Traveling with a toddler is definitely no picnic (sometimes even bordering on a downright horror show), but with some solid planning and the right gear, the experience can be somewhat enjoyable (or at least not harrowing). We’ve traveled a ton with our munchkin, pretty much since she was a few months old (for my tips on traveling with babies, check out Must-Have’s and Tips for Airplane Travel with Baby), and I feel like we have toddler travel down to a science by now. Granted, every kid is different, but most toddlers need the same basic stuff to stay happy and engaged during a long flight — food, lots of fun activities, and yes, a screen (if you’re willing to go there). Hopefully our extensive list of toddler travel tips and must-have’s will help you keep your little occupied and happy (not to mention healthy!), and will help keep YOU sane!
Top Toddler Travel Tips
- TIME YOUR TRAVEL RIGHT. If you can, time your flight to depart shortly before nap time, which will increase the odds that your kid will sleep. For kids (like mine!) who won’t sleep on planes, do the opposite — I find that an early morning flight works best, so we can usually squeeze in a nap after we land.
- CONSIDER A SIMPLER TRAVEL SYSTEM. When M was a baby, we brought SO much stuff with us (the carseat, stroller, a carrier, an overflowing diaper bag, etc.).. it was kind of a stressful nightmare. But now that she’s older and requires less gear, we’ve been able to streamline our travel setup quite a bit. Since she turned 2, we ditched the carseat for airplane travel (and only bring one to check in if we’re going somewhere that we can’t access Uber Family or a borrow a seat). The CARES Child Travel Harness is an awesome system that’s compact and keeps your toddler (over 2 years old) safe and secure in their seat. Plus it fits in your bag! When we ditched the car seat, all the excitement about having her own big girl seat ensured that she stayed in it for the WHOLE flight (unlike with her carseat, that she was in and out of the whole time). This simplification made travel SO much easier.
- TAILOR TRAVEL ACTIVITIES TO YOUR KID. What is your toddler into? What are his/her favorite activities to do at home? A version of that is what will keep them happily occupied during travel. M is obsessed with coloring and painting, stickers, and little figurines, so that’s what we bring. She also loves to EAT and since we normally don’t let her snack (here’s why), having access to healthy snacks throughout a trip brings nonstop excitement and distraction as well.
- FEEL FREE TO THROW SOME RULES OUT THE WINDOW. When you’re traveling with a toddler, you have full license to do whatever needs to be done to keep things going smoothly, which might mean throwing some of your hard fast rules out the window. A few examples: snacking (we pack healthy snacks for her to enjoy throughout the flight, even though that’s normally a no-no in our house); screen time (we normally reserve TV for special circumstances, like when one or both of us are sick, but let her watch kids movies and Daniel Tiger on airplanes); and naps (I hold on to our nap routine for dear life, but little miss just refuses to nap on the plane. Once I got ok with that, things went a lot smoother). Saving this rule breaking for travel makes the experience all the more special, and the novelty keeps toddlers entertained and occupied.
- BOARD LAST. The whole early boarding for children with small families thing must have been invented by someone who doesn’t have kids and hates parents. You want to minimize the amount of time on the plane, not extend it! Hang out near the gate burning off some energy until the VERY LAST MINUTE. That way, you board, and the plane takes off shortly thereafter. Extra mischief managed!
- BRING SOME COMFORTS OF HOME. I didn’t add these to the what-to-bring list because it’ll be different for every kid, but make sure to bring a favorite comfort object to help them feel at ease. We always travel with our Aden + Anais lovey, but a favorite blanket or stuffed animal works too!
- CONSIDER KEEPING YOUR POTTY-TRAINED LITTLE IN A PULL-UP. M has been potty trained since turning 2, but I still always put her in a pull-up (or “special travel diaper”, as we call it) for plane rides. No matter how good your toddler is at going potty, bathroom lines can get long, seatbelt signs can stay on, and many other things can get in the way of getting to the potty on time. And you don’t want to deal with accidents on an airplane. Explain that the special travel diaper is JUST for airplanes and is just in case — they should still tell you if they have to go potty, and you’ll still prompt them.
