traveling light with a toddler

I’m back from my blogging/digital sabbatical. Went a week longer than I expected. Putting a lot of my spare time into The Minimalist Mom’s Guide to Baby’s First Year but I should be writing here more regularly now. Need to. Have some wardrobe switch over and paring down to work on for fall and we have a few flat organization/furniture moving projects in mind. September is a great time for starting new routines and getting things done. I’ll be working on both in the next month. Hope you had a great August!

Traveling with small children is daunting. Vomit, airport fits, the challenge of flights with an under two baby-in-arms, mid-flight diaper changes and entertaining or soothing young people can seem like more hassle than travel is worth.

Oh, and lugging a lot of stuff. Who wants to throw their back out carrying 20 pounds of baby and dragging a stroller filled with carry-ons and toys through the airport. There is also the stress of being “those people” with the screaming baby or the toddler kicking the seat back of a stranger. Fun.

Despite the extra work of traveling with a young child, we’re doing it. Living overseas is a great opportunity for us to see a lot of Europe for less money, and with less jet lag, than when we were living in Canada. So we’ll grin and bear it when our kid has a tired/hungry/bored meltdown on a flight or in an airport.

We’ve also found that despite notes from many parents to the contrary, we don’t need to pack loads of stuff for our toddler. You can be prepared and still pack light. And the benefits of less luggage are many fold. If you bring less stuff you can:

  • take advantage of budget airlines. It cost the three of us just under 300 GBP (around 500 USD) to fly round trip to Dublin. While Henry flew “in-arms” there was still a 20 GBP charge + taxes for him each way. Budget airlines reward travelers that pack light. If you can’t cut down on your luggage you’ll end up paying a lot more money to fly.
  • get more time on the ground by not checking bags. We had to check a bag this trip to accommodate Chris bringing his work laptop. But everything else we packed could have easily fit into two carry-ons. No checked bags means you aren’t waiting at a luggage carousel for bags and losing time exploring.
  • save money with public transport. We used a Dublin City express bus to get from the airport into the city. It was dirt cheap and easy for us to take because we could easily move all of our luggage ourselves.
  • less stress. When you’re tired from travel or an early morning flight, you are more likely to snap at your partner, and have less patience with your child, when your bags are heavy. The heavier the bags, the more frustrated you are going to be when you face the inevitable delays associated with finding hotels and catching flights.

Henry’s travel wardrobe is in the picture above. Here is what we packed him for a 4 night, 5 day trip:

  1. hooded sweatshirt
  2. one pair of shoes
  3. two pairs of socks
  4. one pair jeans, one pair pants
  5. babylegs
  6. three long sleeve tees, one short sleeved tee
  7. one long sleeved dri-fit onesie

No pajamas were packed. We didn’t bring along  an extra pair of shoes or a second jacket or a third pair of pants. Henry wore the jeans, one pair of socks, the shoes, hooded sweatshirt and a long sleeved top on the fight. For pajamas he wore the babylegs with the dri-fit onesie. By the final day the dri-fit onesie was the last clean item so he wore it as a shirt. Yes, his clothes got messy and yes, I did some spot cleaning of the jeans to get another day out of them. But it wasn’t much work and well worth it to pack light.

Other Henry items we packed:

  1. collapsible stroller
  2. Ergo baby carrier
  3. three small toys that fit in my carry-on
  4. one board book
  5. diapers and wipes
  6. sippy cup *might ditch this on another trip of this length. Henry drinks water or milk from a cup at meals and can easily drink from our water bottles.

No booster seat for meals, or big toys or multiple books or toddler dishes, or even a bib. No car seat needed as we took public transportation. We ended up getting hotel breakfast comped (sweet!) and they had a high chair. Henry ate off a regular side plate, used a teaspoon to eat his yogort and I tucked a napkin into his shirt to keep it, mostly, clean. I also didn’t bother packing over the counter medications for any of us. If it was needed we could easily find a Pharmacy in Dublin (for long trips in non-English speaking countries I do pack a small case of medications).

