Everyday Eleanor: How to Travel Internationally with Kids

Everyday Eleanor: How to Travel Internationally with Kids

A lot of parents like to talk about how lame their lives are post-kids. I get it. I won’t have an actual kid for another three months, and yet I’m already significantly more lame the more pregnant I get. However, I am over adults using kids as their lameness scapegoat. If you want to go to a concert, you can (unless the sitter bails). If you want to join a kickball league, you can. And according to Shanna Singh Hughey, if you want to travel all over Europe and Asia with the little ones, well by-golly you can do that, too.

Last year, she and her husband packed up the kids and headed out on a three-month global adventure. They claim it was a success. Here’s how they did it (plus, what they might do differently next time). 

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You and your husband are both travel geeks. Tell us about your honeymoon.

Three days after our 2007 wedding, my husband Derek and I left for a year-long trip around the world. Carrying only our backpacks, we visited forty countries on five continents. We trekked through jungles in Borneo, white-water rafted in Swaziland and ate our weight in steak and empanadas in Argentina. We also spent as much time as possible doing service work—from holding babies in a Chinese orphanage to helping negotiate the terms of a financial agreement for a micro-lender in India.

In all, we took 65 flights, 66 bus rides, 52 boat trips—and 12,912 photos. It was the trip of a lifetime, and it changed our lives in oh so many ways.

Since then, you’ve had two beautiful kids. Instead of retiring your passports for the next two decades, you decided to take them (ages four and two) on an epic three-month adventure. What inspired that? Why did you think now was the right time?

On our honeymoon, Derek and I met fellow travelers with children in tow, and we were always impressed by how confident and worldly their young folk seemed. Those families made traveling with children seem not only possible but beneficial, and we pledged to follow in their footsteps.

On a more selfish note, we knew we didn’t want to constrain our own travels until after our kids went to college, and leaving them home wasn’t really an option. We’d miss them too much! And also there are these pesky laws…

That's not Disney World. | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
That’s not Disney World.

We think every time is the right time to travel with children. Our children got their passports soon after they got their birth certificates, and we wasted no time in traveling internationally with them. Harper’s first trip abroad was to Portugal when she was eleven weeks old, and Walker went to Mexico at six months. (Before age two, children generally fly for free!) They were primed for our three-month adventure long before we left.

Derek sent me an Outlook invitation for that trip four years before we went. I’ve spent most of my career working in politics, and we knew the term-limited mayor for whom I worked would be leaving office in September 2015. So that became our departure date.

People like to say things like, travel as much as you can when you’re young. When you have kids, you’ll wish you had! Do you think teeny, tiny part of the reason you decided to embark on this journey was to prove it could be done?

Yes! Proving it could be done was absolutely part of the reason we took two children under five around the world. I think sometimes families get into a travel rut—you go back to the same location year after year because your lives are too busy to consider anything else. We wanted to show it was possible—and so, so worth it—to break free of that mold.

How many countries did you visit? How did you decide where to go?

We went to just five countries on this trip: Spain, France, Thailand, Japan and Bhutan. We moved around within those countries every few days, so we covered a lot of ground.

One of many reasons kids love France. | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
One of many reasons kids love France.

Deciding where to go was half the fun, and each new place came with its own reason for being there. Our everyday lives in Nashville leave us feeling landlocked, so we often use travel as a way to get to the sea. Our first destination was thus San Sebastian, Spain, where our apartment looked over the ocean. Thai beaches are our happy place, so we planned to spend a couple of weeks there at the end of our trip—ensuring we’d have something to look forward to when we got a little road weary. Bhutan had been on our bucket list for years, but its location deep in the Himalayas makes it relatively difficult to reach. Once we knew we’d already be in Asia, it became the centerpiece our itinerary.

I can see why you'd call this your happy place. | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
I can see why you’d call this your happy place.

Any spots that were surprisingly easy to travel with kids? Anywhere you might suggest not taking the ankle biters?

We loved traveling with the kids in Spain. Everyone seemed to have a smile for our bespectacled little girl and her lunatic younger brother. And sidewalk cafes are plentiful there, which meant Derek and I could enjoy a meal while Walker chased pigeons.

Tokyo, too, was a wonderful place to be with children. We were able to walk everywhere, and we were overwhelmed by the willingness of the Japanese people to lend a hand. One tiny Japanese woman singlehandedly carried our double stroller down two flights of subway stairs, thus cementing forever my love of her country.

