Traveling to Costa Rica with a Baby and Toddler
When we decided to have kids, it was on one condition: we needed to continue to travel! COVID threw a curve ball and put the traveling on hold for a couple years while we had our two kids, but with the borders opening up, it was time to get back out there. After A LOT of research, we decided on Costa Rica! We knew that traveling to Costa Rica with a baby and a toddler would not be easy, but it checked all the boxes for us.
The boys are now 2.5 years and 1 year old: possibly the most challenging ages to handle while traveling, but somehow we made it work. Costa Rica is an amazing country: the food is great, the people are friendly, the weather can’t be beat, and there are endless adventures to be had. There is really something for everyone in this tiny Central American country: even for babies and toddlers!
Our major concerns about traveling with a baby and a toddler included:
- Food and snacks
- Car seats & getting around
- Flight and airport logistics
- Crib and Sleeping arrangements
- Sun & heat protection
- Diapers! All the diapers.
- Water safety
- Clean drinking water & staying healthy
- Potty Training
As you can see, there is a lot to think about when traveling with small children! Luckily, we discovered an excellent travel agency who guided us through some of these concerns. After countless hours of research we came up with solutions for all the items on the list, which we put to the test on our 10-day trip to Costa Rica in May, and my advice is below.
Top tips for traveling with a baby and a toddler to Costa Rica:
- Great food, which happens to be baby-friendly! Our 1 year old lived off of rice, beans, fish, eggs, avocados, fruits, and plantains the entire trip. He couldn’t get enough of the Costa Rican food, which is not spicy, but very flavorful. Perfect for little palates! Our toddler loved eating fish sticks, chicken fingers, guacamole, and fish tacos. There was plenty to entertain him while at the table, from watching the wildlife in the open-air cafes, to playing in the sand in the beach-front restaurants, or watching the fire jugglers and live music after an amazing pacific sunset, while mom and dad got to enjoy a well-earned a beer. Also, everywhere has highchairs, which was very key for our littlest one. Bonus points for outdoor eating almost everywhere, so we don’t need to feel quite as bad when our baby throws food on the ground.
- Choosing Toddler and Baby-friendly Excursions: there are plenty to choose from! I highly recommend contacting Namu Travel (AKA: Costa Rica Vacations) to set up your excursions (or your whole trip, like we did!). They have exclusive access to kid-friendly experiences, and local knowledge to set you up with the most baby and toddler-friendly activities. We hiked to a waterfall, visited a family farm, toured a coffee and chocolate plantation, and went on a sloth and wildlife hike. We opted out of the estuary boat tour in Tamarindo since our baby is very squirmy and doesn’t like to sit still, so I didn’t think 3 hours on a small boat surrounded by crocodiles would end well.
- Use an in-country Travel Agent. We were so happy we used Costa Rica Vacations to set up our trip. They ensured we had CAR SEATS and CRIBS during our drives and stays for the whole trip. Two critical pieces to the traveling-with-kids puzzle. The best part is that the price for a whole vacation – including private drivers and top-notch resorts – was actually cheaper than booking everything myself! With a toddler and a baby I did not have time to figure out international logistics and payments, and Costa Rica Vacations was a one-stop-shop that was a dream to work with as a busy mom. The agent we worked with (Rebecca Porter) had excellent customized recommendations, they also have 24/7 customer service, and a free in-country support team for extra peace of mind. Costa Rica Vacations was invaluable and saved me all of the logistical headaches that I definitely could not handle while juggling a baby and toddler. Use this referral link to get $200 off your trip with Namu Travel / Costa Rica Vacations!
- Choose Toddler and Baby-friendly Resorts: Our wonderful travel agent, Rebecca, was able to recommend kid-friendly resorts (Arenal Spring Resort near La Fortuna, and the Diria in Tamarindo), which included amazing pools and free breakfasts. They were also conveniently located to minimize any excess walking & avoid long car rides. We usually don’t stay in fancy resorts, but with kids we were VERY happy that we stayed in high-end (but affordable) resorts with huge elaborate pools, and swim-up bars! We ended up spending a lot of our time in the pool–It was absolutely our toddler’s favorite part of the trip! The ocean in Tamarindo was a little too rough for swimming with toddlers, and the beach itself was very hot, even in the shade. The pool offered a cooler, and more contained alternative for our baby and toddler, and was a safe place for us to leave our stuff while we enjoyed swimming. Wherever you want to go, your personal Namu travel agent can recommend the best hotel to stay with kids so that you have the best possible experience.
