Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

Long before I became a mother, people told me that the first six months is the easiest time to travel with a baby – before they walk, talk or require children’s activities. Others told me to travel as much as possible before you have children, as it’s too difficult to go places for the first few years. I can confirm that you don’t have to turn in your passport when you have a baby, as my daughter Vera turns one year old today (they really do grow up so fast), and I’ve traveled with her extensively since she was six weeks old, as well as frequently when I was pregnant. As she was born in Turkey, far from our families and home country, I knew travel would be a factor in her life, but never expected I would love traveling with her and try to fit in as many trips as possible (nine countries and counting).

I’ve written here on Gadling a series of articles on planning travel, flying and international travel with baby, and expanded on these topics on my blog, Knocked Up Abroad Travels. I still stand by all of those tips and tricks, but below are the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling with a baby in the first year.

Do a test run trip
Just as a baby has to learn to crawl before they can walk, start small with your explorations. Before you plan a big trip with a baby, take a shorter “test run” to see it’s not so hard and learn what your challenges might be. Taking a short flight to an unfamiliar place, especially with a time change, language or cultural barrier, is good practice before you take a bigger trip. If you live in the U.S., a long weekend in Canada or the Caribbean, or even Chicago, could be a nice break and a useful lesson on traveling with a baby. While we live in Istanbul, travel in Europe is (relatively) cheap and quick, so taking a vacation in Malta with Vera at six weeks old was an easy first trip. For our first trip home to visit family and friends, I flew to and from the U.S. by myself with Vera. If I hadn’t traveled with her before, it might have seemed daunting to fly 10 hours solo with a baby, but it was smooth sailing. Confidence is key, especially when you learn you’ll do just fine without the bouncy seat for a few days.Stay flexible
Parenting experts may say that babies need structure and routine, but recognize that they are also very flexible, especially in the early months when they mostly sleep and eat. As long as you can attend to the baby’s immediate needs, it doesn’t matter much where you do it; a baby’s comfort zone is wherever you are. Babies also make planning near impossible. You may find that just as you planned to visit a museum, you’ll need to find somewhere to sit down to feed the baby, with a decent bathroom for changing a diaper. You might eat dinner later than expected as you walk the baby around the block a few more times to get her to sleep. We kept our first trip with Vera to Malta simple, relaxing by the sea in Gozo and wandering around the old city of Valletta: no itinerary, no must-sees, no ambitious day trips. We missed out on a few “important” sights and spent a few days doing little more than reveling in the joys of cheap wine, trashy novels and ham sandwiches, but it was stress-free and helped us to connect with the place as well as each other.

Re-consider where you stay and how you get around
Once you start planning a trip with a baby, you might be spending more time on AirBnB than When you travel with a child, you care less about hotel design or public amenities like a gym (ha!) and more about in-room comfort and conveniences like a separate bedroom space or kitchenette. On an early trip, we stayed in a friend’s home in Trieste, in a vacation apartment in Venice and in a room above a cafe in Ljubljana, and each had their advantages. In Italy, it was nice to have access to laundry and space to cook a meal with friends when we were too tired to go out; while when I was on my own in Slovenia, it was handy to go downstairs for breakfast or a much-needed glass of wine, and someone was always around if I needed help with the stroller. You’ll also have to think differently about how you get around town with a stroller or carrier and plan some routes in advance. In London, I spent a lot of time on the excellent Transport For London website mapping out which tube stations had elevators and what days I would use a carrier only (I love the Boba wrap). In Venice, I didn’t bother with a stroller at all for the city’s many stairs, bridges and cobblestone streets, but needed to stop more frequently to rest my tired shoulders and was grateful for extra hands to hold the baby while I ate pasta.

