There And Back Again: 6 Essential Tips For Traveling With A Kid

Go out there with kid and partner or spouse and enjoy yourselves, damn it.
The author's wife and son with carseat/stroller combo, kit and diaper bag, and assorted equipment at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. May 2016.
The author's wife and son with carseat/stroller combo, kit and diaper bag, and assorted equipment at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. May 2016.

By the time I got my first passport, I was twenty-nine years old. I’d been to other countries before that, courtesy of Uncle Sam—Saudi Arabia; Bahrain, accidentally; Iraq; almost but not quite Kuwait; with brief stopovers coming and going in Italy. Not sure Italy counts. We weren’t allowed off the plane, which was isolated and spotlit, surrounded by Italian light infantry and carabinieri. But we did spend several hours there during each stopover, enjoying the cramped quarters and stale, funked-up air. Actually, I know it was cramped and hot because I’ve since flown on planes many dozens of times, but all I really remember is the cold anxiety and dread we felt on our way to Saudi Arabia, among the first 10,000 troops in country for what became Desert Shield. And on the way back after Desert Storm, who the hell cared what it felt like on the plane? We were going home.

My 16-month-old son got his first passport for his first birthday. That was ahead of us spending some days in Vancouver and then a week on a cruise to Alaska for my forty-fifth birthday, which is its own story. By that time he’d already flown from New York to LA four times, maybe five; down to Miami twice; to South Carolina once; to Ohio twice, once still in utero, so probably doesn’t count; once to Seattle; and over the holidays and New Year’s (and his mother’s own late-December birthday) to Puerto Rico to meet his still-living great-grandmothers, his bisabuelas (both on my mother’s side—my complicated family history is yet another story you’ll have to hear sometime). Kid has charted some air-miles.

Traveling with a baby or toddler—and to some extent, til they’re old or mature enough to start having their own experience of travel, any kid—often feels like an elaborate and constant game of There and Back Again. It’s what our drill sergeants used to call route marches out to the field for training exercises. The nursery-rhyme simplicity and sunny-day pleasantness of the name put a particularly evil-genius spin on what was always a grind, a grueling march with stops along the way to set everything up, immediately break it down, pack it up, and continue marching. (There was also Fuck Your Buddy, another game that should’ve been fun based on the name, but wasn’t. It’s what the drill sergeants yelled whenever they jammed us into cattle cars on the rare occasions we didn’t march to a destination, fully geared up and loaded down, two platoons shoved into a space meant for one, the drill sergeants packing more soldiers into the cars, yelling “that’s it, move your asses on in there, boys, go on now, fuck your buddies!”)

But we were talking about traveling. I may have taken a long time to get my passport but I’ve made up for lost time since then. My wife and I get away as often as we can. As many New Yorkers say: the city is great. Getting the hell out of the city is even better. We do two big trips a year, almost always out of the country, around my birthday in May and hers in December, a real get-outta-Dodge every six months. We spend at least two months of the year in LA because of her work in entertainment. We go all over the country by plane, train, or automobile for long weekends and holidays and special occasions. We’re a bit slutty when it comes to travel, to be honest. We get around.

Which brings us back to the actual topic: traveling with kid. As evidenced by the number of trips our son has already made with us during his first year and a half, we’ve not really slowed down since his birth. Though we’ve of course made some concessions and have perforce changed many things about where we go and what we do when we get there, we’ve made a concerted effort not to change the frequency of our travel, to get him used to traveling at as early an age as possible, so that when he does become more aware of where we are and what doing, and begins to participate, and finally to help shape our plans and make his own, he’ll already be an old hand at dealing with the many frustrations that quickly become annoyances that nearly always turn into huge pains while simply trying to get there and come back.

Here, then, some lessons learned.

Think Boy Scouts: Be prepared. No, think FEMA: you goddamn better be prepared. No, better yet: think zombie apocalypse—everything is screaming and chaos and if you screw up, someone is probably going to eat your brains.

Minimize and double up. Sounds like a contradiction, but gearing up for travel with kid is serious business. Minimize by stripping out everything but the essentials (which likely means a lot of your own stuff—things you don’t need like clothes or shoes or toiletries) and then make sure you have twice as much of the essentials with multiple overlap and redundancies built in. As in, you can tape newspaper to your feet for all anyone cares and wear the entire time whatever the hell you arrived in, but don’t dare have just one toy or one book or one snack or one bottle or pacifier or outfit or bib or spitrag.

Hurry up and wait. It’s one of those military contradictions like “army intelligence” or “competent lieutenant,” but there it is. There’s a reason why this godawful soul-crushed-by-stress-and-boredom practice exists. It gets you where you’re going when you’re supposed to be there, even when there are multiple resistant partners or allies, more equipment than anyone knows what to do with, and a thousand-million other moving pieces, everything and everyone doing their best to screw shit up and make you miss your jump-off. The real balancing act is figuring out how much wait time kid can stand once you’ve pushed everyone to get wherever you’re going in plenty of time not to miss it. Unlike the military, a screaming and unhappy kid will ruin the jump-off every time—something no crying army private was ever allowed to do.

