The 6 Stages of Baby & Toddler Travel: What to expect, where to go, and how to time it right

We know a lot about world travel with babies and toddlers. My son is now 2 1/2 and has thus far been to 12 countries on 4 continents. We traveled a lot before he was born and simply refused to slow down when he joined our family. We have had a lot of adventures and learned a ton about traveling with a baby and now with a toddler! Along the way, I have been surprised more than once, in good ways and bad. Here is my best insight and advice about the six stages of baby and toddler travel, what you can expect from each time period, where you might want to go at each stage, and how you can time it right.

STAGE 1: 0-6 months

OK, so no one is going to hop on a plane with a one week old, but once a baby is about 3-4 months old, traveling with them can be surprisingly fun and easy. The kid is small, light, and sustained either by food you carry in your very own boobs or by small amounts of powder you can mix with water. The diapers and clothes are tiny so they don’t take up a lot of suitcase room. And the child is eminently portable in any number of fabric-based contraptions (sling, Moby, Bjorn, Ergo, and so forth) and light enough to take on reasonably challenging hikes or city walks. With some babies, you can put them to sleep in a sling or carseat and head out to a nice restaurant. This will not be the case for very long! The big negative here is that your baby–and ergo, you–are probably not on a great sleep schedule yet. On the other hand, it can be nicer to nap together in a poolside lounge chair than on your own couch. Just stay away from places that are too hot, because there’s nothing grosser than babywearing and breastfeeding when it’s 110 degrees and 98% humidity (I’m looking at you, Cartagena.)

Ideal for Stage 1: poolside vacations, hiking-focused trips, places with good restaurants

Things to avoid: major time changes, places with mosquitoes, and temperature extremes

We went to: Hawaii, New York, Colombia, and British Columbia. Hawaii and British Columbia were the clear winners because we were able to eat some good food, enjoy mild weather, and take some nice walks and hikes. New York and Cartagena were exciting but way too hot in the summer, and Bogota was too cold.

STAGE 2: 6-12 months

For me, this was the golden time for travel with a small child. My kid was fun, cute, and interactive but still highly portable and thus far lacking in strong opinions. By this stage our family had some semblance of a sleep routine. And although he had started eating solid foods, the amounts are so small I could easily stash 2 weeks worth in the outside pockets of my suitcase. The clothes and diapers are still on the small side. And the key thing here is that he still couldn’t WALK. The walking is when it starts to get rough. I recommend taking a big adventurous trip during this stage.

Ideal for Stage 2: anything adventurous – this is your chance to slip one more big crazy trip in!

Things to avoid: places that require major vaccinations or malaria pills and very windy beach towns

We went to: New York (again), Thailand, Bhutan, Austin, and Palm Springs. Bhutan was a wonderful trip and made even more fun by bringing a baby because everyone there loved the baby. We mostly took long hikes with baby strapped in a Bjorn. Thailand was incredibly welcoming and friendly but Bangkok was a little overwhelming with a little one (mostly because it was hot, loud, and everyone kept wanting to touch him.) But overall I found everywhere to be pretty easy at this stage.

STAGE 3: 12-18 months

This stage can still be fun, but chances are your kid is now seriously on the move. Mine could walk but was not very good at it. Luckily, he was still pretty portable either in a backpack or stroller. You can cover a lot of ground in a city with a stroller–and depending on how much your kid likes a backpack (and whether they’re comfortable taking naps in one) you can even do some more ambitious trips with longer daily outings.

Ideal for Stage 3: For the next year or so, the relaxing kid-focused beach or pool vacation is going to be the easiest. But you can still go more adventurous and outdoorsy if your kid likes to be in a backpack. Small or medium-sized cities are a good choice for a kid who likes being in a stroller.

Things to avoid: Big, crowded cities are less fun with kids this age. If you’re planning to use a stroller, stay away from places with lots of uneven surfaces (like cobblestones or lack of paving.) This is not a great time for long flights either, but if you’re taking a long enough trip it can be worth it. Short boat trips are probably OK.

We went to: Catalina Island, Lake Tahoe, a small island in Mexico, Switzerland, and Italy. We hiked in the Alps with our son in a backpack. He ran around the sandy streets in Mexico and the piazzas in Italy. I was glad we didn’t take him to Bangkok or New York at this age.

STAGE 4: 18-24 months

For us this was the WORST time to take long, adventuresome trips, but of course we only realized that in hindsight. Our kid could walk (and RUN!) but he couldn’t communicate, wasn’t safe, and had absolutely no self-preservation instincts. The kid was dangerous and needed constant supervision. Long flights, boat trips, and crowded, busy cities were not that fun with a kid this age. Jet lag was much rougher than on previous trips. All in all, I wish we had taken it a lot easier during this stage and won’t make the mistake again! We totally overdid it with less-than-great results.

Ideal for Stage 4: This is really when I would recommend slotting in some super relaxing and kid-focused trips with short flights and only small time changes.

Things to avoid: Long flights, boats, and crowded, busy cities

We went to: China, Vietnam, Mexico, Palm Springs, and LA. Vietnam was an amazing place but this was absolutely the wrong age of child to bring there. We did an overnight boat trip that required constant vigilance, and the busy city traffic was incredibly dangerous unless he was in arms or on shoulders. Being in a place where strollers can’t go and with a kid too big for a backpack made it our least enjoyable and most stressful trip to date. Mexico, Palm Springs, and LA were all lovely and relaxing.

Stage 5: 24-30 months

We had some family and health issues that kept us mostly grounded during this stage. And frankly, after the (mis)adventures of the previous stage we were hesitant to do anything major. I would stick with the Stage 4 recommendations unless your kid is more mature than mine! Although we definitely started to see that things were getting a little easier as our son’s language skills improved and we could communicate better.

Ideal for Stage 5: Keep up the kid-focused and relaxing trips.

Things to avoid: Continue to stay away from those long flights, boats, and crowded, busy cities

We went to: Hawaii and Washington DC. Hawaii at this age was absolutely excellent. We had tons of fun at the beach and in the pool, and the laid-back vibe and family friendliness makes it ideal for travel with an energetic toddler.

Stage 6: 30 months and up

You have reached a tipping point. Congratulations! If your kid is like mine he will now put on headphones and watch endless hours of video on an iPad. He can communicate with you and understand what you are saying. If you’re luckier/smarter than me, he might even be potty-trained! For the next few years, a kid will see an airplane ride as the glory that is an all-you-can-binge video and juice bar. Our most recent trip was fantastic and the long flights and layovers were a breeze. I only wish I had known earlier that it would become so much easier–because had I known, I would have saved some of the more ambitious trips for later.

Ideal for Stage 6: The world may once again be your oyster… and you can travel pretty freely.

Things to avoid: Major time changes – jet lag may still be a problem. But I haven’t personally tested it. (I’ll let you know once we get back from Europe in December!)

We went to: Ecuador and Peru. They couldn’t have been better. And I can’t wait for the next trip now that we seem to have entered a new and easier stage!

[All photos by Karen Merzenich | all rights reserved]

[All photos provided by Karen Merzenich]

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