Knocked Up Abroad: Lessons Learned From Traveling With A Baby

travel 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 Hotels.com. 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.

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.

Knocked up abroad: applying for a baby’s passport

baby passportAs my new baby girl was born in a foreign country, getting a passport was a necessity for her to even return home to America. Though Vera was born in Turkey, she’s an American citizen by virtue of her parents’ citizenship and entitled to a US passport. For Americans born outside the country, the US consulate issues a Report of Birth Abroad that acts as an official birth certificate and proof of US citizenship. After a trip to the US to visit family and a vacation in Malta, Vera’s been in three countries before she reached three months of age and is rapidly racking up passport stamps.

As soon as we brought the baby home from the hospital, the first order of business on the road to getting her baby passport was getting her Turkish birth certificate. While not required by the US consulate, it is necessary in order to get her residence permit, required for anyone staying longer in Turkey than the 90-day tourist visa. I learned that I could obtain this at my local registry office with a letter stating that I had given birth at the American Hospital (this is provided in both Turkish and English by the hospital). I set out with my one-week old baby in her stroller, sleeping peacefully, assuming that the office would be a short walk from our apartment given the local address. An hour later, I had walked as far as one of Istanbul’s busy highways, dripping sweat, in tears, and definitely lost. Google Maps is generally a useful tool for many city addresses, but for some parts of Istanbul, you may as well be mapping a jungle. I enlisted the help of some Turkish friends who found a satellite image of the office online and emailed it to me. In true Turkish fashion, the registry office is actually two streets away from the mailing address and no one in the area can give you an exact street number when you are frantically seeking directions.When we finally got to the registry office, I took a number, left my stroller downstairs (in Turkey, you can trust that no one will steal it, but I did take the baby out first) and went in search of the counter for birth certificates. Naturally, Vera chose the moment I was filling out a form to launch into her first meltdown. As I struggled to write down my contact information and covertly feed her, I was ushered behind the counter and installed at a random guy’s desk, with an old Turkish lady practically forcing me to sit down and nurse the baby. Once the baby was content, I returned to the birth certificate lady but was met with a new obstacle in the form of a major language barrier. Fortunately, another man waiting at the registry office was able to translate for me – I would need to come back with all of our passports, residence permits, and marriage certificate from the US. The next day I returned armed with every possible bit of documentation and while every woman in the office gathered around Vera, exclaiming over her cuteness and wondering why the crazy foreigner was taking her baby out in public so early, I provided information for the birth certificate. I needed more translation help, as you are asked questions about your education level and religion (Islam is the default in Turkey, so many non-religious Turks are still considered Muslim even if they are non-practicing), which I couldn’t answer in Turkish but there is generally always someone around who can speak English. A few more rubber stamps and Maşallahs and I had her birth certificate.

Next step was a passport photo, a seemingly easy task that is particularly challenging the younger the baby you have. The US State Department requires that the baby look at the camera with eyes open, and that the photo be taken with a white background and nothing in the photo such as your hand or a baby seat. Newborns tend to sleep a lot and their vision is quite hazy, so getting them to be alert and somewhat focused on something is easier said than done. While some parents might opt to take the photo themselves, I decided to go to a professional rather than try to mess with the correct measurements and angles myself. One afternoon when Vera was barely two weeks old, I waited until she seemed awake and took her down the street in her carrier. The five-minute walk immediately put her back to sleep, so the photographer and I tried everything we could think of to wake her and get her attention. Somehow a half hour of tickling and a Turkish man yelling “kız bebek!” (baby girl) only made her sleep more deeply. Finally, we managed to get the photo you see above, which will remain her passport photo and primary means of identification until she’s five years old. Though some online information led me to believe they may not accept the picture due to her open mouth, the US consulate approved it for use.

Passport photo in hand at last, we made an appointment with the US consulate to apply for her US passport and Report of Birth Abroad, which will serve as her official birth certificate. The paperwork for this report turned out to be slightly more complex than anticipated, as it requires precise dates of presence both in the United States and abroad for each parent. If you keep good records, this could be simple and straightforward. As I’ve traveled frequently for the past decade and have been living in Istanbul for over a year, this took a lot of time to estimate using passport stamps, old travel confirmations in my email, photo date stamps, and anything else that could give me an idea of dates I spent outside of America. You are also required to provide documentation of the parents’ citizenship (my husband is Russian-born, so we needed the approximate date and place of naturalization), marriage (if applicable, it’s a whole other can of worms if the parents are not married), and dissolution of any previous marriages, which can result in some frantic emails to friends back home and calls to US registry offices if you don’t travel with all your paperwork.

The US consulate in Istanbul is far from the city center (you can take Metro to İTÜ Ayazağa and then a quick taxi ride) and resembles a fortress on a hill, with American-style maximum security. Most places in Istanbul with metal detectors, including the entrance to the airport, allowed me to skip security while pregnant (I got a cursory pat down at the airport) and often with the baby, and often ignore metal objects that cause the detectors to beep. At the consulate, I forgot to remove my camera from my purse and was yelled at when I attempted to remove it myself (“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!”). After clearing security, we waited in the US Citizen’s Services room to present the baby and our paperwork. There was another couple waiting with their month-old baby which turned out to be their sixth child, and they were fairly blasé about the fact that they had come from Iraq to have the baby in Istanbul (we guessed military family) and planned to return home to the US only two weeks after applying for the passport. Presenting our own paperwork turned out to be easier than expected, as they only needed to see that we had in fact lived in the US before, but it’s a good idea to have all of your travel dates on hand in case you are questioned. Finally, we paid our $205 for the report and passport, and had them both delivered to our home one week later (compare that to the weeks it usually takes to get a passport at home!).

We planned our first trip out of Turkey for when Vera would be six weeks old, which was just enough time to get all of our paperwork in order and feel competent enough as parents to travel. She will receive her Turkish residency next month after she is four months old. When we went through passport control leaving Istanbul, there was some confusion as she had no visa or residence permit and we were prepared to pay a fee to leave the country, but we were eventually allowed to pass through free and only purchase a tourist visa when we re-entered Turkey that will cover her until her residency is established. Now the adventure would really begin: actually traveling with a baby.

Stay tuned for tips on traveling with a baby and 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.