Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Travel Essentials for Globe-Trotting Tots

Okay, maybe not “essentials.” When it comes down to it, very little is essential. And this list is for both babies and toddlers, not just for “tots.” But it was too cumbersome to title this post “Items that Make It a Lot Easier to Haul Your Infant or Toddler Around the World,” so I fudged a little.

Recently a friend who shares my lifestyle started asking questions. She and her husband are thinking about expanding their family, and she’s wondering how to prepare for the addition of a child into their globally nomadic lifestyle. Specifically, she’s asked what gear I recommend. After taking my now-15-month-old daughter on four transatlantic journeys (two of them without my husband), one transpacific journey, and a few state-to-state flights—not to mention six months (and counting!) of living overseas with her—I have a few suggestions.

First things first: A car seat really is essential. Not just for in the car, either. You may want to save money by not buying an airline ticket for your under-two-year-old. You may have visions of Baby nestled contentedly in your arms, the two of you happily snuggling while you sleep away the 8-hour transatlantic flight, or the 11-hour transpacific one. But somehow it usually doesn’t work out that way. It’s much more comfortable—not to mention safer—for everyone if Baby is nestled snugly in his or her car seat instead of in your lap. Don’t get me wrong; take the child out of the car seat for a change of position and for some cuddling, especially on those long flights when you both get restless. But for takeoff and landing, for turbulence, for meal service, for those times when you just need a little space, do yourself a favor: buy your child a ticket and take the car seat on the plane. Just do your due diligence first—make sure the seat is FAA approved (it’ll have a sticker on it) and that it meets your airline’s requirements. For example, KLM’s maximum width requirement had me running out to buy a smaller seat before my post-evacuation journey back to Egypt, even though my larger seat is FAA approved. Avoid problems at the airport by checking with your airline and making sure your seat meets their requirements.

Car seat with Gogo attached
I know what you’re thinking: how are you going to haul that seat around the airport, especially if you’re traveling without another adult? If your child is still in one of those infant carrier-car seat combos, it’s easy—take a stroller or cart designed for your seat to snap into it. Some of the strollers are large and expensive, but also available are smaller, less expensive carts. If your child is in a convertible car seat, I recommend the Gogo Babyz Kidz Travelmate cart. I never would have made it back to Egypt after the evacuation with Alexa, her car seat, and our carryons if I hadn’t had this contraption. It’s basically a frame with two wheels and a telescoping handle. It attaches to the car seat easily and quickly. You can wheel your child through the airport as if it was a stroller, or take the child out and haul the seat behind you. Every time I’ve used it (five multiple-flight journeys now), random strangers in the airport have admired it and/or asked me about it. Flight attendants start to protest as I take it on the plane (“No strollers allowed!”), but a quick “The wheels pop off and the handle goes down; it’s just her car seat” silences the objections. I am a walking, talking, unpaid advertisement for this thing—I love it, and I recommend it to anyone who is taking a car seat through an airport, train station, or anywhere else where your car can’t go.

Wrap. Photo courtesy
What about transporting your child when you don’t need a car seat—when you’re on foot? Although strollers work quite well in the States, they don’t always work so well overseas, at least not in the third-world countries where we’ve lived. Where sidewalks exist, they’re often unusable for strollers—they’re riddled with potholes; random signs and other obstacles are placed right in the middle of the path; and overgrown trees
Mei tai. Photo courtesy
and shrubs often make them impassable on foot, much less with a stroller. Combine the poor sidewalks with unpredictable drivers, and it really isn’t safe for strollers. It’s safer, and in many cases easier, to use a baby carrier instead. Carriers allow you to attach an infant or toddler to your body, with the child’s weight distributed between your shoulders and hips rather than on your arms, so you don’t tire as quickly and you can use your hands for other things. There are different styles of carriers, including structured and unstructured options. My favorite is a wrap, because it’s the most versatile, although I’m also a fan of mei tais. You should use whatever style of carrier is most comfortable for both you and your child. If you don’t know the first thing about baby carriers or how to choose one, just do an internet search for “baby wearing.” I promise you’ll find all the information you need!

At some point while you’re out and about with your child, you’ll probably get hungry. You may even decide to go out specifically to eat. In the States, going to a restaurant with your child really isn’t that big of a
Booster seat
deal—almost every restaurant has high chairs and booster seats, even if they aren’t particularly child-oriented restaurants. Overseas, that is not always the case. Eating out often means eating with a child in your lap, and that can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing at times. I’m pretty sure one restaurant owner in Egypt purchased a high chair because of the time when Alexa, while seated in my lap, yanked on the table cloth, causing my water glass to tip over, hit an ashtray, and shatter. So what’s a parent to do when you’re eating out in a country where restaurants often don’t provide high chairs? Bring your own. Don’t worry; I’m not insane enough to suggest that you bring the high chair from your own kitchen or dining room—it’s almost certainly too difficult to transport. Instead, bring a booster seat that is designed to be strapped securely to most chairs. (I don’t recommend the ones that attach to the table; those make me nervous.) Some even fold up and zip into their own travel cases. For the sake of complete disclosure, let me admit now that I don’t actually own one of these … yet. We currently are borrowing one that doesn’t have its own travel case; we’re using it at home until our shipment arrives with our high chair. I’d never even seen a travel one until we were out at lunch a couple of days ago, and one of our companions whipped one out for her son. I decided then and there that we’ll be ordering one as soon as we get the internet set up at our house—it’ll probably be on its way before this post is even published.

Finally, every child needs a safe place to sleep, and every parent needs a safe place to deposit a child so
Mom or Dad can go to the bathroom, wash the dishes, or switch out the laundry. In the States, this function is fulfilled by a crib, playpen, or pack-and-play. Those options also work well when you live overseas, but
Baby Bjorn Travel Crib
what about when you’re vacationing, or you’ve just moved but your shipment hasn’t arrived yet? Pack-and-plays are designed for travel, so you would think that they would work well, but in my experience, they’re often heavy or bulky, even when folded for travel. That doesn’t work well when you’re flying! Our solution is the Baby Bjorn travel crib. It’s very lightweight, yet stable enough that it won’t tip over easily. It folds into its own zippered case and can be a carry-on item on many airlines, although some say it’s too big for that. I’ve sent it on one overseas flight as a separate piece of checked baggage, and it emerged unscathed; if you don’t have the baggage allowance for that, it will fit into a large suitcase with a little room left over. It’s also incredibly easy to set up and take down. It doesn’t have as much space as many pack-and-plays, so it isn’t ideal for use as a primary playpen, but it’s perfect as a short-term crib and playpen.

That’s it. That’s my list of highly recommended items for traveling and/or living abroad with a little one. With the exception of the car seat, I haven’t listed the things that are recommended for all parents—there are enough of those lists out there. These few items are the extras that are particularly relevant to expatriates. What do you think; did I miss something? If so, tell me in the comments! I’m sure my friend, and other heading-toward-parenthood expats, will be grateful.

Written Tuesday, 11 October 2011.

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