Travel can be daunting at times. Jet lag, capricious weather, lack of rest, lack of familiar food combined can make it disorienting and discomforting. International travel with a toddler can be even more daunting. Toddlers – jumpy and wilful, asserting their newfound independence and then, looking at you with puppy dog eyes for their basic needs – can be a handful at times.
So why dare to combine the two at all?
Travel is not so much about the destination, but the journey that pushes your boundaries.
Toddlerhood is so much about exploration and growth. Everything fascinates the little ones – sand sifting through their fingers, the cycle stands by the bay, the sprouting fountains midtown. Venture out and let these little ones take you on a journey with them. They can turn the mundane to captivating. My husband and I have travelled a lot with our (now) six-year-old daughter K, and thankfully, we are not worse for the wear.
Based on my travel experiences, I have compiled some advice and tips on International Travel with a Toddler. It includes tips on air travel, travel via trains and ferries, car travel, accommodation, choice of activities, food, potty training and a complete packing list.
Need some more Travel Inspiration? Do read: Travel with your kids and make them love the world
International Travel with a Toddler: Share the Load
How do you maximize the fun given the paucity of time, economize on effort and create value for money? After all, the last thing you want is to be longing for another vacation to recoup on your flight back home.
The first commandment is to Share the Load.
Take turns to oversee the child and be open to help from adults and older kids if you’re travelling in a group. If travelling alone, do make sure you’re well rested before the trip and align your naps with your toddler.
Start with the Basics
The second step is expectation setting and doing the basic recce.
- Choose your pace – simply put, are you looking to relax or to explore? Any beach destination is great for chilling out while destinations like Cambodia, Europe, New York are experiential and packed with sight-seeing.
- Access – a lot of destinations (parts of South America, Africa, South East Asia) don’t have direct connections and mandate long hours of road travel. We skipped large parts of Sikkim due to poor road connectivity when we travelled with K when she was four.
- Basic services and facilities – service standards in Asia are higher and costs cheaper, while basic facilities like availability of drinking water, toilets, packed food are better in Europe, the US and main cities in Asia.
Air travel with a Toddler
Many vestiges of modern life veer towards being kid-unfriendly and international air travel perhaps ranks amongst the highest. So, if you can, skip the airplane and take the bus/train/car/ferry within a country.
If you must, be smart about air travel. Here are some tips –
- Spend that extra buck to book direct flights or choose flights that fit into your toddler’s nap schedule.
- Tiring toddlers out at the airport is a great way to ensure that they sleep on flights. Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai airports, to name a few, have play areas for children. Else, walking the aisles and watching airplanes should do the trick.
- If you are travelling to the US, ensure that the port of entry is your final destination.
- For infants (less than 2 years), book the bassinet seat in advance. Your baby has a safe, secure place to rest and you can be hands-free for a bit. Plus these are located close to the WCs for those last minute emergencies.
- Book child meals– special meal requests are served prior to the meal service and the child meals are usually tastier. (I sometimes end up eating the child meal served for my daughter :-))
- Another trick that has worked wonderfully for my daughter and me is blocking the aisle and window seats for long-haul flights. If the flight isn’t full, you usually end up with an extra middle seat for the toddler to stretch out.
Travel via trains or ferries
Trains in Europe are very comfortable. As we discovered on an Austrian Rail Jet, they have separate compartments for families with kids that the rest of the travellers avoid like the plague. The Man in Seat Sixty-One gives a handy guide on rail travel through Europe.
Ferries afford a unique way to travel, especially with kids who love water. We loved our ferry ride from Santorini to Mykonos in Greece. Do make sure though that the little ones stay away from any crannies on the open decks and are adequately buffeted against wind chill.
Buckled up and restless
The comfort of road travel varies with destination. Chauffeured cars may work well in Asia while self-drive is a must in the US unless you are staying in the centre of the city.
Long car rides can throw a toddler into a tizzy. And nothing distracts a driver more than a cranky, fidgety toddler behind in the car. Some ways to keep the toddlers occupied on long journeys are –
- singing songs (Wheels on the bus in a loop, anyone?),
- reading stories and playing simple games.
In a number of states within the US, car seats and booster seats are mandatory on freeways till the age of almost 12 years. Check the regulations (rear facing, front facing or boosters) before you ride. Car seats are helpful even if not mandatory, adding safety and allowing the child to sleep peacefully. Here are 4 portable car seats for a road trip with kids.
Accommodation with a Toddler
Choice of accommodation weaves back to your agenda for the vacation. A kid-friendly resort in the wilderness or on the beach works well if you just want to relax. Choose hotel chains that provide good kids’ club activities and babysitting services.
If you have an action-packed itinerary, then make sure to stay in the city centre. Also look for proximity to play areas and grocery stores.
Consider service apartments for smaller children and fussy eaters – having a kitchenette, launderette and some space to unwind give everyone a breather. We loved the Marriott Residences at Lake Tahoe and Brody Apartments in Budapest.
We found a lovely park close to the Ferry Building and Le Meridian in San Francisco, while the park just adjacent to Kazinczy Street in Budapest was a godsend.
