This post for all the former-free-bird mommas out there. The ones that prided themselves on traveling on a shoestring and day-bag. Mommas who sang in the silence of their own, simple, presence. Mommas who marveled the passing world through their reflections on airplanes and chicken bus windows. Mommas who now have a backpack-sized babe on their hip or clinging to their thigh (in my case, both). Mommas who spend their days alternating between regurgitating life in tiny-bite-sized pieces and marveling at the reflections in the eyes above those bite-size mouths. Mommas whose souls itch for movement like scratchy wool sweaters in winters of domesticity. Mommas who are ready to integrate their single and motherhood passports into one. Mommas who ask: Is there any reason why I can’t travel with my child(ren)? And, importantly, for Mommas who need a voice that isn’t a naysayer. For Mommas who know it’s not risk-free and will definitely be uncomfortable (as every bit of parenthood, always, is) but who who need another Momma to say: Hey Sister. Yes, you can.
Hey Sister. Yes, you can.
Tips for Traveling Internationally with a Baby (*To be followed with 50 Tips for taking a sabbatical with your family. And 100 Tips for doing a Family Bridge/Gap Year Abroad. Because: Hey Sister. Yes, you can.)
Get passports in order. I took this babe (my 2nd child; not sure I would have pulled the same stunt with my first) to an island in Mexico when she was two weeks old. Was able to get a birth certificate in one afternoon, and turn around an (expedited) passport in one week. She’s 4-days old in her passport photo. Vaccinations might be in order for travel depending on what country you are visiting, so check-in with your pediatrician. I’ve run all my travels by my pediatrician, who has always said: “Hey Sister. Yes, you can.” (Add one of those-types-of-pediatricians to your check list.)
Call the airline. You might not know this (I didn’t!), but most international flights have seats where a bassinet can be attached to the wall in front of your seat. #brilliant. Often there’s only one or two bassinets per plane, so CALL and book it as early as possible. There’s no cost, and the bassinet seats are in bulkhead – so you get a little extra room as well. I’m unsure as to other airline policies, but I know United offers the upgrade to bulkhead for mommas with babes for free. (Thank you United!). On my return, United accidentally gave my bassinet seat away, BUT traded me for my very own ROW of (3) seats. #deal. I snugged her into the car seat, curled up in the adjacent two seats, and we both snoozed the whole way home. #insanestrokeofdumbluck
By the way, in Europe I was twice approached by airport personnel who coo-ed at my baby (in Portuguese and then French) then offered special access passes that allowed me to skip over long security and immigration lines. In the United States, I was greeted with a 3-hour immigration line that backed all the way up to the escalators, offered no place to sit or nurse (a hungry, crying baby), and ultimately resulted in a missed connection/flight. That about sums up the difference between the US and Europe in regards to family-friendliness. #americanfail
Take your best friend BOB. For those not familiar, the BOB Revolution is a fancy (and expensive) fold-up SUV stroller. It was the most expensive item on my baby registry. AND the CPU (cost-per-use), for me, has come down to mere coins. But I hail from a mountain town and need fresh air at least an hour a day and am on my 2nd child (and 1st BOB). My BOB has flown on over 40 flights; It goes everywhere our family does. We essentially consider BOB an extension of our family (we refer to it as Roberto in Spanish-speaking countries and Robert in French-speaking ones) I tend to think of the BOB as something like a small mobile home: It’s a bassinet in which kids (babes & toddlers) can take full naps (especially on long soothing strolls). We typically store all our carry-on bags (including heavy laptops) under and above it. It has a variety of pockets (especially with a console) to accommodate a full arsenal of child-pacifying devices: snacks, bottles, binkies, sippys and everything else that ends in -ie or y. The BOB folds down in a quick two-step flip maneuver that you can actually manage with the one hand not in the act of pacifying. The BOB fits in the back of a taxi (sometimes you have to remove a wheel) and through the airport x-ray (although when I travel without my husband, I plead ignorance and opt for the stroller pat-down instead). In addition to being a portable crib (offering both shade and seclusion when needed) the BOB gives you wheels for that impossibly heavy car seat. (It will save your back in addition to your sanity.) It might be counter-intuitive that something so big can be so essential to travel, but IT IS. And it’s free: Airlines do not surcharge you for it. You drop it off as you enter the plane and pick it up as you get off the plane. It’s like the ultimate, free, goes-everywhere, travel cart. (Also, these vehicles are often so good that you can easily buy one used and get the same ROI out of it.) I like the Revolution BOB Revolution (specifically) because I do a lot of “strolling” on snow, ice, gravel, sand, and mud. I won’t lie – it was embarrassingly eye-catching in Paris next to all those prim prams, but I’m only buying ONE stroller, and I need my baby-vehicle to take on sandy beaches, airports, and icy mountains alike. In this case, I will accept my American-ness.
