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Surviving Holiday Travel With Babies and Toddlers

Tips for keeping your cool

Published on: December 20, 2017



Traveling to grandmother's house with a baby or toddler this holiday season? It may be farther than over the river and through the woods, but don't worry. Traveling with small children can indeed be challenging and unpredictable, but it is well worth the effort.

My children have been to all four corners of the United States, including Hawaii, plus other countries such as Canada and Europe. Both of my children had frequent flier cards before their first birthdays, and yes, they've both earned free trips. We've traveled by car, bus, train and plane. We've slept in tents, RVs, hotels, motels, and with family and friends. My oldest child is just 4 years old.

I certainly can't say we've done everything right or were perfectly prepared for every situation, but reliving the memories -- good and bad -- of these shared experiences brings us closer together as a family. Despite the occasional panic, frequent exhaustion and common unpleasantness, there is not a single trip where I wish we'd just stayed home. Here are a few tips I've learned along the way.

Getting ready

The best and most important part about getting ready is preparing your children. Show pictures and say the names of the people they will meet. Talk to them about what to expect and what will be expected of them. Is Aunt June a hugger? Will there be snow? Will they have to eat different foods? What does "be good" mean on an airplane or at Grandma's house? Talk them through every aspect of the trip, even if you think they won't understand it all. A little advance warning goes a long way.

The trickiest part about trip preparation is deciding what to bring with you. You have probably grown accustomed to certain conveniences, but think carefully about what you really need and will be able to carry. See the sidebar for some suggestions.

Travel time

Believe it or not, uninterrupted travel time with nothing "better" to do can be some of the best moments you will get to spend with your children. Without the demands and comforts of home, you and your child are free to really interact. Make a list of simple songs and finger plays you can do together, such as Pat a Cake, Itsy Bitsy Spider or Where is Thumbkin. With toddlers, you might be able to play a simple game like I Spy or I'm Thinking of Something, or take turns making up the next sentence in a collaborative story.

When you need a break, give your child a small, wrapped toy. A trusted favorite or a long-forgotten toy from home can be just as exciting for a small child to open as something new.

Special notes about air travel

Parents of children over the age of 2 are typically required to pay the full adult fare for their kids. Select airlines offer reduced fares for children, such as Southwest, though the discount offers vary by flight.  Airlines usually limit baggage allowances for children travelling on a discounted fare so be sure to check with the airline prior to travelling if you scored a discounted ticket.

Allow plenty of time for the airport security check. You will have to send everything through, including the car seat, stroller and/or carrier. You can gate-check those items so they'll be waiting for you on the other end. Make sure you don't bring any prohibited items with you, such as cutlery.

During take-off and landing, give your child a drink, snack or pacifier to reduce ear pain. And feel free to walk around the cabin when the seatbelt sign is off for exercise and a change of scenery.

Extra snacks and drinks

Be sure to bring everything you might need for feedings including bottles, warm water, drinks, snacks, bibs, burp cloths and spoons. Keep food and drinks consistently bland to prevent motion sickness.

Baby's bodily functions

The most basic bodily functions can become the most challenging detail of any trip with children. Changing a diaper in a tiny, moving bathroom is a real adventure, and no one wants to get off the freeway every hour for yet another potty break. If you need to, revert to diapers temporarily; bring a blanket, waterproof mat or plastic bag that you can use as a changing pad; make sure to use diaper cream just in case you're unable to change baby right away; and don't forget to pack extra clothes -- for everyone.


It's usually a good idea to plan travel times that coincide with your child's naps or bedtime. The motion and noise of the vehicle will usually help children sleep and make the trip go faster for everyone. However, if you think your child will be too excited to sleep, plan the trip for a time when he or she will be well rested instead. Try to stay on the same schedule you follow at home.

Traveling with small children requires a lot of planning but it also demands flexibility. You need to prepare in advance for every possible situation, yet be able to gracefully handle the inevitable surprises that will occur along the way. Don't forget your sense of humor!

Laurie Thompson is a Bellevue freelance writer and work-at-home mom of two. While not a traveler in her own youth, she now can hardly wait for her family's next travel adventure.

Travel checklist for parents

You won't want to bring everything listed, but here are items to consider:

In your purse:

  • Recent photo of your child, in case you get separated
  • Identification for you and your child
  • Money

In a diaper bag/carry-on:

  • Bottles/cups
  • Formula
  • Thermos of warm water (remember, you'll need to fill your thermos after you go through security!)
  • Cups with straws (for older babies and children)
  • Snacks, bland and high-protein if possible
  • Diapers, one per hour until you can get more
  • Changing mats
  • Baby wipes
  • Diaper cream (3.4 oz or less)
  • Resealable plastic bags
  • Waterless anti-bacterial gel (3.4 oz or less)
  • Small packets of tissues
  • Bandages
  • Extra shirt for you and baby
  • Comfort object or lovey
  • Small toys/books
  • Portable music player with headphones
  • Portable DVD player or laptop

In main luggage:

  • Clothes, shoes, hats
  • Diapers and wipes
  • Cups and/or bottles
  • Bowls and spoons
  • Food
  • Baby carrier, sling or backpack
  • Nightlight
  • Baby proofing/safety items such as outlet covers
  • Baby monitor
  • Small reading light

Special considerations:

  • Benadryl for allergies
  • Tylenol for fever
  • Motrin for pain
  • PediaCare for congestion


  • Baby beads, teethers, rattles, etc.
  • Small stuffed toys
  • Finger or hand puppets
  • Crayons or washable markers
  • Paper, coloring and/or activity books
  • Stickers
  • Small MagnaDoodle or MagicSlate
  • Magnetic or felt story boards
  • Stacking/nesting toys
  • Small puzzles
  • Lace-ups
  • Stretchy or bendy toys
  • Books

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