Knocked up abroad: planning travel with a baby

travel with babyLet’s get this out of the way: you can travel with a baby. Many new parents feel that once they have a child, their travel days are over, but many parents will tell you that the first six months are the easiest time to travel with a baby. Is it easy? Not exactly, but with enough planning and the right attitude, it’s not as hard as you might think. Is it selfish? Probably, but so is most travel. Again, planning, attitude and a good amount of luck factor in to ensuring that you and baby aren’t a nuisance to other passengers and that you and your child have a safe and healthy trip. My baby is too young to remember her early adventures, but she’s learning to be adaptable and sociable, and does well with travel, new people, and noise. Is it fun? Your carefree days of travel may be over, but you can still enjoy exploring new places, indulging in great food and wine (it might just be at a sidewalk cafe at 4pm instead of a trendy restaurant at 9pm), and engaging with locals more deeply than you ever did before baby. Given the patience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that I’ve developed while traveling with a baby, I’d say it has made me a better traveler, maybe even a better person.

Living in a foreign country like Turkey puts me at an advantage: I deal with a language and cultural barrier every day and everything is much more complicated and difficult than it would be at home in New York. Because this is not our permanent home and imported items are expensive, we made it through the first few months with little more than a stroller, a baby wrap to carry her, and a portable changing pad, so we already travel light. I say it gives me an advantage because I’m already used to the challenges and unfamiliarity inherent in travel. What makes foreign travel daunting (even without a baby) is the foreignness of it all, which has become my normal (after nearly two years abroad, I can tell you that knowing what’s going on all the time is overrated). The skills I’ve honed as a traveler and an expat — problem-solving, thinking ten steps ahead, and planning an exit strategy — are the same I use as a parent; you can apply the same lessons with a child or on the road.Now with a few trips under my belt with baby both solo and with my husband (and more travel planned in the coming weeks and months), I’ve developed some guidelines to help with traveling with a baby. I’ll be posting some additional articles on how to cope with a baby on a plane and on the ground, travel gear recommendations, as well as some destination-specific info, but first: some tips on planning a trip with a baby.

Choose a baby-friendly destination. You may find that people everywhere are much more understanding and helpful to people traveling with babies than you imagine, but some places are more baby-friendly than others. In my experience, Mediterranean Europe is full of baby-lovers, even if the cobblestones, stairs, and ancient infrastructure presents a lot of challenges. Istanbul can be a nightmare to navigate with a stroller, but there are always friendly Turks willing to help. I’ve also heard babies in Latin America and Southeast Asia are treated like rock stars. Generally, countries with a high birth rate tend to be friendlier than others, though I’ve found the United States to be the most difficult in terms of other people’s attitudes.

-Prepare to pare down: There are a lot of great things about having a baby in the 21st century, but people managed quite well for generations without wipe warmers (really, this is a thing?!) and baby gyms. There are a few items I use at home every day such as a bouncy seat, a nursing pillow, and a folding bathtub, but I’ve done fine without them for weeks at a time while traveling. I know at some point down the line, I’ll need to pack a myriad of toys, snacks, and diversions for my child, but infants need very little. It may help to wean yourself off of baby gear in advance of your trip to see how well you can get along with less. Let the baby get used to a travel cot if you plan to use one, try getting around for a day with just a baby carrier, and introduce toys that can be easily attached to a stroller and then stashed in a pocket. Think about your destination: will a stroller be more of a hinderance than a help or can you get along with another mode of transport? Do you need a car seat or can you rent one? What can serve multiple purposes? I carry a thin Turkish towel that looks like a pashmina and I can use it as a burp cloth, nursing cover, baby blanket, and a scarf. The less you can pack, the better. Really all you can handle is baby in a stroller, one wheeled suitcase, and a purse and/or diaper bag. Anything more and you’ll regret it. Also, keep in mind that babies are born everywhere, and there are few places in the world where you can’t buy diapers, formula, clothes, or other gear. Pack enough in your carry-on to get through the first day and night in case you arrive at your destination after shops close.

-Schedule travel around baby: Babies are adaptable, but when it comes to travel, especially flying, make it as easy on yourself as possible. My baby generally wakes up early to eat, then goes back to sleep for a few hours, and sleeps through most of the night. Therefore, I’ve tried to book flights for early in the morning or overnight so she’s awake as little as possible. In the six flights we took to and from the US and domestically, the only one we had any trouble with was a 45-minute Boston to New York flight in the early evening, when she tends to be cranky. It’s hard to comfort a baby when you’re standing in line or getting ready to board a flight, so if your baby is already asleep at the airport, that’s half the battle. There used to be nothing I hated more than getting to the airport at the crack of dawn, but traveling with a sleeping, and more importantly, quiet baby is worth getting up early.

