Does preparing for a family trip overseas make anyone else feel totally overwhelmed? Once the transportation and lodging are booked, you get down to the nitty gritty: figuring out what to pack, getting paperwork in order, and preparing the kids to travel. Especially if you have strong willed or inflexible kids, you know what I am talking about. You think they’ll be super excited and terribly grateful about the vacation you have planned, but then they freak out because their favorite breakfast cereal isn’t available in Machu Picchu. Or because one of them wanted to visit the pyramids instead.
Take a deep breath: if I can do it, you can do it. And you can do it without paying a tour company to manage everything for you. Follow these steps to make sure you and your family are as ready as you can possibly be for your next adventure.
First Things First: Passports and Visas
Make sure everybody has a current passport valid for at least six months beyond your travel date, otherwise you may be refused entrance to the country. This rule varies from country to country, so you can check with your destination’s embassy, but six months is the general rule. Make sure you apply for passports months in advance, so you don’t end up paying a hefty fee to expedite. Nothing worse that not having a passport in hand the day before you travel!
Check to see if a visa is required for your destination. Many countries will allow Americans short-term entrance without a visa (e.g. most of Europe and Central America), but others have instituted reciprocal visa arrangements, meaning the U.S.A. demands visas from their citizens and so they require (expensive) visas from U.S. citizens. This should be the other first thing on your list, as sometimes visas can take months to obtain. But don’t let a difficult visa process deter you, as some of the best places to visit make you jump through visa hoops first.
Logistics at Your Destination
After you book your lodging and plan your flight, the next step is to figure out how you want to get around at your destination. Does the hotel you stay at the first night have a shuttle that can pick you up from the airport? Can you Uber or take a taxi? Will you rent a car as soon as you arrive? Along those same lines, will you need car seats or booster seats? If you are traveling by car at all, you will. I never recommend renting car seats. I have always brought them along when needed, but some rental agencies do offer them.
Once this is planned, make sure you keep all the necessary details, including confirmation numbers, in one place. I have used simple notebooks for this in the past, but everything is exponentially more complicated the larger a family gets, and now I keep everything in a travel wallet that also holds our passports. There are also phone apps that operate offline, such as TripIt, to keep this information handy digitally.
Health and Safety Precautions
You can read about our top ten health and safety tips for general travel with kids here, but when traveling internationally the first thing you’ll want to do is check the CDC’s Yellow Book. This website is very user friendly and allows you to search by destination. You’ll be able to find out if malaria or Zika are risks where you are traveling, for example, and which vaccinations are recommended before you go.
You may want to consider making an appointment for your kids with their pediatrician or with a travel clinic before you go, especially if you are traveling to a tropical country or have kids with chronic illnesses. You’ll want to get your kids the appropriate vaccines, discuss whether or not you need to worry about preventing malaria, and make sure you have extras of any medications.
Before you go, call your medical insurance provider and see if you have any out-of-country coverage. You may want to consider buying travel insurance just in case of serious accident or illness. Check with your credit card, too, as some credit cards have travel insurance benefits.
I’m a little obsessive about traveling with enough first aid and medical supplies to treat a small army. Hey, I like to be prepared! Read here about what goes in my super-complete medical kit.
Cultural Preparation for Kids
Preparing your kids to go someplace new can be some of the most fun you have as a family. Getting outside their comfort zone can be scary for kids, but talking about everything ahead of time can ward off potential fear-based meltdowns at your destination.
We buy lots and lots of books in the months leading up to a trip, both novels (e.g. Pippi Longstocking for Sweden), guidebooks, and picture books. Look at maps and flags. Count out currency. Talk about what kids of foods you might eat, then go to a restaurant or grocery store that sells those types of foods.
Even if you are not traveling overseas, this can still be fun. If you are planning a trip to, say, New York, talk about a busy city and read Eloise at the Plaza. If you are going to Yellowstone, research the animals you might see.
If you are going someplace with a foreign language, encourage your kids to at least learn “thank you” and “hello” in the local language. Even if they don’t need it, most people can’t resist a cute little kid trying to speak the local language, and it can smooth things over if your kids are being particularly obnoxious.
Review Family Rules
This is critical for my family. My kids do not function well if you change the rules on them every day (there will be mutiny), but they do need appropriate guidelines based on their different ages. If we have clear, consistent rules discussed ahead of time, we avoid a lot of fights and keep our kids safe.
Examples of our family rules on trips to Costa Rica:
- You must wear a life jacket anywhere near the water until you are able to pass my swim test, which involves swimming all the way across a swimming pool independently. No exceptions. My five-year-old was able to do this after two days in Costa Rica, due to being HIGHLY motivated not to be the only “big kid” wearing a life jacket.
- No getting in the water without an adult present.
- No screens except while on the road or in the air. Parents may make occasional exceptions at night. (Otherwise my kids beg for them constantly.)
- We will relax our home rules about juice and soda. In return, you will try one bite of local food before eating only tortillas for an entire day.
Embrace the Packing List
You know how in every family there’s one parent who makes lists, and plans, and carefully packs for a trip, and there’s another parent who just throws an extra pair of underwear and a toothbrush in a backpack and says, “We’re all ready to go, right?”
The problem with our family is that both MonsterDad and I would prefer to be the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants parent. But then we would show up at our destination with two toothbrushes for five people and no pacifiers for the baby. I have thus, by default, become the organized packer, which is no small feat because I am not by nature a terribly organized person.
Which is why I feel like I can teach this to other people: I have learned from my own mistakes. Dear checklists, after years of struggling against you, I give in. You win.
There are two keys to this process for me: one is lists (natural list makers, I admire you!) and the other is to pack with your kids.
If your kids are below the age of five, you can probably just pack for them, and if they are over the age of twelve, you may be able to just let them suffer the consequences of their own decisions. However, for kids in between those ages, I pack with mine. First of all, they need to learn how to pack. Second, my kids are stubborn enough that if I pack clothes they don’t like, they really would go to breakfast in just their underwear. And if let them pack on their own, as I have tried in the past, they may show up with no underwear and just one extra shirt. And do you know who suffers in that situation? Hint: it’s not the kid.
My kids all carry their own backpacks on the airplane, even the toddler. It keeps their own little toys and comfort items separate from from their brothers’ and gives them a measure of control. You can get our checklist for carry-on bags here.
Double-Checking Lists and Taking Head Counts
Once the luggage has been packed, the lists have been checked twice, and the one responsible adult has all the confirmation numbers, passports and hotel, car, shuttle, and all critical information in his/her carry-on bag….you’re ready to go!
Count heads. Count luggage, including all bags and carseats. Repeat those counts in the car, in the shuttle, in the airport…you know, constantly. Nobody wants a Home Alone moment where you don’t notice a missing kid for six hours.
And now you’re ready for the fun! Breathe through the inevitable snafus. Drink whatever you have to on the painfully long flight and remember that sometimes it’s both the journey and the destination that matters.