I had a recent conversation with a friend who wished to travel more. She thought that traveling far from home with an infant was unthinkable. And she was not alone. Many of my friends struggle between starting a family and seeing more of the world. Those considering having children are afraid of giving up their freedom, and those who have young kids feel stuck at home with no mobility to go anywhere. Babies are fragile and require a lot of care. It’s natural to consider child birth as a sentence that grounds new parents at home for the years to come.
My wife and I used to feel the same… but now we have a track record:
- Our 3-year-old has been to 13 cities across both US coasts and in six foreign countries
- Our 1-year-old has visited four foreign countries, and flown one of the longest commercial flights on Earth (SFO-DXB)
- We are all Global Entry status holders. The little one had her “interview” when she was 5 months old
- I am a proud record holder for having changed diapers in all of the A380’s economy lavatories
Traveling with young children is not easy, but it’s also not as daunting as it may seem. Our first international trip as a family was to bring our daughter at 14 months to Singapore and Hong Kong. We had to battle a lot of opposition from well-intentioned family members, who thought we were borderline murderous of the baby. That trip turned out well, which empowered us to do more and put our family’s minds at (relative) ease. This year, we brought the same child and her 8-month old sister to India, and had to figure out how to feed both of them antimalarial drugs.
So how does one go from constantly panicking about sleep training a fragile young human, to dragging the same baby through chaotic streets on the other side of the Earth? Turns out it was surprisingly simple… just bite the bullet and book the tickets. We are no experts at parenting or traveling, so if we could pull this off, you can too!
WHY IT’S A GOOD (OR NOT ENTIRELY BAD) IDEA
Conventional wisdom has it that young couples should enjoy their freedom while they can. To some, that means traveling as much of the world as possible. My wife and I didn’t get to do a whole lot of that in our younger years, and a part of us always looks back and regrets a little. Unlike the credit cards that you can cancel and reapply, kids don’t come with a return policy. Rather than mourning what did not happen, however, we see the situation as a lesson learned to never defer having fun again.
Many would argue that slightly older kids are more independent and can better enjoy the trip, but on the flip side little babies have their advantages as well:
- Infants under 2 can fly free (domestic) or very cheaply (international)
- Toddlers prior to school age don’t have a schedule so vacation timing can be flexible
- Young kids (typically under 3-5 years of age) aren’t required a ticket for trains, buses, tourist attractions, buffets, etc and are cheaper to drag around than older kids
- When they don’t have a mind of their own yet, they can’t nag you constantly about what they would rather do
Most importantly, there’s simply too much of the world to be seen. If we use young children as an excuse to miss out on an opportunity, how would we know that life will get easier or traveling will become more convenient later? When we truly want to do something, the logical thing would be to get it done now.
Traveling with young children involves a lot of logistical challenges – there’s no way to sugar coat that. At the same time, however, we learned that it also comes with quite a bit of perks. For example:
- Airport security and immigration often let you cut the long lines and access a fast lane
- Many airlines offer priority boarding, so your peasant-class family may get on on the plane at the same time as the first class VIPs
- On long-haul flights, having an infant makes you eligible for a baby bassinet, and therefore a bulkhead seat
- Kids score free stuff everywhere
Our home is overflowing with airline- and hotel-branded swag
Having taken our kids far away from home has been a bragging right that impressed a lot of people. From my perspective, though, an international trip may actually be easier to pull off than a domestic one.
The first consideration is the flight. Long-haul flights inevitably take more time, but they are also operated with larger planes with more space. Wider seats provider more buffer for those squirmy back flips; the extra aisle to walk up and down on is helpful for passengers of any age; having more overhead storage for all the baby gear will also help keep a parent sane. Additionally, on international routes you have the option of international carriers. Just ask yourself… is being on a United B757 for six hours any more pleasant than being on a Singapore A380 for twelve hours?
The second consideration is the mode of transportation upon arrival. With very few exceptions, traveling within the US requires a car, which requires car seats for the little ones. The good news is that airlines will generally check those at no extra charge. The bad news is that car seats are more like furniture than luggage, and are terribly hard to carry around. Yes, you can rent them from a car rental company, at an additional cost and hassle. Or you can go to Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Seoul, etc, and completely forget about cars for the duration of your vacation.
