Travel and kids. Two uncontrollable variables thrown into the same mix. Some new parents are so terrified of the whole ordeal that they just put travel on hold for the first few years of parenthood.
raut in today’s world, where so many parents live at least a flight away from family, putting off traveling is simply not an option. And many of us still believe that going on vacation with kids will somehow be relaxing. Traveling with your family is definitely worth it–don’t get me wrong. But getting there or coming back can be… something else entirely.
Two weeks ago, I traveled alone from Paris to Chicago with a layover in Philadelphia with my two small children (4 years and 15 months). It was disastrous and involved several meltdowns from both children and me. The long hours on the first flight were enough to completely drain the life out of me, but the stop at the Philadelphia airport really did me in. I arrived in Chicago at the end of that never-ending day, a shell of a person, my kids both asleep in my arms, the three of us with tear-stained cheeks. We had survived, miraculously.
There’s something about traveling with small children that makes you, as a parent, unbelievably vulnerable to a crisis situation. In many cases, you have no choice but to rely on the goodwill of another human being, especially if you’re the only adult and you have more than one child to care for. And, sometimes, all you can do is pray. There is a reason why so many parents have serious anxiety about traveling with small children. It’s like going into battle. You might very well be reduced to your most basic instincts.
The struggle is real, but the passion and love of discovering new parts of the world with family in tow is such that many parents are willing to risk having an anxiety attack or two on the flight. I’m definitely not the first traumatized mother, nor will I be the last, unfortunately. That’s why I co-founded a community of traveling parents, Bébé Voyage, so that we could support each other on our trials and tribulations of traveling with our babies.
Here’s a roundup of some pretty wild travel with kids’ horror stories. For every single one of them, I thought, that could have been me. Maybe it could be you?…
Things can get primal quite quickly, as you can see in Naz’s story. “Diaper leaked right through my lap straight onto my thighs and butt!” she recounts. “I had a huge wet patch on my butt and crotch when landing at the airport. Had to get luggage and look for a shower for both baby and me! I think he peed like three litres during that flight.”
Reading Tavia’s story in her blog “Big Brave Nomad” almost makes you think that The Odyssey must have been a walk in the park compared to what she went through. Things certainly get downright primitive in her anecdote of being separated from her husband and breastfeeding son during train travel. Here are some of the more salient details of her journey that will make your hair stand on end:
On her recent trip from Vienna to Bratislava with their 23-month-old and 5-month-old and her parents, Tavia got on the wrong train in Vienna with her toddler and parents while her husband and baby had gone off to buy food. She realized that they were on the wrong train when it left the station ahead of the expected schedule. Then everything spiraled out of control–her husband was stuck at the Vienna station with her baby whom she was still nursing. To make matters worse, she had no way of contacting him since he had no working cell phone.
Tavia went into meltdown-mode when some good (Austrian) Samaritans stepped in to help. They contacted the Vienna train station who located husband and baby.
Together with the Samaritans, Tavia and family got off at the next stop where they were supposed to rendezvous with husband and baby due to arrive on the next train. However, when that train pulled in, no husband and baby were to be seen!
After suffering another meltdown, Tavia and family were escorted by a kind but only German-speaking station employee to a bus stop. It was only when Tavia saw her husband and baby get off a bus that she understood what had happened. The train he was supposed to be on had somehow broken down and he had ended up on the bus instead. For any mother reading her story, Tavia’s anguish is only too palpable. I felt her acute panic of not knowing how and where to find her husband and that her helpless baby could very well starve.
That parental fear is equally tangible in Simonetta’s tale of her London-South Africa ordeal. As in most of these travel horror stories, once one element is out of whack, it sets off a disaster domino effect. In Simonetta’s case, forgetting a simple sheet of paper made her entire trip spiral out of control. While on a layover in Istanbul, she discovered that she had forgotten her 18-month-old daughter’s birth certificate.
She ended up having to spend the night in Istanbul, rebooking flights for the next day going to Cape Town instead of Durban. Needless to say, this incurred horrendous flight, car rental, and AirBnb rebooking fees. Not to mention the stress factor. “It was the first time I literally felt the adrenaline leave my body,” says Simonetta. “I lay in bed and couldn’t stop shaking. My arms, my legs, just my whole body.” Fortunately, a friend of hers managed to email her the birth certificate.
When traveling with kids goes wrong, we get so worried because we don’t know where we’ll sleep, if we’ll ever sleep, if our kids will eat, if they will be ok. Our survival instincts run wild and it can get very emotional. I certainly felt poor Natalie’s pain when she recounted her journey from Iquitos, Peru to Nashville, TN via Lima, Miami and Dallas–four flights back home with her 21-month-old and her husband.
To set the stage, Natalie and her baby already both had bad colds After an emotional farewell to her husband’s family and almost missing their Lima-Miami connection due to the delayed Iquitos-Lima flight (because of an Amazonian rain storm), the worst was yet to come. The baby refused to sleep during the overnight flight. “You know how there’s always that one baby crying on every flight? That was us,” says Natalie. “Except that she didn’t just cry, she screamed her head off. Top of her lungs, red faced, can’t breathe, screaming.”
The baby was in agony with her aching ears and all efforts to calm her down failed. While some passengers were sympathetic, others were clearly not. Finally, she fell asleep on Natalie’s lap. But Mom couldn’t budge during the rest of the flight as otherwise her baby started screeching again.
Upon finally arriving in Miami and making their way through the interminable immigration line, baggage claim, and Customs, they were selected for a random bag search. “Didn’t they see we were sick and tired and had a sick and tired baby?” Natalie questions. Usually, after collecting your bags and going through Customs, you drop them right back off for the connecting flight. However, because of a scanning error, Natalie and family had to take all five suitcases, in addition to two backpacks and the exhausted toddler (in a baby carrier), and walk at least a mile to recheck them. “The Skylink train wasn’t working so we had to walk, and walk, and walk,” she continues.
Two flights later and after having dealt with many disgruntled airport employees, they finally made it to Nashville. “I don’t think I have been so tired since I gave birth,” she admits. “And just then, my daughter decides to throw up all over me and herself. At this point, I’m too tired to care as I wipe vomit off of us with baby wipes and tell sympathetic (and possibly disgusted) onlookers that we’re fine.”
This is just a small sampling of the many tales that came out of my traveling parent community. It was a difficult task to figure out which story to feature in this article and even to cut them down. Each story was worse than the previous one. In fact, each one could have been its own novel. These stories illustrate how parents and small children at airports are unjustly treated like cattle.
Try as we might to prepare for any eventuality, there is always going to be room for error when it comes to traveling with small children. It’s difficult to control how small children, particularly babies, will handle travel, but conditions at airports and on planes for parents, particularly in America, do nothing to help.
Why does it have to be this hard? Why are arrangements made for the traveling elderly, but there’s next to nothing when it comes to the tiniest humans and their caregivers? When traveling the world, clearly every other country prioritizes our tiny citizens. The U.S. has a lot of work to do.