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Traveling with Babies

first months with baby Nov 20, 2023

Taking a trip with your little one this 2023 holiday season (or planning one for 2024)? Read on for ways to make your travel experience smooth for the whole family, based on our conversation with Katie Hensel of Travel Made Joyful! You can hear the whole conversation here.   

General Travel Tips

1. Get into a child-centered mindset

When it comes to traveling, a child-centered mindset means coordinating and organizing your trips around your child's schedule, and what's going to be best for them, so that you all arrive as your best possible selves.  

Oftentimes, when we're traveling prior to children, we can say, "Well, I really want to arrive at this time, and I want to leave at this time." But with these little humans, what you want isn't the top priority anymore. 

As you're planning your travel dates, times, and mode of transportation, think about what your child needs in your current phase - what's their nap schedule? Can they sleep anywhere or need certain conditions? What are their feeding needs?

2. Set Expectations

Communicate with those you're visiting about your schedule and needs. Being intentional before the trip will help make the time at your destination more enjoyable for everyone!

Katie suggests starting by expressing excitement about the visit. 

Then, share information about your kids' routines, current sleep schedules & feeding considerations. Discuss times that work well or are challenging, and ask about about existing plans (your dad bought tickets to an evening show? your aunt expects you to stop by so she can hold the baby? your friend wants to get together for happy hour?) and try to align expectations. 

You know your kid(s) best - what they need (for sleep, food, and gear). 

A collaborative planning discussion in advance can make a big difference in how EVERYONE enjoys the visit! Maybe you go to the evening show and your partner stays in with the baby. Maybe you visit your aunt on day 3 instead of day 1 so you all have a chance to reset. 

3. Gear for your Destination - bring it from home or get it there? 

Consider borrowing or buying bulky items (like high chairs and pack n’ plays) at your destination to save space. Your host may have some of these on hand or be able to network through their local Buy Nothing group or Facebook groups. Baby Quip is a rental option for baby gear that makes the process even easier.

And don't forget, with delivery services and local stores, you can usually buy what you need once you arrive. Diapers take up a lot of room! Do you need to bring enough for the full trip? Or just enough for your travel time (plus buffer)?

4. Entertainment & Food    

Katie reflects that for car trips and air travel with kids, their family carry-ons were mostly filled with things to keep kids entertained since they couldn't self-entertain...until they were about 5 or 6 years old. 

Your goal as a parent during travel is to keep your kids entertained (or at least engaged). While I've definitely pulled out an extra sock to use as a puppet on a delayed flight, some proactive entertainment planning can make the travel experience a LOT smoother. Some favorites:

And, Snacks. You can never have enough snacks during travel (my husband might disagree, but I stand firm on this statement). While traveling, snack rules are out the window (if it works, do it). Bringing your own (even letting your kids pick out some special items to add novelty to the experience) avoids the situation where the cart hasn't made it to your seat yet, or nothing on the cart is going to work for your child. 

5. Essential Gear In Transit - $hit happens.

Always have a spare outfit, for everyone, easily accessible. Even if your kids are potty trained. Sometimes tummies get upset. Puke happens. Blowouts happen. There may be collateral damage. 

On that note, having a small cleaning kit (wipes) on hand is wise. Airplane or Starbucks napkins just don't go far in a code brown crises. 

A small first aid kit doesn't take up much space and saves headaches (literally in some cases). This tiny one is less than $3, or you can make your own in a ziploc from your home supplies.

6. Who’s on First?

If you're traveling with another adult, discuss how you’ll divide up roles & responsibilities in transit.

Katie's family role is Chief Entertainment Officer, because her husband prefers to drive and can drive for incredibly long periods of time...and, she doesn't enjoy that, really. So his primary job is driving. As the co-pilot, she provides snacks, opens things, handles books, entertainment, electronics, etc. 

For air travel with little ones, talk through who will be on point for (each) kid, (for how long). For example, maybe you pass the baby across the aisle every 30 minutes (to give your baby a new perspective/different entertainment), and to give each other breaks.

And when the plane lands or the car arrives at the destination, who will manage the baby and who will manage the baggage?  

Airplane Travel Specifics

1. Look at the Layovers

Consider the number of stops to get to your destination, and the nature (time) of the layover.

  • For a LONG journey (10-14 hours), is it better to leave at a particular time? Should you go nonstop or break the trip up by spending a day in your layover city? 
  • How long is your layover? Before kids, I would optimize my layover time to be short - I wanted to get where I was going! With little kids, I prefer a longer layover - it means we’re not stressing about running with extra stuff and rushing tiny legs. We have time to all use the restroom, get food if we need to, stretch and work off some energy before getting back into a tight plane.

Katie shares: Our kids feed off of our energy and attitude. So if we allow ourselves time so that we aren't stressed or crunched, it's great for everyone.

