International travel with young children?

Without a doubt our two most memorable experiences with our kids were a 4 week car trip through Europe and a three week adventure in Belize.  But traveling with kids is tough.

Still, we’ve managed to keep traveling without resorting to, um, resorts. The key to being intrepid with small children is being willing to go with the flow—but smart travel strategies help, too. Here’s what a travel editor has learned from flying, driving, pushing, carrying and sometimes dragging her two children around the world.

1. 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. Check for availability of car seats, if you have a connection and can borrow one, that is much cheaper than having to rent one. I start my packing list a week before we leave, because those everyday items are so easy to forget.

2. 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 is a little complicated to assemble. But it clocks 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, and donate it before you leave. Just know that it can be time-consuming.
3. 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.
4. 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.

5. 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 then it is to get a hotel.  The increase 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 when we choose to stay in or are tired form our adventure.  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 too. We also have 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

6. If you stay in a hotel….

If you stay in a hotel it’s best to make sure it has a pool. Nothing entertains 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.
7. Find an unusual place to stay instead

I always pack a few big black plastic garbage bags, a few grocery sacks 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 little ones are good for dirty laundry, used diapers and snack trash, and can cover less-than pristine seats (see: the Vancouver Car Seat Incident).
8. 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, and airline seats with extra legroom.
9. Be ambitious

I was really anxious before a trip we took to Europe. Was I completely insane to take two babies on a three-week-long, figure-it-out-along-the-way adventure? I kept reminding myself that I wanted our family to be adventurous. The takeaway from 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).
10. 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.