My Experience Taking a Long-Haul Trip with a Toddler
We had so much fun in London and Dublin but I was incredibly anxious about flying there by myself with a toddler! The whole trip came together pretty last-minute so we decided that it’d be easier for Rob to leave before us (when his office asked him to) and get some of his work travel done, and then we’d meet him in London when he was halfway through his projects.
I honestly considered not going at one point because I was so worried about the flight, but Rob and my amazing friends and family were really encouraging and not only told me it was all going to be just fine, but that it was okay to feel anxious; which is something I’ve really struggled with in the past. A lot of the time if I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious about something I’ll try really hard to just ignore it, not talk about it, and hope it goes away on its own, which it never does. So voicing my concerns and talking through the things that were freaking me out helped me so much and helped me have what ended up being a really amazing travel experience.
I’m in no way an expert—we’ve traveled with Sophie quite a bit (she visited the East Coast four times in her first year!), but this was our first time taking her abroad and/or on a long-haul flight. I got a lot of questions about it so I wanted to share my experience in hopes that it might help any of you plan a future trip with your kids!
Things we did that made it easier:
Booked Sophie a seat: We went back and forth on this because we wanted to use points for my flight and had enough to either book myself a business class ticket with Sophie as a lap child (kids fly free until they’re 2 if you hold them), or we could fly economy but have two seats and bring her car seat. She is a notoriously bad plane napper for some reason, but we’ve only ever flown with her in our lap so I always kind of suspected that she might sleep if she had her car seat (even though she really doesn’t sleep when we’re driving either, but it was worth a shot). Even if she didn’t sleep, I figured it would be easier to have a place to put her safely so I could take a break if I needed one, and it really ended up being the right decision for us—she only slept 3 hours out of 10, but the rest of the time was much easier because I could hand her toys or snacks and not have to wrestle with her so much.
Got a direct flight: Only having one flight to plan for made things a lot simpler, even if it was just in my head. Knowing that once we got on the plane we were on our way and didn’t have to make any stops really helped me a lot. And it made travel faster—it took us just under 10 hours to fly from San Francisco to London on the way there. The way back was a little longer but having Rob on board with us (especially after traveling without him) was great.
Rob packed for us: He was traveling alone without the baby so he checked a really large suitcase with almost all of our clothes in it, as well as our travel crib; so all I had to bring was a carry-on, the car seat, and our lightweight stroller—it’s still a lot of stuff but not having to pack and/or check anything made it a lot easier right away. I know that’s not always the case and hopefully if you’re going on vacation you’ll all be flying together, but if you can check a bag and only carry on the essentials it makes things a lot simpler.
Something I thought would make it easier but ended up being harder:
Packing a big weekender bag instead of a roller suitcase: I bought this Birdling bag and was really excited about it. It was kind of a splurge but I figured the pockets would make it really worth it and we’d use it all the time when we travel. The bag itself is really gorgeous and it feels and looks high quality, but it’s pretty heavy on its own so by the time it was packed, I almost couldn’t carry it (along with the car seat and stroller). I’m going to Florida next month for a bachelorette party and plan to give it another try when I don’t need to pack as much, but so far I almost wish I had bought the Overnighter instead of the Weekender (but again—the pockets!)
Finally, I wanted to answer some more specific questions that I got from you guys on Instagram while I was out of town:
What did you do with Sophie on the plane? Was she bored the whole time?
The screen time limits that are usually in effect at home are the first to go when we’re on an airplane full of strangers, so I basically hand over an iPad with Little Baby Bum episodes downloaded as soon as she starts getting fussy (I do usually try a toy or a snack first, but sometimes she’s full or sick of the toys she’s been playing with).
I bought her a pair of toddler headphones which I thought she’d wear, but she only wore them some of the time and ended up taking them off and trying to put them back on or folding and unfolding them, so it ended up being a win even though she didn’t really use them the way I thought she would.
We read a lot of board books and would occasionally get up and walk up and down the aisles, and sometimes I’d let her stand or sit in my seat to take a break from her car seat.
How did you deal with your anxiety about it all?
I went to therapy and talked to my friends and family about my anxiety pretty much non-stop for two weeks. I also made a list of all the things I needed to do before I left and made sure to have it done by the day before our flight. I practiced taking deep breaths, focused on sitting up straight and putting both of my feet on the ground (literally feeling the ground beneath my body), and texted a flight attendant friend and basically told her I was afraid of flying across the ocean with my baby.
By the time we were finally on the plane I knew that I had done everything I could to ensure we had a smooth experience traveling, and that it would all be so worth it once we got there. The flight ended up going by really quickly and Sophie and I even had fun—I was so concerned that it wouldn’t go well that I never even entertained the possibility that the flight itself might be part of the memories we made on vacation.
How do you manage/prepare for crazy time changes?