We learned that France’s wine-tasting regions aren’t the best for families with children. (Retrospectively, this seems like common sense, but I suppose we were starry-eyed optimists.) Our children tended to announce their arrival at a restaurant by immediately breaking a piece of fancy stemware—much to the chagrin of all of the kid-free couples trying to enjoy their duck confit in peace.

What about traveling internationally with kids has been easier than expected? Harder?

Mostly we’ve been surprised by the relative ease of traveling with kids. I used to dread long flights with the power of a thousand suns, but after surviving dozens of them, I’ve realized they’re almost never as bad as I expect them to be. Nobody has gotten food poisoning despite eating a lot of street food, and everyone has learned to adjust to time zone changes like a pro.

Move over, mac n cheese. | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
Move over, mac n cheese.

One of the harder things for me about life on the road is the lack of the kid-related conveniences to which I’ve become so accustomed. Amazon Prime is a near-daily part of our lives at home, and I missed the on-demand diapers while we were away. On the flip side, though, finding diapers in Japan is a cultural experience I would have missed given the opportunity to buy them online. I’ll sum it up this way: Finding the right ones often felt like more of a scavenger hunt than a shopping trip.

Traveling internationally with kids is possible! Here's how one family traveled abroad for three months.

Traveling with kids is notoriously difficult, and often requires packing so much extra crap. However, with as much moving around as you did, streamlining your packing is key. What did you bring? What was a lifesaver and what ended up being less important than you thought? Anything that you wish you would’ve packed?

We brought along two large suitcases, one for the adults and one for the children. If something didn’t fit in them, it couldn’t come. We packed clothing for the kids that gave them room to grow, and we made sure to bring lots of layering-friendly items that would take us from the mountains to the beach.

Eagle Creek’s clean-dirty packing cubes were our key to success for packing the kids’ clothing. It’s hard to keep their little things neatly folded, and Harper chooses her own clothes, which but for the cubes would be an organizational disaster. This way, she has one side of a cube for PJs and the other for t-shirts, one side for leggings and the other for dresses.

Fact: Shoulders are more fun that strollers. | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
Fact: Shoulders are more fun that strollers.

Our car seat bags were another huge lifesaver. Airlines don’t charge you baggage fees to transport them, and even with a car seat inside you can still stuff those suckers with everything your suitcase won’t hold. They were our go-to keepers of extra diapers and dirty laundry.

We also brought a small retractable cable lock for our double stroller, which gave me peace of mind when we had to leave it outside a restaurant or a temple. We didn’t think our stroller was more likely to get stolen abroad; rather, we knew our quality of life would decline much more precipitously than at home if it did.

Harper’s rain boots were our biggest waste of space. She wore sparkly pink cowgirl boots the entire trip, which didn’t leave time for any other footwear.

Greatest travel moment with your little ones?

We were in western Bhutan at a Buddhist temple—a venue our children ordinarily wouldn’t quite get. They noticed a young monk crafting religious offerings from dough made of multi-colored sugar. (Sugar! A common bond!) He invited them to watch, and they sat, transfixed, for as long as I would let them. Seeing my two sandy-haired kids bonding with a saffron-robed monk was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Sugar: the international and inter-generational language. | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
Sugar: the international and inter-generational language.

Are you already planning your next adventure? Where would you like to go?

We’ve already had our next adventure! We spent a delightful twelve days in Mexico City and Puerto Escondido in February, and we can’t wait to get back to Latin America. It’s just a quick flight away, and it’s mostly on Nashville’s Central time zone, which keeps naps on track.

Lots of smiles, no tears (at least not in this picture). | How to Travel Internationally with Kids
Lots of smiles, no tears (at least not in this picture).

As for future travels: Derek’s parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary is this year, and they want to celebrate onboard a Northern European cruise. So we’ll be in Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Finland, Russia and Sweden in June.

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Learn more about Shanna and her traveling family at One Family on Earth. Follow their global adventures on Instagram while you’re at it. 

Do you like travel blog posts? Neat, I have a bunch. Here’s what it’s like to honeymoon in New Zealand (bring lots of bug spray!), babymoon in the Florida Keys, and celebrate like Dolly Parton in Nashville.



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