25 Tips For Traveling With Toddlers

The toddler’s secret goal is to destroy your vacation.

It’s not the toddler’s fault. It’s just how this little creature rolls. Toddlers, after all, are made up of Chaos Particles — little sub-atomic building parts that grow more excited and agitated when they see the chance to destroy serenity and undo order. The toddler is an entity whose very presence invokes entropy, and in the toddler’s presence, all things drift toward total breakdown. Consider what happens if you place a toddler in a perfectly clean room. In 4.63 seconds, that room will look like Godzilla the King of Monsters had a sexy-time orgy with seven other kaiju. The coffee table will be upside down. The TV will be on some pay-per-view boxing match. A bunch of cats that aren’t your will be running around. The ceiling fan? On fire.

Again: it is not the toddler’s fault. It’s just what they’re made of. Over time, as the toddler ages, the Chaos Particles fuse to become the same building blocks that comprise us all: electrons, protons, atoms, molecules, high fructose corn syrup, Red no. 40, Lincoln Logs, whatever. (Exception is when they enter their teenage years, at which point all molecules break down into Sullen, Surly Quarks and Quantum Asshole Strings.)

So, if you’re going to travel with a toddler — like, say, going on vacation — you need to be prepared. You need to steel yourself against what’s coming. Shore up your defenses. Build armor. Train your army. Ride out in front of them on a horse with your face painted blue and give an impassioned speech about BUT THE TODDLER SHALL NEVER TAKE… OUR FREEDOM.

(Ha ha ha they totally take your freedom. They’re freedom-eaters, you fool!)

I just traveled to Myrtle Beach with my wife and toddler, and so having done something once, I am now prepared to tell you how to do it like the blustering, stammering blowhard that I am.

And so, I give you: 25 tips on traveling with your toddler.

1. Accept Now That Your Relaxing Adult-Style Vacation Is Fucking Dead

Ha ha ha, you poor, poor parent. You actually thought you were gonna get in that spa visit. Maybe get your drank on. Do some jet-skiing, some sun-tanning, some late-night sexy-time. Mmm, yeah, no. Your adult vacation has been washed out to sea like a broken condom. It has been abraded by coral and eaten by an eel. Your vacation now is wet wipes and snack bags, stuffed animals and Matchbox cars, zoo visits and playgrounds and potty-time in awkward bathrooms. You will glimpse your once-upon-a-time adult-style vacation sometimes, a fleeting shadow like watching the Loch Ness Monster pass underneath your boat. Once in a while you may even catch this mythical creature and get an hour here and there to yourself. But the vacation you once had is not the vacation that exists for you now. Because toddler.

2. Begin Your Propaganda Bombing Early

You can’t just spring a vacation on your toddler like it’s a surprise. “TA-DA, GET ON A PLANE NOW, TINY HUMAN, HERE, JUST CRAWL INTO THIS WINGED METAL TUBE WHICH WILL BE FLUNG ACROSS THE HEAVENS AT HIGH SPEEDS.” You gotta get in their heads early. You are the Propaganda Minister for your own vacation. You need to start selling it early. Get them excited. Tell them about all the things you’re going to do (and do not lie about this, for toddlers remember your tricksy promises). You have to sell them on the plane, the beach, the mountains, the car ride, whatever’s on the agenda. Love-bomb them with the coming vacation. This is valuable because it also might signal trouble spots — if you start telling the tiny dictator about the plane ride and she starts freaking out about it, well, that’s a sign you have some more propagandizing to do.

3. Forget The Schedule, Aim For Grab-Bag Of Options

We like to think of our schedules as rigid as rebar, as inflexible as the Incredible Hulk, but truth is, our schedules are snowflakes under fragile glass. And in the hands of a toddler — who, let’s remember, are AGENTS OF CHAOS INSERTED INTO THIS WORLD BY CACKLE-MAD DEITIES — your schedule is a crumpled-up paper airplane that won’t fly five inches. Schedules are reliant on movement, timing, precision. Toddlers are the antithesis to those things, and so your best bet is to scrap any regimented schedules and instead hew to a random floating grab-bag of options — think of your vacation like the menu at a Chipotle. Every day is a potential buffet of treats, and you can build your schedule as you go rather than at the start of the day. You know why drunk drivers sometimes walk away from horrific accidents? Because they’re too drunk to realize what’s happening, and so they turn all ragdoll as the car folds up around them. The lucky dipshits survive because they’re inadvertently flexible. So: be flexible. Don’t let your vacation plans snap like an old man’s legbone. The winds of the toddler tornado are fierce, and you must bend to them.

