So, you want to take an international trip with your little one? YAY! Even with a baby, this is such a valuable and enriching experience for your family. I promise. You aren’t crazy! However, it is a daunting task to travel for 12 hours (and often times much more), as well as pack for an extended stay away from the comforts of home. Let me share with you my borderline crazy, obsessive planning techniques. I truly hope this will empower you to go explore somewhere and to enjoy every moment!
I will start with travel tips and strategies for planning a long trip with a little one in general, and then go into details of travel broken down by age (baby and toddler). The reason being is because, as you know, a newborn is vastly different from a 5 month old who is vastly different from a 13 month old who is vastly different from a 2 year old. Okay. Let’s take this journey together!
A. Planing Your Trip
Planning your trip is absolutely essential to enjoying your time once you arrive at your destination. I promise, the extra work beforehand will pay off in the end. Note: most of these apply for any trip, short or lengthy!
- Research your destination. Google what to do with kids where ever you are going. I usually start with that city’s tourism page, and explore more from there. You can usually find blogs with more details on specific family friendly tourist destinations, restaurant suggestions, and off-the-grid recommendations. It is good to have a sense of what you want to do. Then:
- Make some type of itinerary. I try to plan an itinerary that fits into our daily structure but doesn’t pack too much into any given day (there is really nothing worse than running yourself thin when you are supposed to be on holiday). This allows for flexibility as well, which is necessary for so many reasons and especially when you have a tot with you. Here is the basic template I use when planning lately (it only allows for one nap since N is older)–>Of course, you will adjust this based on your baby’s daily schedule, if they are old enough to have a routine. I plan one ‘big’ outing or activity per day (for us I try to make it in the morning when N is fresh and will enjoy it the most) and then something more low-key (coffee shop, walk, park) in the other half of the day. That way, if we want to switch something around, it is not a big deal. I also try to make reservations/plans ahead of time for every meal. I love doing the work of figuring out meals ahead of time, it makes the trip way less stressful. TIP: Plan out what you will eat during the flights/travel time as much as possible. I tend to pack meals at least for the first leg of the journey, so to avoid any hungry bellies.
- Make Packing Lists. Lots and lots of lists. Lists of what you need to buy, lists of what you have, lists for each bag, lists for the day of traveling…anything and everything I list out so I don’t forget anything (oh, and also keep my sanity). I will detail the way I do it below in the “Packing Strategy” section.
- Consider car seat accommodations. What is the situation once you get off the plane? Do you have to get a ride to your hotel? Is a family member picking you up? Did you check a carseat that you will have with you to install? What is your plan if your checked bags that had the car seat don’t make it? Make sure you can get your little from the airport to your lodging safely!
- Pack Strategically. See each section below where I go into more detail about this.
- Reserve your airline tickets early. This way you can have your choice of seats towards the front of the plane. If you have a smaller baby, you can call to request the bassinet that attaches to the bulkhead (see below for more detail on that). I also try to pick flights that will work well with our schedule, although this is not always possible!
B. Traveling with Baby (0-12 Months)
Our first international trip was when Nesrine was 4.5 months. I would suggest waiting until around this time, as newborns are much more demanding (not to mention less vaccinated). However, if you must travel with a very new baby this info will still be relevant for you! First, let’s go through the ‘stuff’ I use for getting through the airport, on the flight, and while we are at our destination.