- Bring an age-appropriate floatation device for each child to use in the pool: this will let you be hands-free in the pool to enjoy a fancy coconut drink, or a Guaro Sour at the swim up bar. We chose this coast-guard approved vest for our toddler, and this inflatable and very packable shaded float for the baby. Both kids loved their floaties: they were able to relax in the pool and feel more independent, and we were able to relax knowing they were safe, without us having to hold them in the water.
- Bring a durable compact stroller for each kiddo, plus a soft carrier for each. You do not want to carry your children everywhere since it’s so very hot and toddlers can get heavy and restless after more than 20 minutes in a carrier. That said, our carriers were very valuable while hiking. We used the Ergobaby Omni 360 with cool air mesh, which actually stayed relatively cool even in the heat. The compact strollers were lifesavers for us, even though the sidewalks were very rough or non-existent. Plus they fit in the overhead bins on the flights. Our GB Pockit Plus and Zoe XLC strollers held up great and I was amazed at the durability of both strollers. We took them everywhere! From a night market in Tamarindo, to a jungle hike on a remote farm. The strollers doubled as places for naps throughout the day, so we didn’t feel we needed to rush back to the hotel for nap time. Both strollers also fit very comfortably in the overhead bins on the airplanes (all the planes were larger aircraft, like the Boeing 737). The gate agents put gate-check tags on them since they did not know how small the strollers fold, but after folding up the strollers to board they didn’t ask any questions.
- Bring wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen for everyone. Near the equator the sun is fierce – especially for Irish New Englanders traveling in the spring! We used this SPF 50+ mineral sunscreen on both kids the whole trip, plus the iPlay lightweight hat, and long sleeve rash-guards, and the kids didn’t get a smidge of color.
- Bring refillable water bottles for everyone. Our first resort had a fountain of filtered water that we were able to use to refill our bottles for the first half of the trip. At the second hotel we needed to buy 2-gallon jugs from the convenience store since they didn’t have a water fountain. Having water bottles that clipped onto our diaper bag was invaluable so we could always have fresh water with us, without having to buy many small plastic (often over-priced) water bottles. I bought a 32oz Camelback bottle before we left for Costa Rica, and was glad we had the bigger size so we could share it instead of carrying 4 bottles.
- Costa Rica is a safe country, with a great medical system, and a kid-friendly culture. Upon arrival we were escorted to skip the line at Immigration with our children. Customs was a breeze and we were through in just a few minutes. Locals adored our kids, were very accommodating to our stroller parade, and the staff at the resort were absolutely wonderful with them. The country also has an excellent medical system. Luckily we didn’t need it, but it was great to have the peace of mind that Costa Rica’s medical facilities are affordable, accessible, and high-quality. There were pharmacies near where we stayed, which can provide basic medical needs. As a bonus, our travel agency’s 24/7 help line could help find medical facilities at any time.
- Buy the airline-approved virtual COVID tests for re-entry into the United States. As of right now, Costa Rica does not have any COVID-testing entry requirements, or mask requirements, which takes a level of stress out of the vacation equation. However, the USA still does require a COVID test for everyone over two years old, including citizens, to re-enter the country. We bought American Airlines approved travel COVID tests, which we did virtually over the hotel’s wifi with our cell phones. Each test is virtually monitored and takes 15 minutes. This was much-preferred over the other alternatives, which include either getting to the airport over 4 hours early for testing, or paying $60 per test -or more- with a reservation at a local clinic. The travel COVID tests cost $180 (with shipping) for 6 tests and were mailed to my house in advance. They are also reimbursable through most insurance companies, or you can pay via FSA. Just make sure to plan ahead and order them early to give time for shipping.
- Potty training? Don’t sweat it. But do use pull ups. Our 2.5 year-old had recently begun potty training before we left for Costa Rica. Before we left, he had been having accidents a few times a week, and while sleeping. We decided to use pull-ups for most of the trip to eliminate any extra headaches. We only used two pull ups a day, so we didn’t need to bring too many. The pull-ups didn’t impact his training at all, and he actually was accident-free for the first 6 days! I think he was hyper-aware that he was in a new place. We also did not bring any kind of potty training seat for him. Instead we just held him over the toilet and he did fine. We also brought lots of training underpants but didn’t end up using them much, since the pull-ups were more convenient.
