A Survival Guide for Traveling with an Infant

Parents traveling with an infant in a vehicle

Getting anywhere with a new baby can be tough - here are some essential tips for road and air travel.

Having a baby changes your life in so many different ways, it's hard to keep track sometimes. One of the things that often gets overlooked is how challenging it can make long-distance travel. Remember being able to just jump in the car or grab a flight at the last minute? Not any more.

But that doesn't mean it has to be a nightmare. With a little effort and a good deal of preparation, you can make things as comfortable as possible for everyone.

Traveling with an Infant in the Car

1. Plan for Emergencies

With your infant in the car, your road trip is going to need to be engineered to allow for all sorts of emergencies, whether it's diaper changing breaks, spit-up cleanups, or strategic pit stops to deal with insistent fussing. You'll need to forget about trying to "make good time" or "get there by dinner." Instead, make sure you account for at least one pit stop every few hours. That way you'll leave plenty of time to get there without stressing yourself out.

You'll also want to map out a number of potential places to stop along the way. While it may be tempting to just wing it and find somewhere when the need arises (who needs a plan when you have a smartphone?), you never know where you're going to be when disaster strikes. You could be in an area that has slow or non-existent cell reception. Or maybe your battery ran out from entertaining your kids with their favorite app. And even if your phone is still working, it's not easy to search for the right place to stop while there's a temper tantrum going on.

2. Avoid the Back Roads

While local highways and backroads may be less crowded and get you to where you're going faster, they'll have less of the pit stops and services you're likely to need. Sure, you may add a few miles to the trip by taking the bigger interstate freeways, but it can be well worth it with the time you’ll save trying to find the next gas station or restaurant to stop at.

Ideally, you want to hit that sweet spot between the congested urban roads and remote country trails. You want relatively smooth sailing, with gas stations or other rest areas available along the way. But you don't want to end up winding around some mountain highway with no human habitation in sight.

3. Getting It On the Go

This next tip may seem a bit counter-intuitive. While it's always great to be prepared before you set out, sometimes its a better idea to get things like diapers and formula as you go, rather than trying to pack everything into your van or car when you set out. Of course, you'll want some of those critical diaper bag items with you when you start. But too much packing can be a nightmare, and all those diapers and other items can leave a lot less room for games, toys and other nice-to-have items that will make your trip more fun. And in some cases, stopping off to get a few things can be a nice break.

4. First In, Last Out

When it comes to packing, always follow the critical “first in, last out” rule: don’t bury the diapers and snacks under your suitcases, or you’ll have to frantically paw through the trunk on the side of the road or in the parking lot. Make sure you pack the least essential items first, and the most essential items (those you'll need to access during your trip) last.

Air Travel with an Infant

While you're most likely not going to be doing A LOT of air travel while your child is young (forget those Caribbean getaways or jaunts to Paris), you may need to do a few short trips by plane in those early years.

It's no secret that flying with an infant can be tricky. You’ve probably read all of the common recommendations about bringing along toys and bottles and whatever makes your infant comfortable. But here are some slightly less conventional suggestions for keeping everyone calm on the flight.

1. Connections Can be Your Friend

Usually, the goal is to get to where you're going as quickly as possible. But with an infant, that calculation may be slightly different. You may actually want to embrace connections instead of trying to get longer direct flights. While it may mean changing planes or sitting in the terminal for a bit, connections can offer an opportunity to retool, take stock and calm down an infant before setting out on another leg of a journey that you're taking by airplane. And since direct flights often cost more, you may also save a bit of money in the process.

2. Take the Red-Eye

One way to avoid the hassle of dealing with the squirming and yelling on a long flight is to make sure you're both unconscious for most of it. By booking a redeye flight or one that coincides with their sleep schedule, you can hopefully sleep right through the rough patches. With the right mix of blankets, pillows and their favorite stuffed animal, you can increase the chances they'll sleep peacefully while you're all 30,000 feet above the ground.

3. Gift Packs: Perfect or Pandering?

One increasing popular tactic for helping fellow passengers tolerate your terrible toddler is the gift-pack. While some parents preach the benefits of giving out small bags filled with ear plugs, candy and other assorted goodies as a way of placating those who might be disturbed by your little ones, some see it as a pandering move.

In general, other parents will be a lot more tolerant of your toddler's occasional meltdowns, since they've likely been in the same boat before. For childless travelers, or those who've forgotten how hard it is to travel with children, you may decide to go the extra mile to make them happy. At the end of the day, it's up to you whether or not you want to make this connection with other travelers. Don’t worry about what other people say, because you're the one in charge. Which brings us to...

4. Don't Worry So Much

One of the best (and hardest) tips for this kind of travel is to not stress out about the details. Millions of families do this all the time. Compassionate people will understand - and those that don't probably have bigger issues to deal with. Sure, caring about the happiness of others is a great trait to have. You care for your child all the time. But sometimes it's better to stop worrying about what everyone thinks for a few hours.

Let's be honest. Traveling with a baby or infant is never going to be a walk in the park. There's always going to be some level of stress and uncertainty involved. But that shouldn't stop you from enjoying travel and seeing the world. With a little bit of preparation and a lot of patience, all of you will get there in one piece.