After our son was born my wife and I welcomed him into the world and into our hectic lives. In the past year, from June 2014 to June 2015, my son has been on 7 road trips, 4 flights (2 of which were cross-country), and a half-dozen or so day-trips. He has literally traveled every month of his life, and because of this he’s been to 12 states and the District of Columbia. And he’ll add another two states this summer (Washington and Oregon). Most of this travel has been to see family and the rest is for my wife’s work (which is necessary due to my hectic life as a grad student and lack of nearby family).
Traveling with an infant—especially the first time—strikes fear in the heart of most parents. You have no control over your surroundings; comforting routines are strained or broken; you’re dealing with multiple (probably complex) logistics; and you probably forgot something essential for yourself or your child at home. People without kids will probably give you wide-eyed stares and offer you luck like you’re going to face some gauntlet involving minotaurs and mazes. Luckily it’s not that bad, especially if you plan accordingly and are in the right frame of mind.
Ultimately, traveling can be fun and interesting, but it can also unravel a solid routine, leading to erratic sleep patterns and general fussiness (for everyone). That said, there are better and worse ways to travel with an infant. We’ve learned how to travel with our son, which may or may not work for your kiddo, so keep in mind that some of these tips will work well and others won’t. Take or leave any of them! They are simply our hard-earned, road-tested observations. We hope they help if you plan to travel with your kiddo this summer or in the near future!
- Be flexible with your plans and your itinerary. This is mostly for car trips, but flexibility is necessary for all travel. Plans fall through, but sometimes it’s hard to let that happen if it’s due to your kid. You really wanted to get to that cool restaurant you heard about, but it’s already getting late. You really wanted to drive 500 miles today, but there’s serious tantrum action at 320 miles. If at all possible, build time into your itinerary so that you can change plans as necessary.
- Travel during nap time. Perhaps this is a no-brainer. When we realized we could time our drives to his naps, travel, and life, got much easier. Rides are quiet and when he wakes up we pull over and let him get out his wiggles and take a break ourselves. We’ve found it’s essential for our road trips, and can work for planes as well.
- If you’re driving, plan your stops—especially at libraries. Whenever we drive, we always pick out 2-3 stopping points at various distances, from visitor’s centers to large malls to libraries (our favorite). Local libraries are the best. They usually have a kid’s section where your kiddo can roll around, read some books, and they’re usually air-conditioned, have snacks, and are free. What’s not to love? We’ve stopped at local libraries up and down the East Coast and have never regretted it.
- Always get seats on a flight together. This is a no-brainer, but sometimes you get split up. If you can, make all arrangements with your partner by your side. It (usually) makes everything much easier. And don’t be shy about pleading for a seat-switch with other fliers. Other parents are almost always more than willing to help out new parents.
- Accept the kindness of strangers. This is a case-by-case travel tip, but accepting other peoples’ help can be a great reprieve and stress-reliever. Perhaps the most memorable time my wife and I have during our past year of travel was during a trip to California for vacation. Our kiddo was in the midst of a horrific bout of teething (3 teeth in 2 weeks!), and we were all drained from him waking up 5-7 times per night for a few nights running. During the days he was irritable and by dinner on the last day of our road trip we just didn’t know what to do. He screamed in our arms, in his carriage—everywhere. We went out to dinner at 5pm (to avoid upsetting a full restaurant) and were taking turns bringing him outside so he could wail and the few patrons could eat in peace. Eventually we put him on the floor of the empty restaurant to explore and so we could both have a break. An elderly Indian couple noticed and the woman came up to us and asked if she could hold him. She had some sort of magical touch only a grandmother has, because he instantly quieted down as she walked him around the restaurant and spoke softly in his ear. My wife and I got to enjoy our dinner and the couple thanked us for getting to play with our son, as their grandkids are now fully grown. So, it was a win-win! And it was one of those random acts of kindness that zombified parents never forget.
