The Art of Travelling with Babies and Toddlers: 9 Holiday Planning Tips to Save Your Sanity

Travelling mother gazing at lake with toddler and baby. Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels

Going on a holiday with babies and toddlers. Is that even called a holiday? It’s difficult to comprehend, when a successful trip to the shops with kids requires planning with the military precision that would put an army general to shame.

Is it hard to travel with babies?

Um, yes (sorry).

Holidaying with kids who are older (say 4 or 5+) are a tad easier. They can be reasoned with (er, usually), and are generally placated with an iPad, some snacks, and in-flight entertainment. The real dramas are with travelling with babies and toddlers – with nap routines, less communication skills, they are reliant on you to help occupy their time.

Travelling with babies and toddlers is about one thing, and one thing only. SURVIVAL.

It’s important to stay resilient and flexible when things go wrong. But whilst most things are out of your control, there are some things you can at least try to be prepared for.

Whilst I’m in no way a frequent flyer, I have managed to survive a couple of international trips with a two year old, for which I carefully (read: painstakingly) planned. Here are my key strategies when making travel plans for a trip with babies and toddlers.

Survival tips for planning holidays and trips with babies

These are the best survival tips for planning any trips with babies aboard – take heed of these hints as you are make the plans for booking your flights, destination and accommodation. A well-strategised trip will ease the stress!

Remember: It’s not just the flight time

If you’re mulling over some wild idea to take a long-haul flight with your baby, and heard yourself say: ”It’s only 6 hours on a plane – that’s not so bad, right? We can do this!” Just remember – it’s not just the flight time. It’s also:

  • Travel from your home to the airport.
  • Two (or three?!) hour check-in for international flights.
  • Time to get through customs/immigration.
  • Time waiting around at the luggage carousel.
  • Travel from the airport to your accommodation at your destination.

And not to mention (god forbid) – travel delays. That 6 hour flight just turned into a 9-10 hour white-knuckled ride, trying to avoid the next meltdown (either theirs, or yours).

You will be child-wrangling the entire time. Most likely with no rest or sleep. And you’ll be keeping them occupied with only whatever you manage to cram into your cabin baggage limits. For my fellow Australians, we stare down the barrel of 24-hour travel times to get to the other side of the world. That is a LOT of wrangling in a tiny enclosed space.

I’m not trying to kill off your dream of travel with kids. Lots of families do it, every day. We have survived 12 hour flights – which ended up being 18 hours of travelling, with the above-mentioned extras added on.

Just be realistic about the length of time it’ll take to get to your destination, door-to-door. It’s about adjusting your expectations, so you can prepare and pack accordingly.

Choose your destination wisely

If you’re choosing a destination, there’s merit in picking a place that’s a bit kid-friendly.

I’m not referring to having a Kids Club, or going to Disneyland. I’m talking about more practical aspects. You know – like decent medical facilities.

Needless to say, this is not the time to test out the Kokoda Track.

Babies and toddlers can get sick suddenly; their immune systems are less developed and they’re quite likely to pick up a bug from other passengers on the flight. If this happens, it’s reassuring to know that good medical help is readily available at your destination.

As a carefree, child-free couple, we did travel to amazing tiny islands in the Pacific that are remote enough to not have a local hospital. But this is not something I’d embark on now, when travelling with young kids.

There’ll be people who disagree with me, and have glorious stories about roughing it with their kids on holiday, and the amazing experiences they’ve had. Which is great, all power to them! It’s just not really a risk I’d take now, personally.

It’s just about risk management. Always check for any required travel vaccinations, and make sure you are covered by travel insurance.

Book accommodation in apartments or houses

I avoid booking hotels these days. Not only do hotels set a premium price tag in many cities, a single living + sleeping space when travelling with babies is just tough.

With Airbnb and a huge number of short-term rentals available online, it’s worthwhile looking into these options for your trips.

Never underestimate the value of having a kitchen whilst you’re travelling. This will save you money, and your sanity. Eating out with kids at restaurants can be just plain stressful (or is it just my children who refuse to sit still?!). Why not grab a selection of amazing local produce (including some kid-friendly favourites) and have a more relaxed meal in your rental?

With naps and early kid bedtimes, having separate bedrooms in a house or apartment is super handy. You can have some down-time while they sleep – chat, watch some TV…perhaps try some local vino? Though after a day of running around with your kids, you’re likely to hit the hay early! But at least having separate living spaces gives the opportunity of having chill-out time.

Having access to a laundry is also useful with young kids, who can get grubby easily. Plus you can travel lighter with fewer changes of clothes for the family, as you can plan to wash every few days.

Finally, when your kids just want to run around and burn their energy, you will be thankful you’re not stuck in a tiny hotel room, with luggage piled in the corner. Having the extra space available for the kids in a house or apartment is a no-brainer.

Synchronise your flights with accommodation check-in/out times

Remember back in the old days, when you would book the earliest flight to arrive, and the latest flight out, just to maximise the time you had on holidays?

Forget that.

If you arrive in the morning, trying to kill several hours by wandering the streets in your travel clothes, dragging along tired and cranky kids, can seem VERY painful indeed.

Accommodations have afternoon check in times. If possible, pick a flight that will have you checking in at, or after, the official check-in time, so that your room will be available.

Likewise having your departing flight in the morning will reduce the amount of hanging-around time with bored children, and makes the most of kids who are happiest when they are refreshed in the morning. The EXCEPTION to this might be if you are blessed with kids who are good sleepers, and you might prefer to take night flights when they will conk out and sleep the entire time. (Sadly, our family does not fall into this latter category. We are wrangling-kids-whilst-travelling-in-daylight-hours flyers, not by choice!)

But, sometimes you don’t have much of a choice with choosing flight times. So…..

