Traveling Alone with a Toddler: Preparation and Packing

Will you be traveling alone with a toddler? Are you starting to freak out? Well, here’s how I do it: the preparation, packing (one carry-on bag), and the reasons why. See our upcoming post to find out how well I did. It’s not my first long trip alone with my son, but it’s the first since we entered the tantrum stage, and it’s definitely the longest.

Traveling Alone with a Toddler, the objective:

I’m going to tell you that over the next three days, my toddler and I will spend 32 hours alone together in planes, trains, busses, and cars. Thirteen individual transportation segments. The first thing you should ask is: WHY?

I’ll tell you. When you’re an expat or a digital nomad, you’re far from your loved ones. To see them, especially if you’re taking a child by yourself, is expensive and stressful. You could just say “Well, I’m not just not going to see my family as often. When I do see my family, I’ll have to see them to the exclusion of all friends, or vice versa.” Many people do say this, and that’s fine. Sometimes I say that too. Other times I say, f&*% that, I can do this.

I stumbled on a great ticket that would allow a quick stop on the East Coast to see dear people I haven’t seen in at least two years. The price is right, the time is right, and the trip is worth it. The only downside is that I can’t see David’s family too, or our other friends around the country. Next time! and there will be a next time. I’m pretty sure Roosevelt was talking about traveling alone with a toddler when he said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

Traveling Alone with a Toddler, The Schedule:

Day 1: Travel from Budapest, Hungary to Mullica Hill, NJ with my antsy two-year-old.   One taxi, two flights, another bus, two trains and a car ride = 18 hours, at least ten chances for something to go wrong, two expected tantrums, one expected dissociative bawling session, and at the end of it all, the beautiful, angelic faces of my friends April and George and their baby daughter Gwen. I haven’t seen George and April together since they were married in 2013, and Gwen is their new daughter: my niece in praxis if not in genetics, and my son’s betrothed. When I saw a ticket home that would let me see them quickly on the East Coast, there was no question.

Day 2: One gorgeous day with A-G-G, one train, and a huge smile and shimmy/bearhug from my friend Kristin, another best friend I haven’t seen in forever.

Day 3: One metro ride and two flights, to heaven on Earth: my parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins and hometown best friend Michelle. (I’m hitting three bridesmaids this trip! Better hit my sisters on the next one 🙂 )

Planning and Preparing, The Countdown:

There are plenty of things I should be doing to prepare, and plenty of blogs out there that give you great, all-inclusive lists. For better or worse, this is what I’ve actually done to prepare for this trip.

45 days and counting: Finalize tickets, save confirmations. Realize that I booked tickets for when April and George are out of town. Look into rescheduling. Decide to finagle to see April and George for a very quick visit on the way to hometown rather than the way back, see Kristin on the way back from hometown, but invite myself to stay with her the night before the flight from NYC to hometown.

44-10 days: Procrastinate.

10 days: Tell toddler we’re going on an airplane soon. Explain why we can’t go on an airplane right now. Explain why we’re not going to our “room on the island,” (Thailand) but to grandpa’s house. Meet toddler’s challenging glare until he submits and breaks eye contact.

7 days: Coo in delight when toddler wakes up from nap and recounts the plan without being prompted: “Not island, go on airplane, go to grandpa’s house, toys!”

6 days: Now tell the toddler that before we go to Grandpa’s house, we’re going to visit an auntie and an uncle and a baba. Wonder if toddler understands, or is just nodding so I’ll give him the cookie in my hand.

5 days: Book transportation from JFK airport in NYC to Mullica Hill, NJ. Approximately 2 hours of research. Freak out about getting us from JFK airport to train at Penn Station after the long flight. Consider a cab ride. Too expensive. Consider an airporter from JFK to Liberty International and a train to Mullica Hill. Too many transfers, times don’t match up. Wind up back at the original plan, taking an airporter bus from JFK to Penn Station, two NJ transit trains from Penn Station to Philadelphia (which is close to Mullica Hill) Write myself incredibly detailed step-by-step instructions from getting off the plane at JFK to arriving at 30th Street station in Philadelphia, including what color vests the airporter employees wear. Forward this email to April. Total cost will be: ~$40.

4 days: While toddler is playing with Daddy, secretly visit a toy shop. Read on to see what I buy, and check below to see plane activity recommendations from other traveling parents.

Plane Activity Prep (Read below for more suggestions)

  • one sticker book with 1,000 stickers (like this book). Most stickers can be stuck onto and unpeeled from plane walls and seats many times over without causing any damage.
  • One new set of miniature markers and a coloring book
  • one sucker
  • one bag of gummy bears (trump card, to be used sparingly)
  • Decide against bringing play doh. Way too messy.
  • Wrap up some tiny toys he hasn’t played with in a while in a gift bag, so I can call it a “present” on the plane.
  • Whoops, what about a booster seat for when we get to NJ? Order this one from Amazon for $19.99 (5-stars, great reviews), send it to April.

Remind toddler that we’re going on an airplane soon, and that before we see grandpa we’re going to see an auntie, an uncle, and a baba. Hope that because I’ve prepared him, toddler will not feel cheated when I bring him, travel worn, tired and pissed off, to meet people he doesn’t remember meeting, and who have a precious baby (aka: a nemesis in terms of adult attention).

3 days: At the grocery store, get UHT milk. Hope the airport will still allow it through security. They haven’t said no yet, but the last time they raised an eyebrow and asked how old he was. Get one of the granola bars he likes. If I were another parent I’d probably stock up on more snacks, but Spencer will usually eat at least some of the plane food.

2 days: Computer checklist. All his recently favorite movies loaded onto the thumb drive, which will be plugged into the HooToo and streamed onto iPad? Check. New Kindle books in case the toddler actually falls asleep on the plane? Check.

1 day: Freak out. Charge all devices. Book airport shuttle from Budapest apartment. Ask husband for cash for airport shuttle. Check into Budapest flight online, email boarding passes, curse when phone won’t display boarding passes. Freak out. Calm down. Plan to print boarding passes at airport. Book train from Philly to New York (oops, forgot to do that before), $82 for a nonstop trip on Amtrak. Email April and Kristin to confirm arrival plans.  Paint my toe nails, pluck eyebrows, shave, etc. Travel always feels dirty. Try to start as fresh as possible. Exchange a flurry of emails with my friends, who I’ve thoroughly confused with my changing plans and circuitous, stressful routes.

Pack. Pack. Pack.

Traveling Alone with a Toddler, The Packing:

Here’s another thing. After six months of traveling from place to place, we’re used to traveling carry-on only. I also have a tight time frame between landing in NYC and catching the airporter bus. Skipping baggage claim and customs will make this so much easier.

So far, carry-on only has been more than doable: we each have about five interchangeable outfits, we reduce the number of toiletries every time, and we switch clothing in and out with thrift stores as we go (a sustainability effort, not necessarily a travel tip). Usually, we each have a backpack, and David carries the diaper/gear/plane bag. Since I need my arms free to travel alone, I’m going to be attempting a new record: Traveling alone with a toddler with one backpack for a three-week trip.

The process:

  1. Do All Laundry
  2. Start a Donation Pile on the kitchen table (that top’s too faded, I have another one of those at my parent’s house, Spencer’s too big for that/refuses to wear it, etc). Before this trip, I cut out about five pounds of clothing, most of it stuff we’d gotten at thrift stores here to get us through the cold spring weather after Thailand.
  3. Decide on plane outfits and changes of clothing (prioritizing less weight to carry and more to wear). For the plane: Spencer in light, breathable, shorts and tee, and a jacket. He always gets hot on the plane, and they have blankets. For me: stretchy jeans, tank, cardigan, scarf, sandals. Before we land in NYC, I’ll change us into: Spencer’s favorite tee that will be a treat to put on at the end of the flight, and for me a light, wrinkle free dress because NYC will be warm and I’ll feel gross. Pack changes of clothing into one small packing cube, easily pulled out from top of backpack.
  4. Put Spencer’s surprise gifts in the back zip pocket of the most awesome soft shell backpack/suitcase ever, the Motherload Weekender Convertible.
  5. Charge all media and devices. Put these into front pockets, along with: pen, snacks, travel wallet, mini travel documents binder (in case they ask to see Spencer’s birth certificate because we have different last names).
  6. Pack clothing not needed on flight into one large packing cube: swim suits, three dresses, 4 pairs each of shorts, tees, and underwear for Spencer, 2 tees and 1 pants for me.)
  7. Pack gifts at the very bottom.
  8. Add one pair of running shoes, Spencer’s weird hat, the single cosmetics bag.
  9. Add a recyclable grocery bag. In the boarding area, I will transfer the things we’ll need during the flight into this bag so I won’t have to reach into the overhead compartment, but also don’t have to lug around two bags in the airport. Pro Tip: If you’re ever stopped at the boarding gate for too much carry-on baggage, go to duty-free and buy a something large enough to require a bag. Use the bag to stuff excess clothes and gear into, and presto you’ll be allowed to carry that extra bag on at no charge. Yes, our world rewards consumerism in odd ways some times.
  10. Attach Spencer’s bicycle helmet to one hook, a compressed memory foam neck pillow inside its case to another hook.
  11. Zip up and test. Nice, not too bad. I can carry this and a toddler for about thirty minutes at a stretch, I think.
  12. Remember that I haven’t packed my laptop yet. Curse. Accept. Freak out. Accept.
  13. Go over all confirmations tagged with NYC Trip in my email. Memorize, freak out, accept, repeat.

Other Recommendations for Traveling Alone with a Toddler

These are recommendations from other parents we’ve spoken with. I wish I had some of them for this trip. Also, some parents recommend a rear-facing car seat on the plane for 2-3 year-olds. We’re not knocking it, but we haven’t done it ourselves.

best headphones for traveling along with toddlers One option for kids’ headphones are these super cute headband earphones by CosyPhones. I need to get a pair, but Amazon doesn’t deliver (very well, anyway) to our Budapest apartment. Looks like we’ll have to wait for the return trip.
doodle pad for traveling alone with toddlers The Magnetic Doodle Pad is essential on long flights with our son. I think we picked ours up in Japan, so it’s not the Fisher Price brand but this one looks pretty solid and would slip alongside our laptops easily.
no mess markets perfect kid travel
Let them color without the last minute scrubbing after landing with these Mess Free Markers. These markers only write on the special Color Wonder paper! How awesome is that?
iPad for traveling with toddlers Our iPad Mini 2 is the go-to on long flights as it has all of Spencer’s favorite cartoons and a few games. Save your concerns about screen time and enjoy your flight. I link to the older model, because it is significantly less expensive and we worry less if it were to get broken.
best digital nomad headphones Bose Quiet Comfort Headphones help cut out the engine noise that causes fatigue on long flights. We only have one pair right now and I’m weighing how mad David would be if I took them for the trip. Since he listens to music while he works all the time, probably pretty mad. (*Update* – Yay! Their mine for the trip.)
best bag for digital nomad families The Motherload Weekender Backpack is the BEST carry-on suitcase I’ve ever had, and so affordable.
best gadget for family travel The HooToo Wireless Travel Router is an amazing device that allows us to stream movies on the plane to the iPad from a thumb drive. It even supports multiple devices! See our full review of it here.

Apps for Traveling Alone with a Toddler:

Delta, Amtrak, Kindle, Toddler Pop, Coloring Apps. There are a lot of great apps out there. These are the only non-standard ones I use. David should write a post about the hundreds of apps he uses.

Okay, that’s it. By the time you read this, we’ll be in the air. The toddler and I have several distraction, tantrum diffusing, and mantra games that we play on the actual flight, so wish us luck and tune in next week to see how everything went.

Traveling alone with a toddler

Waiting for the airport taxi – Wish us luck!



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