Traveling abroad with a baby

Traveling Abroad with a Baby

We have been on two international trips with an infant—France with our almost-four-month-old nephew, Graham, and Spain with Grace at almost five months. Walking the chilly streets of Paris in January was quite different from hoofing it in the hot sun in Seville in September, but both were honestly easy and adventurous in their own ways. In sharing pieces of each trip on Instagram, I received a lot of messages in either horror, disbelief, or incredulity about bringing such a little baby abroad. Consider this my pitch for why you should do it (!!), and some things we’ve picked up and learned along the way. Of course I am literally the opposite of an expert, but hopefully there is something to glean from our experiences. I’ve broken my thoughts down into three phases—basically pre-booking, pre-embarking, and during the trip.

If I could sum it up in a sentence (to spare you the longest post I’ve ever written), with some extra forethought and planning ahead, a decision to not sweat the small stuff (or a schedule) and instead just embrace the newness and impermanence of it all, and the knowledge that everyone likes to help people with a baby, travel with an infant is so doable and enjoyable. Also—it does wonders to frequently ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Answers might include: she cries on the plane, we’ll have to buy more pacifiers, I’ll be up more during the night, we’ll have to cut out of a restaurant quicker, etc. Nothing is ever that bad and most “problems” are solved with a simple grounding shift in mindset.

First, Before you even decide to book, a few things:

Getting the baby a passport

The process is fairly easy, but it just has some specific rules surrounding it. And really you can do this as soon as the baby has an SSN, so the earlier the better. My best advice for the easiest and smoothest experience is: schedule an appointment for a new passport at a United States Post Office that processes passports, know that both parents will have to be there, and bring with you all the documentation you’ll need (baby’s social security card and baby’s birth certificate, plus both parents’ government-issued IDs). The baby will need to get a photo taken there, and it can’t be wearing anything on its face or head (no bows, hats, etc). I paid to have the passport rushed, and we received it just a couple of weeks later. I think we would have been fine not expediting it, but I just wanted to be safe.

A Timing Sweet Spot

In talking with other parents, it feels like there is a sweet spot for the age of the baby when traveling—and the window may be relatively narrow in the beginning. For instance, Graham is now justtt under a year old, and the idea of bringing him abroad was inhibiting enough for my brother and sister-in-law to opt for leaving him home with grandparents instead. When a baby is between 3 and 6 months old or so, though, we all agree it feels like a perfect time to bring them along. Here is our thought process: baby has had plenty of time to get a passport, baby has been vaccinated (if that’s your thing), baby can sit in a smaller, umbrella style travel stroller—and yet, baby still isn’t eating solid food, baby is sleeping a lot and is less dependent on a strict napping/awake/bedtime schedule, and baby isn’t crawling or on-the-go yet and is therefore more content sitting still.

Think About the Weather

As I said, we’ve now done both summer and winter weather with an infant, and both experiences were positive and of course unique and came with their own challenges. In winter, an infant snowsuit and hat were crucial, as was a clear cover for the stroller to keep harsh winds out. In summer, a sunhat, sunshade for the stroller, and light clothing were more important. In terms of packing for the adults, warm weather was so much easier to pack lightly—we committed to packing minimally and thoughtfully and didn’t check any luggage! We were pretty proud of that.

Call the airline during or just after booking

I highly recommend calling the airline when you book your tickets, or just after if you’re using points or something online to book. The reason is because both times I’ve done this (with different airlines), they’ve been really helpful in selecting seats for us that have the option of a bassinet. Basically, there’s a wider row in the plane with a wall in front of it, and it has the ability to hold a bassinet that locks into it, like a very heavy duty flat hammock. It’s impossible to know this row for sure when picking your seats yourself, so it’s safer to talk to someone from the airline. Furthermore, one airline (I believe it was Air Canada) actually didn’t charge a couple of extra costs for Mom and Baby when I called and spoke to them in person about seat selection. Then, once you’re on the plane, just let the flight attendant know, and they’ll bring the bassinet to you when you’re up in the air. This was so clutch for our overnight flights with both Grace and Graham—it allows the babies to sleep on their own, and we could have a break from holding them and inadvertently waking them up more often than necessary.

Whether booking hotels or Airbnbs or other, consider ones that offer a crib and laundry

Consider it less things you need to pack. However, if you don’t have this option, I recommend this travel crib that is backpack portable. We planned to have access to laundry at least once for lighter packing, but we ended up having access at both Airbnbs. This is very helpful, since babies do tend to tear through clothes whether from blowouts or in Grace’s case, drool.

now, the Packing and Planning phase:

In our experience, with major airlines, a baby’s car seat and stroller can be checked either at the gate or at the check-in counter for free

We opted for gate-side each time. I do recommend a travel bag for these items because they get a little knocked around, and I’ve heard horror stories from a few people. However, we didn’t have any issues. The baby is also allowed a diaper bag as luggage for most airlines (in addition to the one personal item and carry on luggage allotted for each parent), but I decided to just make that my personal item. 

