Monday, November 5, 2012

20 Things I've Learned Traveling with a Baby

This month marks the third anniversary of our travels with B.  As a nervous first-time parent, our first trip was to my parents’ house in Orlando, Florida when B was 3 1/2 months old.  Even though I would be staying at a house that was already pretty baby-equipped from my two nephews, I packed way too much stuff.  Hot and cranky seated on my lap, B spent a lot of time fussing and crying, making a just-under-3-hour flight seem like forever.  At our absolute low point, he spit up all over me when landing.  Seated in the bulkhead, I had no access to my wipes and had to wait soaked and humiliated to get to the gate while the male flight attendant looked at me with disdain.  I had read about the benefits of nursing while taking off and landing, but I had nursed him way too much.

That could have been my last flight with B.  At the time, traveling with a small baby seemed like an awful lot of work and an awful lot of trouble.  Over the next several months, the opportunity came up for us to take B to Florida again and to take a couple of cruises and what do you know?  Every trip became easier and more enjoyable!

Our travels definitely started out in earnest.  But B is now 3, and we have traveled with him to over 20 countries, traveling as close as the U.S. and as far-flung as India.  This winter, we will be traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  My husband and have spent lots of time traveling through Asia, and we can’t wait to do it with B!

20 Things I’ve Learned Traveling with B:

1.  Practice makes perfect!  The more you travel with a child, the easier it gets! As a first time parent, the thing I found more stressful than sleepless nights and midnight feedings, was trying to figure out all the gear.  So, prior to flying with my son for the first time, I practiced going through security in my living room - folding the stroller while holding my son and getting everything (including shoes and a small Ziploc with liquids) onto the x-ray belt with only one available hand.  Boy, am I glad I did as it made getting through security a breeze.  Each new trip has become easier because we’ve had so much practice with packing, flying and dealing with challenges we encounter along the way.

2.  Planning ahead can save a lot of trouble.  I’ve always been a planner and to me, planning a trip is half of the fun.  I usually ‘rough’ out a day-to-day calendar throughout our trip.  We don’t have to stick to it, but it can help get us started when we are feeling tired or jet-lagged.  Speaking of jet-lag…

3.  Jet-lag isn’t a big deal.  Kids often deal better with jet-lag than their parents.  We find traveling from east to west more challenging as it usually results in B waking up a lot earlier than we’d like.  But as long as we stick to our normal routine in our destination time zone, it doesn’t take more than a day or two to get into the swing of things.

4.  Get your child involved and excited about the destination.  Prior to traveling to Paris, I bought B the book “This is Paris” by Miraslav Vasek.  When we visited the Louvre, B was SO excited to see the Mona Lisa, as he had seen and read about her many times in his book.  Before we travel anywhere, B and I read and talk about some of the things we will see, eat and do there.  What kid wouldn’t be excited about an upcoming trip knowing they will have a chance to eat waffles in Belgium or ride an elephant in Cambodia?

5.  Slow down.  Prior to being parents, Mark and I covered a lot of ground trying to see and do as much as possible during our travels.  Traveling with B has made us slow down, spend more time in each place.  With a toddler, we often head off first to the local playground.  These playgrounds often turn out to be highlights of our trips – not only does B get to blow off steam, but we has the opportunity to meet local kids and we get to chat with fellow parents.  And when we can’t find a playground, we find a grassy park for B to run around.  Our O-Ball takes up no room in my backpack, and it turns any open space into an impromptu soccer pitch.

6.  Keep it simple.  Where possible, choose direct flights over connecting - each connection not required is one less connection that can be missed.  Do you really need to visit five European countries or would visiting just one or two let you savor the location and relax?

7.  Renting a condo can be WAY more fun and convenient than staying in a hotel.  When visiting Maui, most of our time was spent at our condo rental but we splurged for a few nights at a large resort.  At the resort, we had to walk a half mile just to get to our car, restaurant charges were extortionate ($8 for a half grapefruit?) and there was a large fee to use a shaded lounger at the kiddy pool.  At our condo, we had plenty of space, two bedrooms and a large garden where B could play right outside our lanai. We could prepare our own meals when we wanted to but had a variety of restaurants just a few minutes walk away. 