Change your pace & expectations. It took me about 10-minutes to book my tickets (oh, those ticket-booking adrenaline rushes!). It took me about 2-weeks before the reality hit: Wait a minute. I’m going to travel alone, on multiple (and red-eye) planes, with a 6-month old baby, and no husband, with over 24-hours of transit time in each direction? It’s at that point that I sent out apologetic disclaimers to my host/friends in France about the potential realities of the trip: sleepless *nursing* nights, jet lag issues, sleep schedule maneuvering, baby-food making, cranky baby = cranky mom, on-and-on-and-on. I have great friends. They replied that they had adaptable schedules and eager arms – which turned out to be true and essential. (See point below.) And the trip, in the end was incredibly enjoyable. Yes. The nights were rough (but aren’t they always? Home or away?) and the baby had her good moments and bad (#par).
Here’s the thing: you just need to flip your thinking – and shift your strategy to capitalization. It’s all about capitalizing on nap times for long brunches and even-longer country-side strolls. It’s about creating a simpe centerpiece for your day such as visiting a local famers market, where babe can enjoy the foreign colors, smells and flavors as much as you. Or spending the day on an educational tour & truffle hunt or a long walking tour of a biodynamic vineyard. It’s about early bedtimes, and long, late dinners with exceptional company. It’s about loving the urban trekking and street scenery, perhaps in lieu of quiet museums.
You know how having a child makes a solo trip to the grocery store a vacation? Well it’s the same. Those simple travel experiences that you maybe took for granted when you used to travel alone – you still find those moments, and because they are a bit more rare, a bit more hidden, a bit more elusive — when you do capture them, lord, they are glorious. That baby sleeping under the tree through your 3-hour lunch in a garden while you sip rosé in the sun. Uh-mazing. Those French grandmothers sneaking a peak and checking to make sure your baby isn’t too warm under her blankets? Priceless. That best friend sweeping your child away just when your eyes begin to water in exasperation? Heart-expanding. That flight attendant or seat-neighbor who offers to hold your baby while you use the restroom. God bless her. And that rush of love for humans inspired by your gratitude for her.
Get creative. I’ve only got two arms and I’m not going to waste one carrying around a travel crib or roller bag. So here’s what I did:
I investigated all my host’s largest suitcases but settled on a large cardboard box for my babe’s crib. I put it right next to my bed, where she was able to see me. She slept about as well as 6-months old sleep. (I’m not a sleep-training nazi, which means I was stoked if I was up less than 3x a night.)
Similarly, scarfs and baby blankets tend to run in the same shapes, so I opted for scarfs in the softest fabrics and patterns & colors that fit into my capsule travel wardrobe – so that they could do the double-duty (triple if you include nursing cover) of blanketing baby. Pictured: babe wrapped in Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf and also in Patagonia’s (soft as a blanket) Better Sweater Coat.
Go Hands Free. The reason for all the double-duty, of course, is that my goal was hands-free luggage. And hands-free luggage means no rolling-bags or suitcases. Rather, I opted for the following combination which keeps my hands free for pushing the Bob or carrying the babe:
- Collapsible/Ultralight Baby Bag (I love the ultralight Patagonia bags.)
- Shoulder Bag/Purse (that can also get tucked away & double as a baby-bag). (Latico has an awesome line of shoulder bags that function perfectly as baby bags, such as this one: Latico Shoulder Bag in Poppy).
- Duffle bag that converts to a backpack. I use Patagonia’s Black Hole 60L Bag. It’s perfect. As is everything made by Patagonia. (I work in the guiding industry and am lucky enough to receive Patagonia pro-deals, which is the only way I can afford their products, but you will not find a bigger fan of Patagonia the company, gear and ethic
than me. They do regularly have 50% off sales – so get on the email list.)
- Some kind of baby wearing device that can be stowed away into my shoulder bag
and/or baby bag (depending on which combination I’m sporting). I preferred the ERGObaby Carrier and Infant Insert when my babies were small (which allows them to snuggle in and sleep all day) and the BABYBJORN Carrier after 6-months (after which my babes like to face outward and watch the world).
Bring and make friends. Now this was a bit of a surprise for me, but as it turns out, nothing attracts new friends and sweet acts of kindness like a baby. And it was a cross-cultural trend! Young mothers appeared suddenly to help me clip my baby carrier. Waiters pulled up iphone pictures of their toddlers. Pilots stepped out of cockpits to (try to) break down or set up the Bob. Couples coo-ed and played peek-a-boo from between the plane seats. Older mothers shared stories of how they used to travel with their babies in the 70’s. And gentlemen rushed from all corners to the overhead bins if I so much as glanced upward. Really, the kindness of strangers has never been so showcased in my life. I was humbled and honored.
Of course I ALSO had the good fortune of meeting three of my best girlfriends in-country. And, well, enough said, right. A good girlfriend equals (and sometimes beats) a husband when it comes to helping out with a babe. I had three. Three who encouraged me to nap while they cooked and go to bed early while they cleaned. I was drowning in gratitude, admiration and love for them. And also thankful for the shared adventure, which deepened our friendship further, as all quality excursions out-of-the-norm do. Moral of the story: Find a friend/sister for your adventure.
Create Capsule Travel Wardrobes for both mom & babe. If the term “capsule wardrobe” is new to you, google it and you’ll literally get the picture.