Good news: baby clothes are tiny

Even if you’re traveling somewhere cold, as we did with our nephew, he basically wore a full body snowsuit everywhere we went. For Spain with Grace, I packed myself (capsule!) and her (mini capsule!) in one carry-on suitcase! I rolled (highly recommend over folding) all of our clothes, and kept in mind that we’d do laundry at least once.

Plan to buy more diapers and wipes as you need them

There’s no sense in taking up important suitcase space with enough diapers to last 8-10 days. We brought enough to get us through a few days, but planned to restock while over there.

Don’t go overboard packing toys, because everything easily becomes a toy

This may sound obvious, but I understand it more literally now than I did before going away. There is definitely an inclination to bring a bunch of different toys for entertainment during transit time—plane time, train time, etc., but there is truly no need when anything around you acts as a great (NEW!) toy for baby. On the plane home from Spain, Grace played with a mini water bottle for an hour. She also played with a little packet of crushed up crackers, was fascinated with the gate check pink tag on the side of her car seat, and most of all was content just playing with us. Remember that travel to a new place is as visually stimulating for babies at this age as it is for us adults. There is so much to look at and watch when babies are still taking everything in around them. I brought a few of her favorite things from home (a soft crinkle book, Sophie, and a favorite stuffed animal blanket), and we bought a neat little teething toy in Seville—that’s about it.

Pack A smaller diaper bag for on-the-go

I loved having a much smaller backpack for days or evenings when my bigger diaper bag backpack wasn’t necessary to lug around (especially when we had the stroller to use and store things in). In it, I’d simply bring a couple of diapers, wipes, a blanket, and a spare onesie.

. . . Alllllll of this is to say—Pack light

Pack as light as you can because on top of everything you’d typically have, you’ll also be carrying a car seat, stroller, and baby (!!). I recommend backpacks over shoulder totes (so much easier), and definitely packing the baby’s stuff along with your own stuff. Jon is maybe the most resourceful and innovative person I know, so of course it only took about 3 minutes for him to figure out how to strap pieces of luggage together and also rest the car seat atop the stroller (safely) while walking through the airport. Be creative and pack light.

Breast milk and Pumping

Breast milk is excused from having to follow the 3 oz liquid carry-on rule. Check with your particular airline, but you should be able to bring as much milk as you need—they just might want to take an extra look at it at airport security. We froze four bags of milk into cylindrical shapes (using rubber bands), and shoved them into a Yeti growler, which would keep them frozen for at least 24 hours. (We transferred them to a freezer upon arrival at our first Airbnb). Realistically, I wouldn’t have even needed to bring any milk, but I wanted to have a small supply for nights when I’d be drinking and wouldn’t want to breastfeed. Otherwise, I exclusively breastfed Grace while in Spain, and brought a manual pump and some milk storage bags in the event I’d want to produce more there. You could certainly bring your electronic pump, but in an effort to save space, my sister-in-law and I both only brought a manual hand-pump, knowing we wouldn’t be using it very much. It worked out great—once for creating a bottle at night when Grace was sleeping, and another night when Grace had been bottle-fed and I was feeling a little too Dolly Parton.

Make a 24-hour diaper bag

I treated the diaper bag as my personal item, and packed it very thoughtfully with the first 24 hours of the trip in mind, just given how much travel we had ahead of us (multiple flights, plus a train ride). I packed in it about 12 diapers, wipes, 2-3 outfit changes for Grace, a spare shirt each for Jon and I (in the event of a baby disaster), Grace’s sunhat, an extra bib (drool girl), extra pacifiers, pacifier clip, a couple of her toys, burp cloth, swaddle blanket, changing pad, bag for soiled clothes, bottle and nipple, my Surface computer, headphones, phone charger, small wallet with passports, and clear liquids bag (including diaper rash cream and infant Tylenol and Benadryl, just in case). 

A Fold-Up Stroller is Worth It

I highly recommend the GB Pockit Stroller, which my brother and I both own. It folds up to the size of a small handbag, and is quite light. Annoying Note: we ended up leaving our stroller in our Uber and despite much effort, weren’t able to recover it. We bought another great travel stroller in Madrid, though. As I mentioned, you are able to check a stroller and a car seat for free.

And you’re off! now some info for once you’ve left.

The airport is very accommodating

When traveling with an infant, you’re essentially able to skip ahead in most lines, which in our case was unexpected and so appreciated. This includes getting through security, boarding the plane, and getting through border patrol and customs. In general—just rest assured that people want to help people with babies. I wasn’t expecting this or needing this necessarily, but it just makes everything about travel easier and smoother.