- If you are renting a car at your destination, don’t try to scrimp and save on a compact car. You have lots of bags (even if you’ve tried your darnedest to limit yourselves), you’ll have your car seat, your bag of tricks to keep your kiddo entertained and happy, but you’ll assuredly add to your arsenal of already-increasing-in-number-baggage-count. The last thing you need is an uncomfortable and tight travel space. Not saying you have to go with the minivan, but at least get the standard economy car. And no, dads, the sports car is probably not your best bet here.
- Hotels that feature the following will really make your trip easier:
- Free hot breakfast: essential if you have an older infant or toddler. Scrambled eggs, waffles, fresh fruit to cut up, peanut butter (even if it’s not your typical unsalted organic blend, it’s nice to have options!) Nothing will anger an impatient infant/toddler than waiting for food at even an efficient restaurant. If you can start off the day immediately with food (that you don’t have to pay extra for!) it’s off to the right start.
- Suite-style layout (usually chains with a name that ends with “-and Suites” are KEY. Why? So you can put your baby to sleep in the bedroom, you close the door, and hang out in the living room/kitchen area. And hello? Kitchen area.
- Mini Fridge (if not a full fridge, to store baby snacks, breast milk, leftovers from your dinner that your kid can eat for lunch the next day, etc.)
- Bath tub. I know this sounds like a no-brainer or a given, but some hotels only have shower-style stalls, and well, it’s not as easy to bathe an infant or toddler in a shower if they’re not into showers.
- Pack and Play or crib available upon request (bring your own portable crib sheet). You usually have to request this in your reservation notes, and call prior to confirm you have one set aside for you.
- Pool (not as essential, but it’s on-site entertainment that you don’t have to pay for)
- You may consider asking hotel staff to place you in a room far away from any parties/gatherings (weddings, reunions, etc.). This may save yourselves from losing that last remaining shred of sanity, so you’re not on-edge about the drunken noise next door or down the hall.
- If you are flying with a young child, all children under 40 lbs NEED TO BE in a proper restraint. This is regardless of age. If you have an infant, they should be in an infant bucket seat rear-faced in a seat (yes, that means buying – sometimes – a reduced airfare for them). If you have a toddler, they still need to be in a rear-facing convertible seat. Runway emergencies and turbulence during a flight can severely injure a baby and child, if improperly restrained.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration; overseers of air traffic control and aviation safety regulation) recommends that all children use a child restraint when flying on board an aircraft from birth to 40 lbs.
This is confusing, because if you are flying with a baby, if they are under 2 years old, you are legally allowed to bring them aboard as a lap baby (seated and held on your lap) for free. The restraint recommendation isn’t an enforced law, because (from what I have heard from CSFTL.org) the airline industry knows that many traveling families will choose to drive rather than fly if required to buy a seat for children under 2. However, the FAA strongly urges families to assign a designated aircraft seat for even your littlest passengers, due to the real dangers of turbulence and emergency situations that can put your child at risk of great injury. A great article is found here, that describes why this recommendation is in place, what happens to your car seat when you gate-check or check it at the terminal (unless packed in its original protective packaging materials). I mean, I’ve had to return a piece of carry-on luggage that was completely cracked after being gate-checked and lots of hidden damage can exist after rough handling a car seat, causing it to malfunction in the event of an automobile accident. Link here: http://csftl.org/leaving-on-a-jet-plane-the-csftl-guide-to-safe-air-travel-with-children/
- Pack a day or two ahead of time and keep a list. My wife is the best at this. She starts a list of essentials about a week in advance and keeps adding things to it as the trip gets closer. By the time we’re packing, we’re not racking our brains for every last item. And, because we started packing a day or two early, the packing is easy and stress free.
- Pack smart, so that things are accessible. Keep all the essentials for yourself and your kiddo in easy-to-access places. There’s nothing more annoying than needing one little thing and rooting through multiple pockets or multiple bags to find it.
