Sage Advice for Traveling With a Toddler

1) Don’t.

2) Unless you have a very good reason to fly with a toddler, please don’t. If you must fly with a toddler, be prepared. Pack snacks, treats, a change of clothes (for both of you), books, games. Consider easing usage limits you may have against electronic entertainment. (The iPad is your friend). Purchase as much understanding as you can from your nearest neighbors with gift bags. Put inside ear plugs, candy, Advil, one (or two) of those little glass bottles of hard liquor, and a note:

“Dear bearded, tattooed stranger in the seat in front of me, my name is Joe. I’m two. I’m on my way to visit my Grandma in England. I’ll try to behave but eleven hours is long time. I’m sorry in advance for barfing, chair kicking, and screaming fits. Oh, and for peering over your seat to say BOO, one too many times, and for anything else that might make your already long and uncomfortable flight, less comfortable.

Helpful information: Yes, you will have to buy Joe his own seat. No, he won’t want to sit in it. Yes, he will scream when forced to strap in during take-off and landing. (On a positive note that extra seat is a great place to store the snacks, iPads, books, crayons, sticker rolls, etc. you’ve brought along to keep Joe busy.)

3) In “Family Values”, a recent article about traveling with children in British Airway’s “High Life Magazine,” author Emily Payne cheerfully argues, “Traveling with children doesn’t have to mean compromise.” With all due respect, bullshit. Traveling with children does mean compromise, especially traveling with young children. Their needs won’t evaporate on your way to the England, or, the Bahamas. And meeting their needs will take more forethought and planning abroad. Will you need diapers, a crib, medicine, special foods? Some of your travel plans will take second place to these considerations. Understand this before you go. Travel with reasonable goals, flexible plans, and invest in a good sense of humor.

4) Less is best. As a fancy free single (or childless couple) you might have wandered London, visited seven attractions in a day, ate a late dinner, fell into bed at dawn after dancing and drinks with that Austrian dude and his cousin with the funky nose ring. This time around, plan to see one or two attractions (providing one of the attractions is a park where Joe can chase pigeons; Joe really likes to chase pigeons). Know where you’re going. Bring a map, extra diapers, a change of clothes, enough snacks to feed the Roman army, a stroller (though he won’t want to ride in it). If you can, factor naps into the day’s plan. Joe will be happier for it, and if Joe’s happier…

Keep in mind that at two-years-old, everything is at once exotic and ordinary. There is little difference between. You don’t have to manufacture or seek out new experiences for your toddler. The Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery won’t mean anything to him until he’s ten or eleven. Right now, anywhere with pigeons and ice cream will do.

So, slow down. Said Epictetus, in The Handbook, “let some things go completely, and postpone others for the time being.” He was not speaking to parents of toddlers explicitly, but he might as well have been. Cross the Natural History Museum off your list. Sit in the park and eat ice cream.

Understand that a good traveler cares more about the quality, than the quantity of her experiences. For the parent of a toddler, quality is achieved through a newly layered awareness. You learn to observe the world through two sets of eyes: your own, drawn to domes and archways and vistas, and your child’s who will discover smaller miracles nestled in the cracks of the wonders you traveled to see. A small, toy tractor on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A squirrel climbing the branches of a tree in the Queen’s garden. Engaged in this pleasant double vision, you will enjoy a richer and more satisfying experience, even if you see less.

5) Find time alone. Remember the very good reason you had for traveling abroad with a toddler in the first place? That’s right: Grandma, Grandpa, and the Yorkshire cousins. They are your ticket to time away to engage in the kind of unfettered wanderlust that characterized your travels before Joe. Don’t feel you are abandoning the family if you take off for a few hours, or a day, to sight-see without him. He’ll be fine, and so will Grandma. (Really, it was Joe she wanted to see, anyway). It will do you good to slough off that double vision for time, to look inward and regain a sense of self, independent of your family. There is no better way to do this, even if you are the parent of a toddler, than by traveling.

6) About that eleven hour flight home? Good luck.

Originally published on, fall 2016

Author of novels Crown of Dust (2010) and Reliance, Illinois (2016), professor, avid reader, mom, has-been athlete…