Air Travel with a Toddler: Working with What We’ve Got

This week, we’re traveling to visit my sister at her new home in Boise. She and her family moved from Los Angeles earlier this summer, and I am eager to experience the place they now call home.

We've flown many times with West for business trips-- several times across the country, over the Pacific and across the Atlantic. He seemed keen on every flight except for two. (Turns out he had a bilateral ear infection during one. The other was rough for us all thanks to a 24-hour journey, coupled with a 9 hour time-zone difference.)

We love adventuring beyond our cottage— it’s one of our intentions behind living tiny. But we deliberately paused our non-essential air travel in the months after West stopped nursing. Every child is different— we knew that flying would’ve been tricky with and for our little one at that time of his life. Now that he’s almost two, so we’re testing the skies again with this shorter getaway to Idaho.

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A friend of mine travels constantly with her daughter, and her advice to me from the beginning was to use washi tape and recycled paper to wrap books, toys and food for flights, then invite your child to unwrap things when needed, prolonging his or her excitement and joy during air travel. Adam and I tried it out, and it worked wonders. We aren’t big on screens here, and try our best to keep our child happy and engaged without a device at home, in restaurants, and during all types of travel. (Let me be very clear-- I'm not passing judgement on folks who use iPads with their children. I've never had to travel with multiple little ones, nor with a family member who has special needs. And some days just ROUGH-- for the kid(s), for the parent(s), or both. In those cases, I imagine that a little screen time could be a huge help. You do you. We're all trying our best.) But in preparation for this short trip, I’ve been slowly composing a little bundle of surprises for West to enjoy, all inspired by my friend’s clever tape-and-paper tactic.

I’ve read numerous “travelling with toddlers” tips online that make me wonder... do I really need to bring stacks of disposable diapers, brand new toys in shiny wrapping, and plastic bags for trash when we fly? I refuse to believe it. I’m pretty sure that most of us can find economical, eco-friendly, and space-saving ways to captivate our kids. 

We have a reusable, waterproof bag that holds used silverware after we dine on-the-go, so we packed that instead of plastic shopping bags. (Why are single-use plastic bags still in production anyway?!) We use a cloth diapering system, which came with a standard, leak-proof bag that securely holds dirty fabrics. When we travel to a place where we won't have access to a washing machine or a cloth diapering cleaning service, we temporarily use GroVia BioSoakers (which are natural and almost entirely compostable) in West's cloth diaper shells. 

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As far as toys are concerned, the little bundle I’ve been preparing is made up of items from varying sources: hand-me-downs from neighbors and friends, random party favors we received at events, smaller components collected from other games or activities, loose pages from coloring and sticker books, and objects that we keep in rotation so our son doesn’t get too attached to (or too bored of) his daily toys.

I’ll wrap some of these goods in old papers from around the house, such as unwanted mail, used packing kraft, drawn-on pages, ribbons from miscellaneous deliveries, etc. I didn’t have to buy anything new— everything was already floating around for one reason or another. And yet I’m sure every piece will feel like a gem to our son when he unwraps it.

The two things we did buy are his travel bags, which I expect will last for several years to come. I selected a little handmade drawstring backpack from Etsy. (The maker and I communicated, and she offered to replace any strings that need repairing in the future, and/or to re-wax the canvas if it starts getting overly worn.) I also invited West to pick out his own suitcase, which he did with such enthusiasm. While I love neutral homewares and natural materials, I don’t want to constantly impose my preferences on my son. When he outgrows his little suitcase for one reason or another, we can either pass it down to our second child if we go that route, or we can pack it with linens and donate it to a disaster relief outlet.

I’ll update this post to reflect the realities of our trip. Fingers crossed, but I’m confident that we can operate more mindfully without sacrificing convenience. And even if something takes a touch more effort, it’s nothing compared to leaving our children a crumbling planet overburdened with single-use plastics and spilling landfills.

We can do better. And we can do better beautifully.

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Update post-flights: Despite several hours of delays, West was a trooper in the airplanes and at the airports. The bag of tricks was a hit-- even at 2am in the air. The biggest success was this simple box of oversized buttons, paired with a wooden dump truck. The sorting kept West occupied for long stretches of time, as did the little chalkboard and bag of chalk, and pages of reusable stickers.