Everywhere is nice in a “baby bubble”
You should be prepared to be self-sufficient when traveling with a baby, from boarding a plane to getting on a subway, but you’ll be surprised by how helpful strangers can be, especially outside the U.S. Not touching strangers’ babies seems to be a uniquely American concept, while in Mediterranean Europe, waiters will often offer to carry your baby around or give them a treat (say thanks and eat it yourself). After Istanbul, I found Budapest to be the most baby-friendly, and even trendy restaurants had changing facilities and bartenders who wanted to play peekaboo. I expected Londoners to be rather cold, but their stiff upper lips were more often smiling and cooing. A tube employee helped me carry the stroller up several flights of stairs when an elevator wasn’t working, and I got table service in a cafe that normally only had counter service. Don’t expect special treatment because you have a baby, but enjoy it when it comes.

Stay calm and carry travel insurance
Having a sick baby is scary for anyone, especially when you are in a foreign country far from home. Statistically, it’s more likely that your child will get sick or hurt at home, but it can happen on the road as well. Before you take off, figure out what you will do in an emergency: can you get travel insurance that covers a visit to a pediatrician? Can you change or cancel travel plans if the baby is sick? If you rent an apartment, do you have local contacts in case something happens? In Budapest, by myself, I had a few incidents getting stuck in an elevator, locked out of our apartment and having the baby slip out of a highchair. Everything worked out fine, but staying calm was key as upsetting the baby would have just added to the stress. Coming back from Belgrade last month, our daughter woke up with a cold and a mild fever the day we were supposed to fly home. Our wonderful AirBnB hostess got us medicine and we ultimately decided to fly the short trip as scheduled, but if it had been more serious, I could have paid the change fee to delay our flight and visit a local doctor. The baby was fine the next day, though I still have some Serbian fever reducer for her next cold.

Don’t let the turkeys get you down
Perhaps I’ve become more sensitive to the idea, but I’ve noticed recently that screaming babies on airplanes have become the catch-all complaint for everything that’s wrong with air travel (though in Gadling’s Airline Madness tournament of travel annoyances, children didn’t make it to the final four). Look up any news story about children and airplanes and you’ll find a long list of angry commenters complaining about how they don’t want to sit next to your “brat” on the plane, and that you shouldn’t subject other people to your lifestyle choices. A crying baby is not an inevitability, and planes are still public transportation, so don’t get psyched out by the looks and comments from other passengers. After 22 flights with Vera without a tantrum or crying fit, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to your baby and be considerate of others. I still tell my airplane “neighbors” that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep her quiet and happy, and by the time we land, we’ve made more friends than enemies.

Enjoy it while it lasts
The first two years are the cheapest time to travel with a child: domestic air travel is free for lap children, international tickets are a fraction (usually 10 percent) of the adult fare, and most hotels and museums allow babies free of charge for the first few years. This time is also the most “adult” you’ll have for awhile, before you have to consider the whims and boredom of a child. Vera’s first year has been delightfully kid-menu and Disney-free. In a few years we may have to rethink our itinerary and even our destinations, but so far, not much has changed. We still love going to post-Soviet cities, wandering around oddball museums and sitting outside at wine bars to people watch, though our bedtime might be a bit earlier.

Share your lessons learned while traveling with a baby, or tell me what I’m in for in year two in the comments below.

Five tips for a great Gozo break

Gozo, as Meg Nesterov recently reported, is a spirited place. The smaller of the Republic of Malta‘s two main islands, the island also known as the Isle of Calypso provides the rustic antidote to big brother Malta’s package holiday flash. There’s a lot to do on Gozo. Capital Victoria boasts an incredible walled Citadel. There are trails for hiking. There are little villages that become shady and welcoming in the late afternoon; many of these have gloriously grand churches to visit. And then of course there’s the classic Mediterranean activity: setting down towel and various paraphernalia along the water for an idle afternoon.

Here are five tips for making the most of your time on Gozo, with an emphasis on local cuisine.

1. Eat lunch at Ta’ Rikardu. This little restaurant occupies space on a passageway in the walled Citadel at the heart of Gozo’s tourism core. Don’t let its popularity with tourists chase you away. The restaurant offers an absolutely delicious local platter (see above) of fresh tomatoes, local cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, and onions. Also delicious are the homemade ravioli, fat and enormous, stuffed with cheese and parsley. There’s a small shop on the premises selling local food and drink.

