If you’re traveling with a toddler you need the 3 P’s…”patience”, “planning” & “preparation”. You need to be patient because toddlers are these tiny unpredictable & often delicate humans who can be happy one minute and then having an absolute meltdown the next. Planning is important to lessen the stress! Plan to leave for the airport early in case of traffic. For us at least 95% of the flights we do are all international flights so we always plan to arrive a full 3 hours before our flight to allow us enough time to check in, go through security & get to our gate. I’ve also found the more prepared & organized I am (travel documents handy kept in one safe spot in my backpack so I’m not left frantically searching & my mom bag fully packed with snacks & things to help entertain) the fewer toddler tantrums we experience.
Isla has done 18 flights as a toddler. We’ve been traveling with her so often since she was just 9 weeks old we didn’t really feel a big shock or difference between traveling with a baby vs. a toddler. When she was a baby each flight always felt different from the last because we were almost always flying during a new developmental milestone. Truthfully we don’t actually have any huge nightmare stories while traveling in airports or on board planes but rather it all seemed to be a series of mini challenges and troubleshooting adventures as we went.
Getting to & from the Airport
- Travel Vest
We made a personal decision to not ever travel with our big convertible car seat. Some parents do travel with them even purchasing a seat for their infant or 1-year-old (when they could instead fly as a free lap infant) & bring their car seat on board the plane. We have Diono car seats in our vehicles in our 2 home bases we travel between most frequently (Mexico & Canada) so lugging a seat around for us just never felt necessary. That said even if we are traveling to other destinations we didn’t want the hassle. Instead I purchased what’s called a travel vest. It’s a great compact device that is worn and then tethers right into the car keeping the vehicle’s regular seatbelts strategically in place. It folds down into a drawstring bag & I usually stash it in the hanging bag on my stroller for safe keeping between uses while we’re traveling.
The vest is recommended for kids ages 3 & up but admittedly we started using it on Isla a little earlier. We often found ourselves in situations where we needed a quick & safe solution for getting around in other vehicles here in Mexico or to get to and from the airport. There are no enforced child seat laws here in Mexico and often there aren’t any laws requiring children to use a car seat in transportation vehicles such as taxis, limos or buses in Mexico, Canada or the U.S….but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still think about safety. The RideSafer travel vest has conveniently helped us get around some of those safety gaps while traveling without hauling around a large car seat.
Through the Airport
I recently asked a group of seasoned world traveling mommies at what age did they stop traveling with a stroller. I asked because I wasn’t sure if I should ditch the stroller for good for my almost 3-year-old at the time because in our regular day-to-day lives the stroller was just collecting dust in the trunk. Instead the majority of traveling mammas swear by strollers! I’ve always been a big fan of strollers while traveling and I was relieved to hear that it’s “normal” and I wasn’t alone. Through an airport a stroller can help keep your little one in place when you need them to stay put. We’ve never had an issue and then boom on flight #24 to Cuba my 2-year-old daughter randomly decided she was going to try to run through the immigration counter at the Havana airport! She was quickly buckled into her stroller after a strong-willed toddler fight ensued.
A stroller also helps you move quicker (we always encourage our daughter to let us take her for a ride because sometimes we just need to move a little faster than her tiny feet can take her), the stroller’s handlebar caddy carries essentials like drinks, snacks & cell phones and I usually clip my backpack to the stroller so I don’t have to carry it the whole time. I also always store a few extra items like clothes, a blanket and the seatbelt vest in the stroller between the storage area on the very bottom and the stroller’s attached zippered bag. For us these are things we like to have with us in the airport itself to pass time and in case of delays but don’t actually need to bring on board with us. I usually also place my Baby Tula Toddler Carrier in the hanging basket of the stroller & clip both buckles around the frame so it won’t fall out. When it’s time we just fold our stroller up with our blanket & Tula carrier in the bottom. We’ve never had an issue gate checking our Britax stroller & just hand it over with the folding lock on before boarding the plane.
I never felt the need for a backpack style diaper bag or mom bag until my daughter was truly mobile…and FAST! I looked for a backpack that was quite large, cute and could still clip on to the stroller when needed. I’ve been in love with my Skip Hop backpack and it literally carries all of our travel essentials we need on flight days in one spot from snacks, sweaters, books, toys & our inflatable footrest with the pump.
- Mexican Blanket
At quick glance this might seem like a strange item to travel with but it’s one of my most used secret on the go mom items! I realized very early on that one of the smartest things I could do while out & about was to create a designated area for Isla to rest, eat & play wherever we are. For me an easy way to do that is as simple as throwing a Mexican blanket down on the ground! My daughter sees the blanket come out and she automatically knows it’s a place her & I can kick off our shoes and relax…for me it helps keep her in one spot when I need her to stay close by.