Travel Items Needed:
1. Passport for baby
This is probably worse than actually taking an 8+ hour flight with a baby. Story time: we made the mistake of going to the post office to get photos of our 2 month old. I called ahead to make sure they could accommodate a baby who was too young to hold her head without support. They assured me they could. They were not prepared whatsoever to photograph her. The regulations for the photo (even an infant) are kind of crazy, they have to have their eyes open and be looking at the camera (these people clearly have never been around a baby). Also the woman taking the photo didn’t have anything to lay her on and take her photo from above, so I was supposed to somehow hold her upright against the backdrop. Except that I couldn’t be in the picture, even my hands (that were literally holding her head from flopping around). So there was me, kind of “Lion King-ing” her in front of the white backdrop, Hashem is trying to get her to look to the camera, and the lady is flashing a camera in her face and so, naturally, she starts screaming. But not only that, she starts to pee, and since I am holding her under her bum under her clothes so I won’t be seen, the pee somehow manages to escape and start dripping down my arm and all over the floor. It was something, but we eventually get a photo of her. And a few weeks later we get post from the State Department that the photo was not accepted because she “wasn’t looking directly at the camera”…….um……….SHE IS TWO MONTHS OLD. This is the rejected photo:
So I am livid, and I know I am not going back to that post office again, so help me God. So I just propped her up on our white nursery glider when she was awake and interactive, dressed in something neutral, and took a ton of photos until I got one of her looking. The accepted photo below:
No flashing, no pee, no screaming. Why didn’t I just do that the first time?!?! Let me save you the agony of going to the Post Office for the photo: TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTO in the comfort of your home. You can upload it to Target’s website, crop it for a passport, print it and pick it up.
Also keep in mind that both parents/guardians need to be present when you go to apply, and I am so sorry but you will have to go to the Post Office for that. But that part isn’t so bad if your photo is already done! Anyway, allow enough time to get the passport before your trip, we went 2 months before, which was good because it took some time to process since our photo was rejected at first. Allow a few weeks at least (or you have to pay to rush it!).
2. Infant Car Seat and Travel Bag
Unless you have a car seat at your destination that will be installed in the car picking you up from airport, you will have to bring your bucket seat along. At 4.5 months, we didn’t buy N a seat, so we got our tickets for the first seats in economy and reserved an “airline bassinet” that attaches to the bulkhead, like so (this was at the end of flight, so don’t mind that it is full of food wrappers, she was done using it!):
It was nice to be in the first seats, as well as to be able to set her down at times. It does cramp the area, so it wasn’t easy for Hashem (sitting at the window seat) to get out, but it beats buying a seat and bringing a car seat on the plane.
For this trip, we took our Uppababy Mesa seat, and checked it to our destination. We packed it in the JL Childress Ultimate Car Seat Bag, which is nicely padded and can be worn as a backpack (not terrible if you just need to get all the luggage to check-in).
JL Childress Ultimate Car Seat Bag
I found this seemed to be more efficient than the wheeled ones. It is designed for a convertible car seat, but the bucket infant seat fits perfectly in the bottom. The extra bonus is you can pack extra diapers or anything that didn’t fit (or you forgot last minute)! Oh, and there is no charge for baby items on most airlines.
3. Umbrella Stroller and Stroller gate check bag
As I mentioned in my previous post, I use the Uppababy G-luxe stroller for travel, in combination with their travel bag. I love this bag, because it rolls up easily and fits under the stroller, so it is easy to bring along. The great thing is that if your stroller breaks Uppababy will replace it for you (if you register the product). This happened to us and they were so great about it. I sent a few photos, and within days my new stroller arrived. I packed the broken one to send back to them!
4. Baby Carrier
In the mountains of Lebanon at dusk
You definitely want to have some type of baby carrier, I use the Ergobaby 360. Whatever your preference, just make sure you know how to use it and are comfortable getting baby in and out of it before you travel. It is excellent for getting through a busy airport, and calms your baby who likely still gets easily overstimulated by all the hustle and bustle of airports and planes. I loved it for boarding and de-boarding, because I had my hands to carry some of our bags, and she was relaxed and soothed. It was [Note: I’m using past tense here as she doesn’t care for it much now at 19 months, and my belly is too big anyway!] a lifesaver during the long flights, as I could put her in it and walk around the aisles until she fell asleep (exhausting, but at that point that was the only way I could get her down in such a stimulating environment). It is perfect for exploring your destination once you arrive as well!
