Monday, April 21, 2014

A Baguette is a Great Babysitter, and Other Tips for Traveling with a Toddler

We recently returned from two magical weeks in London and Paris with Charlotte.  We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so the trip was not just a hop, skip, and a jump away.  It was a journey.  A memorable, wonderful one.  I've gotten lots of inquiries about how to manage such an adventure with a twelve/thirteen month old.  Here are my tips . . .

FYI, for specifics about our voyage, please see upcoming travelogue posts on London and Paris!

1. Travel Somewhere That You Love

I am secretly French.  I know it.  Ever since I was young . . . actually, perhaps ever since I traveled to Paris as a 5 year old, I have loved Paris.  It's a deep Francophilia that goes beyond mere admiration for the beautiful architecture, the perfect gardens, the buttery croissants, and the effortlessly stylish people.  My heart sings when I am in Paris.  I vowed when I was pregnant with Charlotte that we would take her to Paris as a youngster.  I wanted to experience the city anew with my husband and baby girl. 

Knowing all of this, I was able to take the challenges and momentary setbacks of traveling abroad with a toddler in stride.  Huge poop blowout on the plane?  No problem!  I am on my way to Paris, I thought.

While I know that it is not possible to design every trip with such a deep excitement and love (ie, visiting Great Aunt Hilda in Poland in the dead of winter), try to fashion at least part of your trip to be exactly what you think of when you picture a joyous adventure.  If you're lucky, you can spend even more (or all!) of your trip doing and being exactly what you want.  For me, Paris is my happy place.  Any adversity on the way to my happy place (or, eek, even in my happy place) was all worth it for the experience of being in Paris with my loves.

2. Make a Pact with your Partner that Anything Said During the Flight is Forgiven Immediately Upon Landing

My husband, Chad, and I are generally pretty calm, kind people.  We are almost always on the same page about how to care for Charlotte and we share parenting duties quite well.  Despite this, we have been known occasionally to say things we don't mean when we are in the depths of sleep deprivation.  In the early days of parenthood, we were sometimes irrationally short with each other at 3am, only to wonder the next morning who had possessed our bodies in the wee hours of the night (morning? night? not sure which one 3am is . . . I prefer not to know).  

Knowing this background, Chad wisely turned to me at the beginning of our flight and said, "Let's just agree that anything muttered on this flight is immediately forgiven and forgotten when we land, ok?"  I married a wise one.  

Now, it turned out that we both kept our cool across the Atlantic both ways.  Charlotte was generally a great traveler, with only momentary bursts of discomfort or crankiness.  But, I think Chad's instinct was helpful nonetheless.  No matter how angelic your baby is, there will be times during an 11 hour flight when (a) she cries; (b) she poops; (c) she's hungry; (d) she is tired but can't fall asleep, and (e) when you secretly wish that you were curled up in first class with a glass of wine, a prescription drug, and multiple reruns of Sex and the City to pass the hours away.  If you find yourself feeling stressed, tired, hungry, or cranky, try to be kind to your partner.  Try to laugh with him--not at him--when you discover that your baby's diaper has leaked and your husband is covered in urine (yes, this happened).  But, for the moments when you or your partner can't muster the best version of yourselves, agree to put those outbursts behind you swiftly upon landing.  What happens over the Atlantic, stays over the Atlantic . . .

3. Be Prepared, but not Overly So, for the Flight

I read somewhere that parents should pack in their carry on one new toy or game for each hour of the flight.  I am not sure what airlines these parents were flying.  Between the diapers, food, bottles, and blankies I had with me, there was no room for eleven toys in my carry on bag!  This made me nervous.  What if Charlotte screamed the whole flight because she did not have eleven new toys to play with?

As you can probably tell from the name of this tip, I do not think that you need one new toy for every hour.  That is excessive and bulky.  Bring a few things that you know your child loves.  Charlotte loves reading, so we brought a couple of books.  We also brought post-its (thanks to the recommendation of a friend).  Yes, little post-its.  She loved them.  She post-ited our whole row.  They were so easy to pack in the side pocket of my bag, and she loved them.  She also loved the duty free shopping magazine (who doesn't?), the safety card, and the empty plastic cups.  Be creative.  Use what's around you.  And remember, that if your child doesn't normally scream for eleven hours in a row, she probably won't on the plane either.  Keep her as comfortable, well-fed, and dry as possible, and she'll probably be ok.  Your back will thank you for avoiding that extra Santa Claus worthy carry on bag. 

