Regardless of whether it’s for the first or fifty-first time, one can’t help but laugh while watching Clark Griswold and his family endlessly and hopelessly circle Big Ben and Parliament in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. However, when imagining their own crew in the same situation, most parents’ laughter quickly turns to nauseating anxiety.
Traveling internationally with kids can seem a daunting proposition at first. In fact, after 30 seconds of consideration, many parents likely decide to simplify their adventures by heading for the shores of the continent on which they reside. But fear not. With the right planning (and attitude), traveling overseas with children is not only doable, it’s enjoyable, and it will provide lifelong memories unlike any other.
Have Babies, Will Travel (Maybe)
According to Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder of Ciao Bambino, a travel service that specializes in helping parents travel Europe with children, “The biggest misconception parents have about international travel with young children is that it is just too hard. Parents fear that after a long flight, they will experience a relocation–more work in a new place–and struggle to find basic resources in a foreign environment.”
With proper planning, this fallacy can be avoided. Notes O’Shaughnessy, “If itineraries and destinations are chosen with care, resources are easily accessible including first-rate pediatric medical care; high-quality accommodations with kitchens, baby supplies, equipment; and interesting activities for the entire family.”
Whether heading for the local mall or the Louvre, the importance of effective preparation cannot be overlooked. It can undeniably set the stage for a wonderful experience or a “never again” nightmare.
Avoiding Possible Pitfalls
A valid concern for families considering a trip with young children is the potential for a child to fall ill days before departure. O’Shaughnessy’s recommendation: “Families should purchase travel insurance (which can be done easily over the Internet) to cover money that may be lost due to trip changes and cancellations. In addition, parents need to confirm [that] their existing medical insurance plan covers international travel and carry a list of relevant contact numbers.”
With four children under the age of nine, the number of things my husband and I are likely to inadvertently leave behind when embarking on any trip is astounding. My mantra has become, “As long as I have my driver’s license and my credit card, anything else can be purchased en route.” For international ventures, however, a few more items must be accounted for before heading to the airport.
All children, including babies, are required to have a passport when traveling internationally. Additionally, if one parent intends to travel with her child but without her spouse, she must have a letter from her spouse (preferably notarized) stating that it is acceptable to take the child out of the country.
Next on the list of importance after a passport and a credit card are supplies — especially for babies. “Although a wide range of baby supplies can be readily purchased when traveling outside the United States, I advise parents to bring products with them when the specific brand and ingredients are important,” notes O’Shaughnessy.
My friend, Cindy, who recently traveled to Italy with her 10-month-old twins, agreed. “Thank goodness I brought enough food because their selection of baby food was much different from ours.”
There’s nothing worse than setting off on a much-anticipated adventure with children only to have them begin complaining before the pilot has had a chance to welcome you on board. Choose the contents of your carry-on bags carefully. Doing so will go a long way toward avoiding the type of meltdown that might have you wondering when the flight attendants will begin serving “adult beverages.”
Advises Sarah Sims, who frequently travels to England with her two young sons, “Have a backpack for each child. Include small, wrapped activities such as crayons and stickers that they can open at certain milestones along the way. Stash snacks in each bag in the event of an unforeseen delay. Finally, put all sippy cups and liquids in their own Ziploc bag with a paper towel. Then, if something spills or leaks due to pressure changes, changes of clothing and other items aren’t ruined.” (Note that depending on current travel regulations, you may not be able to bring any beverages through the security check but can instead buy them in the airport once you’ve passed through security.)
Many parents wonder whether or not they should take their child’s car seat on the plane. This point is hotly debated. Advantages to bringing your own car seat on the plane include ensuring your under-two-year-old is safe (and strapped in!). The disadvantage is, of course, the pain of lugging the seat onboard. A new FAA-approved flight harness is now available for children over one year and weighing more than 22 pounds. Called the CARES System, the five-point harness attaches to your child’s plane seat, straps her tightly and safely in, and negates the need for dragging on that car seat.
Also, keep in mind that from two years of age, a child is required to have his own plane seat, and is big enough not to require a car seat.
If you do plan to bring a car seat or a flight harness for a child under two, check first with the airline for their requirements.
Cindy recommends wearing layers on the plane so that if your child spits up (or empties the entire contents of his stomach onto your shirt seven minutes after takeoff), you can simply remove the dirty clothing and reveal a clean shirt underneath. You may want to put a plastic bag in your carry-on to separate a wet shirt from the rest of your things.
Even if traveling with older children, who aren’t likely to throw a tantrum in the terminal professing their need to go home for the stuffed animal they haven’t had interest in for three years, do not overlook the importance of keeping them occupied for several hours–not to mention through potential delays. Ensuring that each child has a backpack filled with a variety of activities can mean the difference between a patient traveler and never-ending barrage of “Are we there yet?”
Enjoying Your Stay
One issue parents often don’t address until they have no choice — because their children are bouncing off the walls in the middle of the night and zonked at noon–is jet lag. Proposes Sims, “If you are dealing with a time change, start feeding and napping kids according to your destination’s local time once you board the aircraft, and incorporate as much of their regular routine as possible.”
According to O’Shaughnessy, “The biggest mistake parents make when planning an international trip with your family is creating a jam-packed itinerary with multiple location changes over a short period of time. Parents should choose one or two destinations that are well-located for day trips and local excursions.”
If you have family at your destination, they will likely be a wealth of information regarding day trips. If not, be sure to pick up a reliable tour book or two, or do some searching on the Internet to determine what locales are reasonable–not to mention which are kid-friendly and which are not. Often, the best source of information on things to do and places to see in a particular city or country is someone who has traveled there under similar circumstances. Ask around to find someone (even a friend of a friend) who can provide you with tips you might not read about in a guide book.
Home Sweet Home
While parents will likely fall with a long sigh of relief into their own beds after returning home, they shouldn’t expect their children to have exactly the same reaction. “It took about three weeks to get back on schedule,” remembers Cindy. “The babies adjusted to the time change within about two days when we arrived in Italy, but it took about five days when we returned home.”
The best thing parents can do to help their kids to get back on schedule after an international trip is get them back into their own routine immediately. Even if children don’t take to it right away, parents should begin operating under their previous schedule as soon as possible. (It will help parents assimilate as well!)
Noted Saint Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.” So, forget the standard vacation this year. Instead of a walk on a familiar beach, give some thought to a stroll along the Great Wall of China, the Seine, or maybe even around Big Ben and Parliament (just once).