Traveling with Toddler … My, How Things Change!

Last week I flew to NYC for a PR conference and then went to N.J. to see my parents and sister for the weekend. Luis couldn’t come (flights were ridiculous!) but I brought Maya and my sister took her around the city while I was at my conference.

Over the weekend, we went to a park I frequented when I was growing up. There, I met a mom who had an adorable 3-year old son. While the kids beeped the horns on their fire trucks, we got to chatting.

She was local and had also played at the same park as a kid. In conversation, it came up that we now live in Michigan and flew in. She asked me how I was able to do it with Maya. She said she was scared to fly with him — fearing how he’d behave — lord knows all moms have this same fear; self included!

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this question, and I know it won’t be the last. Even strangers at the airport ask me if this is her first trip, and they’re always surprised when I tell them how much she has traveled.

I answered her with the simple truth: “I channel my inner Nike and just do it …”

I don’t say that to sound cocky. The thing is, I do have to just do it. While Luis and I both love to travel, much of our travel now is circumstantial: when your family and your husband’s family live really far away, you have no [realistic] choice but to fly everywhere.

[Which is fine now, when Maya is “free” (except for international flights — you still pay taxes and fees). It won’t be easy when she is 2 and we have to pay for her seat.]

In her short 18 months, Maya has taken nine plane trips — five to NJ, plus one of each to El Salvador, Jamaica and Mexico. Counting legs of the trips, she has experienced 34 takeoffs and landings: i.e., a lot of potential for disaster. And Luis has only been on half of the trips with us– the rest I’ve done solo, starting with her first trip when she was just six weeks old.

As an infant, she just slept through everything; the whole rigamarole of getting through security, having my milk tested, getting to the gate, boarding, leaving the stroller behind. If I was lucky enough to have no one in the seat next to me, she could stay comfy in her infant carrier. But that didn’t always happen and I’d have to hold her the whole flight. Kind strangers and flight attendants would help me get situated, and I’d just pray I didn’t have to use the bathroom at all.

Early on, she had a couple incidents on planes where she needed to be changed. Like any parent, I just did it … you don’t give much thought to it; you just do it (and learn to always pack two extra outfits for travel days).

What’s funny is, til you’re a parent, you don’t think about or care about changing table accessibility in public places. But I’ve been surprised at how many family-oriented places don’t have them — including Terminal B at Newark Airport and Panera! Anyway, I didn’t know where the changing table was the first time and had to ask a flight attendant — turns out it was semi-hidden behind the toilet; how would I have known that?!

As she got older and more mobile, she wanted to stand up and look around. I always pack tons of books and toys and snacks but sometimes the most exciting thing is the window shade, the tray table, or the lights above the seats. So I entertain her as best I can — but it’s hard!

This most recent trip back east was especially hard because, after three trips where Luis was there to help, I was flying solo. As usual, people were really kind and helpful, but still … I was anxious the whole time, worrying about “what ifs.”

I know I shouldn’t care about what other people think, but I worried she wouldn’t be on good behavior because lately she has been … um … sassy. (As in, acting like an 18-month old). As it turned out, she was completely fine and slept through most of our flights with only had two minor melt-downs, neither of which lasted more than 5 minutes and both of which were at the end of our travel. I couldn’t blame her; mama was zonked and crabby after all that travel, too!

So since coming back to Michigan, I thought I’d jot down some of my fave tips for traveling with a toddler, gleaned through my experiences with Maya.

1) Plan your flight(s) around nap-times. Not doing so has backfired for me each time. You’d think I’d have learned by now … On the flip-side, understand that when you do plan around nap-times, that’s when you’ll be stuck on the tarmac for 45 minutes or sitting at the gate for 3 extra hours waiting for your plane to arrive. Been there, done that.

2) Let your kid blow off steam in the waiting area. Yes, other people might be annoyed by your wild one in the airport … but if your kid is like Maya, he/she will crash the moment we start to move. Trust me, this unwinding time can work wonders — especially when you are stuck on the tarmac for an extra 45 minutes and your kid can’t move  … chances are, by this point, baby/toddler is in exhaustion mode.

3) Ask for a window seat – it’s easier to lean on the window once your little one is snoozing than getting in your neighbor’s way. Also, the obvious: window shades are fun! Need I say more?!

4) Pack smart. Bring lots of  books. Snacks. Toys. Water. Milk. (I’ve yet to be able to get milk on a flight). And make sure you have two changes of clothes for your child, plus at least five more diapers than you ever thought you might need.

5) Distract, distract, distract. Toddlers will inevitably act up — even a well-behaved kid will hit his/her wall when he/she is stuck in the same seat for hours on end. Kicking people’s seats, pulling the hair on the person in front of you … none of those things make for great flight companionship. Window shades, lights, in-flight magazines and tray tables make for great immediate distractors. And the yak-bag makes a fun crinkly sound. Don’t underestimate its power.

Traveling with a toddler doesn’t have to be a nightmare. True, I’m anxious every time and worry … but really, what’s the worst that could happen? She’d scream, I’d be mortified, and I’d deal. It’s happened before and I got over it; it will happen again and I’ll have to deal with it.

Though it’s a lot different traveling with her now than when she was an infant, I still hear from several passengers (and flight attendants) after each flight about how well-behaved she was, how quiet, how happy she was — just like when she was an infant.

I can’t get over-confident and think because she’s a good traveler now, she will always be a good traveler … but I do know that she is going to have to like to travel because with us as her parents (and with her grandparents in El Salvador and N.J.) … well, it’s non-negotiable 😉

How about you? What are your best tips for traveling with a toddler?


2 thoughts on “Traveling with Toddler … My, How Things Change!

  1. I don’t have tips…I have questions 😉 But these are such helpful tips that I will mentally file away for the future!

    I have heard from a few people now (surprisingly, at least to me) that it is easier to fly with an infant than a toddler. At what age do you think that change occurs? I ask because we want to travel with our little one, but I don’t want to do it for the first three months or so because of immune issues (I know, I’m paranoid). Would you say the first year is pretty easy?


    1. LOL … oh yes, milk checks … it’s awful. They make you open your milk and then they wave this piece of paper — kind of like what you’d do in bio lab — over the milk. I guess maybe it changes color if something isn’t legit? Anyway, they also opened my pump bag and would investigate its contents … totally makes you feel violated — as if traveling with a baby isn’t hard enough as is!!

      I definitely preferred traveling with her when she was small … though she is so happy and waves hi and bye to everyone and yells “Bye bye” during takeoffs now, so she is pretty damn cute, if not a little troublesome 😉

      Good luck!

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