International travel with kids can be both fun and challenging. Without a doubt, the two most memorable experiences with my kids were a 4-week road trip through Europe and a 3-week adventure in Belize. But I won’t sugar coat it—traveling with kids is tough.
Still, we managed to keep traveling without resorting to, um, resorts. The key to being intrepid with small children is being flexible. Smart travel strategies help, too. Here’s what one travel editor has learned from flying, driving, pushing, carrying, and sometimes dragging her two children around the world.
1. Get Trip Cancellation Insurance!
2. Plan your packing, so you don’t forget the essentials
We try to pack light, but especially when you have little kids, there are some things you simply do not want to be without. Some items for a baby, like diapers or wipes, are available in every country. But specialty items, like Goodnites for night time accidents, may not be. Make sure you pack enough! Do you need a car seat? If you know someone where you’re going and can borrow one, that is much cheaper than renting one. I start my packing list a week before we leave because those everyday items are so easy to forget. On our trip to Europe, our first and last stay was at an AirBnB in Germany. Our hosts had raised 6 boys, so they had everything. They let us borrow all sorts of things that we needed!
3. Pay up for good gear
Travel cribs, strollers, and the like can add up. But it’s worth buying equipment that is durable and lightweight—an extra five pounds feels like 50 when you’re running for a flight. Our Phil&Teds travel crib cost about $200, and it’s a little complicated to assemble. But it weighs in at just seven pounds and can even fit in a large suitcase. Another option is to buy inexpensive gear, like an umbrella stroller, when you arrive at a destination. When your trip is over, donate it before you leave. Just keep in mind that it can be time-consuming.
4. Ask (and ask again) for the baby bed
On many (though not all) international flights, you can get a baby bassinet—a little cot for infants that attaches to the wall in front of the bulkhead seats. They’re free, but you have to reserve them in advance. Book as early as possible, call at least once before the flight to confirm the bed, and remind the flight crew when you board that you reserved one. It’s a hassle, but the payoff for your arms is huge.
5. Sort out your in-flight entertainment in advance
Crinkly books, nesting toys, small puzzles, Legos, and other small toys kept my son occupied when he was a baby. Save a shopping trip by spending 15 minutes on Amazon. Now that he’s a preschooler, we load an iPad up with movies and “educational” games the night before the trip. Read that last part again: we learned the hard way that you don’t want to have to wait for Penguins of Madagascar to finish downloading so you can leave for the airport. Over-the-ear headphones are a good idea, too, since earbuds don’t sit well in little ears. Friends in 18B: You’re welcome.
6. House or Hotel?
In our experience, it’s more fun, more economical and easier on the family to rent a house on AirBnB or HomeAway, than it is to get a hotel. The increased cost, if there is one, is quickly made up for in savings by not having to eat every meal out, as well as having a place with games and toys to play with when we choose to stay in or are tired form our adventure. With a house rental you generally get more space than in a hotel, you can cook or eat in, you won’t have to worry as much about safety or damage, you might be able to borrow gear like cribs and strollers, and there’s built-in entertainment for your kids. This can be good with older kids too if there is a play station or basketball hoop available at the house. We have also had lots of fun doing house exchanges, where a family comes to stay in your house and you go to theirs. We have used homeexchange.com
7. If you stay in a hotel….
If you choose to stay in a hotel, it’s best to make sure it has a pool. Nothing entertains kids like a pool. Try and book a suite or at least two connected rooms. While more expensive, it allows everyone their space and you aren’t trampling on each others toes.
8. Find an unusual place to stay instead
I always pack a few big black plastic garbage bags, a few grocery bags, and a wad of painter’s tape in our luggage. Classy, I know! But the big bags work as blackout curtains in too-bright rooms (the tape won’t mark walls). The grocery bags are good for dirty laundry, used diapers and snack trash, and can cover less-than pristine seats (see: the Vancouver Car Seat Incident).
9. Carry lots of small bills
You’ll probably need them for luggage carts, vending machines, and tips. Open your wallet for anything else relatively inexpensive that might make the trip easier.
That includes, but is not limited to:
- Priority boarding
- Checked bags
- Airline seats with extra legroom
10. Be ambitious
I was really anxious before a trip we took to Europe. Was I completely insane to take two babies on a 3-week long, figure-it-out-along-the-way adventure? I kept reminding myself that I wanted our family to be adventurous. The takeaway from our trip: Children are almost always capable of exceeding expectations. You can even take a toddler to a contemporary art museum without anyone crying (including you).
11. Know when to back down
One evening at an upscale sushi restaurant on the other side of the country, my normally well-behaved son started hollering and trying to scale the velvet banquette. “What’s wrong with him?” my husband said. What was wrong with us? You can’t take a 2-year-old sightseeing all day, let him skip his nap, and then expect him to behave in a fancy restaurant. We’ve learned that sometimes you need to quit while you’re ahead. And, that you can have pizza delivered in Paris.