5 Tips for Traveling Alone With a Toddler

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By Natalia Rankine-Galloway

My family moved to Tunisia from New York City this summer. Before we left I felt duty-bound to visit our scattered family on this side of the Atlantic so they could see our 18-month-old boy before we left. This meant flying from Washington, DC to Toronto (not far away, but technically “International”) and then back to New York.

It was not a pretty picture, but it turned out to be a good trial run for all the family traveling we’re doing as expats. I now have much better strategies for dealing with gear, lines and toddler travel boredom.

Here are 5 things I would have done differently:

Be Ready To Snag an Extra Seat…Just in Case

Keeping your under-2 traveler on your lap to avoid paying for a pricey second seat sounds good in theory, but actually keeping your squirmy child on your lap for the length of your flight is quite a feat!

Luckily, my plane was relatively empty and I actually had an extra seat next to me.  Unluckily, our car seat was in the luggage hold, which left me with a resentful and wriggling toddler in my lap during takeoff and landing.

Next time, I’ll bring the car seat to the gate, just in case. If the plane is full, I can gate-check it with the stroller. I’ve invested in a GoGo Kidz travelmate, which turns your FAA-approved car seat into a rolling piece of luggage where your child can sit. Should I ever come across an empty plane seat again, I’ll be ready. (FamiliesGo! also loves the CARES harness)

Get a notarized letter from the parent back home

If you are leaving the US with your baby, get a notarized letter from the baby’s other parent stating that you’re authorized to travel alone with your child. This assures customs or immigration officers that you’re just taking your child on vacation and not running away with him.

Natalia as a more experienced travel mom

You Will Only have 2 Hands At the Security Gate: Yours

At the security check, you will be the person who gets all of your carry-on gear onto the X-ray machine conveyor belt. You will have to fold and lift your stroller, unpack your electronics and liquids and remove your shoes, all with your baby on your hip and your paperwork between your teeth. Use the designated family line to minimize dirty looks, give yourself extra time and wear slip-on shoes.

And by all means, read up on the TSA’s latest rules so you know your responsibilities and rights. For example, some airports let you leave shoes on kids under a certain age.  And formula, expressed breasts milk and some other child beverages are exempt from the 3-ounce rule (though they will probably have to test them).

[Read our blog on VIP services that get you easily through the airport with kids.]

Consolidate, Consolidate, Consolidate

The less you have to keep track of the less likely you are to lose something, especially while keeping track of a toddler.  Try to combine as many items as you can, say by packing a single large suitcase for you and the kids. And consider renting or borrowing equipment like a travel crib at your destination.

If you plan to carry a diaper bag, laptop and purse, consider buying a backpack that will hold everything. I use the Patagonia Chacabuco,  which has side pockets for sippy cups and a padded pocket up top for your phone.  Don’t just dump the contents of your diaper bag to your carry on; edit!  You can live without sunscreen or diaper rash cream for the flight (especially if they’re more than 3 ounces). Pack a romper or foot pajamas instead of an extra outfit.

Novelty Goes A Long Way

New toys (bought ahead of time or en route) are exciting and engrossing and provide precious extra moments of distraction. Buy snacks at the airport and take anything the flight attendant offers you. They might not meet your usual standard for healthy and wholesome, but their “special treat” quality makes them worth their weight in gold.

[Here’s Our List of Must-have Items for Flying with a Toddler.]

Natalia Rankine-Galloway is the Founder and managing partner of Culture Baby, an online global boutique for babies. She also blogs about her world travels.

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18 Responses

  1. My latest travel with kids discovery was to bring lollipops. This was a tip from a friend and is supposed to help with the ears on takeoff and landing. If you have a child who likes to eat lollipops, not suck on them (like my son), that may not be the case. However, they still take a pretty long time to go through. Came in very handy when I needed a few minutes of silence!

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    • Lollipops are indeed great for take-off and landing, when they actually have to sit still for a few minutes and can’t have their tray to play on. They come in handy while waiting in line for things, too.