When it comes to an 8 hour time difference, I had no idea what to do. She slept a little on the flight there (which left at 3PM and landed around 1AM our time) but was up for most of it, so when we got to our hotel we put her down for a nap and then tried to make it to a “normal” bedtime. She was definitely a little confused for a few days but overall the time change didn’t mess her up as much as I thought it might.
When we go to the east coast and it’s just a 3 hour time difference, we usually try to put her down a few hours later than usual and then move bedtime earlier by 15-30 minutes every day or two. Most of the time though we let our schedule go out the window since we’re almost always visiting friends and family and want to be able to spend time with them. We bring our travel crib with us whenever possible so she can get a nap if she needs it (she has slept in bathrooms, closets, even a laundry room once—we basically put her in whatever the darkest room available is).
What did you pack in your carry on?
2-3 board books that Sophie loves flipping through
iPad, toddler headphones, my earbuds, and a small power bank in case the iPad or my phone needed to be charged
1 stuffed animal and 1 blanket
Tons of snacks: pouches, bars, and a few of these bowls (breakfast and lunch/dinner). Side note about the food—TSA basically turned my bag inside out looking through all of this stuff, which was really frustrating since I had packed it almost obsessively. I totally understood that they were just trying to be thorough but I would have packed everything in a big plastic bag on top if I had known the pouches and bowls would have needed to be inspected.)
Extra clothes: some jammies and a sweater for Sophie and an extra shirt/sweater/pair of leggings for me. I also brought my winter coat which I regretted until we got to London and it was freezing. Sophie’s was easier to pack so we sent it ahead with Rob.
How did you carry everything?
I thought I could do it but it turns out I couldn’t, and when people told me that flight attendants and other travelers would be helpful I didn’t realize just how true that was. I had my carry-on bag, our travel car seat (which goes in a canvas bag with a handle but we really need one that is a backpack), and the stroller which folds up and is really light. I also had Sophie and wore her through security and then transferred her to the stroller (most of the time they make you fold up the stroller and put it through the x-ray thing so I didn’t want to be stuck holding her and also trying to break down the stroller).
In the security line, the man in front of me offered to carry my big bag for me, and once I got to the gate a woman helped me with the bag again, while another man got a gate check tag for my stroller and carried it all the way to the plane. A flight attendant grabbed the car seat as soon as I got onto the plane and put it in my seat, and the lovely woman who had carried my bag to the plane came back and helped me get the car seat buckled in.
When we landed in London, another flight attendant stopped me and told me that if I wasn’t in a hurry, he would help me carry everything out, where yet another flight attendant had called a cart to pick me up and take us to customs with all of our stuff.
It was enough to make you believe in humanity again.
What’s the one thing to pack that might not be obvious?
Extra clothes, which I know is one that most people say, but I feel like I only need them when I didn’t pack them. Also dog poop bags for dirty diapers and/or dirty clothes.
What baby gear did you take with you?
This stroller, although I kind of wish we had one that didn’t have two handles. It is really easy to break down and feels surprisingly sturdy for how light it is, but you need two hands to steer it and I often find myself with only one hand to spare when I’m traveling. I’m thinking about selling it and upgrading to this one before our next trip.
Our Ergobaby carrier—it’s the only baby carrier Sophie still fits in and it was a nice change from the stroller every now and again, especially at the airport. We haven’t worn her on our back with it yet but I might give it a try sometime soon. I love the Ergobaby but it is a little bit hard for me to get on by myself, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re traveling alone with a little one.
This car seat. It’s a little smaller than the car seat we originally bought to travel with, so it fits in an airplane seat. I kind of like the bigger one better, so I’m not really sure which one we’ll use the next time we go out of town.
Rob brought this travel crib with him so I didn’t have to: we’ve brought this on every trip so far and it works so well for us. If we’re in a hotel room we actually try to put it in the bathroom so she can have a really dark space to sleep (naps and overnight—we usually brush our teeth before she goes to sleep and then run down to the lobby one at a time before we go to bed and use the bathroom. It’s weird but worth it to not have to quietly tiptoe around in a dark room after 7 PM every night!)
Any tips on traveling with her when she was younger? Like 6 months?
I wrote this post about taking Sophie to Seattle when she was about 4 months old. I recommend baby-wearing and nursing/bottle feeding on the plane as much as you can!
Did you buy a travel infant car seat when she was younger or bring your own?
We never traveled with our infant car seat and just bought one specifically for travel—we always had her in our lap so I didn’t want to check our more expensive car seat in case it got damaged somehow. We love this Cosco car seat—it’s big and kind of awkward to carry but it’s very light.
I think that’s all for now! I always say that traveling with a little kid is way more work and you end up doing way less than you think you will, but it’s so worth it and I always leave so happy that we tried it. This big trip was no different, and if anything I felt even more grateful for the opportunity to have a sweet little baby and still get to explore the world a little bit.
Let me know if you have any questions or want me to elaborate on anything! Like I said, I’m definitely not a travel expert but I always love to share my experiences and hear about yours. Thanks so much as always for reading!
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