For as much as I traveled with my kid as an infant, traveling with him as a toddler is a whole new ballgame. Or so I learned at times painfully recently during an overseas excursion. Not everything was different–the key was still having enough liquids, snacks, and toys within reach at any moment–but I learned enough new stuff that I think it might be worth sharing my Top 10 insights.
- European airports rock. If the children’s play areas in London’s Heathrow airport and the nurseries at the Geneva airport weren’t enough, I can confirm that the airports in Geneva, Rome, and Naples offer priority lanes for parents traveling with children. Brilliant. The catch, though, is that some airports only allow one parent to go through the priority lane. While that kind of stinks for the parent who has to go through the regular security lanes, my experience has been that they move much more quickly than their American counterparts.
- There is a no Fly Safe zone. I had first heard about the Kids Fly Safe harness from a friend who swore by it. It seemed genius enough to me–a lightweight, packable, easy-to-install alternative to having to lug a car seat on the plane for a squirmy toddler–so I shelled out for one for our big European adventure. Although the website says its FAA approved and there’s a big section on using the contraption in the U.K., I hadn’t finished adjusting the anchor strap when a flight attendant for our British Air flight came over and asked if I needed help. I told her I was fine; I was just finishing adjusting the harness. At that point, she told me that I was not authorized to use the harness on B.A. flights and would have to remove the device. So glad I paid out the nose for expedited shipping.
- Formula is still your friend. I can’t remember the last time my kid touched formula–it had to have been eight months or more–but I threw in a handful of leftover single-serve packets of Enfamil into our mini cooler (that’s still a travel necessity) just in case I got desperate. Turns out we hit a patch of turbulence on one flight that left our flight attendants buckled in their seats just as our kid had a thirst attack that plain old agua couldn’t quench. As he came within an inch of a true toddler meltdown, I frantically scoured my bag for a lone juice box to no avail. Then I remembered the formula packets. A couple of quick shakes to get the powder to dissolve and–voila–we had a happy kid again. (Incidentally, on the juice box thing, Target’s Market Pantry brand carries smaller size juice boxes that meet the TSA’s fluid ounce restrictions–or at least come close enough that no one cared.)
- Infant tickets equals infinite problems. After a very rough start to our vacation, we were very careful to arrive super early to all of our inter-European flights. And it was a good thing because, for some reason, our Alitalia tickets never got coded to indicate that one of us would have an infant in arms. I didn’t anticipate this to be as big of a problem as it turned out to be. In the U.S., ticket counter personnel just clack on the keyboard and the additional ticket for baby is spit out. Not so much in Europe. We spent nearly an hour on each leg of our journey to/from Italy waiting for some airline customer service people to execute. At one point, one woman had to pull out a handwritten manual to find directions as to what to do. We also got tagged with a lap-baby fee of 10% of the cost of the ticket–of course not the price I paid online weeks before but what it cost at that moment, two hours before the flight. Awesome.
- Don’t get sucked into the romance; public water fountains are nasty. I have seen enough movies set in Italy to find it charming that most Italian cities and villages still have public water fountains, wonderful works of art and sculpture where locals still take pause to wet their whistles daily. And few things can amuse a squirmy toddler more than big chutes of water. So, as my kid was splashing in the fountain, nearly dunking his head under a spigot in an attempt to get a drink, I took pictures to capture this quintessential Italian moment. I regretted it all the next day when my kid came down with some sort of bug that had him throwing up and spiking a serious fever. While I secretly relished having nothing to do other than hang out while our kid basically slept all day–I finally got to read a magazine in peace, stretched out in the sun on a lawn chair with a nice cappuccino–it did significantly cut down on our sightseeing; I think we lost about 2.5 days, all told.
- Don’t be ashamed; kid leashes are humane. I was always skeptical about child harnesses. While I could see the practicality, I was never sure about how comfortable I was with them. And then my mother-in-law bought one for us. (I’m pretty sure this is the one she bought, although ours is a much darker brown, so I think it’s cuter.) My husband and I took it for a test run on a weekend in New York City. All it took was being in Times Square at rush hour for us to become converts. I can’t tell you how awesome that thing was every place from the security line at Heathrow airport in London to the winding, cobblestone streets of Amalfi, Italy, where motorbikes and cars zip down alleys most people would assume would be pedestrian only. The bonus was our kid loved the monkey; he wanted to cuddle with it in bed. Needless to say, it was never a problem to get him to wear it. In fact, he asked for it.
