For all the parents out there who are nervous about traveling internationally with a toddler, here are some tips for the long flight, including packing lists, toys and entertainment, snacks, tips for taking a car seat on the plane, and more!
We just returned home from our very first international trip with a toddler, and I couldn’t feel prouder of myself. Of us! We did it! For those of you guys who travel a lot, this might not seem like a big deal, but to us who haven’t flown anywhere ever since becoming parents, this was no stroll in the park.
I shared our travel tips and experiences throughout our trip in my Instagram stories, and it was incredible the sheer amount of questions I received in response. Therefore, I thought I’d share, to the best of my ability, all the steps we took to make this trip as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Keep in mind, I’m by no means an expert in this area! However, I know so many of you guys will be flying for the very first time with your little one(s), and I thought it might be helpful to gain insight and perspective from someone who was in your shoes not too long ago, conquered her immense fears and anxiety, and survived to tell about their remarkable first trip abroad with a toddler. You can say that we’ve learned A LOT about how to prepare for the next trip.
A brief recap of our itinerary:
- 18 hours in transit from US to Korea
- 9 hours in transit from Korea to Malaysia (and back) – one of which was a red-eye flight)
- 19 hours in transit from Korea back to US
First things first: Get your official documents in order – passports, visas, anything required to enter and exit the countries you’re visiting. Don’t forget to check expiration dates. Getting a passport for my toddler took a while (a month). We got it done at the post office, and I had to go several times bc there was always a LONG line. It was clear that we were traveling during a peak season. After learning that people go first thing in the morning to sign up their names (and come back later in the day if need be), I went in 30 minutes prior to the opening time and was able to secure us a spot. Then all we had to do was wait for C’s passport to be mailed to us.
Before heading for the airport, I recommend designating one family member to carry all the passports. It makes it easier to present them together as a group. We really like this travel wallet and family passport holder.
I most definitely packed more than we needed for this trip, but it certainly gave me peace of mind. That’s not to say I didn’t have any anxieties and panic attacks. I most definitely had my fair share. I made sure to get everything packed and ready to go two days prior to departure so that we could all rest well the night before. Here’s our packing list. Note, there are affiliate links. This means that I receive a small commission (from the company, not you) if you purchase the products through these links.
- Car seat – make sure it’s FAA approved and check with your airline (more on this below). Here’s a webpage that includes most of the major airlines and their regulations and policies. My friend gave us their used car seat (by Safety 1st) a while back, and we decided to take that instead of our nice one.
- Carseat bag – we went with this option because we thought it’d be nice for my husband’s hands to be free. However, the car seat started rubbing up against the back of his thighs which made it really uncomfortable for him with all the walking we had to do. Otherwise worked great!
- Carseat travel belt -will be getting this for next time. I love that it gives you the option to attach the car seat to an umbrella stroller too!
- Travel stroller – We took a Maclaran that our sister-in-law purchased and used more than 5 years ago. It did its job but wasn’t the most comfortable. I say weight the pros and cons when deciding which one to pack.
- Stroller bag – an absolute MUST! Will protect your investment from getting damaged and makes it easier to carry when your child isn’t using it.
- Diaper Bag – Absolutely LOVE this one from Twelve Little! it’s spacious with lots of compartments for organization. There’s also a zipper at the back that allows you to slide the bag through luggage handles. Use the code Min25 to receive a 25% discount on your purchase.
- Blankets (or other soothing items)
- White noise machine – Small and lightweight. runs on batteries. We turned it on every night and lasted us through 2 solid weeks before we had to switch out the batteries.
Because I didn’t know how he was going to enjoy the airplane food, I wanted to err on the safe side and make sure there was more than enough food to last us through the entire flight.
- Lunch was enjoyed at the airport as we had about 3 hours in between connecting flights
- Homemade baked goods:
- Zucchini sweet potato muffins
- Veggie sticks
- Butternut squash macaroni cups
The recipes for the first two are found in my 1st e-cookbook and the last one from the 2nd one. You can find both of them here. I shared how to make these in my stories and saved to highlights under “travel” so definitely check it out, if interested.
I chose these bc they are a great way to get some veggies and protein in! I froze them and took them out right before leaving the house. I decided not to take the ice packs bc it was just one less thing I had to worry about. We had a connecting flight, and there was no way they would’ve stayed frozen solid by the time we pass through the security point. Just to be sure, I took them out of the freezer and tasted after 8 hours. They all held up pretty well, especially the zucchini muffins. I recommend serving the macaroni cups first as the pasta starts to get soft.
3. Store-bought snacks: Portioned out into single servings for easy to grab and offer one at a time
- Barbara’s Puffins Original – crunchy deliciousness! Made from whole grains. Takes longer to eat which is most def a plus!
