Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I don’t want to have children, at least not right now. I want to travel first. I want to see the world!”
I’ve heard this way too many times from family, strangers, friends, and friends of friends. So much so that when I found out we were having a baby, I told my husband point-blank: “We’ll show them, honey. We’ll travel the world with her.”
Before I got married, the only countries I’d been to outside of the U.S. were China and the Philippines. I’ve always wanted to travel, but I didn’t want it to delay marrying a wonderful man and starting a family with him. I’ve traveled more with kids than I did in my entire life without them. Our honeymoon was my first trip to Europe and our last big trip with just my husband and me. Our favorite souvenir from that romantic Italian jaunt turned out to be our daughter Jude.
After our honeymoon, we moved to Barcelona for my husband’s MBA degree. Once in Europe, travel within the continent is cheap. A flight from Barcelona to Paris can be as low as $45 during high season. I’ve seen flights from Spain to Italy for $19. So we opted to make the most of it. While pregnant, we explored Paris, London, and Morocco. We drove to Valencia and Girona, ancient medieval towns a few hours outside the city. Our first trip after Jude was born? A road trip along Costa Brava, renowned for its quaint villages and idyllic beaches. That summer, we traveled twenty-three hours to Hawaii to see my husband’s family for the first time since our wedding. I also took my first solo trips with our daughter that summer, first to New York City and then San Francisco.
It didn’t end there. Before our second daughter was born, we logged four more transcontinental flights with a baby under our belts. Children younger than 2 are often free to travel as lap babies. So we added the south of France, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Africa to our list. When Jude’s baby sister came along, we moved back to NYC. Our family has since traveled to and from Los Angeles, Honolulu, and NYC to spend the holidays with our families.
You may be wondering how we are able to afford all this travel as a young family. We aren’t rich by any means. We bemoan bills and mourn our checking accounts every month. Rather, we’re thrifty (no gym memberships, no eating out, and no seeing movies in theaters). We’re notorious for knowing our way around airline rewards and credit card benefits. And we never pay full price unless we’re desperate. If a ticket isn’t discounted, or we can’t bid on it, forget it. The nuances of how we scour incredible travel deals is for another day, but trust me when I tell you that I can count on one hand the number of long-haul flights we’ve paid for versus using points or mileage rewards.
While we have yet to traverse the entire globe, we sure have traveled a great deal of it with our little ladies. I won’t humor you with promises that traveling with babies is easy. But I do hope to convince you that it is possible and that it is worth it. Here are our family travel tips based on the many mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned along the way.
01. Believe you can do it.
Don’t assume that you can’t or don’t want to travel with kids, especially if you haven’t done it or done it often. I used to dread travel days. I was afraid that something would go wrong. I’d worry about forgetting something. And if our baby cried on the plane, I felt so much anxiety about bothering our neighbors. But some flights are better than others. And people are so kind and generous. The more you practice something, the better you get at it, and traveling with kids is no exception. But if you pigeonhole yourself into thinking it’s impossible, it will stay that way. One bad travel experience doesn’t mean that all of them will be bad. In fact, they’ve been the best memories of my life.
02. Be intentional about your travel options.
Whether traveling by bus, car, train, or plane, think critically about which is the best way to get from point A to point B. If your child needs extra space, upgrade to a full-size car for extra legroom. If you can afford it, consider buying an extra seat, even if your child is still younger than 2. Our philosophy is to do the best we can afford for long-haul trips. For flights less than five hours, we will never spend the extra money. This means flying in coach with a kid on each lap. On one or two occasions, we’ve upgraded one person to fly business class if we have extra miles to use. Whoever sits in coach gets their pick of kid to hang out with. It’s all about you, your child, and your budget. The cheapest option (no car-size upgrades or extra legroom) has always worked for us.
03. Pack light.
Picture me wearing a 4-month-old baby. I’m standing next to two luggage carts towering with: one huge stroller bag stuffed with diapers, one oversize suitcase, two regular suitcases, a car seat, a traveling crib, a breast-pump bag, and a backpack. Meanwhile, I have another stroller and a giant diaper bag with an even more giant smirk on my guilty face.
All this for two adults and one baby.