2. Book a taxi with Marcel Mejlaq. You should probably rent a car on Gozo. Those unable or unwilling to drive will likely need a taxi from time to time. Track down Mr. Mejlaq through your hotel. He’s friendly, full of good anecdotes, and charges under the going rate. Another cabbie charged €18 to go from the port to our hotel; Marcel charged just €13.

3. Eat dinner at Jeffrey’s Restaurant. Though far less explicitly local in orientation than Ta’ Rikardu, Jeffrey”s is a good place to taste Gozitan food. The fried cheese starter is especially nice and the beef-stuffed squash main is also quite good. A vegetarian version of the stuffed squash (called “marrow” here) can also be ordered.

4. Swim at Xlendi. Popular among locals and tourists alike, Xlendi’s bay features exquisite clear water and a lively weekend atmosphere. Avoid the tiny beach and plunk your towel down on the sloping rock along the left-hand side of the bay. Dive in or lower yourself down via a ladder. Afterwards stop by Gelateria Granola for ice cream. Don’t expect solitude or a village vibe here. Xlendi is tourism central, but the town has been developed in a manner that isn’t garish and the water is absolutely lovely.

5. Walk the Ta’ Cenc plateau. Adjacent to the very nice Hotel Ta’ Cenc is an attractive plateau. The views over Gozo and across to Malta from here are wonderful. There are Neolithic period dolmens and even the remains of a temple to check out. In the hours leading up to sundown the plateau is particularly captivating.

Ta’ Cenc, Gozo

What constitutes a good hotel experience? This question animates a certain subset of travel writing. It’s just popped up for me again in light of the buzz around the launch of Ritz-Carlton’s new marketing campaign. (Check out the campaign’s quite captivating video.) “Let us stay with you” is the tagline of the Ritz-Carlton’s campaign, which is designed to capture the idea that experiences are more important (and in fact more desirable) than objects within the context of luxury hospitality. I like that theme, even if I’m plugging into travel at a vastly lower price point.

Frankly, the realization that this was Ritz-Carlton’s intention came as a relief. Originally, I interpreted the “stay” in the tagline to mean “cohabitate.” The idea of a hotel’s staff moving in is a bit disconcerting, the physical version of a social media nightmare in which Facebook likes and Foursquare check-ins take over and define us. And then of course there are some other uncomfortable interpretive dimensions of this marketing campaign, especially in light of the ongoing bedbug epidemic in parts of North America, which might make some readers cringe at the prospect of a hotel “staying” with them past checkout.

Potential misinterpretations aside, Ritz-Carlton’s campaign hinges on the idea that a hotel can create memories. This is fine, of course, but there is also something here that grates on my nerves and, I’m guessing, the nerves of other tourists and travelers–namely, the idea that the work of memory-creation would ever be outsourced to hotel staff. I’m not sure I want anyone I don’t know making memories for me. And shouldn’t travel be driven by advance research, personal obsessions, and the odd planning mistake, anyway? Travel isn’t an all-encompassing cloud of good feelings. There are ecstatic moments as well as stressful moments.

All of this was on my mind when I stayed at Gozo‘s Hotel Ta’ Cenc this past weekend. Ta’ Cenc a beautiful property occupying a considerable piece of cliff top land on Gozo, on the edge of the village of Sannat. Ta’ Cenc is not terribly expensive by European resort standards, at €186 per night for two, though it’s far beyond my standard budget, which averages just a fraction of that.

My stay at Ta’ Cenc was an indisputably good experience. A beautiful location, nicely-kept grounds, friendly staff, and capacious room were all points in the resort’s favor.

The physical setting of Ta’ Cenc is absolutely lovely. The single-story hotel rooms snake through flowering gardens and alongside two outdoor pools, one for families and one for adults. There is an attractive small spa as well, with an additional pool, gym, and sauna, all complimentary for guests. Treatments are quite reasonable, with body massages beginning at €25.

Several buildings are Trullo-style, with conical roofs. Beyond is a beautiful plateau that stretches to cliffs that drop right down to the sea. The plateau, which includes hiking trails, affords striking views over Gozo and across to Malta.

