Tips on Traveling With a Toddler is a new series on the blog. I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned through my own experiences in the U.S and Europe with my daughter, Ingrid, as well as tips from friends and other trusted sources. – Eva
How do you travel with a toddler? And more specifically, how do you travel to Europe with a toddler?
That’s what I started wondering about a year ago. Ingrid was a year old at the time, and I had just figured out that we had enough credit card points through Sycamore Street Press to take a trip abroad. Some suggested we wait until she was older. But I only wanted to use enough points for two plane tickets, not three. (And once a child turns two, they must have their own seat on the plane.) I also knew that we wanted to have a second child soon, which would complicate things further. I didn’t want to put off traveling abroad any longer. Europe 2012, or bust! So I came back to the question — how do you travel to Europe with a toddler?
Some of the best sources of information were my friend Meredith Prévot, who goes to France every year to visit family with her daughter, Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day, who spent a year living in France and traveling around Europe with her two young boys, and the Babyccino Kids blog. I took their advice and prepared the best I could for our two and a half week trip to Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris. As you can imagine, it ended up being a pretty intense two and a half week crash course on traveling with a toddler. And although I learned a lot, I’m obviously not an expert — far from it! So please keep that in mind when reading this. Every child and situation is different (of course), and what worked for us may not work for you. But I hope to be of some help.
In the first post of the series, I’d like to address the most difficult part of traveling with a toddler: flying.
1) Use Your Gut To Plan Your Trip
I’ve quizzed a lot of parents who travel with their kids, and they say that each kid takes to the plane differently. Usually, though, the child’s reaction is pretty predictable. For instance, Ingrid only sleeps if she’s in her crib, unable to see or hear distraction. On our recent trip, we went from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Stockholm, Sweden, with stopovers in Paris and Frankfurt. We traveled through Ingrid’s afternoon nap, the entire night, and her afternoon nap on the second day. Normally, she would have had 16 hours of sleep during that time. But she only slept for 3 hours at the end, when she was completely overcome with exhaustion. On the other hand, I’ve seen children who will fall asleep in their car seat, on the couch, in their parents’ arms, etc… so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when these toddlers conk out for almost the entire flight. Surprises do happen, but chances are, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what will happen on the flight, even if you’ve never flown with your child before. If you’re honest with yourself, you may decide that knowing your kid, it’s not worth taking an overnight flight. Or conversely, that it may not be as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Either way, do what’s best for you and your family, and then plan accordingly.
2) Consider Timing
If possible, time your flight at the best time possible for your toddler’s schedule. If you know they will sleep, then an overnight flight or a short flight during nap time is perfect. If they won’t sleep on the plane, missing a nap is probably better than a whole night’s sleep. If you’ll be traveling as far as we did on our recent trip, however, it doesn’t really matter. It’ll be awful any way you look at it. Another thing to consider is flying in the off season. My friend Meredith took a trip to Europe in February, and there were so many open seats on the plane that they all got to stretch out. This is never a sure thing, of course. We thought flying to/from Europe in October might be the same, but our flights were completely packed.
3) Do The Paperwork
If your child is less than two years old, you don’t have to buy them a regular ticket. (Although if you can afford it, it would make your life that much easier.) They can sit on your lap for the flight, which the airlines call traveling with “an infant in arms”. However, Meredith reminded me (luckily) that you still have to let the airline know that you’re bringing a little one, and they will make you pay taxes and issue your child a paper ticket. She also informed me that if you request it enough in advance, the airline can lend you a bassinet for the flight. This will work for babies and very small toddlers, but as an almost 2 year old in the 95th percentile on the growth charts, our daughter was out of luck. One last thing — don’t forget the passports for everyone, toddler included!
4) Take Precautions When Gate Checking
Parents traveling with babies and young children are allowed to gate check car seats and strollers for free. If you will have a layover, be aware that your gate checked item might not make it onto the next flight. This happened to us, of course. When we got to our first stopover in Paris, we waited and waited at the gate for our stroller to show up, but it never did. The airline assured us that they would take care of it, but when we arrived in Stockholm, our stroller wasn’t there either. We were told by the agent at the desk that this was a common occurrence with strollers or car seats that are put into protective bags. The luggage handlers mistake it for a normal piece of luggage, and put it in the wrong place. We filed a report, and luckily they found the stroller and delivered it to our apartment the following day. But we learned our lesson. From now on we will either check it on with the rest of our baggage (instead of at the gate), or if we do really want to take it to the gate, we’ll wrap it in clear trash bags instead of a black bag, so that there’s no mistaking it for something else. This is really only something to worry about on flights with more than one leg, though. Direct flights shouldn’t be a problem.
5) Bring Lots of Supplies
Make a list of the bare necessities — plenty of diapers and wipes, kid-friendly snacks, a bottle or sippy cup, a change of clothes (or two), etc… and make sure you check it twice. You’ll also need lots to entertain and distract them: new and exciting books, toys, games, and movies. If you are counting on showing them movies on some sort of device (which I highly recommend), don’t forget to bring an extra battery or “juice pack”. I love the idea of wrapping inexpensive little toys and candies up in tissue paper to bring out and unwrap at opportune moments (read: to avoid meltdowns). Lollipops work wonders during take-offs and landings to keep kids’ ears clear and their minds occupied.
On a side note: Technically, you are allowed to bring liquids like formula and those fruit/veggie purées in squeeze bottles. Most of the time, the TSA agents won’t bat an eye. But once in a while, they might decide to single you out, do a chemical test on your baby food, and give you AND YOUR BABY a pat down as your baby cries hysterically. (Yes, it’s happened to us, which is why I will never try to bring those things on the plane again.)
6) Get Your Rest When You Can
Even if your toddler sleeps and travels like a dream, chances are you’ll feel like a zombie upon arrival. Make sure your whole family gets plenty of rest before you leave. This means scheduling your time so that you can pack in advance and get to bed at a decent hour the night before. I used to be the queen of late night packing, but not anymore. It’s not worth it. In addition, if you’re crossing many time zones, try not to plan anything (or very little) for the day or two after you arrive. It’ll be worth it if you and your toddler are able to rest and get over your jet lag that much sooner.
If you have any tips to add, I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Thanks! – Eva