Henry is at an interesting stage for mobility. He can actually walk quite a bit, and wants to, but he isn’t great at taking direction on where to walk or holding our hands. In Dublin we let him roam in safe areas and then put him in the stroller for longer walks. The carrier was great for him to nap in while we were on the bus and I also wore him in it during the Guinness Store House Tour so we could skip the elevators and take the stairs. I think in another six months we could just bring the stroller or the carrier and save some space.

I’m facing a me and child trans-Atlantic trip this month and the Dublin trip gave me confidence that I don’t need to bring lots of stuff. It did not, however, assuage my fears about flights with my almost two year-old in-arms. The flight to Dublin was 30 minutes and Henry made us work to keep him entertained for it. My trip back to Canada for a wedding will mean an eight hour flight each way. The plane also doesn’t have in-seat entertainment. Meaning no TV. So I will bring a few more toys and books than the Dublin trip.

I’ve done long flights with Henry before but it was when he was much smaller, less mobile and slept more. In fact, I would say under six months is a great time to fly with a baby. The white noise of being in flight helps them sleep and they don’t need a lot of entertaining. If you have a newborn and are thinking of planning a trip do it. It’s a great window to start traveling as a family.

Those are my tips and ideas on travel and traveling light with a toddler. What are yours? I would love some entertainment ideas for flights that don’t require packing a lot of stuff. Like bring a pen and make a puppet out of a sick bag.

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  • We’ve flown several times with our three young children, and have taken minimal things like you. Once they were old enough our kids each carried their own backpack with their clothes and toys in. Paper and pencils are good for entertainment, got my daughter (when aged 5) to keep a diary of what she’d done each day, kept her busy in the hotel room! Can recommend Teeny Little Families toys or similar, where you have a tiny house etc. with tiny characters, furniture etc. inside it, small to pack but gives lots of entertainment in hotel room.

    • We also let the children each choose a magazine from the WHSmith in the departure lounge, which kept them entertained for quite a while on the flight!

    • Love the diary idea. When Henry is that age I will definitely get him a little book to fill in.

      One of the toys we brought was a little cow with wheels on it. Got some good mileage out of it waiting at the gate. Will keep an eye out for Teeny Little Families. Sounds like something Henry would like.

  • Great post! I’m all about not packing a lot for trips. I have three girls and always pack a minimum for them (everything must fit in one bag). Quick question… where do you find dri-fit onesies?

    • We’ve had Halo brand dri-fit onesies in most of the sizes from 0-18 months. I found some online and then was given a set as a gift. We really like them and I believe I kept a few of the smaller sizes for when/if we have another baby. Breathable and makes putting layers of clothing on easy. Also great for travel as you can wash them in a sink and they dry fast.

  • We have always traveled lightly even with our kids. Now at 13, 11 and 7 they know how to pack lightly themselves. Teach Henry well and he will too. A friend once told me that when we pack for a trip we only wear 20% of our clothes. I learned not to pack by days or outfits, but to pack clothes that work together.

    • Guilty of the only wearing 20% rule for quite a few vacations. Since really cutting down my wardrobe I don’t have the same problem. I really wear everything I have and “know” my clothes well. With a larger wardrobe I would back things that I rarely wore at home and, of course, then didn’t wear them on vacation.For this trip I packed:
      – 1 pair jeans
      – jean pencil skirt
      – yoga pants
      – 1 t-shirt
      – 1 layering tank
      – 1 lightweight jumper/sweater
      – 1 lightweight cardigan
      – yoga pants
      – running shoes
      – walking sandals
      – plus underwear, etc

      Also brought a lightweight jacket which became a casualty of the trip. It was slung over the stroller and must have fallen off somewhere between our hotel and meeting up with Katy on O’Connell street.I wore the jeans and yoga pants two days each and the skirt once. The weather was a bit unpredictable so I was glad to have brought the jeans.

  • We’ve got two little ones and have yet to travel by plane. However, we have done long car trips. For that, we borrow a travel DVD player from my parents. It hooks up in the car for power. To keep it small, we take a small CD case of DVD’s. We’ve found it’s about the only thing to keep kids happy for that long of a time. With two VERY active boys, toys & books just don’t cut it. Sadly, movies are the only thing to hold their attention long enough.

