- Avoid overly congested tourist zones at peak hours. Start the day early; most people don’t hit the streets until 9 or 10 a.m., so beat them to the top tourist sites. At 7 a.m., a family will have the top sights to themselves (and children will be at their best). By the time the hordes move in, you’ll be on to your mid-morning break or more relaxed destinations.
With the first two years behind us, I wonder what traveling would be like with two children. I imagine the experience is more complex and more costly; but I’d like to think the effect is what a parent can say about more kids in general: you just adapt. So until whenever that time comes, we’ll keep traveling with our now-babbling little boy. He will now require an airplane seat of his own, but maybe that will free up my arms for an in-flight magazine every once in a while. (Hey, a mom can dream.)