5. Large Diaper Bag
Find a medium-large sized diaper bag with enough pockets and space to pack neatly. Especially one a lengthy trip, there is nothing worse than a messy bag where you can’t easily access what you need. I use this Ju-Ju-Be one. It is too big for everyday use (for us at least) but it is great to have the extra space when traveling. [Also check out Lilly Jade, they have fantastic liners with lots of pockets for organizing].
Here is the important thing: Put everything in bags. I use the small sized eBags and color code it for different items. Extra clothes are in the red bag, medical supplies in blue, etc. Find the system that works for you so you can easily grab snacks, extra clothes, diapers and wipes, medicine if it becomes necessary (hopefully not).
My key suggestion here is that you pack a small bag in your diaper bag to grab that has the following: a couple diapers, a changing pad, and a small pack of wipes (and bum cream, which I use at every change when we travel…I prefer to take no chances when it comes to diaper rash!). You can refill the diapers as needed from your main diaper bag. Remember you will be carrying a baby down an aisle that people have claimed as part of their own personal space, and you’ll have to navigate over blankets and feet and elbows and slumped heads (don’t get me started on plane manners and etiquette). If you have a small bag with all your changing essentials it will make this bathroom journey so much easier than dragging the whole diaper bag. And also, there is no room in that tiny plane bathroom. There is barely room for you and a baby, honestly. It is not the highlight of flying, but you’ll manage. Note: See the section on “Packing strategy” for more details on what to put in the diaper bag.
6. Wet/Dry Bag
These Skip Hop bags are great for once you arrive at your destination. To save space under the stroller when we go out, I pack 5 diapers and a pack of wipes, a changing pad, and an extra set of clothes. Throw a snack, a book and one chew toy/pacifier in there, too and you’re all set! I leave the diaper bag in the car or at home even, depending on the length of the outing. Don’t be weighed down by bags!
I also roll this bag up empty and put it somewhere in the diaper bag/H’s book bag during travel, just in case of a poop explosion or food mess that leads to soiled clothing. I put some plastic baggies inside to seal up dirty clothes and then put them in the wet/dry bag until arrival. No smells, no contaminating all your clean things.
These packing cubes (or something comparable) are essential to clean, neat, organized packing. These changed the way I pack and how we travel for the better! There are many ways to use them, but the way I do it is color-coded. So Hashem gets various sizes of black bags, all of my items are in turquoise, and Nesrine’s are in purple. See more details on how I use these below in my “packing strategy” section.
8. A Few Chew Toys and Slim Baby Books
Depending on the age of your baby, you probably don’t need as many toys as you think. The first time we travelled international with N (4.5 months) I packed so many toys. She played with a few, mostly her chewy Sophie, and was mostly interested in the plastic cups they had on the plane or her pacifier. An older baby may enjoy watching videos or playing with an app (while she doesn’t care much for the iPad in general, she likes the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn: Shapes and Colors, and also Fisher Price Storybook Rhymes. She likes now to watch episodes of Daniel Tiger).
For a two-four week trip: If you have two adults and one baby, pack 2 large suitcases, 1 medium suitcase (for baby) and 2 small carry-on sized suitcases (that you will carry on). So once we check our bags, we have this:
-one umbrella stroller (with the gate-check bag rolled up in basket underneath)
-one diaper bag (that I wear if N is in stroller, and rides on stroller if N is in ergo)
-one backpack (Hashem wears this one and works well for us)
-two carry-on sized suitcases.
This is what works smoothly for us on long trips with multiple layovers. Of course, you have to do what makes logical sense to you. The following steps lay out for you how I get everything packed and organized:
Step 1: Make lists of what you want to bring
I would suggest you start this at least one week before your trip, I usually give myself two weeks so I have time to get what I need from the store. I use the Anylist app, and list exactly what I want to put in each suitcase and bags. [I recently purchased a Moleskine notebook for traveling, but haven’t used it yet! It has some great potential!]. I break it down by suitcase so I can do a check per bag based on my list.