Instead of forcing a young toddler to sit in an uncomfortable chair in an airport…I’ve created what looks like impromptu picnics everywhere from Mexican, Canadian, American & Cuban airports both inside & out! Admittedly I was a little shy at first doing it wondering if other travellers might think I was crazy but I stopped caring when I realized how genius our on the go Mexican blanket play picnics were. We honestly have always played on our blanket in our backyard, driveway, in parks, on the beach & at amusement parks so I figured why not in airports as well! I keep the blanket in the bottom hanging basket in our stroller so it’s not really a hassle to have on hand at all.
One of my favourite moments with our blanket was in the airport in Havana, Cuba waiting for our flight back home to Cancun. Isla and I were sitting on the blanket and had all of her toys & books out. Before we knew it we had kids join us from all over the world creating the perfect impromptu internationally represented play group. Not all of the kids could understand each other as there were 3 different languages between them all but they all understood the awesome universal language of PLAY!
We used a portable cloth high chair very often with Isla as a baby but found it still came in handy for quite a while into toddlerhood. Without a proper high chair in airport dining areas the cloth high chair fits over any seat and could help us keep her put when we needed her to sit for a while to eat (or give us the chance to eat). We really liked the Totseat because it didn’t come up over her arms restricting movement or annoying her with an extra buckle but she comfortably stayed in place. We’ve always been an on the go family, not just while travelling, so our portable high chair was used constantly even in our everyday lives. It squished right down into a handy little cloth bag that I always kept in my bag to have on hand.
Try and keep a packing list of must have items with your child’s favouirte comfort items right near the top! For us after making sure we have the obvious travel items like passports, wallets & cell phones…our daughter’s favourite stuffed bunny named “Año” and a pacifier were also crucial to have with us. If we had ever forgotten either of those our anxiety levels would have definitely increased right away.
Keeping a toddler entertained while traveling
This is probably the area parents worry most about but there’s really 2 parts to the entertaining while travelling equation. Most people put so much focus on the flight itself but you need to remember there is also all of that time before you board your plane as well. I basically use the same tricks with a toddler as I did when Isla was a baby to tire her out before we even got on the plane. When she became mobile as a baby we’d allow her to crawl all over. Then once she could walk on her own we’d take turns wandering around with her. She’s always loved exploring or trying to play with other kids she spots so it helps to pass the time and keep her occupied. My motto was save the in-seat stationary playing for the plane and get a good chunk of the movement & exploring out-of-the-way before boarding when possible!
Honestly it didn’t matter at all what time of day or night our flight was because our plan to tire her out so she’d sleep on the plane has always worked. She would often end up sleeping for a good half of the flight, which would lessen the amount of time we’d need to spend entertaining.
I’ve always been more than prepared with a bag of goodies to play with either way. Our daughter has still never touched a handheld device (smartphone or tablet) so I carry a decent stash of items to entertain the old fashion way such as thin reading books, lots & lots of stickers (to stick on paper or our arms), a blank notebook to doodle in & place those stickers, a little surprise pack (usually contains a small colouring book, stickers & stencil), a magnetic doodle board, colourful gel window clings for a window seat and tiny rubbery lizards. I’d also usually have a few random small toys (think McDonalds happy meal type of toys) that she didn’t see all of the time but it also wouldn’t be the end of the world if we lost them.
One item I’ve mentioned before in a past post is the airsickness bag in the back of the seat in front of you. We’ve squeezed tons of fun from this unsuspecting item by using it to decorate with crayons & stickers, turning it into a puppet & placing objects inside & making my daughter guess what they were without looking.
I’ve heard some people talk about wrapping up new items to make it even more fun and I’ll probably do that one-day soon but haven’t needed to just yet (I’ve found new toys or items in packaging is interesting enough to babies & toddlers).
Isla’s naturally very content on planes and also stays put in her seat the whole time (at least 20 of those flights we’ve done with her have each been 4 hours). It was very important to me to never get Isla into the terrible habit of wanting to walk the aisles on the plane so she doesn’t even really think of it as an option. Since she was a baby she only ever came out of our row into the aisles to head to the bathroom for a diaper change. I never did the pacing up and down the aisles thing with her. Now we only get out of our seats to use the potty. Thankfully she’s happy as can be playing where she’s supposed to be and looking out the window. Knowing what I know now from how Isla hates sitting barely even 30 minutes at a table in a restaurant in contrast I know I did the right thing on our flights because she magically stays seated for a good 3-4 hours on a plane.
Snacking is important because it keeps your little one’s belly full giving you a better chance you won’t have a hangry toddler meltdown. It’s also a smart & sneaky way to pass time. Some of our go to toddler travel snacks are goldfish crackers, puree fruit pouches, a little cut fruit & a whole avocado (which is all ok if it’s consumed before you arrive in your final international destination). I can cut the avocado in half with the knife part of the spork and then Isla can eat it right out of the shell or sometimes I mashed it up to make a little guacamole for her.
