Traveling with a toddler as a single parent
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
When I found out I was going to be a mother, I was on my second video interview with a major airline to become a flight attendant. I was crushed to realize that my plans were about to shift in a major way but I was hopeful and excited to know that for some time I would have a new companion to share my love of travel.
Photo credit Frederic Lefeuvre @aseed
Six months after having my son, I embarked on a 3-hour flight to Canada to celebrate my sister's thirty-fifth birthday and even though he cried a little on the plane, I considered the trip to be a breeze. As Jonathan got older and passed the one year mark, I wondered where the sweet little boy I knew went and how in the world I would ever get on a plane with him again. Right before he turned two, I decided to take the plunge and book an off-season flight to Nice with a 24 hour layover in Barcelona while he could still travel for *free, free, free because this single momma is on a budget!
*(You still have to pay a tax)
That's right honey! As soon as your child turns TWO he will be paying for his flight as an adult passenger. Don't ask me! I didn't make this rule but I'd be glad to take it up to management with you, lol.
It wasn't all fun and games this time around but gosh was it worth it! So for those of you having anxiety about traveling with your toddler, I say this: Don't put up the white flag just yet; if I can do it, so can you.
Before the trip
1.-Build up anticipation
A month before we left for our trip, I would point out anything with a plane on it to Jonathan and explain how we were going to fly soon. We live about 20 minutes away from the airport so any chance I got, I'd look up to the sky and show him how high up we were going to be and how excited I was about the trip. I would emulate the sound of an airplane and turn him around to make it fun. When the day came, he too was excited to get on the plane.
2.-Choose your destination wisely
In my opinion or if you really want to get your feet wet, I suggest traveling to a destination where
A. You know the language
B. It is a place you have been to before or
C. You have friends or relatives that can help you along the way.
The last thing I need is to figure out what I am doing in a foreign country while dragging an innocent child with me and having no one to help me in case of an accident. So I suggest that you start somewhere you feel comfortable.
I also encourage you to visit a kid-friendly destination first and ease your way up into the unknown. I have lived in Barcelona and I know it gets pretty busy. I knew I could manage my way around on foot with Jonathan's stroller and it was easy to carry up the stairs at the train station or walk around town with him. We spent most of our time in Nice, where we visited a friend. It is a very kid-friendly destination with easy access to public transportation which we utilized during the day, even crossing over to Italy one day to visit a nearby town.
Traveling with a minor usually requires bringing not only a passport for your child but most of the time the original birth certificate as well. Single parents may or may not need a consent form from the other parent/guardian of the child in order to travel outside of their country of origin. Make sure you have all the paperwork you need before you get your tickets. As requirements may vary from one country to another, be sure to check the US Department International Travel website for the proper documents for your specific destination.
Make copies of important documents!
I have been doing this for a while now and even when I have not had to use the copies, I always make two copies of my passport and other important travel documents that I pack in different places than the originals. I also keep a copy with a family member or friend back home in case of an emergency. For example, you can make a list of your itinerary and/or hotel list with phone numbers if they need to get in touch with you or if you need to contact the hotel prior to your arrival or after yourdeparture.
Green tip: Trippit is a great travel app that I have personally used. It organizes all your travel plans and puts all the trip details in one place creating a master itinerary that you can email to family and friends. It also sends you notifications if there is a change in your flight schedule etc.
Check the weather before you leave!
Sure I was going to the French Riviera but May is not exactly the right time to take a dip in the Med so instead of packing my itsy bitsy bikini and Jonathan's cool swim trunks, I packed layers (try to use one or two color palettes so you don't need 5 pairs of shoes). Believe it or not I was able to fit all of our belongings into one carry on and a backpack.
Must have items:
FORMULA and snacks!
I learned the hard way that when you travel, you need extra formula. My son has an intolerance to lactose and so he takes Soy Formula. On our previous trip to Canada, I ran out of formula and was able to find a good alternative to our brand at the pharmacy; this time around I was not so lucky. My poor guy went 2 days without taking any formula because he just didn't like the French brand I had purchased and I can tell you that he wasn't very happy.
Keep healthy snacks with you in case of delays, babies don't always enjoy the food that is served on the plane. You can either buy your toddler's favorites or pack a homemade sandwich for the journey (the longer the trip, the more snacks you should pack).
Travel tip: Keep most of the formula with you in case your luggage gets lost.
Pack all the usual suspects from home. Pain/fever reducer, a thermometer, cold and flu medicine, your favorite first-aid antibiotic ointment in case of minor cuts and some children's Benadryl in case of allergies.