Step 2. Pack Your Big Suitcases
This is where my eBags packing cubes come into play! As I mention above, each person gets a color, which have various sizes. There are so many different ways to organize with these bags. What I do is pack one type of item per bag. For my clothes it goes like so:
-blouses and casual shirts together
-pajamas and lounge wear together
-pants/jeans/skirts or dresses together
-jackets and sweaters together
-underwear and socks together
For Nesrine each eBag contains:
-2 outfits/day folded up by outfit (meaning: folded in specific order sweater–>shirt–>pants on top and then stacked and fitted into a medium bag or bags.)
-diapers (even though I usually buy more there, I like to have more than enough in case we don’t make it right away to the store)
-pajamas and socks
-extra blankets and any weather accessories (hats, gloves, bathing suits, etc.), and a hooded towel
-toiletries and grooming items, a few small bath toys
I also pack for her a duck travel tub with inflator, a sheet for pack and play, any food items (like extra snacks or puffs).
Step 3. Pack Carry-Ons
**Here is my most wise advice** Always pack your carry-ons with your essentials in the event your checked bags don’t make it at the same time as you. This has happened to us on more than one occasion, and we are always so happy to have some clean underwear and clothes on hand until the bags arrive. I also pack some makeup and extra contact lenses, face wash and lotions, and hair brushes. With a baby, always pack everything you’d need for a day or two. For us that looks like this:
-giraffe pacifiers, lovey, and sleepsack
-baby shampoo and toiletries
-sippy cups and cleaning sponge
P.S. this also comes in handy if a flight is cancelled and you have to wait an extended time for another flight.
Step 4. Pack Diaper Bag
The diaper bag is the trickiest bag, in my opinion. It fills up so quickly and gets cluttered in what seems like minutes after leaving the house. This is where careful planning comes in. Utilize pockets, bags, compartments as much as you can. I use the big center portion for diapers and my grab-and-go changing bag. I approximate how many diapers I need for 24 hours, and then double it so I don’t run out, allowing for any delays. I always pack more diapers than I ever have had to use, which I much prefer to the opposite scenario! Other essentials for a baby:
- extra clothes, packed by outfit in small plastic baggies (or tiny eBags)
- blankets and hats (planes are cold!)
- Several pacifiers (and a secret stash of clean ones)
- lots of small packs of wipes you can easily access
- teething biscuits or snacks (if your baby is old enough)
- nursing pads if you are still nursing or bottles/formula (and a way to wash them)
- nasal spray and aspirator/tylenol and motrin/thermometer (just in case!)
- a few chew toys and a few slim books
- sanitizing wipes
This may seem like a short list, but believe me it starts to accumulate! Don’t forget to pack a small bag that will fit inside somewhere for yourself! I bring: ID, passport, gum or mints, small travel toothbrush, deodorant, cough drops, eye drops, chapstick. I usually put this bag in the book bag that Hashem wears. He will pack the snacks and water and our iPads (as if we ever get to use them!) and any other odds and ends (usually I’ll have some extra blankets for N in there).
Step 5. Double Check Everything
Go over your lists, think about what you need for meals, bath time, sleeping and make sure you didn’t forget anything. And don’t forget chargers, a universal plug adapter, and a battery pack for charging tablets and phones during your travel time. You’re welcome 😉
Getting all your luggage and you into the airport. We drive and park at the airport, which I suggest–less car seat worries). In the Pittsburgh airport it is not very expensive to park in long-term parking. Long term parking is, however, far away. So what Hashem and I do is this: he drives to the departing flights drop off at the gate, gets all our luggage on a cart and gets me a N and all our many many bags settled on some seats inside. Then he parks the car and comes to get us to go check the bags and get our boarding passes! Easy!
Going through security. We usually go to the first class or priority lane when we have N with us, and they will let you through there since you are a family. Take your time, as it takes a bit longer to fold up stroller and put it through, get baby out of carrier (they usually make you put the carrier through) and then re-assemble your set up after you are cleared. Don’t worry about people behind you, try to grab your things and then move over to the side to set up the stroller and bags.