- It wont be perfect. I am one of those people who can barely function if there are toys to be picked up, dinner to cook, clothes to fold. My to-do list takes over my brain until each item is checked off. Some of these chores disappear while on vacation, but not all of them. I spent the first few days in Costa Rica completely stressed out, trying to make everything perfect and clean and tidy, and trying to get the kids to behave or nap or sit still or be quiet. I soon realized that this was a complete waste of my energy! It is very important on vacation to let the little things go, and have fun! Your hotel room will be a mess as soon as your kids open their cute little backpacks, your plane seats will be full of crumbs from unknown sources, and the tablet will have yogurt smears all over it within 10 seconds of you cleaning it. Give yourself a break from making everything perfect, and just enjoy this special time with your family! It is vacation, after all. 🙂
Traveling to Costa Rica with a baby and a toddler – or traveling anywhere with two young kids – has a special set of challenges. We learned a lot about traveling with a baby and a toddler on our trip, and we made many mistakes along the way. I am sure our next trip will go much smoother now that we know the basics. Here were our top lessons learned, so hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and avoid any extra challenges during your Costa Rica vacation.
Things to avoid when traveling with a baby and toddler:
- Do not even think about carry-on only. Check your luggage: We did not check luggage on the way to Costa Rica (“Why not?!” You might ask. Because, we are crazy. And we “usually fly carry on only“. But that was before kids. And kids require all of the things, even whilst traveling). With our two carry-on strollers, all of our luggage, a toddler, and a baby, our hands were extra-full the entire time in the airports. We checked our two Osprey backpacks (which we normally LOVE for carry-on-only travel) on the return flight, which helped. But we still wish we just took one huge suitcase and checked it, instead of juggling our two backpacks, two packable duffels, and our lightweight diaper bag, plus strollers, plus the kids. It was a lot to manage. With one big suitcase, we could have checked ONE bag, and brought the diaper bag on the plane with the two strollers.
- Don’t overpack: Costa Rica has many grocery stores and corner markets with anything you might have forgotten. We brought diapers for the first four days, plus swim diapers, plus pull-ups, and wipes! Diapers and wipes are all the same price as in the US, and we were able to buy what we needed there. There are also swim diapers for sale everywhere, and pull ups are available at the larger grocery stores. Our private drivers that Costa Rica Vacations booked for us were all super friendly, and they stopped at larger grocery stores for us along our drives so we could stock up on snacks and diapers. You also do not need to pack too many clothes, as you can easily do laundry along the way. We did bring a few small toys: a toy dinosaur and matchbox cars for the toddler, and a set of stacking cups and a teether for the baby. I am glad we had something to keep their hands and mouths busy at times. But there is no need to go overboard on packing many toys since there are so many other fun things to do!
- Fly into Liberia, or San Jose: whichever is closer to your first destination. After being cramped on the flight, the last thing you will want to do is try to contain the children in a car for another 3+ hour drive. Luckily our children are great in the car and they ended up napping during most of the drive.
- Get flights with extra leg-room, or use credit card points to upgrade to first class. Extra leg-room means your baby can move around on the floor instead of in your lap during the entire flight. It would have also avoided the chair-shaking game our baby invented, which I am sure the other passengers didn’t enjoy as much as he did. We learned about this tip after our trip, but it makes so much sense with a baby or young toddler. Luckily, our toddler approved of the Fire Kids Tablet and toddler headphones we bought for the trip, and he spent the whole flight watching his favorite episodes, reading new books, and playing toddler-friendly games. This was also a lifesaver at nap time when he needed to settle down from a morning excursion, and eliminated the need to bring heavy books with us, since we downloaded tons of great digital books on the tablet. Though we did bring this excellent paperback sloth book which is set in Costa Rica!
- Do laundry in your hotel room. Bring a few laundry detergent sheets and do laundry in the hotel sink. Since you are packing warm weather clothes for everyone (including two small, messy people), your sink laundry loads are small, and essential. We used the hotel’s laundry service once (about 9 USD for a very small load) but the laundry was returned to us with a very heavy perfume smell, which was not ideal for a toddler or a baby. I did laundry in our hotel room three times after that throughout the trip, and the clothes dried very quickly in the air conditioned room.
- No need for layers, pack for warm and hot weather. Even at night, the air is warm. We brought UPF hiking pants and a light sweater for ourselves and our kids, but we never used them, and they took up valuable space in our luggage. DO bring two sets of bathing suits!
