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Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby
Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children's activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it's too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don't have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I've traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).
I've written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I've learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.
Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter "test run" to see it's not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn't traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you'll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby's immediate needs, it doesn't matter much where you do it; a baby's comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you'll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few "important" sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.
Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than Hotels.com. When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend's home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You'll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn't bother with a stroller at all for the city's many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.
Everywhere is nice in a "baby bubble"
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you'll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers' babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn't working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don't expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.
Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it's more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.
Don't let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I've become more sensitive to the idea, but I've noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that's wrong with air travel (though in Gadling's Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn't make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you'll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don't want to sit next to your "brat" on the plane, and that you shouldn't subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don't get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I've learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane "neighbors" that I'll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we've made more friends than enemies.
Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most "adult" you'll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera's first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.
Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I'm in for in year two in the comments below.