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6 tips for traveling with a toddler every parent needs

Wondering how to travel with a toddler? Here's everything you need to know.
Cropped hand of a toddler pointing airplane window against blue sky while travelling
Having a toddler is not the end of the road for globetrotters.d3sign / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Traveling with a toddler may feel like a daunting scenario for any parent.

Even the most vacation-savvy parent might shudder at the thought of boarding a flight or packing up a car with small kids in tow, but having a toddler is not the end of the road for globetrotters.

Katie Brown, an independent family travel advisor with Ciao Bambino and a mom, told TODAY Parents that parents wanting to travel with a toddler can "absolutely" do it.

"There are a ton of articles intending to be funny about how miserable traveling with young kids is, but I have found traveling with a toddler is one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as a mom, and I find my clients feel similarly," Brown said.

Benefits of traveling with a toddler

Brown said that the benefit of traveling with a toddler is parents eliminate all distractions from their day, and can just enjoy watching their toddler explore and learn in a new environment.

"They are still young enough where parents can dictate most of the activities, but old enough where packing and getting around is easier than with an infant," she said.

For parents hitting the road or the open skies, Brown offered six important tips.

Related: Best family vacation destinations for when you want to get away

6 tips for traveling with a toddler

Choose the right location. 

If you aren’t someone who enjoys a lot of time in a bustling city, a vacation to Paris with a toddler will likely have you more stressed. If you have never been one to enjoy the logistics and cleanup of going to a beach, spending your vacation trying to prevent a 1 year old from eating sand is not going to feel relaxing.

"I recommend choosing a location on what is fun for the adults and/or the older kids in the family traveling," Brown told TODAY Parents. "You can work any location into being a fun vacation with toddlers, but it also has to be fun for adults."

Choose a length that makes sense for the preferred location.

If you are flying from Phoenix to Japan with a 2-year-old, and only have a week vacation, you are going to spend a lot of that week adjusting to the new time zone and schedule and likely not feel like you have had the chance to really enjoy the destination or time together.

If you only have a long weekend to travel with the 3-and-under crowd, choose something that can be done in a short drive or flight.

"If you have more time to spend in a new location, traveling the longer distance won’t feel so daunting," Brown said.

Find the right accommodation.

Brown said that finding the right accommodations makes a huge difference in the quality of a vacation with toddlers.

"Ideally, choose a property that has some level of separation between where your toddler is sleeping, and where you are spending time during naps or bedtime," she said. "No matter how nice the hotel, if you are sitting on a bathroom floor every afternoon during nap time the experience is a bit less relaxing."

If budget does not accommodate a multi bedroom accommodation or suite, Brown shared that in her experience she has found reprieve with a balcony or terrace.

"A villa or apartment can be a nice solution, but keep in mind that this may affect the feel of the trip, primarily for the person in the family who normally cooks breakfast," she said.

If the goal of the trip is to explore a new area or visit family, an apartment may make the most sense.

If the goal is to breakaway from your routine and have a vacation from doing dishes, a hotel with a great breakfast and pool will probably feel more aligned with the vacation vision.

Choose the right activities.

What these “right activities” are will differ based on family preferences.

"What I have found most successful is choosing activities that the parents or older kids would enjoy, but finding ways to engage your toddler with them," Brown told TODAY Parents.

She continued, "This may look like choosing a cooking class in Tuscany at an agriturismo with animals and a playground, rather than at a professional chef’s kitchen. If the parents love art, perhaps you pair a short visit to Musee D’Orsay with a hands-on craft experience where the kids can get a bit messy and play."

Brown shared that when she traveled to Portugal with her toddler daughter, "it was as simple as bringing a ball with us. We would get to enjoy a great outdoor lunch on a terrace, and when our daughter was feeling antsy, one of the adults would chase her while she chased a ball around a pedestrian square while the other adult finished their wine."

Related: The 14 best places to go on vacation with a baby or toddler

Be mindful of what schedule works for you.

"I hate to break it to you, but your toddler is not going to sleep in on vacation just because you are at the beach — or maybe you have a unicorn," Brown said. "If you have a child that turns into a gremlin after 7 p.m., long late-night dinners are just not going to make your trip feel like a vacation."

Choose a great breakfast or fun lunch spot instead, and for dinner instead get great local takeaway to enjoy on your balcony watching the sunset.

The reverse is true as well.

"If you have a night owl, or are traveling east and changing time zones, packing your day full of activities in the early morning just won’t feel fun," Brown said. "In this case, find ways to enjoy the evening. Obviously it isn’t going to hurt to veer off the schedule you have at home, but you also have to be mindful of the fact that tired hungry toddlers are no fun to be around."

Manage your expectations.

Brown said this might be the most important tip.

"If you try to force your pre-kids trip schedule dreams on a 2-year-old, you will spend your vacation frustrated and exhausted," she said. "If you go into the trip knowing that your days are likely not going to go as you perfectly planned, but with the mindset that you will find the fun in the chaos, you will find more relaxation and happiness in traveling with toddlers."

How is traveling with a toddler different from traveling with a baby?

Brown said that when parents travel with a baby, babies are still very much on the adult’s schedule, just with more gear.

"As they become mobile, it becomes important and fun to slow down on vacation, and include time for your child to play," she said.

What types of trips work best for toddlers?

This is entirely dependent on the family. Brown told TODAY Parents that any trip can work well for toddlers as long as you tailor it to the family.

"What I see the biggest trend to be with toddlers is incorporating city or ‘busier’ time with an area where there is more space to play," she said. "Like most trips, there is no perfect one-size-fits-all formula, so having an advisor help you sort through the options or doing research in destinations to see what accommodations and activities are offered is key."

Traveling with a toddler

Before having kids, Brown read many well intentioned articles about how stressful having kids is, highlighting how you lose a part of yourself, how vacations are now “trips,” and that you will never have time for anything you enjoy again.

"I loved traveling pre-kids, and was terrified of having children because of these 'funny' anecdotes," Brown told TODAY Parents. "If I could go back to my new mom self who was so worried that travel was going to be stressful because of my toddler, I would tell her that while it is a different experience than traveling without kids, it is also an incredibly beautiful experience."