International travel with the kids. As these words sunk in, I began to have doubts. Were we crazy? Was I going to regret this? If you’re reading this and grappling with a similar decision, you may be asking yourself the same questions. Lest you begin to have doubts too, rest assured, with proper planning and the right attitude, your family trip can be memorable and fun!
Once you’ve decided to take an international trip, how do you decide where to go? Many of us might feel comfortable planning an entire adventure abroad from our computer desk chairs, while others might want to consult travel professionals. Jean Riekers with Covington Travel in Richmond says families today take both approaches with positive results, but some trips require more legwork up front. Multi-generational vacations, with extended family including many age groups, are one example. “These kinds of trips have become popular,” says Jean. “A travel agent can customize activities for everyone [in the family].”
Whether working with an agent or alone, you’ll want to ask yourself some questions: Do we enjoy planned activities or freedom to explore on our own? What level of adventure do we want? Do we want to stay in one place or jump around? How will we get around once we arrive at our destination? Do we want an experience with the American comforts we’re used to or do we want to experience more of the local flavor?
After you’ve settled on a location, you’ve got a bit of homework to do. If this is going to be your children’s first international trip, they’ll need passports. Get your passport early, but if you run tight, here’s a tip – the Chesterfield Post Office takes walk-ins Monday through Friday from nine until two. Arrive early as the line forms quickly. Additionally, local pediatrician Liv Schneider, MD, recommends you discuss your travel plans with your child’s doctor and check the Center for Disease Control website for a list of recommended vaccinations for the parts of the world in which you will be traveling. When it comes to timing appointments, she warns, “Be aware that it takes several weeks for medicine and vaccinations to be fully effective.” Dr. Schneider recommends obtaining these vaccinations and medicines at a local pharmacy such as Martin’s or CVS/pharmacy, as many pediatricians don’t always stock travel vaccines.
Once your paperwork is in order, it’s time to pack. How do you decide what to take? Most airlines designate items like car seats, pack-and-plays, and strollers as baby gear, which means they Won’t count against your total allowed number of checked bags. I recommend you take them all. If you’re renting a car, take your GPS, equipped with previously downloaded maps. This makes navigating in foreign lands a lot easier, plus many less-developed countries have less-developed highway systems.
Lee, who has traveled to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Antigua, Jamaica, and Cancun with her four children, has some advice to help kids adjust to schedule and time changes. She says, “Bring a comforting and familiar security item for kids such as a blanket or stuffed animal. It can even be food as long as you check it.” Also, consider where you’ll be sightseeing and that a baby carrier may be easier than a stroller. It’s not as heavy or hard to maneuver and you’ll have your hands free, says this veteran world traveler. It’s also a good idea to either replace your diaper bag with a backpack, or at the very least take a pack along, as it’s easier to carry for day trips.
Your suitcases are packed and you’re off to the airport. Are there tricks to maintaining a little sanity while waiting to board and while on the plane? Yes.
First, some Dos: Do keep your kids occupied. If you have headphones, take them. They’re easier for kids than those little ear buds. Download music and games on your iPod and iPad to keep kids entertained. This is the time to embrace electronics. Do take advantage of airport club privileges during layovers, if a member. They have clean restrooms, comfy chairs, and complimentary snacks to help you refuel and recharge.
Now, a few DON’Ts: Don’t book a red-eye flight. Isa, who has traveled to Venezuela and St. Martin with her two children, describes this as a recipe for disaster. According to Isa, your kids won’t sleep and you’ll get the evil eye from those who want to sleep. She adds, “People are less patient that time of day [on a red-eye flight] when they’re tired. If you take a morning flight, you’ll reach your destination by afternoon with time for an activity before dinner and bed.”
You’ve arrived. Let the fun begin! Or not. Amy, who took her two children to the Dominican Republic, notes, “Time zone changes can be unpleasant if you don’t allow enough time.” And my friend Bridget, who took her three children to Turkey, agrees. She says, “Don’t let your chosen activity turn into a death-march.” Keep your kids fed and well-rested and everyone will experience fewer meltdowns.
When I returned from my own international trip and described it to my neighbor as relaxing, she asked – incredulously, “Relaxing? With kids?” And I replied – emphatically “Yes!” Yes, we dealt with more unexpected stops along the way for bathroom needs, time changes, and schedule changes. But yes, we had more quality family time together that enabled us to grow closer in a relatively short time.
There’s something about traveling abroad that is truly unique. As Lee points out, “When you’re international, work doesn’t follow you. You’re focused on each other because there’s nowhere else you have to be.” Isa expands on the benefits of international travel and unplugging, saying, “When you have more time, your conversations are that much more meaningful.” Of course, exposure to new languages, foods, adventures, and different cultures also top the list of benefits. These benefits all back up Lee’s advice: “Don’t wait!” If you’re fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad now, this mom of four says you should do it – now.
All of these experiences will be part of your family history, says Bridget, who will never forget the kind Turkish family who befriended her and her three kids, allowing them to see both the similarities and differences between the Muslim faith and their own. “You’ll have stories that will be with you forever!”
Jenny Adlakha is a freelance writer and mother of two. You can read her last article for RFM, about boys and how they’re wired, in April RFM in our new (and very cool!) Online archive.
“You’re either brave or crazy!” was the most common response I heard when sharing plans to embark on an international trip with a three-month-old and four-year-old in tow.