Top 10 Tips On How To Travel Internationally With Kids
Julie and Tahia about to have a Moroccan lunch at an outdoor cafe near the Source Oum-er-Rbia in Morocco
Everybody knows that it's not easy to travel internationally with kids. One of the biggest concerns that Julie and I had when we finally decided to have a child was how it would impact our travels. Would it be enjoyable to travel anymore? Would we have to give it up completely? Would we have to find other pursuits that we were both passionate about? Well, fast forward a few years and now we've had at least eight waterfall-related trips requiring airplanes as well as dozens of more local hikes and road trips. Some of the long-haul trips we've done include New England
, the United Kingdom
, and the Great Lakes
among others. Indeed, we're living proof that we can still travel (especially involving adventures and/or hikes) and it doesn't end when with bringing a precious one into the world. If anything, having an additional travel partner is enriching our travels in ways that we have never imagined! It's even extending life lessons in ways that our girl could neither learn nor appreciate in the classroom. So how did we do it?
In this article, we're going to break down some tips that we've learned over the years when it comes to bringing our daughter along on trips. We know that this is not an exact science and everybody's situation is different, but these lessons are the things that we know have been effective in our own experiences. Hopefully, you may find these tips useful for your particular situation.
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Tip 1: Plan ahead
One example where advance planning and flexibility paid off was when I took our daughter to the incredible free playgrounds at the Maggie C. Daley Park while Julie went to the Art Institute of Chicago
This first lesson is really for us as parents. We have to come to grips with the reality that we can't see and do as much as we were able to when we didn't have a child. That said, as long as we were flexible and had advance planning, it was still possible to "have our cake and eat it too", but we had to make compromises and set our priorities when tough decisions had to be made. The advanced planning was especially important as precious time on a vacation can easily disappear (possibly leaving regrets and expensive re-dos) without a sense of what sights were "must-sees", "nice-to-sees", or "not-worth-its".
One thing that can't be negotiated to this end is that just about everything will simply take longer with a child. Therefore, we can no longer take for granted things that we were able to do quickly without a child (e.g. restroom breaks, meal times, getting packed and on the go, spontaneous diversions, etc.). This means that trip planning has to account for the extra time required, and trips might have to be made a little longer to accommodate. Just to give you an idea of how our travel planning has changed, we used to be able to routinely engage in three or more waterfalling excursions (including day hikes requiring more than an hour) in a given day. With our daughter, we had to slow things down to the point where just having three such excursions would be a full day. Thus, some trips had to be extended by a few days while we had to pare back expectations on some of our longer trips. So in the end, by simply respecting the limits with bringing a child (i.e. don't try to cram too many activities in your itinerary), we were able to work into our plan some degree of flexibility and diversity, which did wonders for our mental health when out and about on an active trip.
Once we're on the trip, we've been flexible enough to employ what we're calling "divide and conquer". This is when one person would do the strenuous or non-child-friendly activity while the child and supervisor would engage in the more child-friendly activity at the same time. For example, on a recent trip to the Great Lakes, I managed to visit a pair of waterfalls (Willow Falls
and Minnehaha Falls
) while Julie and Tahia were at the Mall of America by Minneapolis, Minnesota. Similarly, I did a real peaceful 8-mile hike in the Pictured Rocks to Spray Falls
while Julie and Tahia were playing in the swimming pool at our hotel in Munising, Michigan
. We also flipped the script where I was supervising Tahia at the Maggie C Daley Park (an amazing free playground) while Julie was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Tip 2: Sell your kids on the trip
Julie and Tahia had a wonderful time at the Mall of America, which was one thing that convinced our daughter to get excited about an upcoming trip
Believe it or not, our daughter does not like waterfalls as much as we do. When we were planning to go on a trip to the Great Lakes with our four-year-old daughter, she wasn't very keen on going. She asked to stay home because she preferred to play with her toys, watch Disney Jr., or ride her bike with the neighborhood kids. Indeed, as she was getting older, she was becoming more opinionated and strong-willed, and it was definitely something we had to adjust for.
So that was when Julie had the bright idea of getting our daughter excited about the trip by showing her internet photos of the Mall of America and getting her to imagine herself having fun at such a place knowing that she liked amusement parks. Once she sold Tahia on the trip, our little girl kept looking forward to going there. She'd repeatedly ask us day after day when we were leaving as she thought we could just go there at will.
Indeed, just getting our little girl's buy-in on the trip went a long ways towards minimizing the amount of complaining she would do during the trip. More importantly, it opened up her mind to the benefits of traveling with us. It didn't have to be boring, and it didn't have to be strenuous. Instead, it could be lots of fun! We'd still take her on our usual sightseeing excursions, but she didn't have her mind made up that she wanted to go home as soon as we left the house! It was definitely a win-win for all involved!