Buy your own water/snacks. Hashem always rolls his eyes at me as I buy 4-5 water bottles, but I don’t like to have to call for water, especially when N is asleep. Same with food. Really, keep yourself (and your travel partner) well hydrated and well fed. You will be exhausted by the end!
Baby Ears and Take Off/Landing. Remember to have a pacifier/bottle/nurse when taking off and landing. If Nesrine didn’t want to nurse, I would just make sure to keep the pacifier in her mouth and she was sucking on it while we went up/down.
Screen Time. Or rather, no limits on screen time. When we are at home, N can have 0-30 minutes of screen time per day. This isn’t difficult for us because she doesn’t have much interest in iPad/tv yet. She usually will watch an episode of Daniel Tiger in the car on the way home from our morning activity and that’s it. When we travel, she can watch as much as she wants in the airport or during the flight. I also am more relaxed when we travel on screen time in restaurants, although I try my best to use it only as a last resort when we are dinning out (you can read my tips for eating out here!).
C. Traveling with a Toddler (1-3 years)
Next up: long flights with a toddler. Not easy, my fellow mamas! Some things are easier than with a baby, but honestly it is definitely more tiring to contain a mobile child for long flights. We took N international when she was just about to turn a year, and took a direct flight from Pittsburgh to San Diego when she was 17 months (it was about 8 hours on the plane because it was “direct” in the sense that we had a stop but did not have to change planes). I will break this section down the same as the baby section, but many of the travel items overlap, so refer back to that list for your main source of gear!
Travel Items Needed
**See above list for full list of gear!** The following is what to change/add for a toddler.
1. Light-weight Convertible Car Seat
Instead of uninstalling (and re-installing when you get back) your usual car seat at the airport, I opted for a less expensive travel car seat. Also, we have the Clek Foonf which weighs roughly the size of a baby elephant. I chose the Graco Comfort Sport because it weighs only 13lbs and has soft, comfortable fabrics and a nicely cushioned head support pillow.
We did bring this on the plane only once (after that she was big enough to use CARES harness; see below), and even though this seat isn’t heavy, it is a huge hassle to drag through airports when you have multiple layovers (just ask my husband!). Here is N at 11.5 months:
IF you decide you want the car seat on the plane, keep the following things in mind:
-Know how to install it properly with just a lap belt (and make sure that it can be installed that way…most can). You will also need to get the seatbelt extender from the flight attendant.
-You will need to figure out a way to carry it in the airport. We used this handy strap to attach it to a carry on. It was nice because it didn’t add bulk or any more luggage (like a bag would or some of the wheeled contraptions out there, plus then you need more overhead
room on the plane for a bag, etc.). It is advertised that you can have your child sit in the car seat, but it didn’t seem quite comfortable or safe.
-Most airlines require you to install the car seat either on the window seat or in a center seat so the aisle isn’t blocked. This is my preference anyway…more private for sleep, safe from stray bags coming down the aisle.
If you can, check your carseat to your destination (it’s free!) and opt for another option. Which leads me to my next item–>
2. CARES Harness
The CARES harness is a lovely light-weight alternative to bringing a car seat on a plane. It is FAA approved for children 22-44 lbs. It slips over the seat and you can lower it to shoulder height for your toddler. You use the regular lap belt by threading it through the loops and voilà! Your toddler is restrained safely.
I read some reviews initially about covering the tray of the person behind, or that the tray wouldn’t close over the strap. From our use, we haven’t had any issues with the tray of our neighbor behind us, we just board early and open the tray so we can adjust the strap, and it closes with no problem (and that way their tray is functional).
It was a great way to keep her calm during take off and landings, during meals, or just when she needed some quiet time. She certainly didn’t stay seated the whole flight (by any stretch of the imagination) but it served its purpose perfectly when necessary, and didn’t weigh more than a pound so it didn’t cause us any extra hassle. BEST. THING. EVER.