-Consider an apartment rental: With the popularity of websites such as AirBnB (even after the home trashing scandal), renting an apartment for even a short stay is an increasingly viable option when planning a trip. It not only gives you more space and a more home-like environment, it can also help you to get to know a place more through the neighborhood and markets when you buy food to cook on your trip. For a parent, an apartment has several key advantages over a hotel room. Having access to laundry while traveling can be a huge help and reduce your packing load significantly. Likewise, whether you are breastfeeding or using formula, having a kitchen with a fridge can be a necessity with a baby. If you’re set on a hotel stay (daily room-cleaning could be a big help too!), make sure your room has a minibar fridge to stash bottles inside and a bathtub if your baby is too big for the sink, and get info on the closest laundromat.

-Do your research: The last thing you want when traveling is to be standing on a subway platform with a crying baby, after hauling a heavy stroller up a flight of stairs, only to discover the train is bypassing your station. Before I travel next week to Slovenia and Italy, I’m looking up everything from how to cross the border by taxi, to what train stations have elevators, to public bathrooms in Venice with baby-changing stations (though I’ve managed many times on the top of a toilet seat lid and a changing pad). All the stuff about a destination you could wait to figure out until you arrived before you had a baby will help you a lot to plan in advance. Here’s some examples of things to research before you go, the more prepared you can be, the better.

Stay tuned for more tips on travel with a baby, in the air and on the ground plus destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Knocked up abroad: baby shopping in a foreign country

baby shopping
Knocked up abroad has been on a bit of a hiatus as my travel schedule has slowed and the due date has sped up. Feel free to catch up with posts on pregnancy travel, Turkish superstitions, medical care, and naming children.

I’m into the final month of my pregnancy in Istanbul and that means the countdown is on to get stocked up with wee tiny baby things, garishly colored toys and furniture, and gadgets I never knew I would need. If you’ve ever been baby shopping, either for yourself or for a gift, you know it can be intimidating. Specialty boutiques and megastores are overrun with all sorts of contraptions and devices, in many varieties and brands, organized in ways that are overwhelming to all but the most seasoned of parents. Now try doing this shopping in a foreign country, in another language, with very limited space, and a semi-nomadic expat lifestyle and you’ll understand why I’ve put it off until, as the Turks say, the egg is at the door.

My “home” is in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve spent less than a week there in the past 14 months. My current home in Istanbul is very small but fully furnished and outfitted with many storage cabinets (Turks dislike visible clutter) but little floor space. My husband and I have been heresince last April on an open-ended work assignment with no end date in sight. We may end this year back in Brooklyn, still in Istanbul, or in another city and country altogether. Given our situation, I’m trying to accumulate as little as possible and try to cut through the “must-have” baby lists to the bare essentials and stuff I won’t mind leaving behind in six months.

%Gallery-126823%In many ways, Turkey is a great place to have a baby, as Turks adore children and are happy to cater to them (someone should commission a study on the correlation between Mediterranean countries and baby-craziness, there must be something in the olive oil). Most malls have an area if not a whole floor of stores dedicated to kids, including local chains like Joker and E-Bebek (that’s e-baby), as well as many branches of UK chain Mothercare. While they all carry most of the same brands as in America and western Europe, the websites and store info is generally in Turkish, meaning a lot of time spent with a dictionary and translation site when researching products. Also unfortunate is the usual Turkish sales approach of hovering. Generally when you walk into a store in Istanbul, a sales person marches up to you, says “hoş geldiniz” (Turkish for welcome) and then proceeds to silently follow you around the store until you ask a question or flee the shop in paranoia (I usually flee in search of a shop with sales help who can’t be bothered to look up from their texting). This is the practice in nearly every store other than touristy carpet shops, and Turkish friends will tell me they are expecting me to take the lead and tell them my needs or tell them to buzz off. I found this hard to do in baby stores and instead tried to do much of my browsing online so I was prepared to purchase in stores.

