Traveling with Children Abroad

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Want to travel the world with your children, but not sure how to do it? We've got tips on everything from passports and visas to packing for your next family travel adventure

Traveling with children can be stressful, but with enough preparation you can ensure a relatively tears-free trip, for both you and your child.  From the plane ride to passports and Pampers, we've asked several seasoned veterans how they have managed to take their children abroad without leaving their sanity at home. 

While they are in their formative years, providing your children with the opportunity to see other countries and cultures can be an invaluable gift. However, it is a vacation and you want to be sure that your children have fun. Bill Nichols, co-author of Exotic Travel Destinations for Families (Santa Monica Press, 2004), suggests that when planning your trip, be sure that the destination is 'age appropriate' and engaging. "I always recommend any trip where there is something active to do," he said, adding that children would usually rather see animals than museums. "If you're going to Paris, take a boat ride down the Seine or go to the Eiffel Tower. If you want to do the Louvre, go straight to the Mona Lisa." 

Nichols and his wife Jennifer traveled with their two children, Alison, 18, and Will, 15, from the time that Alison was six months old. Among their most memorable vacations are trips to the jungles of Belize, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, the markets of Morocco and Thailand.  "Once you've decided on a destination, get out a globe and show them where they're going.  Have them learn some words in the country's language. You want them to be excited and ready for the trip."

Don't leave home without it

Traveling beyond US borders almost always requires that both you and your child have a passport. A recent change in the passport application process mandates that minors under the age of 14 appear in person in front of a passport agent, according to Stuwart Patt, spokesman for the Consular Bureau of Affairs. When submitting the application, you will also need the child's birth certificate, a valid form of ID from both parents, two passport photos and the $70 application fee. Patt recommends that parents always carry their child's passport while traveling abroad, to ensure that it is not easily lost or stolen. 

Before traveling with her 18-month-old daughter to Brazil, Los Angeles resident Lael Lowenstein called ahead to her local passport office. "I didn't know that all children no matter how small must have a passport." She also learned that since her husband could not appear with her when applying for her daughter's passport, she needed a signed letter of consent from him.  In the case of single parents that cannot obtain the signature of the other parent, they must show proof of sole custody or a court order permitting travel with the child. For more information: travel.state.gov/passport_services.html

Brazil is also one of a few countries that ask US visitors to obtain a Visa before departure, which can be a daunting process. "It was a nightmare," said Lowenstein, "My advice is to get as much information before hand. Then just smile and expect things to go wrong." In most cases you must apply at the country's consulate located in the nearest major city. Since there is no standard Visa application procedure, be sure to either contact the country's consulate or visit their website for the list of required documents and fees. Go to: travel.state.gov/foreignentryreqs.html

In addition to either a passport or birth certificate and government issued ID, Mexico and Canada require that single parents, grandparents or guardians traveling with minors carry a notarized letter of consent from the other parent authorizing travel. Maria Fox is originally from Mexico but now lives in New York with her husband and two children, and travels to Mexico twice a year. "Whenever I travel with my children by myself, I have to have my husband write a notarized letter. The letter includes my name, both child's whole name and the dates of travel." For the latest information on traveling to Canada and Mexico: travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html 

Passports take approximately three to six weeks to be processed, while the period for visa approvals varies. If you need your child's passport processed immediately, you can make an appointment with a passport agent at additional cost and it will be ready within a week.  Currently, representatives from the State Department are not anticipating further changes in passport regulations, but calling ahead to either the passport office or consulate ensures that you are informed of the latest developments in international travel guidelines. 

Better safe than sorry 

Before traveling to more exotic locales, in particular with children, be sure to visit the Center for Disease Control's website: cdc.gov. "Always check to see which shots are required and if there are any medical warnings," offers Nichols, "Most inoculations take a week or two to take effect, so schedule your appointment for three to six weeks before leaving. Most shots last several years, so use it as an excuse to continue traveling." Avoid traveling with a sick child, as symptoms may worsen with the stress of travel.   

Although most countries can supply all the necessary modern amenities, there are still items that parents of young children should considering packing. Budget Travel staffer Suzy Walrath travels to India with her husband and two children at least once a year. "At first it was hard to anticipate all the gear I would have to bring. In addition to my carry-on, I had diapers, a stroller and a baby. None of it is designed to make your life easier."  Nichols recommends a first-aid kit of sorts, "I always take a basic kit of things for diarrhea and upset stomach."  Use the Internet to research whether or not a country will have necessary items readily available and for reasonable prices. 

No rest for the weary

Once the trip is planned, passports are ready and bags are packed, the next step to look forward to is the plane ride. While most adults can sleep through long-distance flights, young children tend to be more problematic. "As a parent, you have a job on the flight. It can be a nice time to spend with your children, but it's a challenge to change diapers in those little teeny tiny bathrooms," said Walrath. 

Bringing along a few items to help keep your child entertained for the long flight can make a difference. Consider buying a few new books or a new toy before you go, or take a favorite toy that will provide hours of distraction. Snacks can also break up a long flight. If children are old enough, have them pack and be responsible for a book bag full of their favorite diversions.  Suggest that they keep a journal or a sketch diary during the trip. But even the best-laid plans fail in the wake of fidgety children: "Remember you're never going to see the people on the plane again," said Fox, "After a certain point, it is out of your hands."

With increased security since 9/11, airports can be stressful places for both parents and children. Walrath advocates keeping your children close to you and providing constant assurance. "Security clearance is probably the hardest place for children. The security guards represent unfamiliar authority figures, and customer service is not a priority. It can be pretty scary." She suggests that if possible, one parent be responsible for the children while the other manages the luggage. Arriving early and allowing extra time at the airport can ease a child's anxiety.

When arriving at your destination, your children will likely be tired and more prone to the effects of jet lag. Check into your hotel, and check out mentally for a few hours of rest for the whole family. Take some time to develop an itinerary, but be flexible to the needs of your child. If they are not happy, you probably will not be either.

Experienced parents agree that despite its difficulties, traveling with children abroad is more than worthwhile. "The children love it. They learn so much about the world," concludes Walrath. "Traveling with kids is actually alot easier than you think it will be," promises Nichols, "It is tremendously enriching.  It has been fun for the kids and wonderful for us as parents."

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