    • In the same predicament with my toddler. The books and toys will be worth maybe 15 minutes every hour. Not sure I will find a portable DVD player to borrow before we leave. We do have a new toy for him that has a little screen and seems to amuse him. Hope it works!

  • Hi Rachel, welcome back. For us play-dough works a treat as a toy when travelling, easy to carry around and we can make fun shapes, animals etc out of it. Also, once the kids start walking, they tend to walk around and play with other kids on the plane. For long-haul flight, when the kids were small (under 3) we booked night-flights and they slept through 7 hour flights from take-off to landing. :)

    • Play-dough is a brilliant idea.
      We flew overnight on the way over here and it was a breeze – Henry slept through the whole thing. For this trip I have an overnight on the way back but day on the way out. Should be interesting with 27 pounds of toddler in my lap.

      • I agree, when my kids were smaller and not stuck to the in flight TV, play dough was THE BEST! I do not usually allow it in the house so I would take 3 small pots of it and it could entertain them for hours. It has saved me several times.

  • We traveled from the Western US to West Africa with a 3 and 5 year old. I would recommend a carrier such as the Ergo for kids up to 5 years old for such a long adventure. I used mine at 2 am with a heavily sleeping five year old, delayed flights, gate changes and a crowded airport among other times….don’t know what I would have done without it and it is compact for times when it wasn’t being used. We also took a small box of crayons and small but many paged notebook to color, write, draw, share with a new found travel friend, game with mom or dad…for one direction and a coloring book for the other. We invented games, etc with these…We also had small (when packed 2″x4″) wooden puzzle for one way which we used in creative ways from building things to the puzzle itself and cards for the other. Then we utilized what we found on the plane, such as magazines, music, socks, etc. The other thing we did was bring a box of granola bars for each direction for times when food wasn’t available but the kids needed something to not be cranky. If I was traveling to a place that I was more familiar with I would have bought the snack for the way back when we were there. In this case, I didn’t know what would be available so I brought them from home.

    • Hoping there are other young kids on these flights as that would really help the time go by. I’m thinking of packing a small colouring book after all of these suggestions. Henry is still often in an eat it vs. use it to draw mood with Crayons. But it’s small enough that it is worth a try. And yes, already have a list of snacks to bring. If I can’t amuse him with a toy raisins will be offered.

  • AHHH travelling with kids… as my MIL and parents both live a 4 or 5 hr plane ride away (in different directions) my kids are now expert flyers. This summer I took my kids for 7 weeks to 3 different climates (hot, cool and variable) we had 2 checked bags, which could have been reduced if I did not have to take 3 life jackets along.
    When they were younger we had a ipod like machine that we had about 20 movies stored on, that way if there was no inflight movies etc, they could watch on it. A laptop would work too.
    Playdough and small toys like lego or playmobile were good too.

    As we are now older, they pack their ipods, a pair of noise cancelling headphone (they were an awesome gift) and snacks. A pack of cards is great too so they can play with each other.

    You can never have too many snacks, always better to be prepared. We once had a 5 hr flight turn into 8 as we sat on the runway for 2 1/2 hours before even leaving and had further delays in air….

    As well, after learning the hard way that my oldest gets airsickness, we ALWAYS take a change of clothes for all of us. Along with any important sleep items (blankets and stuffies) as if they were lost with luggage it would mean sleepless nights. This also helps with longer flights as they feel more comfortable falling asleep with their own stuff.

    Sorry for the long winded response… I realize now it does not sound too minimalist, but I hope it helps, and glad to see you back!

  • Good for you! It’s really a myth that families can’t travel light and the more one travels the easier it becomes and the lighter we travel.

    We’ve been traveling the world as a family non-stop since 2006 ( 43 countries on 5 continents on $23/day per person) so have had lots of practice as we started traveling with our extremely active child ( started walking at 6 months and ran faster than me at 9 months) when she was 2 weeks old.

    This last year we circled the globe over 12 months ( 26 airports, 13 countries) and only took a small carry-on bag each and that included 3 laptops and homeschool supplies!

