My family and I recently returned from our first international holiday together. We traveled to Germany for two weeks to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my parents. We took tons of photos, spent hours at the local Christmas markets, and ate all the local sweets we could stomach. Our daughter, Ilse, even experienced her first snow and fireworks. It was a fantastic trip, one that would not have been made possible without pre-planning on our part. I read all the travel blogs that I had bookmarked on my Pinterest board and a few written by my fellow SFMB mommy writers. Armed with this advice and the experience of two domestic air travel trips with Ilse, we were ready. Here are a few of steps we took to ensure a mostly stress-free and fun family holiday overseas.
My husband is my favorite travel buddy because we enjoy the pre-planning part of any trip, whether it be our itinerary or just planning our week leading up to a trip. Now that we are a family of three, we do a little extra planning, beyond the basic destination selection and packing list.
- Research the destination and accommodations. When I am travelling domestically, I know that I can always find a Target or Walmart in case we forget something or need-more diapers or baby socks. With an international destination, I relied on local grocery stores for snacks and international apparel stores like H&M for last minute clothing needs (Keep a copy of American to European apparel conversion chart saved on your phone). Research your destination for restaurants, apparel stores, laundry facilities and sights, so you know what to expect. For example, not all historical buildings are stroller-friendly! Also, if your child bathes rather than showers, check with your accommodations to see if the bathrooms have bathtubs. Not all hotels or vacation rentals have bathrooms with bathtubs. In one hotel in Germany, we turned our tiny shower into a small tub for Ilse with a rubber sink stopper.
- Bring the (right) stroller and car seat. When traveling with a baby or toddler, it’s not just the clothes and food you have to plan for, but also the transportation gear, primarily the stroller and car seat. I recommend bringing both. Both are free to check-in or gate-check when traveling by air. Prior to our first trip this past May, we decided to invest in a second stroller, one that was smaller and more lightweight than our beloved Graco travel system. Our Summer stroller has become our workhorse for travel. It allows us to navigate busy airports and city streets with ease, rather than wearing Ilse in a sling or baby carrier. The Summer stroller gave Ilse a convenient place to sit or nap. The car seat is also must, especially if you plan to drive to your destination after the airport. Since my parents drive in Europe, we used Ilse’s car seat every day. The decision whether to bring it on the plane and have your child sit in it during the flight is a personal one, as you must purchase a seat for your child if you plan to use it. Check with your specific airline for guidelines and age restrictions for holding a child in your lap.
- Pack Smart. When my husband and I travel together on these long, two-week holidays, we always do laundry wherever we go. It reduces how much we have to pack and minimizes the amount of dirty clothes we bring home. Since we do laundry every five days, we pack for at least 8 days. All tops and bottoms can be mixed and matched to create different outfits, which is more important for me and our daughter! We limited shoes to three pairs per person, although Ilse and I only ended up wearing two of our respective shoes. For Ilse, we also packed all her flu essentials (just in case): baby Tylenol, Nose Frida, and our favorite forehead thermometer. If you have the space, pack a few toys and a favorite blanket. A little bit of home kept Ilse occupied. And don’t forget international adapters and phone cards.
Apply for your passports early
Everyone in the family needs a passport, especially if they are travelling internationally. Since my husband and I both have passports that are current, we just had to apply for one for Ilse. The passport application process can take 6-8 weeks, assuming you have correctly filed and completed all the paperwork and submitted the appropriately sized photo. We thought we had plenty of time when we applied for Ilse’s passport in October. Unfortunately, no appointments were available until January 2017, well after we would have returned home from our trip. We ended up applying for her passport through the U.S. Passport’s expedited service. We paid an additional $60, but we received her passport in just a few days. The only caveat is that you can’t apply for the passport until two-three weeks prior to your trip. Visit https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports.html for more details and check out our post on getting a passport in SF.
Manage Jet Lag
When travelling across different time zones, jet lag is inevitable for adults and children alike. To help Ilse acclimate to the 9-hour time difference, I made sure she adhered to her normal sleep schedule and could take extra naps if needed. We also selected a flight time that allowed us to fly at night and arrive during the day, so she could go to bed at her regular bed time. For the first two days, she would wake up in the middle of the night, but went back to bed very quickly after a bottle. All three of us often took naps together! (Side note, we also planned our trip to return on a Friday, so we would have the weekend to recover from jet lag…it took us four days)
You can take all of my advice and still end up with screaming toddler, or in my case, a toddler that wants to talk to her neighbors on the airplane. Or you can end up having a sleepless night in hotel room just because the heater was on too long. Or you can have a good laugh and have fun! All of the pre-planning will be for nothing if you don’t enjoy yourself. And we did. We improvised when a hotel room did not have a tub for Ilse. We giggled when Ilse plopped into snow for the first time and immediately wanted out. Since my parents were around, my husband and I were even able to explore alone!
International travel can make anyone apprehensive, especially when traveling with a child, but I can’t emphasize enough how essential pre-planning was and how essential “letting go” was as well. We got all the big stuff, like passports, the airfare and seats, and accommodations sorted out. After that, we let go and allowed the rest of the trip to progress at a leisurely pace. How delightful it was to nap on a weekday and not check email! I can’t wait to plan our next international trip.