The big ticket item on my list (as with many other expecting parents) is a stroller. I wanted something that could work from birth to toddlerhood, that could serve as a sleeping bassinet for the first few months (no room for a crib now) and be versatile enough to travel the world. Earlier in the pregnancy we contemplated a shopping trip to somewhere relatively nearby like Amsterdam or Barcelona where they must sell the chicest and most practical of European city strollers, but ended up deciding to buy something available in Istanbul that we could get parts and service for nearly anywhere in the world. We don’t own a car in either Istanbul or New York (in fact, I’m in possession of a soon-to-expire learner’s permit), but we got a car seat from a Turkish colleague to use on taxi rides and future road trips that can fit onto many strollers with an adapter. For Istanbul, the stroller needed to be tough enough to handle many hills, uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets, but be light enough to tote up New York subway stairs and navigate narrow supermarket aisles. After researching dozens of strollers, spending many soul-destroying hours watching demo and review videos online, and testing a few out in person, I have determined the Perfect Stroller does not exist. Since I have no nursery to decorate and few other things to buy, I was able to splash out on a tricked-out Almost Perfect Stroller (I won’t name brands until I have a chance to test drive, but it’s one you will see in most yuppie coffee shops around the world) and will buy something cheap and lightweight when I am back in a city without metro station elevators and helpful Turks.

After the stroller was chosen, there are a few other items necessary to many new parents and designed well for travelers. As is common in many modern Istanbul apartments, we have no bathtub (Turks see them as unclean, and even the traditional hamam bath is more about the steaming than soaking) and tiny sinks in our bathroom and kitchen. I was resigned to buying a big plastic tub that I would eventually leave behind, but then found this cool device by American design company Puj. It’s essentially a glorified piece of foam that folds into a seat you can wedge into the sink, but unfolds flat and can be hung on a wall to dry. I imagine I can also pack it in the bottom of a suitcase for travel. One item on my list for my next US visit is the Nest from Phil&Teds: a rather ingenius travel carrier that can carry all the gear and then work as a bed or cot at night. Our parents would say a suitcase and pillow could serve the same purpose, but this meets more safety standards than a Samsonite and fits in the overhead bin too. Finally, we also wanted a baby carrier to go hands-free and stroller-less when traveling. There are upteen options out there, and we ended up with a Sleepy Wrap (another glorified bit of fabric with a nice label on it but several friends swear by it) purchased at a terrific speciality shop in Singapore. Fun fact: the Turkish word for baby carrier is kanguru.

The most fun things to shop for are, of course, baby clothes. Few people can resist tiny t-shirts, onesies, and dresses, and most parents can expect to receive many items as gifts. I stocked up on the basics at Mothercare and other clothing stores (we do have Baby Gap and even Baby Zara in Turkey), but discovered a treasure trove of baby shops recently in Eminönü, a crowded shopping area between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. In these local shops, I found a range of clothes from the adorable to the downright odd, some with Turkish phrases and many more with strange “Turk-lish.” Check out the gallery above for some of the best.

Now that my apartment is filling up with baby things, I feel just about ready for my due date on July 20 without feeling weighed down by useless gadgets. Any other expat or frequent traveler parents out there who can recommend products? Feel free to leave them in comments below.

Stay tuned for a final pre-birth Knocked up abroad (pending baby’s cooperation, but they say first babies are usually late) on Turkish vs. American attitudes toward babies and pregnant women. Until then, catch up on the other posts here.

Galley Gossip: A question about traveling with car seats and strollers

Dear Heather,

Okay, so how bad is to have a one-year old on a plane without an actual ‘seat’? Please tell me it’s not the worst thing in the world????I wanted to bring a car seat on board, but they won’t let us because we’re not buying her a ticket. Also, should we check the stroller on the plane? We have a bugaboo, and I hate for it to get ruined, but it breaks down very easily. We could get a bag for it? Do you know if they make specific bags for strollers? Any advice please????????????

Thanks,
Marlo

Dear Marlo,

It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a one-year old on the airplane without an actual seat! Now take a deep breath and relax, Marlo, because you are a good mother, whether you buy that seat or not, and you’re going to need all that nervous energy in flight entertaining your daughter. Trust me, I know. Whenever I travel with my little one, regardless of how well behaved he is, I always end up feeling completely drained by the end of the trip.

As a flight attendant, it is my duty to tell you that it is safer for your daughter to travel strapped into a car seat that has been secured to an airplane seat. But let’s get real for a minute, because that, I know, is not always possible for some to do, particularly in this day and age when people are just struggling to survive. With that said, I must tell you that I have traveled with my son, along with my guilt, minus the car seat, on the airplane one or two times. My advice to you is to keep your seat belt fastened during the flight while you hold your daughter in your lap, because turbulence happens, even when the seat belt sign is not on.

You stated that you want to bring your car seat on-board, but the airline won’t let you because you are not buying the extra seat. I do not know which airline you are traveling on, but if you were traveling on the carrier I work for, I’d tell you to take the car seat with you anyway, just in case there is an open seat available. If there’s not an extra seat, the airline, at least my airline, would then gate check your car seat. Key word is gate check. Gate check means you are checking the item at the gate. Once at your destination, the car seat (or stroller) will meet you at the aircraft door, not at baggage claim.

