Traveling with a toddler can feel like a frightening scenario for any parent.
Even the most vacation-savvy parent might shudder at the thought of getting on a plane or packing a car with toddlers, but having a toddler isn’t the end of the road for travelers.
Katie Brown, an independent family travel consultant with Ciao Bambino and a mom, told TODAY Parents that parents who want to travel with a toddler “absolutely” can.
“There are a lot of articles that are meant to be funny about how miserable traveling with small children is, but I have found that traveling with a small child is one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as a mother, and I find that my clients feel the same way,” Brown said.
Advantages of traveling with a small child
Brown said the benefit of traveling with a toddler is that parents eliminate all distractions from their day and can simply enjoy watching their toddler explore and learn in a new environment.
“They’re still small enough where parents can dictate most of the activities, but big enough where packing and moving is easier than with a baby,” she said.
For parents hitting the road or outdoors, Brown offered six important tips.
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6 tips for traveling with a toddler
Choose the right place.
If you’re not someone who likes to spend a lot of time in a busy city, vacationing in Paris with a small child will probably stress you out more. If you’ve never enjoyed the logistics of beach cleaning, spending your vacation trying to keep a one-year-old from eating sand won’t be relaxing.
“I recommend choosing a seat based on what’s fun for the traveling adults and/or older children in the family,” Brown told TODAY Parents. “You can make any place a fun vacation with little kids, but it has to be fun for adults, too.”
Choose a length that makes sense for your preferred location.
If you’re flying from Phoenix to Japan with a 2-year-old and only have a week’s vacation, you’ll spend much of that week adjusting to the new time zone and schedule, and you probably won’t feel like you had a chance to really enjoy the destination or time together.
If you only have a long weekend to travel with the 3-and-under crowd, choose something that can be done on a short drive or flight.
“If you have more time to spend in a new place, traveling a greater distance won’t be as intimidating,” Brown said.
Find the right accommodation.
Brown said finding the right accommodation makes a huge difference in the quality of a holiday with young children.
“Ideally, choose a property that has some level of separation between where your toddler sleeps and where you spend time during naps or bedtime,” she said. “No matter how nice the hotel is, if you’re sitting on the bathroom floor every afternoon during a nap, the experience is a little less relaxing.”
If the budget doesn’t allow for a multi-bedroom or apartment, Brown said that in her experience, she’s found a reprieve with a balcony or terrace.
“A villa or apartment can be a nice solution, but be aware that it can affect the feel of the trip, especially for the person in the family who usually prepares breakfast,” she said.
If the purpose of the trip is to explore a new area or visit family, an apartment may make the most sense.
If the goal is to break away from your routine and have a vacation from washing dishes, a hotel with a great breakfast and a pool will probably feel more in line with the vacation vision.
Choose the right activities.
What these “right activities” are will vary according to family preferences.
“What I find most successful is choosing activities that parents or older kids would enjoy, but finding ways to engage your toddler in them,” Brown told TODAY Parents.
She continued: “It might look like choosing a cooking course in Tuscany on village house with animals and a playground, not in the kitchen of a professional chef. If parents love art, perhaps combine a short visit to the Musee D’Orsay with a hands-on craft experience where kids can get messy and play.”
Brown shared that when she traveled to Portugal with her young daughter, “it was as simple as bringing a ball with us. We could enjoy a great lunch outside on the terrace and when our daughter was feeling nervous one of the adults would chase her as she chased a ball around a pedestrian square while the other adult finished his wine.”
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Consider what schedule works for you.
“I hate to break it to you, but your toddler isn’t going to sleep on vacation just because you’re at the beach — or maybe you have a unicorn,” Brown said. “If you have a kid who turns into a gremlin after 7 p.m., long late nights just won’t make your trip feel like a vacation.”
Instead, choose a great breakfast or fun place for lunch, and for dinner, grab a great local takeout to enjoy on your balcony watching the sunset.
The reverse is also true.
“If you’re a night owl or traveling east and changing time zones, wrapping up your day of activities early in the morning just isn’t going to be fun,” Brown said. “In that case, find ways to enjoy the evening. Obviously, it won’t hurt to deviate from the schedule you have at home, but you also have to consider the fact that tired, hungry toddlers are no fun to be around.”
Manage your expectations.
Brown said this may be the most important tip.
“If you try to force your pre-kid travel schedule dreams on a 2-year-old, you’ll spend your vacation frustrated and exhausted,” she said. “If you go on the trip knowing that your days probably won’t go as planned, but with the mindset that you’ll find the fun in the chaos, you’ll find more relaxation and happiness in traveling with young children.”
How is traveling with a toddler different from traveling with a baby?
Brown said that when parents travel with a baby, the babies are still very much in the adults’ schedule, just with more gear.
“As they become mobile, it becomes important and fun to slow down recess and include playtime for your child,” she said.
What types of trips work best for young children?
It totally depends on the family. Brown told TODAY Parents that any ride can work well for young children as long as you tailor it to the family.
“What I see as the biggest trend with young children is to combine city time or ‘busier’ time with an area where there is more space to play,” she said. “As with most travel, there is no perfect one-size-fits-all formula, so having a consultant to help you sort through the options or do research on destinations to see what accommodation and activities are on offer is key.”
Traveling with a small child
Before she had kids, Brown read a lot of well-intentioned articles about how stressful having kids is, emphasizing how you lose a part of yourself, how vacations are now “trips” and that you’ll never have time for anything you like again.
“I loved traveling before kids and was terrified of having kids because of those ‘funny’ anecdotes,” Brown told TODAY Parents. “If I could go back to my new mom, who was so worried that the trip would be stressful because of my toddler, I would tell her that while it’s a different experience than traveling without kids, it’s also an incredibly beautiful experience.”