The third consideration is an extension from the above. Even if you do need some short car rides at the destination, it may be easier in a country with less restrictive car seat laws. For example, an Uber driver in San Francisco is supposed to deny you service if you don’t provide a car seat for your child. However, actually installing one in a stranger’s car, for a mere 10-minute ride, will make you feel like an idiot. The same problem does not exist in many other countries, as long as you feel okay holding the baby on your lap.
Safety is relative. Billions of us survived childhood without a car seat. Or a car.
POINTS & MILES TO THE RESCUE
Traveling can be expensive. Traveling with more people can be more expensive. As your family expands, having points and miles can be more helpful than ever.
In general, airline miles can be harder to use when you travel with more people. The main challenge of getting award flights is seat availability, which gets rarer as you require more seats. You’d also need a lot of miles – 100,000 for a family of four just to fly domestically in economy. Since little people aren’t eligible for credit cards, the burden is on the parents to accrue a lot more miles for a free flight to happen.
Hotels, on the other hand, work differently. An award night for yourself and an award night for your entire family cost the same number of points, so free hotels are easier to come by than free flights. To any parent who isn’t already an expert travel hacker, I highly recommend focusing on a hotel strategy first. It’s the low-hanging fruit that has helped my family bring down the total cash cost of our trips.
Set proper expectations. Yes it’s possible to travel far with little kids, but that doesn’t necessarily mean pulling a 14-hour backpacking hike like you used to. Schedule breaks for both your and your kids’ sanity. For me and my wife, traveling with two little ones means going to half as many places per day as we otherwise would. The type of your activities will also be limited. Some places are not kids friendly, including many high-end restaurants. Others such as the DMZ tour in South Korea simply don’t allow children. If you must make something work, find a hotel that provides babysitting services. We used one via InterContinental Hong Kong in order to attend a friend’s wedding, though it’s not an idea that we are generally comfortable with.
Book your trip early. In-flight bassinets and hotel cribs are not nearly as abundant as seats and rooms, so secure them before they are gone. Technically, you don’t have to have either to travel. However, keeping a baby on my lap for 10+ hours is not a thought that I dare to think. It’s also worth noting that some foreign hotels have baby cribs that are hazardous by U.S. standards. We worked with whatever was offered, but if this is important to you, stick with U.S.-based hotel chains to improve your chances at adequate accommodation.
Having less than one foot of railing above the bedding seems to defeat the purpose of having a crib.
Pay attention to each hotel’s rules on room capacity. For the most part, standard rooms have a limit of 2 or 3, and larger rooms (or suites) cost substantially more. Some hotels don’t count infants toward the capacity, but many do. When in doubt, reach out to the hotel directly. I emailed eight hotels this year and all of them agreed to let our family of four stay in a standard room. While most of them considered it a non-issue, a few were snobby about allowing it as a special favor. I have also read that hotels in Europe tend to strictly enforce the occupancy limits, so don’t count on getting an exception at the time of check in.
Bring enough supplies or buy them at the destination. You may be able to wear the same pair of pants for a whole week, but the same just doesn’t work for diapers. For longer trips, consider buying the bulky items after you land. Do your research in advance on what’s available and where. We recently ran out of baby food in Taichung and had trouble finding it in most supermarkets, convenience stores, and pharmacies that we came across. Things can get even trickier if you are picky about the thickness of your diapers, the fat content of your milk, etc.
I had no clue how to work with milk in plastic bags.
Invest in a baby carrier. We love our stroller and have brought it everywhere, but it’s not without limitations. The hilly terrain in Hong Kong, the uneven sidewalks in Taiwan, and the lack of elevators in the New York Subway system can all be problematic for things on wheels. Wearing your child like a kangaroo pouch or a backpack will allow you to tackle those obstacles more gracefully. There’s also the added benefit of getting a workout while on vacation. Hurray!
Traveling with young children is not an easy task, but it’s not nearly as prohibitive as many parents may think. Whether it’s worth the effort depends on how much you enjoy travel and how willing you are to make it work.
We travel for the thrill of seeing new things. When bringing little ones on a trip, our focus shifts and we observe the world differently. A new experience may be had at an old destination, and an otherwise boring pit stop can be full of new discoveries.
And if that isn’t enough, it’s also darn cool to watch your own kids get excited about planes, hotels, and the world.