Traveling internationally is better with a baby

Our friends, Karen and Ross, just returned from an amazing voyage with their eight-month old. We begged for all the dirty details. Once Karen shared them with us, our new travel series for rookie moms was born. I hope you enjoy her trip and tips too.

My husband and I are no strangers to adventure: one of our early trips together involved a Chinese ice festival (at minus 40 degrees), we spent our honeymoon in Lebanon and Syria, and we were tracking gorillas in Rwanda right before I got pregnant. So as you can imagine, when I did get pregnant, my husband and I repeatedly vowed that we wouldn’t let a baby slow down our big travel dreams and plans. We didn’t book any flights until he was securely out of the womb and healthy, but at 2 months he hit Hawaii, and by 3 months he had his first passport stamp from Colombia. At 5 months he crossed the border into Canada, and we have just returned from an epic and awesome 2 weeks in Bhutan and Thailand.

We knew that traveling would be different with a kid, but we were determined to try it and see what happened despite all of the expected and imagined challenges. Some friends and family called us crazy – and a few even implied that it was somehow selfish or dangerous. But you know what? As a new mom and seasoned traveler, I have discovered something pretty shocking – something that I never could have imagined, and certainly something no one told me about: Traveling internationally is better with a baby. Before you call me crazy, let me explain…

You can finally meet the “locals”
My whole life I have wanted to travel in a way that allows me to “meet the locals” – the real people who actually live and work in a place. It turns out that in a lot of foreign countries, all you need to do to meet the locals is strap a baby to yourself in some kind of contraption (in our case: front-facing Bjorn) and walk around. You will meet men, women, people selling things, people buying things, rich people, poor people, kids, old people, everyone. People will want to hold your baby and touch your baby and tell you about their babies and their lives and talk for hours. I have never met so many strangers in a strange land as with this tactic. It is fantastic and it completely changes the trip.

A caveat: if you don’t like people touching your kid, this could be unpleasant for you. We had a lot of face, hand, and feet touching which we were mostly OK with (minus exactly one sanitarily-sketchy situation where I attacked my son with baby wipes as quickly as possible.)

You can spend actual, uninterrupted quality time with your family
When my husband and I are at home with our baby, it’s great! We can hang out together, goofing off, enjoying each other’s company, and trying to drink in all the fun parts of being a parent to a smiley, cute little baby… for about 15 seconds, until one of us has to change the laundry, write an email, return a call, run to the store, and so forth. On vacation we have all of the great parts with none of the stresses of everyday life. There’s no laundry, no email, and we can just focus our time hanging out together without feeling the pressure of needing or wanting to do something else. A major change of scenery (and ideally, a lack of free WiFi) can allow you some uninterrupted time with your kid and your spouse in a way that’s more challenging to get at home.

The flight may even feel faster and be more fun
Have you ever gotten off an airplane and thought, “WOW! That was super interesting and relaxing!”? I haven’t, despite my best efforts to bring snacks and books and electronic devices to entertain myself. I really feared that the hardest part of these long trips with baby would be the flights – but then I realized something: flying is not actually that fun or comfortable even if you’re alone, and a baby actually adds some distraction and time-wasting to an otherwise boring time slot. I was also obsessively worried about people being hostile to us because we were bringing a baby on the plane, but I’ve found that giving out big, open smiles right from the get-go goes a long way towards disarming people who don’t seem thrilled that you’re bringing baby on board. I think it communicates “Yes, I brought a baby on this flight – but I’m a considerate person and will do my best, so bear with me.” I’ve also noticed that when flying to or within other countries, people on the plane may have a different attitude altogether – and can be genuinely helpful and interested in the baby! What a treat. On a flight within Colombia during which my husband and I weren’t sitting together, the two businessmen next to me spent the whole flight chatting with me about their kids and grandkids, telling me insider info on where to eat in Cartagena, and cooing at my guy- and they happily held and bounced him when I needed to get something out of the overhead bin.

