Yesterday I got a great email from a traveling couple who is expecting their first child in the near future. Like most couples in their situation, they are excited, but I would guess nervous/scared/sad at what having a baby might do to their normal travel routine of “traveling with one roller board and a half-full backpack”. They were curious about how our travel changed not only when our daughter was born, but in the subsequent years, so I’m happy to share our experience.
How Travel Changes With an Infant:
Our travel changed dramatically when C was born. We went from going on an adventure at least once a month to going nowhere.
We spent our days and nights with a very fussy (but adorable) baby. We were too tired to care about going anywhere other than the grocery store, or Target if we were really feeling ambitious. Though we did have a very failed attempt at attending the local Carnaval celebration when C was about six weeks old – ha! Our only trips out of town for the first few months were to drive the three hours to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house (we were living in Austin at the time), not only so they could see the baby, but so we could pass out for a few hours while they took care of the little one. We would pack so much stuff with us for those weekends that it seemed like it would literally fill the entire truck bed.
I say that not to scare anyone, but because it was our experience, and it took us a bit by surprise. Many families have a much smoother transition to “familyhood”, but you won’t know how it goes until the baby is born and you get into a routine. We had no clue the amount of drama and heartache that was in store for us when C was born. Until it happened. I highly advise against scheduling any travel until your baby is at least three months old because you just don’t know how things will go with your infant, and it often takes close to that long to get into at least a decent sleeping routine. And if you aren’t sleeping, then I highly doubt travel will be very fun.
We took our first trip without C when she was about five months old to go to a wedding in Puerto Rico. She stayed with my parents for the weekend. We fantasized about this weekend on a beach with as much sleep as we wanted almost every night for months. It was our “light at the end of the tunnel” when we thought we might never sleep again. Of course, when the trip finally did arrive we ended up missing her like crazy, and I was the psycho-looking mom longingly staring at every baby who would be carried by us. Still, it was a great weekend to feel like grown-ups and not just zombie-tired parents. It also helped set up a pattern that we continue even today where C will have great long weekends with Grandma and Grandpa while we gratefully get to go on some quick getaways.
Once she was about 11 months old we did finally take a trip on an airplane with her to visit her other set of grandparents. I think that 9-18 months is actually the hardest age to fly with a toddler on average, but we started with a pretty quick flight, and we were very prepared with small toys, snacks, bottles, extra clothes, diapers, etc. She flew in her car seat in her own seat, and did fantastic. I think having your first big trip with a baby be to somewhere that you are either are going to visit family, or that family is going along with you to help, is the ideal situation.
Travel With a One Year Old:
C’s first birthday is where life really shifted from “survival mode” to fun at our house as her tummy issues got much better. Not coincidentally, it is also about the time that our travel slowly started to pick back up. We did several trips with her that year including a big Disney World trip, my first solo flight with her, and more.
Especially when she was a younger one-year-old, we were still traveling with a fair amount of “gear”. We had to bring bottles and bottle parts, formula, lots of diapers, lots of extra clothes, car seat, stroller, baby carrier, toys, her “sound machine” (trust me, that was essential), and we had to ensure we had a safe crib or pack and play everywhere we went for her to sleep in. She also only took bottles that were at least partially warm until a certain age, so we had to be able to access some warm water to warm the bottle in at feeding times. I’m sure if we had more kids they would have to get used to drinking their bottles ice cold!
Despite the extra gear, traveling with her at one was fun. She was old enough to be very engaged in everywhere we went. She also was young enough she went to bed pretty early at night and took a couple decent naps during the day. This meant either breaks in the day at hotels, or we just keep going and she napped in the stroller. This was also an age where a hotel suite with two rooms was very helpful, so we didn’t have to tiptoe around for half the day. The downside to travel at this age was that she was still pretty “routine oriented”, so sometimes getting her down at night in a hotel room was very hard. She would not get as much sleep as she should, so would get pretty cranky by the second or third day of a trip from exhaustion.
Travel With a Two Year Old:
Two is a big turning point for travel. At least for us, it meant no more diapers, no sound machine, no bottles, no formula, no crib, etc. She was very verbal and we could talk about where we were going, what was going to happen, etc. She could just sleep with us in the hotel bed, and was old enough to manage some changes in routine without it having a huge impact to her ability to sleep at night.
She was old enough to get excited about where we were going, and to remember things that we did. She also was old enough for us to explain to her where we were going while she stayed behind with grandparents. Her attention span was also good enough to have movies keep her occupied for a while on most airplane flights. Not only that, but she understood the airport process, and could start to help pack and pull her own bag in the airport. Of course, she wasn’t 100% with any of this, but she was a pretty good participant.
Another big shift that happened at age two, was the importance of her having some kids to play with on trips. She really looked forward to trips where she got to see some of her cousins, and played fantastically with them. This was a double win as she got to spend actual memorable time with them, and the adults got to actually just sit for a few minutes and watch them have fun together!
