How to travel with a baby, and the gear you need

For expecting parents, travel can seem like one of those parts of life that’s off the table after having a baby. The ability to be spontaneous, to just pack a carry-on bag and head to some far-off destination for a few days, to run around exploring new cities, restaurants, beaches — all of it seems impossible. It doesn’t help that many parents and grandparents who have been there before will warn you to travel now, “while you still can!”

But as the parent of a now-16-month-old, I can say from experience that this is categorically false. I’ve now taken my daughter on many trips, including flights to the Midwest and Canada, and road trips to upstate New York and Washington, DC. The first trips we took were nerve-wracking: Did we pack all the right things for her? Would she sleep okay in the new place, thus allowing us, her parents, to sleep okay? Did we remember every possible item we might need to have at arm’s reach in the event of catastrophe while in transit?

With each successive trip, though, we got more and more confident. Each time, we learned a little bit more about how to optimize our travel routine. We learned what items we needed and what we would be fine without. We learned that you should definitely pack a lot of wet wipes, and that navigating the airport is a lot easier with a lightweight travel stroller than with your big everyday stroller.

You can absolutely travel with a baby, as long as you accept that it will look a little bit different from the way you traveled before. And one of the ways it looks different — besides having to juggle your vacation plans around the baby’s nap schedule — is that you need a lot of gear.

Specifically, there are a number of things that can make traveling with a baby or toddler much, much easier. There is a wide world of products out there, some of which are for making plane travel smoother, while others make vacation at your eventual destination more enjoyable. Wading through the options can be overwhelming, and it’s hard to know which products are worth the money and/or packing space.

The recommendations we’ve put together — by talking to travel experts, parenting specialists, and seasoned moms and dads on the Vox staff — are not meant to be one-size-fits-all. Pick and choose what feels most useful and valuable to you based on your travel style and budget. You might, for instance, be totally fine skipping a travel high chair if you don’t mind having your baby sit on your lap for meals. You might feel your regular stroller works well enough for vacation and you don’t need a travel stroller.

And remember: You don’t always have to spend money to get these products. A secret of modern parenting is there is a whole economy of parents swapping baby and kid stuff they’re done with. Ask friends and family who have kids older than yours if they have what you need, or source from a neighborhood parent group or local Buy Nothing group. If you’re able to get (or borrow!) something for free, that can be more valuable than having the “best” brand.

Things to pack that are genuinely useful

Travel stroller

That perfect stroller that you spent months researching and selecting before the baby was born? It may not be very well-suited to traveling, particularly if it’s a big, heavy model. When traveling, you want something that’s lightweight and compact, since you’ll need to fold up the stroller when going through TSA checkpoints and when gate-checking it.

All of this means traveling will be easier if you get a second stroller specifically designed for travel. There are two kinds: travel strollers, which generally fold up into thirds in a little compact rectangle, and umbrella strollers, which tend to be cheaper than travel strollers and fold up more like a long stick or umbrella shape.

I have the Summer Infant 3DLite stroller, which is a relatively inexpensive, light umbrella stroller. This thing has gotten us through trips big and small.

Summer Infant 3DLite stroller, $79

For a travel stroller, Vox audio producer Victoria Chamberlin recommends the GB Pockit+ All-Terrain stroller: “We took this to Germany, Scotland, and Italy. It folds to half the size of a rolly suitcase and can go under most seats and in all overhead compartments,” Chamberlin said. “Highly recommend if you have an international flight connection because if you gate check a stroller, you will not get it back until your final destination. When we got stranded in London overnight, I was very happy I had this in my hot hands.”

GB Pockit+ All-Terrain Stroller, $280

And Corinne McDermott, author of the travel website Have Baby Will Travel, recommends just bringing your regular stroller on trips, provided it can play double duty. “It’s not necessary to purchase a second stroller specifically for travel if your main one works well,” McDermott says. “A stroller is not just a stroller when it comes to travel with babies and little kids. It is a bed, a high chair, a buggy for all of your stuff, and a baby jail for when you need to know your baby is in a secure spot while your hands are full and attention is elsewhere. Our beloved stroller was the UPPAbaby Vista, which was our everyday stroller that worked great for travel. It is easy to maneuver, the basket holds a lot, it’s high enough to push up to a table for mealtimes, and the deep recline was great for naps.”

UppaBaby Vista V2 Stroller, $969

Travel car seat

One of the most annoying things about traveling with a baby is that you need to lug your car seat around everywhere if you plan to take a taxi or ride in any car at all. You could try bringing your regular car seat if it’s small, like an infant car seat — but otherwise, most parents I know recommend leaving the heavy convertible car seat in your car and getting a much lighter travel version.

Vox video managing producer Val Lapinski recommends the Cosco Scenera Next, a travel car seat that weighs just 10 pounds. Says Val: “It’s ubiquitous for a reason — it weighs nothing.”