4. Your Goal Is To Just Get To The Next Thing

Break your vacation up into digestible toddler-sized chunks. The toddler is a small person and so your vacation must seem small to meet their perspective. Forget grand, sweeping journeys — think Duplo blocks. Don’t overdo it. The goal, then, is to get your tot to the next thing. Not tomorrow. Not the end of the trip. Just the very next thing. Don’t worry too much about “later,” just think about “soon.” Think about what’s next, and do what needs to be done to get them there. Food? Nap? Promise of the premise? More propaganda? As noted earlier: don’t lie. Toddlers will believe whatever tiny fibs or epic deceptions you give them, and they will seek every opportunity to hang you for your insolence. They will remember. And they will ruin you for it.

5. Bribery Is Shameless, And Also, You Should Totally Do It

I am not a fan of appeasement because something-something Hitler. Appeasement parenting is a good way to raise a little monster, because you will train them to push and push and push and expect more and more and more because that’s how appeasement works. “I don’t want my little tiny person to be upset!” you say as your child flails and flounces and shrieks like a cat in a wood chipper, and so you give them what they want and they learn a vital lesson: Ah, yes, the way to orchestrate the completion of my desires is to throw the kind of shit-fit that would make a coked-up baboon go quiet with fear. Now, all that being said — you also have to recognize that vacations are precious, rare things. Sometimes they require delicate care and while that does not mean appeasing your tot, it does mean getting ahead of problem areas with good-old-fashioned bribery. On a plane? Give them some new toys. At a new restaurant? Time to open up some crayons. Long car-ride? No time like the present to let them unveil the new proton cannon you had mounted to the mini-van. The timing here is vital: you don’t bribe them in the middle of tantrums. You bribe them to get ahead of the discomfort caused by ALL THESE NEW THINGS.

6. Actually, Lots Of Your Parenting Rules Can Go On Vacation For A Little While

Vacations are a good time to let loose, right? Go on, have that third margarita. Eat the goddamn cheesecake. Gobble a fistful of benzos and karate-fight a hammerhead shark. The same thing goes for your normal parenting rules. You won’t feed the kid chocolate? It’s vacation time. Give the kid some chocolate. He wants to stay up late? It’s vacation time! Kid wants a bow-and-arrow and the keys to the rental car? IT’S VACATION TIME. Okay, maybe don’t let him do that last part.

7. (But When You Get Home, Lock It Down)

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, including that time you let your toddler dress like an adult and go win big at the craps table. Though the long trenchcoat and oversized mustache was definitely super-adorbz, it’s time to quit that shit when you get home. Whatever rule-breaches happened on vacation are game over goodbye upon arriving back in reality.

8. Routine Maintenance

Despite rule breaches, there exists some value to keeping to routine, if not all of the rules. While a more flexible routine is likely necessary, it’s still good to have some semblance of what the tiny human experiences at home. Bring some carryover of the routine, be it bath-time, book-time, bed-time, snack-time, wibbly-wobbly-time, Adventure Time, Hammer Time, whatever. Here it pays to know your toddler (which is why I make mine fill out a weekly 10-page Get To Know You survey) to know how much to keep and how much to jettison out the airlock.

9. Though, Also Consider This An Opportune Time To Change Routine

Sometimes, little things creep into your daily toddlerian routine that you don’t like. It happens. We like to think that as parents we have Ultimate Control, but sometimes, bugs get into the programming. Somewhere along the way, our tot watches the iPad while on his last potty break for the night, and after that, extracting him from that iPad is like trying to pull a chestburster xenomorph off an astronaut’s face. But traveling is disruptive; you can use it to disrupt those bits of your routine that you won’t want to continue, maybe saying goodbye to them for good.

10. Time The Trip Around The Tot’s Pre-Existing Toddlerian Schedule

The actual vacation itself may modify or utterly obliterate all sense of routine and scheduling, but during the actual travel time, it may help to time things out along the lines of the toddler’s usual existence. It sounds like I’m trumpeting the obvious here, but try to be near food when your kid would normally eat. Nap-time can be a good time to travel because SWEET, SWEET NAPS. Make sure you’re near a bar when the toddler’s Martini Hour approacheth. Etc, so on. Our plane trip out was during the tot’s bed-time, but was too exciting for him to do anything but remain wide awake — which pushed us into over-tired territory. We flew back close to bed-time on the way home, which means he slept like a hibernating bridge-troll. Neither was awesome because that means he was basically up till 1:00 in the morning like one of those drunks who just won’t go down for the count. “I love you guys. I like you so so much. ANUBBER WHISKEY FOR ME AND MISTER BEAR.” *flings a shoe* *cry-eats Cheezits* *fills diaper*

11. Bread And Circuses, Teddy Grahams And Tablet Apps

Bring entertainment. The diminutive dictator, the itty-bitty imperator, the Lilliputian lord/lordess, demands to be entertained. Bread and circuses! Once again, this is not necessarily the best policy for raising a child day-to-day, but it’s a damn solid one to carve your way through traveling with a toddler-type. Bring games. Crayons. Play-Doh. Snacks. Train squirrels to be gladiators. Entertainment is power. Besides: it’s a vacation. You want to be entertained. So do they. (Seriously: an iPad or other tablet is awesome for all this. It’s a toy-box, book-shop and video-service all in one. In a small device I had a ton of educational apps, several hours of Peppa Pig videos, and a Hot Wheels catalog. Oh, and forget those ‘kid-specific’ tablets. Those are expensive junk. A real tablet will cost as much or less, with cheaper, even free, apps.)

