We've traveled 8 times with our son before he even turned two, so let me share our tips for traveling with a baby or a toddler! I also include a free printable packing list and tips for traveling with a picky eater toddler.
We moved to the Bahamas when Elliot was just 6 months old, so we've had to travel pretty frequently to visit family in NJ and to go on vacation (because let's be real, traveling to NJ and visiting family is not a vacation). There are very few direct flights from our little island, so all our flights have been day-long adventures with a layover.
This is us moving to the Bahamas:
It doesn't help that our son is an extremely picky eater, so we've had to adjust our travels to make sure that he eats at least something while we are traveling.
We've gotten pretty good at traveling with our picky eater toddler son, we've got it down to a science.
Read below for practical advice for travel with a picky eater toddler. I write about where to stay, what to pack, how to get through the stressful travel day including detailed logistics for navigating an airport, and how to enjoy your time and not worry too much about your child's eating on the trip.
This article is mostly geared towards travel on a plane and has some specifics for how to feed a picky toddler on the go, but you might get some helpful tips even if you're just taking a road trip with a baby who is a good eater.
Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful to you! And make sure you grab the free printable packing list for your toddler at the bottom of this article.
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Picking a destination
Consider what foods your child eats and any food allergies when choosing your destination. For example, our son's primary sources of calories are pasta/noodles, rice, and French fries, so we would be able to travel pretty much anywhere in the world and find these foods. *But* he is allergic to cow's milk and still needs a bottle or two (or three) of soy milk per day, so we need to make sure we travel to places that sell the specific soy milk that he drinks. He is pretty picky about flavors and he needs a high-calorie soy milk because he is underweight, so for now we are sticking mostly to US travel where we know we can find the brand of soy milk that our son needs.
When I was breastfeeding and pumping, we actually had a little more freedom because he did not need soy milk, so we ended up traveling to Mexico City with our son when he was 15 months old!
Think about what foods and drinks your child needs (or has to avoid) and do some research. Make sure those foods are readily available where you are traveling, or that the foods that your child is allergic to are not served at most restaurants. Don't go to Thailand if your kid is highly allergic to peanuts or fish.
Choosing the flight
Choose a flight time during which your kid is most likely to take a nap or sleep. If you're lucky, they will sleep the whole flight. The white noise and vibration of the plane lulls them to sleep.
If your child is under 2 and will be sitting on your lap, make sure they are nice and snuggly after your seat belt is buckled in, so they are more likely to fall asleep. Chances are even if you pay for a seat for an older toddler, they'll want to sit on your lap and will fall asleep anyway if it is time for their nap or if it's an overnight flight.
Of course, have a few things packed to keep them entertained and calm in case they do not fall asleep: a small book or some downloaded Netflix shows would work. Don't rely on wifi on the plane because it doesn't always work. In a pinch, we've used a water bottle and a paper bag to keep my son entertained. It doesn't take much!
My husband and I usually try to get the middle and aisle seats, so that we can get up and walk up and down the aisle if my son is awake and feeling energetic. Luckily most people are SUPER helpful when there is a baby on the plane - people love making silly faces and playing peekaboo with babies and toddlers. We've never had anyone give us dirty looks, even when Elliot had a complete meltdown on one flight.
If you have a layover, make sure it is not too short. 2-3 hours is perfect with a baby or toddler: it gives us time to feed Elliot, grab some food for us, do a diaper change, and to let him run around and stretch his legs so he doesn't get cranky on the next flight. Anything under an hour is too short to make it to the next gate comfortably.
And remember that most airlines will let you board the plane first with a baby or a toddler. They don't announce it anymore, but will let you board after the priority boarding is over. It's up to you to decide whether you want to board early and have a few extra minutes to settle in and get your stuff organized (and to make sure there is space for your carry-on right above you!), or whether you want to use those extra few minutes to let your kids stretch their legs before they are trapped in a tiny seat with you for several hours.
Navigating an airport with a baby or a toddler
If we could move to the Bahamas with all our stuff, two cats, and a baby, you can totally handle traveling with a baby or a toddler! I've flown with Elliot on my own a few times, and having a game plan in place always helps.
This is our game plan for getting through check-in, security, boarding, and leaving the airport smoothly with a toddler:
Arrive 2-2.5 hours early, especially if you're flying out of busy airports.
Drop off the suitcases, stroller, car seat, one parent, and toddler by the terminal, while the other parent goes to return the car and/or find parking. In most airports, you have to take a shuttle from the car rental to the terminal, and that is SO MUCH easier to do without a toddler and all your stuff.