If you do bring a car seat on-board the aircraft, please please please make sure it is approved by the FAA and do read the installation instructions before it is time to install the thing. I can not tell you how many times people come aboard and do not know how their car seat operates and get angry at me when I can not tell them how THEIR car seat works. There are hundreds of different makes and models produced each and every year, so unless you come across a flight attendant who has a child that uses the exact same model as you, chances are that flight attendant is not going to be able to help.

When traveling with a lap child, try to get an aisle seat. With so little leg room, it is impossible to get anything out of the diaper bag when the seat in front of you is reclined and there’s a baby sitting on your lap. If you are in an aisle seat, you’ll be able to swing the diaper bag into the aisle in order to grab whatever you need out of the bag – bottles, diapers, toys, etc. Just make sure to check and see that the drink cart is not rolling in your direction beforehand. And if there is a drink cart parked at your row, ask the flight attendants if they can spare a few plastic cups, “stacking cups”, in order to keep baby busy for a good five minutes. Hey, every minute counts when you’re on the airplane with a child.

As for the stroller, I also own a Bugaboo (as well as a BOB for jogging and a Maclaren that I keep in New York) and I can not say that the Bugaboo breaks down easily, not when you’re in a hurry and you’ve got your hands full, nor can I imagine lugging that thing with me anywhere, except to the mall, and perhaps to the beach for a nice leisurely walk. Keep in mind that if you do decide to check the Bugaboo, most likely you will have to pay a checked bag fee, and add that fee to the price you’re going to pay for the Bugaboo transport bag, and you’ll be paying close to $200. While I do love my Bugaboo, I don’t love it THAT much. And I would not want to be the passenger standing behind the Bugaboo family at security. When it comes to travel, think light, think easy, and think disposable. Whenever I travel with my son, I use a cheap umbrella stroller I bought at Target. What I like about the stroller, besides the fact that it was cheap, is that I can attach it to my rollaboard, if the kid feels like walking, or hang it in the closet, so that I don’t have to check it, and if I do have to check it and it does get ruined, big deal, I’m out $25.

Hope that helps!

Happy travels,

Heather

Galley Gossip: Traveling with children: a few suggestions…

There he is, the little monster. Yes, he’s an adorable little monster, but a monster nonetheless. Whether he’s traveling with you or he’s headed toward you, either way, he’s on the flight with you. Near you. I feel for you. Really, I do.

Traveling sucks, most of you will agree, but what’s even worse than traveling is traveling with children, even when it’s your own kid you’re traveling with. Why? Because the people around you give you the please-don’t-sit-by-me look. Because you’ve only got two hands. That’s it. One. Two. It’s not easy carrying the kid, the car seat, the stroller, the diaper bag (that’s been stuffed full of fun things things to do, causing it to weigh more than the kid and the car seat alone) while you’re doing whatever it is you have to do in order to keep the kid happy – and quiet – on-board an aircraft, surrounded by all those people giving you that look.

Like I said, traveling can suck, but you don’t have to let the stress of travel ruin your trip. Here are a few tips I’ve used when traveling with my own little two year-old monster who has flown once a month since he was three months old.

ARRIVE EARLY – The line at security just keeps getting longer now that summer is here, so give yourself a little extra time. And by God, check those bags, if you haven’t already, even if you have to pay that ridiculous bag fee. Why? Because it’s even more ridiculous struggling lug all that gear on the airplane where you’ll only end up even more frustrated and agitated when you find all those overhead bins full. So pack light, come early, and check the bags.

BE PREPARED – Don’t be surprised when TSA makes you toss that sippy cup full of milk and the bottle of water out of your diaper bag. No need to remind TSA the liquids are for your little princess. They already know. And yes, you AND the princess will need to remove your shoes – both of you – even if sweet pea is just four months old. Don’t get angry. It’s a waste of time. Just be ready when it happens. That means leave the liquids at home and start taking off those shoes and collapsing that stroller before it’s your turn to walk through the metal detector. No one likes standing in line behind the person who is not ready to go when it’s their time to go. So go! And after you pass through security, please don’t forget to purchase milk and water (and snacks if you didn’t bring any food from home) in the terminal before you board the flight. Chances are the flight attendants will run out of bottled water and food before they even reach your row.

TRAVEL TIME – Whatever you do, do not take the all-nighter when traveling with your perfect little angel who may not be so perfect on a flight at night. There’s nothing worse, or more stressful, than traveling with a screaming child, especially when everyone around you is trying to sleep. Me, I always book my flights during the day, during nap time. That way the kid can run around and wear himself out at home, before we have to head to the airport. Nine times out of ten my little cutie patootie will fall asleep on taxi out, allowing me (and whoever is seated in front of me) a few hours of quiet time. What parent doesn’t need a little quiet time?

