Traveling the world with toddlers By Naazish Yarkhan • Illustration by Marc Stopeck
Too much analysis leads to paralysis, they say. And that is true when considering whether traveling internationally with children is a good idea. An 8-month-old, a 5-year-old and I visited London, Oman and India last year, all sans Dad. Four of our flights were nine hours each. One of our layovers was more than 12 hours long. We did it because having family at the other end made it worth the effort. But we learned a few things along the way.
1 Start early. Begin the process at least two months in advance. So, if you're thinking of traveling abroad this summer, now is the time. Otherwise, you'll find yourself paying extra to have things done "express." Also, if you're a chronic worrier like me, the time cushion will save you from losing hair. Apply for passports if you don't have them; application forms are available online and at most post offices. If you already have passports for you and your children, make sure they are valid for the entire duration of your travel. If only one parent is traveling with children, the other parent must write a letter of permission before the children can get a passport or visa.
2 Know what you need. Some countries require visas in addition to passports. Check with the consulate to find out whether you have to apply for them. I have an Indian passport, so I don't need a visa to India, but my kids, who have American passports, do. The reverse was true for our visas to England. A day trip into Chicago was all it took to get the visas. Most times you will need an itinerary of your travel plans when applying for a visa-just the itinerary and not actual tickets.
3 Consider getting shots. Travel shots are highly advisable, although I decided against them. I'm simply not that cautious as a parent. As long as they drank water that was boiled and filtered, I figured they would be fine.
And other than the occasional cough and cold which the kids would have gotten here as well, they were. But even the slightest fever or bruise demanded a trip to the doctor, just to be sure it was nothing more.
4 Protect yourself. Children raised in America have relatively weaker immune systems because their bodies are used to things being far more hygienic. My main precaution was making sure all the water we drank was either mineral water or water that had been boiled and filtered. My 5-year-old ate at all the restaurants and had no problems.
5 Take what you need. I took a suitcase full of diapers and lots of wet wipes. Diapers were very easy to get in Muscat, Oman, and are available in India, too, but I was just happy to have stuff with me that both my son and I were used to. Carry extra clothes for yourself and the children in case some little person decides to pee during a diaper change or, worse, throw up. And bring your own medicines, of course. My lifesaver was an umbrella stroller that I didn't check with my luggage. I had the flight attendants collect it just before we got onto the aircraft and return it when we got off. It made it much easier to get around between airports during layovers. No need to lug around a wiggling 25-pounder.
6 Plan your distractions. My daughter was happy to watch hours and hours of cartoons during the flight. For layovers, though, come prepared with kid diversions. Some airlines give the kids toys and games to play with, but don't count on it. Books, crayons, paper and a new toy kept my daughter occupied during the long waits. A growing number of airports have play areas for children. The information should be available on the airport Web site. Don't bother carrying a book or magazine for yourself. You always have the option of reading the inflight magazine, but I recommend using the time for a snooze instead. It'll make for a less grumpier you.
7 Travel light. With all the extra security at airports, carry as little hand baggage as possible. Two children, extra clothes, toys and diversions are enough of a load.
8 Ask for what you need. There are rules, but most of them are flexible. So ask. You may receive. I requested pre-boarding on to the flights; a few airlines complied. Unlike national flights, international flights serve at least two whole meals and two rounds of snacks in flight. When making plane reservations I asked for kids' meals and specified the ages. I also learned that my 8-month-old can't bear to sit still, and it's OK. Most people expect kids to be kids. Some people will give you dirty looks. If you don't look at them you don't see the glares.
9 Most airports have a nursery. Use them. They beat warming those airport chairs, envying other harried passengers who are traveling without kids. Another plus is that most other countries don't have sprawling, gargantuan, overwhelming airports like Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where getting to a gate means a 25-minute walk. At immigration in India, there was a special line for women with children. I wish American airports would offer the same convenience.
10 Come prepared. Two harrowing experiences taught me I need to carry the faxed copies of our visas even though I was promised the official documents would be waiting at the airline counters or the ports of arrival. Ditto with passports and birth certificates.
Naazish YarKhan is the mother of two and a writer living in Glendale Heights.