For the detail-minded, here is what I brought onboard:
  • Plenty of diapers and wipes.  Kids always seem to poop a lot on planes. 
  • Bottles with milk or formula.  We are still doing a combination of nursing and bottlefeeding in Curly Rosen land.  I nursed a couple of times on the flight, but mostly relied on bottles.  I brought one or two bottles of whole milk and then a couple more with powdered formula because they last longer.  Planes don't stock whole milk on board.  Bummer, I know.  I did try giving Charlotte the lowfat on the plane.  She drank it, but I think it led to some of the poops mentioned above!
  • Change of clothes.  Was needed.  See above, re poop and husband covered in urine.
  • Books
  • Blanket and pacifier
  • Small stuffed animal
  • iPad -- Charlotte was not interested in the games.  They were pretty lame, actually.  She does like looking at pictures of herself though.  Ahh, the selfie generation . . .
  • Post its!

4. Stay in Apartments with a Kitchen and Washer/Dryer

Now, Chad and I are usually hotel people.  We love the fresh crisp sheets and the occasional ice cream sundae from room service.  But, with a baby, everything changes.  In a single hotel room with a wee one, parents have to go to sleep when baby goes to sleep.  Or, stick the baby in the closet and try to remain at least partially quiet (yes, we've done this).  For our European adventure, I decided we needed space and a kitchen.  Thank goodness!  We rented lovely apartments in London and Paris.  Not only was it convenient to have a kitchen and a washer/dryer, it also made us feel like we were actually living in London and Paris.  See above re my Francophilia to understand why the latter, in particular, made me so pleased. 

We found our apartments through Haven in Paris.  I recommend them!  I mean, look at that Parisian apartment.  Swoon!

5. The Time Change & Figuring Out a Schedule that Works for Everyone

Many parents are terrified of traveling abroad with their toddlers because they fear the time change.  This is understandable.  Even a trip a few time zones away can make for an exhausting vacation.  Knowing this, I wondered how it would feel to totally flip our days and nights?  Well, I don't have the silver bullet answer on this one.  I would say that it just works out.  We arrived in London around 2pm.  By the time we got to our apartment in Chelsea, it was about 4:30pm.  We let Charlotte stretch her legs and then went out for a very early dinner at our local pub.  She was bathed and in bed by about 6:30pm London time.  And miracle of miracles . . . Charlotte slept until nearly 10am the next morning!  Tired baby.  Confused and happy parents!  After that first morning, we tried to get Charlotte (and ourselves, really) immediately on London time.  She took two naps per day (one in her stroller and one at home).  We napped during her late afternoon nap for the first few days.  We all slowly adjusted.  My biggest tip is to try to get on the new time as soon as you arrive.  I don't know how/if I'd adjust this advice if you arrive halfway across the world in the morning.  But for us, this tactic worked. 

And on the schedule . . .  we went thinking that we would have leisurely mornings at home while Charlotte took her first nap, and then all head out as a family for lunch and the afternoon.  We ended up doing the opposite.  I get antsy being stuck in an apartment in the morning when there are glorious sites to see, so we generally got up, got dressed, ate breakfast (sometimes out, sometimes in), and then spent the morning and early afternoon out and about.  Charlotte often napped in her stroller in the late morning.  We'd then head back to the apartment by about 3pm for Charlotte's afternoon nap (taken later than she does at home).  Chad often stayed at the apartment with Charlotte while I walked/shopped/explored.  We found this really worked for us.  We were ready for a little break by mid afternoon, too.  

My biggest advice on the time change/schedule front: Get on the new time as quickly as possible, try to keep naps consistent with what you do at home (2x a day for us), but also recognize that you can tweak things a little.  Afternoon nap at 3pm instead of the usual 2pm?  Worked for us. 

6. Bring a Lightweight Umbrella Stroller

We had one day sans stroller because United lost our stroller bag.  Eek!  Luckily, I had my trusty Ergo Carrier for the day, which I love.  But, by the end of the day, my back was sore.  Our stroller arrived that afternoon, and we were all set.  I definitely recommend bringing a lightweight umbrella stroller.  We used the UppaBaby G-Luxe.  It is a great travel stroller because it reclines --  a function that many umbrella strollers do not have.  This is key for on-the-go naps.  And you will definitely need something lightweight because many tube/metro stops do not have "lifts."  Chad and I perfected the feat of carrying the stroller up and down the stairs.  

7. Don't Underestimate Your Kid

Just as travel is broadening for adults, so it is for children.  I have found that every time we take Charlotte on a new adventure, she grows over the course of the vacation.  It can be a physical development, an experiment with a new skill, even a taste of a new food.  She gets a little older, a little wiser, and we get to experience her growth right alongside her, never missing an instant like we sometimes do in our busy lives at home.  Knowing this, I try to remind myself when we travel to trust that Charlotte will adapt and learn, even in places that we do not normally think of as "kid places."  The lesson here -- your kid is capable of more than you sometimes give him credit for.  Live a little on vacation, and see your child blossom in the process!

