Over the past year, I’ve become an expert on flying and driving long distances with a little travel dictator in tow. It takes time, patience, and forethought to survive these trips without spending a suitcase’s worth of cash. But I’ve learned how to travel with a baby without tearing my hair out or burning a hole in my wallet.
The first time I flew with my daughter, she was a cute little 6-month-old who clung to my chest the entire flight. I naively thought that all the horror stories that I had heard till then were totally bogus.
Roughly one year, six flights, and seven lengthy car trips later, I see things much differently. However, I’ve managed to stay sane and frugal by planning ahead and using cost-benefit analysis for every trip I take.
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My Cost-Benefit Analysis Method
Doing cost-benefit analyses — or weighing the pros and cons of a purchase — has been a life-saver when traveling with a baby.
For example, during a recent trip, I had the choice of driving five hours to a big (but far away) urban airport to catch a budget flight, or of going through a nearby local airport for which the ticket price was more expensive.
The most cost-effective choice, surprisingly, turned out to be our local regional airport.
Even though the ticket price was higher, it ended up being more affordable when we factored in the hotel cost, long-term parking, and not having to pull over to the side of the road five times to pick up a dropped bottle.
This benefit seems like an incredible deal, but it isn’t as perfect as it seems. While my daughter could sit on my lap for hours when she was a 6-month-old, it was an entirely different story when she reached 19 months.
Since Dad wasn’t traveling with us, I ran the risk of her throwing a tantrum until other kind passengers allowed her to sit on their laps. (It’s happened!)
This meant that I again had to weigh the pros and cons of forcing her on my lap for two separate two-hour flights. Pros: save a ton of money. Cons: potentially four hours’ worth of epic tantrums and fights in a middle seat. I ended up buying her a separate ticket for the flight.
Common Questions About How to Travel With a Baby
Careful cost-benefit analysis, in tandem with planning ahead, can save you some serious cash and a few pillow screams. I’ve employed this strategy to answer four popular questions about traveling with an infant, so you can know the true cost on both your wallet and your mental health.
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1. Should I Bring My Own Food and Supplies?
The cost of food is generally higher when you purchase it at an airport or rest stop. However, it may be a good distraction for your little ones, which can give you a brief mental break when on the road. That’s often worth the extra cash.
Conversely, it’s a good idea to bring extra diapers, wipes, and clothes, because it’s likely that your baby will make a mess all over herself at least once. And if you’re formula-feeding, you can’t forget bottles, either.
“Always bring changes of clothes,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Katie Zisand of Wisdom Within Counseling, “so if your toddler has an accident, you won’t have to waste time pulling off on an unknown exit to try to find a store to buy more clothes.”
While these items may take up extra luggage space, having the ability to address unexpected messes head-on — especially when in a packed car or on a tight flight — is a benefit that can’t be overstated. Your fellow passengers will thank you for your cleanly decision.
2. How Should I Get There?
There are excellent online tools — like BeFrugal’s Fly or Drive Calculator— that can help you to figure out what method of transportation is cheapest. In my case, the calculator is telling me that a 17-hour car trip is less expensive, even with hotels and gas, but it doesn’t factor in a kid in a car seat for those 17 hours, my sanity, or the wear-and-tear on a vehicle.
You should also consider the storage and space associated with driving. Is your car packed in with necessary luggage for a long trip?
If so, you’ll have to scale back to accommodate the space of a car seat, a stroller, and a travel crib. If you’ve removed some luggage but still can’t fit a seat for your baby, it may be time to weigh the benefits of inexpensive car travel against the cost of an airline ticket to find out which is better suited for your trip.
Since our daughter was under 2 years old, we avoided that cost. You could bring your baby in a Björn and lull them to sleep for most of the flight. Think about whether or not this is a better solution to driving for your child.
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3. Should I Rent a Car?
Rental cars are affordable these days, but in most airports, you’ll need to take a long bus or taxi ride to a rental company’s outpost. Not so appealing after a red-eye flight.
Being picked up by an Uber and renting a car closer to your hotel or Airbnb may save you precious time and energy, especially if you’re exhausted after a long flight.
Take time to examine your trip itinerary and decide if you absolutely need a rental car for your stay. Will you be in the middle of the city? If so, it may be easier and cheaper to rely on public transportation as much as possible while your infant rides in a stroller. You can still take the occasional Uber or Lyft when necessary and walk everywhere else.
“It depends on a lot of factors,” says Kristine Celorio, a blogger who traveled to Mexico with her infant at 2 months old and Cuba at 11 months. “I would say look at your basic itinerary and estimate how many Ubers it would require. If they start to add up, then compare the cost to a daily car rental rate.”
“Also consider how expensive hotel parking is, because in a place like San Francisco or New York, this can really make a difference,” Celorio adds.
In short, do another cost-benefit analysis in the context of your accommodations to find out what method of transportation is best for you and your baby. And if you do end up renting a car, bring your own car seat if you can. Most airlines will let you check them for free. Plus, you’ll save on the 10 to 15 dollars a day you’d have to pay the rental agency to use theirs.
4. Hotel Location
Reserving a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb in the heart of everything saves cab fares and gives you a central hub in case you need to take a nap. However, if you have older kids or are traveling sans children, you might not need that prime location downtown. Instead, reserve a room someplace that’s near public transportation or at a hotel that offers free shuttle buses.
Also, maybe think about a vacation to an all-inclusive beach property. This way, you can spend your days lounging at the beach. On top of low-stress itinerary planning (less running around and driving), many all-inclusive resorts have great policies regarding kids.
For example, the Hyatt recently changed its policy at all-inclusive resorts. Infants under the age of 2 no longer incur any extra charge. Many Holiday Inn and Hilton resorts also let kids stay free through August, depending on location and vacancy; check before booking to see if you can bring your baby while saving some money.
Although an all-inclusive hotel may seem more expensive, making a list of pros and cons can help you determine if it may be a more financially savvy choice. Assess what the cost of your meals and transportation will be for the duration of your trip. Also think about the mental cost of running around a travel destination and going to many locations versus relaxing in a singular locale for the entire vacation.
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The Bottom Line on How to Travel With a Baby
As you can see, with a little cost-benefit analysis, you weigh the pros and cons of all your options so that you can have a stress-free experience. It’s a basic skill that helps you to budget for anything in life, so it’s worth it to get started now.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.