I traveled to Europe at least once a year — sometimes twice — for the last 10 years, and during those trips, I optimized how I packed to only bring a carry-on suitcase and messenger bag with me.
The pandemic and a pregnancy halted any overseas travel plans for much of 2020 and 2021, but by the summer of 2022, my husband and I were ready to fly again — this time with a toddler in tow. Our itinerary included one week in Amsterdam, where my husband was attending a conference, and then one week in the Azores on the island of São Miguel.
I still wanted to pack light, but I knew I was going to need an extra bag or two, at least. We also wanted to be able to carry everything into the cabin, if we had to, given the turmoil at many airports in Europe this summer.
Here’s what I packed to get us there — and what we did once we arrived.
I was nervous — to put it mildly — about traveling by air with my then 20-month-old, and I was particularly nervous about our red-eye flight from Philadelphia to Amsterdam. What if he couldn’t sleep? What if he cried the entire flight? How was I going to entertain him for hours in a plane in the dark?
To help him sleep during the overnight flight, I bought a Flyaway Kids Bed, and we got him his own seat, rather than bringing him on as a lap infant. I looked at several other options and landed on the Flyaway Kids Bed because it was inflatable and relatively easy to store when it wasn’t in use, but it does take up a sizeable amount of space when you’re trying to pack light. Still, it worked for us. He slept about 4.5 hours on the way to Amsterdam on the bed, and he could have slept longer but the cabin lights/sunrise woke him up. He also took a 2-hour nap on the mattress on our flight from the Azores back to the U.S.
In addition to the Flyaway Kids Bed, I had the following items packed in our carry-on bags:
- For toddler:
- Sleep sack
- Pajamas/change of clothes
- Snack cup
- Water cup
- Plane activities (I must have Googled “toddler plane activities” dozens of times in the run-up to our trip, and I made some of these activities from Flying With A Baby that helped, but the tablet I brought preloaded with Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger episodes on PBS Kids, as well as a few other apps, including Peekaboo Barn, Baby’s Musical Hands and ABC Mouse, was the star of the show for my son. I limit screen time at home, but for my sake and the sake of everyone else in our vicinity, it was no holds bar on screen time on our travel days.)
- Toys (Drawing paper & crayons, pom pom balls in a snack cup, Melissa & Doug Water Wow! book, magnetic drawing board and Q-Tips in a spice jar.)
- Board books
- Seat harness
- Baby carrier
- For me:
- Tablet (I read Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series during this trip.)
- Clothes (I try to pack light, and both places we stayed had washers, so I was able to pack even less knowing I could clean my clothes while away.)
- Phone charger
- Power converter
- Reusable shopping bag
- For toddler:
- Sound machine
- Emergency items
- Bathing Suit
- Travel high chair
- Rain jacket
- For me:
- Bathing suit
- Beach outfit
- Bluetooth speaker
- Rain coat
So, for the three of us, we had two standard carry-on suitcases, two book bags (including a diaper bag), a messenger bag and a travel backpack. We checked one of the carry-on suitcases and the travel back pack to make getting through the airport easier. We also gate-checked a stroller. We bought a used City Mini for the trip, and it worked well for us.
I felt like I was well-equipped throughout this trip with my packing list. My only regret was not bringing an extra pair of shorts for myself and a portable fan for the toddler, both of which we needed in Amsterdam (where we caught the very beginning of the summer’s blistering heat wave) and the Azores.
We stayed in a house in the Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam on the Egelantiersgracht canal. It was about a five-minute walk from the Anne Frank House. I had been to Amsterdam twice before — both times pre-kids — so I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of family-friendly attractions before I arrived. I found Amsterdam was well-equipped to entertain toddlers, mainly thanks to the free, public play structures.
We were about a 15-minute walk from the Speeltuin Herenmarkt — a great playground with a large sand pit, ride-on toy area, climbing structure, a playset with a slide and swings — and we made that a regular stop.
We also rented bikes and a bike trailer during our stay, and we traveled by bike to Noorderpark and Oosterpark, both of which had excellent activities and equipment for kids, including a paddling pool and climbing structure in Oosterpark.
We took a canal cruise, and we visited De Hallen Amsterdam, a former tram depot that is now home to unique shops and an indoor food market.
After a week in an urban environment, we booked a house in a much more rural setting: Mosteiros, a small town on the northwestern side of the island of São Miguel in the Azores. Our rental had its own pool, so we spent a lot of time relaxing at the house, but we also explored the island.
While not a bustling town, there was plenty to keep us entertained in Mosteiros, including beaches, beach bars, natural rock pools and amazing sunsets along the coast. It also had a restaurant, a bakery and a coffee shop/bar near the city center.
One of the best things about visiting the Azores is the miraduoros (viewpoints). On the day we arrived, we stopped at multiple miraduoros on the drive from Ponta Delgada airport to Moisteros while our son was napping in the car. We accidentally missed one of the best-known spots — Miradouro da Boca do Inferno — because we missed the exit for it, and we couldn’t turn around on the steep mountain road.
We had plans to come back, but the only other day we had time to do so, it was too cloudy. I still walked up it because our toddler was napping in the car (again), and I thought I may be able to see something if I wanted it hard enough. It didn’t work out, but it was still a lovely walk.
We took several day trips during our stay, including visiting Ponta Delgada, where we ate at Baía dos Anjos by the marina, visited a free outdoor swimming pool called Piscinas do Pesqueiro that is fed by the sea, and stopped at Piscinas Ponta Deldada, an outdoor swimming complex with changing rooms, a diving platform and kiddie pools that you pay to enter.
We visited Ponta da Ferraria on another day. The drive up and down was terrifying but well worth it. It’s not a toddler-friendly swimming area, but we were able to trade off and each swim in the hot spring next to the ocean.
We also took a day trip to Furnas, stopping first at Lagoa das Furnas where we hiked through Mata Jardim José do Canto. This was a magical walk that ended in a waterfall. We were able to push a stroller through most of it, but we had to switch to a baby carrier to get to the waterfall. We made a stop at Fumarolas da Lagoa das Furnas to see the bubbling, sulfuric pits of water and picked up lunch in the main part of town. We stopped at the only tea plantation in Europe — Gorreana — and I have to say the tea is fantastic (especially the Broken Leaf) but the ice cream is pretty good there too.
My three main takeaways from my first trip overseas with a toddler are:
- Set realistic expectations for what you can do in a day. Young kids need naps, and time to run around. You aren’t going to do everything you would have without kids, so prioritize your activities.
- Bring more snacks than you think you’ll need. Snacks make managing a toddler a little easier — and we went through a lot of them. Whether you’re flying, driving or boating, some high-reward snacks can make the trip a whole lot smoother.
- Be prepared for something to go wrong — no matter how well you planned. Travel is unpredictable; that makes it great, but it also makes it a little bit scary. Our flight home from the Azores was canceled one hour after it was supposed to take off, and we ended up in a mad dash to the airport the next day to make our flight because the airline changed our departure time without notifying us. That was not fun, but the rest of the trip was, and that’s what I’ll remember.