Travel Tips: Traveling Abroad with Kids
As many of you know, my family just returned home from a 3 1/2 week trip to Italy. I have so many things to share with you, from photos of beautiful days that I will never forget, to travel tips and funny stories of our blunders along the way.
Over the next few weeks, look for #TravelTuesday articles featuring cities and regions we visited, highlights of our trip, planning tips, notes on where to eat and what to do, etc. Yet after much consideration, I think it’s best if we begin our Italy travel series with a few pointers on traveling with kids.
A little background… Lt. Dan and I both traveled abroad extensively before we got married. In fact, I’m sure that was part of the attraction. We knew we were both hands-on people when it came to experiencing the world around us. However, after we had babies our travel was limited to road trips to see our families, brief weekends close to home, and a few trips to Hawaii.
Partly due to finances. We were newlyweds with new jobs, car payments, and a daunting first mortgage.
Second, the paralyzing fear of protective parents quietly crept in. The idea of taking our babies very far from home was suddenly risky. I could have never imagined feeling this way before I became a mother… some of the risks I took when traveling abroad as a twenty-something are things I still haven’t told my own parents. Yet now I was on the flip-side, staring into innocent trusting eyes. Faces that I would never let harm come to. Traveling abroad was dangerous. No. We would not risk such a thing with our little ones.
As the years passed however, we began to feel this mentality was a disservice to our children.
As much as we love our country and culture, we are well aware that Americans don’t have all the answers. We began to ask…
- Wouldn’t it be life-changing for our children to stand in places they’ve read about in history books?
- Wouldn’t it benefit them to touch and taste other cultures for themselves?
- To see how people live around the world, and understand that their differences make them beautiful, not wrong?
- To understand that a smile or act of kindness can soften hearts and break through language and cultural barriers?
After years of contemplation, this summer was our very first venture out of the country with our children. We chose Italy as our trial-run for several reason… One, we believed Italy to be an easy transition from American culture. Two, there are many cities and sites the kids have learned about in school and were excited to visit. Three, we (the grownups) have always wanted to go to Italy.
After several weeks of roaming Italy with our children we have complied quite a list of travel tips. We hope they will help in your ventures out of the country, with or without your babies… and ease your fears of traveling abroad.
Travel Tips: Traveling with Kids
We packed the largest carryon-approved suitcases available (22″ X 14″ X 9″) one per person, and then rolled them onto the airplane. Yes, you get a free checked bag on international flights, but do you really want to risk losing your luggage abroad? I don’t.
The size of your luggage also dictates who has to carry the bags, what size of car you will rent, and/or how easily you transition at bus and train stations. Don’t over do it! We watched many tourists struggling to roll giant suitcases down cobblestone streets and were happy we packed light. Our kids were able to wear their backpacks and roll their own suitcases, plus all our bags fit in a small euro-sized vehicle. Even with our small suitcases, we found we could have packed less than we did.
We booked all our accommodation with a washer so we could do laundry, and packed one week’s worth of clothes per person, including a couple dressy outfits each, just in case. In hindsight, we could have gotten away with 4-5 outfits each and no dressy clothes. Even at fine-dining restaurants, we found they are used to tourists coming in off the streets and don’t expect you to be dressed up.
Carryon Packing Checklist:
- Seasonally Appropriate Clothes, 4-5 Outfits (I would have been fine with 3 tops, 2 pairs of shorts, and 2 casual dresses.)
- Sweater or Jacket
- Socks and Undies
- Flip Flops and Walking Shoes (I took one pair of heels and didn’t need them.)
- Phone/Computer/Devices and Chargers
- Camera, Charger, and Extra SD Cards
- Passports with Required Visas (Make a paper copy to keep in your suitcase.)
- Drivers License and International Drivers Permit (If needed.)
- Airline Tickets
- Health Insurance Card
- Credit Cards and Some Cash (Plan to exchange your currency at a bank in country for a better rate.)
- Voltage Converter/Adapter
- Under Clothing Money Belt (Especially if you plan to use public transportation.)
- Carryon Approved Toiletries in a Zip Bag
- Hair Tools
- Toothbrush, Razor, and Nail Clippers
- Hand Sanitizer and Wet Wipes
- Baby Care Items (If needed.)
- Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer
- Benadryl Cream
- Triple Antibiotic Cream
- Insect Repellent
- Sun Glasses
- Laundry Detergent Pods
We didn’t have any trouble fitting these things and more in our carryon suitcases, plus a hand bag or backpack. The kids actually had extra space in their suitcases to bring home souvenirs because their clothes and shoes take up less room.
Schedule your flights with long enough layovers that you don’t have to sprint through the airport toting toddlers and car seats. Leave room in your schedule for slight delays. However, try not to schedule a flight with too long of a layover. Your kids will get tired and antsy… and so will you. We found 2-3 hours was plenty of time for restroom stops, snacks or meals, and transition to gates. If your children are old enough, let them look for signs and lead the way through the airport, like a scavenger hunt. That way, you are sure not to have any stragglers.
Many international airports have a play area for kids. Find an information center and ask where to find it.
Also be sure to board ahead. When the flight attendant calls for anyone who needs extra time boarding to come forward… She’s talking to you.
On the Flight
Pack a backpack for each child with favorite snacks, small toys, and games. When my kids were really small, I would hit the dollar store before we left on a trip (flying or driving) to buy cheap toys we wouldn’t miss if they got lost. They always looked forward to the little surprises in their backpacks! Nowadays, they enjoy quiet hours playing with Mad Libs, origami paper, card games, or reading a new book we saved for the flight.
Talk about the flight with your children beforehand to help mentally-prepare them for the long time in their seats. I find the key to disarming most parenting time-bombs is to be proactive. Identify the potential problem in any given situation and address it upfront. That way, your kids know exactly what to expect, and what is expected of them, before they go into a situation.
I know most travelers like the convenience of booking their accommodations in hotels. Room service and maid service are awfully nice! Yet when traveling with kids, we’ve found it takes the edge off to have a little extra space… and to have a kitchen and washer.
We booked all our accommodations for Italy through Airbnb.com. It’s a vacation rental site similar to VRBO and Home Away. I was looking for apartments or villas with: 2 bedrooms, a cozy living space, a full kitchen, laundry facilities, air conditioning, and wifi, all close to the sites we wanted to visit. I found Airbnb.com easy to navigate, and the rates where fantastic compared to ajoined hotels rooms or suites. Plus, there was someone to greet us at each location to pass off the keys, offer dining tips, and additional information about the area.
I will use Airbnb.com again and again. My only suggestion is that if you are traveling with small children pay close attention to what floor your accommodations are on. Many apartment buildings overseas are elevator-less and trying to get strollers up and down several flights of stairs would be a headache. Fortunately, our kids are a little older, and we packed light, so we could stay on the second or third floor without any problems.
In Country Travel
We planned to move from city to city and questioned whether to rely on public transportation in Italy (which is really pretty good) or to dish out the extra expense of renting a car and paying for gas in Europe… gulp. Determining how you should travel in-country is a very personal matter.
Know Thy Self.
If you want the freedom of deciding each morning where to go and what to do, without having to navigate through bus and train schedules, rent a car. Just know, you need a calm assertive driver behind the wheel. Road rules in Italy (and most other countries) are different than ours, or seemingly non-existent. Driving in cities can be very stressful. If you get tense driving in the US, driving abroad may not be the best option for you. Lt. Dan has Indy-500 driving instincts, and there were still a few tense moments. Make sure to invest in a good navigation device and upload map options for the country you are visiting. We might still be lost in Italy if we didn’t have navigation.
If you want to save money on in-country travel, use the train and bus systems. You’ll need to be more structured in your daily activities. Get the train and bus schedules at your hotel, or at the station, and plan ahead. Be mentally prepared for delays, and watchful of pick-pockets. They tend to hang out around busy stations, and wonder the aisles on trains as well. Keep your valuables closely guarded.
On the flip side, kids LOVE traveling by train and you may find it’s the highlight of their day.
We used a rental car for most of our trip, and used the train system in a few key places. Having a car was a bigger expense than we originally thought, but allowed us to make day trips and experience things that would have been hard to do by train or bus.
However, if Lt. Dan hadn’t been the driver, there’s NO WAY I would have rented a car.
