International Travel with a Baby: A Guide
One of the things that Marvin and I felt very adamant about before we had a baby was that we didn’t want our lives to stop just because we were a family of three. Though Nora would be an important part of our family unit, she would not be the nucleus of it. Our lives would rotate with her, rather than revolve around her.
We felt very much that the best gift we could give her would be to show her the world we love, and so we continued booking flights for weddings, going out to dinner, and celebrating life the way we always did even in her first months.
But one thing that we were even a little worried about was international travel. It’s one thing to travel with a baby for two hours — most anyone can keep a baby occupied for that long (especially if she’s little and you’re spending half of that time just nursing) — but going on a six-hour flight is a whole other story.
But before ruling it out, we had to give it a try. We booked a flight to Madrid for our 5-year anniversary, got Nora a ticket as a lap infant (she’d be 7 months old when we flew), and hoped for the best.
We had an absolutely amazing time.
Sure, there were hiccups along the way: the moment when Nora had a poop explosion right when we were leaving the plane in Lisbon, and we had to sit there with her for 30 minutes and try to mask the smell in a crammed bus as we rode — ever so slowly — to the airport terminal. Or the first night sleeping in our Airbnb with a jet-lagged baby (needless to say, no one slept much).
But nothing was so bad that we felt it wasn’t worth it to take her along. And many times, the experience was even better to have her with us.
That being said, there are some tricks we learned along the way. Here’s how to prepare for your first international trip with a baby.
1. Pack light.
Would you believe me if I told you we traveled carry-on only during our trip? Though it sounds a bit crazy, it ended up being a lot easier to have a backpack and a duffel bag (especially one you can squish under the stroller) than a big suitcase to wheel around. Plus, you can take advantage of discount carriers and score cheaper flights.
Most carriers will check your stroller for free (we have a Graco Quick Connect stroller that will connect a carseat to a base so it’s technically one stroller but can be detached when you need the carseat for taxis). Some airlines will only check a stroller OR a carseat so it’s useful when they are one and the same.
They’ll also allow you to bring a diaper bag for the baby’s stuff. Here’s how to hack the system a bit: use her diaper bag as your “personal item” (and put in all your in-flight needs like headphones, books, cozy slippers, etc) while you use a larger duffel bag as her “diaper bag” (which you appropriately stock with her clothes and diapers).
If you’re an avid traveler, you already know that it’s tough pulling massive suitcases over cobblestones or dirt roads. It’s twice as hard when you have a stroller too, so use all your savvy packing tricks to make sure you don’t have to worry about those things when you land.
2. If you have a long layover, DO NOT check your stroller.
Not having our stroller on our 7-hour layover = travel hacking a corner of the Lisbon airport to make into a modified crib.
Different parents have different preferences of how they travel with their babies. Some are content checking their strollers through to their final destination (arriving in baggage claim) and can do this at check-in. Then they’ll take the baby through security with an infant carrier to keep themselves hands-free.
While I do think this is a great option, I have always kept my stroller with me until I reach the gate, if anything because it allows me to stuff a few things in the bottom of the stroller so I don’t have to carry them.
When you arrive at your gate, you can still check your stroller through to baggage claim, or you can request to have the stroller brought planeside when you land. Not all airports will do this, but if they do, it’s a huge help. If you have a long layover (we had 7 hours in Lisbon before we left for Madrid), you’ll want to let the baby lay down and sleep, and doing that in a carrier was less than ideal for us.
If your tag is long, white, and has a big bar code on it, they’re checking it though. If your tag is smaller, hot pink or yellow, and often simply attached to your stroller with an elastic, you can likely expect it to be waiting for you planeside once you deplane.
3. Get a car seat cover.
I have used our car seat cover on every single flight so far, whether we were checking it through or not. I am probably a 2 on the 0–10 germ concern spectrum (10 being highest) but there’s something about knowing that the seat your child will sit in is going to be tossed around underneath an airplane that makes me want to cover it up (if anything to keep it from getting banged up or wet, which has definitely happened to my suitcases too many times to count).
Here’s the secret too: if you do it right, you can also zip up a few extra diapers or a coat or two into the car seat when you put it in the cover and no one will know the difference.
We use the Brica car seat travel bag (there’s an affiliate link in there in case you want to support the cause), which has protected our car seat extremely well. And it comes with backpack straps, though you have to be a special kind of motivated in order to use them in my opinion.
Keeping a baby occupied on a daytime flight = much less fun than sleeping.
4. Take a redeye.
If you fly when baby is supposed to be sleeping anyway, you have a much higher likeliness of success than if you have to spend six hours keeping her up and entertained. The hum of the airplane, plus the dimmed lights and the fact that pretty much everyone was sleeping around her allowed Nora to get some shuteye, which helped us rest too.
I won’t lie and say it’s perfect — much of the night I spent waking up to make sure she was still all right — but it’s much better than struggling to occupy a baby during the day. If you are forced to take a day flight, I have seen baby eye masks around and might recommend you give it a shot if your babe will wear it.
5. Request a bassinet.
If your baby is younger than a year old and fewer than 24 lbs, you can request a bassinet for your flight. You’ll want to do this when you make your reservation (or shortly afterward) in order to make sure you can get prioritized. Essentially, the bassinet is a hovering box that plugs into the wall in front of you. It comes with velcro and/or straps to keep baby safe during the flight, though you’ll likely need to remove her during heavy turbulence.
The bassinet is not only a gift for baby — Nora fell fast asleep in her bassinet the minute we put her in it, which made us feel about a million times better — it is also a gift for the parents. There are limited seats where bassinets can be inserted, so you’ll luck out with a front row and ample leg room.