8.  Don’t expect traveling with a child to be the same as before you had kids.  Traveling with a young child, we do different things than we did before.  We spend more time visiting parks than night clubs and see even places we’ve been to before with a new set of eyes.  And although Mark and I would never have considered a cruise pre-baby, we’ve discovered that cruises can be a fun, low-hassle way to travel with kids.

9.  Make sure you have all the required documentation.  In addition to passports and any necessary visas, travel with kids may require additional documentation particularly if they are traveling with only one parent.  Read more: Traveling with a child who doesn't share your last name, Traveling as a solo parent

10.  Don’t restrict yourself to theme parks and other child-specific attractions.  In B’s travels, I am frequently surprised at how much he has enjoyed places which I wouldn’t think of necessarily visiting with a child.  In Amsterdam, B wasn’t interested in the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum, but what he did enjoy was our game of ‘I Spy’ where he was called upon to spot the man with the yellow hat, or to count the windmills in a painting.  As a toddler at the Panama Canal, B wasn’t interested in watching ships go through the locks, but the huge viewing area was a great place to play with his ball and to run around.  Using a bit of creativity can make almost any destination fun.

11.  Don’t mess with nap time.  We learned long ago that messing with B’s nap time can lead to disaster, so we plan our days to make sure we always incorporate nap time.  Sometimes this means a few hours of down time in our hotel room, giving us time to plan for the next day, or have a nap ourselves.  Thankfully B sleeps well in his stroller so when we want to do a bit of uninterrupted shopping or visit an obscure museum, we time our visits for when we know B will be asleep.

12.  Trade off with your partner if you are traveling with one.  Sure it is nice to do everything together as a family, but when traveling with babies and toddlers, this is not always possible.  On our recent bike and barge adventure in Europe, the weather wasn’t cooperating for the long days with B out in the bike trailer.  Mark and I ended up taking turns cycling for the day with the group, while the other enjoyed a day on board the barge with B.  And at times when B napped in the hotel room, we took turns exploring the area around our hotel.

13.  Busy kids are usually happy kids.  Aside from wipes and a change of clothes for B, the most important thing in my backpack is a pencil case full of crayons, small puzzles, stickers, pipe cleaners, small sheets of colored paper and other craft supplies.  This helps keep B occupied while we are waiting for our food at restaurants, and for flights and train rides.

14.  There is lots of travel gear and handy gadgets out there, but you can do without most of them.  Over the years, we’ve used a lot of travel gear but the things I almost always travel with include an inflatable bath tub (to keep up B’s bath routine on cruises and rooms without tubs), our stroller, our CARES harness and our Boba carrier for those times when a stroller just won’t do.  We also find a baby monitor handy for times when we plan to enjoy our terrace/balcony/other room after B has gone to bed.

15.  There are lots of other intrepid families and plenty of good advice available.  From families who have done their first road trip to Disney World to the intrepid family at Going Anyway, who are traveling the world with 5 kids in tow, there are plenty of people out there sharing valuable travel advice.

16.  Take the ‘haters’ with a grain of salt.  For every person who says you shouldn’t travel to this place or that or fly with a child, there are plenty of others who have already done it, and had a great time!  Prior to traveling to Paris with B, I had read a lot of articles about how unfriendly Paris is for kids but we found it to be the complete opposite! 

17.  How to pack lean and mean.  After many trips and flights, we have learned the difference between what we really need to pack and what we’d like to pack.  With all the baggage charges airlines are charging extra for these days, I’ve figured out how to pack all of B’s stuff and all of my stuff together in one small suitcase - and still have some room for souvenirs.

18.  Be self-sufficient when flying.  Sure, many airlines offer special kids meals but more often than not, your child will get some soggy rendition of chicken nuggets and fries, if they get anything at all.  We learned long ago to bring our own food, snacks and drinks on board.  Most airlines no longer carry enough milk to refill a sippy cup, so if your child is partial to milk, bring your own on board.  Similarly, don’t rely on having a seat back entertainment system.  Not all airlines have them and even when they do, sometimes they just don’t work.

