There’s no sugarcoating it: Traveling with toddlers is a challenge. But there are ways to make it easier, as well as places that cater to – or are naturally convenient for – the kiddie set and their families. Read on for destination recommendations and travel tips from U.S. News editors who frequently travel with toddlers as well as other experts.
The Best Places to Travel With Toddlers
When deciding where to go, keep it simple. “Choose relaxing destinations that don’t involve a lot of moving around or heavy itineraries,” says Elizabeth Von Tersch, a mom of two toddlers and a senior editor of travel at U.S. News. “If you don’t have a long list of places to see or things to check off, you’ll be more content with just one or two activities per day.” It’s also ideal to choose a destination that’s reachable via a short road trip, train ride or direct flight – especially if this is your first time traveling with toddlers.
Beaches with tide pools and/or shallow waters are especially fun for toddlers, plus many beach towns offer vacation rentals with fully equipped kitchens, washing machines and other comforts of home near the sand and surf. Load up the beach wagon with all of your essentials (including plenty of snacks, drinks and a picnic lunch) and spend a few hours on the beach; then head back to your rental for nap time before an evening on the boardwalk.
U.S. News editors agree Isle of Palms, South Carolina, is especially perfect for toddlers. The boardwalk is lined with shops, restaurants and ice cream shops, and it sits close enough to Charleston for easy daytrips into the city. Other editor picks and highly rated options include the Outer Banks in North Carolina with its variety of beaches, vacation rentals and overall laid-back vibe; Seaside, Florida, an idyllic, walkable community; Michigan City, Indiana, where you can stay at the family-friendly Beachwalk Resort, close to Indiana Dunes National Park; and Coronado Beach, California, with plenty of space to spread out, places to eat and nearby accommodations – including the famous Hotel del Coronado.
If you have a toddler who doesn’t care for the sand, consider a lake and/or mountain destination where you can enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and biking (and maybe some sand-less water fun), as well as vacation rental accommodations. On Lake Champlain in Vermont, you also have the option to stay at a classic summer resort like Basin Harbor or Tyler Place (the latter of which is all-inclusive) and enjoy animal visits and tractor rides at local farms such as Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit educational organization. In Washington state, Lake Chelan offers clean, crystal-clear waters perfect for (supervised) swimming, and in Okoboji, Iowa, you’ll find boat rides on Lake Okoboji and carnival-style rides at Arnolds Park Amusement Park.
Small theme parks
While theme parks like Disney World might come to mind, it’s unlikely you’ll get to a lot of rides with your toddler, who will probably be happier at the hotel pool. Instead, opt for smaller theme parks geared toward young kids. Megan Johnson, a mom and editor at SmarterTravel Media, says her toddlers loved Sesame Place, which has locations near Philadelphia and San Diego. “The rides are short so the lines go fast too,” she points out. Another ideal theme park for toddlers is Legoland, with parks in Goshen, New York (an easy weekend getaway from New York City); Winter Haven, Florida; and Carlsbad, California. You’ll also want to consider Peppa Pig Theme Park – also located in Winter Haven – and Story Land in Glen, New Hampshire.
Of course, this is your vacation too, so think about some things you might like to do when planning your city trip. In Rochester, for example, you can combine a trip to The Strong National Museum of Play with a visit to some family-friendly Finger Lakes wineries. On a trip to Denver, you can show the children real dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Ridge before exploring Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre or one of the Mile High City’s famous (and kid-friendly) breweries.
Visiting family in another state or country is a great opportunity to experience local attractions and restaurants with loved ones you don’t see often. If your relatives are willing to babysit for a few hours, you might even be able to squeeze in a date night or an afternoon at the spa.
Survival Tips for Traveling With Toddlers
Lower your expectations.
… and then lower them a little more. Naps will be skipped, meltdowns will be had and potty-training setbacks are inevitable. Stay on schedule when you can, but don’t feel guilty when you can’t.
Book toddler-friendly accommodations.
