Sunday, July 26, 2009

Keeping your Sanity During Overseas Travel with a Toddler!

A while back I wrote about our trip to Arizona...our first flight with our toddler. I shared some travel tips and gear on that post, and promised to write another one about our trip overseas. I know that some of you fellow traveling mommies have been waiting for this one, so here it finally is! This post is about our 10 day trip to Paris (2 of those days taking a train to and from London) with our then 15 month old.

Upon arriving in Paris and entering a room of easily over 1,000 people waiting in line to get through customs, we were blown away by the utter silence. One peep from a toddler would turn thousands of heads! It didn't take long before an airport official noticed us with our stroller, and escorted us past the thousands of people in line, up to another counter, and we were through in seconds! We were guessing they are either an extremely family-friendly airport, or just wanted to maintain the precious silence in the room. Either way, we didn't complain!

In total we brought 3 large checked bags with wheels, and three carry-on's, for our 10 day trip. The carry-on's were backpacks, leaving one of us to pull two of the checked bags, and the other to push the stroller and pull the third checked bag. While we could have purchased some upon our arrival, I packed disposable diapers (we usually use cloth), thinking we'd use the empty space at the end of our trip for souvenirs anyway.

Now let's talk baby travel gear, as it's something I researched extensively before our trip in my attempt to prepare for everything.

I didn't want to trust that I'd get a completely safe and clean rental crib at the hotel, so I purchased Phil & Ted's Travel Cot. It is super light weight and packs down pretty darn small, especially compared to the bulky (yet quicker to assemble) pack-n-play. You can see in this photo below that the crib fit INSIDE one of our suitcases. It's the long, black zipper bag shown in the back side of the suitcase here with the red label on it:

It worked great. We could un-zip the side of it and turn it into a "fort" during the day, and then close it up as a crib at night. Below is a photo of it set up in our living room. Both the top and side can zip open. There's another tip...if you get a new travel crib, practice setting it up at home first! The last thing you want to do upon your arrival with a jetlagged toddler is fumble through instructions.

It's a bit more work to assemble than the traditional pack-n-play's, but I found it was well worth a little extra effort to have our own crib without adding another loose checked item. After hearing about a friend's trip to Paris with a toddler and how their crib reservation got "lost," we were glad we brought our own!

The Car Seat - Stroller Combo
I talked about the Sit-n-stroll in my previous travel post from our trip to Arizona. So, I will try not to be too repetitive. The sit-n-stroll I gave rave reviews in my previous Arizona trip post, and I still highly recommend it for within-the-USA travel. However, I no longer adore it quite as much after this trip. On this trip it did not fit down the aisle on any of the planes, so my hubby just had to lift it over the seats. Not that big of a deal, but not quite as wonderful as our last trip when we wheeled our baby boy right to his seat.

Also, they tell you that you must be gentle with the wheels, and go backwards over every curb. In the US where the sidewalks are smooth and the ADA ramps provide a smooth glide for a stroller, this stroller does just fine. But on our first day in London, my husband hit a curb and a wheel snapped right off. We'll just say we spent one of our two days in London trying to find a cheap umbrella stroller, which we discovered didn't really we spent about $80 bucks on a new one. This turned us into feeling-quite-smart-with-our-fancy-carseat-slash-stroller parents into those parents who are lugging around a car seat and a stroller through the airport. (and in this case, train station and metro and taxi...) So, unless you are 100% committed to treating this stroller/carseat combo as gently as you treat your precious cargo itself, I would not recommend it on the cobblestone streets of Paris or London. I really wish it had held up, because until it broke, it was incredibly nice to have! I also bought it on ebay, saving me about $60 over a store, but since it was not from an authorized reseller, I basically have no warranty. So, if you do buy one, it's worth paying full price to have the company back it up if it breaks!

I think for our next trip I may invest in the Go Go Kidz Travel Mate. It attaches wheels to your car seat so you can wheel it through the airport. Doesn't really function as a stroller once you're there, but if you have to bring a car seat anyway, might as well put it on wheels!

Baby Slings & Wraps
When we toured the catacombs down underneath Paris, we had to carry the stroller and other "stuff." So, I used a Hot Sling to carry our little Sammy (below, right), while my husband carried our bag, high chair, and stroller (below, left). Sure, it doesn't make for the most ideal touring experience, but it worked for us and we got to see something really amazing!

