After all of our travels with Ruby lately (and especially after our two-week trip to France), I've gotten to know the ins and outs of being on the go with a toddler. For all you parents out there who are planning trips soon and are nervous about any aspect of it, I thought I'd share 10 tips for traveling abroad with a toddler and what I've learned along the way. While this post is focused on traveling abroad, many of my tips apply to traveling with little ones in general, no matter how close or far...
01. Make your list of to-dos in advance, organized by area and type of activity...but also keep your days flexible. If I was traveling just with my husband, I'd love the idea of waking up leisurely and seeing where the day took us. Or I'd jam-pack a ton of activities into each day. But with a toddler's limited attention span, boundless energy, and need for naps, being somewhere in the middle of those two, agenda-wise, tends to work best for us. Also, it's super helpful to have your list organized by area so that you're not wasting too much time getting from one part of a city to another and can really enjoy and maximize one or two areas at a time. For example, my amazing assistant, Casey, had the brilliant idea to compile your suggestions for Paris and organize them into a spreadsheet by district and type of activity. Then she put them in a mini binder that I carried around for the whole trip (and now our whole staff has a version for their next trip to Paris). It was insanely helpful. We also used Yelp a lot while on the go a lot which can be great when you find yourself in an area that you might not have on your list.
02. Stay in an area where there's lots to do within walking distance. This may seem obvious, but we learned the hard way in Paris, when we stayed in a district that was up-and-coming but didn't have a ton to do within the immediate vicinity. We ended up taking trips out of the area everyday that took just a tad too long and gave us too little time to enjoy our destination before rushing back for Ruby's nap. We wish we'd we stayed in a slightly busier neighborhood (even if a tad more touristy) because it would have been more central and easier to get to other areas of the city.
03. Let your little one nap in a stroller when possible. Ruby is a wonderful sleeper in her crib, but not on the go, so we don't have the luxury of getting to do this too much. But if you're lucky enough to have a toddler who can nap anywhere and in any position for a juicy long nap, then napping on the go is the way to do it when traveling. That way you can explore more of a city while your little one naps, and you don't have to go back to your hotel or apartment mid-day (like we do).
04. Pack light. Since I already did a post on packing for a family trip, I won't repeat that information here, but want to reiterate that the most important part is bringing only your essentials, washing clothes while away so you can bring less, and buying disposable items (like diapers) at your final destination whenever possible.
05. Then there's flying (the part we all dread the most with kids)...I'll break this down into three parts.
A. Buy a seat on the plane for long trips. Unless you have one of those magical toddlers who can fall asleep anywhere and in any position, in our case, having Ruby's own seat made all of our experiences more tolerable. Even though she was still under two for our flight to France, which meant we didn't have to pay for her seat, we know our kid and know that she does way better on a plane when she has her own space to play and sleep in. So we got her a seat for the 11 hour flight (even though we had never bought her a seat on previous trips). It was so well worth it, as she slept better and played better, and it made the long trip more bearable for all of us.
B. Consider your flying times. Prior to our France trip, we'd always flown during the day and tried to pick times based on Ruby's nap schedule. However, sometimes you don't have a lot of options, and we had no choice when it came to flying to Paris, which has one direct flight out of L.A. per day. Everyone differs on the topic of doing a day flight vs. a red eye with small children, but we got to experience both during our flight to Paris. And to our surprise, Ruby actually did much better on the red eye than on the day flight. When it came to her actual bedtime on the plane, we went through our normal routine (minus the bath) of reading her a book and tucking her into her sleep sack. It took her a little longer to fall asleep than usual thanks to all the distractions on the plane, but once she fell asleep, she slept for six hours and woke up only because the plane was landing and all the lights came on. For the daytime flight back, we assumed she'd take her normal nap on the plane, but nope! She was too distracted from all the movement and bright light that she just couldn't nap and ended up being awake for over 13 hours before finally crashing in my arms as the plane landed.
C. Bring toys and games. I know some moms who are really good about bringing a ton of activities when traveling. One great trick is to wrap up little toys and games your kids have never seen before in tissue paper and unwrap one every hour of the plane ride. I love that idea. While I've never brought quite that many items, I usually bring a handful of little toys, crayons, a coloring book, stickers, lots of snacks, and the thing that saves us most of the time: An iPad (in a durable case) filled with educational games and shows.
06. Potty training. If you're crazy enough to be in the middle of potty training, like we were when we went to France and Mexico, bring those training tools with you. We brought a foldable travel potty (which is always in my diaper bag these days anyway), a stamps/stickers for rewards, and Ruby's pull-up diapers with us. We knew we might have some setbacks, but we found that for the most part, Ruby kept up with her training and if anything, it actually made her more adaptable having to go on the potty in various locations other than home.
07. Sleep schedule, naps, and jet lag. Adjusting to jet lag with a toddler is pretty similar to jet lag with adults, except toddlers don't understand what time zones are and why they feel so loopy and tired. So the quicker you get into the new time zone and stick to your usual schedule there, the quicker everyone will adapt. And do your best not to let your little one fall asleep early or take extra naps, because it will take him or her longer to adjust. For example, when we landed in Paris, Ruby had only gotten six hours of nighttime sleep on the plane, and it felt like 2 a.m. our time. But it was midday in Paris so we made sure she got a quick nap (but not so long that it would end too close to her 7:30 p.m. bedtime, Paris time). It will take a couple days to adjust, and you'll deal with a slightly grumpy toddler for a few days, but once everyone is back on track, you'll all enjoy your faraway vacation much better.
08. Eating. The great thing about traveling with a toddler is that by this age, you're usually not dealing with bottles and baby food, so you'll have very few "special" foods to carry around. These days, when traveling, I pretty much bring the same items I carry when we're going out to dinner with Ruby back at home—a sippy/drinking cup, utensils, a bib, and snacks. We try to use a high chair at restaurants whenever possible so that we don't have to bring our own, but if a city (like Paris) is known for not having highchairs, then we bring our Inglesina chair to make her eating experience and our dining experience more comfortable for everyone.
09. Activities. Ruby spends the majority of her days in L.A. outside, playing and exploring, so we made it a priority to have at least one activity per day that was just for her so she could get out all her energy and play. In Paris, there were playgrounds everywhere, so it was easy to give Ruby a play break in between all our other adventures. It can be harder to find play areas in some cities based on the time of year, so we also like finding museums, indoor gyms, or other kid-based spaces that are free or inexpensive where we can spend an hour or two on any given day.
10. Just Do It. So many people tell me they've avoided traveling on planes or going far distances because they worry about how their little one will react or how hard it will be for them as parents. But I say you just have to live your life and do the things that you think will be enriching and fun for your family because the not fun stuff (like meltdowns on the plane and jet lag) are such a small part of an overall wonderful experience. Sure, you can't have the same type of vacation you would if you were traveling with friends or with just your partner, but you can still have an amazing time and make wonderful memories you can look back on together when your little one is older and gets easier and easier to travel with.
If you have any other tips, I'd love to hear! Happy travels!
P.S. See more tips and my favorite items for traveling with a little one on my Mini Travels Pinterest board.
P.P.S. These are my tips based on my personal experience. Of course, every child is different so please use these tips as a guide and then cater to your little one's personality or temperament.