12 Tips (Learned the Hard Way) for Traveling with a Small Child
Rules of the Road
It occurs to me fairly frequently that I might have chosen a better time in history to make my living as a travel writer. Years ago, as a teenager traveling to Europe with my mother, and as a college student blithely flying back and forth between Oregon and Pennsylvania, my biggest concerns were missing the plane (which I managed to do with some frequency), forgetting my tickets or passport, and arriving at my destination looking and smelling as if I’d been, well, traveling.
Those are still perfectly good causes for anxiety, but now we have the added drama of terrorism, SARS, the bird flu, the airlines’ financial difficulties, and war. Add to that the stress of traveling with a small child (and my unshakeable belief that there is no rational reason for an enormous, passenger-filled hunk of metal to stay in the air), and my dream occupation can be, at times, less than relaxing.
Yesterday, however, as I watched a couple in the aisle ahead of me try to comfort their screaming baby for much of a flight between Miami and New York, I took consolation in the fact that my son is now four, and that he’s become a relatively seasoned traveler (perhaps a little too seasoned). The world was a slightly simpler place when he was a baby, but taking a trip with him was, nevertheless, an exercise in precise planning (not one of my strong points) and in making sure that we learned from the mistakes we made before we made them again.
For those of you who know only the relatively simple pleasures of traveling as unaccompanied adults but who want (or need) to test the warm but unpredictable waters of taking a first vacation with a baby, the following suggestions (many of them the hard-earned results of the aforementioned mistakes) may be useful. Keep in mind that you know your child or children much better than I do, and that experience and an understanding of their individual temperaments will be your best guides.
Keep Your Hands Free
You’ll need them more than ever. In airports, train terminals, and ports, you’ll be asked to present documents at every turn. Passports, tickets, boarding passes, and birth certificates should be kept in a safe, easy-to-reach place such as a fanny pack or travel pouch. Small backpacks and shoulder bags work best as carry-on luggage; and, if your child is young enough, a baby carrier, which leaves your hands free, will be invaluable. Also—particularly on cruises—you’ll need to fill out a number of forms before you board (including a questionnaire pertaining to SARS). If possible, try to get them ahead of time and fill them out, but always make sure that you have a pen handy in case you missed something.
Pack a Bag of Tricks
Lines are longer than ever, and your baby will have a lot of time to kill. Pack accordingly: Bring your child’s favorite toys as well as a few surprises for the really difficult moments (just don’t lose the one toy or blanket that your baby can’t sleep without—I’ve lived in fear of losing my son’s stuffed bunny for years). If he or she is eating solid foods, bring those that are the least apt to spoil or make an unmanageable mess. A small backpack is a convenient, lightweight, easily accessed place to keep everything.
Keep Everything to a Minimum
These days, dropping off your checked luggage is not necessarily a one-step process. In some airports, once you’ve dragged everything to the ticket counter to check in, you’ll be required to drag it to another area to have it X-rayed, and from there it will be loaded onto the plane. Security checkpoint lines are long, and everything (including your shoes) gets X-rayed. So, again, the less you’re carrying, the better.
Get to the Airport, Station, or Port Early
I learned my lesson recently on a trip home from Orlando. Thinking that we had plenty of time before our flight left, I let my son linger in the airport Disney store for quite a while so that he could pick out the perfect toy. Once we got to the security line, it took us nearly a half an hour to get through. We were so late getting to our gate that it was only due to the kindness of the flight crew that we got on the plane.
Buy a Seat for Baby
Most airlines will allow you to hold your child on your lap during the flight, but buying an extra seat and bringing along a lightweight car seat will make the trip much more comfortable for both of you.
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