No getting around it, getting around once you’re there is going to take some gear, a lot. Stroller, car seat, baby carrier, sometimes two—one for mom, another for dad. I have two just for me that I switch between. My wife uses one of mine and has one of those 180-feet-long baby-mummy wraps. Get a stroller/car seat combo. Don’t ask why, don’t argue, just get one. Keep kid in it all the way to the plane, drop it off before boarding, drop kid back in when you arrive, transfer to a cab or a rental car no problem, go go go. You might also want a lightweight umbrella stroller that you check through—and really, adding one to the enormous pile of equipment you’re going to Sherpa around for the next week or two or more doesn’t matter at that point, and if you need it even once and don’t have it, what then, smart guy?

“You now go only where kid can go, and since kid still isn’t walking, kid doesn’t go too many places, and neither do you.”

You should have already readjusted your expectations for whatever travel used to mean to you. No more staying out late checking out the local nightlife, no barhopping or meeting new friends at the restaurant table next to you. In fact, that couple probably hates you and your screaming baby—the nerve of someone bringing that fat American brat into such a quiet sophisticated place to begin with… No sleeping late anywhere anymore. No glacier hikes in Alaska or horseback riding in the high desert in Chile or mountain biking near Vancouver or road-biking all day from one vineyard to another in Australia, no whitewater rafting in Argentina, no ocean-kayaking in Thailand or scuba-diving in the Bahamas, no hiking through the downpour among the WWI trenches near Verdun in France—none of it. You now go where kid can go, and since kid still isn’t walking, kid doesn’t go too many places, and neither do you. So adjust your expectations, pivot your planning, figure out what’s fun in 2- maybe 3-hour increments, with time out for a couple naps, plenty of rest and diaper stops, lots of trading off parenting duties so you can each actually experience bits and pieces of what you’re experiencing, even if you’re experiencing it basically alone. Gives you something to talk about later, after kid is asleep and you get to briefly have a marriage before passing out from exhaustion.

Speaking of having a marriage, here’s a pop quiz: What’s the best thing about traveling with your partner or spouse? Visiting new and interesting cultures? Trying foods that haven’t been changed for American palates by immigrant restaurant owners in the States? Seeing strange and exotic landscapes or native wildlife? Interacting with people in a different language, experiencing the world through their points of view? Obviously not. It’s vacation sex. And you don’t get to have much of it anymore, and what you do get is not the acrobatic, shout-out-loud, all-night-long-with-maybe-a-breather-to-get-a-snack-and-again-in-the-morning sex you used to have. Now kid is in the room with you, probably no more than a couple of feet from your bed. Sex is quiet, furtive, quick, practically non-existent even while you’re having it, and you’re probably more full of anxiety than desire—like high school sex.

But also like high school sex, despite all that, it’s worth it, totally worth it. And so is travel with kid. Just remember to keep things moving, keep kid fed and as rested as possible, and keep it new. Cause when they get bored or tired or hungry, the center does not hold. Treaties are broken, allies turn on each other, and suddenly paradise becomes hell.

Most important to understand—not just now, but always: kid’s limits are human limits. Just as you reach the end of your capacity, so does kid, and it’s not usually about being a big baby, it’s about being human. It’s easy to think kid is being weak or whiny or needy or manipulative, to burden him with any number of nefarious motivations—interpretations that nearly always speak to who you are, not to why kid is. And it’s easy, and for many reasons desirable, to want kid to tough it out, to show her strength to rise above, to drive on like a soldier. And we should encourage the Wonder Woman in every little girl and the—I want to say Batman, but he’s not really what you want kid to become, not really—so okay, the Superman in every boy. And vice versa—no need to be gender normative here. But when we remember to practice empathy alongside our responsibility to be a strong, sometimes even stern, parent, then parents and kid can come together as a unit—as any veteran will tell you.

And as any combat vet will further elaborate: Intense stress and shared pain and terror can combine to form the tightest bonds you’ll ever know. So go out there with kid and partner or spouse and enjoy yourselves, damn it.

Because to travel and experience the world—as often as possible, as far off the tourist-trod paths, to places that don’t speak your language, among people who don’t look like you, dress like you, worship like you, living their lives with no more consideration of you or your concerns than you of theirs when you’re wrapped in your everyday American life, completely outside your own sphere, eating their food, listening to their music, like diving among the fish in the ocean, opening yourself and absorbing and changing for the better—is to make the journey the whole thing, the primary virtue in the Socratic sense, to realize there is no destination, that we only stop, only arrive at the end, and then we still have no idea where we’re going, so that travel no longer becomes a metaphor for life, it is all the life we’ll ever have.