With the dollar’s value rising, now is a great time to travel abroad with children in tow.
Although there are many logistics to consider, traveling with young ambassadors doesn’t have to be intimidating. International travel expands a child’s horizons, widens their world and yours, and promotes global citizenship through exploration of other cultures. When traveling abroad with children, you live more like temporary expats than as tourists because you’re compelled to slow your pace and accomplish less. However, the memories aren’t any less meaningful than an adult traveler ticking off every tourist box.
Here are my tips for planning a successful—and mostly stress-free—adventure around the world.
- Get your passports ready to fly
Obtain new passports or renew expiring passports well in advance to avoid expedited fees or hassle of visiting your nearest passport agency. Keep in mind that minors under age 16 need a new passport every five years, and some countries require a passport to be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of your trip. Most airlines won’t even let you board the plane unless this requirement is met. Some countries also require visas or necessitate extra immunizations. Certain post offices can accept passport applications with the convenience of having your passport photo taken onsite for an additional fee. (Quick tip: preview the digital photo before you commit. In a rush, I sent my darling husband with ma petite fille to the photo booth while I corrected the pesky forms. She’ll thank me later for the re-takes. It was worth the extra $15.) Also, make sure to book airline tickets with the exact names—no nicknames—on each passport. A friend recently swallowed a hefty re-booking fee when her son’s plane ticket was mistakenly reserved with his nickname.
I snap photos of our passports and keep stored on my iPhone then email copies to the grandparents and myself just in case. It is easier to replace a passport abroad if you have a copy in your possession. I like to have a photo of my passport that is easily accessible during shopping excursions when I need to present my passport for VAT refund forms because I love an opportunity to save a few euros or pounds. I prefer not to carry our passports once at our destination. I either lock in the hotel safe or zip inside the liner of my suitcase if we are renting an apartment.
When traveling with a baby or toddler, I encourage investing in a high quality stroller that can handle uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets. The lightweight Bugaboo Bee (pictured above) gets my vote with its agile handling and full recline—key for napping and diaper changing. Be prepared for creative diaper changing abroad, as changing stations can be few and far between.
A lightweight Maclaren stroller, which collapses for easy carrying up and down stairs, works well for older toddlers and preschoolers who still need the opportunity to ride rather than walk. A rain cover and stroller bunting can be helpful accessories, depending on where you go.
Now that our daughter is older, we travel with a Micro Kick Scooter that brilliantly comes apart and fits in a suitcase. I suggest the Scoot ‘N Pull Strap accessory that serves as a hands-free carrying option or as a tether to pull a tired child who needs a rest. Overtired children and even parents make for grumpy travelers.
Soft carriers, such as an Ergo, are also key for parents of infants since many museums and historic sites deem strollers verboten.
Travel high chairs like the foldable Totseat can be helpful in places that lack high chairs. While hotels will have access to cribs, some apartment rentals might not have cribs or pack and plays readily available.
Phil and Teds makes the lightweight Traveller Portacotthat fits inside a suitcase and accommodates babies and even older toddlers.
Nowadays, it is also super easy to rent anything from cribs to strollers in most tourist destinations. A cross-body bag that zips shut is my preferred purse or diaper bag when traveling, as it keeps my hands free and my belongings safer from pickpockets.
3. Consider Air and Ground Travel
If you will not need a carseat at your destination, there are plenty of options for transporting little ones safely to and from the airport without having to schlep a bulky carseat. Ask a friend to drop you off or book a car service like Uber Family. Now that my daughter rides in a booster seat, I carry an inflatable Bubble Bum in my bag for taxis and Uber. It is wise to pre-arrange transportation from the airport to your hotel or apartment because who wants to be dealing with that headache after a red-eye. And do not even think about tackling public transportation from the airport to your accommodations with a stroller and luggage since elevators are not always available. I learned that lesson the hard way when I thought surely we could manage a toddler in a cast, a stroller, and a couple of heavy suitcases on the RER in Paris. Traveling with young children is much different from backpacking post-college. But that is another story for another time.
Long flights mean packing lots of snacks and distractions in your motherly bag of tricks. New and novel small toys along withWikki Stix,Usborne Sticker Dolly Books, coloring supplies, movies, and iPad apps have all contributed to mostly peaceful flights across the pond. For flights to Europe, we usually book a red-eye and attempt to sleep most of the way. Bringing your child’s lovey or blanket can certainly help. So can Benadryl. I cannot confirm or deny. Oh, and a glass of wine for the parents. When my daughter was younger, I even changed her into pajamas and sleep sack because that mirrored her routine at home. A cozy pashmina serves as a more sanitary blanket than the scratchy airplane ones. I also pack a full change of clothes for everyone in our carry on in case someone gets sick on the plane or our luggage gets lost. Better safe than sorry, right?
4. Finding Accommodations and Dealing with Jet Lag
When traveling abroad—especially in cities—with children, a rented apartment often makes more sense than a hotel or even a hotel suite with its cost savings, extra space, and kitchen access. It also affords the opportunity to live like temporary expats, rather than just tourists, albeit for just a few days. Looking for the right apartment abroad can be a daunting task though, as the options seem limitless until you start scrutinizing photos and reading the fine print. A friend fell victim to a bait and switch last year when she booked an apartment that seemed too good to be true and found her brood sleeping under a leaky ceiling and sitting on broken furniture.
