How I survived mishaps traveling solo with my toddler internationally

Image of Toddler on plane

Intro

Our plan was to fly Zurich to Stockholm, Stockholm to Chicago, spend the night in Chicago and then take the first flight to Buffalo, NY the next morning, and finally, to drive to Rochester, NY to see my family. What ensued was the loss of a solo-mama-travel-hack, the iPad on the transatlantic flight, a reroute to Pittsburgh after a failed attempt at landing in Buffalo, rebooking to Rochester via Philadelphia only to have that flight canceled in Philadelphia. This is my survival story about how I kept it together (nearly), more importantly, how I kept my little man in good spirits, and how we ultimately made it.

The decision to travel home alone with my son

Since moving abroad, I try to make it home twice a year. By home, I mean visiting both ‘homes’ in upstate NY and near Chicago. However, the past two years, given my monthly travels to London and intense study for my MBA program, this has been reduced to once a year during the holidays. I have tried to make these once-a-year trips a bit longer so that I at least get a bit more quality time with my nearest and dearest friends and family. However, my husband couldn’t take quite that much time off from work so I opted to fly for the second time alone with our son. This time, he was 2.5 years old.

Packing

Picture of suitcase filled with Swiss chocolate and Hatchimals with very little space left for actual necessities.
Little room left for actual necessities. However, when you live in Switzerland, your friends and family think chocolate is a necessity. The Hatchimals didn't help!

You can’t live in Switzerland and not bring chocolate home with you every time you visit. When I noticed people going mad over Hatchimals in the U.S. and that I could get my hands on some, I offered to help people make their Christmases a little happier by bringing some with me. When I made this offer, I had no idea how big these darn things actually were! I still had to fit winter clothes for me and my little man in here.

I was only checking one bag. I needed to manage that, the stroller, a backpack, shoulder bag, not to mention my son! Oh, and in Chicago, I would be adding a car seat to my juggling act. (Car seat rental for an extended period of time is a rip off). Thank goodness 2-year-old clothes don’t take up much room and whatever I couldn’t fit for me was an added excuse to shop when I arrived.

Day 1

Getting off to a good start

Image of child looking out airport window and flying on a playground plane
Excited for our travels and having fun at the airport

Everything started off well. My husband drove us to the airport and helped us drop the checked bag and the stroller. Since we were flying Scandinavian Airways, they required us to check the stroller. I was a bit frustrated by that but later, when we arrived in Stockholm, I was pleasantly surprised by the free strollers to use around the terminal. We grabbed something to eat and waited for boarding time. Even before taking off, my little guy had already passed out. Some hours later we arrived in blistering cold Chicago.

Image of toddler on the plane, ready for take-off and soon asleep.
My cute little traveler didn't even make it to take-off before passing out. The Swedish skies were beautiful.

Too good to be true, farewell solo-mama-travel-hack #1

I was tidying all of our things in our seats as we waited to de-plane. Remembering not to forget our mini iPad from the seatback pocket camouflaged in a black case, I grabbed it only to set it down for a moment when I noticed our black diaper clutch on the floor. I leaned over to pick that up, threw it in my purse and that is when the people must have started moving. I gathered my son and our bags and headed off.

We were not even to passport control yet and I realized my mistake. However, my arms burning from carrying everything and my toddler and figuring they wouldn’t let me back on the plane anyway, I continued on to passport control. The lines were insane. However, I was watching everyone like a hawk to see if anyone had picked up my iPad.

As soon as we finally made it through passport control and collected our bags, we immediately went to the airline’s desk to inquire about the lost item. They radioed the plane and I could hear the conversation. They checked twice and nothing. I still had another day of solo-mama-travel tomorrow. That thing was my safety net to ensuring a quiet child on the flight. What was I going to do without my solo-mama-travel-hack?!?

Hello dad, goodbye dad

We finally left the secure area and found my dad there waiting for us. After the hello hugs and kisses, he helped us to the airport hotel. We checked in while he braved the frigid temperatures to collect the car seat from his car. By the time he returned, the little one was passed out, so we had a quiet uneventful dinner in the hotel’s ballroom (as their restaurant was under renovation). Said my goodbyes to my Dad (we’d be back to see him in about a week), and retired to bed to rest up for the early morning flight the next day.

Day 2

Today's challenge: keeping toddler quiet without my go-to solo-mama-travel-hack

Image of Ohare airport and surviving just fine without my solo-mama-travel-hack, the iPad!
Saw the beautiful sunrise over Chicago O'Hare airport while enjoying a cream cheese bagel. When it was time to fly, my little guy was out once again. Looks like I'm doing ok with our my solo-mama-travel-hack!

Woke up bright an early to catch our morning flight to Buffalo. Let the balancing act begin, adding the car seat to the mix was a bit of a challenge. We made it with the help of the airport shuttle. There was a storm heading towards upstate/Western NY and when I checked the weather, Buffalo was meant to be having strong winds. I was a bit surprised but relieved that we scheduled to leave on time.

