International Travel With Baby
(Yes, she rode on the scooter. My mother will likely have a heart attack when she sees this picture.
Baby's face is hidden to protect the innocent.)
Baby's face is hidden to protect the innocent.)
Our first real vacation as a three-member family is now complete! We had a great time in Kalymnos, Greece for the majority of October. In fact, the post I just linked in the first sentence was inspired by our last trip to the same destination in 2012. Things were definitely a bit different this time, mainly due to the addition of the baby. We still met my criteria for an "ideal vacation": long enough period of time, minimal logistics required, lots of physical activity, and rich social interaction. However, on this trip we did hire one scooter to open up transportation options a bit more, in terms of both climbing crags that we could visit and locations where we could purchase amenities/etc.
The internet is awash with detailed tips for international travel with babies and toddlers, and I'm ashamed to say that I didn't take good advantage of it prior to embarking on our trip. A really thorough website with lots of articles can be found here, and this blog is geared more towards practical preparation for the whole family. An old friend of mine who seems to be somewhat of an airplane connoisseur also wrote about his air travels to Europe with baby here. These are my general tips based on my experience:
Prep early and often. Depending on the age of your child and his/her specific needs, every parent will have a different list of essentials. The key is to think about them well beforehand and be prepared, as collecting the items on your list may take more than just a day. With young children, the tendency is to pack everything but the kitchen sink; the key is figuring out what you absolutely have to have, that you care about most, that you WON'T be able to get easily at your destination. For me, this was a particular high-quality baby formula which I know is difficult to find and would be difficult to ship to a Greek island. I made sure we ordered and packed plenty of it for our trip, and yet I still had to buy an additional canister of mystery formula (likely with low-quality ingredients written in Greek which I gladly ignored). Yet I knew that we could get the kind of diapers she uses anywhere, I knew I could buy toys if needed, etc.
Also, make sure to have enough essentials for the entire period of air/road/boat travel; this may vary anywhere from a few hours to, in our case, two whole days! So in a carry-on I made sure to have: copious diaper changing equipment, a change of clothes, formula, finger foods, a light jacket because planes are cold, a light blanket for sleeping, and an interesting toy or two. One highly-recommended thing I failed to properly do was bring enough of this gear in the carry-on for 1-2 days of post-travel coverage in case of lost luggage. In the setting of hungry appetites, dirty hands, and blowouts, this could be much more important with a kid in tow than it ever was on our previous trips as a couple.
Pull the "baby" card (with a smile). You hear of airplane horror stories from both sides of the coin when babies are involved, but for the most part, everyone loves a baby. I've gotten smiles from the most hardened-looking airport dwellers when she engages them with her beautiful blue-grey eyes. I've had more conversations with strangers who asked me questions or made comments about her then I ever would have by myself. This phenomenon crosses cultural lines as well; although the caretakers of the house we rented in Greece spoke no English, they fawned over our baby every day and treated us like family. They gave her toys and brought us home cooked Greek food on a regular basis.
Having a cute baby on your arm opens up lines of both communication and sympathy. It seems that even if your child is struggling or crying, people who have had children understand and may even try to help. Our 13 hour international flight had bassinets, but you had to be sitting in one of two rows. At first we tried to ask people if they would switch, and they graciously said no... but our flight attendant came through and made it so that we could use one. It was SO nice!
Lower your expectations. I don't mean to say that you should start with negative expectations, but it's important to take it slow and not expect much out of the first few days in your new destination. On a typical trip, my husband and I would normally move at a much faster pace, including heading out to climb as soon as possible after arrival. However, on this trip, I personally didn't climb for the first two days. Baby and I spent time decompressing, getting used to the surroundings, and napping. On days that we did take her to the crag, we just didn't get as many pitches of climbing done. As I talked about before, any climbing with a happy baby in tow is a double-send! Little excursions we happen to take around the island were also made with full awareness that things may have to be cut short. Which leads me to my next point...
Divide and conquer. One way to absorb some of the adjustments with baby is to have you and your partner divide some of the necessary tasks for getting settled. Only one of us shopped for groceries or went to the bank at a time. And it turned out that mostly, we had climbing days one at a time. With roped climbing requiring belays, how did we do this? We met others there who were willing to help us out and climb with either one of us on an alternating schedule. Kalymnos is the perfect place to do this, as it hosts a close-knit group of climbers of all levels from all countries in a well concentrated area. I identified a few potential partners for each of us before we traveled by posting about our situation in an online forum, and we also met other travelers while we were there. We'd never done a climbing trip where we barely climbed with one another before, and while I sometimes missed climbing with my husband, it turned out to be a very positive experience. We both got to climb at places that we wouldn't have possibly gone if we were together (and/or with baby), and I got to do a lot of lead climbing on my own without having my husband "help me" by putting up the routes.
I ended up climbing fewer days than I would have compared to past trips, and yet I climbed as much as I felt that I wanted to climb this time. Baby had a more stable daytime lifestyle, and everyone seemed satisfied. Our arrangement is just one example of how you can divide duties and activities while on a long trip with a baby; this same kind of setup would work very well for trips that focus on individual activities such as surfing, paddling, yoga, or even conferences.
Look past yourself. Of course, jet lag sucks for everyone. But usually, after a few strategically-timed medications and some coffee, I'm read to climb, hike, or do whatever the destination affords. Our baby traveled so well on her three flights to Greece (even sleeping a substantial part of the long haul flight). Two flight attendants whispered to me that I "have a really good baby".... Coming from them, I took this as quite a compliment! But once we arrived she had three days of bad jet lag that translated to desiring high-energy play (lest bawling in the middle of the night) and moodiness during the day. The first night I totally didn't get it; why is she crying so much? Why isn't she dead tired like I feel? Once I opened my sore, burning eyes and saw her trying to pull my hair and play, I realized that this is another human being with a different constitution and different reactions to things than I would have. She needed to work through the time and location change on her own terms.
A friend of mine described international travel with a child as "two steps forward with one step back". Our girl really did seem to grow on this long trip away. She's eating so much more solid food, and she's on the cusp of walking now. Her sleep habits, which I had diligently worked on in the month before our trip, slid into a regression. I didn't worry about it and just let her be her. Now that we're back home, we're slowly returning to our normal routines. She may not remember much of the trip, but I'll never forget my time with her and her dad in a completely foreign environment - a great experience for body and mind!
Do you have any other must-know tips for international travel with babies or young kids? Share them here!