For those who love to travel, parenthood may feel like the end. The extra hassle, expense and disruption to routine make even the most passionate travelers think twice. But for parents fortunate enough to get parental leave, it’s a unique opportunity to celebrate their new arrival with a once-in-a-lifetime family trip. It’s often the longest break you can get from work, but is it ok to use it to travel with a baby? Is it safe to take your baby away, and is it too stressful?
Although the United States is one of the only developed countries without mandated parental leave, it’s a popular employee benefit. According to researchers at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, over half of employers (55 percent) now offer paid maternity leave and 45 percent offer paid paternity leave. We spoke to three families who took advantage of this time away from the office to travel with their kids and despite the perceived challenges, here’s how they pulled it off.
Grab the chance to make memories with your new family
Lee Turner Friedman, a working mom of two from Washington D.C, says: “Maternity leave isn’t a vacation, but it is a nice break from work. Getting out of the chaos of your own house gives you a really nice way to bond with your baby.”
Friedman, who works at a law firm, had five months of leave and used one week for a trip to the Caribbean with three other families who also had babies.
“We bought these Integra baby carriers that were waterproof and we went to this beautiful beach in the Caribbean,” Lee remembers. “The baby was asleep on me, I had a cocktail in my hand and I felt like: I can do this!”
The memorable experience inspired Lee to launch her own travel business, Mango Tree Travel, to help other families plan trips together.
Babies are actually easier to travel with than older kids
You might assume babies are hard to travel with, but in my experience, the opposite is true. Not only is it possible to take a baby on a long trip, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Karen Ni Eadbhard, who works as a director in Abu Dhabi and runs the travel blog Travel Mad Mum, is a veteran of maternity leave travel, taking trips with all four of her babies.
“With my first baby I definitely got scared to leave once the time came, but that trip was incredible for bonding and making special memories,” she says.
Eadbhard and her husband traveled around southeast Asia with their first child and drove the pan American highway from Canada to Argentina with their second. “This was the most incredible trip, passing through the entire West Coast of the US, all of Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. This was the best trip ever!”
Currently, Eadbhard and her family are enjoying another stint of maternity leave with her twins in Switzerland.
“First and second time I did this, I was much more daring and didn’t mind being around lots of people. However, the world has changed so much and this time, traveling in a campervan in the mountains, as much as possible away from groups, seemed right,” she says.
Once you’ve sorted out a passport, the cost of taking a baby with you is fairly minimal. If you fly with them as a lap baby, you’re usually only paying their taxes. Hotels will often offer a crib for free. And as they’re not mobile yet, there is less concern about them getting sick from touching grimy surfaces.
Traveling as a family opens up new experiences
Cassandra Trzebski, who lives in Canada and owns the family travel blog Have Kids Still Traveling, also chose to spend part of her maternity leave away from home. Canadians can take up to a year away from their jobs, split between the parents.
They decided to use six weeks traveling together as a new family. Cassandra and her husband had Thailand in their sights “mostly for our love of Thai food,” she says, but decided to add Cambodia and Hong Kong to the itinerary too.
Friends and family thought they were crazy for taking a child so young and questioned what a baby would get out of the trip. Trzebski says she did have some trepidation about traveling with a baby.
“One thing that kept popping up was that restaurants didn’t have high chairs, instead the waiters and waitresses would hold your baby for you while you ate,” says Trzebski. She was nervous about strangers wanting to hold her son.
But after arriving in Thailand and seeing how friendly the locals were, she relaxed.
“By the end of the trip, our son had visited the back of many kitchens and received lots of free food.”
The challenges of traveling with a baby
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges to traveling with a baby. “Packing was like a logic game,” says Friedman. “I definitely spent a lot of time on blogs figuring out how to take stuff with me.”
“The biggest challenge is packing up home and renting it,” says Eadbhard, who took the longest trip. “It’s like leaving a safe cocoon.”
While all these families took very different trips during their maternity leave, they all said the same thing: travel helped with the adjustment to their new roles as parents and brought more benefits than they expected.
“There is something about being away from home, no dishes to do, no laundry, no work and no other household chores. All your time is spent bonding as a family,” Trzebski says.
“I think it allows for an incredible time as a family to be together and although the kids might not remember it, the adults do, and that’s OK,” Eadbhard adds.
I also discovered this on my own trip overseas when my son was born. I loved travel before he came along and was worried I would have to leave that part of my life behind once I became a mother.
But the trans-Atlantic trip to see friends and family when he was just four months was magical and helped me realize I would not have to give travel up at all. We’ve since taken our kids to all kinds of places and never felt like parenthood held us back.
Taking the plunge and traveling on parental leave is difficult, but the hardest part is making the decision to go. Once on the road, everything falls into place, and you can spend your parental leave doing exactly what it is designed for — bonding as a family and making amazing memories together.
Essential tips on travel with a baby
1. Apply for a passport as soon as you have the birth certificate
Passports can take up to 11 weeks to process, or up to seven weeks if you pay to have it expedited. Kids need both parents at the appointment. You can book your flight before you have the passport, just make sure you have enough time to receive it.
When flying with a child under two, you can add your infant as a lap baby. But it’s worth considering buying them their own seat so they can sit in their car seat for the flight. It’s safer, gives you a break, and you don’t have to check your car seat.
2. Research healthcare in the countries you’re visiting
Make sure you take all medications you may require with you – your usual over-the-counter medications may not be available overseas. Find out how the country’s health system works and make sure you have an insurance policy that will cover your family. It’s a good idea to wait until your baby has had their first set of vaccinations to give them some protection from illness.
3. A baby carrier will be more useful than a stroller
Don’t take too much stuff, only bring the absolute essentials on your travel. Strollers take up a lot of space and aren’t much good on cobblestones anyway.
4. Don’t over plan
Build in plenty of time during your days for naps and time for relaxing together as a family. Make sure you have flexibility in your schedule for days when you just don’t feel like doing very much. It’s best to make your own itinerary, as tour groups usually move at a fast pace.
5. If taking an extended trip, pick somewhere with low living costs
For a longer trip, think about countries where your money will stretch further. You could also think about renting out your house while you’re gone to save some cash.
What to pack when traveling with a baby
Here are a few of my favorite essential items, I won’t travel with a baby without.
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Portable booster chair
This booster chair is essential for dining comfortably in restaurants, or anywhere you need to put your baby down. It packs away easily into a bag, so you can bring it wherever you go.
A comfortable baby carrier should be top of every parent’s list. Pick one with wide, padded straps to spread the weight and a mesh outer layer to allow for good airflow.
Travel crib with a blackout shade
When your little roommate wants to go to bed at 7:00 PM, you don’t want to disturb their precious rest with too much light. Go for a travel crib with a black-out shade, and you won’t have to worry about waking the baby whenever you turn on the light.
Multi pocket diaper backpack
Diaper bags are full of handy compartments to keep everything exactly where you need it, but don’t buy a shoulder bag — think of your back! Backpacks are more ergonomic, and you can stow everything you need for yourself and your baby.
I love these sleepsacks, and we took ours everywhere when our son was little. They’re cozy, easy to wash, and best of all, safe.