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Passports to Planes to Parlez-vous: Trip Tips on International Travel with Little Ones

"I just left the country for the first time with my five and nine year old a few months ago. 'Pack your patience!'“

Excusez moi (I’m keeping with the French theme of the title), but I needed to add a preface to this piece. Our writer, Karen, put this piece together in the Winter of 2020 for our print magazine set to publish in the Spring of 2020. That was our last print issue, and since then we have been looking at this piece in draft form. We didn’t want to look insensitive by posting too early or not share it at all because the advice given here is fantastic and helpful regardless of the pandemic. However I wanted to give a little reminder right from the beginning that the world is not the same place it was when this was written two whole years ago. Passport application and renewal times have lengthened and the cost recently went up, travel restrictions change like the wind, flights can be unreliable, and so much more. But the zest for life and adventure remains, and travel is still happening. So we hope you are able to get back out there, use the advice given here to make your trip a little easier, and of course- check on travel restrictions or policies before making any plans. We recommend buying travel insurance and using a travel planner who can help you make sure you’re doing the right things AND help out if you get stuck. But most of all have fun! ~ Pamela   

Family vacation used to mean packing the bags and the kids in the car with snacks and squashed sandwiches, and road-tripping to a chosen destination a few hours’ drive away. The shore, the mountains, the lake, the grandparents. But nowadays, parents aren’t afraid to set their sights much higher (literally!) when it comes to family exploration. In today’s times, international travel with kids of every age has become more popular and eminently more doable, so take your four-year-old to Barcelona or your toddler to Peru! With an entire globe’s worth of history, architecture, culture, nature, food, and fun to experience, the sky, and the world, is the limit.


But! With so much ground to cover and explore, and with international rules, regulations, laws, and culture to consider, there is more to navigate than a road map. Flying overseas and across borders with a two-year-old? Sightseeing with a family of five? Is it manageable? Is it madness? It may be, but the voice of experience in the form of you, our Main Line Parent and Philadelphia Family Communities, shares invaluable advice, tips, and tricks, showing it can be done, and done well. For unforgettable experiences and memories that last, add a sense of humor to your flight plan, buckle up, and find out how to fly right.

Preparing Paperwork

“The passport process with littles can be involved, so start early to avoid rush fees. And to apply for a child’s passport, both parents must be present in the office.” ~ Lacey Long
“Passports expire every five years for minors, while adults only need to renew every ten years. Some places require you to have a passport that has 6 months of time left on it, so be careful!” ~ Steph Gunderson 
“Buy travel insurance that includes medical and evacuation coverage in the event of an emergency.” ~ Jennifer G. Morgan
TSA precheck and Global Entry also covers kids flying with parents within the US. Very worth it! If you fly internationally each person, including kids, need Global Entry.” ~ Anastasia Shown 
“Get a ROAD ID bracelet for your kids just in case. Make sure text messaging on your mobile works. Most people outside the US use WhatsApp.” ~ Lara Wolfson

Securing Safety

“If traveling internationally with kids who have food allergies, there are extra precautions to take. Don’t let a child with allergies eat airline food. Pack safe snacks in your carryon. Bring Select Wisely translation cards if visiting a country where English isn’t the official language, they were invaluable when we visited Italy and Mexico! And contact restaurants ahead of time to verify they can assist.” ~ Jennifer G. Morgan
“If your child has food allergies, Ireland or other EU countries may be a great place to visit. All of the dishes on the restaurant menus in these countries must identify 14 different types of allergens. Most menus make it easy with little pictures or numbers next to each dish.” ~ Julie Lathia
“Know the laws and customs of the country you’re visiting, know the food and options, and always know where the closest medical center is in case of emergency. Also, depending on where you’re traveling to, research how women are treated and what their rights are in regards to children and decision making.” ~ Eileen McKeefery O’Connor

Involving the Littles 

“We got our kid psyched for her first international trip by doing a month of language lessons on the Pimsleur App. Our 5-year-old really did a great job of following along!” ~ Lacey Long 
“If kids are old enough, assign each with the responsibility to research and help plan one realistic family activity and provide a budget.” ~ Jennifer G. Morgan 
“Put stickers on all your luggage that your kids can identify – we do iridescent owls and my kids love looking for it at baggage claim.” ~ Lara Wolfson 
“When visiting a foreign country, practice some basic conversational greetings in advance and teach your kids to say them if they are old enough. It goes a long way and locals appreciate the effort!” ~ Jennifer G. Morgan 