12. Have A Hand Free (Like, Always)

You need a hand free. At any moment. You might need to hold the tot’s hand. Or steer them away from broken glass on the parking lot. Or hold their doll while they pick their nose and wipe it on a parking meter. Or straight punch a grizzly bear. Whatever. This seems obvious until you actually travel somewhere and realize your hands are nearly always full, particularly when you’re making your way through the Dante’s Inferno that is the airport. You’re carrying a diaper bag and a sand pail and a container of Animal Crackers and a canister of bear mace and next thing you know you’re looking up and your toddler is stealing someone’s Jeep 100 yards away. Have a hand free.

13. Prepare Your Packing List Like, Seven Months In Advance

Okay, maybe not that long, but seriously, packing for a trip with a toddler isn’t the same as packing for your normal adult vacation. Packing like an adult means carelessly packing the night before — “Oh, toothbrush and underwear, done!” Packing for a toddler is like building a Rube Goldberg doomsday machine. It is best done with care — meaning, not the night before you’re about to leave. Give the toddler some input, but oh holy shit do not let them pack their own bag. You will end up with a Hello Kitty backpack full of driveway gravel, doll heads, and mini-Snicker bars. And they’ll probably also put something in there that triggers security at the airport, like, hey, this seems like a good time to throw a butterfly knife in there. The toddler will have some kind of logic for it because toddlers always have logic (“That’s how Dolly eats her peas.” “What?”). Consult the toddler, but never let them have control of the packing. Also, how’d your kid get a butterfly knife? Was it cheap? Can he get me one? I lost mine at the airport.

14. Oh, Shit, The Fucking Car Seat

I have no good advice for how to deal with a car seat. None. We chose to rent one there at our vacation destination, and goddamn was that a nightmare. But we also watched other parents struggling with car seats and that looked to be an equivalent trip through the nightmare factory. You could check the car seat, but those things are apparently precision-balanced by monks in Nepal, and baggage handlers throw stuff around like they’re Donkey Kong flinging barrels at a tiny Italian plumber. You could carry-on the car seat, but that’ll cost you — and now you’re lugging the thing onto a plane, and car-seats are woefully cumbersome, like carrying one of the really-awkward Tetris blocks. (Wow, two old-school video game references in one. YOU’RE WELCOME.) We did find the RideSafer, which is a safety-compliant vest. Easy to pack.

15. Do Not Leave That One Precious Toy At Home

Our tot has a rotating group of precious toys, so this one was tricky — but if your toddler has like, a favorite bunny or blankie or ninja weapon, do not forget it. If that thing is 600 miles away from you and the tiny person, oh, jeez, I pray for you. Because these little imps remember all this stuff. They’re like a dog with a bone. They’ll never let you live it down and every three-point-four minutes of the vacation the tot will be screaming DO YOU HAVE CURIOUS GEORGE DO YOU HAVE HIM DO YOU DO YOU DO YOU HUH WHY NOT AAAAAAAAAH GRAVE ENNUI PLAGUES ME I AM ALONE IN THIS FRACTURED UNIVERSE FOR I AM WITHOUT A MONKEY WHO IS ALSO AN APE BUT NO ONE CALLS HIM AN APE AND DOOM DOOM DOOOOOOM TO YOU ALL.

16. Hunger And Fatigue Will Conspire To Crush Your Puny Vacation

As I said in an earlier post about toddlers, without food and sleep, your toddlers become hill cannibals. This is doubly true during trips because everything is already wonky — lots of NEW SHINY SCARY OH GOD WHAT’S THAT HEY THAT LOOKS FUN — and so any dip into hunger and fatigue is magnified. At that point they’re pretty much werewolves. Rampaging, howling werewolves with flamethrowers. Lots of stuff gets missed during travel: be sure to address food, drink, sleep. Oh, and potty-time. Being on an airplane is not the ideal time to deal with pee-sodden sneakers or a poo-shellacked seat-belt.

