*Note – I wrote this post shortly after our October trip abroad – long before COVID, quarantine, and hesitancy to leave your house, let alone the country. I have no idea when this post will even have a chance to be relevant for you in a practical sense. That said, while a pandemic certainly puts planning on hold, it doesn’t have to stop you from dreaming about future travels when the world is a safe place to do so again. On rough days of social distancing, homeschooling and working from home, I let myself start to think about our next adventure, whenever and wherever that might be. It gives me hope. So even if you can’t actually go abroad at the moment, maybe this will help fuel your inner wanderlust as you remain safe at home.
Let’s be real for a sec…travel with kids is daunting. Sure, it can also be wonderful, memory filled, enriching etc. but the planning, packing, execution can also be somewhat unnerving. Now for funsies, let’s make that travel international…we just upped that stress factor by like 100x, right? But I am here to tell you it is totally possible! Yes, it requires careful planning, consideration, and some (ok a lot) of patience, but I am living proof that you can successfully take your children out of the country and all come back alive with great stories to share!
Disclaimer: I am not a travel expert by any means. I am just a mom and a project manager who decided our family needed to go to Europe and I needed to make it happen. I will share some lessons learned but also tips and tricks that made our trip a huge success. So if you are a wanderlust like me, but now have some roommates that make you feel like your travel is more limited, read on!
Deciding Where to Go: You would think deciding where to go would be the easy part but this was a bit more challenging for me. I knew we wanted to visit Greece, namely Santorini, but I had no idea what cost, logistics, considerations would go into this kind of trip. Fortunately, we have a wonderful family friend who happens to be a travel agent. She was KEY in planning this trip. I was able to just talk to her about what we were hoping to do and she gave me several options with different budgets to very quickly narrow down the scope of this trip. After looking at all the options and taking into account we would be traveling with 8 total people, we chose to go the route of a Mediterranean cruise. The idea of living out of a suitcase and shuttling three kids to airports and train stations and boats to try to get around to various places and see as much as we could just did not sound appealing. And though we had never taken a cruise before, we were willing to sacrifice some control over exact destinations for ease of travel. It proved to be a great decision! We spent a few days in our city of port (Venice, Italy) before our actual departure date. This gave us lots of time should there have been travel delays (thankfully, there were not) and let us get accustomed to the time change (much needed!) Air BnB or VRBO are outstanding options if you have a larger party. Hotel rooms in Europe aren’t known for their spacious accommodations so from a cost perspective, we got much more bang for our buck by renting an apartment. It also put us in a neighborhood that let us explore with the locals which, in my opinion, was one of the coolest parts of our trip.
Passports: Everyone, babies included, need a passport for international travel. Kid passports are kind of a process and it takes a while to get everything needed and submitted to get these back in time for your trip. And typically, you need passport information to finalize elements of your travel. So get to work on this early! And factor this into your overall budget…depending how many kids you have, this can be a few to several hundred dollars and you will have plenty of unexpected costs arise as the trip gets closer so don’t let this be one of them!
What to Pack: I won’t go into the minutia of every item we took with us but here are a few highlights of the important stuff:
- A backpack for each child containing a sweatshirt, comfy socks for the plane, a small toiletry bag with basics, journal/pen, book, separate activities for both legs of the flight (label accordingly), a change of clothes/underwear, any devices with a charger, small bag of emergency snacks
- Portable charging device – you can pick one of these up relatively inexpensively on Amazon ($25). This was super helpful when out and about and needing to charge a phone or iPad.
- Copies of passports/IDs/all travel documents/insurance card. I made two sets and kept one with me and one in a suitcase. I also left a set at home just in case.
- Currency of destination – just easier all around to have it when you arrive.
- Medicine bag – I put everything I thought we could possibly need in a gallon sized bag as a just in case. This included, Benadryl (which we used), aloe vera gel, Sudafed, band aids, cough drops, Dramamine, and all the usual things we would take for headaches, colds etc. Though you can find this stuff in Europe, this makes it easily accessible and ensures you can take a brand you are familiar with should the need arise.