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Tip 3: Ramp your kids up slowly on the idea of travel
Julie and Tahia enjoying Paradise Falls in Thousand Oaks, California. This was one of the local trips that we did to learn about what we can and can't do with our daughter
From our many travel experiences, we knew firsthand how difficult the act of travel can be. After all, the airport and airplane experience (i.e. long queues, cramped seating, lots of waiting, difficult to sleep etc.) was hard enough for adults. So imagine how much worse it would be with a child. So before even exposing our daughter to these inconveniences, we had to warm her up to the idea of travel by going on a lot of short and local trips, then ramp up slowly to farther and longer trips down the road.
Before taking our first trip overseas, we had done a series of local short day hikes to the mountains in the Los Angeles area as well as a road trip to Yosemite National Park. Just making the time to get used to the idea of going on excursions with her locally helped us realize in a low-risk way what worked and what didn't.
For example, when we started by going on the local hikes when our daughter was about 3-4 months old, we learned how limited strollers can be on the trail, especially in places where it could be a bit rough and muddy (even for a mostly paved trail like Solstice Canyon Falls in Malibu
). From that experience, we started hiking while carrying our daughter in a baby carrier
to places like Eaton Canyon Falls hike
and Paradise Falls
. And this turned out to be quite successful when Tahia was a baby and she wasn't able to properly walk yet . When she got older, we began using a framed child carrier
because it was better suited for hiking. It had a nice shade to protect her from the sun and it was more comfortable for her while she was napping. When our girl was able to walk, we would let her experience hiking until she was too tired to walk further. At that point, I'd then carry her with the weight resting on my hips thanks to the carrier. We've employed this strategy while hiking to Soldier Creek Falls
, Sturtevant Falls
, Fish Canyon Falls
, and many more.
The local hikes eventually warmed up Tahia (as well as ourselves) to the idea of long distance road trips. The first one we did was to Yosemite
when Tahia was almost 5 months old. We didn't rent a car for that trip, but it did teach us a thing or two about the value of traveling light. So we had to be even more discriminating about what things were necessary and what things we could probably do without (trunk space was limited). For example, we ditched the stroller for the child carrier. We also bought a lightweight car seat
for those times we would eventually fly and rent a car or ride in a tour operator's vehicle.
Eventually, given the lessons learned from these road trips, we were finally ready to bring our 8-month-old daughter to our combination Washington road trip
and Alaskan Cruise
trip. The lessons learned from that trip ultimately helped us to be more efficient on subsequent trips like New England
, Eastern Canada
, the UK (including England
, and Wales
, and Spain
among others). Indeed, with each trip that we did with Tahia, the more we learned as we went, and it's an ongoing process.
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Tip 4: Respect your kids' need to nap
The child carrier was very useful to let our daughter sleep while I was busy hiking in places that strollers couldn't go
Julie and I noticed a direct correlation between our daughter's mood and the amount of healthy sleep she was able to get. If she had to be woken up when she was in deep sleep, she was very cranky (as most of us would be if our sleep was interrupted). If she was well-rested, she was much more interactive and in an overall happier mood. So it was with this observation that we learned that road trips were ideal for travel with our daughter, and bringing a child carrier was crucial for those times when we needed to go sightseeing during Tahia's nap times.
For example, when Tahia was 8 months old and needed at least two naps a day, we took her to Washington and Alaska. The Washington part of the trip was a road trip (as well as a family trip as Julie had relatives in the Seattle area). Because we spent a good deal of time in the car, a lightweight car seat
was crucial to attach to our rental car as well as any taxis when we didn't have a rental car. Tahia would be able to sleep in the car and more often than not, she'd be totally rested when the drive ended and it came time to go on some excursions with her. As far as the Alaskan Cruise was concerned, we did bring a lightweight stroller
so we could wheel her around for those times when she needed sleep or needed to be distracted during meals.
As Tahia got older and only needed one nap a day, we brought along a framed baby carrier
. I would carry her around for those times that she was too tired to walk or needed a nap. We started doing this when Tahia was over 2.5 years old as she was now able to walk and talk. A critical benefit of having such a carrier was that we could still go places while our little girl was asleep. So we didn't need to stop what we were doing and return to the hotel to find a bed or something else for her to lay on. For example, we were even able to enjoy an afternoon cuppa (of English tea) when it was Tahia's nap time in places like the UK as well as Morocco.