After having a miserable time dragging our bulky convertible car seat through Newark Airport and around our destination of Toronto, my husband and I bought the Cosco car seat upon Val’s recommendation to use for our future travels. Just a month later, we took it on a trip to Chicago and immediately knew it had been worth it. It was much lighter and easier to carry around; my husband’s shoulders were grateful.

Cosco Scenera Next car seat, $60

Travel bags for both the car seat and stroller

If you’re flying, most airlines allow you to gate-check a stroller and a car seat for free. But items can be damaged during the gate-check process, so it’s a good idea to invest in travel bags to protect them from scratches and other wear and tear. I have these simple red bags from J.L. Childress.

J.L. Childress Car Seat Gate Check Bag, $20

J.L. Childress Stroller Gate Check Bag, $23

A lightweight baby carrier

If your baby is still small enough for babywearing, bring a carrier — it’s nice for carrying the baby around the airport once you check or gate-check your stroller, and it’ll be helpful when you want to do short outings where a stroller might feel cumbersome, like going to a restaurant.

Emily Oster, an economist and author of the parenting books Expecting Better, Cribsheet, and The Family Firm, recommends the BityBean carrier: “It’s a very lightweight baby carrier that goes front or back and can range from a very small baby up through a 2-year-old. I spent many an hour in the back of an airplane flight bouncing a kid in this thing. Generally, in my view, the less gear the better, so this was a big win when we discovered it.”

BityBean Ultra Compact Baby Carrier, $70

Travel crib

Unless you’re staying somewhere that offers a crib, you will need a travel crib that folds up compactly and is easy to carry around to provide a safe sleep space for your baby.

The Graco Pack ’n Play is beloved by many parents (including myself). It’s easy to assemble, fold up, carry, and store, and comes with a bassinet attachment for younger babies.

Graco Pack ’n Play Playard, $80

Chamberlin recommends the Guava Lotus travel crib: “This is way lighter and easier to put together than a pack and play, and takes up less space as a backpack than similar models. Also, it has a bassinet insert you can get if your baby is that little.”

Guava Lotus Travel Crib, $249

Travel high chair

You most likely already have a high chair at home, but when traveling, you might want one that’s easy to collapse and carry.

Says Chamberlin: “This is our go-to travel high chair. It is good for the floor, and also attaches to a dining chair. And if you take the tray off, it’s a camp chair. We have used it for travel to visit family, camping, and hotels.”

Summer Infant Portable Booster Chair, $30

Baby headphones, if you’re into screen time

Screen time can be a godsend on vacation when you want to have a nice dinner at a restaurant and need your toddler to sit still and be quiet for a little while. Bring your iPad with preloaded shows, but don’t forget baby headphones so the rest of the restaurant’s patrons don’t have to listen to Ms. Rachel. I use these.

BuddyPhones Explore+ Headphones, $30

Portable white noise machine

One of the most important keys to a successful vacation with your baby is sleep. Maintaining a baby’s sleep schedule and making sure they get adequate naps and good sleep at night, even in a new setting, is crucial. If you use a white noise machine at home as many parents do, then you likely want a small portable one to pack on vacation. I use this one, which is chargeable and has a little hook that makes it easy to strap onto your stroller or car seat for naps on the go, too.

Yogasleep Hushh Portable White Noise Machine, $27

Portable blackout curtains

Many kids need total darkness to be able to sleep, and the varying light situation in hotels and Airbnbs can wreak havoc on daytime naps. Many Vox parents recommend portable blackout curtains to create that perfect darkness — everyone will be happier if the baby has had a solid nap.

Catherine Spangler, a supervising producer on Vox’s video team, says: “These blackout curtains with suction cups have been lifesavers across three continents for us.” The suction cups make them easy to attach to any window, and they’re lightweight and easy to fold up and throw into your carry-on bag.

Tommee Tippee Portable Blackout Curtains, $19

A diaper bag that holds everything you need for the flight

A diaper bag that holds and organizes all the essentials you might need in flight — from diapers and wipes to snacks and bottles and the iPad and headphones and an extra change of clothes — is important to a less stressful flight.

Your everyday bag might work, but Jessica Darrington, who runs the baby travel website and Instagram Where Is Briggs, also recommends the ultra-structured travel diaper bag from No Reception Club. Says Darrington: “This diaper bag has been a game changer when traveling with a baby because it has kept all of our gear organized. I’m amazed at everything I can fit inside and love that this bag counts as a personal item and can go under the seat in front of me on the airplane.”

No Reception Club “The Getaway” Bag, $235

Things you can probably skip bringing

Tons of diapers

Save your suitcase space and bring only enough diapers to get you through the trip — you can always buy more diapers when you arrive at your destination.

The SlumberPod

As far as I can tell, this is basically a tent for babies to sleep in, but the entire $180 tent is made of blackout shades. Some parents I know love it, but we’ve never invested in one — portable blackout shades have worked just fine for us and are much cheaper.

Travel baby monitor

Travel baby monitors are things that exist, but there are also a million baby monitor apps that turn devices like iPads, with cameras and microphones, into monitors that stream to your phone. Save your money and skip buying a travel-specific device.