I used to think I was great at holidays. As a travel journalist and blogger I could pack a suitcase for a week-long trip in five minutes and get to the airport just in time to breeze through security, enjoy a gin and tonic and board the plane without a care in the world. That all changed in January 2017 when my son (and mini-adventurer), Finn, was born. Suddenly I was taking two hours to get out of the house just to pop to the supermarket and never without a giant bag in tow… Four-months in and I’m better at leaving home on time but now we’re gearing up for our first overseas holiday and I found myself slap bang in the middle of a host of new hurdles to negotiate…
From travel safety to time differences and lugging bundles of extra stuff to the airport, I wasn’t going to be deterred from doing what I always wanted to do with Finn – travel the world and show him all the amazing things in it. Of course it’s easier to stay at home and have a staycation but I’ve always been up for a challenge and this was no exception. We headed to California, USA for our first family holiday together – just me, Finn and his dad Simon. It’s taken a bit more planning than usual but we’re off on our first big adventure and this is what I’ve learned so far…
ER, KIDS DON’T GO FREE
I basically spent my whole pregnancy making jokes like ‘yeah I’m going to go on as many holidays as I can before he’s two because I don’t have to pay for him’. Turns out that’s one of those magical parenting myths… It depends on your airline, but low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet charge a set fare (approximately £22) for lap-sitting infants under the age of two. Larger airlines such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways charge 10% of your seat fare, so the more expensive your seat, the more expensive it costs to add your baby. I mean, it’s not an extortionate amount but if, like me, you assumed you could just turn up with bubs in tow for no extra cost, it was a minor upset. The good thing is you are also allowed two items of ‘baby equipment’ (pram and travel cot, for example) plus a cabin bag as part of the fee, so you won’t have to sacrifice your suitcase to make way for baby.
STAYING AT THE AIRPORT
I don’t know about you but getting to the airport is always a bone of contention in our house. My partner (the organised one) likes to get there super early, check in and then wait around for ages to guarantee a calm, collected start to the holiday. I prefer to have an extra hour in bed and then arrive last minute and run through the airport waving my passport and yelling ‘hold the plane’ at anyone in a high visibility vest. Once you add a bouncing baby to the equation neither option is that attractive, so consider spending a bit extra and staying at the airport the night before. That’s exactly what we did and it was the best decision we made. Our airline (Virgin Atlantic) offers a twilight check in at Gatwick, so we were able to show up at the airport the night before, check in our bags and confirm our seats with no crowds or panic-inducing delays. Then, after a celebratory meal in the hotel restaurant we gave Finn a bath and got him to sleep with just enough time for an episode of Prison Break before bed. The next morning I got an extra half-hour snooze and we breezed through security with time to spare, even managing a glass of fizz before boarding. Look out for hotel deals that include parking as some offer two weeks of parking with a one-night stay, which could save you a few quid on parking charges and make departure day hassle-free.