- Don’t pack too much stuff for your kiddo. Don’t pack a mountain of clothes—your child (probably) doesn’t know or care that s/he’s got only two or three changes of clothes. If needed, do the laundry a bit more often. Also, don’t pack all the toys s/he loves. There are plenty of things to play with on the way: salt shakers, napkins, straws—you get the idea. Be creative with your environment.
- Pack light by bringing only enough supplies for the trip. You may be tempted to bring 30 diapers, 4 packs of wipes, baby soap, etc. But remember that you’ll probably be going to a place that has a grocery store, CVS, or a big box store. Cutting down on the supplies you have to schlep can make the travel day(s) easier.
- Keep toys/bottles/diapers/food/water at the ready. Keep some toys on hand, as well as bottles or anything else you need. Also make sure you have food/water. The last thing you want to do is stop to get something that was easy to get beforehand. We also keep one toy—a horrible bear with an obnoxious voice, which he loves—away from him and sort of hide it. It’s the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency toy. It doesn’t always work, but it can get you through the last stretch if things are getting tense.
- Leave early (if that’s your thing). I know more than one set of parents who have undertaken the Herculean task of leaving on a road trip around 3am so they can do a long drive in one day while the kiddo sleeps. My wife and I have never done this. I applaud my friends.
- Prepare a “Busy Bag” (this tip from Jeni). This is more important for once your baby gets older, around the genuine toddler age, 14 months and older (from my experience that’s when I really started having to plan diversional activities if we were out). I found some great ideas and inspiration from Pinterest, on prepping a mini grab-bag of sorts for trips to restaurants, social gatherings, etc. This bag should contain items that keep little hands busy and a little busy mind occupied. More details on what I included, when you scroll down.
- Be ready for a slow adoption of the new time zone. Perhaps other children adjust more quickly, but we’ve found that it takes our kiddo about 3-4 days per time zone to adjust his sleep schedule. So those cross-country trips mean a week or more of 4-5am wake-ups. But sunrises are beautiful, right?
- Be ready for sleep disruptions. It can take several days for our son to adjust to a new environment and routine. Your sleep will probably suffer for your travel.
Jeni/Jia’s “Busy Bag”
(From Jeni) I stumbled upon the idea of restaurant “busy bags” after looking at Lindsey’s (The Tiny Collection) Pinterest board for ideas to entertain her son, Owen. I thought this was complete genius and an idea that I had to jump on IMMEDIATELY to have ready for when we desperately need Jia to occupy herself. This is the link I pinned and I have customized my own bag for Jia’s developmental stage. (It’s not a suspicious link if a pop-up warns you, trust me)
Here’s my bag (with some itemized costs to help you):
So that’s my “Busy Bag”! All in all, it cost around $50 to make, because the bag itself was $24.99. I’m sure you could go cheaper if you keep it more simple, but Jia loves to color and draw, so the crayons and markers were important. And you know, I think the paranoid-germaphobe-mom pocket was probably the higher-costing side of the bag.
Any travel tips you’ve found to be helpful that I missed? Comment after the post for all our benefits! Some of the best advice you can get is from experienced parents (which is why I’m writing this particular post, not Jeni!), so the more we can help one another, the better – and less frazzled – our kiddos’ (and our) experience will be!
Leaving on a Jet Plane: CSFTL.org http://csftl.org/leaving-on-a-jet-plane-the-csftl-guide-to-safe-air-travel-with-children/
Triangular Ultra Washable My First Crayons: http://www.target.com/p/my-first-crayola-16ct-washable-triangular-crayons/-/A-14090435#prodSlot=medium_1_3&term=my+first+crayons
Color Wonder Kit of 3 Markers + Pad: http://www.target.com/p/crayola-color-wonder-mini-pad-markers-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles/-/A-15069906#prodSlot=medium_1_8&term=color+wonder+kit
FREE Alphabet Printouts (In Spanish too!): http://www.mrprintables.com/alphabet-coloring-pages.html