The concepts are:
- quality over quantity
- a cohesive color-scheme that allows for endless mix and matching options with adaptable basics (no one-hit-wardrobe-wonders allowed)
- travel-friendly fabrics like Tencel (this stuff is wash-friendly, wrinkle-free, supposedly a sustainable fabric and all-around-amazing)
- bringing in the color & character with accessories (scarfs, jewelry, etc)
- versatility: shirts/dresses that can be dressed up or down, pieces that offer a thousand layering combinations, t-shirts that can wear as pajamas, etc.
- a plan that involves washing items or all your clothing on occasion
- a strategy (imagine that!) other than toss everything in your bag till it’s full
The end result (for me on this trip) was two tiny stacks of clothing (one for momma and one for babe) that packed down to nothing. There was actually swimming room in my duffle. The hardest part of this strategy is resisting the (oddly insane) urge to fill up that emptiness. But that space came in so handy when I wanted to fit both my shoulder bag and baby bag in there. And imagine my surprise and delight when I didn’t have to buy any additional bag for souvenirs! Capsule travel wardrobe = game changer.
Keep calm. Have fun. Not like constant fun. But moments of fun. Okay. Here’s a good place for the disclaimer that despite all the sweet, smiley pictures of happy/sleeping baby, this trip was far from floating on clouds of baby powder.
The pictures I didn’t take:
- Me scrubbing out a diaper blow-out out of the baby carrier in the airport restroom.
- The bags under my eyes the night the baby woke up every single hour and I was feeling enormous angst about keeping hosts up all night.
- My panic attack on my last flight (after missing my connection) where I was seated in a middle seat and I didn’t move an inch for 6-hours in fear of waking an exhausted-prone-to-crying baby.
- My emotional breakdown upon return, collapsing from travel exhaust yet having to pick up full-time work and full-time motherhood without pause.
- My toddler (at home) tantrums for attention after his mother was absent for 2-weeks. My fried-husband needing a break and, rather, receiving a wife with her energy tank on empty.
But here’s the deal. I keep trying to recall, for example, how I dealt with the jet-lag for the baby – and while that subject feels so foggy I can’t even offer a tip on the topic –it is moments like THIS that puncture my memory in clarity and flavor the trip in its entirety…
Okay. For those specifics-seekers out there. Here’s my visual and affiliated/linked packing list:
- BABYBJORN Carrier
- Pacifiers & Pacifier Clip
(b/c you do NOT want to lose those).
- Baby Bunting Suit
- Purse or Shoulder Bag that doubles as Baby Bag
- The Sun Magazine (advertisement-free literary magazine that I LOVE more than anything that comes in the mail. Short stories, interviews, poetry and photography that will melt your heart and making you feel human again. And in perfect motherhood-sized reading snippets.)
- Electronics/Phone charger(s)
- Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf that doubles as baby blanket
- Passports & Appropriate Travel Visas
- Lavender Essential Oil (to calm baby and give her a sense of stability in all the movement)
- Lightweight Muslin Swaddle Blankets for accidents, spills, and all the other whoops-stuff.
- Patagonia Better Sweater Jacket (soft enough to double as a baby blanket)
- Ear buds
- Sunnies & Lip Gloss
- Manual Breast Pump. I bring and use only for emergencies (if I need to give the baby a bottle rather than the breast for some reason)
- Vitamins (in travel case)
- Baby Monitor (never used on this trip, but has come in handy on many travels)
- Momma’s travel capsule clothing
- Stainless Steel Water Bottle (with no plastic parts)
- All-weather boots that can pull off Paris as well
- My favorite (Le Mystere) Nursing Bra. 2nd child means there’s a lot of public nursing action. For some reason I believe that a pretty bras neutralizes the spill on my shirt.
- Another versatile (soft and wash-friendly) scarf that doubles as a baby blanket
- Bibs – in effort to save baby’s limited wardrobe
- Travel Plug Adapter Kit
- Baby Nail Scissors
- Not pictured. But THIS Panasonic (DMC-GM1KD) Mirrorless Digital Camera is the perfect travel-sized mirrorless (similar to DSLR) camera. (I’ll give it a proper test drive in Brazil next month)
- Emergency baby meds/NSAIDS
- Snacks (like teething wafers) that involve lots of chewing
and buy momma an extra few minutes of quiet time
- Baby Boots (the only that I can get to stay on my kids. Expensive. But cost-per-wear is low.)
- Baby Tights. So much easier than pants & socks!
- Baby capsule travel wardrobe.
- Versatile baby toy (like this Lamaze Moose) that clips onto car seat handle (and won’t get lost)
- Blow-out outfit (for the carry-on). Don’t ever leave home without one.
- Diapers (by The Honest Company). *I also had my host in France pick up some diapers locally, as they would have taken up too much room in my bag otherwise. So I packed only the diapers that I needed for transit.
- Wipes (by The Honest Company). Handy for all kinds of messes and stain removal.
- ultralight Patagonia bag (it packs down to nothing!)
- A bag of baby formula for emergencies (a godsend when I got trapped in the 3-hour immigration line in DC)
- Silicone Baby Bottle (by The Honest Company)
- Baby jammies and muslin swaddle blankets