19.  Just because they won't remember, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.  While B probably won’t remember all the details from his travels as a baby, he is still learning an awful lot along the way.  He does remember a lot though, but more importantly, he is learning about other countries and experiencing new cultures, foods and experiences.

20.  Just do it!

What has travel with your own children taught you?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reasons not to take a baby on a cruise? No way!

A recent article on Cruise Critic “9 Reasons Not to Take a Baby on a Cruise” has me frankly irked.  We’ve had the opportunity to do five cruises with B, the first when he was just 7 months old.  Cruising is a great way to travel with a baby and here are my responses to the writer’s negative comments:

1. "Babies don’t sail free. With the exception of a few lines that have standard kids-sail-free deals and occasional promotions, you have to pay the going third-person rate for a baby sharing a cabin with Mom and Dad. That can be a hefty sum for a trip baby is not going to remember. "

Well no, they don’t, and I’m curious why the author feels they should.  They may not eat much in the dining room, but there are port charges and taxes regardless of age.  And as the author mentions later in her article, there are linens to change and high chairs to clean after meals.  From diapers to baby gear to school supplies, we all know there are added costs when you have a child.  The cost for an additional traveler will be one of those.

2. "You can’t pack light. What with the stroller, the bag of baby food and snacks, the bottles, sippy cups, multiple outfits per day and toys, I could have used a Sherpa to get through the airport with all our gear. Had I brought the car seat, I don’t think I would have been physically able to carry all the bags I needed to bring. For little people, babies don’t travel light. "

The more you travel with a baby, the better you get at packing.  Luckily more cruise lines now will enable you to pre-order baby food, diapers and other supplies for delivery directly to your cabin for the start of your cruise.  They obviously come at a hefty cost, but they can be still less expensive than the cost of overweight baggage with your airline, and can be handy if you simply don’t have the room to pack them.  On our cruise on the Oasis, we popped into a store on the way to the port and picked up this handy and inexpensive bouncy chair to bring on board.  It was really helpful to have a place to seat B while I had a shower or while we hung out and relaxed on our balcony.

3. "It’s not a vacation for mom and dad. Some of the best parts of cruising are not cooking, cleaning or doing laundry for a week. On this cruise, I washed bottles and sippy cups at least once a day, spent a morning in port washing clothes, and brought my own food to the lido buffet for breakfast and lunch. Thank goodness, I didn’t have to wash all the linens we soiled or hose down the high chair after every meal. "

This brings me back to point #1.  If cruise staff have to wash soiled linens and hose down the high chair after every meal, why would someone expect a baby to travel for free?  Washing sippy cups and doing laundry must be done whether you are at home or not.  I’d much rather be sippy cups or washing B’s clothes in the sink on a cruise, knowing when I’m done, we get to explore a new destination!

4. "Cruise ships aren’t baby-proof. My active kid wanted to explore everything. Unfortunately, open railings on the pool deck, decorative pebbles in the planters and high-traffic stairways don’t make for the safest play places for babies lacking self-preservation instincts. Unless your ship has a play area baby can access, there is really nowhere on a ship that’s a good place for baby to play. The cabin is your best bet. "

There are MANY safe places to play on a cruise ship.  Babies don’t have to have a playground to have fun and most cruise ships have play rooms.  I always carry an assortment of age-appropriate travel toys.  On foul-weather sea days, we found a comfy corner in a lounge and enjoy some play time.  And who would let a baby play on the stairs?  At cruise ship stops, we often head first for the nearest playground.  We may not get to see all the sights in port, but we DO get to meet local kids and fellow parents and our son gets to burn off energy.

