Knocked up abroad: international travel with a baby

travel with a babyThis is the third in Knocked Up Abroad‘s guide to traveling with a baby. Before you go, see tips on planning travel and flying with a baby.

So you’ve decided to travel abroad with your new family addition, well done! You’ve chosen the best baby-friendly destination, packed light, and even survived the long flight. Now that you’re on the ground, possibly recovering from jet lag and hopefully learning new foreign phrases for “what a cute baby!,” how can you ensure you and your baby have a fun and relaxing vacation? After five countries in under four months (several of them without other adults), I can say it mostly comes down to attitude and planning. Here are my tips for international travel with a baby:

-Don’t expect the world to cater to you. The most important thing to bring on a trip with a baby is the right attitude. If you travel expecting every restaurant to have a baby-changing table in the bathroom (which they probably won’t, especially in Europe) or that public transportation should be stroller-accessible, you can be sorely disappointed. Keep your expectations low and get creative. I’ve changed my baby on many toilet seat lids, on top of and even in sinks (stuff your diaper bag in to make a flat base), and occasionally in her stroller. Allow yourself to be surprised by people, too. In New York, I was prepared to carry my stroller up and down stairs at some subway stops by myself, yet I was helped by strangers every time. A restaurant owner in Italy set up a makeshift table on top of their deep freezer when she saw me struggling to change the baby on a sink top. Look at inconveniences as part of the adventure rather than a sign you should have stayed home.-Plan your logistics carefully, and then let the rest of your plans go. As noted previously, it pays to do your research before departing. Each day of your trip, plan out where you want to go, how to get there, and what you might need but realize that you might not do any of it. In Malta, there was a wine festival in the next town with cheap tastings and free food, but a cranky baby meant we stayed within walking distance of our apartment (good thing too, or we could have missed a great parade). In Slovenia, we had to make a detour back to our hotel after a diaper incident meant I had to strip my baby down to just her winter coat and diaper. Babies can be unpredictable, so you may need stop at a cafe to feed a baby, take an extra walk around the block before bed to soothe crying, or go back to your room early when the weather turns bad. While combination transit or tourist passes might be a good value, they won’t be if your baby won’t go in a museum without screaming or prefers an open-air stroll to a bus ride.

-Find favorite rest stops. When you need to take a time out from exploring to feed or change your baby, there can be some comfortable places to stop that exist in nearly every destination. Museums and large hotels tend to have nice bathrooms, sometimes with changing facilities. Large baby stores may have a private nursing room or a place to change the baby, plus plenty of gear and gadgets if you need them. Pharmacists generally speak English and carry nearly all of the necessities. At night, however, you may have to be creative again. I tend to visit the same cafes in Istanbul again and again not just for the food but for the bathrooms, the waiters who rush to coddle and play with the baby, and comfy seating while I feed her.

-Breast is best when traveling. While it’s a personal choice how you feed your baby, if you can and want to breastfeed, there is evidence both anecdotal and scientific to support that breastfeeding is preferred while traveling. According to the CDC, it provides needed immunities, nutrition, and hydration for the baby. Even if the mother gets traveler diarrhea, breastfeeding can help to protect from contaminants and rehydrate the baby. It’s also convenient: perfectly packaged, the right temperature, and nothing goes to waste! Nursing mothers may still want to carry a manual pump and store a spare bottle or two. So far, I’ve found every country to be friendly to breastfeeding mothers, though I carry and use a scarf for modesty and spit-up. La Leche League has resources in many countries if you need help, check their map for local groups.

-Document your baby’s trip. It goes without saying that you’ll take plenty of photos and perhaps journal, blog, or tweet your trip, but it helps to document the more mundane activities too. When my baby was born, I got a set of cute notebooks to help me keep track of her feeding and sleeping schedule and diaper changes. I maintained it faithfully only for the first month or two, but now try to revive the records when I travel. Especially if you’re dealing with a big time change, it can help you to figure out how the baby is adjusting by keeping track of how often they eat and how long they sleep at a stretch. It’s also useful when deciding how many diapers to buy so you don’t get caught short or hauling around a mega pack. In the event that your baby gets sick (fingers crossed that they don’t!) during or after your trip, you can tell the doctor if anything is out of the ordinary and help pinpoint causes. You don’t need a fancy notebook either, you can jot down notes on the back of a museum ticket or restaurant receipt while you’re making a pit stop.

-Pack “in between” clothes. If your baby has clothes that he is about to grow out of, bring them along on your travels. If they have only one or two more wears left in them, you won’t mind if they get left behind in a hotel room, will have less to launder or carry, and you’ll probably take many photos of your baby so you can remember a favorite outfit before it gets too small. Keep a spare in your diaper or day bag in case of a changing emergency.

-Know your conversions. Do you know your baby’s weight in kilograms? Does 39 degrees sound hot or cold to you? If you’re American, you probably suffer from the disadvantage of not knowing the metric system used by the rest of the world. You’ll need to know measurements when buying diapers as size numbers might change between countries. My baby was born weighing 3.4 kilos (about 7.5 pounds) and wears a size 2 Pampers in every European country, but wore a size 1 in the same brand of American diapers. In case of a fever while traveling, you should know what temperatures require a visit to a local doctor or just a dose of Children’s Tylenol (which is called Calpol in many other countries, by the way). This info is all online, of course, but it can’t hurt to jot it down in your wallet just in case.

-Carry lots of bags. One of the more useful items to pack and/or collect on your trip is bags disposable, resealable, and reuseable. Bottles can be kept clean and stained clothing can be kept separate from the rest of your stuff in a Ziploc bag (bring a stash from home, they are harder to find in some countries). Supermarket store plastic bags are useful for laundry and diapers until you can deal with them properly. You’ll be going to the store more than usual for baby supplies, and many countries don’t supply bags for free, so bring your own reuseable tote for groceries, carrying gear from your luggage on an outing, or bringing souvenirs home. Bags are useful even without a baby but can also make a huge difference if you have a wet baby miles from your hotel.

