Traveling with a Toddler: Packing Tips and The Airport

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Traveling with a toddler

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One of my favorite things to read about online is how to enjoy traveling with kids. So after returning from a trip to Phoenix a few weeks ago, I decided to share my own tips and hints.

One of the reasons we waited five years to have our first baby was that we weren’t quite ready to slow down and cut back on our travels. As it turns out, we still aren’t. Yes, traveling with a toddler or baby is different than traveling as a couple, but, the point is, we’re still traveling. Of course it helps that our baby has a pilot for a daddy. She’s been on several short flights in “his” plane, but those are easy. When it’s just your family in the plane, and you are (theoretically) in control, the normal hiccups that come with traveling with children (boredom, crying, pressure changes) seem less daunting. The harder trips include strangers who might not appreciate being strapped into a seat next to a baby who is equally unhappy about being strapped into her seat for the duration of a non-stop, four-hour flight.

A few weeks ago, our daughter took her seventh commercial trip (four have been domestic; three have been international) to and from Arizona for a conference with Nate’s work. As she gets older, these trips have gotten easier. Or maybe we’ve gotten wiser. Most likely it’s a combination of the two. Here’s how we managed the trip we fondly refer to as “Big Sister’s Babymoon”:

Packing: Weeks before the trip begins, I make lists. I make mental lists and physical lists. Sometimes I’ll find partial lists scribbled on receipts or on ripped off pages of magazines.  I keep track of my mental lists by reciting them to Nate (What can I say? I married a very patient man). I print off packing lists from online and add my own notes. I keep a notebook next to the bed. That way, when I wake up at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom (again) and remember that we can’t forget to pack A’s current favorite blanket, it goes on a list.

Apart from my lists, my favorite packing strategy is to put all of our daughter’s outfits and accessories in Ziploc gallon bags. Each bag gets a label (e.g., Monday-travel day. Leopard pants, pink shirt, sweatshirt, pink bow), and everything for that day gets zipped into that perfectly contained little baggie. I fill extra bags with things that don’t go with specific days or are used multiple times–socks, shoes, diapers, and pajamas. This system means no digging through piles of clothes for a matching outfit and no worrying about lost socks. Daddy likes this system, too, because Daddy doesn’t really care which outfit his little girl wears when. He’s more than happy to change her diapers, get her dressed, brush her teeth, and put her hair in a ponytail (yep!), but he’ll leave the wardrobe decisions to me. I like to think we make a good team.

When luggage fees aren’t an issue (like on Southwest) or we know we won’t have access to a crib, we bring out our huge rolling duffel bag and pack our Pack ‘N Play. It’s bulky and difficult to lug around, but it’s worth it to know our girl will have a familiar and safe bed.

Since I may have the tendency to pack too much, we bring this luggage scaleIt’s easy to weigh our bags at home before our trip begins, but the return trip is the kicker. Now that we have the luggage scale, there’s no more shuffling our dirty underwear or rearranging our well-packed souvenirs at the check-in counter.

For several years now, Nate and I have kept our “overnight bag” packed and stored in the bathroom. This bag has almost all of the cosmetics we need for any trip–contact solution and a contact case, toothbrushes and toothpaste, his and hers deodorants, shampoo and conditioner, tweezers, lotion, and a razor for me. At the last minute, we add my glasses and makeup bag and Nate’s shaver.  Packing for grownups is easy.

In Transit: When planning this trip, we noticed that a 6:30 a.m. flight out of Indy meant we would land in Phoenix around 7:20 a.m. local time. At the risk of having an overtired, cranky kid, we chose this flight to give us an “extra” day to play. From our last early morning trip, we learned that light and noise wake our daughter up, and she has trouble going back to sleep when we’re transferring her to the car. So this time we put her to bed early the night before and stealthily moved her from her crib to the car in complete darkness at 4:00 a.m. The car was completely packed, and we kept the dome light and radio off. She talked to us a little, but (amazingly!) she went back to sleep. We thereby traded one hour of potential crankiness for another hour of rest.

At the airport, Nate parks the car while the toddler and I check in. When he returns, we all go through security.  TSA gets a bad rap. While I won’t deny that it’s annoying to take off your shoes and remove all liquids and gels, people are generally gracious and happy when young kids are involved. (The fact that I was third-trimester pregnant couldn’t have hurt this time either!) A lot of airports have a “family line.” Business travelers must cringe when they think of an entire line devoted to moms struggling to collapse their gigantic strollers and TSA agents who have to open and test each jar of baby food, but we see this line as a free pass to skip ahead. It’s generally much shorter than the regular security line, and we breeze right through. Before we travel, we always check the TSA website. There are generous exceptions for young kids (e.g. extra liquids are allowed for bottles and food), but these rules can and do change.

At this point, we will have checked our suitcases, but our stroller and car seat will still be with us.  While she’s still under two (the age when most airlines no longer allow children to fly for free on their parent’s laps), we refuse to buy her a seat of her own. We’re cheap like that. (To prove her age, we always bring along her passport.) But one reason we keep our car seat with us is that on flights that aren’t full, lap infants and their car seats can occupy the empty seats. Once we arrive at the gate, an agent will tag our stroller and check to see if there are enough empty seats for our car seat to ride with us. When there are no extra seats, we wrap our car seat in two extra-large garbage bags and hope that the baggage handlers aren’t too rough. Thankfully, it’s a short trip from the gate ramp to the plane and back. Gate checked items don’t make the full trip from plane to truck to baggage carousel. Instead, they’re waiting for you on the ramp right when you step off the plane at your destination.

Thankfully, for both flights for this trip, we were able to keep our seat with us.

Once we board, the real fun begins! Check out this post on how we survive the actual flight and this one about how we deal with travel-related sleep disruptions.

We’re linking up at:  Travel Tips Tuesday 

6 thoughts on “Traveling with a Toddler: Packing Tips and The Airport”

  1. Thanks so much for linking up today. Sorry for the confusion…it was completely my fault and I would not have known that something wasn’t working if you hadn’t let me know. Thanks much!

    This is a great comprehensive list of how to to make traveling with little ones work. I wish our home airport had a family line. It just makes sense to give those of us who take extra time our own line so we won’t hold up everyone else.

  2. I appreciate these tips, I have a 20 mth old and we have not yet travelled anywhere via plane- but I’d love to. I was wondering, I am concerned that if I buy the go-go babyz travelmate and a car seat that even if I do finally get on a plane with her it would only be useful for one trip- up to what age are these extra travel gear go for?

    1. Great question! I just looked at the Go Go Baby website and saw that it is recommended for kids ages 6 months to 4 years. The Cosco Scenera is good for up to 40 lbs. So I guess it depends on your child’s size and how often you plan to use them! When in doubt, I always suggest borrowing from a friend whenever possible! 🙂

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