My son, thus far in his life has been an incredible travel buddy. However, now that he was in his own seat, the seat belt became an area of contention and argument. Yesterday, I used the iPad bribe him into quietness. What was I to do now that the iPad was gone? Sugar. Sugar in the form of apple juice was my new best friend. If he buckled up without yelling, left it buckled, then he could order an apple juice when they offered drinks. It worked. Phew! Only he fell asleep almost immediately after take off.

Just kidding, that was the least of my challenges

We are nearing Buffalo. When we begin our descent, you can feel the winds. The Captain eventually explains that the runway is not clear, and we would circle while it was cleared. Sometime later, it was realized that due to the winds, the runway could not be kept clear. Running low on fuel, we were diverted to Pittsburgh.

Woke my little guy up, explained to him that we were in a different airport than scheduled. We then proceeded to get in line to try to get help. It is a confused situation. But I remain calm in line. The guy in front of me gets his family rebooked on a flight to Rochester via Philadelphia. I am next in line, as there are murmurs that they aren’t going to help any more people at that counter. But as luck would have it, I was the last person they helped. I took that same offer to be routed to Rochester as that is where I wanted to be anyway. I would sort out the car reservation later.

We board the plane to Philadelphia, my new solo-mama-travel-hack comes into play once again, the apple juice bribe. The only problem, it was such a quick flight that they only had water and orange juice. Fortunately, he accepted the offers to buy him juice later.

Now, I am really being tested

We land in Philly, I check my phone. The plane to Rochester appears to be on time. It is a tight connection and it’s been a while since I have flown through Philadelphia airport. Exhausted, confused with a toddler in arms. The pilot from our plane clearly sees that I am a hot mess and offers his help. He walks to the screen with us when my trembling hand can’t find my flight details and then points us in the right direction. Ugh! I forgot I have to take a bus to get to the other terminal.

Running, chest burning, checking phone, flight on time, hurry, hurry. Hop off the bus, run, run, glance at the monitor, all seems ok. Get to the gate, nooooo! The word CANCELED on the screen at the gate. Deep breath. I get in line and accept that I am not making it home today. We are rebooked to the first flight to Buffalo the next day and handed a slip for a hotel hotline.

This is when I almost lost it. Exhausted from traveling alone for two days, running around airports, arms burning from the weight, I fought the tears welling up in my eyes. Deep breath. I sat down, praising my superstar travel buddy for remaining an absolute champ through this all. If I also had to deal with toddler meltdowns through all of this, I would have been laying on the floor right next to him kicking and screaming. I called the number and booked a room.

Philly for the night

I opted to leave our bags, not that I think they even made that flight with us. If they did, it’d be too long a wait for them and the balancing act would just add stress to the situation. We waited for what seemed like ages for the shuttle to the hotel, but finally, it arrived. We got into our room, checked in with family, and went to dinner at the hotel restaurant. Forgetting about US portion sizes, we ordered way too much food, but it was delicious none the less. I think we fell asleep around 8:00 PM. We were still on European time and with a 4:00 AM wakeup call to get back to the airport, I didn’t try to fight it.

Day 3: We finally made it

Image of toddler on the phone and drinking coffee, surviving another day without the solo-mama-travel-hack, the ipad!
"It's no problem, Daddy! This is just the life of a traveler!" My little guy in great spirits on day 3 assuring Daddy that everything is alright, oh and stealing my coffee!

We were up and at them early in the morning. Both in good spirits after a good night’s sleep. Luckily, today was uneventful. We boarded our plane, landed in Buffalo on time, and collected our car. After an hour's drive, we were finally reunited with family.

Update on the missing iPad. Due to location tracking, it turned up on the east coast in a couple different locations. Another passenger had swiped it. At first, I tried to tell myself that it was Christmas and while my child was crushed, maybe some other child’s Christmas would be made brighter because of it. Then I remembered I was on a trans-Atlantic flight. If the person could afford to fly internationally, they surely could have afforded a $200 iPad. Grrr. May karma be with you.

Reflections

Stay tuned for my full tips of traveling with little ones. However, in general, travel requires flexibility. This truth extends to traveling with little ones. Don't usually allow screen time? I recommend allowing it for your sanity and the sanity of those around you. When plan A goes up in smoke (in my case, this was losing the iPad), have a plan B. If you don't have a plan B, devise one quickly. Enter my new solo-mama-travel hack, apple juice promises. It worked for me, although it did lead to an increase in apple juice consumption in our house. Oh well, we had a good 2.5 year run on limited sugary drinks. Now, everything in moderation, right?

And finally, as much as possible, try to remain calm in unforeseen stressful situations. The last thing you need is for your little one to get stressed which may lead to a screaming tantrum. You've got enough to deal with, don't try to add to it! Particularly when the weather is the root cause of your travel issues, there is not much that can be done. The sooner you accept your fate and make the best of it, the better for your mental state. 

It is always helpful to have another set of hands when traveling with toddlers, but it can be done. Despite our issues, I would do it over again. Especially since the end result is getting to see my friends and family.

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