We found there were several places we couldn't use the stroller, which made us happy we were now using a fold-able umbrella stroller anyway. We had to fold it and bring it up with us when visiting the top of the Eiffel Tower as well. In this event I used a Moby style wrap that I made myself. It worked okay, but it would have been a whole lot easier to get the thing on right if we were not standing in gale force winds at the time. (Same thing happened in Arizona. I think my wrap attracted wind.) Here we are all cozy at the top:

We encountered the same thing at the London Eye, where we had to fold up the stroller and carry it on the ride. Otherwise, there were a few places where we could park it in a "corral."

Travel High Chair
I talked about the high chair we got in my last baby-travel post, and I still think it was the best travel purchase I made. Not only for our trips, but because I have used it a ton just here at home. In all my online research, not once did I find a photo of the thing folded up, which baffled me. I mean, the whole idea is to sell the portability!! So, I took some myself here to show you...

The center photo is a canvas pouch that I made with a velcro flap and shoulder strap to carry it in. I don't know why it doesn't come with one, but it was easy enough to make my own. That kept the whole thing very compact and easy to sling over our shoulder or the stroller handlebars. I still take this thing just about everywhere we go at home. It is so small and light, it's just easier to get this thing out than to lug one of those big, wood, sticky, gooey high chairs across the restaurant. It doesn't work on every table though.

Another thing I wanted to be prepared for was for Sammy to be able to eat off of a clean surface anywhere and everywhere. You can spend about $20 on a silicone mat that has cartoons on it and is made for kids, or you can haul around those disposable ones which are wasteful and not very good for the environment. I brought along a silicone baking mat that I purchased at Target for $9.99 to double as a place mat and a plate when needed while out and about. I got this brilliant idea from another Mom that I know, and it worked great. You can run it under a faucet or wipe it off to clean it, and set it on virtually any surface to eat off of. We used it everywhere, until we stupidly let it go out with one of our room service tables, and then we missed it greatly. Here we are using it at an outdoor cafe across the street from Notre Dame, along with the high chair:

This was one of my favorite little mini "moments" of toddler travel zen on the trip, when everything was going great and we were basking in the glory of our success in traveling with a toddler and all the gear working perfectly...

The Sit-n-stroll is parked with our high chair bag perfectly hanging on the handlebar, the high chair is working wonderfully on the table to secure our little guy, and his silicone mat is providing the perfect eating surface for his delicious croque monsieur as Mommy and Daddy enjoy some fresh crepes! Boy, were we feeling smart!

The key to getting through the flight is entertainment when it comes to kids. Luckily my little boy is very content to sit in his car seat while traveling, so we were not out running around very much. I packed two little zipper pouches of small for the trip out and one for the trip home. The flight that was overnight had some fun light-up toys for the dark. I collected little toys in the months leading up to our trip and my little guy never saw them until we were on the plane. You will need many distractions, so the smaller they are the more toys you can bring! The best entertainment that worked for us, as I mentioned in my Arizona trip post, was my iPod, loaded with home movies. He just loves watching himself on screen! Check out the Arizona trip post link to see some of the other toys I brought.

Great Books for Getting Around the Area and Language
There are a few books that were really useful on our trip. I'll post links to the Paris/London books, however you can find similar books by the same publisher for other countries as well.

The "Top 10" books by DK are fantastic. They are small enough to take with you, and outline the top museums, top art pieces to see in each museum, top parks, fun places for kids, etc. It's full of color photos and maps to show where everything is, and even has a small pull-out map that you can take out and view separately.

If you plan to do any dining out, which is a must wherever you go, get a menu reader to help you decipher the menu. I found this one to be great...small, compact, and full of great tips and restaurant reviews.

While I did purchase one of those thick little French-English dictionaries, I did not want to carry it around beyond the hotel. I found this little phrase book to be much more useful and compact. Sections are color-coded by situation (eating out, stores, travel, etc), and there is a small dictionary in the back as well.

It helped that I had taken some French in high school, but I also was able to brush up my French skills through some great free podcasts. I also purchased some French music to get my brain used to the sound of it. You can also check out some nice language resources from your local library.