3. iPad (or tablet of some kind)
While this wasn’t essential for traveling with a baby, when you have a toddler it is! Bring an iPad (or some tablet that has an industrial cover that a toddler can’t break) with downloaded shows and apps that function offline. We have some fisher price apps, and amazon allows you to download so we loaded some Daniel Tiger episodes for offline viewing. I suggest having some familiar apps or episodes, and then add some new ones!
4. ‘Surprise Bags’ and Highlights Magazines
I get some small cloth bags with drawstring ties, and fill them with neat little things to look at, especially when the iPad novelty has worn off! Things like stickers, small stacking cups, egg shakers, puffy balls in different sizes or shapes, tiny ducks. Basically things that I don’t care if we loose or throw away after they have been all over the seats and floor of an airplane. They are also usually things that are new to N, which make them all the more exciting. Putting them in bags makes it even more fun (and passes some extra time), like a little present.
5. Single Serving Milk cartons and LOTS of snacks
I use the Organic Valley whole milk cartons. Ask the flight attendant to put them in the fridge so they are chilled, but they can travel at room temperature until you get on the plane! And bring lots of snacks. I buy single serving bags, or divide them into plastic baggies, it is more hygienic and more convenient for packing than taking the whole container.
Again, see above for the full list, which apply here with the addition of the following:
Decide on your boarding order. Either board early during the family boarding time, or send travel partner in early to set up everything and wait until the end to bring toddler on board. We have done it both ways, and I can’t say one is better than the other. It depends on how your tot is feeling at that time, so just do what works for you!
Call Airline to order meal. You can request a toddler meal if you call ahead of time, but pack meals and snacks anyway as they aren’t really very healthy or appetizing (they once served us chicken fingers and some sort of potato, no veggies, and a sad looking container of fruit). In fact, in the future I plan to just give her the regular adult meal.
Pack meals. I bring things that can stay at room temperature for toddler–peanut butter on whole wheat bread, grapes, clementines, cheese sandwich, cheese sticks, cold green beans, pasta salad, puree meal pouches, etc. I also bring some little alphabet cookies for a treat (and incentive)!
D. Dealing With Jet Lag
Jet Lag isn’t easy for us adults, especially when you are changing several time zones, so keep that in mind when helping a toddler navigate their new environment. N has always done okay with this, but here are some tips that I use to help all of us adjust comfortably so we can enjoy our time:
Don’t expect your little one to adapt right away. I have found it takes N about one day for every hour of time change (so if we travel to Beirut and are 7 hours ahead, it takes her about 7 days to get the rhythm in the new timezone). Other moms I have talked to have said the same thing, so I don’t think we are alone in that! Just be sensitive to wonky naps (or possibly no naps), and some crankiness.
Start right away to get on a “regular” schedule. Even if you are exhausted, try to wake up in the morning at your destination and start your day. I hate to wake N up, but I will get her up by 9-930am when traveling if she isn’t up on her own, and then get her in for an early nap. This kick starts us into a normal-ish eating, napping, and activity schedule.
Plan and facilitate a calm, quiet, and dark space for naps. It is so easy to just let them nap on-the-go, and albeit when we travel we do this more often than at home (which is never, because N takes a 2+ hour nap in her bed and I don’t skip that for anything!), I urge you to make time for a nap. Especially the first few days, and as much as possible during your travels, attempt to get home for a nap. It might be earlier or later than what nap time normally is at home, but watch vigilantly for early signs of tiredness and. Nothing is worse than an overtired toddler! And REMEMBER: sleep begets sleep. I can’t stress that enough!
There you have it! This is my complete guide for traveling with your child. I will update this as I find new gear or strategies that help our future travels, and as we begin our travels with both a toddler and a baby! So stay tuned 😉
I truly hope that even one small aspect of this can be useful to you, and help make your journey enjoyable so you can focus on what matters: spending time together with your family, exploring new places and learning new things. Please leave your comments and feedback! Tell me: what have you done that worked well when you traveled?