Diaper bag (preferably a backpack version)
Fill it with wipes and diapers and disposable bags (my favorite are the Arm and Hammer scented ones in a cute dispenser). Take enough diapers for 3 days on the plane and pack the remaining with your luggage or in the stroller bag which you can check at the gate. You can also buy extra ones once you reach your final destination, as long as you are not going to a remote location.
Stroller and carrier
I knew I wouldn't be driving so I didn't take the car seat with me but boy am I happy I took that stroller and the carrier. I took them pretty much everywhere. Choose a lighter model for the stroller if possible; our model is a city stroller that we use even when at home. See for yourself how unbothered and comfortable my little man was in his ride.
Bottles and travel bottle rack
If your toddler is still on formula like mine, take a max of three bottles on the trip with you. I also always take a travel bottle rack with me even on overnight trips. Less bottles to carry and easy clean ups!
I'm not only talking about the obvious tablet lol (yes my kid has a tablet!) I'm talking actual toys like a small truck or glow in the dark spinner that will arouse your child's curiosity. You can bring a couple of coloring books and crayons to kill time on the plane or at dinner when you need them to sit still. Before we left for our trip, I went to my local dollar store and packed new small toys that I knew Jonathan would like.
Accidents happen, trips get cancelled, people get sick. The last thing you want to happen is to cancel a trip because your child got sick and you simply cannot go. It would also be awful if you or your little one got ill while on vacation and you had to be evacuated home. Your flight could be cancelled and you would be stuck with an extra night at the hotel that you did not budget for.
Many people do not know this but insurance does not usually travel with you and the benefits you enjoy at home might not be available to you overseas. I don't know how much more I need to stress this but: BUY THE INSURANCE!
During the trip
1.-Enjoy Priority Boarding and more
Families are usually able to board before everyone else so enjoy the VIP call. In Europe, most airports have a special line for families and you can skip the long lines at immigration on your way in and out. This can not only save you time, but it is super convenient when your little one is tired or just bored from being on a long-haul flight. Take advantage of it while you can.
Not everyone is a fan of babies onboard. Be courteous with your neighbors and apologize in advance for the mess your child might make. It's a good icebreaker so that if something bad happens, the person seated next to you will show a bit more empathy towards the situation. This does not excuse your child's behavior, do your best to keep them calm.
I've never been too shy about introducing new food items into my son's diet. Thankfully he does not have any food allergies so I try to give him very diversified meals when we are at home. This helps while being away and takes that stress of finding the perfect meal for him in an unfamiliar place. As long as we get at least one protein, one fruit and a veggie in, he pretty much eats anything but some days he can be quite picky so I'll throw in some fries, chicken strips or a snack from home when he is not interested in the daily menu. I'll even let him have a treat or two like this fabulous gelato we found roaming the streets of Nice.
Tip: If your child does have allergies, do not forget their medication and try and look up a few dining options online or even contacting restaurants through social media to find out what your options are. If you happen to be staying at a B&B, you can go grocery shopping and prepare your little one something special.
Nap time is really anytime. As adults it usually takes us about 1-3 days to adjust to the time change and even then we might feel a bit groggy depending on how far we are from home and weather changes etc. we are faced with. Nice was a bit cool in the mornings and at night but the days were bright and sunny in May and the time difference was about 6 hours from our home. Don't let that stop you from going outside and exploring; just slow down when he needs it or make him feel as comfortable as you can while his little body is adjusting. For us, the pacifier worked like a charm so mommy made sure we had a backup in case ours got lost.
You might know you are on a vacation but trust me your toddler has no idea what is going on other than the fact that he is not home and in a new environment. Ask Jonathan if he remembers going to Disney last summer; probably not. Little ones are full of energy so naturally they love to run around and are fascinated by the smallest things. You don't have to go out of your way to entertain a toddler, locating the nearest park or letting him run around on a beach throwing pebbles for a few minutes should do the trick.
Photo credit @katy_barcelona_photos
You can do it!
I am not the first single parent to travel with a child and probably not the last one so you should know that you are not alone on this journey. Try to find inspiration from other parents you may or may not know. My parents took all three of their children from Haiti on a vacation that started in Florida and ended in Canada when I was just two years old so I knew it could be done. I also know a lot of courageous mamas like Krystle Wilson, a model turned entrepreneur whose blog #everythingkrys inspires me everyday (she's been crushing this motherhood thing like a boss for a few years now and is a super pro at traveling with kids).
Photo credit Frederic Lefeuvre @aseed
At the end of the day exposing your child to new horizons and exciting their curiosity is the best gift you can ever give them. They will grow into well rounded adults, be cultured and just be better human beings because of it.
Pack your bags, you got this!
Disclosure: “Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you."