- If you are doing a cruise: over the door shoe hanger (we used this in the bathroom to store all our toiletries as counter space is pretty limited), lanyard for room keys, extra tote bag for pool days, towel clips for windy days on deck, magnetic hooks for extra storage in the room, motion sickness wristbands, disposable rain ponchos (just in case), night lights for the room, small thing of detergent in case you need to do some light laundry and bathroom spray (no explanation needed).
How to Pack: I cannot stress this part enough, organized packing will save your life. Ok, perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but trying to be both concise and all-encompassing with clothing for this many people really does take some work. My best tips:
- Packing cubes: I purchased packing cubes in different colors to keep clothing organized by type and need. We had a swimming packing cube, pajama packing cube, undies/socks/tanks cube etc. I then packed their clothes by day(s) in the other cubes. This made it easy to take out what was needed and neatly store what wasn’t. When a cube was emptied with clean clothes, in went the dirty clothes so they were out of site out of mind.
- Lay it all out: we quite literally laid out every single thing that needed to go in a suitcase. We moved all the furniture out of our dining room so I could, by child, lay out every outfit in order to be sure everything was accounted for. This also made putting this in their respective cubes/suitcases easier because we had a visual to work from.
- Keep the suitcase count to a minimum: I was adamant that we would only bring 3 suitcases. Granted, they were BIG suitcases, but I knew we would only have two adults to move said suitcases. This ended up being SO needed. Venice isn’t the most accessible city and space on a cruise is pretty limited. 3 suitcases for the 5 of us for 11 days was plenty.
- Have a destination specific suitcase: Because we were spending a few days in Venice before our cruise, I wanted everything we would need for that part of the trip to be in one suitcase. That meant we only had one bag to open when we arrived, the other two bags stayed organized for the remainder of the trip, and we had less clutter in our room for those first few days.
On the Plane: Because we were flying over night, I wasn’t overly concerned about this part of our trip. There are movies and meals during international travel so this kept the kids entertained during the long leg of the flight. Be sure to charge devices, stretch legs, take bathroom breaks, and re-organize carry ons during a layover if you have one. We also planned a “bedtime” for the kids so they would get some sleep on the flight. We put on sweatshirts and comfy socks, brushed teeth and washed their face, gave them a kid melatonin, and snuggled them up with their travel pillow, eye mask, and a blanket. Though they were still pretty tired when we landed, I don’t know that they would have slept unless we set them up to do so. And this gave us a few hours of sleep too!
While Abroad: We did our best to set expectations with the kids before we left our room each day. We talked about the plan and really tried to set ourselves up for success by planning for breaks and down time when we could. We always had a parent backpack with water, sunscreen, emergency snacks, jackets, hand sanitizer and crayons/coloring books. In especially crowded destinations, I dressed the girls alike to keep better track of them. We were fortunate enough to have extra adults to hold a child’s hand at all times so everyone had a buddy.
I want to be honest – we did have stressful moments. Kids get tired, bathrooms can be hard to come by, transportation with that many people can be difficult. But taking time to rest, sit down and have a meal, let the kids play, really did make a difference. If you go into the trip with that mindset and maybe not the agenda you would have had with just adults, it makes things a whole lot easier.
Another benefit of doing a cruise is the Kid’s Club…this was a fantastic perk the girls loved and also gave us some down time/ability to experience things kid-free. We always gave them the option of going, but they always chose to go. Win win for all!
Adapting Back to Life at Home: Jet lag is legit, especially for children! To regulate our schedules, even though we arrived home in the middle of the night, we still set an alarm for the next day and planned out an afternoon nap and an early bedtime to try and get them back in our normal routine as quickly as possible. We only did a one-day buffer returning home before they went back to school but just kept our schedule for the week and following weekend as light as possible. This worked really well for our family. My husband and I took one extra day at home without them to get caught up on unpacking and the laundry that never seems to end (but I promise you, it eventually does).