A huge disclaimer – I am no expert when it comes to family travel! To quote one of my all-time favorite movies, “Jerry Maguire” – “I have failed as much as I have succeeded” when it comes to traveling to 11 countries (plus much of Switzerland!) with (just one) little one in the past year.
Seriously – I’ve forgotten the crib, forgotten to replace the diaper bag’s emergency outfit, left the baby carrier in the overhead and frantically sent my husband sprinting across terminals to retrieve it, left pacifiers all over Geneva and greater Europe, and even neglected to bring snacks. That’s just off the top of my head. But I hope this compilation of thoughts might give you some insight if you’re nervous about any upcoming travel with babies. It’s worth it, always!
My number one tip remains, if you can travel with a healthy newborn, do so! They fall asleep everywhere (at least ours did – I know not everyone has the same experience.) But truly – our visits to Lugano, Piedmont, Strasbourg, etc. were only possible because of how much sleeping James was doing. While we loved the very first few weeks of bunkering in our little love cocoon, being mobile and still taking in travel not long after also made us feel like ourselves again and helped the sleep-eat-diaper-repeat cycle feel not-so-never-ending.
before you go:
Pack in advance. A week out, get suitcases out, and start pulling things, make your list of necessities based on your plans and activities. Then a night or two nights before, just EDIT your bags. So much easier than starting from zero. Don’t forget all your important documents like passports (and take photos of your passports on your phone just to have an electronic version, too!)
Instead of booking flight reservations online, for young (under six months) call to reserve the bassinet for any long/overnight flights. Do NOT believe the customer associate who tells you it’s “first-come first-serve” at the gate. This happened to us – call until you get the right person to confirm your seat reservation with the bassinet. Bring a nursing cover, scarf, or muslin to block cabin lights for naps!
If in your budget, pay for a separate airline seat for your baby. For an infant, you can put the infant car seat directly in that purchased seat in economy. (You can check a toddler car seat for free.) B’s work paid for our first transatlantic flight home last August for each person in our family. Having the space and a seat J was comfortable in was a lifesaver. I watched a MOVIE.
Consider Airbnb over hotel – if you sleep separately from your baby at home, it’s a big adjustment to be right next to them in a hotel room (even if they’re in the bathroom – which we have definitely done.) Every single move they make wakes you and you have to slowly move like a ninja anytime you need to roll over yourself, lest you be on the receiving end of a death stare from you partner. I have given and received these (well-deserved) stares, which are even more frightening after midnight.
Having an Airbnb with the ability to put your baby in the bedroom next door (as well as having a kitchen to prepare bottles, meals and snacks – and a dishwasher to clean all of that stuff) and a washer/dryer was incredibly helpful. Also – I have been really impressed at how many Airbnbs are now “baby-friendly” – many now offer pack and plays, high chairs, even toys, kid’s dishes, cutlery, etc. You can even filter your Airbnb search to specify for these items, and I’ve found hosts to be incredibly accommodating. If you are staying in a hotel, ask for a crib or pack and play! Every hotel we have stayed in has been able to provide one. Just be careful to securely tuck in sheets and remove any blankets, bumpers, toys, or pillows the host or hotel adds (in an attempt to be welcoming!) to ensure there are no sleep hazards.
Don’t waste suitcase space on diapers and wipes. My mom gave me this instant tip that I’ve been grateful for. Bring two emergency outfits, but just three more diapers than you think you’ll need and a fresh pack of (baby and antibacterial) wipes for the travel. You KNOW that you’re going to hit the grocery store anyplace you visit. If you pack a ton of diapers, when you get home and you’re exhausted and emotionally depleted from your travels, you’ll often find that your diaper stock is also running on empty. Alternatively, if you’re not sure when you’ll get to the store, you can order supplies from Amazon or Diapers.com to your final destination and have them waiting for you on arrival.
Unless your trip is a forced event, don’t dread it like a death march (and if it isn’t forced, remember, invitations are invitations, not subpoenas-you don’t have to go!) I do believe there is some stock in the idea that babies pick up on nervous energy. So put your best face forward and put positivity out into that atmosphere.
GEAR to pack:
Wear Your Baby Carrier – being hands-free in an airport or train station is necessary regardless of how many people you are traveling with and SOME airports will let you keep your baby and carrier on through security. I’ve had luck in Geneva and Manchester, got stopped in Munich and Heathrow, all just depends on the mood of the staff. We use the Ergobaby 360 and have been really pleased. If you’re hiking or traveling in a city with many cobblestone streets (ahem, Prague) it becomes even more vital to have this around. In transit, sometimes stairs pop up out of nowhere as well, and baby wearing is far easier than hauling a stroller down steps. We’ve also done many naps on the go in the ErgoBaby when flipping James around to be facing one of us when hiking or city hopping.
Have Plenty of Pacifiers/Binkies/Dummies/Nukies – whatever you call them, now is not the time to be a hero. If your baby finds comfort in a pacifier, your eardrums and those of your fellow passengers will be grateful. Pack triple. You often hear the advice “feed on the way up and down” to help with baby’s ears, but if the timing doesn’t work, sucking a pacifier (or a lollipop for an older child!) really will help! Make sure you put it on a clip!! I also recommend these MAM Glow in the Dark pacifiers for all occasions, but especially on vacation when you don’t know the room, very easy to locate!
Consider an umbrella stroller – We only have our YoYo+ – technically a “travel stroller” (which folds up in the overhead airplane bin) but nearly everyone I know uses them in Geneva as their daily stroller. I love it for everyday because I am so nimble on public transportation and in shops and cafes! If you have a “regular stroller” – consider an inexpensive umbrella stroller for travel, makes life far easier in transit!