Check-in and check bags. If there is a kiosk available, go through that because it is usually faster. Some airlines (such as American Airlines) don't always let you check in online with a lap infant, so you might still have to go check in at one of the desks. If you see an airline worker helping people out, flag them down and ask if you can skip the line because you are traveling with a baby. It's happened before!!
Make a plan about whether you're checking the car seat or not (more on that below), and whether you will need the stroller to get to the gate. I recommend checking the car seat if you can, but keeping the stroller and gate-checking it right before you board.
Make sure your boarding pass says TSA Precheck if you have it (more on that below!)
Go through security. If you have TSA Precheck, this should only take 5-15 minutes. They will typically ask you to open your bag with all the baby food and scan/swipe most of the bottles and containers. Sometimes they will ask you to open any juice boxes or baby food pouches, which is pretty annoying. Just let it happen. There's no use picking a fight with TSA.
DO NOT BE SHY about asking to skip the line at any point during check in or security if you are running late and risk missing your flight! This goes for whether you have a baby or not. There is usually an airline worker or TSA agent you can flag down and show them your flight times and they will usually walk you to the front of the line.
Find your gate and make sure your flight is on time. If everything looks good, then you should have a few minutes to do a diaper change, feed your baby, get some food or coffee for yourself.
Board the plane. Right before boarding, ask if you can board early because you have a baby. Most airlines let you do that. Right before we board, I transfer our son into a carrier and carry him on me, and then we fold up the stroller and gate check it right before boarding the plane.
Getting off the plane: Don't forget to wait for your gate-checked stroller and/or car seat. Take a minute to stretch and check in with your child to see if they need anything - diaper change, water, milk, food, hugs.
I super duper highly recommend getting Global Entry / TSA Precheck for your family. It is a bit of an investment and takes some time (it's $100 per person and you have to get fingerprints and go to an interview in person, usually at an airport), but it is so worth it if you plan on flying more than once during the 5 years that it is valid.
Global Entry allows you to skip huge lines at customs at many airports and doesn't require you to fill out forms on paper.
TSA Precheck saves SO MUCH TIME AND STRESS at airport security in the US. The line is usually only 5 people long, and you don't have to take off shoes or remove laptops from your bags. They are also less thorough with checking each container of baby food because you are a trusted traveler who has been vetted already. Get more info on Global Entry and TSA Precheck here.
And of course, don't forget to get a passport for your baby before you even think about booking your trip, if you plan on traveling internationally! Getting a passport for a baby is a pain in the ass because you need both parents to be present, or you need an affidavit. So plan ahead and get it done.
Where to stay
When we're not staying with family on our trips, we always stay at an AirBNB apartment. We absolutely need a kitchen to keep Elliot's milk in the fridge, cook noodles or rice for him, and to cut up fruit. If it wasn't for AirBNB, we would definitely find a hotel with a kitchenette that has a refrigerator and a microwave. However, AirBNB has always been the cheaper option for us than a hotel. And as a bonus there is always a living room so we can spread out a bit, and my husband and I can hang out there after our son is asleep in the bedroom.
We always pick an AirBNB apartment that has laundry machines available, so we can do laundry halfway through our trip and not need to bring so much stuff. This has been SO HELPFUL for us, and we are able to go on 10 day trips with a baby with just carry-on suitcases!
Psst, if you use this AirBNB link to book your first stay, you'll save 15%. If you think it's weird staying in someone else's place - I promise you it's not! A lot of places are used only as AirBNB rentals. This means they are cleaned by professional cleaners and you won't have to look at awkward photos of people's grand kids on the fireplace mantle. If you have any questions about how AirBNB works (anything from booking to check-in to the actual stay) send me a message or leave a comment. I'd love to alleviate any concerns because I am a HUGE fan.
We've actually been able to find AirBNB apartments that had a pack n play or a crib and a high chair. That was awesome because we didn't have to bring those things with us. Sometimes those apartments are a little more expensive (though still cheaper than a hotel!), so it might be cheaper to pay for a checked bag or even buy those things at the destination.
Pack ALL THE THINGS
This is not unique to picky eaters, right?? But with picky eaters you might have to go a few extra steps: make sure to pack cups, bottles, spoons, forks, plates, and sippy cups that your kid is familiar with. Traveling is such a huge change from their normal routine that they probably need something safe and familiar when it comes to mealtimes during travel.
