Monday, May 13, 2013

Mommy Mondays: Traveling With Toddlers

Hello all! I'm back from two glorious weeks in Spain, the only downside of which was the whole "I'm back" thing. Seriously, we've traveled a lot since we've been in Russia, but this was the hardest it's been for me to come back by far. Between the weather, the food, the glory of being able to communicate in a second language (one I haven't studied in 15 years; that's how much easier it is than Russian), and the fact that some time in the last four or five months, Jack got a hell of a lot easier to travel with, it was truly one of the best vacations we've ever taken. And I think at this point (after countless flights in the USA and international flights with Jack to Russia, back home, and back to Russia again, France twice, and now Spain) I can speak with some authority on the subject of traveling with a toddler. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I've learned.

First and foremost (okay, this one IS in a particular order, because it's crucial!): Get thee an iPad! This thing has been an absolute God-send for our family. Not only can Jack watch his favorite movies (the flavor of the month is A Bug's Life. Pixar is another God-send for parents, btw; cute, funny movies that everyone in the family will enjoy), but he can draw, play with various apps, read Thomas stories, do puzzles and matching games, and generally keep himself entertained for hours (and we rarely pay for an app). Even if your child doesn't watch TV at home and isn't allowed to occupy himself with your iPhone during normal business hours, I say all bets are off when traveling. You do yourself, your child, and everyone around you a disservice if you don't have something to occupy them with for up to ten hours at a time (and I can't think of a single other self-contained, mess-free item out there that can do what an iPad can).

Heimlich, quite possibly my favorite Pixar character ever.

Second, snacks are great (we have gotten very good at stocking up during layovers at the Star Alliance lounges; a perk of so much international travel is all the miles you log!), but nothing keeps a kid quiet and their ears pain-free like a lollipop. I don't give them to Jack on a normal basis, but the Trader Joe's sugar-free all-natural ones are great for flying. I never leave for a trip without several in my purse.

The Go-Go Babyz device is amazing. We use it to wheel Jack around when we need a car seat but not necessarily a stroller on a trip. Jack loves it, it's super maneuverable and lightweight, and relatively easy to use (I have a hell of a time getting it off the car seat sometimes, but other than that, it's great). We got ours on Craigslist for less than half the retail price; definitely worth keeping an eye out for it. On this trip, we used our jogging stroller since we knew we'd be renting a car and the car seat was free, and we wanted to be able to jog with Jack and wheel him around on cobblestone streets.

Even though it means sacrificing activities sometimes, if your toddler is still a napper, let them nap (at home, in their bed if possible). I credit some of our success on this latest trip to Jack's napping; he didn't nap every day (and some days it was in the car), but we really tried to get in at least an hour of downtime when we could. Since different cultures have different schedules and expectations, you often have to go with the flow when you travel abroad. In this case, "going with the flow" meant eating dinner late, since most restaurants in Barcelona and Girona don't open until after eight. So several nights, Jack had to be out much later than usual (he normally goes to bed at 8, and keep in mind that Spain is four hours earlier than where we live). When we first arrived and were still adjusting, we cooked in our apartment so no one would have to deal with a cranky toddler (including us).

Speaking of apartments, has been amazing for us. Traveling as a family is expensive, and John and I don't like to sleep in the same room as Jack (he's a loud sleeper, and I personally refuse to go to bed at 8 every night or keep my kid up until 11). We have now rented several apartments this way, and they have all been cheaper than a single hotel room for two or three bedrooms, a kitchen, a washing machine, and most of the household appliances you could want or need, all with more charm and convenience than a hotel. Yes, it's lovely to stay in a hotel and order room service every now and then, and growing up, my family often did just that. But John and I don't travel on the same budget my parents did, and I love this new option. I can't recommend it enough. We're doing it again next month in Geneva for well under half the cost of a hotel room.

One of the bedrooms in our Girona apartment. It was GORGEOUS!

Sometimes, traveling with toddlers (unlike babies, who are, and I quote, "basically luggage that poops," according to John, and older kids, who have a little more patience and are slightly more rational) means making sacrifices. Museums, I have found, are a recipe for disaster. You pay all this money to see Gaudi's house in Park Guell, and your child decides that he wants to touch everything (including the original furniture, nearly giving the poor museum security guard a heart attack) and scream for no reason whatsoever. Or you end up basically running through the ancient underground ruins at the Barcelona history museum. Even when you do things you're sure your child will love, like a boat ride in the park or a trip to the aquarium, there's no guarantee he won't decide to do everything in his power to capsize the boat or that the only thing he will look at in the entire aquarium is the octopus. But your odds are certainly better than at a museum. So I say stick to the parks and the gelato shops, and give yourself a shot at maintaining your sanity.

If you have a pair of delightful friends who don't have children but happen to love them, might I recommend asking them to travel with you? We got lucky this time; our friends Michael and Stephanie were coincidentally going to Spain at the same time as us, and for reasons still unknown, they actually seemed genuinely happy to spend time with us for much of the trip. Not only was it great to spend time with another couple and catch up on where their Foreign Service life has taken them since A-100, where we met, but they also were an extra set of willing hands and eyes when it came to our little monster. Who knew such a thing existed? Honestly, our time with them was one of the highlights of the trip. If you can travel with friends (and I imagine friends with kids of their own would be equally awesome to travel with; built-in fun for the whole gang!), do it!

Michael, Stephanie, me, the monster, and John after a delicious meal by the sea.

Most importantly, when it comes to traveling (and life in general, I've found), a sense of humor will make traveling with toddlers tolerable, and even enjoyable in ways you never expected. Jack tried calamari and fried sardines, learned a smattering of Spanish, built a sand castle by the Mediterranean, rode a "sky train" to an ancient fortress, ate blue gelato, explored a 12th century church, took a cruise of the Barcelona harbor, and got chased around the town square by a rather forward 18-month-old Catalan girl. All in all, I'd say it was a rather successful trip.

Too bad he won't remember any of it.

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