& with your travel stroller, get a rain cover!!
Bring an insulated water bottle & formula dispenser- I was fortunate to be able to exclusively nurse James for 8+ months which is very convenient for life on the road (particularly if you can find comfortable seating while nursing.) After 9 months, I packed a S’well (or anything similar) to store hot water to make formula bottles. When it’s out, restaurants and cafes are typically open to boiling water for you, or I often use the “hot water” function on a coffee machine for tea, and just ring it out with the cashier as a tea. So many of these insulated bottles keep for 10+ hours now and I’d fill them up in the morning and have water ready to go as needed all day.
And formula dispenser – having pre-measured bottles ready to go with this inexpensive dispenser from Dr. Brown’s was awesome (if you pack two, you have six bottles all set!) Now that James is older, I use them to store berries, teething biscuits, etc. Other snacks that travel well – clementines, bananas (anything with a skin, just try to keep it from being crushed!)
Ask for what you need – I generally hate asking and accepting help from strangers. However, the first time flying with James alone, I had a few very helpful fellow travelers help me in the security line. While my instinct was to say “AH oh my gosh no! Do we look like we’re struggling? So sorry we’re an inconvenience!” when they offered to hold a bag, this time I happily said “thank you VERY much” and they all gave me that knowing smile or said “I remember!” When I was getting myself sorted in Manchester a sweet couple gave me a hand and before leaving the man asked “Will you be alright?” and his partner said “Of course she will! She’s a mum!” she gave me a wink and a thumbs up. It was a Spice Girls “Girl Power” moment.
That goes for asking for help even when not offered, too. That hungover/oblivious twenty-something in lax sweats and Adidas slides? He can absolutely put your stroller or carry-on in the overhead, he just doesn’t know that he should offer. I hope to raise the sort of kid who knows he should, but all the same, just ask.
Note that this is sometimes cultural as well – in many countries in Europe (and while I haven’t visited myself, I’m told in many Asian countries as well) people don’t want to offend you by offering to help because it would imply you are incapable. In many places, being considered incompetent is far worse than just struggling. Now, if I’m juggling bags and stroller on the tram, I do say “pouvez-vous m’aider” (can you help me? in French) if I need a hand disembarking and no one has ever denied me or rolled an eye.
Last thing on this – also consider asking if trips/tours can be made accessible to kids! On our Portugal trip, we asked about bringing babies on our Douro Valley and Sintra tours and they not only encouraged us, they provided car seats! Was so nice to have one less bulky item to carry and they couldn’t have been nicer.
Don’t board the plane right away – this sounds counterintuitive. But, unless you need lots of space in the overhead bin, particularly for an international flight, don’t get on when they announce boarding for families and those needing extra time. It adds a good hour at minimum, to your trip and being shut in a small space. Worse, you can’t use that time to move around because people are boarding all around you. Nobody wants this and don’t do it to yourself. You don’t need an 8 hour flight becoming 9+. Just board quickly and efficiently with your boarding group when called. If you have older kids, let them run themselves ragged at the gate to wipe them out before the flight.
Do laps – switch parents and just walk up and down the aisles and visit the plane galley – less people if they need to scream, and you mix up the scenery! If you can manage and are traveling with your partner, swap the baby back and forth in 30 minute or hour increments. Then each parent gets some time to watch some in-flight entertainment, read, have a drink, etc. when they are off duty. When it’s time to switch, the baby will enjoy seeing a fresh face.
Let some rules go – James isn’t at the place yet that we can toss him a soda, throw on “Frozen” and zen out ourselves, but I’m of the mind that your home rules go out the window when you’re on the road. So don’t hesitate to let your kids tune into their favorites with some junk food and know it won’t happen back at home!
Make sure they aren’t kicking the seats – I think it’s a little much to have all these parents bringing “care packages” for their surrounding seatmates with ear plugs, snacks, etc. but it’s at least worth being friendly to those around you before takeoff and tell them to let you know if your kids are kicking them or otherwise torturing them, and you don’t pick up on it right away.
Be good to all staff – should just be a “life” rule but all the more so, be kind to these people working so hard in transit. To your benefit, they’ll often sneak you an extra soda or bag of pretzels, or even just make funny faces at the baby to make them smile.
Remember – it won’t last forever. Yes – when the baby is screaming, people are staring, and you’re sweating, it feels like it won’t ever end. But it always does. When my mom used to chide me for rolling my eyes when (heaven forbid) she would be dancing or having fun on vacation, she’d say “You’ll never see these people again” and despite how global our world is becoming, she’s right. You’ll run off the plane and go your separate ways, and maybe you’ll run into each other at baggage claim, but after that – it will all just be a memory. Even the longest flights eventually touch down.
I fully hear the temptation that once you finally get a baby in a good routine, leaving your house at all just feels completely intimidating. Why throw a wrench in what works? And that might be the right choice for you for the next decade or so. But, in part because of the short-term nature of our time in Europe (TBD based on the pandemic, but likely 30 days left!) it would have been the absolute wrong choice for us. And after all the memories we’ve made together as a family this year (regardless of James’ memory of any of it) – I’m so so glad it’s not the route we took.
Roll with the punches and give yourself, your partner, and your kid a break – there’s always wine when you get there (and for free or for purchase in-flight.)
If you need one more piece of motivation, one of my best friends (hi T!) sent me this and it’s stuck with me in a big way whenever I’ve wondered if family travel is all for naught.
Travel with kids, no matter how difficult, absolutely makes them more adaptable, curious, and resilient. The French (and the Swiss French) say that the most important ingredient for a happy baby is a happy family, so if exploring gives you the same thrill it gives us – keep at it! Again, not an expert whatsoever – but hope these were helpful!