Staying with relatives or friends is a smart option, especially in the US; more so if they have similarly aged kids.
Choice of activities with a Toddler
Choose activities and plan itineraries wisely, working around nap times and meal times, building with ample flexibility. Toddlers do well with lots of open space and nature.
- Beaches are universal favourites and surprisingly treks and trails also augur well. Do make sure the baby is protected well on the beach. My daughter and her little cousin trekked over rocks and gurgling brooks in Tahoe and took instantly to camping in Yosemite.
- Parks are great places to pause. Toddlers can run around, explore and eat while the parents take a breather. My daughter and I are always on the lookout for structures for horsing around. We loved the Ritan Park in the middle of Beijing, Sue Bierman Park next to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Vasona County Park in Los Gatos, Margaret Island in Budapest, Lodhi Gardens and Lal Baug in Delhi.
- And the most thrilling of all, water play areas! Make sure to carry a change of clothes. The play area in Sunnyvale, California is brilliant – free and open on all days, while the one next to Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, is also free.
- Art galleries and museums can be a challenge for toddlers. Opt instead for museums with kids’ activities (like the Children’s Museum at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, the Nemo Museum in Amsterdam).
- Attending the opera may look out of the question, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a violinist performing on the street or an open summer concert in a park.
- Take a Hop On, Hop Off bus tour to cover the major landmarks in a city – these can be usually clubbed with boat cruises and tram rides.
- If you’re planning to do theme parks, check beforehand for height restrictions and ticket prices. We kept away from Disney and Universal till K turned 4, opting instead for discovery museums and petting zoos.
Choice of activities becomes different when your toddlers grow up. Here are some fun and active experiences for 5+ age kids – Family Holidays: Activities and Ideas to engage kids during travel
Food for a Toddler
Food quality is key to keeping infections at bay. Some tips to remember –
- Avoid open yogurt as much as possible as you can never tell how old it is like, opt instead for packaged yogurt.
- Packets of UHT milk work well both while travelling abroad and in India as well as packaged snacks. Stock up from home or at the local grocery store.
- Weather permitting, sit outdoors at restaurants.
- And if you’re doing a takeaway, a park or a garden or even a beach is a great place to eat. Do make sure to clean up afterward. We enjoyed our Indian lunch at a turnout in the Sierra Nevada range, halfway between Tahoe and Yosemite and my daughter and her cousin had a great time too.
Back to square one for potty training?
Depending on where you’re travelling, a vacation doesn’t have to mean a break in the potty training. Keep the status quo – diapered if diapered at home and in pants if the diaper has been bid farewell.
Carry plenty of reinforcements – diapers, changes of clothes, plastic bags and wipes. Most cities in the US and Europe have reasonably clean toilet facilities that can actually extend your toddler’s potty training repertoire. Any departmental store like Macy’s will have clean loos and a diapering area. Even in the remote trails in Yosemite, we found chemical toilets for emergencies.
In India, resorts and hotels support the potty training plan, though road travel and touristy areas can be challenging.
Packing checklist for International Travel with a Toddler
If you’re taking a car, load it up with everything and anything you think you might require – because inevitably you’ll need the very thing you decided to leave behind.
Other modes of travel call for more economy. And do be careful about what NOT to pack in your carry-on bag. Check the weather and the local websites for rentals of toddler essentials in your destination. Phuket Baby Rentals, for example, supplies everything from baby cribs to strollers to playpens on rent.
Strollers are a must for international travel to traverse the unending concourses and if nothing else, they can be used for lugging bags.
Invest in a fully reclining stroller where the toddler can comfortably take naps. Carry clothes in layers and if there is a specific requirement – swim rash guards, down jackets, snow boots – carry minimal and buy or rent at your destination.
Below is a short checklist of things you should pack –
As cabin baggage or in an accessible place
- Collapsible Stroller
- Diapers – enough to last 12 hours
- Wipes – very helpful for cleaning up messes
- Changing pads
- Plastic bags
- Change of clothes (I usually carry at least one)
- Hand sanitizer
- Soap and moisturizer
- Simple toys and books
- Sippy cups and bottles
- Medicines as per a list from your doctor
As check-in luggage or in the boot or rack
- Laundry soap
- Other toiletries for the toddlers
- Clothes in layers, including socks
- Bathing suit, sunscreen and sun hat (even if you’re travelling to a cold destination)
- Few utensils like an electric cooker to boil and make stews on the go especially if your toddler is a fussy eater
And yes, don’t forget to carry along a thick skin and a sense of humour. You’ll need these more than anything else!
Check out these family-friendly itineraries:
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This is a guest post by Shweta Markandeya. After 10 years of climbing the corporate ladder, Shweta decided to call it quits and just “chill” with her now six-year-old daughter. When not wandering on foot, she wanders in her mind by reading, writing and planning yet another trip! She lists Greece, Northern California and Prague as her favourite destinations – she’d be happy to run a book-and-coffee shop in Oia.
Which activity or idea has worked most for you in family travel? Share the tip with us.
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