Feeding the baby during take-off and landing

You are probably familiar with this tip, and for good reason. I was first obsessed with trying to time her feedings to align with take-off—attempting to distract her as she waited, hungry, on the tarmac, but then I remembered another tip I’d learned for flying with older kids—all rules go out the window. Who cares if the baby just ate an hour ago—she’s still going to want to latch and suck, or suck on a bottle. A couple of these events timed with actual big feedings, but if they didn’t, I breastfed anyway because it helps their ears adjust to the change in pressure, and obviously keeps them more content than anything else. That being said, if the baby seems content without, she probably is, so don’t sweat it. Grace slept through the entire landing in Spain (it was about 3am to her, so she was still fast asleep), so I didn’t disturb her.

Getting Around with A Baby

Getting around once you’ve reached your destination just requires extra forethought. When we went to France, we rented a car, which meant we had Graham in his car seat a lot. Once we were in Paris, where things were more spread out, it was more of a combination of walking (baby carrier or stroller) and the subway (no car seat needed). In Spain, we took high speed trains from city to city (where we’d have the car seat with us anyway since we had all of our stuff), then we’d Uber from the train station to our Airbnb (car seat), and then everything was walkable in the different cities (again, baby carrier or stroller). 

I would say the most complicated part is honestly just planning ahead—will you need the car seat or will you not?—and knowing you can’t just spontaneously hop in an Uber as you would have pre-baby if you don’t have the car seat with you. 

One tip: we took a day trip to Toledo from Madrid, which meant we were leaving all of our bags behind, but that we’d need the car seat to first get to the train station in Madrid. We knew we wouldn’t need the car seat once we got to Toledo (we could just walk from that station into town), so we rented a locker at the Madrid station for about 4 euro and stored it there until our return. Simple! Again, it just takes a little forethought.

Oh, and on a related/unrelated note: one time when Grace was screaming her head off in the Uber sitting in traffic from the train station, I unbuckled myself and hovered above her car seat to stick my boob in her mouth. Not my best moment probably, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

A Baby Schedule?

I don’t have any great advice here and I am about as green as they come when it comes to parenting. But since I’ve received a few questions about this specifically, I’ll try to shed light on Grace’s “schedule” before going on vacation, and then how things looked when we were there and when we got back stateside.

Grace hasn’t been on a strict schedule since she was a month old (and that was just a strict eating schedule). For better or worse, I have a strange aversion for rigidity and routine, and so I’ve tended to live by the philosophy, so far, (inspired mostly by my brother and sister-in-law and the book Bringing Up Bebe) that while she’s this little, I don’t want her life or ours dictated by a rigid routine. A day will come very soon when routine will be super important to her, and it won’t be worth it to screw that up. But for now, I like to take advantage of the flexibility we’re all allowed to have.

I’ve always taken Grace everywhere with me, even when it was intimidating or risky or challenging—out to restaurants, bars, friends’ houses, stores, long car rides, etc. As a result, she’s regularly fallen asleep in things that aren’t her SNOO or crib—my arms (or someone else’s), her car seat, etc. I have zero idea if this is right or wrong or good or bad, but it’s worked for us, for what it’s worth.

Upon going to Spain, Grace was a great sleeper. She’d sleep from about 8pm until 6:30am on average. About a week before we left, I moved Grace from her SNOO to her crib (we’d been weaning her off the SNOO for a few months anyway), and she was still sleeping great. In Spain, she slept the same amount of time, if not a little longer, but the hours were just different. She’d stay up later, until between 10 and 11pm on average, and then sleep until between 8 and 9am. A couple of nights in Spain she woke up once in the middle of the night for a feeding and then went back to sleep. 

I only know mine and my brother’s experience with our babies, and we both have attempted to be laid back in our approach to schedules, and it’s worked for us. Getting back home entailed about 6 nights of abnormal sleep for Grace (waking up a few times during the night or waking up ready to start the day at 5am), but again—I knew it was temporary, so I just powered through, and she’s back to her normal self.

It’s a bonus, although not necessary, to have help from other people

When we went to France, it was just us two couples and a baby. Four on one is a pretty good ratio—Graham was never without someone who wanted to hold him or play with him or change him. When we went to Spain, we invited Jon’s mom (my mother-in-law) along with us, since our nephew Graham wasn’t coming, so that the four of us might be able to have a few childless nights out. Having Robin there was wonderful, but more as just our friend and additional travel partner than a nanny—she (and Grace) ended up doing almost everything with the rest of us! Again, we found that in both France and Spain, our babies seemed to be at the perfect age to just get into their PJs and sleep in their strollers, our arms, or restaurant booths when we were out late. Since dinner time doesn’t really start until 8 or 9pm in these European countries, it coincided with sleep-time for the babies. Or, especially for the first few nights of the trip when the babies were jet-lagged, we’d just let them stay up if they wanted to and were happy! Generally, I’d say that if you do not feel overly pressed to stay on a schedule, you might be content just letting the baby do his or her thing! I didn’t stress when Grace was up and happy until 11pm—I just knew it might mean a tougher night or a different sort of morning for me and I was just willing to do it for the sake of being able to travel.

Up next: A Spain recap.