Sunday, January 28, 2018

How to Travel Abroad with Kids

Since we’re in a winter rut over here, I thought I’d write up a post on summer vacations, which for us, often means traveling abroad with kids. We’ve (or I’ve) done it three times now, each time to Finland. The first time Oskar was 13 months old (both Matt and I went), the second time August was 5 months old (just he and I went), and the most recent time Oskar was 3 and August was 1.5 (both Matt and I went). Each trip has taken some years off of my life, for sure, and I’ll be the first to admit IT IS NOT EASY. But here is everything we’ve learned, and what’s made it more manageable.

1    The most direct flights with the shortest travel times are always the winners for us. This typically means a 1-2 hour flight to either NYC or ORD, and an 8-9 hour international flight from there. We do our best to book the international leg so it partially overlaps with bedtime. If you’re traveling with a baby, make sure you call your airline and request a seat with a bassinet. The bassinet will attach to the wall in front of you, give baby a place to sleep, and give your arms a rest. Call as soon as you book, because these seats are in HIGH DEMAND and go fast. Also, I highly recommend packing a Boppy for those times that baby is only happy in your lap. Baby can lay across or sit on the pillow and your arms can relax...if there’s such a thing in an economy seat. I just shove the Boppy through my back pack carry-on straps, and it's easy enough to haul.

2     PACK LIGHT. This means one-suitcase-for-the-entire-family light. The smaller the better, and make sure it’s on 4 wheels. You’ll already be juggling kids, snacks, drinks, carry ons, and necessary baby gear, the last thing you need is a line up of suitcases. Not so fun story: the first time we went, we had more than one suitcase. One got left behind at the airport because we had so much other stuff to juggle and completely forgot about it. And guess what? It was all of MY stuff in that forgotten bag. Good times. Plan on buying most diapers, wipes, and baby food in the country to which you’re traveling. Pack mostly neutral clothes that can be mixed and matched and coordinated with each other. Take Tide pens for any little stains that will inevitably happen along the way. And, if possible, get accommodations equipped with a washer/dryer, which will allow you to pack even less. An important tip here: even though your kids are either traveling as lap children or on a reduced kids’ fare, they are still entitled to their own checked bag for no extra charge. 

3    Tackle your carry-on. I prefer a carry-on bag that is a book bag. You’ll need all hands fully available. I also prefer a bag that is able to be wiped down. Traveling means germs and spills. I used this for my last trip and it held so much stuff, could be wiped down with Clorox wipes along the way, and opened like a duffel to see all of the contents instead of digging around and reaching for the bottom like you with with a normal book bag.  Here’s what to include.
a.      A travel wallet (I like this one) with your travel itinerary, passports, boarding passes, credit cards, and cash. Notify your bank and credit card companies that you’re traveling abroad to avoid getting them unexpectedly turned off. It makes most financial sense, from a fees perspective, to withdrawal cash (as few times as possible) from ATMs once you’ve arrived at your international location. Your bank debit card will work in foreign ATMs. 

b.      Make sure you know and are aware that if you are traveling internationally with your baby, and leaving the other parent behind, you need a notarized letter from that parent giving you permission to leave the country with his/her baby. Keep this letter with you for the duration of your trip.
c.      A change of clothes for each kid AND you. Roll the clothes to keep them compact. I always like to dress the kids in pajamas for the international flights to keep them comfortable and give them sleepy vibes.
d.      A pack of wipes. Not only for diaper changes, but for spills and wiping hands and faces clean.
e.      Antibacterial hand soap. Self explanatory.
f.       A HUGE variety of snacks packed into Ziplock bags (Cheerios, Goldfish, Animal Crackers, Veggie Straws, Pretzels, etc.). Really, you can’t pack enough. We also had a lot of success with dum-dums lollypops. These kept the kids occupied, and they were thrilled to be getting a treat.
g.      A water bottle. Security is pretty good about allowing moms that are juggling kids through with liquids, but if for some reason you get a real jerk, the water bottle can be refilled after you make it through the checkpoint. Mothers flying with (or without) baby can take breast milk or formula through security. Be sure to keep bottles or containers at the very top of your carry on, because you’ll need to take them out separately for the agents. Pouches are technically considered a liquid, but again, they typically give you grace with kids. We’ve had different experiences with different airlines on heating water once aboard the plane (to warm bottles or baby food), so we purchased this, which worked really well. We ate a big meal before boarding and had the kids survive on snacks until we landed, which they did fine with.
h.      Clorox wipes in a Ziplock back to wipe down any surfaces on the airplane (arm rests, tray tables, windows, etc.)
i.       A blanket (yes, airplanes have them, but they’re staticky and thin and both kids were always freezing).
j.       An iPad or iPhone with movies or shows downloaded on the Amazon Video app. No Wi-Fi needed to watch these. Make sure you have Guided Access on your iPhone, which is a capability that allows you to freeze the screen. In other words, your kid can’t push the home button or any of the volume or power buttons, or anything that would close them out of the show or movie. Get to it in your Settings app > General > Accessibility > Guided Access. We purchased these headphones, but both boys preferred to watch the videos with the sound turned down. Airplanes have so much white noise that when turned down, the phone’s volume could only really be heard by them. August also liked the Peekaboo Farm app, which also doesn’t require WiFi.
k.      Night time diapers. These hold more volume than regular diapers just in case baby happens to snooze for long stretches of time on the plane, or if you can’t make it to a clean or accessible changing station as frequently as you usually would.  
l.       A changing pad that you can wipe down with your aforementioned Clorox wipes after use. I also prefer one that rolls up easily so I can keep it readily available in a side pocket of my bag (example here).
m.    3 year old Oskar loved playing this nice and compact card game. These reusable color with water coloring books are also so great for any and all kinds of travel. They also have a seek-and-find game once you’ve colored in the pictures that kept him the busiest.
n.      5 month old August basically nursed the whole way to Finland. 1.5 year old August was not so simple. He liked ripping Post Its off of a Post It pad, window cling stickers, eating snacks, or crying. Life.
o.      Infant/Children’s Tylenol, just in case.
p.      Melatonin. Yes, we use this for kids 2 years + to rest on the plane and to get adjusted to the time zone once there for the first few nights. When flying to Europe, you’re arriving first thing in the morning (typically), and getting rest for your toddler leading up to a brand new day is best for all parties involved. Make sure you get your pediatrician’s approval and try out a dose or two ahead of time. We only give 0.5mgs to Oskar when traveling and it was always plenty for him to rest and get ready for a full day ahead. 