This was us on our first flight ever with Jude from Spain to Hawaii. We were super-nervous and didn’t know what we would need for the trip. So we brought everything. Engulfed by our worries, we lost sight of the fact that we would have access to everything we’d need at our in-laws’ house (or if not at their house, certainly at the Target nearby).
Now we only travel with two carry-on-size suitcases with enough clothes for only one week (even if our trip is longer), one lightweight umbrella stroller, and one diaper bag. Mind you, this is for two adults and two babies. I share my suitcase with the girls because their clothes are still so tiny. Think about what you absolutely can’t live without and what you probably have access to at your final destination (diapers, baby food, wipes, toys, a place to do laundry, etc.). There’s an actual photo of me exactly as I described above. My husband and I still pull it up and laugh at ourselves from time to time. Trust me, you don’t need all that stuff.
04. Know the rules for your airline.
When it comes to flying with infants and toddlers, no airline is created equal. Rules for items you can check for free, baggage allowance, car seat allowance, items you can check at the gate, and pre-boarding, among others, change from airline to airline. So call or check the airline website before you buy tickets (and Fatherly has a great rundown if you want a reference point ahead of time).
Some airlines have rows reserved especially for families. They are usually the bulkhead row of each seating section (the one facing a wall). For international flights, this row likely has a bassinet option for infants under a certain weight. The flight attendant will attach a safe and secure bassinet to the wall where your baby can play or sleep soundly. You must call to book these seats. They aren’t always guaranteed, but the representative or a supervisor can put a note to prioritize you if you’re traveling with a baby.
05. Plan for a little extra travel time.
I’m not talking time you’d spend at the airport. I’m talking the total time you’d need to pack up, pile into a taxi, unload the taxi, and get to a ticketing agent. The time it takes us from the airport curb onto the plane with kids is about the same time it took us before we had them (about one hour). What we do need the extra time for is preparing for our departure. When I was single, I would pretty much wake up, grab my suitcase, and go. Ensuring the kids are clean and fed, double-checking that we’ve got all we need, and loading and unloading our stuff means that we need an extra hour before the time we plan to leave for the airport. This means no 6 a.m. flights for us unless we want to wake up at 3 a.m. to get to the airport on time. Now you’re thinking more strategically about planning your itinerary.
06. Be prepared with your airplane bag.
This isn’t just any bag. This is the bag that could make or break the portion of your trip in transit. You want to carry enough that you’ll be prepared for the most common disasters (spills, leaks, hunger, thirst, boredom) but not so much that the bag becomes a burden. My airplane bag is my best buddy on every trip.
My mother-in-law raised four kids and often traveled alone with them. My father-in-law was away on business for long stretches of time, so if she wanted to get anywhere, she just had to do it herself. She’s part of the reason why I embrace my girls being frequent fliers. Last Christmas, she gave me an incredible diaper bag by Petunia Pickle Bottom. At $185, it’s no steal. To the untrained eye, it may not look like much. But it’s one of my prized possessions as a traveling mom (I’ll list a few others later on). It holds everything I need and has a compartment for all the basics: changing pad, wipes, baby bottles, snacks, toys, extra clothes, a blanket—you name it. My favorite part is the clever expanding capability. And the open form means I have easy access to everything at my feet on the plane. No fussing with droopy bag fabric or zippers required. Someone’s crying for a bottle? In a flash, supermom has got it.
07. Get your child used to white noise.
I’m really proud of this nugget of advice. It’s one of the first tips I share with my new mom friends who are traveling with their littles for the first time. When Jude was a baby, we used to drown out the city sounds with a white-noise Sleep Sheep. It worked so well in her crib that I’d hang it on her stroller to help her sleep while out and about. I had the clever idea to take it with us while traveling (yes, even on the plane).
If she wasn’t used to the new environment, she was certainly used to the familiar and soothing sounds of rain or ocean waves. It was a great comfort to her. As long as dear Sleep Sheep was in tow, she would sleep soundly while we enjoyed touring museums or having dinner out. She even slept through an entire performance at the Vienna State Opera with that thing whispering sweet whale songs to her (I’m not kidding—that’s a real setting). To get your baby used to white noise while traveling, start using it in the crib at home at least a couple weeks before you leave.
