Traveling to San Francisco with a Toddler

The San Francisco Skyline from the Top of the Hilton

The San Francisco Skyline from the Top of the Hilton

In January we headed to San Francisco for 5 days/4 nights for a conference (for my work). We were able to find quick/reasonably priced flights for a little under 100/pp round-trip, so Mike and Ellie joined me. We bought the tickets awhile ago, before we had our serious finance conversation. I’m not sure we’d spend ~200 on flights at the present moment (my flight was covered with startup funds). It was our first plane trip that didn’t end with a visit to see family on the east coast (and with people who could provide us with a free car seat and a ride after getting off the plane!).

In this post, I’ll lay out some of the logistics of our travel… because honestly, before going on the trip I was wondering how people actually slept in a hotel room with a toddler... and yes it is possible! My next post will cover 2.5 year old Ellie approved spots in San Francisco if you ever find yourself in the city by the bay with a toddler.

What We Learned

If you’re short on time or just aren’t into reading super long blog posts about the details of toddler travel, I picked out 10 things that got us through the trip.

  1. Let go! It’s okay if naps don’t happen or bedtime is way off (granted this 100% depends on your kid!)

  2. Even though you’re letting go of your typical routine, make sure to mimic home life as best you can while on the road. For example, we brought Ellie’s favorite stuffed animals, a few favorite books, the white noise machine, and let her watch some of her favorite shows. We tried a night in the big bed (despite her only having slept in a crib) and that did not go well... lesson learned, traveling is not the time to try new things (as far as routines go)!

  3. Wear your toddler out before getting on a plane (chase them down the terminal if you have to!)

  4. Have “special airplane undies,” aka a diaper, in case your newly potty trained kid needs to go when the seat belt sign is on

  5. During naps or after your kid goes to sleep (which is likely earlier than you will go to bed), hang out in the bathroom (or catch up on your sleep and go to bed early!)

    • Make sure to bring headphones if you want to watch/listen to something on your electronic device.

  6. Ask the hotel for what you need. In our case that was a microwave and a crib.

  7. Hit up a local grocery store if possible and stock up on easy/cheap food for your meals. If you have a microwave and a fridge, you can make a pretty decent meal in your hotel room!

  8. Get out of your room! Only use it for sleeping, getting ready for the day, and maybe a bit of down time. Don’t go back to your room until you are desperate to come back. Mike joked that being in a small room for 5 days with a toddler is a foolproof form of birth control... ha!

    • Also, if you’re getting meals from the grocery store, don’t eat them in your room. Go down to the lobby/common area so it feels like you’re getting out! This also helps prevent the inevitable food messes that come with being a toddler (or an adult…).

  9. If you’re in a standard hotel room, make sure there is not a line of sight between your toddler’s crib and you. For the most part, out of sight out of mind works well for Ellie.

  10. Four nights in a hotel room is probably one too many!

For a much more detailed account of our trip, read on!

Travel

First, shout out to PDX for their playground in Terminal C (I believe there is one in Terminal D too). Ellie was quite excited when we stumbled upon it and it was a nice way to get her energy out before sitting on a flight. The first time we flew with Ellie back in 2017 (across the country), we packed a bag full of toys. This time, because our flight was less than 2 hours and she was over a year older, we didn’t bring any in-flight entertainment (other than some food pouches). There are plenty of things that will entertain a 2.5 year old on a plane, like the emergency cards in the seat backs, or opening and closing the window shade, or getting their very own drink and snack from the flight attendant.

The one thing we were a bit nervous about was the bathroom. We potty trained Ellie in the summer of 2018 shortly after she turned two and we haven’t taken any plane trips since then. We read some advice about having “special airplane underwear” aka a diaper and that’s what we ended up doing. She’s not one to just go sit on the toilet to see if anything comes out, so we knew the only way she’d get through the flight without having to go to the bathroom was if she used it right before we boarded, which did not happen. We explained to her that sometimes on airplanes it’s not safe to get out of your seat, so that’s why you wear your special airplane underwear. If you need to, it’s okay to use the bathroom in them because they are special. Luckily, she didn't need to go during take off or landing. The seat belt sign was on when the mood struck her, but I think it was just because they were about to do the drink service, so Mike and Ellie rebelled and went to the bathroom. We figured they wouldn’t argue with a toddler who’s gotta go. Also, airplane bathrooms are not made for really tall toddlers plus their parents. Mike took off Ellie’s “special undies” while she was standing up on top of the toilet, picked her up to open the toilet, sat her back down on the toilet, then put the “special undies” back on while Ellie was standing. Doable, but not easy.

Another thing to note, we did not bring a car seat. We don’t have a travel car seat and planned on using public transit once we got to San Francisco so we went without. Ellie isn’t one for being constrained either, so there’s no way she would have stayed put in a car seat for the duration of the flight. I’m always in awe of kids who just sit in their car seats or their strollers... Ellie is quite the active kiddo. When the flight ended, the person sitting in front of Ellie turned around and said, “she is the most well-behaved child I have ever seen on a flight! My boys would have been all over the place. Good job you guys!” So that was nice... thank you to the random parent on our flight for making us feel good about ourselves!