DIAPER BAG – Oh sure I spent WAY too much on a designer diaper bag before my son was born, only to use the messenger style Diaper Dude my husband bought every single time we traveled – and didn’t travel. You’d be shocked at all I can fit in that one bag. All I can say is the style of the Diaper Dude makes traveling easy. Why? Because the messenger bag leaves hands free! That means your hands are available to do what they REALLY need to do – like take care of the child.

BABY SLING / WRAP – The Baby Bjorn made going through airport security completely do-able when I had to go it alone. With the kid attached to me, all I had to do was slide off my shoes (slip-ons when traveling with the kid) and throw them, along with the Diaper Dude, on the conveyor belt without asking a stranger for help, which is something you may not feel inclined to do when the stranger behind you is looking kind of…well…strange. Once on-board, use the sling when baby falls asleep. In other words, let the carrier hold the baby while your hands hold a book. NOTE: The sling cannot be worn on take-off or landing or anytime when the fasten seat belt sign is on.

SIT-N-STROLL – Best invention known to mankind – mankind with kids that is. Once through security, sit baby in the chair and start strolling to the gate. Baby rides like a king in his first class seat. When it’s time to board, roll the little prince onto the airplane and straight to your seat while passengers already seated oooh and ahhh at your precious bundle of joy. Once at your seat, retract the wheels and VOILA – the stroller is now a car seat! After the flight deploy the wheels and you’re off and rolling to baggage claim (you did check the bags, didn’t you?) and then it’s off to the car where once again you retract the wheels and VOILA – car seat again! NOTE: The SIT-N-STROLL does not fit down the aisle of a narrow body aircraft (S80, 737, 757), so if you’re traveling alone leave the SIT-N-STROLL at home, or just ask for help from the strange looking person behind you.

CARES (Child Aviation Restraint System) – The second best invention ever! If your child is at least one year-old and weighs 25 lbs, you can leave the car seat at home and use these simple straps that easily fit around the back of a seat and attach to the seat belt to keep your child safe.

RIDE ON CARRY ON – The third best invention ever! Would you believe the genius behind this was a flight attendant! Oh yeah. Who else but a flight attendant would come up with something so amazing? If you’ve got a roller-board and prefer traveling light, this is the contraption for you – and me! (Of course I already own one.) Just attach the “lawn chair” to the back of your rolling bag and off you go, as simple as that. Once on the flight the chair folds flush against your suitcase and fits perfectly into the overhead bin. Use the chair with CARES and your little one travels safe and sound while you’re off and running. NOTE: Be prepared for pointing and laughter as you sprint through the terminal with your little one attached to your bag.

DVD PLAYER – Never – I repeat – NEVER leave home without the DVD player. And don’t forget the charger. Pack it in your bag, the one that is going under the seat in front of you. Charge the DVD regularly. There are outlets in every airport. Oh and DVDs. Don’t forget to pack the DVDs, too! All I can say is thank God for the Teletubbies. La-La and friends have gotten us through over 35 flights – calm and peaceful flights.

BRING SOMETHING FUN TO DO: Coloring books, crayons, stickers, books, bring it all! Years ago a flight attendant told me that when she traveled with her son she always made sure to give him a small present each hour of flight in return for good behavior. Sure, you’re buying good behavior from a kid, a kid who should be well behaved to begin with, but sometimes kids act out, even the well behaved ones. Hey, kids are kids. And good behavior is worth every penny. Just ask the guy seated in front of you.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE PASSENGER IN FRONT OF YOU – I know you’re going to find this very hard to believe, but the person seated in front of you is not at all thrilled to be seated in front of you and your adorable child, no matter how cute the little munchkin is. Remember, it’s your job as a parent to be aware of what the little monkey is doing, so don’t let those feet kick the back of that chair, please! And stop those little hands from banging on the tray table, please! Sure, kids will be kids and can’t always be controlled, but you can try, can’t you? Please try. For the sake of the passenger in front of you. The passenger in front of you who is begging you. The passenger in front of you who is now begging me.

IGNORE THE ANGRY PASSENGER. Hey you, angry guy, they’re trying their best to keep the kid quiet, okay! Maybe those little ears hurt from the pressurization of the airplane, who knows. Don’t forget, you, too, were once a kid, and you were probably just as annoying as the crying kid seated behind you. Probably more so, based on the way you’re behaving now. Look, you’re not the only one who thinks traveling sucks. Just ask the little stinker stuck sitting behind you. The one that’s acting just like you!

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