Whether you were a solo traveler before, or just caught the traveling bug now that you have a family, traveling internationally as a family is both doable and enjoyable—trust me on this! Here are five quick tips on how to prepare ahead and get the most out of your family’s adventure.
1. Passports and Visas: There are so many wonderful family-friendly destinations throughout the world, and your family has finally settled on where you will be heading next—congratulations! But before you book your flights, you will need to first check on the passport and visa requirements for your home country and that of your destination.
First, you will need a valid passport to travel between countries. You may also need a certain number of months remaining on your passport to travel as well. For example, if you are a U.S. passport holder, many countries will require that you have at least six months remaining on your current passport, regardless of your intended length of stay.
Some countries also require a visa for entry. And again, depending on the country, the visa may take a few months to process because it is sent out and then returned to you before your trip, or it may be acquired upon arrival, within the international terminal of the airport itself.
Passports and visas are an easy enough process, so don’t be discouraged. Check your country’s government website on international travel to get started. Here is the link for citizens of the United States of America.
2. What to Pack: Packing light for any travel, especially international travel, lightens your load in a multitude of ways. Go with carry-on luggage for every member of your family and skip the hassle, the extra time to check it and the rising cost of checked bags. Sticking to a carry-on means that you will only bring what you will need and use, and there is a lot of freedom in that. There are some great luggage packing systems out there that can help you get all you need (and a little more!) into a surprisingly small space. And using a baby carrier in the airport means your hands are free to handle boarding passes and roll your bag.
For clothes, think of packing layering pieces to adjust for changing weather, and items that you can mix and match, getting several outfits from just a few pieces. Getting serious about your shoes is another way to ensure light travel; think one sandal and one closed-toe pair. And on travel days, wear the bulker pair to free up space in your luggage.
For personal toiletries, reuse conforming containers that you already have in your home, or invest in 3.4 oz (100ml) or smaller containers. Follow the international 3-1-1 liquids rule to keep your bag a carry-on. There are liquids exceptions for families who are traveling with small children. Look to your airline’s website to know what to expect on this, and then be prepared before you get to the airport, making security a breeze. And don’t forget, printing your boarding passes at home, means that you can head directly to security because carry-on luggage means no standing in ticketing lines to check your bags.
3. Inflight Comforts: Most international itineraries mean longer flight times, and connecting flights to get you where you are going. Most international flights will serve a snack or meal as part of your ticket price, but depending on your carrier, not much else outside that and your soda. And as airlines continue to cut the little extras that they previously served up for free, such as pretzels and nuts, planning ahead means avoiding the bonk for little ones and breastfeeding mamas. Snacks like nuts, fruit, chocolate, energy bars, cheerios, even an empty refillable water bottle can be brought from home and taken through any airport’s security, saving you money and time at the airport. Once you’re through security, this is the time to fill up that water bottle, and pick up any drinks or other treats that you may want for your flight.
Wear or pack a pair of warm socks and a long-sleeve shirt to keep warm on chilly flights. Your little one may appreciate a packable blanket from home. Your own earbuds will make the inflight entertainment more enjoyable, though most airlines still offer individual headsets for no additional charge. Inflatable neck pillows can make long flights easier on your body. A deck of cards is a small space investment for hours of play. And of course, iPods, phones and tablets can make long flights zoom by too, but if you need to save space, leave these at home and utilize the plane’s inflight entertainment.
4. Happily Getting Around: Once you get to your destination, make walking your number one mode of transport. Plan your trip to a city or country that boasts solid public transportation like trains, buses and trams; and between these modes, use your feet. Walking is a great way to see the city you are visiting, and not just the highlights, but the day-to-day workings of any place. Walking means you are keeping pace with the locals, and this increases your chances of making new friends and discovering the best of what your neighborhood has to offer for food and shopping.
Keep your load light when you go take in the sights. Bring only what you and your family will need for the day trip or outing; leave the rest back in your room. And remember that wearing your little one is a super-comfortable way to see the sights together as a family.
5. Support Your Local Hosts: When looking for a place to stay, look to hostels and guesthouses run by locals or expats who offer job opportunities to their community, and who respect the local environment. Tripadvisor.com and lonelyplanet.com are two websites that offer up-to-date accommodation reviews by other travelers. In addition to the better price point over larger hotels, guesthouses offer a home-away-from-home vibe that means a lot when you are traveling as a family. Often included in the room cost are breakfasts, or the use of the kitchen, giving you a chance to connect with other guests over meals. Other regular bonuses with hostels and guesthouses are common rooms with a television, community computers and a lending library. Innkeepers and their staff want you to enjoy yourselves during your stay with them and to see the best of their city. Look to them for festivals to attend and must-see places not found in your guidebook.
Outside of your accommodations, look for other ways to invest in the local economy to save money and increase your travel experience. One way that my family and I do this is by dropping our laundry off at local washers. In every city, especially in the neighborhoods with accommodations located in them, there will be small-operation laundry services. Usually priced by the kilo, this is a super cost effective way to get your duds cleaned and invest in a local business, usually a family business. In over 27 countries, we have never had even a sock go missing.