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International Travel with Kids: 10 Lessons Learned

By Sarah Ruttan

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the highs and lows of traveling abroad with young kids. While we’re not planning any international trips in the near future, we definitely learned some important lessons on this trip that we’ll take into account when planning future travel. Some of this advice relates to any type of travel with children, but there are special considerations when traveling out of the country.

1. Travel light. We didn’t bring a stroller, opting instead for our trusty Ergo. I almost felt naked getting onto the plane, yet also slightly liberated. The cobble stone streets of colonial Peru wouldn’t have made a stroller any fun, anyway. Depending on your destination, mode of travel, and itinerary, you may be able to leave car seats behind, or rent them for any car rides you’ll take. We planned our trip so that we were primarily traveling by plane or boat and made do without car seats for the short taxi ride from the airport. (Once there, we also found that most taxis didn’t have seat belts or clips, so we wouldn’t have been able to use car seats had we brought them.) We strategically packed a few clothing items that both kids were about to outgrow so that we could leave the clothes and have room for a few souvenirs on the return trip. [This paragraph was edited after posting to emphasize that the car seat decision is really dependent on where you’re traveling and how you plan your trip. It isn’t one to be taken lightly, and Sarah and her husband carefully considered their options before deciding not to bring them. ~Alice]

A word about diapers: We only had one child in diapers and brought just enough with us to last until we knew would be in a city where we could buy more (4 days worth). Diapers are bulky to pack and widely available in most cities, so only bring what you absolutely need.

2. Think about time zones. Sometimes you can’t choose where you travel, but when you do have a choice, consider how many time zones you want to cross with young kids. Jet lag can be brutal for adults, and it’s worse with toddlers who often take several (painful) days to adjust. We didn’t choose Peru because of time zones, but it was definitely a nice perk to only contend with a one-hour adjustment. We’ll likely save crossing the Atlantic or Pacific until our kids are a bit older and able to entertain themselves once we’re home and I want to sleep!

3. Choose an itinerary that will work for your kids at whatever stage they’re in. We didn’t do Machu Picchu on this trip because our daughter (at 16 months) was too young to safely be at high altitudes – we’ll save it for next time. Instead, we chose a family-friendly rainforest lodge (at sea level) that we knew both kids would love. Also, consider non-stop versus multi-leg journeys. Our trip down to Peru involved 3 flights, including a long overnight flight and early morning hours spent waiting in an airport. While it sounded adventurous at the time we booked it, it turned out to be less than fun with two tired kids.

4. Find a good travel clinic for your family to ensure you’ve considered health concerns. They will help you research which vaccines are necessary for travel and which regions have a high incidence of malaria so that you can take precautions. Start your online research here. Be aware that most insurance companies don’t cover these optional vaccines.

5. Bring a family mascot. Ours was Curious George. Choose the favorite (portable) stuffed animal du jour around your house. Curious George crashed all of our pictures and we captured shots of him in all the locations we visited – it got my photo resistant kids to smile and made my son interested in taking pictures. It also helped us to kill time when we were waiting. Just don’t lose the mascot and cause a meltdown!

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Photo by Sarah Ruttan.

6. Pack hand sanitizer – but give up on worrying about the germs. Our oldest son is well trained with hand sanitizer. We had several travel-size bottles with us and used it throughout the day. We got lucky this time. No one even got close to getting sick, despite all the random things I know were put in mouths and/or consumed, especially by our toddler.

7. Anticipate that language barriers may be difficult for your child depending on their personality and stage of verbal development. I did not expect this challenge (and should have). Our preschooler has been exposed to Spanish but had never been in an environment where everyone speaks a different language. He went from gregarious to clingy almost instantly. We translated everything that was happening around us so that he could understand. A longer stay would have helped him learn more language and (likely) make some friends that would have helped his shyness.

8. Mingle – or let your kids do it for you. This, frankly, is one of the greatest advantages of traveling with little ones regardless of where you are and whether or not you speak the language. Kids almost guarantee that you will have social interactions with fellow travelers and locals alike. We likely won’t forget our toddler dancing to local music in front of a crowd of strangers one evening or being held by countless strangers. We talked to more fellow travelers and locals than we did when we were traveling as adults – and our travel was richer for it.

9. If you get attention, soak it up. Our daughter has red hair and blue eyes. This is a rarity even in the U.S. but almost unheard of in Peru. Everywhere we went she got attention from well-meaning passersby. She was at an age where she was oblivious to the extra attention she was receiving, whereas older children might feel more self-conscious. If your kids are sensitive to the extra attention, be sure to build in breaks every day where everyone gets some quiet time.