Ta’ Cenc is undergoing a renovation. Our suite (a gratis upgrade from a standard room) was clearly mid-renovation. Consequently, the bathroom was old school, while the bedroom and lounge were smartly done in understated blues and beiges. The bed was very comfortable.

Was it perfect? No. Had I been terribly fussy, the unrenovated bathroom would have bothered me. More substantively, the hotel’s restaurant did not thrill me, with its very bland Italianate dishes that didn’t really reference Gozo’s local culinary heritage. (Malta may produce little of its own agricultural products, but what it does produce is very tasty.) Lastly, the hotel advertises a private beach on its website, despite the fact that the beach is not currently open for use. I’d count two of these issues (bathroom and beach) as minor.

Will Ta’ Cenc “stay” with me? The dry heat, the pleasant pools, the architecture, and the surrounding cliff top were all absolutely lovely, and I won’t soon forget the sweetness of several staff members. I’m happy to leave it there: a hotel experience that was far better than most, with a few mostly minor hiccups.

Watching a small village parade in Malta

I just returned from a week in the small island country of Malta. For our first trip with our nearly two-month old baby, we decided to rent a house outside the village of Xaghra on Malta’s smaller island Gozo. Picking us up from the ferry, our landlady explained how the town was gearing up for the national Victory Day holiday on September 8th as well as the village patron saint’s feast celebration, and each night there would be smaller festivities building up to the main event. Every night we’d walk to the square, choose among the handful of restaurants to eat (with a population of 4,200, it’s among the more cosmopolitan of Gozitan villages), and watch the square fill with people chatting, eating, and playing bingo, as it turned out. We saw girls in outfits that would be considered skimpy in a Miami nightclub flirt on the church steps with boys wearing shirts with religious icons. On our last night on Gozo, the square was more packed than usual and soon we discovered why: a parade was about to start!

%Gallery-133057%The village parade consisted mainly of a marching band and a large statue of the village’s patron saint, Our Lady of Victories, carried by a team of local men, many who had been enjoying a few Cisk beers. The make up of the band’s members was motley but memorable, including a tiny man carrying a drum that nearly dwarfed him, a boy barely in his teens playing among musicians decades older, a pretty young woman in high wedge heels. The band started out in the square, playing various Gozitan and Maltese anthems, before moving down the main road under a rain of confetti. We followed the band along the street until we were stopped in a bottleneck in front of Our Lady of Victories. You do NOT want to get in front of Our Lady, lest you want to be scolded by the man in charge of her and her (increasingly drunken) handlers. We moved aside and let the band continue down the street, leaving a thick carpet of confetti. Every child in town came out to gather bunches of confetti, build forts in it, and throw it at their friends.

As the crowd began to disperse, we stopped at a snack bar where they played a recording of the songs we had just heard, in search of a nightcap. Even a dozen years of living in New York with its legendary parades couldn’t compare to the fun we had at a small Gozitan feast, and this was just a warm up celebration! In New York, you wouldn’t see a child rolling around making confetti angels. In New York, you can’t touch the floats. In New York, you couldn’t buy a magnum of good local wine after hours and be told apologetically that it would cost 4 euro. But in Gozo, a family of Russian/American New York City expats from Istanbul could feel dazzled by a small village feast.

Photo of the day – Bingo in Gozo

I’m going to break with tradition with choosing a Photo of the Day from our Flickr pool and post a photo from on location. I’m currently traveling on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, Malta, staying outside the small town of Xagra (oh, the things we do to bring new destination content to our readers!). Each night, I walk to the town square with my husband and baby and watch as the whole town assembles for eating, gossiping, and apparently, bingo. At first we thought the church was setting up for an important religious ceremony, as hundreds turn out each night and wait expectantly for the church bells to sound at 9pm, but it’s just good old-fashioned bingo. Old ladies, teenagers, and couples arrive with their markers, hoping for their number to be called.

What old-fashioned social events have you seen on your travels? Add your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may choose it for a future Photo of the Day.