These were the three books I always kept in my backpack. I also purchased a large, laminated map. But, nothing screams "clueless tourist" like a gigantic map. We used it more in the hotel to figure out where we were going the next day. The little pocket map that came with the "top 10" book worked great (as did the printed maps inside the covers), and they also had metro maps included. But, we also got a nice little "pop-out map" at Barnes & Noble, which elminated the hassle of map folding.

I probably would have packed less diapers, as I brought more than I needed. I also would have packed less clothing overall. There were several outfits I never wore as we didn't dine out anywhere fancy. I also brought along a travel laundry kit, enabling me to wash up some sox and undies in the sink one night:

This way we only needed to pack half the sox/undies needed. In retrospect I could have done this with a few onesies and packed much less baby clothes, and less bibs.

Eating Out
Unfortunately I can't tell you much about fine dining in Paris after our trip. We tried eating inside a couple of little restaurants/cafes, but we pretty much stuck to eating in our hotel room or grabbing bites to eat on the street most of the time. Again, the French people are very quiet everywhere compared to Americans, which I have to say is not a bad thing. But, we hardly saw any kids around, ever, unless we were at a playground. We just never saw a single kid in any restaurant we went by or ate at. So, as you can imagine, it was just not worth the stress to us to try to translate a menu in a silent restaurant with a hungry toddler. We normally take our little guy out to eat all the time, and he is very used to it and very good. However, add on our stress with every noise he'd make, and I think he could tell this was not fun!

We did get to eat plenty of good food though. Room service was a great luxury a couple of times, as was the hotel restaurant which was more kid friendly for a more substantial dinner. We also had a couple nice lunches at the huge department stores in Paris, which had entire levels (and restaurants) dedicated to kids, as well as in the parks and at a little cafe at the top of the Montparnasse tower. At the end of the day my husband often would take us back to the hotel to unwind while he'd go out on the street and come back with some delicious take-out surprise. We had some amazing meals, just not in the restaurant. I know this may be the worst thing some people can imagine, flying all the way to Paris and not dining out. But, it worked fine for us, and we found keeping everyone happy and relaxed made the whole trip much more fun and enjoyable. We figure maybe we'll go back some day to see Paris at night (AFTER bedtime!) and do some fine dining when the kids grow up!

The Unexpected Expenses
We certainly didn't expect to spend $80 on an umbrella stroller that was nearly identical to our $20 stroller at home. Nor did we expect to pay nearly $90 for a fancy, European designed humidifier that we could only use for one week in a hotel room with a European plug. (After just finishing a rough case of croup and double ear infections right before our trip, we thought it was better to nip an oncoming cough in the bud, rather than pay for a night in the French ER!) We would much rather have spent that money on souvenirs, but you can't plan for everything! So, plan for the unexpected by setting aside some extra cash!

General International/European Travel Stuff
If you've traveled internationally already, this is old news. But, I thought I'd throw 'em in for any other new travelers.
1) Register your trip with the government for free here.
2) Make sure you all have passports well in advance, including your kid's (no brainer).
3) Make or buy a little photo ID for your child with a current photo, your names, child's name, hotel name and number, and weight (converted to kg) and height (converted to cm).
4) Write down some common baby-related phrases in the local language on a little cheat sheet. (such as, "where can I change the baby, do you have milk, high chair please," etc..)
5) Pack a roll of masking tape. It works universally across all types of outlets to cover them up and keep little fingers out.

General Tips to Keep Your Sanity:
My #1 piece of advice is to travel with an open mind, a flexible schedule, and a good attitude! These three things will get you through just about anything. Oh, that, and cash. (see "the unexpected expenses" above!)

Also, no matter how much you love your family togetherness, everyone needs a little time alone, which is hard to come by when you're all crammed into one room. Since the wi-fi was only free in our hotel lobby, we took turns going downstairs each night to catch up on emails and blog photos home to our family and friends while we waited for our little guy to fall asleep. It was a nice break at the end of the day, even if it was only a half hour or so! Whether you run down to the hotel bar or just shut the bathroom door and take a bubble bath, be sure to give yourself a little "you" time! After all, this is supposed to be a vacation! :-)


Yummy Mommy Mia and Daddy Al said...

Thanks for this! Very helpful!

Mike Marti said...

Great post! I would love to take a trip to Paris with my family, were there a lot of Fun Places for Kids? I have a 13 year old and a 9 year old. Thanks in advance!

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