Lessons Learned Traveling Abroad with my Toddler

Traveling with children provides opportunity for creativity, story telling, and fresh learning experiences.Traveling internationally with a toddler was once daunting to me. Yet, as a mother determined to soak up many life experiences with my son, I pushed the fear aside, hopped on a plane with my two-year-old, and learned a few valuable lessons along the way.

One of our favorite children’s books is a story about the relationship between a young elephant and his mother. The premise of the story is “where you go, I go,” and it leaves me a little weepy every time we turn the pages.

While I have no intention of being an overbearing mother, (ha! at least this is the plan for now), I relish the connectivity of our relationship — where he goes, I want to be there too.  Life is filled with rich beauty and depth when I seek out new experiences, and I am humbled and honored to share these experiences with my son. Observing him explore the world is always a gentle reminder to let go, play, and be present.

It is during these moments that my heart swells with the joy of it all. These moments often present themselves when we travel.

Related: How Children can Teach us to Slow the Passage of Time

For some parents I have spoken with, travel is often anticipated as time away from the children. My husband and I decided this would not be an option for us if we could help it. We both have a touch of wanderlust and decided where we go, our son goes too — even if this means an international excursion. Our first adventure abroad was unforgettable and we learned many valuable lessons. I am happy to share a few of them in hopes of encouraging other families who plan to travel afar with little ones in tow!

#1. You must Travel Light.

When traveling with a toddler, having your hands free to assist them is important. Limiting lots of extra luggage will reduce stress, strain, and worry. Traveling light requires letting go of the “need” for a lot of extras—including baby and toddler gadgets. I repeat ….let it go. This concept has improved my packing skills moving forward and I plan to pack even less along for the next trip we are planning.

I did my homework and decided that we would be able to find diapers and wipes easily at our destination (this did mean forgoing cloth diapers for a few weeks). We also made housing arrangements with washing machines accessible on site.

The three most helpful items we brought were:

  • Hiking Backpack: Our son was walking at the time our of travel, however we knew that his little legs would not be up for the hikes and more strenuous activities we had planned. Our hiking backpack made sure that where we went, he was able to go too. We used this as one of our carry on items, which made it a breeze toting him through the airport as well.
  • Car seat: Because we were renting a car, I wanted to be confident we had a quality carseat for my son. We bubble wrapped the heck out of it and were allowed to take it with us onto the plane even though my son did not have his own seat.
  • Window Clings: Cheap and easy to stash, sticking these on the airplane window  kept my son plenty happy.

#2: It is Wonderful to Talk to “Strangers.”

Many times adults are often afraid to make eye contact, let alone talk to one another. While we look forward to chatting with others (it seems odd to even call people strangers!), traveling with a child makes it that much more accessible. This is especially true in a foreign country where language may be a barrier. While wading around on a Costa Rican beach, our son started playing with a local child.

Related: The Unexpected Benefits of Traveling With Little Kids

This started the conversation between his parents and us, and before we knew it, we were all sitting on the sand enjoying fresh fruit together. Meeting new people is one of the best perks about traveling (aside from the food of course).

#3: A Snail’s Pace Wins the Race.

When traveling with a toddler, the pace is slow. Your days will not be jam-packed. You might find yourself taking long naps midday…..and that is okay! We found we had time for a morning adventure, followed by plenty of downtime and a nap, and then a small evening outing. Our son reminded us to slow down and explore our surroundings. I found myself truly enjoying the present moment rather than worrying about what was next on the agenda.

#4: Be Open to the Possibilities.

If you like to have a very detailed day-to-day plan for your travels, be prepared to make some changes with a toddler. Be open to what unfolds in your travel and embrace it. In addition, ignore the limitations and beliefs you have that may prevent you from going on an adventure too. We followed our son’s lead, but did not plan our day around when we thought he might sleep or what we thought he might not want to do (aside from the obvious of course!).

For example, our son fell asleep as soon as we arrived at our scheduled mangrove boat tour. We debated whether or not to continue and chose to get aboard anyway. He slept for a little bit, and then woke up just in time to have Capuchin monkeys climb all over him. I will NEVER forget the look on his face!

#5. Get Ready to Journal and Tell Stories about Your Adventures.

As the months go by, our son remembers less and less of his first international adventure. We talk to him about it, and he agrees that he remembers, but he recalls the details less vividly.  I write letters to my son on a blog regularly and it seemed natural to include daily musings about our adventures in Costa Rica. Most evenings, while my son slept, I would write a letter to him, with pictures attached, describing our daily happenings. My hope is that he will read these letters for years to come.

While some may argue traveling with a child so young is pointless, I don’t buy into it. Research shows that frequently telling stories about events from early childhood become long-lasting memories into young adulthood. There is even some evidence that our earliest memories may occur before the the age of 3.5 years. Regardless, traveling, even not far, breaks up the monotony of day to day, and provides opportunity for creativity, story telling, and fresh learning experiences.

I don’t view traveling with my son as checking items off his bucket list, and I am certainly not convinced that traveling internationally is the only option for creating beautiful memories. We are not expert travelers, and we don’t have a huge budget. We simply see the value in traveling with our son and it works for our little family. After all, these are the days.


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