- TAKE CARE OF YOU. Our last few flights with the munchkin featured a glass of wine for mama and even a bit of relaxation. I got her set up, and then made it clear that mommy is not there for entertainment (a general rule of mine.. more on that here). I got to watch over half of a movie, did a crossword, read a magazine, and chatted with my hubby… all while M watched Boss Baby, or colored, or played with her Darth Vader toy. It was amazing. Granted, there were still plenty of stressful moments, but I took advantage of every opportunity when she was happily engaged with something to relax and take care of me. A stress-busting essential oil rollerball is a big help too!
Ok, now that we’ve got the tips out of the way, let’s get to the goods! The right stuff in the right bag makes all the difference in the world. Here’s what works best for us…
Toddler Travel Must-Have’s
The right bag can make or break your travel experience, and this bag simply can’t be beat for travel and beyond (I even added it to my Holiday Gift Guide!). First of all, it’s a backpack. I can’t stress enough how important it is to travel with a backpack in lieu of a diaper bag. Having your hands free and not dealing with a bag swinging around your body (the amount of times I got hit in the face by my bag when bending over to pick up my kid was astonishing) are priceless. Second of all, it has a gazillion useful pockets — I keep things I need at a moments notice (like hand sanitizer) in the outer zip pocket, and my phone, wallet and sunglasses in the side pockets; water bottles go into the inner side pockets; my personal items (lip balm, moisturizer, essential oils) go in the inner zip pocket; iPad goes in the laptop sleeve, etc. etc. etc. An organized bag makes all the difference. Third of all, it’s HUGE (but not too huge) — everything fits inside, but you don’t feel like a pack mule. As an added bonus, the bag is made from easy to clean vegan leather, and the inside is made from spill resistant wipeable nylon. And it’s GORGEOUS.. so you can feel like a person, and not just a MOM.
2. EO Hand Sanitizing Wipes and Spray, and Waterwipes Travel Wipes
All three of these products are so central to my motherhood experience that I buy them all in bulk and use them all the time (not just while traveling). I know I can’t sanitize the whole world (nor would I want to.. micro biome, baby!), but airplane travel is quite possibly the germiest endeavor your kid will get into in their early years, so if you’re going to get all germaphobic about anything, this is the time.
You may think having three cleaning tools is overkill, but let me persuade you otherwise. These two brands are my favorite — they’re all natural, have no added chemicals, and the EO sanitizers have nice, calming lavender essential oil to soothe everyone’s nerves. The EO sanitizing wipes are a must for wiping down your and your kid’s seat and everything around it. Airplanes are veritable petri dishes and kids are constantly putting their hands in or near their mouths (or eating), so getting their area sanitized is really important. I give everything from the seat and seat back, tray table, and armrest to the window, shade, and wall a good wipe down with these puppies right when we sit down. The wipes are also great for cleaning toys that fall on the ground or pretty much anything else your kid touches. The EO spray is for hands — after using the bathroom, before eating, or after touching anything gross. And the Waterwipes are for everything else — sticky hands and faces, spills on clothes, poopy bums, etc. The travel sized packs are perfect for flying, and are so slim that I can throw 3 into my bag just in case.
3. iPad with Speck iGuy Toddler-Friendly Case, CozyPhones Kids Headband Headphones, and headphone splitter
Like I said, anything goes while traveling (almost), so while I am strict about NO screen time for our 2 year old, on the airplane, she gets to watch (age-appropriate) movies and cartoons to her heart’s content. My sanity and her being calm and relatively quiet for hours is worth it, as far as I’m concerned. But I do try to save the iPad for after we’ve exhausted all our other entertaining play activities.
But the right gear is crucial. If your plane has a seat-back screen, awesome. You’ll likely find something appropriate for your kid to watch on there, but I always bring my iPad as a backup. I download an entire season of Daniel Tiger and a few movies on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, or Netflix (make sure you actually download them for offline viewing), and we are good to go. I also have a couple of apps that we reserve just for travel — our faves are Metamorphabet, Endless Numbers, Press Here, Smart Baby Sorter and Magic Fingers Lite.
Since iPads are hard for toddlers to hold without pressing all the buttons, I love the adorable Speck iGuy Case, which has two big handles so they can hold it comfortably, and is made from toddler-friendly, flexible foam. It also stands up on it’s own, which is great. Just make sure you get the right size for your iPad!
