Our friends, Karen and Ross, just returned from an amazing European escape with their toddler son, Laz. Skeptical that a trip with a rowdy one-year old could be relaxing, I asked her to share their story with us. I hope you like it as much as I do.
Almost a year ago, I wrote a post on this site about traveling internationally with a baby. I made the audacious claim that far from being a hassle, and much to my surprise, bringing the baby actually improved our travel experience. Since my son was only 8 months old at the time, I feared the window of pleasant family travel was rapidly closing, but here I am, 10 months later, and I am now making a second audacious claim: traveling internationally is better with a toddler.
We just got back from 2 1/2 weeks in Switzerland and Italy with our 18-month-old. To up the ante, let me now reveal that on this particular trip, we traveled with not one, but TWO toddlers, since we met up with my in-laws and their 1-year-old daughter halfway through the trip. That’s right: 2 carseats, 2 high chairs, 2 different yet equally irritating cries, 2 people who walk like drunken monkeys and fall down constantly, 2 times the poopy diapers and mealtime messes, all treading foreign lands together.
And we had a great time. Let me explain, by way of comparing and contrasting it to my experiences traveling with baby (including how it’s even better!) and offering my best travel tips for those of you who want to do this too!
Just as good as travel with a baby
You can (still) meet the locals
When we brought our baby to Asia last year, we were amazed at how many people we met. Who knew a baby was the ultimate ice-breaker? Toddlers are perhaps even better for this, as they may actively seek people out to interact with. Left to his own devices, my son will roam a piazza in search of a new friend or admirer every time. One day at the beach, our toddlers went in search of sand toys and stumbled (literally) across a set of twins with a sizable pile of buckets and shovels to share. We ended up hanging out with the family and got great local recommendations and insight on the area.
You can (still) spend uninterrupted quality time with your family
On our previous adventure, I mentioned that one of my favorite things about family travel is all of the family time we get together, without the chores, appointments, emails, and all that to butt in. That is true whether you have a little baby, a toddler, or a kid of any age. It is such a treat to spend whole days where everyone is looking at each other instead of an iPhone!
You can (still) cut in line
Toddlers have just as much pull as babies for slightly special treatment in foreign airports, train stations, trams, and the like.
Some additional benefits of toddler travel…
You can slow down and say “yes” a lot more
What a luxury to have no set schedule, no plans, no classes to attend. Want to play in this fountain? Sounds good, we are not in a rush. For once. Want to take a nap? Me too! Let’s do it together – what a treat. We never do that at home. Want to stay longer at the beach? No problem – we don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time because we’re on vacation. Want to play with a hose for a few hours? Fine by me, I’ll have another beer on the terrace. I LOVED having 2 weeks during which I didn’t have to say “hurry up!” or “we’re going to be late!” to my poky toddler.
You can see things you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise
At the risk of sounding cheesy, it is really different to see things as a toddler sees them, and can make you notice things more. I probably wouldn’t have given the Alpine cows a second look, but with my son chasing after them and mooing in their general direction, I really checked them out and got to enjoy the straight-out-of-Heidi scene they made. If he weren’t obsessed with “agua” I definitely would have missed the details of some class-A fountains, lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and puddles. And letting him run free in pedestrian plazas let me do a lot more in-depth people watching, letting me drink in the scene and its details more closely than if I were alone, rushing from place to place.
You can expose your kids to new things
Did you know my kid likes octopus carpaccio with balsamic vinegar and sea salt? Neither did I, until he tried some on our trip. I love the daily opportunities to change the routine and break away from the endless supply of Cheerios and see what he might enjoy. Eating and drinking funky stuff? Worth a try. Swimming in the sea? Too cold for me, but he loved it. I find myself automatically thinking “my son won’t eat/like/want/do that” about so many things without even letting him try. He surprises me often and all the new experiences of vacation give me ample experience to break through the boundaries and turn off my negative filter.
And now for the bad news…
The flight might be challenging
Flying with baby? You mean this tiny person who is easily calmed by bottle or boob, takes up hardly any space, and can barely move? Sure, no big deal. Flying with toddler? Hold on to your tray table, it may be a bumpy ride. A long flight with a toddler can be OK or pretty terrible. Having lots of toys, lots of food, and lots of patience will help.
Flight Tip 1: Go to a Dollar Store and get a bunch of small, new toys that your kid has never seen before. Pull them out one at a time, as needed. If he’s a thrower, as mine is, you can tie a ribbon around the toy and hold one end so you don’t lose the toys on the plane.