Two years old is old enough to take part in some activities on vacations like pony rides, sleigh rides, dog sled rides, ice skating, etc. Of course, all of those things are done with very hands-on adult involvement, but it does make it more fun for everyone to have more things to do! Another bonus of travel with a two-year-old is that they are still free to participate in many activities, so everyone can have fun without it hitting the wallet too hard.
The only thing about travel with a two-year-old that can be more challenging than travel with a one-year-old is potty training. Your routines are thrown off, and you may not have the same training potty your kid is used to at home, so travel can regress potty training. At the very least, you have to stay on your toes a lot more when potty training on the road than at home. We would use pull-ups on trips for a while even when she had advanced to wearing “big girl panties” at home just to avoid problems. This was especially true on flights when you can’t always get up to run to the potty due to take-offs, landings, and the seat-belt sign.
Travel With a Three-Year-Old:
Between the ages of two and three, our travel patterns returned to a similar frequency as they were before our daughter was born. Sometimes she would come with us, and sometimes she would stay with one set of grandparents or the other. We still had the freedom from a school schedule, but more and more we scheduled trips to coincide with preschool breaks since we would all have “free time” anyway and none of us were very good at just being at home for days on end. Being three and potty trained means that she is old enough for many kids clubs such as “Camp Hyatt”. She has a blast playing with other kids for a little bit at these clubs, and we get to have an adult meal or a couple hours to just relax. Being three and potty trained is another big achievement in the world of family travel!
At three she also didn’t require any baby gear. We stopped bringing a stroller, but would rent one at places with lots of walking, like Disney World. She can stay up late or wake-up early without it causing crankiness that lasts for days. She was able to take an active role in planning activities, and then gets to look forward to certain parts of the trip (like breakfast with the Disney princesses)!
At three I took a big trip alone with her to Hawaii for the week. I was a bit nervous going into such a big trip alone with a three year old, but we really solidified our “travel buddies” status on that trip. We both knew we had to work together, and in the end we had an amazing week a long way away from home. The time change, long flights, and more might have caused minor blips, but the fun way outweighed any problems on the trip. She recently begged to go back to Hawaii this coming summer, and so we are.
Just like when she was two, trips where she can play with our kids are really special. We started to plan some trips to overlap with other families we knew, so that the kids could be together. We also continued to travel to see cousins, who at this point she actually knew and remembered. She even had her first weekend where we flew her to her out-of-state grandparents to stay there while we took a weekend trip. She got a little homesick I think by the last day when the cousins went home, but did great overall. She had grown up with a pattern of having fun with grandparents for a few days while mom and dad were away, and trusted that we would always return (and usually with a toy).
At three she was also old enough to start ski school, and make her vacation wishes (and dislikes) well known. Honestly, travel with a three-year-old was insanely easy. We weren’t taking her around the world on a regular basis, and exploring Europe with her didn’t sound fun to us quite yet, but it wasn’t far off. She was an active, and fun, member of this traveling family.
Travel With a Four-Year-Old:
Our daughter just turned four last month, and she is a genuine traveling kid now. She can wiz through the airport like a pro, and can stay occupied on the flight like a champ.
She has some of her own activities on trips, but still loves time just playing with mom and dad. We can take her pretty much anywhere we want, and she will be heading to Paris with me for a girl’s trip in just a couple months. She will return to Hawaii, head to Canada to ski, see her first (kid friendly) Broadway musical in New York, and of course will have more trips visiting cousins and relatives.
Additionally, she is now old enough and good enough at things like FaceTime, that we are taking our longest trip away from her yet. We will be utilizing both sets of grandparents to head literally around the world with stops in Amsterdam and the Maldives to celebrate my husbands 40th. I’m sure we will miss her like crazy by about the fourth day (a day that we usually return home), but we are all at a point now where we can stay connected even when we aren’t together, so we will be gone for 8 or 9 days. She is also at a point where it (hopefully) isn’t too big of a burden on grandparents to have her for a bit of a longer period of time.
At four I feel pretty confident that we could take virtually any trip with her that we wanted and make it work. We would need to work in time for her to just be a kid, and tailor some activities to meet her needs, but she is now a real traveler in every sense. That is something we have worked at for years, and happens to be something that meshes with her personality very well.
Every kid is different, but my best advice is don’t rush travel with a new baby, but don’t put it off forever either. Start small, and expand as you get some successes under your belts. Having a child absolutely changes everything about a family, including travel. However, after a few bumps and some mental adjustments, it can be even more fun than before. You aren’t going to be able to pack for the week in a backpack for a while, and your vacations may no longer be vacations in the sense that they are relaxing, but they can become exciting family adventures that you tackle together. Every year is so different than the one before, so a trip that seems impossible today, may be well within reach before you know it.
I can’t wait to see what this year, and future years, have in store for our traveling family. The one thing I know for sure is that without miles and points, we wouldn’t have gotten to go near as many places, or in near as comfortable a manner as we have. Head here to read more in depth about all of these trips or here to get more advice on traveling with a young child.
That is my experience on how travel with a child changes over the first few years. Please share your experiences as well!