Plane tickets, Accommodations, Dining, Daily Activities, and In-Country Travel Expenses are all things to consider. And let’s not forget the souvenirs!
It’s hard to nail down actual numbers for you because they depend so much on a vast set of personal details, such as what city you are flying out of, what you like to do on vacation, whether you like to sleep cheap or splurge on accommodations.
Let me just say this, we spent less on food than we intended (and you know we like to eat well) and more on in-country travel than we intended.
If renting a car, you have to factor in the gas, parking, and autostrada tolls which are all substantially more than in the US.
However, in Italy we found you can eat really really well, at casual restaurants, cafes, and snack shops, and felt our fine-dining experiences were often more touristy than authentic. By the end of the trip we avoided fine-dining altogether.
When traveling with kids, factor in stops for ice cream, rides on the carousel, and trinkets on the street. They keep the kids happy and make them feel like this is their vacation too.
We stopped at toy shops often just to browse, and let the kids know they could take home one really good souvenir. They spent the entire 3 weeks contemplating what their perfect souvenir might be… something you could only find it Italy. It became a game they played each day to see if this would be the day the discovered their take home item!
No matter where you are headed, there are sure to be sites to see, museums to tour, and ways to dive into the culture.
I suggest researching festivals and holidays that happen to fall during the time of your visit. We were in Sienna during the trial races for the famous Palio horse race around Piazza del Campo. The kids say the race was the highlight of our time in Tuscany, something they will never forget.
Plan a few days where the kids get to dictate the agenda. You’ll find the things they want to do are often cheap or free: visit the candy store, play in the park, climb a tower or fortress, watch a parade or street performers, go to the beach.
Decide on a few main attractions ahead of time and leave some days for flexible plans.
If planning your trip becomes stressful, or you’re running short on time, I suggest using a travel concierge service. We had help from CulturalItaly.com to plan private tours, cooking classes, and special day trips. Having the assistance of an Italy expert was a complete life-saver! We consider several of the days Elena planned for us as our best days in Italy.
When you spend the money, and go through the planning process of taking your family abroad, it’s easy to want to pack the most into every single day. I call it the Disney Land Mentality. You feel you must ride every ride and see every single attraction, because God knows when you’ll be back.
I understand. I’m wired that way as well.
But let me suggest you NOT do that when traveling with kids overseas. Transitions, meals, leaving the room or apartment, EVERYTHING takes longer than expected. And on top of that, you can only do so many monumental activities each day before they all start running together, leaving everyone (including mom and dad) tired and cranky. We recommend taking breaks or “quiet times” on a regular basis to let everyone calm themselves and rest.
In between museums or events, we would look for city parks, for mom and dad to rest on the bench while the kids ran and jumped and played. Were they quiet? No. But we were. They had a few moments of freedom between tours, meals, and times when they had to behave themselves, and we had a few peaceful moments alone… sort of.
We also took books and had rest time every few days, when we knew we would be out late. If you have the opportunity to travel for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to take days off from site-seeing. Just hangout and have family time. Recuperate from your “vacation” if you will. You’ll enjoy the rest of the trip so much more, if you and your children are rested and peaceful.
Apps and Wifi
There are an endless amount of apps to help make your travel experience easier. Apps for train and bus schedules, navigation apps (we still suggest using a separate navigation device, just in case) apps for best restaurants wherever you are headed, language translation apps, emergency info apps, apps for your airline, game apps to keep your kids busy on the plane…
Think ahead of what might be useful to you when you’re traveling and do a little research. We used a restaurant locator app, Google Maps, and a translation app most often.
Here’s a list of travel apps that might help you find what you are looking for. Travel Apps.
Most international cities have wifi available all around town. In coffee shops and restaurants, around major attractions, and so on. Even so, you may find yourself relying on 3G more than you expected. Check with your phone provider before you leave and sign up for their international plan for the length of time needed.
Then… take a little vacation from your phone. At least to some degree.
I tried to pull mine out only when we needed it for mapping and when we sat down for meals. That way, I could use wifi for quick photo sharing, and not look like the tell-tale American staring at their phone everywhere we went.
That about wraps it up!
Check in with me next #TravelTuesday for our first destination post. I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour of Florence. Can’t wait!