An additional critical benefit of the child carrier was that we could go where strollers couldn't go. Thus, if we were on a hike to a waterfall, we could do it. If we were walking on the cobblestone streets of Europe (where a stroller would be too bumpy), we could still do it. If we had to go up and down steps, we didn't need to look for elevators or lifts (though they would be welcome if one would be available). And if we were going through a very crowded medina or city center, we could still carry our sleeping girl around hands-free and not be hindered on our travels. Indeed, without the child carrier, we couldn't imagine how we would be able to pull off some of the overseas trips that we've been on so far with our daughter.
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Tip 5: Bring comfort items
Tahia's favorite comfort items - her Boo doll and Hello Kitty blanket
Generally, travel to unfamiliar places can be scary for a toddler. After all, when you go to new places, see new people, and do different things, it all can get a bit overwhelming. So one thing that Julie does is to bring along what we call comfort items. In that way, our little girl would at least have something familiar to her while she's being exposed to so many unfamiliar things. Being able to hold on to her favorite things bring comfort to her.
We bring along an inflatable travel pillow
, one stuffed animal that she sleeps with at home (typically she prefers her Boo Dog
as well as her Hello Kitty Throw Blanket
, which we used to cover her while riding in the car, on the plane, or even when we put her to sleep in her portable bed
which she outgrew at 4 years old. Until she outgrew it, she loved it because her tent provided her with a consistent place to sleep every night when we moved from one hotel to another. She was also able to sleep earlier even though we still had the lights on. We also bring along two of her favorite reading books, which we used to read to her at bedtime every night which helped to maintain her routine from home.
For footwear, Julie always brings two pairs of shoes for Tahia. The default pair is Crocs
because they're easy to clean, lightweight, and easy to put on and take off. She wears them in the car, city, or to play in the stream. If the day involves more walking or hiking, she'll wear her Nike's
. If we expect the destination to be rainy and wet, we'll also bring her rain coat
and rain boots
For clothing and accessories, Julie dresses Tahia in layers. The first layer would be a cotton t-shirt. Then, she'd bring a multi-layered jacket
and a wide brim sun hat
for sun protection. For additional protection, we used baby sunscreen
and anti-bug balm
. The organic balm reasonably minimized mosquito bites thereby reducing the likelihood of contracting mosquito-born illnesses while not inundating her with chemicals.
The bottom line with these items is that the fewer reasons our daughter had to complain, the more smoothly the trip went.
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Tip 6: Keep your kids engaged or distracted, but never bored
Tahia having fun at the Smithsonian in Washington DC
Admittedly, this lesson is easier said than done. Keeping a child occupied and engaged requires a good deal of effort. Of course the ideal solution would be to do activities that both adults and the child can do together, but let's face it. It's not a practical solution all the time, especially when on precious vacation time.
Like with all things in life, there's a compromise that has to be struck. For example, instead of spending 100% of our time on activities us adults like to do like sightseeing, fine dining, etc., we had to adjust the percentages a bit to something like 75% adult-friendly and 25% child friendly or even 50% adult-friendly and 50% child-friendly, or do a divide and conquer scheme as mentioned in one of the earlier lessons above. So we would allow some flexibility time to visit child-friendly museums, amusement parks, and playgrounds in addition to all of our waterfalling excursions or other popular and must-do excursions abroad. This would at least stave off her boredom which would build up everytime that she didn't get to do what she wanted to do.
That said, we were also uncompromising in that she did most of what we did and she ate what we ate (or at least she had to try). Of course in staying true to this principle, we had to make sure we engaged her. For example, when it came to hiking, we were frequently talking to her, pointing out flowers and trees as well as animals like the odd lizard or squirrel. She loves to pick wildflowers and to throw leaves into the river so we let her indulge in those things. Naturally, we had to be cognizant of poisonous things like poison oak, snakes, and bees around flowers, but at least she was learning things outside the classroom, which gave her more meaning when she would see those things again inside the classroom. Also, by engaging her in our activities (especially hiking), we found that even at the age of 4, our girl was able to do a 3-mile round trip hike. The same went for walking for long periods of time in places like European cities where mass transit was the norm rather than the exception.
When we couldn't keep our girl engaged all of the time, we had to find ways to keep her distracted in productive ways. So we usually pack along stickers, crayons
, coloring books, and crafts that can be purchased cheaply from the 99 cent or Dollar Tree. There would typically be coloring books
of her favorite Disney characters. Indeed, this was especially helpful when we were at restaurants or we needed some down time at the accommodation. We know iPad
as well as TV could also do the job, but we try to minimize those things as much as possible.