I always keep a small reusable plate, sippy cup, sporks & paper straws in my backpack so I can dish out snacks, drinks or share part of my meal like some rice, pieces of meat or cheese as we go. I also usually try to travel with an interactive treat or two like a PEZ candy dispenser or kinder egg. Treat bribes (or rewards for being good) if needed while flying can be a lifesaver. My daughter hates chocolate but loves kinder eggs for the toy inside so it helps pass quite a bit of time putting together the toy & playing with it.
Although it is at the discretion of the airport security agents but I have always travelled with milk, water & juice (the fruit juice in pouches are great for traveling) for Isla without any issues up until the age of 3. Technically I’ve heard the cutoff age is actually by age 2 for liquids. I also always bring a large reusable water bottle with me and politely ask flight attendants to fill it up for me as soon as I board or if the airport I’m in offers filtered water I fill up as we go. That way I have water on hand for both of us and can fill up her smaller sippy cup as needed.
Potty Training & Traveling
Most parents realize looking back that the baby stage isn’t always the “hardest” as toddlerhood can really throw you for quite a loop. You take it for granted with a baby but diapers are easy to carry with you and change when needed. And then potty training happens and adds a whole new level of planning! Shortly after Isla’s 2nd birthday she decided she wasn’t going to wear diapers anymore. Mind you this was 2 weeks before our next 4 hour international flight at the time & happened suddenly so I assure you I had absolutely no plans of potty training her at that very moment but it was happening with or without me! I quickly ran to the store and bought adorable little toddler undies to jump right in to potty training. It suddenly meant for me having to remember to regularly take her to the potty, ask her if she needed to go pee and to know the signs when she did have to go but wasn’t telling me.
She went straight from diapers to regular underwear but with our upcoming flight in just a matter of days and calculating how much time we’d have to cover off without accidents (airport check-in 3 hours before the flight + 4 hour plane ride + at least 1 hour for landing, clear customs, immigration & getting bags) I opted to buy pull-ups and told Isla they were “airplane undies”. I didn’t want her to digress with the diaper free progress she had made and I was terrified to confuse her but I was more afraid of being stuck on a 4 hour flight with a seatbelt sign on the whole time and trying to explain to a freshly potty trained 2-year-old that she couldn’t get up to use the bathroom. She wore them just as a regular pair of undies and would tell me when she had to use the potty and up we’d go. I felt better knowing we were covered just in case and even though she went many flights not needing the pull ups, sure enough one flight she told me she had to pee as our plane was already started on its descent during turbulence so there was no way we could get up to use the bathroom. I knew it would be quite awhile before we could get her to a potty so after a ton of convincing I assured her it was ok to go pee in her airplane undies. Isla is good about holding it but asking her to hold on for another 30-40 minutes might be pushing it and chancing a pee accident on a plane isn’t something I wanted to deal with if I could avoid it.
Since we travel so often I was more than happy to make an investment in anything that would make our travel lives easier & more comfortable. For us purchasing an inflatable cushion style footrest just made sense. Our average flight time is 4 hours (between Cancun & Toronto) so those flights have always still been long enough for Isla to want to nap. The inflatable pillow type footrest when deflated is small enough to be stashed in my backpack. It comes with a foot pump, which I also carry in my backpack. I know it sounds like it would be really big, heavy or awkward but I promise you it’s not that bad but the space it does take up in my bag is worth it!
For safety it has to be used at the window seat or if you’re sitting in a middle row, then it can only be used in the middle seat. You also have to wait to inflate it once you’re in the air. The first time we used it I was nervous it would be really loud to inflate using the foot pump but with all the white noise of the flight anyway I could barely hear it myself & it only takes a few minutes.
It’s been a lifesaver to have on-hand because even with her own seat I found she would still end up laying across Manuel and I to nap. That might not sound like a big deal but when you’re stuck in a seat not being able to move for at least 90 minutes it’s not fun! I look forward to that quiet quality “me time” on a flight and I want to be free to get up to use the washroom or move around as much as I want. The cushion also just allows her to be more comfortable. It inflates to fill up the entire space between her seat and the seat in front of her so she can stretch right out. It creates a little bed like area. I usually just loosen the seatbelt so she still has it on but often just pushed up a little higher on her chest under her arms. It’s also great for when she’s awake as she likes to use it as a cross-legged play space.
I still feel as if being prepared really does make all the difference when flying with a toddler. Give yourself more time than you think you need to get to the airport, to get checked in, to go through security, to get to your gate and onto the plane. I find if you’re running late or end up rushing stress levels go way up if you have a little one in tow because you haven’t accounted for any extra toddler incidental time (like extra trips to the bathroom, them taking off their shoes in the stroller, suddenly hungry or thirsty or cold or hot and the list goes on & on). Triple check your list that you have everything before you leave the house and then take a deep breath & remember you just need to get through each part of your travel journey one step at a time!
The following products were mentioned as items we personally used with our daughter. We are in no way affiliated with any of the manufacturers…