Because of all of this, I have found that some flights actually seemed to go by faster than usual because I was so busy dealing with the baby. My baby really loves the loud white noise of the plane and the fact that he gets to cuddle with Mom or Dad nonstop, so he tends to sleep a lot on flights, regardless of what time of day it is. Looking out the window, crumpling up the barf bag, and playing peekaboo with the passengers behind him is also a big hit.

One tip for long flights: in addition to all the stuff we bring for baby, my husband packs some food for us, so we’re not beholden to the airline’s meal schedule and choices in case it’s a bad time for baby. It also means we get to eat something we like. We usually pack some fancy (but not stinky) cheeses, some really good crackers or bread, and some grapes and bananas.

You can cut in line all the time
Airports, train stations, and the like can be a huge hassle with kids – but international travel is a different story. Even in the USA, the international flights usually have a security line set up for families and many airlines allow pre-boarding for international travel. In many other countries, families are treated like royalty, ushered to a special passport window, rushed to the front of the line, or given other accommodations to make life easier. All because you’re toting an infant.

You can nurse with abandon
I am pretty comfortable nursing my baby out in public, but I usually feel compelled to use a blanket or “hooter hider” as a courtesy to others. I have also been in situations close to home that have felt actively hostile to the idea of a nursing mother busting the boob out. In some countries, however, I have noticed that breastfeeding is what I *wish* it were here – a non-event that goes totally unnoticed by everyone, because it’s so incredibly commonplace. I was whipping it out left and right and never got so much as a sideways glance. Aaaaah. Now that feels like a vacation.

You don’t even need an extra suitcase
A lot of people are intimidated by travel with babies because they think they will need to bring a lot of extra stuff. I am obsessed with packing lightly so I was determined to make things work with baby sharing my suitcase. For a baby of 8 months I have learned that we need no actual toys (and if we bring them they barely make the grade) – his favorite toys on our last trip were: the strings on my sweatshirt, the room service menu, his own hat, and a tupperware lid. Clothes? Baby clothes are so little and dry so fast – I bring a smaller amount and wash them in the sink, leaving them to dry in the hotel room while we’re out for the day. Food? Depending where you’re headed, you may need to bring all of your own food – we found this great baby food in dried pouches, Nurturme, that works perfectly for destinations that may not have baby-safe food (and for the airplane.) Mix with bottled water and you’re good to go. It packs flat. We had no trouble able fitting 80 of his little diapers throughout our suitcases. The plus? More room for souvenirs once the diaper space is freed up.

And now for the few tiny parts that actually kind of suck
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there are a few things that are, shall we say, challenging. OK, they suck! The first and most obvious is the sleep. I don’t need to explain how a 13 hour time change is less fun when you’re doing it with a baby. If you’re flexible and have the patience to deal with it because it means you got to go on a super fun trip, it might work for you. Like me, my kid seems to adjust to his new vacation time zone in a matter of days, but needs about a week of readjustment (or in baby terms, screaming and crying and waking up at weird times) to get back to normal upon re-entry.

The second thing is planning. If you’re hanging with a baby, you have to plan better – if you’re stuck by yourself on a 12-hour flight with no food, you’ll be OK in the end, but a baby? No way. So you need to have all your stuff organized and make sure you have food, clothes, diapers, etc. so that if a poo-splosion occurs at 30,000 feet, you’re covered (but not covered in poo). This doesn’t mean you need to bring a lot of extra stuff – just the right stuff in the right places at the right time. Less spontaneity, more planning.

Other than that – I’ve got no major complaints. I’m going on record to say that on balance, traveling internationally is better with a baby.

If you’re experiencing Schadenfreude right now, I will tell you that Karen sent out multiple messages about the lethal powers of baby jetlag AFTER sharing these highlights. She still says it was worth it. I wonder where they’ll go next.

[All photos from Karen Merzenich except the snazzy header which Whitney made to kick off our series of fun, real-world travel adventures]