The Must List: International Travel With Kids
“I will NEVER get on a plane with this child again.” We had just flown across the country with our then 6-month-old son, and it had been a kicking (literal), screaming (literal) nightmare. Between the time zone swap and the unfamiliar crib, he’d hardly slept a wink, and it was nothing short of a miracle that we weren’t thrown out of our hotel for harboring a fugitive banshee.
Never say never. Our family recently boarded a 10-hour flight to Frankfort, Germany and spent two weeks checking out spots in Eastern Europe. It was heaven. To be clear – the travel was not without it issues, and there were meltdowns aplenty (kid and grown up), but ultimately, it was an unbelievable adventure that stoked my wanderlust and got me aching to plan our next trip.
During our adventures, I picked up some tips, tricks, and must-haves for international travel with little ones. Read on!
- Bribes – You heard me. Vacations are not the time to cultivate your child’s intrinsic motivation. I don’t care how breathtaking the views, your child has no desire to walk across a historic bridge (or see that amazing modern art museum, or tour that epic church). You want to get an amazing sunset photo from that scenic lookout, you better make it worth their while. On our trip, I met a woman who gave her elementary schooler a pedometer and told her that every 5,000 steps earned her an ice cream cone. That’s some varsity level parenting.
- Snacks – assume that your child will refuse to eat anything that doesn’t look like good ol’ American food. I packed 7,000 applesauce pouches and fruit strips, along with granola bars, I knew our son would eat. We encouraged him to try new foods, but I didn’t stress too much about anyone missing a meal.
3. Be a nimble magician – expect that there will be travel issues, and prepare accordingly. When we arrived at the Austin airport to catch our flight to Germany, we were informed that our flight had been canceled and that we’d be booked on a new flight departing the next day. From Houston. So, we hopped in the car and had a mini road trip, that was… kind of a blast – thanks to some podcasts (we like “Wow in the World”), some sticker books (we like anything Usborne is selling) and car snacks (Doritos, we like Doritos). Being a parent on the open road is like being a magician – you’ll need lots of tricks up your sleeve. Put a list of “would you rather” questions for kids on your phone (Google it) and brush up on word and number games that don’t require supplies or equipment. I can’t tell you how many cranky walks were saved with a game of “I went to the store” (I went to the store and bought apples. I went to the store and bought apples and bread. I went to the store and bought apples, bread, and cat food…).
4. Reasonable expectations – when I had a newborn, a wise, experienced mom told me that when planning your day with an infant, shoot for “one for me, one for you.” And so it is with vacation – each day, we tried for an adult something – say, a castle tour, and a kid something – a ride on the giant Ferris wheel. Your destination almost surely has a cool playground. Find it.
5. Do your homework – think your trip begins when you board the plane. Au contraire, mon frère. Start talking about your destination, places you’ll see, and any fun plans BEFORE your trip. We watched old episodes of The Amazing Race (thanks Hulu!), pored over maps of our destinations, and checked out YouTube clips of sites we’d be seeing.
6. Bag of tricks, stocked with novel items – hit the dollar store and stock up on small trinkets (toy cars, teeny sticky notes, pocket-sized story book) you can bust out when the going gets rough – on the plane, waiting to be served at a restaurant, in line for the pay toilet. Bonus points for wrapping them up – the unwrapping process will buy you an extra 30 seconds.
7. Know your kid – my child is OBSESSED with public transportation. This kid has never met a tram, trolley, metro, or bus he didn’t love. Knowing that the subway is his happy place, we built in plenty of opportunities to ride around town. Find parts of your vacation or destination that play to your kids’ skills, passions, or curiosities.
8. A search, a hunt, a goal (and that old digital camera) – if we’re walking, we’re searching. There are loads of great scavenger hunts on Pinterest (park, city, airport). Print them out, and have your kids identify and/or collect items on the list. We also gave my son a borrowed digital camera (on a lanyard he could wear around his neck) and challenged him to snap pics of certain items for a photo scavenger hunt.
9. Polite words – on our most recent trip, we visited three countries with three different languages. Almost everyone we met spoke English, which made life easy, but locals really seemed to appreciate when we made the effort to at least bumble through a few polite words in the native language. We taught our son how to say “hello” and “thank you” wherever we were, and I was blown away by how excited he was to try out his new skills.
10. (The other) Comforts of home – yes, definitely bring whatever stuffie, lovie, or woobie your child needs for sleep. But think about the other items that help things run smoothly for you and your kids. A favorite water bottle, a well-loved book, the *right* toothpaste. And for the love of all that is holy, keep your schedule as close to your home routine as possible. Be flexible yes, but vacation is not the time to throw the bedtime routine out the (Airbnb) window.
11. Pack light, bring Tide – previous statements about piles of trinkets and a metric ton of applesauce aside, we really did pack light for this trip. We were fortunate to have a “home base” with relatives, allowing us to take a “take some/leave some” approach to packing for side trips. Trust me when I tell you, these smaller airlines are NOT playing around when it comes to luggage allowances. Each family member got a backpack and one other small bag. I packed travel packs of laundry detergent, along with stain sticks for treating things along the way. During our travels, when we got short on clean clothes, we found a laundry place or did a small load of sink laundry. I’m here to tell you, there is nothing better than not having to wait for your suitcases to come off the baggage carousel.
12. Solid toiletries – another place where airlines don’t play around? Liquids. Instead, pack solids. Shampoo, body and face wash, even conditioner – all available as solids (Lush makes some great ones). This will leave you a bit more wiggle room in your quart sized “liquids” bag (cough, mini vodka). Side note: always pack a handful of extra plastic zip baggies. Trust.
13. Sticker labels – pre-print mailing labels before you go, and you’ll be all set to drop a vacay postcard to grandma or your kiddo’s BFF.
14. Money – give your little one their own local currency to spend. This made our little guy feel very important and responsible, and kept the souvenir “gimmes” at bay.
Most importantly, pack an open mind – bring your curious spirit and leave your American-centric self at home. Yes, this Texas girl missed large cups filled to the brim with ice, and yes, the lack of air conditioning was a tad, ahem, warm, but remember, your child will mirror your attitude toward things that are different or other. More importantly, every minute you spend griping about the toilet paper in Europe, is a time you could be stuffing your face with delicious perogies and ice cream.