See the World Through a Child’s Eyes

Making international travel with kids rewarding can be as simple as mixing familiar with foreign.

I was 15 years old when my father came home one November evening and announced that we were moving to England.

I took a moment to savor the dramatic possibilities of this event—how fetching would I look, weeping prettily against my locker, telling the best-looking boy in the sophomore class that I would never see him again because I would henceforth be living on an English moor—before TOTALLY FREAKING OUT.

Travel was, and sometimes still is, difficult for me. I don’t transport well—I would prefer to be teleported to the exotic destinations I yearn to see.

Whenever I got that sour teenage look on my face during family vacations in Europe (for example, when I refused to visit the Eiffel Tower, my parents banded together and told me in ferocious unison that our life in the U.K. and the subsequent European travel it afforded us would be The Greatest Experience Of My Life.

It pains me to admit it, but they were absolutely right.

My last trip to London was in 2003, 16 years after that fateful day in 1987 when a family of five local yokels landed at Heathrow.

Mix Familiar With Foreign

As much as I want my girl to see the world, I can’t fathom bringing her on an overseas flight only to land in bustling international city where nothing would be familiar.

That’s why I asked Bonnie Stewart what in the world possessed her to take her then 1-year-old son, Oscar, on a trip to London and Prague last year.

Stewart’s husband, Dave Cormier, was invited to speak in London. Given that his hotel would be comped and Stewart’s one-year maternity leave was about to expire (those lucky Canadians), the couple decided it was an opportunity they could not pass up, and even added a jaunt to Prague to their itinerary.

Stewart, who lives on Prince Edward Island, says that although she was in the process of looking for work at the time, the family decided to take the trip despite the iffy timing.

“We had one chance to do it,” she adds. “It just really seemed like a worthwhile thing.”

The flight leg of their trip—a quick hop to Montreal, where they departed for London—was a disaster, Stewart recalls. Oscar, who is “not a lap kid,” according to his mom, squirmed and fussed and cried the whole way.

“He didn’t want to be held, he wouldn’t nurse, it was a nightmare,” Stewart says.

Thankfully, the couple was allowed to bring their car seat on the flight from Montreal to London.

“I highly recommend bringing your car seat if you can. He was a dream the rest of the way. I think he just felt more secure,” she adds.

My personal fears about traveling abroad with Emmeline are focused mostly on her sleep patterns. Jet lag turns me into a monster of epic proportions, and just the idea of dealing with a 2-year-old in the same condition makes me feel like taking a nap right this minute.

Stewart shared that fear, but says that Oscar did “amazingly well.”

“He switched over pretty quickly,” she says. The couple stayed in a “lovely, fancy hotel” in London that included a separate room for the baby. Being able to put Oscar down in a quiet space gave him the chance to catch up on his rest.

The trip did have one frightening hiccup, one that would scare the passport off any parent. Oscar took ill in Prague and needed to visit the emergency room for a breathing problem.

Stewart says that her long history of nomadic travel gave her the confidence to deal with the medical personnel through miming and gestures. The scary part, she says, was navigating through a foreign city not knowing exactly where the hospital was or how quickly they could get there.

A friend familiar with Prague helped direct them, but Stewart recalls, “after the third bus transfer with three adults and a sick baby in a stroller, I was getting increasingly tense and cranky.”

Tense? Cranky? I would have been screaming my face off. But thankfully, Stewart kept a calm head and Oscar got the treatment he needed.

If you are faced with a similar situation, Stewart points out that in most of the countries she’s visited—including her yearlong stint in South Korea—she’s been able to communicate without knowing the native tongue.

“It’s interesting, but I’ve found that once people realize you are from the United States, their capacity to deal with you on the ‘charades’ level is really quite good,” she says. “They tend to have equivalent services and in some cases, they even have the same drug names.”

Be Flexible

Once past their health scare, the family was able to enjoy the sights unfettered by medical crisis or even a grumpy toddler. Oscar, his mother says, endured trips to ancient castles and the Tower of London contentedly in his stroller.

The key, Stewart advises, is altering your routine to fit the situation. Normally Oscar takes a morning nap, so the couple would get up early, hang out in the hotel room, and then take a rest together around 9:30 or 10 a.m.

After that small snooze, Oscar was ready to hit the cobblestone streets in fine form.

Travel expert John Frenaye concurs with Stewart. “You’ve got to know your kids,” he says.

Frenaye, whose most recent venture is Single Parent Travel, is no stranger to international travel with kids. [Disclosure: Frenaye is a TravelMuse contributor.]

His children were 6 years, 4 years and 9 months old the first time he took them across the pond.

The family went to London for Thanksgiving on the spur of the moment, thanks to a ridiculously low airfare, and even took a day trip to Paris.

His only regret? Not bringing or buying a stroller.

“We did the backpack thing for the little one, but my middle daughter’s legs would get really tired,” he says. “She lost it at the Eiffel Tower and we had to walk back to the Louvre. I was like, ‘This is the last time I’m carrying you on my shoulders for three miles!’”

Frenaye also advises taking a few smaller plane trips before pinning your kid down for a seven-hour flight. “Once they have that little bit of experience, they will probably be okay,” he says.

And he should know. This single father recently returned from taking his third-grader to Rome, and even traveled all the way to China with his 9-year-old son.

I don’t think China is in our future, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally get to see the Eiffel Tower, with my daughter by my side.

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Meet us halfway! Thanks for the family travel tips once at a destination. Now if only airlines would be more accommodating :/