Have Child, Will Travel
Guest Post by Erin Bond
The first time I traveled solo with my daughter Harper, people thought I was crazy. My mother-in-law emailed me a news article about healthy babies who died—for no apparent reason—on long flights. Friends asked me why I didn’t wait until my daughter was older, when she’d be able to remember the trip. Even my parents, who were generally supportive, seemed baffled. Why would I want to take my feisty, strong-willed two-year-old to Portugal by myself? Couldn’t I wait until my husband could take time off work and go with me?
I brushed off their concerns, but what I wish I could have explained to them then was that this trip wasn’t for my daughter: it was for me. I was coming off a long and intense bout of postpartum anxiety, which had nearly paralyzed me after Harper’s birth. I had quit my career as a teacher at a college near the beach and moved to a landlocked city I thought I would love but didn’t.
I wasn’t going to Portugal because I wanted to. I was going because I needed to. I needed to prove to myself that I could. I needed to know that my life wasn’t stalled, that I could still do big things, exciting things. I needed to know that becoming a mother hadn’t erased the things I loved when I was just Erin and not Mama.
Flash forward: no one died on the flight to Lisbon, and in the nearly two years since that first trip, I’ve taken my kiddo to Japan, Costa Rica, and seven cities in Mexico, where our little family of three lived for a year.
After all that, what can I tell you about travel with small children? It’s hard. It’s really hard. After every trip, I want to sleep for a week, and I swear that’s it, I’m done, let’s wait until she’s older… but then a little time passes and I get caught up on sleep and I remember that traveling with my daughter is more than just hard—it’s wonderful. Life-changing, even.
I’ll never forget sitting at a little sidewalk café in Lisbon, watching as my daughter tried her first pastel de nata, that classic Portuguese egg custard tart. Listening to the clattering sound of her dropping yen into the offering box at a Tokyo shrine, surrounded by little statues of white foxes with wishes and prayers written on them. Swimming in a pool in Puerto Vallarta, a breeze ruffling bougainvillea in the wildest shades of pink, watching Harper swim with her inflatable “water wings,” collecting every delicate papery-petaled flower that dropped into the pool.
I won’t lie to you and say traveling with kids is easy. But for me, it’s worth it. Traveling with my kid has taught me more about myself than just about anything. It’s given me time to connect with my daughter and to show her that it’s a big and beautiful world out there.
While travel with kids is never easy, here are five things I’ve learned the hard way that I think can make things a little bit smoother.
1. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
When you’re planning a trip, it’s hard not to want to go everywhere and do everything. That first trip to Portugal, I divided our time between three cities, which to my credit was a much-reduced list than the one I started with. It was still too much. By the time I went to Japan, I stuck with just one city. Much better.
Things tend to go wrong when you’re changing places: checking out of one hotel and getting to another, long-distance bus rides, finding out which train you’re supposed to be on, getting through airport security… if you’re by yourself or have very young kids, you want to avoid these transitions as much as you can.
Even if you pick just one city to explore, plan less each day than you think you can accomplish. One attraction per day is plenty. You can always have a backup in case the stars align and everyone is happy and well fed and feeling adventurous. Our worst travel days have been when we’ve tried to do too much, and our best ones were when we padded our schedule with plenty of down time.
2. Let go of expectations. (No mom guilt allowed)!
If at home you limit screen time and feed your kids organic, low-sugar snacks and always have them in bed by seven, bathed and resting sweetly in a lavender-scented darkened bedroom… just know that it’s perfectly okay to throw all that out the window when you travel.
If you need to put an iPad in their hands to get yourself a much-needed hot bath or thirty-minute power nap, do it. If the only snack you can find is something you’d never offer at home—you have permission to make an exception. Give yourself a lot of leeway to bend the rules or make new ones while you’re traveling. You can get back to normal routines and expectations when you’re home.
3. Luggage is not your friend.
When it comes to packing, less is more. If you’re going somewhere for longer than a week, don’t take more than five to seven outfits, and plan to do laundry along the way. Try not to pack too many “just in case” items. Unless you’re traveling somewhere especially remote, you can always buy what you need at your destination.
It does pay to carry snacks, though. Not too many, but a few reliable ones packed in a carry-on can provide much-needed distraction. If you’re flying, remember to avoid snacks with nuts in case you’re sharing a flight with someone who is allergic.
4. Know that emergencies can happen—and you can handle them.
What terrified me most about taking Harper to Portugal on that first trip was the possibility of one of us getting sick. Neither of us did that first trip, but when I took Harper to Tokyo this spring, my nightmare came true: I came down with a brutal stomach bug that flattened me for a solid week. I was alone with an energetic three-year-old, and I discovered that there are limits to how much iPad she can watch in a day (who knew? I thought it was unlimited).
That trip taught me that the worst can happen—and I can handle it. So can you. Anything that can happen at home can happen while you’re traveling, and you’re just as capable of handling it in Paris as you are in Cincinnati.
Though I’ve just told you to pack light, I do recommend that you pack medicines you might need, like Tylenol, Benadryl, etc. Not because you won’t be able to find them in a different country, but because if you need them you’ll already be stressed, and locating a pharmacy, finding out its hours, and navigating medications in another language can be tricky, and tricky is not what you need if you’ve got a sick kiddo.
Before you leave, find out which hospital or urgent care clinic is closest to your accommodations, and program those numbers in your phone. Ditto for local emergency numbers, including poison control. If you’ll be staying at a hotel, the front desk can help you if you need to get medical care, but if you’re in a vacation rental you might be on your own. (Though I’ve had some Airbnb hosts who have really gone above and beyond to provide healthcare information and assistance).
Well before your trip, ask your pediatrician if there are any vaccines your kids might need before leaving. Keep in mind that some vaccinations take time before they’re fully effective, so don’t leave this to the last minute. (As I may or may not have done at least twice…)
5. Plan for your phone to die.
Last, but not least, cell phones and data plans have completely changed the way we travel, making everything so much easier: finding good restaurants, getting directions, translating menus and signs. But the downside is we become reliant on these devices and if something happens to them, it can throw us for a loop. In fact, I’ve had cell phone issues on almost every trip I’ve taken with Harper. Make sure you’ve got important phone numbers written down. (If your phone is stolen, for instance, do you know numbers by heart)? I email myself a list of important numbers so I’ll be able to access that information anywhere. Also know the name and address of your hotel and don’t rely on just having it programed into your phone. Physical maps aren’t a bad idea either… I know, so 2002, right?
When asked for his tips for traveling with kids, one major guidebook author suggested leaving them with Grandma. I’ll be the first to admit that traveling with little ones is not for the faint of heart, but there’s something about seeing the world with your baby—it can change you in unexpected ways. Kids have a way of noticing things we adults overlook. They force you to slow down. (Sometimes maddeningly so… Getting shoes on a toddler, anyone)? They find even the most mundane details interesting. (I think Harper personally greeted every pigeon in Portugal). If travel is about seeing the world with new eyes, then traveling with kids is that times ten.
Even if my daughter remembers little of our travels together, I know I’ll cherish those memories the rest of my life. When she’s older, I’ll tell her how scared I was on that first flight to Portugal, but how I did it anyway. I’ll tell her how we adventured together, how we sang “Baby Beluga” while walking the sunny streets of Lisbon, and how full my heart was with joy and pride. I want her to know that sometimes people will think her dreams are crazy—but that she can make them come true anyway.