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  2. Oh wait…I didn’t see the giveaway! Best or worst travel experience with a child…Hmmm…Seems like all travel experiences with the kids have a little of both in them. But one special moment was on the plane when we landed in S.Korea where we’ll be spending the next two years. We’d been talking it up to my two and four year old for ages. It was a long, long tiring flight. But we looked out the window and I said, “We’re here. We’re in Korea.” And the kids looked at me and a huge grin slowly spread across my 4yo’s face. Yes! He was was excited. And I was relieved he was excited. And it was pretty cool.

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  3. Best travel experience with a child, our trip from LAX to LHR with my then 10 and 6 year old grandsons. It was a wonderful flight on Virgin Atlantic, the flight attendants were fantastic with the boys and the kids were very well behaved.
    Worst travel experience with a child was with my 12 year old grandson to Cambodia, it wasn’t his fault, but an older woman behind me did not like it when I reclined my seat. (I usually do not recline, but I was very tired) Everytime I laid back she would hit me in the head. I would then put my seat up for a while, but being tired would eventually lean back again. (Oh, she did not speak english and I do not speak any other language) The last straw was when I put my seat back and when she reached thru to hit me, she scratched my grandson’s face with her nail. I went off on her!!! I do not usually get upset but when one of my little ones are (even slightly) injured, I am a maniac!

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  4. Traveling with children is a challenge. . . doable but a challenge. This is a list of great suggestions.

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  5. Good to do a trial run before the long trip. Enjoy Tunisia!

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  6. Love the reminder about bringing a notarized letter if you are leaving the country — thanks for that! I usually fly from JFK to TPA alone with two toddlers (it’s only 2.5 hours so I know I have it pretty easy). I buy seats for everyone, and fly Jet Blue whenever I can. The staff has always been super helpful. They’ve even carried a fussy toddler on board for me in the past when I didn’t have enough arms to do it myself.

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  7. Just returned from a bit of travel with my 10 mo old daughter. I went to Los Angeles to visit family and it was well worth the exhaustion. I was fortunate enough to score a whole row to myself on the return flight which allowed me to bring my car seat on board. Boy did this make a world of difference!!! More rest for mama and fingers crossed for the contest!

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  8. Great tips. I don’t have kids yet but I travel with my dogs a lot and some of these apply. We always try to book seats away from people if possible and try to tire them out before a long flight or train ride.

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  9. We haven’t flown yet with mine, but we do plenty of car trips which are always fun!

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  10. we just did a road trip to fl for spring break, with 7 of us and it was a real lesson to all of us on time management and respecting each other space and protecting family. The kids often looked out for each other, making sure no body got left in the bathroom, got a snack and got to take in one of their dream attractions.

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  11. Travel with my two girls throughout the years, has always had its moments of good and bad. Before we get on the plane, it is clear to them that sometime along the flight, we will change seats. If they are playing well together, we leave them, once the bickering starts, a parent goes in the seat in between.

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  12. You are a brave woman – I don’t know if I would have tried that with a toddler! Good luck in Africa!

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  13. Consolidate for sure! It’s been some time since I had to travel with babies of my own but I remember it well… one particularly horrible airplane trip was the worst. It’s always a good thing to bring things that the kids are comfortable with so they feel not so scared.

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  14. Excellent tips – especially the letter from the other parent!

    Thanks for linking up this week!

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  15. Just got back from our first flight with my one year old. Definitely will get him a seat the next time. Snacks and toys kept him busy for the 4 hour flight!

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  16. pay extra if needed for a DIRECT flight. you do NOT want to be dragging your kid(s) thru the airport while stessing to make your connection. if you are stuck in a layover, ask if there is a child play area of the airport, some of them have one. PHX arizona was quite nice for our 6 hour layover. oh and starbucks has 1.50 kids cup of hot cocoa!!!

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  17. Wow, that’s a lot to think about for traveling. Never would have thought about the other-parent letter. Will keep in mind to share with friends. Have you heard about busy bags? They are great to keep tots occupied. I posted about some I want to make: http://something2offer.com/10-busy-bags-i-want-to-make/. Hope you find it helpful.

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