17. Consider Crisis Points And Contingency Plans

Things will go sideways, pear-shaped, wibbly-wobbly, fucky-wucky. As an adult traveling alone or in pairs, so what? Missed connection. Late flight. Closed highway. Hotel reservation gone south. Shit happens. You might panic at the time, but really, you’re fine. You’re adults. Try that with a toddler in tow. You miss a connection or are delayed in any way, now you’ve got a heap of new problems: a collision of boredom, impatience, hunger, fatigue, general toddler malaise and bewilderment. What’s your next move? Plan ahead.

18. Do Things They Wanna Do, Not Just Things You Want Them To Wanna Do

I’ll admit, sometimes I’m the father who wants my son to like things he doesn’t necessarily like. He loves trucks and I don’t give four good goddamns about trucks (unless they’re carrying ice cream), so maybe I try to gently elbow him into liking other things (so far, he’s not keen on whiskey tasting). Getting your kids to check out new stuff is good! That has real value because tots need exposure to new things. He was dubious about going to the aquarium and the shark tank in particular but he loved the sharks. Just the same, I recognize he has his own little ecosystem of wants and interests and I’d be a right rollicking jerk-faced jerk-pants to ignore them. Plus, it’s vital to give your toddler some vacation time too — it’s their trip, same as it is yours.

19. Check Them With Your Luggage

Toddlers are tricky travelers, so your best bet is to check them with your luggage. As long as they don’t weigh more than 50 pounds, you can — *receives note* — oh. Ohhhh. Oh. You, uhhh, you can’t do that? You sure? I mean, WHAT NO YOU CAN’T DO THAT HOW DARE YOU. *clears throat* *quietly removes toddler from suitcase*

20. You Seriously Cannot Have Enough Baby Wipes

I don’t know what it is with toddlers but somehow they’re always sticky. It’s like they keep a jar of strawberry jam in their pocket and sometimes they dip into it with a couple of fingers. Wherever you go, wet wipes will be welcome. Pee. Boogers. A grilled cheese sandwich they found in a parking lot. Frankly, just fill a whole fucking backpack with baby wipes.

21. Build In Extra Time (In Fact, Bring Along A Goddamn Time Machine)

Toddlers take an extra 27 minutes to do everything. Anything from getting out the door to blowing their nose to picking a stuffed animal for the car ride. Whatever the normal time you would take, add 27 minutes to it. Build this into any and all vacation scheduling. Particularly when you have important things to do like, say, get on a plane, or be in an illegal Toyko drift race.

22. Consider Shipping Stuff To And From Your Destination

Stuff is heavy. Toddler stuff is extra heavy. It’s possible that every toddler is in fact a distributor of personal black holes. Anyway, given that airlines these days ding you for every bag you bring — “What’s that in your pocket, a wallet? That’ll be a $35 Wallet Transportation Fee” — you should consider the notion of shipping a bag to and from your destination. It’s probably cheaper than whatever the airline will cost you, because their cost almost surely involves tithing a finger, a nose, maybe a coupla toes.

23. Know Your Child

This sounds stupid, but really, really, seriously think about your kid. Think about what they like. What they fear. What they want. Then compare it to your vacation. Hold the mental transparency of your child against the blueprint for the vacation. Do they line up? “Foodie vacation in Spain” is not a toddler-friendly vacation. “Seven weeks in a McDonald’s ball-pit” is very possibly a more toddler-adjacent trip, but mostly it’s just trying to realize you have a family now, not a pairing of booze-guzzling world-traveling grown-ups. Go to the beach. Look at a fucking zebra somewhere.

24. Sympathy Instead Of Stubbornness, Empathy Instead Of Anger

Think about it. Your toddler has done like, 3% of the things you’ve done in your life. She’s probably never been on a trip and if she has, her goldfish-like brain has already cast it back into the sea with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam. This is weird, wonderful, scary stuff. Frustrating and confusing and fun. Our toddler frequently wore the face of “hey, what the shit is going on here” constantly. Sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a scowl. So, you have to be sympathetic. Go to them with empathy. Try to grok what it’s like. Give them a little extra space to be frustrated and have fun on a trip. It’ll soothe everybody’s surly beast.

25. Learn To Love The Chaos

It’s gonna be total cuckoopants. So: enjoy it. Embrace the weirdness of it all. Just as they say, WHEN IN ROME, VISIT THE TAUROBOLIUM AND SPEAR THE BULL AND BATHE IN ITS BLOOD (paraphrase), they also say, WHEN IN TODDLERLAND, BE LIKE THE TODDLER. Okay, nobody says that. Point is: give into it a little. Go with the flow. Just for this trip. The toddler will thank you, because as we’ve already discussed, the toddler is basically pure chaos.

And sometimes, pure chaos can be a whole lotta fun.

[Edit: I should thank Fran Wilde, Paul Acampora and others for supplying me with the “give toddler toys on the plane” tip. That worked like a charm.]