2. Strategize Seating 

Think about finding ways to create additional space for sleep and entertainment - and how you can support normal routines when you're not in a normal space.

“Infant in arms” (Lap seat) or an extra seat?

  • On long-haul flights, typically international flights, some planes will have a bassinet that they can set up small babies (typically under 8 months). You have to call and reserve it - but they should not have an additional fee.
  • As an alternative to Infant in Arms, you can have your baby in their car seat in the seat next to you. You need to pay for the extra seat, but the advantage is more space & having your car seat on the plane. Katie recommends reserve the bulkhead seat so you have more space (without preventing the passenger in front of you from reclining).
  • For toddlers, there are products that allow you to extend a child's seat so they can sleep easier. 

If you're traveling with another adult, strategic seat selection can make the journey smoother! Based on the seat configuration of the plane, you may not be able to (or want to) sit together.

Splitting up across the aisle or by a couple rows is a good option for giving each other breaks (either by flight - you take the baby on flight #1, I'll take flight #2), or within a leg (I'll hold the baby for take-off and landing, you take an hour in the middle so I can read or nap). 

3. Be Considerate of other Travelers…and Willing to Ask for Help!

We're often more worried about inconveniencing other air travel passengers than we need to be. Certainly, sticky fingers on a laptop is not appreciated; but most people around you know that traveling with little ones is a challenge and are willing to assist.

Some will offer a friendly distraction; others are happy to help you with an overhead bag when asked. 

Flight Attendants are (usually) amazing! Many will do whatever they can to make your experience easier, like providing additional pillows, blankets, and even setting up a little bed for a child on the floor for long flights.

So ask for and accept help, say thank you, and pay it forward next time you're traveling sans kids. It'll happen someday. 

Car Travel

1. Work around Sleep Schedules in your current phase

Knowing if your kiddos sleep well in the car is crucial. This might change over time! We went through phases where our babies slept great in cars and phases where they did not.

Use this info to plan when to leave, when you'll need to stop and for how long. 

2. Make the Drive part of the Adventure. 

Katie recommends creating delightful suprises for your kids to minimize the time they realize they are in the car. A favorite strategy is to wrap up small gifts (from the dollar aisle at Target, or even their own favorite items from home).

After every gas stop (or when you feel a meltdown approaching and it's not yet time to stop), let your little one open a gift. The opening takes some time, and then they can play with their "new" toy for some time (maybe 2 minutes...maybe 20).

On our rides, we queue up a number of audio options - story podcasts like Circle Round are great for toddlers.

3. Adapt your optimal Drive Segments

...for most families - segments are shorter than adults prefer 

Take a look at your route and think about where it makes the most sense to stop. Can you do an overnight in a spot with a bit of fun? We've personally found that 5 hours (or 300 miles) is the ideal cap of what we drive in a day with our kids - but that's not always practical based on how long the total time off is/how far we need to go.

For your stops, consider places conducive for kids, like hotels with pools or family suites. Little things that don't seem exciting to us but are novel to our kids can enhance the adventure - like a hotel room (these beds are the best for jumping!) or a gas station with a playground (we've never been here before!). 

On the road, you may hope to go 2-3 hours before stopping for gas/charge, a restroom, or a stretch...but we recommend setting your expectations lower. 

You might only make it 30 minutes before a baby needs be fed (or is crying for an unknown reason) or a toddler emergently needs a potty. This is normal. 

When things go awry...

Katie shares: Stuff will mostly go right if you take the time to think about it ahead of time. However, sometimes things go wrong, and it's just gonna happen. There's only so much in our control. 

Our kids feed off our reactions and mood. Her advice: just keep serving the peanuts (or insert favorite allergy-friendly snack).

What does she mean?? Think about a flight you've been on when there is turbulence or something seems wrong. Passengers take their cues from the flight attendants. If they are still “serving the peanuts” (doing their normal routine), we think, "Oh, well, then, it must not be that bad." They're still doing their thing. 

As parents, we can keep serving the peanuts for our kids when things aren't going well. 

We can be the people that set the tone and reframe to say, "Hey, you know what? Now we're on an adventure, and guess what's gonna happen now." 

We can be that calm force in the middle of what can seem like a scary, crazy situation. 

Just keep serving the peanuts. That's our job. You got this.


About Katie Hensel

Katie loves traveling - exploring new places, meeting new people, trying new foods and learning about different cultures – travel has shaped who she is and greatly impacted how she views the world. She’s visited 30+ countries on six continents, and her kids have been to five continents so far! She believes that travel is key to creating a better world, and a brighter future...and knows that traveling can be daunting. She started Travel Made Joyful to help families explore this beautiful world in a way that works for you.

If you're planning a 2024 trip and want to work with someone who knows what it's like to travel with kids, reach out to Katie to set up an appointment.  She'll make sure your trip is memorable for all the right reasons!

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