Photo by Sarah Ruttan.

Photo by Sarah Ruttan.

10. Ask about where you’re seated on the plane ahead of time. I did not – and it turned out to cost us a night’s sleep on our overnight flight into Lima. Some airlines will try to put families in the bulkhead seats (this is the first row after business class) because of the extra legroom. This turns out to be a terrible idea at night, because this is the only row in which you can’t raise the armrests, meaning no one can get comfortable or lay across laps. On our return trip I asked ahead of time to be further back in the plane so that everyone could sleep.

Have you traveled internationally with your kids? Leave a comment below to add to this list and help other parents planning trips. What did you learn? What did you pack that you couldn’t have done without? What would you do differently next time around?

Author bio: Sarah Ruttan is a lover-of books, mom, and sometimes-writer. She currently lives and works in Austin, TX. When she’s not hiking and traveling, she works as an educator, where she gets to share her love for great books and writing with her students and fellow teachers.

18 Comments
  1. I’ve really enjoyed these travel posts, but I’m having a tough time with the recommendation here to leave the car seat at home. I completely agree about ditching the stroller but as a pediatrician the car seat is non-negotiable for me. Many countries actually have higher rates of traffic fatalities per 100,000 people per year than the US (many South American countries included). When we traveled abroad with our young son we took a very compact car seat and installed it even for short cab rides. It was definitely a pain, but his safety was most important to us.

    Like

    February 19, 2015
    • Thanks for your comment on this, Heidi. Sarah and I talked this over, and after you left your comment, we updated the post to explain their decision more clearly and emphasize that this choice is really dependent on your itinerary. In their case, Sarah and her husband thought carefully about car seats and decided to specifically plan their trip to minimize road travel. I definitely understand your concern and agree that in many situations, you would want to bring the car seats along. I wonder if you could share the compact car seat you found, if it’s one you would recommend?

      Like

      February 19, 2015
      • Car seats are always a difficult consideration. We chose not to bring one on our trip, either.

        Despite the bad/nonexistent sidewalks in southeast Asia, we did bring a stroller. We only use it in airports since it makes waiting in line much more bearable if the kiddo can sit and read a book or play with a toy. So I would recommend a stroller if only for that reason!

        Like

        February 19, 2015
      • Wow, Alice! Thanks so much to you and Sarah for your thoughtfulness in considering my comment. 🙂 This was a few years ago now, but we used the Sit ‘n’ Stroll for a number of international and domestic trips when my son was younger. It definitely is not perfect, but can serve as a car seat and/or stroller in a pinch. Now that he is 5, we will probably move to the CARES harness (for flight) and a booster seat when we travel this summer. The Car Seat Lady has a good post on nice options for travel and taxis (http://thecarseatlady.com/choosing-a-car-seat-for-taxis/). The car seat dilemma is certainly not an easy one. Thanks again for your responsiveness- one of the many reasons I love your blog!

        Liked by 1 person

        February 19, 2015
  2. Grateful for this post! Learned a lot from reading it especially on number 10 – plane seating… I’m taking note of everything! Thanks! =)

    Like

    February 19, 2015
  3. I always love your blog, and now Sarah’s on it with some great advice! Thanks, Alice!

    Like

    February 19, 2015
    • Also, regarding carseats–we just went to India, and while carseats are a non-negotiable for us here in the U.S. we chose not to take them with us. It’s definitely important for each family to weigh this decision based on the country and itinerary. There are so many important medical and health considerations being made pre-travel!

      Like

      February 19, 2015
  4. It was really nice to read this! I’ve wondered about this and how it would work with taking small children so it’s nice to hear stories from someone who’s done it! 🙂

    Like

    February 19, 2015
  5. Hello again! Just nominated you for the versatile blogger award 😀

    https://sadnesstheory.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/versatile-blogger-award/

    Hope you accept it!

    Like

    February 21, 2015
  6. Thanks for sharing! On the time zones – we took our daughter to Germany when she was 2 months old, and I’ve never been less jet-lagged despite the 9h difference. If you wake up several times at night anyway it doesn’t make a big difference…
    We also took our stroller, despite the bulk. While I’m comfortable carrying her just about everywhere, we didn’t think the grandparents would be up for that, especially on potentially icy or snowy ground.