If you’re planning to stay at a vacation rental, Von Tersch recommends looking for one with kids amenities such as a swing set and toys, and/or one that sits near a local park. If you prefer to stay at a hotel, choose one with a pool or special treats for kids, such as in-room games. It’s also a good idea to book a family suite with a separate bedroom or two; this way, you don’t have to go to bed when your toddler does.
Hide new toys in your carry-on bag.
Bring the tablet.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting daily screen time for young children, “the rules go out the window when traveling,” says Dr. Danielle Wiese (reassuringly), a pediatrician for Carmel Pediatrics in Carmel, Indiana. “Do what you need to do to get there – it will all be fine.”
If you’re bringing a kids tablet and/or if you’ll be on a long flight with seat-back screens, be sure to pack a pair of kids headphones like CozyPhones, which are especially comfortable (and adorable) for little ears.
Pack a “snackle” box.
Most everyone – but especially toddlers – thrives on snacks when traveling. Pack a variety of options, including both nutritional and not-so-nutritional items (because sometimes, only candy will do). “It’s okay to give those less healthy snacks while traveling,” Wiese says, though she also recommends sneaking in some fiber so your toddler’s tummy has some regulation. “Easy to-go snacks with fiber are applesauce pouches, raisins and some bar snacks (check the label).”
Johnson also recommends packing some larger-portion snacks or meals so you don’t have to worry in the event you can only find fast-food stops and want to avoid them, or if you go to a restaurant that doesn’t serve anything your toddler will eat.
Prepare for messes.
It’s amazing how fast a clean car can reach tornado-level status on a family road trip, or how your toddler’s bodily functions seem to synchronize with the exact time of takeoff. Ann Henson, a toddler mom and assistant managing editor of travel at U.S. News, recommends packing an extra outfit for your toddler (and maybe yourself), sanitizing wipes and/or spray, and trash bags, adding that dog waste bags work well.
Don’t plan stops.
Your toddler(s) will inevitably plan them for you when they get cranky, need a diaper change or need to use the bathroom. When you stop, be sure to use the bathroom yourself, fuel up the car and do anything else you have to do so you can avoid stopping when your little one takes a snooze.
Bring the essentials, and rent or ship the rest.
Bring the gear that’s most important to you, such as the travel stroller and car seat – you can check them at the gate – and be sure to store them in a travel bag when not in use. Not only will the bag protect your gear, but you might be able to store some extra items inside. “I put diapers in the stroller bag, both for extra padding and for the convenience of freeing up suitcase space,” says Nicola Wood, a mom and senior editor of travel at U.S. News.
For bulky items like portable cribs, beach wagons and hiking baby carriers, consider a baby gear rental service like BabyQuip or rents4baby, or search for local vendors in your destination. In addition, you may want to consider sending smaller essentials – diapers, wipes and the like – to your destination. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, your free shipping perk is especially useful here.
Consider TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
Having TSA PreCheck means you’ll (typically) spend less time at airport security – a godsend when traveling with toddlers. Children younger than 12 can go through the TSA PreCheck lane when traveling with a guardian who has it, and are not required to have their own membership. You can apply for either TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck benefits. However, if you’re traveling internationally and looking for Global Entry benefits for the entire family, each family member (regardless of age) will need to apply for it. Compare both options and decide which one is best for you here.
Start special vacation-only traditions.
It’s the little things that count – even on vacation. “As kids, my mom would buy a variety pack of miniature boxes of cereal on each vacation for quick (and cheap) breakfasts during our trip. We only ever got them on vacation, and for some reason the novelty of this made them taste way better than the cereal we had every day at home,” Von Tersch says. “To this day, when I see those cute little boxes, I still associate them with good memories and carefree trips.”
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Amanda Norcross is a family travel expert, with many years of experience writing about the challenges and joys of traveling with children. She regularly travels with her toddler, and used her own experiences with him – including multiple plane rides and 12-hour road trips – along with advice from other parents to put together this guide to traveling with toddlers.