- Pack snacks, but not TOO many. Like I mentioned, you can buy snacks — such as crackers, granola bars, pretzels, puffs, baby crackers, fruit smoothie pouches, fresh fruit, and drinkable yogurts — at grocery stores and convenience stores along the way. Lucky for my toddler, they love drinkable yogurts in Costa Rica just as much as he does, and there was a huge selection in most stores. I packed a massive bag of snacks for the trip, wondering if it wasn’t enough, but we didn’t even eat half of what I brought.
- Jet lag is not great, but it gets better. Costa Rica is a great choice for traveling with a baby and a toddler from the USA because the time difference is minimal, or non-existent, depending on your departure city. BUT for a couple days our kids were waking up for the day at 3:30am, because in their minds it was 5:30am — their normal wake-up time. In retrospect, I would have begun shifting their internal clocks before we left for Costa Rica so that we would have a head-start on the time shift. It did help that the sun sets rather early in Costa Rica in spring and summer (about 5:30pm) since it is close to the equator, which helped our toddler and baby feel tired much earlier than at home in New England where the sun sets after 8pm in spring and summer. Our bedtime in Costa Rica was often 7:30pm!
Additional Tips on Traveling to Costa Rica
- Language: In Costa Rica, tourism is so prevalent that many employees in tourist destinations have at least some english proficiency, and most tours are bilingual in English and Spanish. However, it can be helpful to know some basic Spanish before you go. At the very least, download the Google translate app with the Spanish to English language on your phone before you go so you are prepared in a pinch.
- Travel Insurance: We felt very safe on our trip to Costa Rica, but we were staying ON the beaten path for the whole trip. In my previous travel expeditions, when I traveled OFF the beaten path more frequently, all my belongings were stolen on a bus in Costa Rica in 2006. A good tip is to always keep an eye on your belongings, don’t bring valuables, keep your phone out of sight, and it never hurts to get travel insurance. Our insurance policy was about $150 for all four of us, and it covered things like airport delays, sicknesses (not just COVID), missed connections, lost luggage, and other mishaps that can easily happen when traveling anywhere with children. I would recommend purchasing travel insurance just for the peace of mind.
- Vaccines: [This is not medical advice and I’m not a doctor] We chose to get the typhoid vaccine for ourselves and our 2 year old, in addition to staying up to date with regular immunizations. It’s not approved for kids under 2, so our baby did not get the Typhoid Vaccine. He did, however, receive a couple other routine vaccines that he would have normally received when he was a little older, including MMR and Hep A. We went to a travel clinic in Boston that was covered by our insurance, and they were wonderful. It was a nightmare figuring out how to get insurance to pay for the vaccines, but finally we found this hospital where they were covered. It also turns out some insurance companies will cover vaccines received at a pharmacy, and some pharmacies can order specific vaccines if you know what you need.
- Upset Stomach: Our travel clinic recommended bringing powdered juice mix and powdered electrolyte mix in case we ended up with TD, so we could stay hydrated. We also brought kids tums and regular tums, and Travelan. Luckily we didn’t need this, but it’s not uncommon to have digestive issues while traveling if you aren’t used to the water. Just avoid raw, unpeeled vegetables/fruits, and unfiltered water, and you should be fine.
- Daily Schedule: Our daily schedule included an early wake up, breakfast at 6am, then setting out on a scheduled excursion around 7:30am. We returned around 12pm and had lunch (often just leftovers from the night before — thank goodness for mini-fridges in the rooms!). After lunch the kids would nap or have quiet time, and then we’d spend the rest of the afternoon in the pool. Around 4:30pm we’d shower, and have dinner at 5:30 just in time for sunset. Bedtime was around 7:30/8pm for all of us. This schedule worked perfectly for our early-risers!
Traveling with a baby and a toddler is especially challenging because each of them has very different needs. It was exhausting, but honestly it was not any more exhausting than staying at home with them. The challenges are different, but overall it was a very positive experience for all of us.
The most exhausting part of traveling with kids this age was not being able to have a break from managing the tantrums and emotional needs of a toddler, along with a baby who is learning to walk and puts everything in his mouth. Most babysitting services and kids clubs don’t accept kids younger than 3 or 4 years old, so we were really on our own with no other options. However, not having to cook, clean, drive, or fold laundry for ten days was quite magical. Next time we travel, we will be bringing help (ie.: our parents) or visiting others who can help with the kids, so that maybe we can feel like we are on vacation.