4     Invest in a good, easy to collapse and open, light umbrella stroller. We’ve traveled with this (it reclines, has a decent sized sun shade AND storage underneath!) and this and love both. For me, a stroller is a must in an airport. I would absolutely not have had the strength to baby-wear through various international airports, when switching terminals, or waiting in the customs line. Also, count on your toddler being overtired and cranky, even if they normally like to walk. It’s just easier to have them confined, safe and sound, in your stroller. And, as always, ASK FOR HELP. If people don’t offer it, provide some direction. One of the trickiest parts of air travel, especially when traveling alone, is getting your stroller collapsed and on the security belt whilst holding your baby, and then re-opening it again. A simple, “Excuse me! Could you please fold this up and put it on the belt for me? Thank you so much!” will save you the stress and frustration of trying to do it alone. It’s amazing how many people stare at you and watch you try it do it by yourself.

5     Board first. It seems counter-intuitive, but it gives you plenty of time to get situated, have the kids run around for a bit in the airplane, and if you’re lucky, peek into the cockpit. We’ve had some very friendly pilots that have let Oskar sit in their laps at the controls, and its made him that much more excited for the flight ahead.

6     Plan on renting as much baby gear in the country you’re traveling to, where possible, or if needed at all. We’ve opted to buy cheap car seats (linked here) and have flown with them (checked in these bags) and left them there in storage since we have family to keep them for us. Don’t be worried about spending less on a car seat. The cheaper models don’t come with some of the bells and whistles you get in a higher end product, but they are required to meet the same safety standards as a $500 model. The best option of all is to travel strictly by bus or train to avoid the car seat hassle all together. Most European cities are so accessible via public transportation that this is very easily accomplished if planned ahead of time. Sometimes its tricky to find pack-and-plays for rent (I’ve looked). If necessary, I’d recommend investing in this one because it is simply the absolute easiest to open and set up, or fold and collapse, and stores so nicely in a little suitcase with handles. It’s also one of the lightest pack and plays on the market and weighs only 13 lbs. 

7     Ask (demand) to skip the lines. Agents have been helpful 90% of the time in helping to shoo us through customs or security, because Lord knows an 18 month old has no patience for standing in an insanely long line after de-boarding a 9 hour flight. Don’t be shy.

8     Accommodations. Air BNB or Home Away are your best bet to give you more sleep space. There’s nothing worse than having to sit in the dark, in silence, on your VACATION as your kids sleep in the same room. It’s worth the additional budget to get a few rooms. The tricky part here is to find an Air BNB that is accessible via public transportation, if you’re foregoing a rental car and car seats. Since these are often people’s apartments or homes, they’re sometimes a little bit farther out of the city center.  We also prefer this type of housing because it typically gives you access to a kitchen, which is invaluable with always-hungry toddlers. 

9     Once you’re there and settled, plan on 3 or so days of adjusting to the time zone. It’s easier for kids than for adults because they get the luxury of a nap to keep powering them through. Plan on iPad movies in the middle of the night, nevertheless.

1     Finally, ask your doctor for a script of Amoxicillin to take with you. Ours has been very understanding and supportive, and has provided us with a script for our ear-infection prone toddlers to have on hand, just-in-case. 

  We had so many frustrating, overtired, and difficult days while traveling, this is true. I want this to become a part of the boys’ lives that they look forward to each year, and practice makes perfect. The older they get, the easier it will become, and the baby gear and tantrums will slowly fade. It wont be easy, but when you step back, the good memories will be the ones that remain. I can promise you’ll feel the same. As they say, “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” Though I certainly remember the meltdowns, what I remember most are these moments, below. Funny how that works.

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