    I wrote some tips here:

    I think two keys could help you. Prepare you son by talking a lot about the plane ride and the parameters. (Works with museums and adult entertainment like plays with toddlers too).

    We never used a stroller ( or much traditional baby stuff) so that can save you hassles and I think it is good for kids to learn to walk on their own as much as possible. I’ve been amazed to see huge 5 and 6 year old kids in strollers..a big disservice to the child imho, so best never to start. Walking is much healthier and 2 year olds can walk much longer than most realize…miles!

    We just used an easy to pack cotton sling if transport was needed even for a toddler, but it certainly came in handy for our world travel that she was a good walker. She could walk much longer than me, even at 5 and was an eager walker even at 1 and 2 during travel and at home.

    I am not big on electronic toys but we did get the leapPad and small portable dvd player for our trip and they have come in handy from time to time with travel (but not essential so usually left in the RV). If you are bringing a laptop for you, that would work even better.

    Color coordinated, dark clothes that wash and dry quickly allows one to pack less. Do teach him the art of hand laundry early and wash a few things when you shower! 😉

    Having many healthy snacks and small tiny surprises go a long way. Maybe wrap them for added fun and reward for good behavior from time to time.

    Have fun!

  • We’ve logged 7 countries with our two-year-old and our packing list is almost identical except for what I call the “watermelon outfit.” It began after unlimited watermelon at a free hotel breakfast buffet stained her pink from nose to toes. 😀 It’s just a designated shirt and lightweight, easily-packable pants for mealtimes. It goes in the daypack, takes up almost no space, and I change her into it before mealtime so those clothes can bear the brunt of toddler stains. It means I can really maximize wearings of her other clothes too!

  • This is great, looks exactly like my kids closets!!! They each have two long and two short sleeve tops and two long and two short pants… and a hoodie for the cold. People often ask how on earth we travel and I say: “Yeah, we have to take everything!!!!” It really takes one bag for the whole family… if something gets awfully grubby you can usually wash and dry it overnight. My kids were so entertained by the inflight gear that we didn’t need toys… they read and pointed the “in air safety card” for ages!!!” It really doesn’t have to be awful to travel with kids and there is nothing worse than being burdened with baggage!!!

  • Hi there!

    I have flown back and forth from Vancouver to Australia 6 (!!) times with my kid(s), starting when I only had my first son (those were the days!) at 8 months old… then again when he was 17 mos, then again at 22 months, then again when he was 29 months and my second son was 5 mo … you get the idea! I am also in the ‘pack light’ club, and managed to pare down to carry on only for our family of four, plus a Maclaren umbrella stroller, and Ergo carrier. To amuse my older son, over the various trips the most valued items have been (as others have said): crayons and a small note pad with lots of pages, a couple of books, a small new toy (eg: a tiny pull-back tractor… that thing saved me on one leg), and stickers! Stickers are very packable, and if you buy a few sheets of small ones, they can provide lots of amusement. When he was 17 mos, the act of picking the stickers off the sheet was difficult, but kept him engaged for ages. You can use them to play games as well (eg: hide the sticker somewhere on your body, memory games, etc). Oh – meant to say that in terms of books, I’d bring a couple of “full size” favourites, and then a few miniature new ones that my son hadn’t seen (in Vancouver I could find these mini books at any book store.. they were often Robert Munsch stories…not sure if you’ve seen them before but they are tiny! I keep a few in my purse at all times for unexpected doctor’s office waits, etc.)

    Happy travels!

  • Great post Rachel!
    We have done the long flight when my son was 6 months old with no problem. On the way back he was 11 months old and wanted to go everywhere, it was really not comfortable him being on my lap (or hubby’s). I think we were singing a lot.
    We are going again in a few weeks and he is 3 now. Our flights will be 7 hours and 3 hours. On the way there it is a night flight. I will buy some small toys and he will get them every 2-3 hours or if we need to wait (our layover will be 2 hours). I find that lots of stickers will keep him busy. This summer I bought a preschooler magazine that he really liked: coloring, stories, matching and counting. For a 1-2 year old books with flaps or interactive elements could work well, and fun snacks, like cherios!

