Whoever said, "Don't get carried away," never read the Greek masterpieces the Iliad and the Odyssey. After all, the characters in Homer's epic poems certainly got carried away on the wings of adventure. In that spirit, and to continue our travel series, Tolmee gets real about the practical implications of international travel with a family. Let's face it, packing up the family can sometimes feel like facing down Cyclops. So lash yourself to the mast we as we share our best advice on getting everyone to your dream spot, safely and efficiently.
1. Travel serenity is a good packing list
In family travel, advanced preparation is everything. Forgetting shampoo is a hassle, leaving behind the 'Berrylicous' flavored cough syrup is a major setback, and forgetting a prescription can be a catastrophe. Omitting essential items is especially problematic when traveling abroad. So use a well-written packing list, with checkboxes. Also, bring your checked packing list on vacation to make sure you don't leave anything behind. (I learned this the hard way when my noise canceling headphones decided to "stay in" Jamaica. That hurt!)
To help, we are sharing "Tolmee's Summer Packing list," which my husband created years ago from my handwritten version. He uses a simple Google document that is easy to edit and quick to print. Tolmee shares it with you in both Google Sheets format and PDF format. Click Here to download this free version from our website. Share it with your friends! Bonus: Want our Winter Ski checklist? Tag us on social media or comment below and ask for it, we're happy to share.
2. Planning the journey
Family travel with school-age kids limits flexibility, so our absolute first step in planning an international trip is Google Flights (featuring not just flights, but hotels and packages too). Simply choose a departure and arrival city, and track prices. Even if you lack date flexibility, sign up for fare emails and watch the price graphs, you might save hundreds of dollars. Remember to use incognito mode on your browser for your searches. Otherwise, you might not see the lowest rate because of your internet browsing history.
As for hotels, we always call before booking and request adjoining rooms. But we've experienced the worst case when rooms ended up on separate floors. Our solution is to book two Queen beds per room; it's easier to split parents up and share rooms with kids than to try and find a last minute hotel.
Maybe you'd like to bring your kid's friend, or you're traveling alone with your kids and meeting your spouse there. Before you get to the check-in counter, make sure you have a signed permission letter! Unless the minor child (under 18) is with both parents/guardians, a letter is needed. Err on the safe side and check out the US Customs and Border Protection site for more information.
3. Two's company, three's a crowd
Your family is a crowd, and most travel destinations are busy. Before departure, make reservations or pre-buy tickets to attractions, like museums or the London Eye. Standing in line is exhausting for kids, and trying for adults. Elderly adults also need to be considered so check on wheelchair assistance. Whenever we travel, we make dinner reservations for 5:30 pm. With younger kids, beating the dinner rush helps avoid 'hangry' outbursts.
4. Mind your pennies
Traveling is expensive, and tagging kids along entails some serious costs. Rental cars charge additional for car seats. Hotel rooms sometimes charge for roll away beds. Some expenses are unavoidable. So around six months before you go, find a great credit card with no foreign transaction fees. Our favorite is Capital One, but you can find others at Bankrate.com. Remember, though...credit cards typically charge exorbitant fees for ATM cash withdrawals. And many merchants in Europe do not accept American Express. Our family frequently travels to Europe, so we use our debit card to get cash, and we bring Mastercard/Visa cards to use at local merchants.
Also, familiarize yourself with your credit card's car rental insurance policy and save big bucks by declining the Car Rental company's insurance if possible. Remember to use the card to pay for the rental. If any damage does occur, take lots of pictures and call the insurance company immediately to start the claim. Then sit back and be patient...it can take weeks to be reimbursed by the credit card company.
A final note on credit cards, be sure to call and tell them when and where you are traveling. Having your card suspended for suspicious activity is a nightmare. If at all possible, bring a backup credit card just in case.
