Travel is full of adventure and the unexpected. It's pushing outside your comfort zone and learning how to problem solve in creative ways. It's eye-opening and mind-opening. It can be stressful. It can be exhausting. It can also be unforgettable.
Traveling is not for the faint-of-heart.
Traveling with a one-year-old is definitely not for the faint of heart.
When my Nana passed away in 2013, one of her wishes was to have her ashes spread in London where she was born and raised. Our whole family quickly agreed to accompany my parents to London to honor my Nana and do some sightseeing while we were there.
So my parents, my 5 sisters and me, and 3 husbands traveled to Europe as a group. We were the only ones with a child, and she was at the toughest age for travel at the time: 14 months. Just starting to walk. Just starting to assert her independence.
We figured it would be fine. 11 adults to 1 child seemed like no match at all!
And really, we were very lucky. It was our first big trip abroad with our child and we had a ton of extra hands to help out.
But at the end of the day, she’s our child and our responsibility. No one else was going to pack diapers and wipes and snacks and milk. No one else was going to get up with her in the middle of the night if jet lag was an issue. It was no walk in the park!
The internet is full of tips and tricks to make traveling with a toddler easier. Go ahead and do a Google search. You'll find scores of information on the subject.
But there are some things you don't figure out until you experience them for yourself.
Here is what I learned from traveling for 10 days in London and Paris with our own spirited and spunky 14-month-old.
[Edit: This post was originally written in 2014. It’s now 2019 and we have 2 more kids and a lot more travel under our belts. It’s fun to look back and see what we learned from our first big overseas trip with a child! It just goes to show you that everyone starts somewhere!]
Also, this post may contain affiliate links, which means if you use the links I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
10 LESSONS FROM TRAVELING TO EUROPE WITH A TODDLER
1. You will change diapers in strange and sometimes unsanitary places.
You might get caught changing a diaper on your lap on an airplane, on a bench next to the Seine River in Paris, or in a funky-looking bathroom in a train station. You’ve got to roll with it, and you’ve got to be prepared.
Have an organizer inside your backpack or purse that you can reach at a moment’s notice for emergency diaper situations.
Bring a light-weight changing pad to lay down on unclean surfaces. Bring a metric ton of hand sanitizer.
2. Moms who live in big cities with little ones are rock stars.
Carrying the stroller up and down the stairs of the Metro was a 2 man job. It was stressful enough with 9 other adults to help us out. I can't imagine trying to do that by myself on a daily basis!
Of course, big cities have their benefits, too. You’ve got museums, parks, and culture everywhere you turn! That’s incredible. But sometimes the logistics of city-living aren’t necessarily baby-friendly.
3. Strollers make great purse/sweater/water bottle carriers.
Consider bringing a stroller even if you don't have a toddler. Just to carry your stuff. You do a lot of walking on a Europe trip - why lug your own stuff around?
In all seriousness, I see lots of people writing about travel with kids and how they proudly ditch the stroller for a baby carrier for the sake of minimalist packing. That’s wonderful if that works for you, but I much prefer having a place to set my child down that’s separate from me. It gets really sweaty and exhausting carrying a toddler for hours on end, now matter how comfortable your carrier is.
It’s nice to have that basket under the stroller to carry a cooler, snacks, a sweater in case it gets cold, your water bottle, and whatever else the toddler needs. And it’s nice to have them strapped in safely where they can’t escape, giving you some freedom.
4. Adjusting to time change as quickly as possible is the best idea.
Our flight was overnight, so when we arrived in London it was just after noon. After buying our Oyster card for the underground, heaving our suitcases through said underground and up and down countless flights of stairs, and walking a mile to our Airbnb, all any of us wanted to do was chug a gallon of water and collapse into bed. Instead, we planned a low-key outing for that evening (the London Eye!) to keep us awake until at least 8:00 p.m. London time. We all went to bed early that night, but adjusted very quickly to the time change - our toddler included! Besides one half hour crying fit that first night, she slept soundly through the night the rest of the trip!
Other jet lag tips include drinking tons of water and getting outside in the fresh air to help your body stay awake and reset its circadian rhythm. Honestly, the first night or two may be rough. It won’t always be such an easy adjustment. Just be ready to roll with it, and have some strong coffee on-hand for the morning.
5. Stay close to the action or rely on naps in strollers.
So something you should know about how my family vacations is that there is no relaxing on vacation. We started our days at 9 a.m., and usually stayed out until around 5 p.m. That's a full day of touring, walking, sight seeing, riding the underground or metro, posing for pictures, shopping, and fighting crowds. With the expensive (so expensive!) transportation in London, we tried to avoid taking the underground whenever possible. That meant there was no chance Pippa was getting back to our rented house for a nap. That turned out fine for us, since Pippa will actually nap in the stroller. If we had a toddler that wouldn't, we would have been better off staying in a more central part of the city, or suffer the wrath of an overtired toddler.
