Packing for Travel with a Toddler

Whether you are an experienced globe-totter (heh, see what I did there?) or you are taking your first trip with a small child, travel with a toddler is different than travel with a baby. Suddenly, you have a person with opinions (“No! I want the red one!”) and feelings (“I want to go to the pool now!”), and more complex needs than just feeding and diaper changes (though you still have to deal with those too). It can be easier in a way, as they have longer attention spans, can respond to bribes and threats reason, walk on their own (though we still use a carrier and a stroller), and can actually really engage with you and their surroundings in a much more fun way than a silly old baby. Packing for a trip with a toddler is its own challenge, partially because toddlers are natural pack rats. That toy he hasn’t touched in months? Suddenly becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD when you even toy with the idea of getting rid of it. You need less gear, but more entertainment, and have to cater to all the favorites and whims of a small tyrant that can change on dime. As we prepare for our latest trip, a few thoughts on packing for a trip with a toddler: 1. Don’t ask, don’t tell. If you ask a toddler what they want to take on a trip, they will happily fill your largest suitcase with all the things you can imagine. Every puzzle piece, a random old gym padlock, and ALL THE STUFFED ANIMALS will be necessary to bring. Consequently, if you ask what favorite books to pack, you will invariably be told that you are packing the wrong ones and you should instead take every single Golden Book published to date. Before a trip, I do a “dry run” of packing toys a day or two out, and see what is pulled out and played with and what is ignored. Based on that, I do a final pack the night before of what *I* deem necessary and what might seem like a fun surprise. 2. Something old…Packing is a balancing act of taking what you can’t live without for two weeks, and what you can’t live without if it gets lost. Even worse than leaving the sock monkey my mother made in the ’70s at home is having it left in an airport. I try not to pack anything that is truly irreplaceable, because otherwise, you need to treat it like another child and watch it like a hawk. Basically, if it doesn’t fit in my purse, it’s staying home. Also consider what is countable. When we last visited Istanbul, I bought a wooden puzzle shaped like a giraffe which Vera carried with her everywhere, and I had to constantly keep track of each and every piece. Similarly, on a recent trip to the NC Zoo, I got V a handful of tiny rubber animals, good for hours of arranging and hiding, and now I find myself crawling under restaurant tables searching for the elusive polar bear. Bring them if they are loved, but be warned that you will feel like Rainman keeping track of them (“Definitely have the frog. Elephant? No, need the lion.”). 3. Something new. We all like a new book to read on the plane, otherwise Hudson News would be out of business. Before a trip, I try to stash away a new item or two to be enjoyed when a distraction is most needed. Babies can be bought off with old toys wrapped in shiny paper, but toddlers need true novelty. Keep in mind that more often than not, you’ll be coming home with a new souvenir or gift from Nana, so don’t think stuffed animal or anything big. Coloring books from the 99 cent store, stickers, and other activity books work well. Vera is obsessed with Kinder Surprise eggs, which involve chocolate and small toys, though they are technically banned in the U.S. I found a few similar eggs at Target around Easter and stockpiled a few on our last trip abroad, and she still remembers the joy of unwrapping the foil, eating the (crappy) chocolate, and reveling in the joy of the (also crappy) toy inside on the plane many months later. 4. It’s all in the details. I don’t pack a lot of books now. When we travel, we’re generally so exhausted at the end of the day that reading isn’t as big a ritual as back at home, but books are key during the journey. Think big, super detailed books. Any Richard Scarry collection (especially anything transportation-related). We love a certain Curious George lift-the-flaps book and anything by the amazing Marc BoutavantAround the World with Mouk is so special, I keep it on a high shelf at home, and we picked up his train puzzle on our last trip. If you spend more time looking at the pictures than reading the words, it’s a winner. 5. Think outside the forecast. When packing clothes, don’t just stick to the weather. For a cold-weather trip, you might stay in a hotel with an indoor pool, so pack a few items to wear over a bathing suit. This is more for you than your child; no one cares if a toddler is wearing just a swimsuit in the elevator, but you’ll feel stupid wearing your winter boots down to the pool (yes, happened to me). In the summer, it may be hot outside but most of your journey will be heavily air-conditioned, so light sweaters are good to carry on. If you’ll spend a lot of time walking around outside or at a playground, leggings can protect from burns from the sun or a metal slide. 6. On laundry and multiples. Awhile ago, V informed me that Batman had a dog, and her name was Suzie. She zeroed in on her socks covered with Scottie dogs and deemed them Suzie socks. I am eternally grateful that I happened to buy two pairs of them, because she wears them almost every day. She is also particular about wearing certain other items of clothing like the pink polka-dot leggings my mother has repaired multiple times with patches, so staying somewhere with laundry access is key for the occasions they get dirty. If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed a certain omnipresent pilot cap? I got it on Amazon, and this is at least the third said hat. Buy multiples when you can, and be ready to wash favorites. 7. Plastic rules. In a perfect world, every child would play with handcrafted wood toys. The reality is that their favorites are likely fashioned in Chinese factory by children not much older than they (I’m kidding, I hope). On our last trip to Mexico and Miami, my mother had given Vera a set of plastic toy food. Along with a few toy teacups in a little bag, this made our whole trip. They were good for the plane, the pool, the tub, restaurants, and everywhere else you can imagine. It may not be natural, but plastic is impervious to water, it floats, it bounces, and it can be washed easily. And if you lose a piece, you can get another set at home, so you can have multiple strawberries of inexplicable size. 8. Snacks. On a given day, I leave the house with some kind of crackers (original flavor Goldfish are our jam), some baby carrots or cut up fruit, some cookies for bribery good behavior, and a drink. Ever since Brazil, Vera is mad for coconut water, and I like that it has less natural sugar than fruit juice, though I sometimes buy generic diapers to compensate for the added expense (Trader Joe’s has it cheapest in the US, btw). I especially like that it can be resealed—unlike a juice box—but I also try to carry a cup (sippy or regular) for other stuff. Grapes might be the perfect travel snack: almost always available, easy to wash (use some bottled water right in the bag if you are paranoid), low mess, and keeps little fingers occupied. You know you are a Mom when you start thinking this much about snacks. 9. Try new things. I was going to write a post about diapers, but I realized I didn’t really want to write about such, uh, base matters. We’ve been trying out gDiapers, and they are a great compromise between disposable and cloth; you can flush or compost the liners, the covers are adorable and look great under a summer dress. Unfortunately, they aren’t sold in many countries yet, so not yet ideal for travel abroad. It’s downright silly to pack your own diapers when they are available everywhere there are babies, so we just pack enough to get through the journey plus a day and then buy local. While America has a dizzying array of diaper choices (I was overwhelmed when I first came back to the U.S. with baby Vera), I discovered the awesome slip-on diapers made here by Huggies in many other countries before they were available here. Also try local for snacks; going to foreign supermarkets and trying their food is one of my favorite parts of travel! We still miss Turkish balik (fish) crackers for their Ritz-like taste, and any kind of basic coffee/tea biscuit will likely be a lower sugar cookie option, and probably free of nasty high-fructose corn syrup that invades so many American products!