Toddler Travel Lifehacks

Elayne and Benji on Parisian steps

Child looking at Parisian window display at Christmastime
Don’t let the haters get you down if you take your toddler abroad. There is nothing in the world so amazing as seeing already-incredible things through the eyes of your kids.
Being somewhat fearless is definitely necessary to be a parent of a toddler. Taking that toddler on a trip, especially a long trip abroad or that requires a long plane flight, requires nerves of pure titanium (and some masochistic tendencies don’t hurt, either).

We took our three year old, Benjamin, on a trip over the holidays that required two plane flights just to start our “real” travels, including one flight that was 8.5 hours long.

Our first instincts for traveling “entertainment” planning were: movies, movies, art supplies, books, and perhaps more movies. However, our luggage was going to be a going concern for us during our trip; we were going to be away for nearly two weeks and would be taking cabs, trains and other transport, so it was necessary to keep things as light and minimal as possible (goodbye, laptop and hardcover books). We needed very portable, long-lasting entertainment.

Not only would the items we packed be used for the voyage, they would have to be interesting enough to use during the trip, as well. Further complicating things were airline restrictions (no liquids, nothing sharp, would need to fit on–and ideally not roll off of–a small drop tray or smaller, can’t be noisy) and Benji’s own attention span. While he loves watching movies, we do not watch television or movies often at home, so I knew that while the movies they were promising on the plane (we were crossing our fingers they would be suitable for  toddler–which it turns out was a valid concern) would be a huge treat, we couldn’t count on him spending the entire time watching them. There is also no way to charge electronics on the plane during such a long flight; batteries were going to run out on us. What to do?

Here’s what we ended up packing for Benji, in order of what worked best for us:

  • Hands down, the best thing we packed was a Build-a-Bear “Make-a-Bear” (in this case a stuffed dog) kit we picked up at Target for $14.99. It took several steps but wasn’t too hard and he and I worked on it for several hours; then he had the smalled stuff dog to play with the rest of the trip (both light and fun for him). The kit was completely self-contained, so everything we needed for it was already in there. No complaints from TSA on it; the needle was plastic and there wasn’t anything odd in it.
  • Several softcover books (ones we knew he would enjoy time and time again) were a hit, though with a toddler, there were times when I could read them and times when I felt like I couldn’t (when the plane was mostly asleep, which I hadn’t thought of beforehand, since he’s too young to read to himself)
  • A fluffy blue neck pillow really made a difference in making him comfortable enough to (miracle of miracles) nap–HIGHLY recommended. I purchased this for a quarter for him at a yard sale when he was a baby and I have to say that its one of the top travel purchases we’ve ever made.
  • We were quite glad we had brought his kid-sized headphones; they made it so much more comfortable for him to enjoy music and movies.
  • A small drawing pad and miniature colored pencils (with a non-rolling shape) – these were fine but Benji’s attention span with drawing is around 15 minutes at a time. Worth bringing, but by themselves would have been like holding back a hole in a dam with your pinkie finger.
  • I brought my iPod touch but it was pretty much useless for him because I had not downloaded any movies to it (would definitely do that next time). Not that it mattered because most of the time (lucky us) they didn’t allow us to bring out any electronics, especially on the ride back when electronic devices were banned entirely on the plane. (Thanks, jackass would-be-terrorist guy.)

Overall, the best advice we adopted and that we would share is to try to maximize napping desire and opportunities for small ones who are traveling. It’s definitely a delicate balance; while you would love them to be tired enough to nap during those long stretches of your journeys, you don’t want them so overtired that they become shrieking shadows of their normally adorable selves. In our case, we woke up a bit earlier than usual (so that he would go to sleep earlier) and made sure to have him run around as much as possible in the airport/platforms/stations before hand.

What is your go-to tip for traveling with little ones?


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