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Tip 7: Purchase Travel Insurance
Julie and I had firsthand experience in cancelling a trip because Tahia was sick. We had a Napa Valley trip planned for a particular extended weekend in November, but Tahia had an ear infection that wouldn't go away. Julie had to cancel all the bookings made when we realized it would be too risky to go on the trip with our girl as sick as she was. And while some travel operators were sympathetic and refunded us our money, others were not. Knowing how much more difficult it would've been to recover our losses if we had to cancel or cut short an international trip due to illness (especially with foreign languages), this was all the reason we needed to convince us that we should purchase travel insurance. We purchased travel insurance through Travel Guard
for our last trip to Morocco and Spain. After all, kids easily contract and share germs, and just not having this backup is kind of like playing roulette with an international trip that can cost upwards of $5000-$10,000 or more. Purchasing travel insurance would typically would cost us about 3-5% of the overall trip cost.
When we're abroad, the travel insurance was also a hedge against contracting some kind of serious medical condition requiring hospitalization (from food poisoning, mosquito-born illness, or physical injury). With our girl's immune system still developing, this was always on our minds. Our domestic health insurance didn't cover us abroad, and if we were unfortunate to have health issues without travel insurance, then we pretty much would have to pay out-of-pocket for any hospital visits, medications, or even emergency transport (like being air-lifted to a cleaner medical facility).
Julie and I have had food poisoning on our trips. Tahia has had travel diarrhea. Fortunately, we've been lucky that our illnesses or injuries were not serious enough to warrant a costly hospital stay. However, the bottom line is that life happens and sometimes plans change suddenly. With travel insurance, we would at least have options and cut our losses in the event the unthinkable happens.
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Tip 8: Practice good hygiene and food safety
We ate this authentic Moroccan Chicken Tagine at an outdoor eatery near the Source Oum-er-Rbia. Despite the rural location, the food was safe to eat because it was fresh and fully cooked
As a corrollary to Lesson 7 regarding travel insurance, often times the best remedy for any kind of circumstance or ailment is prevention. And since travel can take a toll on the human body, especially for the developing body of a child, it was especially important for us to practice good hygiene and food safety. So here are some examples of what we've done to address this issue.
First and foremost is to drink bottled water when in doubt. I know this is a controversial move, especially given the environmental impacts of plastics (not to mention the moral conflict of using them when we normally do without them at home). However, Julie and I have had enough diarrhea and vomiting to know that water-borne illnesses and bacteria that our bodies are not used to (especially in developing countries) are no joke. While the need for bottled water is less for industrialized countries, it's necessarily universal. For example, our 4-year-old daughter and I had bouts of diarrhea during our Spain trip. This was especially annoying since Tahia had to make numerous trips to the bathroom and she even had more than a few accidents. It was scary because this could've easily blown up into something worse. When we eventually figured out that the runs tended to occur after meals where we asked for tap water in the restaurants, that was when we finally caved in to bottled water. After that, the diarrhea episodes went away.
Next, we generally go by the food safety rule that we can only eat fruit that is raw and uncooked if it has a skin to peel. Otherwise, it has to be cooked. The same goes for raw vegetables. We know we're taking a risk if we eat fish or shellfish even in developed countries because Julie and I have gotten food poisoning on bad seafood in Amalfi Coast, Italy.
Julie also brings wipes
which were useful for cleaning our hands when no soap and running water was around, but the wipes were also useful for unforeseen emergencies like when our daughter had to poop or she had an accident. Her last resort was to use organic hand sanitizer
to neutralize bacteria and germs while picnicking or snacking out in the bush. Having these around is especially important for our daughter given her inclination to want to put her fingers or her hand in her mouth.
It's also wise to bring travel packs of Kleenex
because sometimes bathrooms are not available or the bathrooms don't have toilet paper. The ones from the US also tend to be softer than the ones from other countries.
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Tip 9: Stay in an apartment or apartment-like accommodation, if you can
The interior of our really nice two-story apartment in Cardiff Bay, Wales. We spent three nights here, and it was easily the best accommodation of our month-long UK trip
This out-of-the-box suggestion was very important in terms of keeping our child comfortable while also minimizing the chances of getting in trouble with the hotel or other guests. In our experience, apartments (or apartment-like accommodations) tend to be more spacious, they have a full kitchen (including refrigerator and stove), and some have laundry machines. The increased space allowed our daughter some room to play while giving us room for our stuff without feeling so cramped. The refrigerator allowed us to store Tahia's milk, keep our waters cold (thereby minimizing the leaching that can occur in plastic bottles), and keep our fruits and leftovers from spoiling. The stove allowed Julie to cook breakfast though we also had the option of cooking for lunch and/or dinner to further control nutrition and cost. Finally, the laundry machine was instrumental in letting us refresh our dirty clothes, which was especially important since we tend to travel light and try not to pack too many clothes. It was also important in terms of keeping Tahia's clothes clean, especially when she'd have her accidents.
