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How to Ensure a Stress-Free International Vacation with the Family

By Jason Dimaio

There are hundreds of quotes about motivations for travel, or how important it is. Coincidentally, while writing on a plane, I had the movie Passengers on in the background, and Jennifer Lawrence’s character explains the reason for her adventure: Her father told her, “If you live an ordinary life, all you’ll have is ordinary stories.”

As a parent, I work hard to try to give my child an extraordinary life, one more incredible and accomplished than my own. It’s a goal many parents share. This is why I’ve made it my mission to help my daughter see as much of the world as she can.

The good news is that many companies want to help families, especially those with young children, travel. For example, American Airlines has a cool perk for kids called the Junior Aviator Logbook. British Airways has a version as well. Typically, you give the logbook to a flight attendant, and they have the rest of the flight crew fill out the entry. It has fields for flight number, routing, and aircraft type, but it also has a field at the end for a personalized message from the captain. This souvenir is a great addition to the wonderful adventures that hopefully open children’s eyes to new cultures and allow them to retell extraordinary stories.

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To Travel Well as a Family, Preparation is Key

However, travel full of great memories, especially for your children, takes preparation. While both my wife and I were experienced travelers, we certainly were not advanced, and we were completely inexperienced in traveling with a small child. The benefit of our mistakes (or of doing things the hard way) is that we learned how to do it better, and the lessons have stuck with us.

Passports

First and foremost, if you’re traveling internationally, everyone needs a passport just to board the plane, and frequently, to even buy the tickets. Most countries will stamp your passport with both an entry and a departure stamp, though some, such as Australia, may not.

It doesn’t matter if your child is six days old: Everyone who travels internationally needs a passport. Unlike adults, if your child is under 16, they have to apply in person. The good news is that most U.S. post offices can handle this service. At the time of this writing, you should expect a child’s passport to run you about $105. My wife was able to do this alone, with no significant issues, but there are specific instructions on how to apply if both parents are not present.

Make sure you bring all of your relevant documentation for both of you.  You can see current requirements for passport applications for children under the age of 16 on the U.S. Department of State’s website.

Global Entry

Once everyone has their passports, I would highly encourage you to get access to the Global Entry program. It costs $100 per person, and will help expedite your travel. As a Global Entry member, when you return to the United States and go through customs, you generally don’t have to wait in lines. Even for domestic travel, you have access to any TSA PreCheck expedited services. Be aware, however, that in order to use this service, everyone in your party must have their own Global Entry credentials.

Pro Tip: Part of the application process for Global Entry membership is an interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center, which normally lasts less than 10 minutes. When you set your interview appointment, you may face no appointments available sooner than six months out. Don’t worry. Book an appointment, then check the site daily: People cancel their appointments all the time. You may end up finding an opening the next day.

Visas

In addition to your passport, some countries also require a visa. Before you travel, you need to be sure of the visa requirements for your destination.  Most countries in Europe, as well as Mexico and Canada, are easy for U.S. passport holders, while other countries require a bit more planning, paperwork, and prepaid fees. The U.S. Department of State has information travelers need for individual countries and visa requirements.

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Car Seats

Now it’s time to plan for how to pack both carry-ons and checked bags. For parents of younger children, the item that immediately stands out is the car seat issue.

When you arrive at your destination airport, you still need to travel to your endpoint — a hotel, Airbnb, homestay, or other location. Odds are you won’t have the proper car seat waiting for you upon arrival, and you’ll likely need one for your activities at your destination.

Most airlines will allow you to fly with very small children (generally under age 2) in your lap. However, consider purchasing an extra seat on the plane and bringing your car seat on board. Almost all car seats are compatible with airplane seats (though you should verify with your manufacturer and airline), and this can help you in two ways:

  • It can help improve safety for your child.
  • It can give you a break from holding them.

For many parents, traveling with children has probably worn you out enough that you could use a nap on the plane, yourself. Plus, if it’s three people in your family in a standard three-seat row, you don’t have to worry about the stranger sitting next to you.

Pro-Tip: For longer international flights on wide-body aircraft, pick bulkhead seats. These are seats that are against a wall, and that wall normally has a mounting for a bassinet. Again, check with your airline.