5. Call me, baby
Traveling incommunicado when you're towing kids and possibly grandparents along, is not handy in my humble opinion. International data allows you to see traffic holdups on Google Maps, navigate public transport, and make on-the-fly restaurant reservations. Having access to data so kids can play video games can provide a useful distraction during car travel. It's pricey, but we have some money-saving advice. If possible, try to get a local SIM card for your cell phone. Rick Steves has a great SIM card post for Europe. But don't count on this working everywhere; sometimes only local nationals can get SIM cards. So call your cell phone company in advance and find out about their international data plans. We love and depend on T-Mobile's affordable international rates and coverage. In fact, with Vermont being so close to Quebec Province, our family flies out of Montreal Airport frequently. I would never try to drive into Montreal's current construction hellscape without data. (I love you YUL but you know I'm right!)
6. You can't get there from here
Getting lost is a state of mind on vacation and sometimes a great adventure! Until it's not. Google Maps can help. Before you leave, download a map to your phone for the area you will be traveling in. Go to Google Maps - Offline Maps - and select the travel area. Never get lost again, even if you don't have cell coverage!
7. Know before you go
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is true when it comes to vaccinations. On this, I'd like to make two points. First, the world-renowned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says you should always be vaccinated if medically possible. Second, certain other vaccinations less common in North America, are vital in other parts of the world. Luckily, the CDC makes informing yourself quick work. Go to the CDC website, pick your destination and traveler type. Get the right shots and travel stress-free.
Also, before you book anything, look at the State Department Travel Advisories website. Your family is your most precious cargo, so pick your destination wisely.
8. Travel Documents
You already know that you need a passport for international travel, but do you know that it should have at least six months validity beyond your departure date? It's known as the 6 Month Validity Rule, and though not required in every country, it's a good idea to follow it. The US State Department provides country information you can review before you book, just search for your destination on the left. For example, if you search for Greece you'll see the rule is in effect.
Want to move faster through North America's land borders and airports? Many travelers are opting for Global Entry or Nexus. The options can be a little confusing. Our family was pleasantly surprised to find that Nexus (land border crossings) includes Global Entry (Airports). The upshot? Nexus is cheaper than Global Entry, and with Nexus, you get both! Compare the Benefits of Nexus page to the Benefits of Global Entry page; you'll note that Nexus comes with Global Entry/TSA precheck...but not the other way around. Also, Global Entry is currently more expensive than Nexus. Curious right? I don't know why, I'm as baffled as you are! We suggest you read about your options carefully before signing up.
9. Packing Tips and Tricks
A quick search brings up a thousand ways to stuff your luggage. But I've never been a fan of shoveling it in. My rule for family travel is to pack monochromatic colors with a few colorful accessories. If you can accept that family travel is an adventure and not a fashion show, your life will be much simplified.
Carry-ons should include underwear for one night, all prescription & over the counter medications, travel documents, and money. Are you traveling for an event? Maybe a destination wedding? Or an anniversary celebration? Be sure to pack your event clothing in your carry on as well. It's not foolproof, but it's better than stowing. To decrease wrinkles, fold your event clothing with white tissue paper and plastic bags. I will let Sonia at Sonia's Travels show you how and why in her excellent youtube video!
For the kids, bring electronics on board. Just give in to the temptation to let your little tyke play video games for hours during active travel time while you enjoy some peace. The Anker PowerCore High Capacity Portable Chargers are a must have whenever we travel because scouting out power is so tricky.
But be sure to bring travel size games in case all else fails (and you know with technology something always fails!). We always have a deck of playing cards, like My Greek Games Amilia cards or the Nous Memory Game. Both games have cool Greek mythology to delight and entertain.
10. A yucky mess
Waterproof travel kits and water resistant backpacks are my most trusted travel companions. Punctured shampoo bottles, leaking diaper wipe cases, blown out toothpaste and seeping sunscreen are an ever-present travel danger. Be sure to use water-resistant travel kits such as T-Greek's pouches and 3Quarters Design water resistant backpacks whenever possible. They can be sprayed off and wiped with a towel. You might be thinking, "I use zip top bags!". They can be a great solution because they're cheap, but they clog landfills, puncture easily and look ugly. They will also leak if not closed properly. So if you're considering zip-top bags, use them in a water-resistant travel kit to get double the protection.
We hope our tips for international family travel is helpful! We'd love to hear your thoughts in our comments section. And if you haven't already, mosey over to our post on creating a Zero Waste Travel Kit for ideas on how to limit your environmental footprint. Or get some tips on Travelling for Beginners.