Flight Tip 2: Pack lots of different kinds of snacks in small zipper bags or containers. The kid who is crazy for Goldfish when the plane takes off may be sick of them over Greenland, so it’s a good idea to have lots of options.
Flight Tip 3: Try to get the bulkhead seat. Since you’ve got a kid, the emergency exit row is a no-go, but the front bulkhead seat is a good option because your kid can stand up and move around a bit more freely.
Flight Tip 4: Make a plan with your partner (if traveling together) about the expectations for the flight well in advance. My husband and I have an agreement that if one person is handling the kid and things are going OK, the other person gets to watch a movie or read or sleep or eat. But at any time the kid-watcher is allowed to call on the second parent for any reason at all. This works for us, but may not for you. Either way, calmly talking about expectations in advance is easier than bickering about it at 30,000 feet.
Flight Tip 5: Take care of yourself or everyone will be miserable. If you are hungry, thirsty, or unhappy, everything your child does will be that much more annoying. Try to pack energy-boosting snacks for yourself, like Clif bars, and make sure you drink enough water.
Flight Tip 6: If your kid is soothed by milk, although planes usually have milk on hand for bottles, you could get unlucky. To be safe, pack a zipper bag of powdered milk so you don’t get stuck without it.
The jetlag… oh, the jetlag
You can’t prepare or plan too much for jetlag because you never quite know how it will pan out – but it can hit you hard. On this trip, we had 2 days upon arrival of nighttime wakeups, but all of us were in the same boat so it wasn’t too bad. After coming home, we only had one night of being off-kilter. Last time it took more than a week to readjust upon reentry. I don’t have any tips except to hang in there and try to push towards some semblance of your normal schedule as much as possible.
My best tips on world travel with a toddler
Of course there are moments of insanity here and there, and lots of things you can do to minimize the hard parts and maximize the fun parts. Here are my best tips for making foreign travel with your toddler(s) as fun and easy as possible:
Travel Tip 1: Consider renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel. In many cases it’s cheaper, and you’ll get more space, a fridge for milk and yogurt, and the chance to eat a few meals in so you don’t have to hit a restaurant with a toddler 3 times a day. Sites like VRBO and HomeAway are a great place to start.
Travel Tip 2: Think about traveling with another family with kids of a similar age. This way, you can trade off childcare as much as you’re comfortable, which makes it easier to get a kid-free activity or night out here and there. You can also share toys, snacks, and gear.
Travel Tip 3: Get a babysitter, even just once. At one point we stayed in a small hotel in a tiny town, and the owner mentioned he had a 2-year-old, so we asked him if he could arrange a babysitter for us to have a night out. Since it was a sleepy, safe town and the restaurant was 2 blocks away, we felt completely comfortable about doing it. Most larger hotels offer babysitting services and if you’re uncomfortable, just eat in the hotel restaurant so you’re close by. It’s great to have even one night for grown-ups only!
Travel Tip 4: Visualize how you will spend your days and nights so you can pack the right gear. For example, we planned on doing a fair amount of hiking, and spending time in old cities with craggy cobblestone streets, so we opted to bring a backpack carrier and no stroller. That was the right choice for the activities we had planned. My sister-in-law had the foresight to bring a small, soft, foldable high chair seat, which turned out to be a great idea as some restaurants had only 1 high chair or none at all.
Travel Tip 5: Figure out what you’re going to do about carseats. We didn’t bring a carseat with us but instead rented them along with our rental cars. (I had been warned that they might not be great quality but in fact they were newer and nicer than our carseat at home.) You also may want to look into local carseat laws before you go. We got turned down for a 5 minute cab ride in Zurich because we didn’t have a carseat. We were able to get a bus and it worked out OK, but I can see something like that being a big issue in other situations. If you want to bring a carseat, consider getting one of these carseat wheelie carts or, for kids who weigh a little more, an inflatable booster or portable travel harness (editor note: whoa! I’ve never seen such a thing!) so you’re not lugging a huge carseat across the world for a few short rides.
So that’s my take on it. Even with an active toddler, I’m still feeling bullish on far-flung foreign travel with kids. The only question now is, where should we go next?
Wow, Karen! Am I too old for you guys to adopt me? Grazie for sharing your latest adventure!
[All photos by Karen Merzenich, you may not have them]