Plane-planning and Packing

“Even though our guy was under two, we bought him a seat. He slept in his car seat and we slept as well as you can as an adult in economy. Worth every penny. Plus, earphones your kid likes so they can watch the Muppets on repeat!” ~ Julia Judson-Rea
“Take lots of little toys and snacks. Try to fly late in the evening so they sleep on the flight. Make sure to take a couple of blankets to make them extra comfy. Definitely layer clothes so you’re not too cold or warm. Carry two sets of spare clothes in your carry-on in ziplock plastic bags.” ~ Gauri Shiroor
“Bring a bag of new, never-before seen toys!” ~ Catherine Wargo Roberts 
“We use lollipops for take off and landing.” ~ Trish O’Donnell 

At the Airport

“Utilize curbside-check for your bags and a car valet service at the airport. Makes drop-off and pick-up with bags much easier.” ~ Susan Lorenz-Fisher 
“Even if your toddler isn’t normally a runner consider a “leash” backpack. This brought to you by the woman who was seven months pregnant when her non-runner decided to give it a try in the transit line in Qatar. He got bored waiting, pulled his hand out of mine and took off past and through security-who didn’t see him because he was short-and into the airport. Nearly caused an international incident when his dad attempted pursuit! There was a lot of yelling in Arabic, English, French and in my panic, Swahili. The little runner was apprehended by a flight attendant in Hermès who saw him run by. After that, we utilized the tail feature on his monkey back pack.” ~ Ashley Best-Raiten
“For the toddler phase we found it very helpful to know ahead of time which airports had indoor playgrounds, especially for longer flights. Since we usually had a decent commute to the airport, we would leave extra time for playing on the playground before boarding. This would burn some energy before twelve hours on the plane!” ~ Alicia Kroat-Aronovich

Just About Babies 

“For children who are breastfeeding, wait until takeoff to feed! It will allow their ears to pop naturally and likely put them to sleep. Bring a boppy pillow for your lap so you can comfortably hold the baby the whole flight as well as a ring sling to free your hands if you have to use the bathroom during the flight.” ~ Danielle Rostick 
“Skip the stroller and baby-wear! Especially when it comes to older cities with cobblestone sidewalks and tiny restaurants. Many museums don’t allow strollers, but my kids have napped for hours on my back through the Musee d’Orsay, the British Museum, etcetera. It’s a great way for us to do “boring adult things” with littles who still need a nap, without getting stuck going back to a hotel every afternoon.” ~ Julie Barber-Rotenberg 

On the Ground

“We look for Airbnbs with a washer and dryer so we can run a load of laundry, and pack less, too.” ~ Clare Herlihy Dych 
“We try to book lodging near a local playground to get energy out before dinner. It gets harder with more children, but we successfully traveled internationally with three under five!” ~ Anna Swynford 
“Talk and talk about things they see that are different, and things they see that feel the same. It opens up such great conversations about culture, diversity and tradition.” ~ Lauren Tierney Nestler
“Be flexible in your plans. We scheduled several museums in Florence, but the kids were breaking down just fifteen minutes into our first stop at the Accademia Gallery. We switched up our plans and went to a toy store, had pizza, strolled the streets, and then headed to Pisa for the afternoon instead. When all else fails – you can bribe kids with gelato!” ~ Erica Smith-Klocek 
“No matter what you show them, toy stores will always be tops. Took our kids to London twice and Hamley’s is their favorite attraction. Also, it won’t be the same vacation as an adults only. Just go with it and enjoy it, because your kids will remember the experience!” ~ Alexis Marchio Stumm
“Try to include cultural experiences in your travels. My kids remember climbing the pyramids at Uxmal and visiting a Mayan village more than they remember sitting on the beach or playing in the pool.” ~ Erica Smith-Klocek 

The best tip on family travel? Experience all you can through their eyes, and bring it all home. Family memories make the best and longest-lasting souvenirs.

Contributing Writer