08. Splurge on travel gear.
Like my beloved diaper bag, there are a few items worth splurging on if you’re planning to travel with your baby. Warning: They’re not cheap. But hey, when we aren’t on a plane, these are items I use daily. I’ll list them and explain why:
Lightweight travel crib — We have two Baby Bjorn travel cribs. Each is as small as a piece of carry-on luggage and only weighs eleven pounds. The girls sleep in these as their “regular” cribs at home. They’re amazing because, like the Sleep Sheep, they become a portable environment that feels like home, whether we’re at Disney World or in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Plus, I like to think that they’re cleaner than what we’d find in a hotel because the entire crib (the carrying case, mesh cover, and mattress) is washable. And the girls can use the cribs until they’re 3 years old. Winning!
Monitor app for smartphone — Technology is amazing. With camera/app combos such as the Samsung SmartCam, we can keep an eye on the kids from anywhere. Grandpa and Grandma can, too! While on vacation, my husband and I aim to go on at least one date without the kids. If we’re at home, we’ll ask family or friends to sit. Or we’ll hire a licensed and insured babysitter if our hotel provides it (which they typically do). We can keep a close eye to make sure everything is OK. It gives us peace of mind so that we can really enjoy our time together. As for at home, we like the app to check in on the cubs while we’re at work or on a date.
Comfortable (and safe) baby carrier — Not all streets (hello, cobbled roads) and activities are stroller-friendly. We’ve found that some museums and performance venues don’t allow strollers. And sometimes, kids just prefer to be carried. Luckily, we inherited a sturdy and comfy Baby Bjorn carrier from a generous family while in Spain. It’s easily adjustable to accommodate either child or parent, so any combination of me, my husband, and our kids can use it. When not in use during travel, you can find us sporting it on hikes, weekend walks to the park, or quick trips to the grocery store.
Umbrella stroller — We chose the sturdy, lightweight, compact (notice a trend here?) Maclaren Mark II. Its patented X-frame means that we can hang diaper and souvenir bags on the handles without fear of the stroller tipping over whether the kids are sitting in it or not. It just takes a flick to stow for checking at the gate, and it has a strap so that you can carry it backpack-style when your hands are full (and mine always are).
09. Remember that having options is always a good thing.
Should I bring clothes for warm or cold weather? Should I plan meals out or bring food? Why not a little bit of both! Whatever the case, you can’t go wrong when you have multiple options. Have a plan, and then have a backup plan. This also applies to your itinerary. If it turns out that your kids just aren’t having it at the Louvre, having a list of nearby parks and grocery stores will be handy so that you can opt for a charming picnic on the lawn instead. No time to research kid-friendly options? Just keep your eye on your surroundings. A historic church is a quiet place to nurse. And a gelato shop is a welcome respite from the heat and hustle outside.
10. Have a reasonable jet lag plan.
Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. Nevertheless, it’s wise to plan out your itinerary to account for jet lag adjustment. Expect that arrival and departure days will always be the most hectic and tiring, so don’t plan too much on the first or last days of your trip. Go with more relaxed activities you can do on your own time instead. Figure that it takes at least one day for every difference in hour to adjust (so that’s six days to adjust to a six-hour time difference).
11. Be flexible—things will never go exactly as planned!
Among the worst things that have ever happened to us on our trips with the kids are getting peed and pooped on, airlines losing our luggage, and uncontrollable tears on the plane. But I promise you, the wonderful things that have happened on our trips greatly outweigh all of these setbacks.
We’ve encountered the kindness and generosity of strangers in ways we never had before our children came along. Our girls have forced us to slow down and relish every moment in a new place instead of rushing from one tourist stop to the next. We linger over our meals like the locals. We connect with other families on the road. I like to think of it this way: There will be exploding diapers, crying, and lost things no matter where I am. So I might as well have an adventure while I’m at it. All I have to do is face each experience with patience, love, and humility.
One of the most awe-inspiring gifts the world has to offer us is the chance to witness how strong we really are. Traveling with our children is one of the greatest opportunities we’ll have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone so that we can know what strength we’re made of. Our view of the world is only as far as we let it take us, after all. I’ll end with a quote often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Here’s to reading many pages . . . with your family in tow.