So you’ve decided to take a Griswold-style adventure abroad! Congratulations! Exposing your children to other languages, cultures, food and people is a great way to widen their horizons and shape them as future global citizens. But wait, they don’t want to wait in line for two hours at the Vatican and then stand in more lines where they can’t move while you marvel at the world’s largest collection of priceless works of art? And they won’t eat the delicious Iberian Ham in Barcelona? And why aren’t they appreciating the sheer magnitude of St. Paul’s Cathedral?
Traveling abroad is an absolutely wonderful experience, but adding in a time-zone-confused little one is an extra layer of stress. This is why on my return trip I’d like to lay out a few of my favorite tips for traveling abroad with little ones.
Parks are your new best friends
I’m going to take you back to 2011 for a moment and revamp what will someday be referred to as a “classic.” Imagine Lil Jon arriving on the scene, only his famed crunk cup has somehow turned into a Frozen-themed sippy cup, and is now filled with milk. Are you there? Okay, sing it with me:
Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks!
Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Everybodyyyyyyyy!
Yes, you have parks at home. And no, these little pocket parks in the city you’re visiting are (probably) not UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But parks allow your little one to burn off that pent up energy they have from obeying a million rules and standing in lines at these aforementioned World Heritage Sites, and they will love it. The conversations you might strike up with other parents at the parks turn out to be a bonus. People generally love sharing their culture with you, you get a unique local flavor of the culture and people who live in this city you’re visiting, and it’s a friendly reminder: we’re all in this parenting thing together, no matter what oceans may separate us.
Triage your activities
Have you ever heard that packing tip that advises when you pack to go somewhere you first lay out all the clothes you want to take, and then take half of them away? (Half again if you’ve been accused of over-packing in the past?) That’s a great tip, but it can also be applied to touristing with children. Make a list of all the things you want to do and see in the cities you’re visiting. Then halve it. And then halve it again. Aim for one “must-see/do” a day, and then add on more from your second if everyone is feeling up for it. The older the kids, the more you can probably put into a day, but remember the littlest ones won’t get as much joy out of being jammed into a museum or a ruin for three hours while being told not to go anywhere or touch anything. They’ll have plenty of time to do that when you return through customs.
Mix in your activities with some where they have agency and choice to do and go where they want and your days will go much more smoothly (see above re: parks).
Think small and book ahead
(Vast generalization alert, please take with large grain of salt.) Most of the rest of the world generally lives on a smaller scale than in the USA. You might be more comfortable–especially in larger cities–scaling down your equipment. Bring your smaller, more foldable stroller, especially if you are going to be relying on public transportation to get places. Try to book cribs (“cots” in certain other parts of the world) ahead in your hotel rooms so you don’t have to lug around a portable crib with you in the smaller cars. See if you can arrange transportation with car seats ready if you need a car. Being as nimble and light as possible will be especially helpful when you’re tired and don’t have the energy to count how many family members you have with you, let alone all the equipment.
Send a raven: the time change is coming
If you’re going somewhere with a drastic time change and have no-fail tips on how to get everyone in the family adjusted both going and coming back quickly, I will probably pay you vast sums of money* for this information. The problem really lies in that you have no idea how you or your children are going to handle large time changes. You may be fine going over, but coming back might be a nightmare (hello from 4:30 a.m.!). It may be the other way around. My advice (that also happens to be all the advice I’ve received and read from other world travelers, so it’s mostly their advice, truth be told)? Give it about 2-3 nights each day for everyone to adjust and then you can start hitting the panic button and getting firm about bedtimes, naptimes and schedules.
You made it through the newborn stage, you can make it through this.
And on the bright side, you might get to learn when the local coffee shops open**!
Be flexible and have fun
So you’ve booked everything ahead, pared down your sightseeing activities to the most essential, prepared for some crazy hours with the time zone differences, perhaps scoped out some parks in the airports and near your hotels? Good job! Now, have you planned for when your child wakes up one morning with a stomach bug? No? What?!?
Repeat after me: things will not go to plan. Say it again, so I know you heard me: things will not go to plan. And now here’s the important part: that’s okay. I can’t say setbacks aren’t disappointing but letting them ruin your entire trip will only make everyone curmudgeonly. Think of all those viewings of “Frozen” as training camp for this moment and let it go. Everyone (including you!) will have a better time and you might just discover something just as fun in your new plans after all.
*And by “pay you vast sums of money” I mean I’ll take you out for a coffee.
**Yes, I am fully aware this is not actually a bright side.