Book extra nights if you have to

You may have no choice but to have a large gap between flight arrivals and departures, and your accommodation check in/out times. If your budget and time allows, you might consider booking an additional night of accommodation to cover the gap.

Pre-kids, I would have called it a massive waste of money. But having access to a shower, a space to relax, a TV, and a place to dump your bags, is money-can’t-buy kinda stuff when you have kids with you (well, except you CAN buy it. Huzzah!)

If your flight arrives early in the morning, book your stay to start from the previous night, so that the room is ready for you when you arrive. PRO TIP: Just make sure to let your accommodation or hosts know your arrival time, so they don’t think you’re a ‘no show’.

If you have a departing flight that’s late in the evening, then consider extending your stay to include that night as well. This way, you can use your room all day until it’s time to depart, and then check-out early.

For us, we used this tactic on both ends of an 18 hour transit leg of our itinerary.

Having access to a room after the usual check-out time of 10am meant we could still see some sights, and our toddler could nap properly in a bed at lunchtime. And our entire family had a late nap to recharge, before checking out at 9pm to make our way to the airport.

After enduring 18 hours of transit (which is a bit of a marathon when trying to entertain a toddler that entire time, on no sleep), we arrived early in the morning. Having had the accommodation booked for the previous night meant that we could check-in immediately, shower, and SLEEP.

When you are talking about going for 30+ hours straight with nothing but a brief nap, this can make ALL the difference. I wasn’t prepared to herd my family around in the streets for 4 hours, in a foreign country, whilst waiting for our room to be ready. I envisioned many meltdowns in that situation – that of my toddler, and that of my own!

YES, it will cost more, and so this option is not always going to be viable. But if it’s an option, then it can go some of the way to keeping your sanity and your family comfortable.

Plan to do less

It’s an unfortunate fact, but you just won’t get to do as many things on holiday with kids, as you used to.

Much like life at home, you may need to plan for nap times (unless you’re blessed with a kid who can sleep in their stroller), and kids get tired or bored quickly. Trying to do too much in one day just ends up being stressful for everyone.

Aim to do only one major activity each day. You might be able to fit in a couple of small things in the vicinity, but really – just keep it relaxed and play the rest of the day by ear. You won’t explore in the same way you used to, but seeing places through the eyes of your kids can uncover amazing stuff too.

A good compromise each day is to do something for the adults, and a bit of activities for the kids. Even if it’s just an ice-cream and a run-around at a playground. Kids love the simple things.

If you don’t get to do everything – at least it gives you a reason to go back!

Plan to pack less (..of your own stuff, that is)

When travelling with babies and toddlers, you’ll be hauling a lot of paraphenalia. This means – less room for your own stuff. And you really want to avoid carrying more luggage.

Learn to love layers, and pack lots of mix and match styles. And hopefully you booked your accommodation with a washing machine!

When my husband and I travelled to France with our little one, we were determined to take just one suitcase for our 3 week trip. Our strategy was that one of us would be child-wrangling, and the other could be luggage-wrangling. Any more large luggage was out of the question (large backpacks were OK).

Packing less for us also meant wearing slim-fitting thermals for warmth, so that we didn’t need coats. Luckily the weather was relatively mild at that time of year.

Also – no heavy DSLR cameras! All holiday snaps were taken on our mobile phones only. These days, camera technology on mobile phones is pretty advanced and you will still be able to take amazing memories using your humble smartphone.

Stay for longer, move around less

For us, our main trepidation with braving a trek to the other side of the world was the long-haul flights. And it was spot on. Kiddo was great on the ground, and daily sightseeing was pretty fun actually – she was excited to see new stuff, explore, and eat new foods.

But the flights? Ouch.

My main takeaway here is that getting anywhere with kids is hard. So if you’re committed to taking that long-haul flight, then you may as well make the most of it and stay for awhile! You certainly might need the extra time, given you won’t be cramming everything into a tight itinerary.

I’d also recommend staying in one spot and moving around less often.

As a couple, we could’ve changed accommodation every 2 or 3 days, moving on to the next town.

But as a family, it’s much better to settle in one spot for longer – at least 4 or 5 days at a time. This gives you time to do your laundry, for the kids to settle in a bit, and it won’t feel like you’re packing to leave just as you’ve unpacked.

Do a practice run trip

Again, if your budget allows for it, work your way up to a long haul flight, with some practice trips.

You may get some valuable learnings from doing so. Not to mention – you will learn to pack your carry-on luggage like a boss.

In preparation for our trip from to France, we planned a weekend away with a 1 hour domestic flight. We then tried a 5 hour international flight.

For us, we learnt that our kid is ATROCIOUS with ear pain during take off and landings. I am talking about screaming and writhing in pain – the flight attendant thought she was having a seizure.

We also learn to never book a flight where the plane configuration has only a single aisle. If you need to walk around with your child to comfort or entertain them, you will be competing with the serving trolleys. You will NOT be making friends with the flight attendants.

By the time we were on a 12 hour flight, I felt like I knew what to expect, and had a better packing strategy.

It’s just a way to give you a bit more confidence for the big scary long-haul flight!

Final words for travelling with babies and toddlers

Not all of these tips will work for everyone – some may be dependent on your budget. (If we’re honest, being able to travel is a great privilege, period.)

And despite the best planning, things go wrong – kids get sick or hurt, and travel delays can be very troublesome.

But this is all part of the experience, and if you lower your expectations, you might just be surprised. Travel with kids is NOT going to be the carefree experience of travelling solo, or with your partner or best friends. But for all the difficulties, travelling with kids can be very rewarding, and opens their eyes to many new experiences.

Do these strategies resonate with you? What other tips and tricks do you use to survive?

Look out for my upcoming posts on my ultimate holiday packing lists, and specific strategies for long-haul flights.

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