We also bring a portable high chair (this is the one we have) with us so that we can feed Elliot at our AirBNB apartment and to use at restaurants if they don't have a high chair available. An inflatable booster seat such as this one might also work for some kids. Our son never stays put in this one so we stick to the portable high chair, especially since it's more similar to the high chair he has at home.
Bring a Pack n Play and sheets or a blanket if your hotel or apartment doesn't provide one and if your child can't sleep in the bed with you.
Don't forget your car seat! Whether you're renting a car or taking an Uber/Lyft, you'll need a car seat and you don't want to rely on the ones that may or may not be available. We have this light car seat just for travel and a backpack bag for it. We got this bag because we wanted it to fit our main humongous Graco car seat, but it works well enough for the smaller travel car seat as well. We bring the car seat with us as a carry-on and gate-check it right before we get on the plane. The bag is key for getting around an airport with a car seat. Otherwise we'd never have enough hands!!
Some airlines let you check a car seat for free (call ahead and find out!), in which case we sometimes take our main Graco car seat. It's heavy, but we won't have to deal with it after we check the bag. If the airline doesn't let you check a car seat for free, then they will typically not let the huge car seat on as a carry-on, so that is when we take our smaller Cosco travel car seat.
And of course, bring a stroller, carrier, pacifiers, blankets, diapers, wipes, bibs, bottle brushes, extra change of clothes, etc. We absolutely love our Zoe stroller (this blue one here) - it folds and unfolds with one hand and is super light. It goes with us right up to the plane and then we gate-check it and pick it up when we get off the plane. We put many many many miles on this stroller and it is still going strong.
The stroller has just enough space underneath it to hold a large insulated lunch bag and a folded baby carrier, so that we can be out and about for the whole day with everything we need. We also got one of these stroller organizers to maximize the storage space. It's perfect for stashing wipes, maps, snacks, metro cards, water bottles, and anything else you might need to grab quickly while you're out and about. It is awesome for holding my iced coffee too. 🙂
This is not related to picky eating, but we also make sure to pack a small thermometer, a nose saline spray, a nose bulb, a small tube or diaper cream, safety nail clippers, and baby Tylenol if we are not staying in a large city with lots of pharmacies. Just in case.
And zip lock bags. SO MANY ZIP LOCK BAGS. For snacks, clean pacifiers, dirty diapers, spit-up-on clothes, wet bottle brushes, etc. We even pack cook pasta or rice in a zip lock bag as well because it takes up less space than a tupperware container. I just stash a few zip lock bags into every bag and suitcase we have.
Here we are with all our gear in a stroller in Mexico City, where we met a pig on a leash:
Pack food and snacks
Pack enough food, milk or formula, and snacks for your child for travel day, and then pack some extra. You never know if your flight will get delayed, or if you'll be stuck in traffic with a hungry toddler. If you're flying, make sure this is all in your carry-on, in case your checked bag gets delayed. If you're driving, make sure this is accessible in the back seat so you don't have to dig through everything in your trunk to find the snacks.
If you still breastfeed, then you've got unlimited portable milk and don't need to worry about packing extra bottles of milk. But don't forget to pack your breast pump, all the pump parts, extra bottles, caps, and nipples onto your carry-on. Most major airports have family bathrooms or lactation "pods" - little tiny rooms where you can lock the door, sit, and plug in your pump or breastfeed your baby in privacy. I've also had to pump in an airplane bathroom a few times, it sucked (read about my year and a half pumping journey here). Some airplane bathrooms DO NOT HAVE ELECTRICITY, so be prepared to pump by hand if you need to.
We use this insulated lunch bag to hold Elliot's food. It's pretty big and holds enough food for a full day out: 2-3 bottles of milk, a small tupperware container with rice or pasta, a baby food pouch, and smaller ½ cup containers with cut up fruit. We also bring baby food pouches when we travel.
We put these reusable ice packs into the lunch bag to keep things cold for the day.
If we don't have a place to warm up our son's food, we always take out the food or bottle of milk in advance of when he'll get hungry so it warms up to room temperature. If we're on a plane or driving, I usually tuck the bottle or tupperware container between my legs to warm it up. You do what you gotta do.
When we get to our destination, we go food shopping and buy food and soy milk for Elliot. If you're not going to the store every day to get stuff for your toddler, are you even on vacation??
Offer new foods
While we do buy Elliot's preferred foods when we arrive at our destination to make sure that he has food that he will eat, we always offer him new foods to try that we are eating. He is more likely to try new foods and be open minded when he is not stuck in his routine. Travel is a great way to expose kids to new foods we wouldn't think to offer them regularly, or foods that they would refuse to try at home.
