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!
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.
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.