    Like

    February 21, 2015
  7. Roger #

    Thank you for sharing your travel tips!
    Yes my wife and I also had “the car seat discussion”. We rarely leave the house with the kids because the seats are such a hassle, and recently decided that we have to stop letting others prevent us from living our lives and providing our children with valuable experiences. If you get a fine, just pay the fine and move on.

    Like

    February 22, 2015
  8. maggie #

    As a frequent traveller, these are my tips:
    All airlines allow you to go on-line and pick your seats starting 24 hours before the flight. Remember, no one under 14 (varies by airline) can sit in exit row seating.
    Check your layover times on the flights to make sure you have enough time to transition between with children. It can take over an hour to clear customs at your first airport back in the States, and if you have to transfer, you can add another half an hour to walk across to the domestic terminals. Remember that boarding times are up to a half an hour before the listed flight time, and with children, you do not want to try to sneak in as the doors close. On top of everything, you will have no place to store your carry-ons. Feel free to ask for a cart!
    Check with each airline about their lap policy. Some airlines will not allow a child who purchased a seat to sit or sleep in a lap.
    Make sure whatever in flight diversions you bring are in a bag under the seat in front of you. If the seatbelt sign is on due to turbulance, you cannot get up, and dropping 5000 feet in 10 seconds is scary enough for adults.
    If oyur chlid is vomit prone, keep a spare set of clothes, and something to seal the vomit covered mess away so it doesn’t stink up the cabin.
    Bring a hard copy of your vaccination records with you in case you end up in a medical facility there. Bring your insurance card, and check if your insurance has a foreign evac procedure. Expect your child to be allergic to SOMETHING there, and plan accordingly. The greatest difference in what is available over the counter from country to country is allergy meds.
    Don’t assume that diapers/formula/over-the-counter meds are available; many countries don’t readily sell them, or sell them at special stores.
    Don’t give your child Benedryl to help them sleep/clear their ears unless you know it works. The chewing gum trick works well for ear clearing, as does a pacifier or a bottle. For pre-teens, though, the air pressure buildup can be extremely painful and might not clear until hours after take-off or landing.

    Like

    February 23, 2015
    • Really good point about bringing Benedryl – even for infants – just in case of allergic reaction. Scienceofmom had a great post a couple years ago about why not to use it for sleep, but having it just-in-case for allergy is priceless even for local travel! (from experience)

      I would add to talk to your doc about usage / dosage of Benedryl for your child as well as possibly Natrol Melatonin in liquid form for trips with many time zone changes.

      On a separate note, a toddler leash can be really valuable as well. Particularly in countries where they might unexpectedly start walking off with your blue-eyed darling after a photo.

      Like

      February 23, 2015
  9. I hate that I read this after the fact my spring break plans are already ruin! My child is considered a lap child, which mean she is free of charge. I did not know at the time of ordering the tickets that I was not suppose to list her as a passenger. Anyway, I saved up $300+ to book a flight and at the time of order I caught the mistake and was told the only thing I had to do was call the airline and add her to my reservations so I don’t get charged. By that time, tickets were higher than I had planned and saved for 😔However, this was lots of valuable in formation that will follow me for the rest of my years to travel.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 23, 2015
  10. Grace W #

    If is possible choose flight that coincide with baby sleeping time , I’m going to Hawaii and fly out at 10:45pm, so I will give baby a bottle of milk at take off then he will fall a sleep soon , make sure he used up his energy while waiting for boarding call at the airport !

    Like

    October 15, 2015
  11. Kacie #

    Thanks for this post, it’s nice to know other parents are out there traveling with their little ones. We have been backpacking for 4 months throughout south America with our 2 1/2 year old. We are currently in Peru and coming to the end of our trip (we go back to the states mid-march). Our toddler has been really great and has been a pleasure to experience this part of the world with. Although, for the past month or so the language barrier with peers has been really frustrating to him and he’s starting to act out with other kids and sometimes with adults too when they don’t understand him (yelling, flailing, sometimes hitting). We will be going back soon, but I’m wondering if this is stifling is social development. Any thoughts??

    Like

    February 21, 2016
  12. Thanks for sharing this! I love Curious George 🙂

    Our family mascot is a hippo.

    Personally, whether it is domestically or internationally, I always try to travel as light as possible. I tend to bring my lightweight stroller whenever possible, but there are times where it makes much more sense to just rent a stroller. I need to try out baby wearing too, as that can significantly reduce our travel “weight”.

    Cheers,
    Evelyn

    Like

    May 19, 2016

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