If you’re not bringing a car seat onboard but still need one at your destination, look into getting a car seat backpack. It covers your car seat and allows you to convert it into checked luggage. In the U.S., it won’t count against your checked bag allowance on most airlines.

Pro Tip: We packed extra diapers into our car seat backpack.  Every bit of storage counts when traveling with a young child.

Make sure, too, that you not only have extra clothing for your child in your checked bags, but also some for yourself. Accidents happen. They seem to happen much more frequently when there’s a child involved.  When they do happen, you’ll want to ensure you both have options.

Flights

For our first family overseas trip to London from Dallas, we decided to splurge and try to make the flight as comfortable as possible. We booked business class tickets, and found that having the extra space and attention was worth the expense: It reduced my wife’s anxiety, gave my daughter an exciting new experience, and allowed us all to get more rest than we would have gotten in coach, and we were able to begin our vacation without being hit so hard by jetlag.

For any ticket purchase, depending on when you book, the prices can vary wildly. I’ve seen flights from Dallas to London as inexpensive as $1,600 in business, but they can jump up to $3,500 per seat or more. Keep an eye on prices, and consider choosing a destination based on flight fares, not popularity. For example, a site like Fare Deal Alert will share immediate deals on flights to and from various airports around the world.

Hotels

When it comes to where you sleep, look at hotels and prioritize those that are family friendly. While there are certainly some gems to be had in boutique hotels and Airbnb properties, sometimes it’s best to remove as much stress as possible from the equation. It may serve your family well to pay a little more to go with a big chain, such as Marriott or Hyatt, with a proven track record in accommodating families.

One memorable stay was when my family celebrated Christmas in London. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Churchill. On Christmas Eve, the staff created the sounds of reindeer hooves and sleigh bells through the halls. They also left gifts outside our door. For Christmas Day brunch in the hotel restaurant, Santa came through and visited with each table. On a different trip in Rome for spring break, we stayed at the Boscolo Exedra Rome, a Marriott property. The concierge delighted my daughter with bottles of bubbles they kept behind the counter, and gave her maps to color.

The staff at both of these properties were delightful. You can generally expect to pay over $300 a night at either property, but the experiences and the memories were well worth it. Furthermore, it’s not just the property itself that matters when traveling as a family, but the location. Both properties were conveniently located to tourist sites and transportation. Being able to easily transition back to your hotel room after a long day in the city is priceless.

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Credit Cards and Currency

Before you leave for your vacation, call your bank and credit card companies and alert them to your travels. You can also set travel alerts online through your payment portals.

I advise bringing more than one credit card on a trip. Some countries have issues with pickpockets, especially in tourist areas, but the primary reason is because you may find some places use credit card machines that work with one company, but not another. You should have a back-up plan.

Choose your travel credit cards wisely, as some charge additional fees when you use them for foreign transactions. Be sure you know what you’re in store for when you swipe that card.

Pro Tip:  When given the choice between making the purchase in the local currency or converting it to U.S. dollars, most experts say you should choose the local currency. Converting to U.S. dollars may cost you hefty conversion fees.

Get Ready to Enjoy Your Trip

There are a number of tools, books, and websites you can use to help reduce or eliminate stress from your family trip.  Find activities for your child that pertain to the sights, excursions, and activities they will see and do. For example, in Rome our daughter had a book with puzzles, trivia, and pages for coloring that referenced the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. Having visited the places made her more engaged with the book.  Before we visited Paris, her teacher taught a section about the Masters, and had the students get under their class tables and painting on their backs, like Michelangelo was alleged to have done. After learning about them and their works, my daughter was fascinated by the art in the Louvre (rather than bored or antsy).

The more planning and time you spend on preparation when you choose where to go, as well as the more you can budget for eliminating obstacles and adding perks, the more you can enjoy your vacation time with your family. After all, isn’t that what we’re there for? Plan ahead so you can pay attention in the moment and live extraordinary stories.

Travel well.

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Jason Dimaio is an Information Technology leader by trade, but a passionate adventurer in spirit. He loves helping people find new experiences and revels in being a part of their successes. With all that, he knows he has no more important job than raising his little girl to be a strong, smart and wise young woman. You can find his photography on Instagram, and follow his Facebook group about travel. He’s also available on LinkedIn.