Top tips for travelling with toddlers

Why planning ahead can make life a little bit easier on the road

Many of us travelled the world in our youth, taking those carefree travel experiences for granted. But as new parents, travelling becomes a whole new challenge.

Planes and trains are slightly more difficult to navigate with a baby bag and a pram, not to mention a rambunctious toddler that doesn’t want to sit still.

For every understanding glance from a fellow parent, there’ll inevitably be a grimace from a child-free traveller who objects to your kids’ behaviour. Yes, travelling with toddlers challenging at times, but if you’re prepped, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

Choose the right seats

Keeping a toddler busy in a confined space is no mean feat. But choosing good seats can help. On an aircraft, children under two-years-old won’t usually get their own seat, although some airlines can accommodate young babies in special bassinets. But for many journeys, you’re going to be cradling your toddler on your knees for the entire trip.

Wherever possible, bag extra legroom. It will give you both room to stretch, and your toddler can stand up in front of you. Front row seats are perfect, because you won’t need to worry about them kicking the seat back. If that doesn’t work, some airlines will allow you to book an extra ‘comfort seat’. Extra space is a real help, particularly if your child falls asleep.

On trains, it’s best to book airline-style seats, and stay away from sharing tables. Your toddler may test the patience of others who are trying to work, and they’re unlikely to be comfortable squashed up with a stranger. You might get extra seats on quiet trains, which is a good reason to travel off-peak.

On ferries, make sure you check what kind of accommodation you’re getting for the price. Cheap tickets on overnight ferries sound ideal, but often, they aren’t reserved, and may be located on an open deck. Opt for aircraft-style reserved seats, or for an overnight trip, invest in a cabin with ordinary, non-bunk beds.

Travel at toddler-friendly times

Long-haul or long-distance journeys will inevitably include some form of late travel, but on shorter trips, you may be able to side-step very early starts. Avoid boarding or check-ins that take place in the early hours, or very late at night. It’s better to book tickets for the period in the day when your child would normally be awake and relatively cheerful.

Check-ins between 9am and noon are great, because you can spend a little time exploring the airport before boarding the plane for a rest. It avoids setting off too early and getting tired, or travelling after bedtime with a wired, grumpy kid.

Use a flight comparison site to compare timings from different airports near you. Sometimes, it’s worth an extra half-hour in the car, just to get a flight time that fits with your little one’s natural rhythm.

Plan your own entertainment

Toddlers often find airports and stations exciting in their own right. But sitting still for several hours is a whole other story. Take a set of reins for dry land so they can work of some energy, and plan entertainment for the journey itself.

If you’re flying, and your toddler is in their own seat, buy or rent a CARES harness. They usually fit toddlers weighing roughly 20-50lbs, and are designed to be safer in turbulence. These harnesses also give your toddler a similar feel to sitting in a car seat, encouraging them to sit still for longer, and discouraging them from playing around with the buckle on the lap belt.

Also, pack a new and interesting toy for every hour of the trip – including the return journey. Charity shops and boot sales are a gold mine of interesting little toys and games; shape sorters, stickers, magnetic drawing pads, and button threading games are common favourites. Avoid toys with balls or wheels, unless you want to spend half your journey scrabbling around on the floor. And don’t take toys that play loud music, lest you incur the wrath of every adult in the vicinity.

Don’t forget your tablet: load up episodes of their favourite shows, or download some content from iPlayer. Test it all out in airplane mode before you go, so you know it’ll work without WiFi. Child-friendly, volume-limited headphones will ensure your toddler can actually hear what they’re watching.

Food and drink

When you’re flying, the same hand luggage rules apply to toddlers as they do to adults; they’ll have to throw away bottles or carton drinks at security. However, you are allowed to take baby milk through, and water is allowed if it’s in a baby bottle. Remember to pack one in your hand luggage, and save yourself a few quid on wasted, shop-bought drinks.

If you buy a meal, or take your own picnic, you will probably find that it will break up the journey for your little one. Also, you’ll be less likely to shell out on expensive, sugary snacks if you have a proper lunch to look forward to. A healthy snack can occupy a toddler for a surprising amount of time. Boxed raisins are a classic for parents on the move; they create little mess, and they take ages to eat. Use ziplock bags to take finger foods, veggies, or cubed cheese.

Final tip. Chocolate is a Very Bad Idea. It’ll send your toddler into a frenzy, and coat everything in your bag with brown goo when it melts.

Relax and enjoy it!

The first time you travel with a toddler, it will be chaotic and stressful. Console yourself with the thought that most of the people around you have been through it already. Plan ahead, allow plenty of time for the journey, and enjoy the experience of showing your kids the world outside their window. The more laid back you are, the more chance there is that your children will relax. You never know: you might hit the jackpot and find your toddler sleeps all the way there.

Claire Broadley is a freelance tech and business writer. She has travelled all over the world, most recently with her 3-year-old son. Claire runs a writing company, Red Robot Media, and has been a Quidco member since 2005.

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Claire Broadley

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