What are your secret weapons for traveling with a baby? Leave us your success stories (and mistakes) in the comments.

A Canadian In Beijing: Malled

My little dorm room came with a kettle and a cup and a few towels but not much else besides the furniture and some simple bedding. To get through three months, I knew that I’d need a few simple household items. For instance, I didn’t have a bowl or a scrub brush for dishes, nor did I have any dish towels or a good pair of scissors for cutting open packages. I also needed some self-loading pencils for the numerous Chinese characters I’m writing in school, the kinds with built-in erasers for the likewise numerous mistakes that I’ll make writing those very same characters.

Anyway, this is all to say that I needed to go shopping.

The other part of the truth (which may or may not be the bigger part!) is that I had been avoiding doing my laundry and I was completely out of underwear. Rather than hand wash a few pairs to get me through, I decided that I could probably afford to buy a few more pairs. Lazy, I know. I’m such a stereotypic bachelor right now!

With all this in mind, I grabbed my reusable shopping bags and headed to the heart of Wudaokou.

It is really hard to gauge the size and scope of a building’s interior in this city. For instance, the university has a huge canteen. The first time I explored it, I saw a large room and a lot of food being offered, cafeteria-style. The second time I went in, I noticed an upstairs and there I found another large room with separate kiosks of food like at a North American mall. The third time I went in there, I was with fellow students who led me upstairs again but this time we went through a rear door of that same upstairs room. This door looked like a service entrance, so I hadn’t questioned it, but it brought us into a hallway that led to restaurant after restaurant offering various international fare. I was amazed at my terrible sleuthing skills the two times previous.

I feel a little like Alice walking through the looking glass. I have no idea what I’ll find around every corner and I am constantly in awe at the density of sights, smells, sounds and activity here.

So, en route to aforementioned room supplies, I went into the Lotus Center for the second time since arriving. As I was walking around, I suddenly noticed an escalator at the far end of the small, main-floor, shopping complex that I had mistakenly understood to be the entirety of the “Lotus Center.” I went up this escalator and found myself in a giant mall with three levels that offered everything from DVDs to housewares, new shoes to fresh vegetables, cigarettes to shampoo.

Okay then. How did I miss that the first time?

I stood at the top of the first escalator looking around, dumbfounded, and became a bit like a rock in the riverbed of a flowing public. People flowed around and past me as I turned and waited for a relatively quiet moment to photograph the escalator.

Because I have never seen items for sale on an escalator before. The items don’t move but you do. How does that work?

Picture this: you’re the shopper and you think, “hey, maybe I’ll buy that item but I’d like to check out the ingredients first.” Then, after picking it up and realizing that you’d probably be better off without all those unpronounceable contents in your body, you’ve been carried up and away from where it belongs! Stranded at the top or stranded at the bottom with a box of cheap cookies in your hand, what do you do?

Maybe it’s a brilliant idea. Perhaps you’d look at the effort it would take to put it back — You’d have to do the up/down loop in order to be the conscientious shopper who returns an unwanted item to whence it came, after all — and then just throw it in your basket and consider buying it as your penance for being lazy? Go back into the flowing public just to put back a box of cookies? I think not. Besides, at that point in the consideration, you’d likely have talked yourself into wanting them after all! Maybe they’ll be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted, you wonder.

Oh how the mind justifies. This is how advertising gets us.

As you can imagine, with these ideas running through my head and so much to take in, I sometimes walk around a bit like I’m in a daze. China makes me move slowly and I get jostled around and bumped into by people left and right — people who are less in a state of wonder and with more of an agenda. This was how it was for me for the remainder of my time in the Lotus Center. My little basket and I wandered wide-eyed through aisle after aisle and my little basket slowly got heavier.

I admit to being tempted by the incredibly low prices of stuff here. I bought my underwear. The women’s version was terrible and came with bows! I ended up buying a four-pack of men’s cotton briefs with some cool designs on them for a whopping 4 kuai (or almost $0.59 a pack — That makes it $0.15 a pair!) Note to self: I am bigger than a men’s medium in China; they’re kinda tight!

And what else did I buy? Well, 96 kuai later and I must admit that I’m not quite sure! I got my school supplies and some letter-writing supplies, some slippers for my cold dorm floor, tea towels, some food products, some water. All in all, it’s easy to say that things are cheap here, but those cheap things eventually cost a lot of money! I know that 80 kuai is only $14 Canadian, but I am aiming to keep this journey within budget and so I found myself scratching my head.

Did I really need the beer shampoo just because it was made of beer?

Maybe I can blame it on the televisions? At the end of every second aisle, a television set with non-stop advertising easily catches a shopper’s gaze. At least, it caught mine! I watched a few ads just for entertainment’s sake, but didn’t buy the products being advertised. Still, perhaps I was subliminally affected into believing that “buying is good” and “shopping is healthy” and “I need more stuff.”

Those discounts are alluring. I couldn’t resist.

At the checkout counter, I dutifully waited my turn and have become quite good at saying “wo bu yao daizi, xie xie,” which means: “I don’t want a plastic bag, thank you.” Everything is put in plastic here unless actively requested otherwise. They look at me strangely but accept my weird “foreign” request without much dispute. Lately, I’ve also starting following up my request with: “shijie you tai duo de daizi.” This means: “The world has too many plastic bags.”

The last time I said that, I actually got a smile.

This is a picture of my checkout line among about twenty others. If only my little camera could capture the panoramic of these views to show the whole scale of such experiences. You’ll just have to take my word for it!