Charlotte loved museums!  This was not a total surprise, as she loves walking around our house to look at the art on our walls.  When we told people at home that we were going to take Charlotte to museums, some shuddered.  Even the guidebooks caution against much museum time with little ones.  I say, go for it!  Don't expect the visit to be just the same as it would be without kids.  But, share the joy of art with your toddler.  Talk with them about what they see.  Let them roam (respectfully) through the art.  

Charlotte conquered her fear of walking on grass!  We took her to parks almost everyday.  By a day or two in, she was a pro at grass.  Yay, Charlotte!

We took Charlotte to the Jules Verne, a fancy restaurant at the Eiffel Tower.  We went at lunch instead of dinner and made sure to order a bit more swiftly than we would without a kiddo.  But, we also made sure to enjoy our lunch and let her relish in the experience, too.  We were giddy when she decided that it was time to use a spoon all by herself for the first time right there in the restaurant.  Perhaps it was because she needed to quickly scoop up the most delicious, buttery mashed potatoes we've ever had.  New manners, check!  

So, parents, take your kiddos to museums, parks, nice restaurants, bookstores . . . whatever you think is fun and enjoyable.  Adjust your timeframe and your outlook a bit, but know that you don't need to avoid these places entirely just because you are traveling with a child.  You never know, she just might learn something new in the process!

8. Surviving Restaurants: The Totseat and Squeezies

Speaking of restaurants, we are spoiled in the U.S. when it comes to dining out with kids.  It seems there are always highchairs, kids' menus, and food that comes out quickly.  Not so in London and Paris, particularly the latter.  There is scant a highchair to be found in all of Paris.  Luckily, we knew this ahead of time, and we traveled prepared.  We brought our trusty Totseat, a contraption that turns any chair into a highchair.  It is small, lightweight, and a lifesaver.  Highly recommended!

[Not Charlotte ;) ]

We also brought a generous supply of squeezy babyfood pouches.  Charlotte does not eat these at home very often, but I wanted to make sure that we always had something on hand to feed her and that she would eat some fruits and vegetables at every meal.  We used every pouch I brought [about 25 for a two week trip].  Bonus extra suitcase space for our treasures acquired abroad!

9. Be Brave . . . Book a Babysitter!

As thrilled as we were to travel for two weeks with our baby, we were not prepared to forgo adults' only time for the duration of the trip.  We wanted some lingering dinners, some evening entertainment, and some time to stroll without the weight of a stroller.  So, we booked babysitters.  In London, we hired a lovely woman through a concierge service.  After a slight panic right before she arrived, I imagined the gourmet Indian food we were about to eat and forced myself to calm down.  It was so worth it.  It was even easier in Paris, where we were lucky enough to hire the cousin of a friend who happens to be living in Paris for the year.

My tip -- be brave!  Book a sitter and enjoy exploring a foreign location a deux!  It will mean nights at the theater, evening strolls at Montmartre, and some time to enjoy a little romance in a new place. Your kid will be fine.  Trust me. 

If you a feeling a bit anxious, I do recommend getting a mobile phone/SIM card that will work abroad. We did not have one, and it did make us a bit concerned that the sitters could not get ahold of us.  It will be on our list for our next trip abroad.

10. A Note on Transportation

We used many different means of transportation while traveling.  Generally, we preferred to walk most places.  It gave us a chance to explore the cities in an organic way, and Charlotte was a good stroller napper.  It also allowed us to avoid the dilemma of the Tube/Metro vs. Taxi.  Sometimes however, a place was just too far or our need for an at-home nap was fast approaching.  So, we also took our fair share of Tube/Metro rides, which meant carrying the stroller and Charlotte up and down some stairs.  The metro in Paris is particularly convenient because it goes so many places.  It worked for us, even though it was sometimes challenging to make it through the system with a stroller, a baby, and her accoutrements.  

I had a love/hate relationship with the taxis, however.  We could not bring a carseat with us out and about all day, so riding in a taxi meant riding in a car with Charlotte and no carseat.  American suburban parent freakout!  Because of this nervousness, we limited taxi rides to those times when we really wanted to get home to put Charlotte down to sleep.  I held her tight and held my breath until we arrived safely home!

I will note that the taxis in London have a little seatbelt modification for little ones.  It's not as great as a carseat, but it's better than nothing.  

So, my advice here is to generally rely on walking and subways/boats to the extent possible.  But, sometimes a quick ride home trumps.  In those instances, jump in a cab and hold on tight.

11. And Yes, A Baguette is a Great Babysitter

French baguettes are delicious.  For a little one with less than a full set of teeth, a hunk of baguette can offer a true challenge.  Charlotte loved her daily baguette fix.  And we loved the quiet time it gave us.  Baguette in hand, Charlotte contentedly chomped her way through Paris.  Give your kiddo a baguette, and explore away!

1 comment:

  1. I love everything about this! Hope our little girls can meet someday!