Traveling with babies or toddlers? What to bring (and what to leave at home)

With Mother’s Day coming up next Sunday, I’ve decided to dedicate each day this week to offering tips, inspiration, and stories to all the traveling moms out there, especially those who might be questioning how, where, or why they can bring their children out into the world. And I won’t be doing it alone. Each day other fabulous traveling mothers will offer their own words of wisdom. I’m so excited to bring you the collective experience of this truly amazing group of family travelers who have been round the world and back with their little ones.

So should you pack baby's toys?

When Tommy was nearly eight months old, Matt and I decided that we would spend his first Christmas in Wisconsin, where Matt grew up and where his sister and her family still lived. For reasons that I no longer remember, we decided to drive there from Delaware. It takes about 14 hours to do so.

Now at that point in Tommy’s development he loved to spend a lot of his time standing up. He wasn’t quite old enough to do it unassisted, so we had borrowed a toy that we called an “exer-saucer” from a friend. You may have seen these – stretching several feet across, they have a grooved saucer-shaped bottom where the baby stands, and then a large plastic ring, around the perimeter of which are toys of various types. A child using one can stand in the center, supported by a little sleeve, and rotate their bodies around to play.

Let me just say that it is not a small piece of equipment.

As I packed for our two-week visit, I decided, with the zeal of a new parent, that Tommy would be miserable if we didn’t bring the exer-saucer with us. The more I thought about it, the more imperative it seemed. The problem was that our car was a small sedan; if we had put the toy in the trunk, we wouldn’t have had room for our suitcases or any of the gifts we were bringing with us. So at my insistence, we borrowed a car-top box, which Matt grudgingly installed.

Driving with the box on the car was, how shall I say it? Miserable. It slid around, scratching the roof, and thumping in a very unnerving way. We weren’t exactly aerodynamic, and I shudder to think how much extra gas we used. And it made Matt extremely crabby, which led to more than one tense exchange.

Of course, Tommy enjoyed having his exer-saucer with him. But since the majority of the time he was either on the floor grabbing at the Christmas tree or sitting in the laps of the innumerable relatives that came to see him (did I mention that Matt has lots of extended family?) he probably spent a grand total of about twenty minutes in the thing.

Now, I don’t fault myself for bringing along the exer-saucer; doing so was what I needed to feel happy and secure about that trip. But it definitely taught me to think carefully about what is truly necessary when hitting the road with small children. There’s no one right answer of course – what you need depends on where you are going and also your own personality. But I do kind of wish I had a more experienced mom to tap me on the shoulder and gently suggest that perhaps Tommy would survive without that enormous toy.

For instance, it might have helped to have this piece of wisdom from Keryn Means of Walkingon Travels:

Leave the bag full of toys for your baby at home. They only need a small handful to keep them entertained. Flying? Take a walk down the aisles if you really need an extra distraction.

But there are also moms who believe that you can take it with you, like Corinne McDermott of Have Baby Will Travel:

I am teased mercilessly about my baby packing list, but truth be told, I resent the pressure to “pack light” and the assertions of “you don’t really need to bring it with you!” Parents traveling with babies should take what they need to make them feel comfortable and assured. Of course it might be in your financial best interest to avoid checking too much luggage and to investigate renting baby equipment at your destination, but it truly is about your comfort level. If you think you’ll need “it” (whatever “it” is), and will feel better knowing you have it with you, than bring it and make no apologies. Same goes for your carry-on bag; as long as it fits and you can actually carry it! Nobody wants you to be without an essential when you’re at 30,000 feet, least of all your fellow passengers.

Amie O’Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino! suggests relying on local stores and rental agencies for baby necessities:

People around the world have babies and as a consequence, baby supplies are readily available practically anywhere. Lighten your travel load and bring the things where the brand is important like formula and medicine, and buy or rent things locally (like diapers and pack-n-plays) where within reason, the make and model is flexible. We publish an extensive Baby Equipment Rental directory on Ciao Bambino.

Rebecca Darling of R We There Yet Mom? seconds the recommendation to leave spare diapers behind:

Leave diapers at home (you can always buy them when you get there)– do not pay a baggage fee for them!

But Colleen Lanin of Travel Mamas warns that you want to make sure you have plenty of the essentials on hand, especially if you will be taking your child on a cruise:

Bring more bottles, diapers, wipes and baby food than you think you will need when flying with a baby or sailing on a cruise ship. You never know when a four-hour delay on the tarmac will occur and if it does, you want to be prepared. Many cruise ships, even those that are family-friendly, do not offer formula or diapers anywhere on the ship. You don’t want to be out at sea when you realize you are out of an essential baby item.

Mary Solio of The World is a Book also recommends packing a little extra gear for cruise ship travel:

Packing for a baby and a toddler is hard enough on land but what about packing for those who venture into the world of cruising?  Things like a baby carrier, inflatable pool, disposable bottle liners and crib sheets are just some of the items to pack when cruising with a baby or toddler.

Nicole Wiltrout of Arrows Sent Forth has a basic set of principles that will help anyone traveling with babies and toddler plan what to bring:

I think this really depends on the destination, but my process for packing for babies and toddlers (beyond clothes) is, “What do they need to sleep, eat, poop, and play?” In my experience, you can leave most of the “play” needs at home. Part of the fun of traveling is letting them explore a new place! You can always find a playground if they get bored.

The takeaway message here? What you need to bring depends on where you are going, how you are getting there, and the specific needs of you and your child. Keeping these three criteria in mind as you get ready to go will help you successfully plan and pack for any family vacation with your baby.

So what are your baby and toddler vacation must-haves? Please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Reader Responses

3 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Thanks for including my tips here, Mara! This is a wonderful collection of packing items and a great resource for new traveling parents.

  2. Great post! I used to pack waaaaayyyy too much stuff, especially toys. Now, if we’re in need of a new toy, there’s almost always a McDonalds around, and we can stop in for a Happy Meal and a new toy. It occupies my kids for days, and I don’t feel bad about tossing the toy later. It definately saves space in our luggage. I can’t say it’s the healthiest meal we eat on our trips, but this little trick has saved us some sanity, that’s for sure!

    • I totally agree that one small, new toy can make all the difference. One thing I started when my kids were little (and still do now) was a “travel basket” – when I was shopping and saw something I thought would make a fun travel toy, I bought it and threw it in there. Then before we left for any trip, I either chose something from the basket or (when the kids got older) let them choose. We’re heavier on the activity books and card games now, but it still has the same effect.

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