We flew into Oakland because it was cheaper than flying into San Francisco. The Oakland airport is connected to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which takes you right into the city. We took a little driver-less train from the airport to the Coliseum station where we caught the Daly City train into San Francisco. Mike downloaded the “BART to Airport” app that gets you slightly discounted prices on BART tickets if you buy more than one (one for me, one for him, and Ellie was free). We showed the pass to the people working in the ticket booths (who were all incredibly helpful) and went on our way. The first BART employee we talked to asked if we knew how to get downtown and we relayed our plan for getting on the “blue line,” to which she responded, “oh, we don’t actually use the colors that you see on the map, we just do that to confuse people!” So if you’ve never been on BART just know that the train colors don’t mean anything! The train was a little loud for Ellie’s taste but she did enjoy looking out the windows when we were above ground. We got off at the Powell Station which was about a 5 minute walk to our hotel.

Lodging

The conference was at the Union Square Hilton so that’s where we stayed. My startup funds covered the cost (otherwise we’d never be able to afford it!). Location wise, it is super convenient for public transit (BART and Muni) that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. There’s a Trader Joe’s within walking distance too, as well as many, many, many restaurants.

The hotel itself was quite large with lots of places for a toddler to explore, even without leaving the hotel. However, if you’re not going during a conference I think they close off a lot of those “extra” conference areas when not in use. There was also a sky bridge connecting two of the towers that Ellie liked, an outdoor pool/hot tub, and a top floor bar where you can look out over the city (and buy ridiculously priced drinks… which we did not do).

Our room was pretty standard as far as hotel rooms go. My one gripe was the frosted glass bathroom doors... not super conducive for trying to “hide” in the bathroom while your toddler (who is used to almost complete darkness) naps in the room. Also not great for when your kiddo is in bed at 8:00pm and you have to hang out in the bathroom with the lights off so the light doesn’t disturb her. After bedtime we sat in the bathroom, in the dark. We chatted and I worked on my computer while Mike did stuff on his phone. We also sipped on a bottle of ~$3 wine from TJs and ate dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

The room had a fridge but not a microwave. However, the hotel did have microwaves available if you asked. We got lucky and had one brought to our room the first day, which enabled us to make some hot meals. We also requested a crib (aka a pack and play) for Ellie. She’s still in her crib at home and we figured it’d be good to have the option of sleeping in a crib if the big bed didn’t work out (which it didn’t).

Sleep schedule

We tried napping Ellie the first two days. She would lie there for a little bit and then say, “Ellie’s all done sleeping!” I think a combination of not being in her own room and having some light coming in through the windows made it difficult for her to fully relax. After day two, we gave up the nap, which actually made it easier to explore the city since there was no need to rush back to sleep. Granted, one of the days she did fall asleep in Mike’s arms as they were exploring. Not napping meant she was quite loopy by the end of the night, but she was a trooper. We’d start bedtime around 7:00 - 7:30pm and she’d be down around 8:00pm. We brought some of her favorite books as well as her favorite stuffed animals for sleeping so she’d feel at home. She sleeps with a white noise machine at home, so we brought that along too. It was also helpful for drowning out hotel/city noises.

Because Ellie was asleep early, we retreated to the bathroom with the frosted glass doors. Because light travels through glass (imagine that!), we sat in the bathroom with the lights off. After chatting, I did some writing for the blog and Mike did stuff on his phone. One night I did have dinner with some former grad school friends so I snuck back into the room/bathroom after dinner. We brought our video monitor from home so we could make sure Ellie was asleep before exiting the bathroom to get into bed.

We got a room with two double (or queen?) beds. The first night we tried putting her in a regular bed to test it out… not really the best time to try out a big kid bed! We set up pillows around her so she wouldn’t roll out of bed and also had the “lounge” chair and desk chair next to the bed in case she did make it to edge of the bed. Ellie slept until about 2:30am and then said she was done sleeping. Mike held her for awhile, laid back down in the bed with her and rubbed her back. He’d doze off and Ellie would promptly remind him to keep rubbing her back. She eventually fell asleep but was quite the active sleeper (i.e., kicking Mike). The second night we put her in the pack and play, which was better, but she woke up and yelled “Mama! Dada! Ellie heard a mean kitty!” in the middle of the night, clearly very upset. So, Mike got up with her, tried to put her back down in the pack and play but she wasn’t having it. They laid down in the other bed and had a repeat of the previous night. We did get 2 full nights of sleep, thankfully.  

Meals

For breakfast we had a selection of hard boiled eggs, cereal/milk, fruit (apples, pears, oranges), and bread/cream cheese, all from Trader Joe’s. For lunch we got pre-made salads (for Mike and I) and microwavable pasta (e.g., ravioli) for Ellie with carrots/hummus and any leftovers we had from the previous dinner. For dinner, Mike and I had salads again and Ellie had her pasta. I went out one night with friends and got pizza. I had leftovers so we used them the next day for lunch. We also got Chipotle one night and had leftovers for lunch the next day. We brought a few microwave safe bowls/containers so we could heat things up in the microwave. For snacks we had veggie sticks, peanut butter puffs, and carrots/hummus (pouches for Ellie too). We used the empty salad containers to bring snacks with us if we were out and about.  

Honestly, I think 5 days/4 nights was probably one too many, but it’s doable. I will say that we were very ready to come home. However, it is good to know that if needed, we can all share a hotel room and survive.

Next up, Ellie approved San Francisco spots!