Toddlers have trouble keeping headphones on their heads, so the CozyPhones Headbands Headphones are perfect. Not only are they super cute (they come in a bunch of different animal varieties, but I’m partial to the unicorn ; ), but the cozy headband is super comfortable for littles and keeps the sound from being right inside their sensitive ears as well.
Lastly, we love using a headphone splitter to sync up our screens and watch movies together. That way we can share the experience, provide valuable explanations and commentary, and be able to answer questions. Plus, I’ve found that M can get distracted by whatever is going on on my screen, but if we’re all watching the same thing, she stays focused.
I have to say as far as travel activities are concerned, this has been our biggest hit. With adorable scenes and 30 reusable stickers to start with, playing with this sticker book keeps little M busy for oodles of time. Toddlers go through stickers pretty quickly, so make sure to stock up on some extras (this set of non-toxic, non-PVC stickers is awesome, and lasts for so long).
5. Melissa & Doug On-The-Go Water Wow and Color-N-Carry Activity Book
Melissa & Doug has a corner on the best travel activities for toddlers. Water Wow coloring pads are mess-free awesomeness that are perfect for traveling. You just fill the brush with water, and let the fun ensue! The pages dry quickly so your little can reuse the pages to their heart’s content. And there are so many books to choose from, so you can pick whatever theme they’d be most into (animals! letters! makeup! The list goes on and on). We also love coloring with crayons, so the Color-N-Carry Activity Book is perfect — it’s a great little coloring book with a full set of chunky crayons built in. I usually have one of these in my bag for restaurants as well, and they’re great to have on hand for downtime at your hotel or wherever you’re staying while traveling.
Remember Highlights Magazines from your dentist’s office when you were a kid? Well they now make versions for babies and toddlers that are awesome, and PERFECT for travel. We used to bring about 5 of the baby Highlights (called Hello!) with us while traveling, but M grew out of them a little after 2 years old, so the toddler High Five subscription was a perfect upgrade. In addition to stories, hidden pictures, and age-appropriate puzzles, High Five magazines feature recipes, crafts, and tons of fun activities for littles. They’re slim and magazine-sized, so it’s really easy to bring several with you, and they’re way more portable than bringing actual books on the plane. A big win!
This BPA-free straw water bottle is my top pick for travel for several reasons. The vacuum-insulated stainless steel interior keeps liquids cold and fresh for up to 10 hours, which means you don’t have to worry about bacteria growing in your kids cup during a long day of travel. The silicone straw and push-button top are pretty leak proof, and don’t explode from changes in air pressure on the plane. And the 10 ounce capacity means you don’t have to refill as much throughout the day. Bonus: it fits perfectly in the inner side pocket of the Freshly Picked Diaper Bag ; )
Packing a healthy meal and snacks for your toddler is the key to a happier travel experience. In my experience, relying on airport or in-flight food options is risky for picky palates, and often leads to just eating crackers, cereal and cheese all day (no bueno!!). I pack M’s LunchBot stainless steel lunchbox with a healthy lunch from home for M, with some low-mess proteins (beans, tofu or chicken), lots of veggies (since these might be the only veggies she gets all day), fruit, and snack stuff like nuts and seeds. In addition, I do bring some cereal (Barbara’s Organic Honest O’s have the lowest sugar and highest protein of the kid friendly cereals mixed with dried coconut, and they’re gluten-free!), Eden Organic Snack Mix (a blend of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit), and blueberries for healthy snacks to enjoy all day. Other healthy snacks options are organic full-fat string cheese, some healthy sprouted crackers, portable fruit like organic mini apples and clementines, and Happy Tot Organics Superfood Pouches.
8. A little pouch full of smallnew toys (not pictured)
We also have a little zippered leather pencil bag that’s full of silly little toys — Star Wars figurines, little animals and finger puppets, mini dolls. These are reserved just for travel, so even though the toys are pretty insubstantial, the novelty each time makes them a big hit!
The most important thing to remember is this too shall pass. You can be perfectly prepared and still have a screaming, squirmy child on your hands if you caught them on a bad day. You’ll likely never see your fellow passengers again, and no matter how awful the experience (and no one’s saying it will be), it’s just one day. You all will survive! Keep you cool and sense of humor, mama. It’ll all be ok!