- For the love of car services. I always considered a private car a luxury. That is, until I started traveling for work and learned that the most reliable way to ensure transportation to the airport in early morning hours in my neighborhood was to hire a car. And it totally opened my eyes. It takes like 75% of the stress out of traveling. And trust me, my sanity is worth the $100 or so it usually costs. So, when I realized that Amalfi was still around 35 or 40 miles from Naples, I went to work on booking a private car. Fortunately, our apartment rental company–Summer in Italy–was awesome enough to have some tried and true suggestions on good car services. Amalfi Car was awesome. We used them several times during our trip and they were reliable, reasonably priced, and totally flexible; they even let us cancel last minute–no charge–when the bambino got sick. Not to mention that we learned that car seats are more of a suggestion than a regulation in Italy, so it was nice to be assured that our kid would be strapped in as we hugged the Amalfi Coast’s crazy curves.
- Pennywise and a pound foolish. I’m not all about being stupid with money–lord knows I like a good deal–but I’m at the age where I’ve given up on doing the more complicated thing just to save a buck or two. I don’t get enough vacation days to screw around like that. So, I’m willing to spend a little more for guarantees and efficiencies–basically anything that takes the work out of traveling, especially with impatient children or husbands. So, when I was evaluating apartments to rent on the Amalfi Coast–I assure you, it’s cheaper than you think and you don’t get slapped with all the incidentals–I ended up opting for the slightly more expensive place that had the better view of the sea. And considering we were sequestered in that place for nearly three days when our kid got sick, I was so glad I went for the full sea view rather than partial. That terrace alone made having a sick kid actually palatable. And I can’t even imagine what we would’ve done without wifi, considered an amenity rather than a staple in most European nations.
- Pay for the childcare, dammit. I see so many families travel together and it kills me that most parents never actually get a parents-only night out out of the deal. It’s not really a vacation in that case. It’s just an extended stay at a theme park or glorified playground. Most parents who go without a real date night on vacation cite cost as the main factor. But let’s get a little perspective. You’ve just spent thousands of dollars to go on vacation. If $100 is going to break you, you probably shouldn’t be on vacation. The second most-cited reason is that the parents don’t trust strangers to watch their kids. It’s a valid concern–and a one I don’t take lightly. But again, some perspective, please. We leave our kids with strangers all the time–at the gym, at daycare, at birthday parties, at home with new babysitters, etc.–but it just feels more familiar to us. Reputable hotels, resorts, and rental agencies are equipped to deal with this type of request. And let’s be honest. You’re parents. You’re probably not going much further than the hotel bar and you’ll be drooling into your wine glass by 11:30pm–unless you are like us and end up going to a very weird, very young after party with a bunch of semi-local Italian people. But that’s another story. Just get the sitter and enjoy an evening knowing you’ve got no laundry to do and no bed to make in the morning.
- Novotel? Do tell. I had always considered the European hotel chain Novotel a bit on the cheap side when it came to lodging choices. Sort of like an Embassy Suites or something along those lines. But I ended up booking us a room at a Novotel near the airport in Geneva because we were arriving from Italy late in the afternoon and leaving fairly early in the morning for the States; the hotel was really close to the airport, had a free shuttle, and was very reasonably priced. After staying there, I can say I thought it was awesome for families. First clue? The lobby had a play area, complete with blocks, books, puzzles and even an Xbox. The restaurant had high chairs–often a rarity in European bistro restaurants–and even a kids menu–even rarer than high chairs. There was a pool, although it was too early in the season to want to use it. But the cherry on top was the playground in the back of the hotel.
So, there they are–the 10 things I didn’t know about traveling with kids that I learned the last go round. And as a bonus tip, I’ll tell you that European daylight savings is not the same day as U.S. daylight savings. Yup, had to find that one out the hard way.