29 March 2012

Traveling With Little Ones

We just returned from a vacation, one of many we've taken during our time living in Europe. (For Momma and the Senior Agents, this was our tenth country. It was Agent A's eighth.) After two years of traveling more than we did during the rest of our lives combined, I think we have finally figured out a few things. 

Take (at most) two large suitcases. The "rule" in our family is Hubby must be able to move all luggage by himself, and I corral the zoo children. We can get everything we need for one week for the five of us, including diapers, toiletries, and snacks, into two bags. The biggest space saver is limiting clothes. Even if you normally wash everything after one wear at home, on vacation you can wear pants and shirts twice. Really. Plan for one outfit every two days, perhaps an extra for babies/toddlers or those likely to get particularly messy (cough . . . Agent J . . . cough). Just pack enough socks and underwear for every day, and the rest will work out fine. I'd much rather use the extra space to pack some comforts from home (e.g., for the Agents, some story/coloring books, one or two DVDs, a few favorite stuffed animals, or a blanket).

Limit carry-ons. Do you see the folks who board the plane with ginormous bags and wonder how on earth they are going to fit them in the overhead compartment? Yeah, don't be one of those people. I carry a messenger bag and Hubby takes a backpack, which also holds our laptop. Agent E carries a small backpack, too, but no carry-ons for Agents J or A . . . they're too young to keep track of them and that means they become our carry-ons. Include entertainment and snacks for the little ones, but don't go overboard. Crayons and paper and a few pages of stickers work great. No need to transport an entire art studio.

Consider ditching the stroller. Especially if you are visiting a major city where your main mode of transportation will be metro stations (read: lots of steps, escalators, and small passageways) it may be easier just to play pass the baby. This is one of those times it would have been nice if babywearing had worked out for us. Of course we had moments when the stroller would have been useful (like the couple of times Hubby carried a sleeping Agent A around for over an hour), but for this particular destination it would have been more hassle than help.

Beware of the words kid-friendly. We've learned that when establishments declare themselves "kid-friendly" or proudly proclaim "kid's welcome" usually what they mean is a family of four with kids about ages 8 and 10. Most places do not have infants and toddlers in mind. Or large families. Proceed with caution.

Free can also be awesome. Some of the greatest fun on our most recent trip to London included visits to the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and several of the Royal Parks—all 100% free.

Underplan. On paper it will look like you aren't doing much. Trust me; you'll be lucky to get to most of it. Using our most recent adventure as an example, we spent one entire day simply going to the park, checking out the very cool Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, visiting one museum (where we also had lunch), and then (after a rest at the hotel) walking around Harrods for a short while and getting dinner. And that took all day, from 9:00-ish until 7:00-ish. With the five and under crowd, it really is about the journey.

Take a break. It doesn't need to be long, and you don't necessarily have to nap. But going back to the hotel at some point, even if just for an hour to space out watching cartoons or simply to be able to take off your shoes for a bit, makes a huge difference. The one day we didn't do this, Agent J fell asleep, for over an hour, in a booth in the middle of Planet Hollywood.

Lower food expectations. If you have visions of sampling local cuisine at trendy cafes and mom and pop restaurants or enjoying an elaborate meal, pop that fantasy bubble right now. Eating out with children on vacation is just like eating out with children at home: depending on location this can be upbeat and fun or stressful and hectic. Accept the fact that some many most meals may be fast food (gasp!) or quick visits to sandwich shops on route to a picnic in the park.

Cut other parents some slack. Every once in a while an article will pop up in my newsfeed with the following theme: A proponent of gentle parenting witnesses another parent being less than nurturing with their child/children in a typically frustrating setting (e.g., waiting in a long line at airport security with a hungry, fidgety two-year-old). Judgment then ensues from random commenters. But you know what? We've all been that parent, and none of us would want that one moment to be interpreted as the parenting style we live each day. Plus, you know why Normally Attached and Sensitive Mom likely went a little berserk? Probably because Normally Attached and Sweet Little Toddler didn't respond to the, oh, 15 times the parent tried to distract, empathize, offer a snack, or any other myriad methods. Give her a pass, please.

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