- Lovegrown Original Power O’s – love that it’s made from beans! 6 grams of protein per serving
- Rhythm superfoods beet and carrot chips
- Trader Joe’s freeze-dried blueberries
My plan was to offer him the baked goods first and use snacks as backups. I figured whatever dried snacks he doesn’t eat, we can enjoy throughout our trip.
- Small inexpensive toys that C had never seen. I purchased mostly from the dollar store. Keep Em Quiet also sent me an activity-filled bag, which was amazing! I loved the suggestion of wrap up the toys individually and presenting them one by one.
- Electronic device (fully charged) – downloaded his favorite shows
- headphones – love this one so much! And it folds for easy storage
Health and Hygiene
- saline nasal spray
- diaper cream – to prevent diaper rash from extended sitting
- baby lip and face moisturizer
- hand sanitzer spray – for his hands. Purchase the one from Honest that I found at Target’s travel section
- antibacterial wipes – The husband boarded before us to install the car seat and to wipe down everything that our son and we could touch.
- Ibuprofen – for possible ear pain relief
- diaper wipes
- diaper changing pad
- diaper disposal bags
- 3 sets of changing clothes for all of us – long flights, altitude changes, and travel fatigue can do crazy things to their tummies. C had a blowout and vomited once.
- Diapers: I packed about 10, just in case
For the Parents
Lesson learned: Be sure to pack something for yourself! If you’re hungry, thirsty, and unhappy, it’s going to make the flight seem even longer and you’ll have zero patience for whatever your child does.
we decided to take ours on board for extra safety. We also thought it’d provide him with extra comfort and security, which most definitely ended up being the case. We also knew the risks that came with our decision. For instance, what if he didn’t want to sit on it?! We decided to take the plunge anyway, and it seriously ended up being the best decision! He sat in his seat the entire flight (minus when he slept on me, which was about 3 out of 14 hours). When we went to Malaysia from Korea, we didn’t take the car seat just to see how we would do. And that was a complete nightmare.
What we didn’t expect was the extreme lack of knowledge and support from the flight attendants. On our way to Korea, we transferred flights from American Airlines to Korean Air and in both instances, they kept telling us to check in the car seat at the gate. I told them we checked with the TSA guidelines and knew that our car seat was approved to take on the flight, but they still fought us.
So for our trip back, we printed out the guidelines. To our pleasant surprise, we actually had no issues this time around! Everyone was super accommodating and helpful. Bottomline – you just never know so print out the guidelines for the airlines you’ll be taking.
From all the research I did, it appears that it’s best to book the first flight of the day or one that departs before naptime. And to avoid red-eyes because you just never know! You may think that your child will conk out but what if they don’t?
We learned that C does not like to sleep on the plane so guess it doesn’t matter so much for us? I do want to mention that the most he slept was on the red-eye flight from Malaysia to Korea – a total of 4 hours. Just goes to show, you never know! And who knows what the next flight is going to be like? But if you have a child who can sleep anywhere when they are tired then perhaps the flight time isn’t so important.
Many people recommended using Benadryl or melatonin to help with sleep on the plane. The decision is up to you but most definitely consult your doctor first. I learned that Benadryl can have the reverse effect and cause hyperactivity in some children. Melatonin, on the other hand, can cause nightmares. So if you do decide to use one, do a trial run several days prior to leaving. After much going back and forth, for the long flight to Korea, we decided not to medicate and just see what happens. The return flight back to the States was, however, another story. As I mentioned, he slept so little on the plane on all of our previous flights (and I was so tired by the end of the trip) that we decided to give him a dose of Benadryl. Perhaps we under-dosed, but he only slept about 4 hours (yay for that extra hour of sleep compared to our way there?).
I called in advance to request a low-sodium meal for C rather than the kid’s meal. And I’m so glad that I did! Not only did the food come out earlier, the selections were great- Lots of veggies and protein. The best part – C LOVED all the meals.
Because he ate his meals so well, we shared the baked goods that I had packed. As for the dried snacks, they were mainly enjoyed during take-off and landing to help ease the ear pain. He had no issues and happily munched away!
While I had packed a lot of new toys and activities for C to enjoy, he didn’t want to play with them by himself. That didn’t really fly with this mama who is notorious for falling asleep before the plane takes off and her ability to stay asleep. While I (and my husband) took turns playing with him, time on the plane felt like an eternity. Enter screentime. We’ve been pretty good about limiting it to no more than 30 minutes/day up to this point, but we were most definitely not afraid to take full advantage of it for the sake of our sanity as well as the rest of the passengers.
