We’ve been traveling abroad now for exactly 1 month and I wish we could say that everything has been perfect so far. I jokingly thought about titling this post “how to not make mistakes during full time travel,” but that would’ve been completely unrealistic and the furthest thing from the truth. So now that we are 1 month in, we wanted to reflect and share some of our mistakes and what we learned with the hope that it will help all of you plan your travel better!
- DO map out how far the hotel is from your arrival airport/bus/train station when researching where to stay. We chose to fly into Phuket first and stay at the Hilton as they were having a sale and we had a 4th night free benefit with our Citi Prestige credit card. Our mistake was assuming that since Phuket was an island, everything would be close together. We didn’t realize that the hotel was a 1 hour car ride from the airport and we were already landing at midnight after 30+ hours of travel! The truth is that we probably wouldn’t have changed our hotel plans anyway, but it would’ve been good to know from the start to have in the back of our mind to research better flight options (arriving earlier) or even the most affordable options to get from the airport to the hotel. Since we didn’t discover this until last minute, we had no choice but to keep our flight and called them 12 hours before our departure to book an expensive airport transfer via the hotel.
- DON’T take a long flight with young children early in the morning after they have already spent the night sleeping. Seriously, choose wisely based on how to create the best possible sleep schedule for your kids. Sometimes, this might mean paying extra for tickets, so you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons for your family. Unfortunately, we did not have much choice as we were booking 3 award tickets on business class (even 1 ticket on business is hard enough to find availability as is), but our 13.5 hour flight was at 10am. Although we didn’t let the girls sleep the full 12 hours the night before, they were still not tired enough to sleep for a long period of time. This meant almost 13.5 hours of being completely hands-on and not sleeping ourselves. Ideally, we would’ve flown out during bedtime or even nap time to maximize the amount of time they would be sleeping on the flight. Depending on where you’re flying, this could be great if you could arrive during the day so your kids have a whole day to adjust to staying awake in the new time zone. We booked a morning flight that landed at night…our kids were so tired from not sleeping on the flight that they slept in the long car ride to the hotel (see #1 above) and were WIRED at 3am when it was actually time to sleep. Our experience (at least with Riley) has ALWAYS been better when we arrive in the daytime!
- DO check on all visa requirements when traveling outside the country! When planning the initial stages of our trip, we did a quick google search to see if any of the countries on our list required visas. What we didn’t do was look into how long you’re allowed to stay in each country without having a visa! On our first night in Chiang Mai (at that point, we had been in Thailand for 8 days already), we discovered that we were only allowed 30 days in the country, our tourist visa expiring 2 weeks before we had planned to fly to Hong Kong. Oops! We were up past midnight that first night in CM researching what to do, and thankfully it wasn’t a big deal as it happens often for foreigners in Thailand. Nevertheless, it was still time consuming to research, gather the proper documents, obtain passport photos, fill out applications, and then spend an afternoon at the immigration office. AND not to mention an added cost of about $240 USD ($60 each)! If we had looked into this more carefully, we would’ve been able to apply for a 60 day visa from the start!
- DON’T do a layover in China if you can help it! As mentioned above, we didn’t have a lot of choice booking our award flight, which left us with a 3-hour layover in Shanghai on the way to Bangkok. We figured it was just long enough to hang out and grab some food before catching our next flight. Boy, were we wrong!! First of all, before we even left US soil, we were asked multiple times by the ticketing agents, TSA, and gate agents to show proof of our visa for China (which we obviously didn’t have as we were only transiting). When we arrived in Shanghai, there were no signs or instructions for travelers like us and few airport workers spoke English. It took us over 30 minutes to realize that we needed to go through customs & immigration even though we were not leaving the airport. This meant we needed to do some fingerprinting (which kept giving us errors and took forever), then get in line to speak to an immigration officer. Of course we got in the wrong line and then while waiting in the correct line realized we each had a long form to fill out (one per person rather than one per family). Add in grumpy, tired toddlers, and you can probably guess how this process went. The agent stamped our passport with a temporary 24-hour visa which is required even for just a layover! Finally through, we had to collect our bags from baggage claim, check in and get new boarding passes, go through security, and then clear immigration again! On the bright side, our 3-hour layover passed rather quickly!
- DO double check the time when you land in a new country. Even though our phones are synced to automatically detect the time zone in a new country, we didn’t check with each other on the time. The time on Doug’s phone was an hour earlier than the time on my phone (which was the actual time in Shanghai), and I asked him for the time rather than checking my own phone. This led us to think we had over an hour before our next flight boarded so we went to leisurely sit down for a meal. That is until I thought about how long the visa process took us in China (see #4 above) and wondered how we could possibly have had that much time. Good thing I had that thought because I quickly realized we had less than 30 minutes before our flight left! Bottom line: double check to make sure you have the correct time in a new time zone!
- DON’T assume that all forms of transportation are appropriate for traveling with young children. When booking our initial travel, we wanted to fly into Phuket and out of Krabi and planned to spend 4 nights in Phuket and end with 4 nights in Koh Lanta. We quickly read that we could take a 1.5-hour ferry to get between the islands and left it at that. Once in Phuket, we realized our options were either 1) a 4-hour slow ferry (with 1 stop) OR 2) a 1.5 hour super bumpy, seasick-inducing speedboat ride with a transfer midway. Well, Doug and I get extremely seasick and already queasy at the thought of having to take a bumpy speedboat AND take care of two toddlers who had a potential to be seasick as well. A quick check of reviews showed that many passengers vomited throughout the journey and physically looked green at the end. If we did more research before our trip, we would NOT have gone to Lanta! So how did we choose between the lesser of two evils? We ended up booking a private car transfer between the two areas, which was a 5-hour journey, but it was door to door, completely air-conditioned, included car seats for the girls, and we didn’t have to lug our bags on and off the boat. More expensive? YES. More comfortable? FOR SURE. Good decision? YOU BETCHA!!
- DO learn to take things in stride and be flexible! I’m very type-A, borderline OCD, and need to have everything planned perfectly. Since becoming a mom, I’ve been slowly learning to let that go and learn to be more “go with the flow.” Some days are easier than others to do this, but keeping a calm and cool mind will help even the most stressful situations blow over more easily! At the end of the day, your kids probably won’t remember why a situation was stressful, but they’ll reminder how you reacted!
Over the last month, Doug and I have often commented that things would be so different if it were just the two of us traveling alone. But this is a journey and a learning experience for our entire family and we wouldn’t change a thing. The truth is that you can travel with kids, and it really enriches your experience of different cultures, but you need to be realistic with expectations and know that things might take a little more planning. As the kids get older, we hope to be able to “wing it” more often, but until then we will try hard to do our due diligence for each location.
Got tips for travel with kids? Comment below and share with us!