6. Plan ahead for snacks (and maybe bring a cooler)
Many toddlers still need or want whole milk, so we brought our mini cooler along with with a sippy cup full of milk each day.
Since we had no idea if we would be near a grocery story when lunch time would roll around, it seemed the safest way to avoid a meltdown. Also, those little fruit puree pouches are amazing as an on-the-go snacks.
PB&Js, granola bars, apple slices, fish crackers, and dry cereal are some of our other go-to snacks that we always throw in our backpacks when traveling.
For the adults, it helps to have an Isagenix shake or bar for healthy travel-friendly meals or snacks.
Making your own dinner at your Airbnb, going grocery shopping at the beginning of your trip, and packing some snacks so you don’t have to buy from expensive restaurants 3 times a day are all ways to save some money in addition to avoiding hangry melt-downs.
7. Museum tours and 14-month-olds don't mix
We tried. No one can say we didn't try. I'll always have vivid if not nightmarish memories of Pippa squirming out of my arms in Westminster Abbey and running to touch as many strangers as she could in the back of the knee, while shouting, "Hi! Hi! Hi! HI!"
I also still have flashbacks of winding through the maze that is the Churchill War Rooms trying to find my husband who was trying to escape with our wailing 14-month-old. It was truly a horrific hour of our lives.
I love art, history, and culture as much as the next person, and I do think there’s a time and a place to introduce your child to those things. But young toddlers who are battling jet lag might not be the target audience of high-brow museums.
Some suggestions would be to split up and take turns enjoying the museum while the other adult entertains the child in a park, or wait until your baby falls asleep in the stroller before giving the museum a try.
8. A lot of people are really nice.
Ah, the kindness of strangers. Their benevolent smiles at our high-energy girl, the kindly folks on the underground and metro who played along when Pippa wouldn't stop saying hi, the looks of solidarity from other parents of small children, and all those who help open doors or helped with the stroller on the stairs were so, so sweet.
Most of all, the thoughtful workers at the Ampersand Hotel blew me away. We chose this elegant destination for high tea, and while the boys went off the tour the cricket grounds (and probably grab a pint), we brought the toddler along to sip tea.
She definitely generated more crumbs, noise, and activity than their average customer, but not once did I feel unwelcome or judged.
One woman even gave Pippa an Ampersand Hotel rubber ducky to keep her occupied! Pippa loved her new toy, and I was one thankful mama.
If you’re clearly trying to keep your child calm and quiet, people will recognize that and give you grace. Most people have been in your situation, whether as a parent themselves if not as a sibling or aunt/uncle, so they can often relate if your child’s being difficult.
Just don’t be the mom scrolling mindlessly on Instagram as your child destroys priceless artifacts at a quiet museum and you should be fine.
9. Let the kid stretch her legs.
Pippa did so well in the stroller, but she could only take so much before wiggling and squirming to walk. It helped to take short breaks when we found parks or places she could safely run around.
Less-crowded areas in Portobello Market, the gardens at Kensington Palace, and Luxembourg Gardens in Paris were some of our favorite spots to let her run wild.
There are also plenty of playgrounds in London and Paris if you take the time to look for them. We were following a tight schedule since we were with other family members so we didn’t get a chance to go to parks, but they’re out there!
10. Don't analyze, over prepare, or schedule too tightly. Be flexible... and just do it!
There are lots of aspects of travel that are super uncomfortable and exhausting with a small child. If I thought too much about the logistics of diaper changes, milk, naps, etc, I don't know if I would have the energy to face it all. But just taking each day, each moment as it came, and following Pippa's signals, we were able to have a (mostly) meltdown-free trip!
It’s also helpful to avoid overpacking your day. If you can, leave some space to play, relax, eat, and rest. You’ll be more patient and your toddler will be in a better mood if you’re not rushing from tour to tour.
DO make sure you have a plan for the day including transportation, snacks, and tickets so you don’t have to figure things out with a toddler whining in your ear.
Other than that, relax and roll with it. A laid back and confident parent will give children the space to be relaxed and happy, too!
Travel with toddlers is difficult, yes. But it’s so worthwhile to see them turn into these curious human beings who soak in all the lessons they’ve learned from visiting new places.
Pippa is now a bright and precocious 5-year-old who is becoming an expert traveler who helps me with her 2 little brothers when we’re on the road.
I know they say that taking babies and toddlers on a big trip is silly because they won’t remember it, but I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. Even now, Pippa loves talking about the time she went to Paris and London. She pores over the pictures and videos from our trip, and proudly displays the souvenirs in her room. She can’t wait to go back someday to see the Eiffel Tower again!
It just goes to show that the more you travel with kids the better they get at it, and the more they’ll take ownership of it. It’s an incredible gift to give your kids, no matter how young they are.