Most agencies won’t give you the exact street address (for security reasons) until the deposit has been paid. I like to book apartments with easy access to public transportation, tourist sights, and museums along with markets, playgrounds, and restaurants nearby. I prefer word of mouth recommendations and agencies that accept credit cards for added consumer protection. We lucked out in finding Farnum & Christand Paris Deluxe Rentals for our London and Paris travels years ago and continue to book through them and recommend to friends and colleagues.
To combat jet lag, I attempt to reset everyone’s internal clock the moment we cross the jet-bridge. When flying to Europe, I find overnight flights helpful with decreasing jet lag’s effects if everyone can fall and stay asleep. That is easier said than done. We usually spend our first day orienting ourselves and shopping for supplies before visiting a playground and eating an early dinner. Over the years, I have learned that forcing my family to eat and sleep on our destination’s time zone helps alleviate jet lag. However, jet lag can also work to a parent’s advantage, as many museums have evening hours one or two days a week. Popular museums are often less crowded during extended hours, too.
5. What to Pack:
I keep generic lists for each type of trip we take then customize it based on our destination. I usually bring the list with me then make notes for future trips.
If traveling with an infant, be sure to pack feeding supplies and enough diapers for a couple of days unless you’re traveling somewhere like Belize, where diapers are ridiculously expensive. In that case, I would pack enough for the entire trip. When my daughter was newly potty-trained, I brought a foldable potty seat that fit in a Ziploc bag to make potty stops less stressful. I always pack universally useful Ziploc bags in a variety of sizes along with a reusable snack bag. Even though my daughter said goodbye to diapers years ago, I still bring wipes with me everywhere. They clean anything from hands to stains. Medications and a thermometer always make the list in addition to a couple of cheap umbrellas, stain stick, small flashlight that doubles as a nightlight, travel clock to remind darling daughter to stay in bed, and easily packable toys like playing cards. Paperback children’s books about the sights and art we’ll see make the cut, too. If you have a picky eater, you might consider packing a few staple snacks or even peanut butter, provided there is no allergy. Microwaveable macaroni and cheese and a jar of peanut butter, which is hard to find in Europe, have saved us from a few foodie meltdowns.
While I do pack a couple of guidebooks, I also download books or apps onto my iPhone and iPad to lighten my load since every kilo counts. An offline translator helps when you have exhausted the few key phrases learned. Be sure to pack several adapters but leave the converters at home. Most computers, cameras, and smart phones don’t need them, and anything that needs a converter will not work properly. I bought a dual voltage curling iron at Target that can be used with a simple adapter. Since many apartments provide towels but not washcloths, I toss a couple in my suitcase just in case. Now that most airlines strictly enforce weight limits, I bring a portable luggage scale to check weight and afoldable duffle—such as a Longchamp bag — to transport purchases home. A trip to Europe usually means new shoes and a handbag pour moi. Speaking of shopping, I have a no-foreign-transaction fee credit card and use it for everything abroad. Credit card companies often add 3-4% in fees, which can add up quickly. Be sure to let your credit card company know to expect foreign purchases. I never order foreign currency ahead of time and just withdraw money from an airport ATM once we land. The exchange rates are usually better at a foreign ATM than at your bank back home. While I add an international plan to my iPhone, my tech-savvy husband purchases a new SIM card and saves us a few extra euros, which means more money for my shopping budget.
6. Get Busy With Kid-Friendly Planning
Once the plane tickets are booked, the planning and research commences. I read voraciously to learn as much beforehand about what we are going to see and do. I make notes on my calendar what days certain museums close or stay open late then have a menu of ideas for things to do and see each day. Flexibility is key. Children’s books help prepare young travelers for everything from flying on an airplane to seeing Monet’s water lilies for the first time. I ask ma petite fille what she wants to see and do and include her in the planning process.
A typical schedule as temporary expats usually includes breakfast at our apartment then a plan to see a couple of historic sites, museums, or tourist attractions with time at a playground planned each day. Traveling with children means slowing down and embracing your young audience. Perhaps your best memories might entail your child assimilating through the universal language of play or finding the local café or pub where families linger on a Sunday afternoon. We usually eat one big meal out per day either at lunch or dinner then picnic or eat at our apartment the rest of the day. Some of our favorite meals are simple ones comprised of market finds. With a little research or recommendations from locals, it is easy to find kid-friendly places to eat that are not chains or fast food.
If you want a night out sans kiddos, book a babysitter before you travel. Some hotels offer babysitting services, but you are on your own with most apartment rentals. I have found babysitters abroad through my local mother’s listserv, reputable agencies such asBabysitters of Kensington and Chelsea, and even through the study abroad office at my alma maters. I have also found sitters independently through sites like Yoopies in Paris. However, that route takes a lot of online interviewing, vetting, and triple checking of references. Hiring a trusted babysitter can be a win-win for everyone. My daughter loves the attention from a babysitter and some downtime at the apartment, and we enjoy a leisurely night out at an adult-centric restaurant with perhaps a walk or respite at a café afterward.
Au revoir, baby!