5. "Cribs make cabins even smaller. Thought your cabin was snug? Try sticking a full-size pack-and-play in the middle of it. Oh, and you have to squeeze the stroller in whatever free corner is left. (Tip: Leave the full-size jogging stroller at home.) It makes co-sleeping look really appealing. "

Ok, I'll agree with her on one point... leave your full-size jogging stroller at home.  We always cruise with a compact umbrella stroller, and store it in the closet or under the bed.  Sure, most cabins get pretty cramped with a pack-and-play set up, but thankfully they pack up quickly when not in use (hence the name), leaving you with more room to move about.  As B got older, we started co-sleeping, though we often do this when we travel and don't have multi-room accommodations.

6. "No nightlife for you. My kid goes to sleep at 7 p.m., which meant from that point on, someone had to be in the cabin with him. With only Grandma and me cruising with baby, one of us got to go out at night and the other person ended up asleep by 9 after sitting in a darkened room for hours. That’s right — with no dividing curtain on Rhapsody, we couldn’t risk turning on lights. Some ships have in-cabin baby-sitting (if you’re willing to pay 20 bucks an hour) or a nursery where you can put baby down — if he or she will go to sleep in a communal space and transfer easily back to the crib at midnight. "

Oh, boo hoo.  Many cruise cabins do not have curtains to divide the room, so we have always made a point of booking on cruise ships that DO have them.  But even when I’ve traveled with my son in a room without a curtain, I turn off the lights, and once he’s asleep, I pop in some ear buds and put on a movie on my DVD player.  Now that I’m a Mom, there are no shortage of movies I’d like to catch up on.  Or I’ve turned on the baby monitor, and gone out to the balcony to catch up on the book I’ve been wanting to read for months.  I frankly can’t imagine complaining about having some quiet me-time! 

7. "The cruise schedule doesn’t always match baby’s schedule. Embarkation day was a nightmare because my kid needs to nap, in a crib, at 10:45 a.m. sharp. When I showed up, screaming child in hand, on our deck to beg entry into our cabin at 12:30 p.m. (they weren’t officially open until 1), I discovered that our pack-and-play wouldn’t arrive until 4 p.m. There was no napping that day. If your baby isn’t a stroller napper (mine isn’t), embark/debark days and shore excursions may be difficult to manage. And, oh yeah, expect baby’s sleeping and eating patterns and schedules to get messed up during the trip. "

Conflicting schedules are certainly not cruise-specific.  The same issues would apply checking in to almost any hotel or resort, and 11 am check-out times won’t be conducive to this schedule either.  But cruises have so many dining and activity options, it is easy to go with baby’s schedule.  We always make sure to get the earliest dinner seating in the dining room.  And if he’s fussy that day, hey, we just go to the buffet restaurant or order food in to our cabin.  When B was very small, we often arrange private vehicles and guides (when we weren’t off exploring on our own).  We brought along his car seat so he would have his comfy place to sleep while we toured around, and if he cried, he didn’t disturb anyone but us.  On our visit to Iceland, at times when our son was asleep in the car, my husband and I would take turns leaving the car to check out the sights.  As my husband likes to say, “We’ll just adjust accordingly.”

8. "Babies can’t use the pool. With the exception of certain ships with splash zones for the diaper set (like some Royal Caribbean and Disney ships), kids can’t use the pool unless they’re toilet trained. That makes sea days in the Caribbean or Mexico less fun — unless you plan on schlepping and filling an inflatable tub/pool. "

I admit, this can be a bit of a drag, but surely you can find alternative things to do on those sea days.  Adjust accordingly!

9. "Most cruise cabins don’t have bathtubs. Book Disney or a suite for bathtub access — otherwise baby better like sponge baths or showers. Mine discovered during his first sponge bath in the shower that he could remove the drain cover and reach inside the dark recesses of the drain. That was the end of the sponge bath, and I’m not sure he ever got entirely clean while we were on Rhapsody. Again, consider the inflatable tub/pool. I regretted not bringing one."

B loves his bedtime bath, so we bring an inflatable tub.

Having a baby changes so many aspects of your life, it would be naive to believe the way you travel won’t change too.  But planning, practice and a little creativity will go a long way to making a cruise with a baby or toddler a wonderful experience for everyone.  Happy cruising baby!

Read why cruising with a baby is great!: