The Truth About Traveling with Toddlers

Right before we left Vienna, we spent three weeks road tripping through Europe with Cletus and The Babe. One week in Slovenia, a short break back home, then 2 weeks through Croatia. It was an ambitious agenda by most standards, but probably sounds absolutely insane to anyone with small kids. Just getting to the grocery store and back with those animals is usually adventure enough. But, crazy world wanderers/gluttons for punishment that we are, we just couldn’t leave that part of the world without checking some stuff off our list first. So we hit the highway, packed to the brim with snacks and travel cribs and coloring books and DVDs (thank GOD for the DVDs). We saw castles and medieval cities, hiked through lush forests and felt the spray of magnificent waterfalls. We sat on rocky beaches met by stunning turquoise waters and drank cold beers while the kids looked for seashells. It was glorious.

Except when it wasn’t.

The thing about traveling with very little people is that while you will certainly have moments so perfect and spectacular that you can hardly believe your luck, mostly your time on the road will look like this:

I'M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION!

And this:

human pack horse

And this:

vacation is so much fun!

There will be tears. Someone will probably vomit. At some point you will want to burn your passports and forsake vacations completely until they’re 25.

Yes, when you have kids, what you used to call “vacation” instantly becomes The Amazing Race: Toddler Edition, full of roadblocks, insane challenges and stretches of time spent running through crowded tourist areas searching for something (a missing blankie, a dropped pacifier, a wandering child). Has this slowed us down? More than a bit. But I look at it this way: would I rather deal with another tantrum in my living room, or while sipping crisp white wine on the rocky Croatian coast?

The key to winning when you’re traveling with the under 3 crowd is embracing that Amazing Race mindset and rolling with it. For all the people out there wondering how we do it, here’s a brief look at our strategy:

Pack a multi-purpose arsenal of supplies.

The kids get to bring their blankies, a favorite stuffed animal, and a few small toys. Otherwise we try to go minimal, with a few helpful supplies thrown in – things like tin foil (to make instant blackout shades, wrap leftovers, entertain the tots with swan sculptures) and painter’s tape (homemade stickers, matchbox car roads, makeshift babyproofing on arrival). A small bottle of dish soap is critical (washing sippy cups, stained clothes in a pinch). Basically, if MacGyver had kids, this is what you’d find in his suitcase.

Book an apartment.

My husband and I fondly remember a time long ago when the first things we did upon entering a hotel room were crack open the minibar and flop on the bed. Maybe then we’d unpack, but not before sitting on the balcony for a while, contemplating dinner options. These days we swing open the hotel room door and launch into a SWAT-style sweep for baby hazards while simultaneously assessing optimal Pack-n-Play locations and checking to see how early we can get breakfast the next day. Or we just book a centrally located apartment through AirBnB and save ourselves a lot of headaches.

Adjust your expectations.

Do not plan on a 3 hour historical tour or a meal at the coolest restaurant in town. Do not even assume you will make it to all the major landmarks at your destination. Do ask around for playgrounds or green space near some of the things you’d like to see, and split your time between the two. Street food will be your best friend – easy, quick, and no big deal if they spill. Let the little guys take naps per usual and chill out for a while in front of foreign language cartoons (it’s educational!).

And remember: even the most well planned, toddler-proofed trips can and will go awry. Like that time in Mallorca when it rained for 3 days straight, the power went out, and the bed collapsed when I threw myself on it in despair. Or that time on the way home from Crete when Cletus, strapped to my chest in the baby carrier, puked so profusely that the vomit streamed down my chest and pooled at my feet while I waited at the baggage carousel. Or that time we drove 7 hours to the Croatian border only to realize we forgot our passports. That was a good one.

But when mayhem ensues, please remember that there will be moments of unparalleled beauty and days of awesome discovery. And wine. Lots of crisp white wine.

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