Okay, this is a tricky one… Essentially it’s not possible to pack light when you have a baby. Believe me, I started packing a week early and our case was still bulging. The key thing to remember is that you don’t need to pack everything your baby owns. The extra stimulation of new surroundings, swimming pools, sand and lots of new people mean they won’t need as many classic toys to entertain them day-to-day. Being on holiday is much more interesting than your living room (hopefully). I don’t think there is a fail-safe strategy but I started with absolute essentials such as medications, feeding necessities (bottles, travel sterilizing bags, bibs etc.), climate-appropriate clothing for daytime and for sleeping in and comfort items (favourite teddy / dummy etc.). Luckily Finn’s favourite things are these soft bug rattles, which he will stare at for ages and are very travel-friendly because they don’t weigh anything, make irritating noises or take up much room. After that, I added the things that I wanted to take – his new fancy holiday clothes, because hey, I’m only human, a travel mobile and a sunshade for the car. Remember that most destinations you’ll be visiting will have ample places to buy nappies, wipes, pool toys and other heavy items so take what you need for a few days and buy the rest when you arrive. My best advice is not to take more suitcases than you can manage without help, factoring in the pram and the baby. We had two suitcases between the three of us. I probably packed a bit too much for Finn but, come on, it was my first time! Next trip he’ll get a waterproof onesie and that’s his lot…
BUGGY BUG BEARS
The jury is out on this one. It seems to be common opinion that your pushchair will get damaged by airport baggage handlers. We’ve all seen how suitcases get thrown around on the tarmac and it seems your baby’s carriage is no exception. Most parents recommend buying a cheaper, foldable pram for your holiday that won’t cause a huge upset if it gets broken. You can wheel your baby right to the gate in one of these and collect it from the airline staff when you land. This is a reasonable option; especially if once you reach your destination you’re not going to be travelling about too much. We are headed to Mammoth Lakes mountain resort in California for part of our trip, where it is currently snowing. Because of this, we wanted to take our sturdy pram that has good off-road wheels and insulation to keep Finn all warm and cosy when we’re out exploring. The lightweight pram idea wasn’t going to work for us so we invested in a buggy bag from our pram’s manufacturer, which is designed to protect the pram when in transit. It was a big spend that we weren’t expecting but I’d rather pay out now than risk damage to my pram and have to buy a new one. Plus, since we plan to travel a lot we’ll hopefully get a lot of use from the bag on future trips.
The simplest and easiest way to board an aircraft with your baby is to carry them in a baby carrier. We used our trusty Ergo, which Finn loves, and we were hands-free for drinking fizz at the terminal. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about dropping off and waiting for our pram at the other end. This also worked well for settling him when he got cranky. Depending on how long it takes to soothe your baby, you could be carrying him up and down the airplane aisles for a long time so the carrier can help out immensely!
TIPS FOR TAKE-OFF
You know how your ears pop during takeoff and landing? Yeah, babies don’t like that either. If possible, delay your baby’s feed until take off and let them feed as the plane climbs altitude. This encourages swallowing so will help ease any pain. Some parents also say a dummy will work just as well. After taking advice from other well-travelled mums, I packed one nappy per two-hours flight time, two spare outfit changes for Finn and one for me. This had me covered for any vomit or dirty nappy incidents mid-flight. If you’re not breastfeeding be sure to pack enough feed for the flight and allow for an extra 2/3 hours in case of delays. Baby formula and bottled breast milk is allowed through customs and exempt from the 100ml liquid rule in most airports but you may be asked to drink some. Yum…
Finn is in a regular sleeping pattern, which was obviously going to get interrupted in a major way now that we’re taking him to a different time zone. Our strategy was to try and get him to sleep on California time as soon as we boarded the flight, trying as gently as possible to adjust his nap and feeding times without causing any major tantrums. It wasn’t 100% effective but helped a little when we reached the other side. The cabin will likely be colder than your home so pack an extra blanket to keep the little one warm on board. To keep older babies entertained, pack a favourite toy as well as a few ‘surprise’ activity presents to reveal gradually during the flight. If unwrapping and then playing with their new things can kill half an hour, that’s half an hour less to worry about! And of course, there is always the failsafe iPad – best saved until things get really desperate.
The most inconvenient hurdle we encountered with Finn was discovering that, when travelling outside Europe, you may not be able to use your European-approved infant car seat. Many parents said they didn’t know or just took a chance with their UK car seats but if you are involved in an accident you may encounter problems with your insurance company. Before the trip I spoke to both Alamo (our car rental firm) and Maxi Cosi who both recommended not using our car seat stateside and I decided to go with their recommendations. This left us two options: renting a car seat from the car hire company at a cost of $10 per day or buying our own US-approved car seat (Walmart, $90). We decided to buy our own seat as we are returning to the USA again later this year and so it worked out more cost effective. Any fire station in the USA will fit your car seat securely for free so look up the closest one and have it fitted by a professional.
ENJOY YOUR TRIP
The only other advice I could possibly give is just to have fun and enjoy this precious time with your family. Sure, plane travel is more stressful than staying at home but the journey can be just as much fun as the destination if you remember to enjoy it.
Follow our adventures in the USA on Instagram @helenwrites and @passportbaby and check out some other great travel destinations at passportstamps.uk