Indeed, the apartment experience contrasts with the typical hotel experience, where their rooms are not as spacious, most of them don't have refrigerators (and if they do, they're typically the small types only good for cooling the overpriced mini-bar things stuffed within), they don't have kitchens, and it's not likely they have laundry. In fact, the cost of apartments are typically competitive (often cheaper) than hotels. In our experience, we try to pick centrally located apartments though we default to hotels if the apartments are not centrally located or too expensive.
Just to give you an idea of some apartments we stayed at, we've spent three nights in Cardiff, Wales within walking distance from Cardiff Bay while also having a dedicated parking space for our drives to the waterfalls of South Wales. The room actually had two floors, and its price turned out to be cheaper than the smaller hotels in the city! We also spent four nights in a spacious apartment in Inverness, Scotland within walking distance from the riverside walk while also having ample parking space so we could explore the Highlands on our own. In fact, we were willing to drive longer distances for day trips (as far north as Durness and as far west as Portree) just so we could stay put in this apartment (and not have to vagabond it). In Barcelona, Spain, we stayed at a very centrally located and spacious apartment next to the Barcelo Sants train station, which was where we were able to take the bullet train to Madrid's Atocha Station (for easy access to the international airport). Of course, the mass transit stations were extensive enough to experience most of the city's superb sights by getting on a subway train directly from the Sants Station.
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Tip 10: Pick accommodations close to the metro (if you don't have a car), or with parking space (if you do have a car)
Looking right across the street at the Atocha Station from our hotel room. By being very close to the train station, we were easily able to catch the train to the airport the following morning
The general thinking behind this lesson learned is that we pick accommodations based on where we're going next. If we didn't have a car and we had to take a train to another city or to the airport, then we made sure that we stayed next to or very close to the train station that would quickly get us to our next destination. That way, we would minimize the walking distance while carrying all the luggage and baby-related gear. Similarly, we minimized the amount of connections to be made (always preferring single-line routes) so we were less likely to be squeezing through a sea of humanity with all our luggage and gear in the crowded subways. For example, on our last night in Spain, we stayed right across from the Atocha Station, which had a direct line to the international airport. Similarly, on our last night in France, we stayed next to the Gare du Nord, which had a direct train to the CDG International Airport. In the UK, we spent our last night very close to London's Paddington Station, which also had direct access for the train leading to the Heathrow Airport. You get the idea.
Without being close to the train station with the direct link to where we're going next, we'd wind up spending more money for a bus or taxi. We generally like to be in control of our time and money, which is why we prefer public transportation over these other means of transportation without our own wheels.
If we did have a car and our next place was a driving destination, then we made sure that the place we're staying at would have parking. If it's centrally located, it would be a bonus though city driving itself tends to be more stressful and the parking rates tend to be more outrageous. If there's public transportation, then how centrally located the accommodation is would be less of a factor. In any case, it's stressful enough to try to find street parking or find a suitable structured car park where we're not sure if it's prone to theft or if it's too far of a walk from our accommodation. Thus, having on-site parking is a big consideration for us when we're in the midst of a self-driving tour.
If we had to choose between an apartment that had neither of the above requirements or a hotel that did, then we'd favor the hotel despite our tendency to favor apartments.
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Julie and Tahia sitting next to our luggage while we were waiting for the bus taking us from Heathrow to Bath. Note the 2 luggages, the car seat bag, child carrier, day pack, and Julie's tote bag
International travel with kids is not unlike all the other things relating to parenting. No one has all the answers, and it's all a matter of trial and error. The important takeaway from this article is that you don't really know what you're capable of until you go out there and be willing to give it a try. It's easy to get caught up in all the inconveniences and horror stories about traveling with kids, but like all things in life, there's a risk and reward equation. As you can see from our experiences, we were willing to give traveling with our daughter a try, and with each attempt that we've made, we've learned something new each time. Moreover, we've found that the rewards of sharing our travel experiences with our daughter paid off in so many intangible and unforeseen ways that we look back and think how crazy it would've been to have missed out on all these things just because of the fear of trying. So we hope that this article demonstrates to you what can be done, and that it inspires you to give it a go with the potential to enrich your family's life in new and exciting ways.
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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