  • Just took our first trip with Baby Betsy over the weekend! Tried to pack light but think it could have been even lighter – thanks for the tips! The one item I couldn’t have lived without was the ergo… love that carrier!

  • LOVE THIS! I appreciate such great ideas. Mine are school aged now, but still young enough they want to bring along their babies and blankets. So I allow them to fill a backpack full of what they choose, and it helps keep their treasures to a minimum. For your little guy, it would sound like crayons and paper would make a fun treat. At his age, blank paper is great and limitless…and you can make your puppet from his drawings 😉 wrap gifts with them or make them into a little booklet for him to flip through. A tiny chalk board or dry erase board could be used over and over but might prove harder to carry. I have used a dry erase pen on a clear page protector. You could put one sheet of paper in a page protector (or clear contact paper) and use a dry erase crayon (regular crayons sort of work but require more elbow grease to remove) and wipe it off with a tissue to reuse over and over.

  • Thanks a lot for such a great post!! You gave me confidence not to pack too much stuff as I will have a transAtlantic trip in few weeks, just me and my 2.5 year old, so I’m a bit worried about it…well, we had flights with our son before, but it was either three of us (me, my husband and our son) or it was shorter trips/flights.
    Will have your post and comments in mind, when I pack my bags :))

    • Just back from my transAtlantic flight and I got some great suggestions here. We did the stickers, a mini travel set of playdough, small rolling toy and I ended up bringing my laptop for him to watch tv. It was still an exhausting fight but I always had something to amuse him. I will say this: tv works for getting kids to sit still. I guess that is one of the evils of too much of it.

      Hope you have the same flight luck as us. We had 3 seats for just us (me plus son under 2). It really helped to have all that room.

  • I’m planning to take two regular books (his beloved ones), few tiny sticker/coloring books, crayons,notebook, little wooden toy car (as we prefer wooden toys, but it would be too hard to take few wooden regular size toys 😀 ) and will think about buying a dry erase board. My son also loves homemade ‘cards’ with letters and number on them, so he can tell me letters, numbers, change the order of them etc. I think that would be quite good and light to take on board.

  • I had a great experience with my daughter when she was 11 months new. We hopped on a plane to Maui with a backpack, tent, blanket, sleeping pad, and a baby sling. Everything we had fit into the backpack, including 12 cloth diapers! I carried her everywhere and her first steps were on the sandy beach. I did regret not having a car seat as local transport was not always easy, but we managed to always get safely wherever we were trying to go. We were there for 4 blissful weeks and would do it again in a heart beat.

  • I’m a big fan of diaper wallets. I think they are the best invention since…snack cups with child-friendly lids! I love them because they are literally a portable changing table. I can stuff wipes, a few diapers, and those little “smell locking” bags in a compartment. There have been many many gross convenience store bathroom changes where there were no stations, and I was so thankful to not have to do it on the grimy floor. The kind I love best is the SKIPHOP brand at Target. Its so skinny that it fits easily in most purses.

    Regarding car trips: My husband and I have found the convenience of bibs with the button up pockets. We put those on our kids ( age 1 1/2 & 3), in the backseat and throw food in it. When there are times when we just need to keep driving and can’t stop to eat somewhere, they are portable troughs!

    We have our first big car trip coming up ( Springfield MO – chicago- minnesota- and back!). I plan on packing a diaper bag with Mcd’s toys that I’ve collected without them noticing. A new toy goes a long way on a trip!

    Hope this helps someone!

  • I’m travelling with my baby soon and facing the conundrum of staying in a hotel that has a cot without a mattress – what would you do in this situation?

    • Can you bring something to use as a mattress? I have folded a blanket and wrapped it in a sheet to use as a kid mattress. May also work for a cot but I would by quite vigilant about fitting it to the edge of the cot and making sure nothing could come loose. Good luck!

  • Thanks for these tips
    I’m flying cross country (in Canada) in a few months and when we switch airlines part way through we have to collect our bags, take a sky train to another terminal and check in again.
    I’d love to pack all of our gear (20 month old and Momma) in 1 carry on and 1 personal item (plus gate check stroller).
    But it scares me

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