At the destination
Although it would’ve been nice if C had slept more on the plane, it actually ended up working in our favor. To our pleasant surprise, the transition to the new time zone went rather smoothly. All the flights we took arrived during the day (or early morning), which allowed us to either put him down for a nap or keep him up until nighttime. He was SO tired by the end of the traveling day that he slept through the night for the most part. He did wake up crying several times throughout the night the first 3-4 days or so. It sounded like night terrors, and my guess is that he was adjusting to the new place and surroundings. This blackout curtain helped a TON too!
C has been sleeping by himself since he was 6 months old, but we had no other option than to co-sleep during our time there. Shortly after, he started to absolutely refuse to sleep unless I lie down next to him. I definitely got nervous thinking about what it was going to be like when we returned home.
As for his naps, they didn’t happen the majority of the time. Since I always put him down in his crib, he had a hard time falling asleep anywhere else. And as we were traveling as a group, we just had to go with the flow. On days when we took it easy, I stayed back with him so he could rest for a couple of hours. Those days were most definitely easier on all of us as he was less delirious and cranky. When considering the entire trip, he didn’t get nearly as much as sleep as he does at home. But what I learned through all of this is just how resilient and adaptable toddlers can be to changing situations! For the most part, he was our little trooper. He eventually learned to fall asleep in his stroller, but only if his grandma strolled him. They really do have a magical touch, don’t they? We did make a conscious effort to stay out no later than 8 pm to put him down for the night. Because he didn’t nap on most days, he slept pretty well through the night.
We were determined to eat all the deliciousness that Korea and Malaysia have to offer because that’s what you do when you’re on vacation, right? We ate out at least 2, sometimes 3 meals every day. Fortunately, C LOVED Korean food. He didn’t eat as well in Malaysia, but I believe it was bc we were so busy sightseeing and he was especially sleep-deprived during that time.
Overall, he ate a lot more carbs (hello rice and noodles!), sodium-rich foods, and tasted ice cream, chocolate, and other sweets (because clearly, that’s one of the joys of being grandparents). Before we left home, I was super anxious about his nutrition and how eating’s going to go during this long trip. Surprisingly, I found myself a lot more relaxed about it than I thought I’d be.
I did have the luxury of staying at a place with a kitchen and a supermarket that I could easily walk to. After the 1st week, I started offering cooked veggies from home (they’ve mainly been broccoli, carrots, Korean zucchini) alongside restaurant meals. While veggies aren’t hard to find at restaurants, there just aren’t enough, in my opinion. Or they’re super salty or spicy.
In Korea, whenever you order meat, they always offer an assortment of leafy greens to make wraps. To my surprise, C devoured them!! Apparently, he won’t eat the greens on their own but wrap them up with some rice, beef and he’s all into it!
As for sticking to a mealtime schedule, that was most definitely a challenge. We tried to stick close to it as much as possible, but again, it’s hard to accommodate when out and about as a group. And I often resorted to giving him snacks outside of his usual snack times so that I can keep him quiet and happy long enough to enjoy some adult conversations! I was determined to make the most of our time there, which is what helped me to be more flexible and relaxed around food and mealtime structure. It also helped that he’s older now (2.5 yo). Not sure how I would’ve been with a baby.
So many of you guys have told me that you’re avoiding traveling all together or are super anxious about upcoming trips. That was totally me prior to this trip. But I encourage you to consider the big picture. The not so fun part, like jet lag and meltdowns, are a just small part of an unforgettable experience. And if you’re a parent, you know. We eventually forget how stressful and exhausing the trip was and just remember the look on their faces as they explored the world with you!
Now I know. It truly is SUCH a joy to make such precious memories through travel. On top of that, it’s always so nice to take a break from the hustle and bustle of life to spend quality time together as a family. Although I’ve said some nasty things to my husband out of pure exhaustion.
They say that toddlers will adapt and become better travelers when they start traveling at a young age so let’s see! My parents live in Korea so I know there’ll be many more trips in our future. I’m also realizing that they grow so quickly, and I want to embrace every moment of this fleeting toddlerhood. I can tell that C grew up SO much during this trip. He’s much more aware of his surroundings. My once silent observer is talking my ears off (in Korean!) and has come out of his shell and fully exhibiting his adventurous side.
We’re currently settling back, and I do believe because we had a well-established routine prior to the trip, things are going pretty well. To my surprise, he had no problems sleeping by himself in his crib again! He was actually super excited to see his bed and kept saying “night night.” He did wake up crying on several occasions the first two nights. I simply went in and cuddled with him for about 5 minutes or so before putting him back down.
Compared to before, I can tell that he gets restless more easily during the day and is much more eager to go out. And he misses everyone back in Korea so much. I’m not kidding. He’s been looking at our family photo every.single.day since we’ve been back and calls out everyone’s name. I miss them too, buddy. We shall be reunited again!