On our last trip to Colorado, Elliot saw sunflower sprouts at a farmer's market and reached for them. I bought them just to see if he'll eat them, and sure enough, he LOVED them! He would NEVER try that if I placed some on his plate at home.
(Safety note: We always bring Benadryl with us and pack it in the lunch bag's external pocket along with a syringe for dispensing it. I wrote here about how my son has food allergies: [Testing Your Baby for Food Allergies], and the last thing we want is to have to look for a pharmacy in an emergency. Give your doctor a call and see if they would recommend having Benadryl with you at all times, and what to do if you are traveling and your child has an allergic reaction.
Try to stick to the same daily schedule that your child is used to at home as far as meals and nap times go. Traveling is already tiring for everyone, so sticking to a familiar schedule should help your toddler get through the day with minimal fuss. (But there will still be fuss, I guarantee it.)
When you are planning activities for your trip, make sure you factor in a few hours per day that will be spent on diaper changes, feeding your child, letting your child run around and have fun, and putting your child down to nap or sleep. You just won't be able to do as much as when you were childless. So don't over-plan things. An activity/attraction in the morning and one in the afternoon is as much as you will probably be able to do.
When we travel, we always do nap time on the go. We don't go back to our apartment for nap. We either try to plan long drives during nap time, or we put our son in the carrier as we walk until he falls asleep, or keep walking with him in the stroller until he is asleep. We always give him a warm bottle of milk before this. The milk and the steady rocking (or rolling) usually gets him to nap. However, there have been days when he skipped his naps completely, even when he was only 1 year old. That's OK! Don't stress about it. They'll sleep well at night and be extra sleepy the next day and take a good nap.
Break the rules
At home we try to make sure our son sits in his high chair for all meals and we offer lots of different foods every day (even knowing that he won't eat most of them). When we travel, we try to do these things, but cut ourselves some slack if that's not what happens. Sometimes you're pressed for time and don't have 40 minutes to try to get your kid to sit and eat, sometimes you just want to have a relaxing meal when you're out and about without any tantrums, meltdowns, or toddlers running around the restaurant.
It's OK to break the rules some time. You're on vacation! Make things as easy as possible. To us, this means feeding out child French fries in the stroller as we're walking. Or turning on YouTube on our phones while we're in a restaurant so our son can sit in one place and eat. Or giving our son an extra bottle of milk instead of feeding him dinner. Or offering him fruit snacks (these organic ones, we're not monsters!) and goldfish crackers just to get some calories into him.
Easier said than done, I know. But don't worry too much if your child is not eating that well during the trip. Just keep them hydrated and give them whatever they want to eat to keep them from being hungry. Focus on the positives - exploring new places, checking out new sights, letting your kids play and learn in a new environment. All those things are really good for your toddler even if they're not getting the best nutrition during this time.
When your child gets back home, they'll fall into their regular routine. Our son usually RUNS over to his high chair when we get home from a trip and asks for food! That NEVER happens on a daily basis!
You'll be back home soon. Enjoy your trip while you can!
So yea, it's a lot of prep work and a lot of stuff you have to pack when you are traveling with a baby or a toddler, particularly a picky one. But getting out of the daily routine, going on a family vacation, and experiencing new things together with your child is SO WORTH IT!
Free printable baby and toddler packing list:
As promised, here is the packing list that you can download and print for free. This is the packing list we use for every trip - I actually have this list on my phone (I use the Keep Notes app) so I am able to check things off as I pack, and then I "undo" all the check marks in the app and the list is ready to be used again.
Make sure you fill in the number of items you'll need based on the length of your trip.
You can choose to save and print this for every trip, recreate this list on an app on your phone, or just use it as a reference/sanity check to make sure you haven't forgotten anything. There might be some things on this list that you don't need to pack, so just cross those things off from the start. And of course, add anything else that your child might need or want for the trip.
To get the packing list, sign up for my newsletter here or click the image below:
I'd love to hear from you! What tips do you have for traveling with a toddler? What did I forget to put on my packing list? What are some of your favorite trips you've taken with your toddler? Let me know in a comment below!
Or get in touch with me if you have any questions - anything from AirBNB to logistics of airports, security lines, getting on a plane with a baby, what to do if your luggage or car seat doesn't make it to your destination, or detailed questions about feeding your toddler on the go. I've been through it all!