6. Yes, breast milk and formula are allowed through security.
One of the times that I let Nora nurse basically whenever she wants is on a flight. It calms her and keeps her quiet, so I give her full reign. Whether you’re nursing or not, breast milk and formula ARE allowed through security — just make sure to check regulations on how much you can bring and how you must declare it. Bring lots of ice packs. If you want to check frozen breast milk, consider getting dry ice to pack in your suitcase.
Though Nora is almost exclusively breastfed, I thought that traveling internationally would be a good time to introduce her to formula. There were times during our trip that I knew I would not be able to nurse her so introducing her to formula a few days before we left helped me feel at ease that she would still eat happily even if she couldn’t nurse.
By the way, it has been said that feeding your child during ascent/descent is a great way to keep her ears in check so that she doesn’t feel pain from not being able to regulate her ears popping. Nora has never had issue with this but it’s a great tip for any babies that do.
7. Don’t fear the lavatory.
At some point, you will need to change a baby during a six-hour (or longer) flight. It’s inevitable. Don’t be afraid of it.
Yes, we all hate those airplane lavatories. We can hardly fit in them.
But actually, somehow they have magically fit in a nearly full-sized baby changing station into the lavatory. You just pull it down over the toilet, and stand there and take care of things. The great part is that the trashcan, a shelf, and basically anything you need are all within arms’ (fingers’?) reach. Now, how to get out of the lavatory while carrying a baby and a diaper bag is what you should be most worried about.
8. Take your time
The best piece of advice I can offer anyone traveling with a young one is this: don’t rush yourself. Decide on the top one or two things you would like to do during your trip, and leave it to that. You may find that you sleep until noon because of the time difference, or that it takes you ages to get out of the house. All of this is perfectly okay. If you go in with no expectations, you are guaranteed to leave pleasantly surprised.
Marvin and I used to eat out — a lot. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even coffee when we traveled. But when you’re operating on baby time, it’s nice to have at least one (if not most) meals in the quiet of home.
There are a few reasons for this: you may find yourself waking up later (or, let’s be honest, waking up earlier but actually getting out of the house later), and having a cup of coffee and breakfast before you head out will be more ideal than waiting until lunch. You may also find that after a long day of trekking around town, putting the baby to sleep and eating a leisurely dinner at home sounds divine. Especially if you’re in a country where a bottle of wine at the grocery store costs about 3 Euro.
Decide which meals are most important to you to eat out so that you work in a little quiet time with each day. Or, at the very least, make sure you’ve got a scarf to throw over the stroller so she can nap on the go when time at home isn’t an option. Which brings me to my next point…
9. Stay in a home
As much as I love staying in a cute boutique hotel, I have found short-term rental (ie “homesharing”) networks to be the best alternative when traveling with Nora. I’m almost guaranteed to have at least two rooms so I can close a door when she naps or goes to bed. I’ve got a refrigerator to store milk and a kitchen to make a meal. And frankly, I just feel cooped up.
Obviously I’m going to recommend Wanderful to you, my amazing community of women travelers which also features a woman-to-woman homesharing network with both private rooms and full apartments. Of course, alternatives like Airbnb and Homeaway are great options too.
10. Sleep soundly
Of course, staying in a home does mean one thing: you are unlikely to have a crib available.
There are number of travel bassinet options. A friend of mine swears by her KidCo travel pod, which can be packed into a carry-on and is essentially a toddler-sized tent. When Nora was really small, we used a Lullyboo Baby Lounger which can fold into a backpack, and we’d just set it on the floor. Now that she’s older, we often will just co-sleep with her when there aren’t better alternatives. You will need to decide what works best for you, but making sure there is a sleep plan in the works is key!
11. Bring your baby carrier
Grateful for our baby carrier when exploring Spain on market day!
Yes, everyone has strollers around the world. Yes, you will likely use your stroller more than anything. But if you’re headed to a crowded market, a music festival, or basically anywhere with lots of cobblestones, you’ll be glad you took the extra luggage space to bring a baby carrier along. Throw it under the stroller as a less-bumpy alternative, or be a risk-taker and go without the stroller one day.
You don’t need anything expensive. Our Infantino carry-on carrier has treated us great, and it’s less than 50 bucks.
12. Consider winter
Enjoying Madrid’s royal palace with few lines and of course our very holiday-inspired red coats!
Yes, summer travel is wonderful. The weather is nice, everyone is out, etc. etc. I hear you. But let me make an argument for winter travel.
Being Boston residents, most of the places we travel to (certainly not all, but a good percentage) are warmer than our current location (or at least as cold).
You’re much less likely to encounter crowds, which makes traveling with a baby much more pleasant — more room, fewer lines, open bathrooms.
Having a hot baby in a stroller is pretty much the worst thing. In cold weather, you can always bundle a baby up or cover her in her carrier on your chest.
Cheaper flights (need I say more?).
Marvin and I are winter travel converts. Summer is for hanging out, enjoying home, embracing our neighborhood. Winter is for getting out of town. And with Nora in the picture, even moreso.
13. Embrace the culture
A little churros and chocolate never hurt anyone!
Our first international trip with Nora was to Madrid, which was a relatively easy transition from U.S. culture. We also benefited from the fact that none of us ever really caught up to the six-hour time difference so eating dinner at 10pm still felt like 4, even for baby (this could be a positive or negative, but in our case it worked well).
Consider time difference and length of trip when deciding on your destination. Then…embrace local life! Check out a grocery store and see what baby foods they have there. Don’t be afraid to take baby out to dinner or to a museum — you may be surprised to see how baby friendly other countries may be. Let yourself enjoy travel and be open to the challenges — and the benefits — of traveling with a young one.
There’s no country in the world that doesn’t have babies, right?