It all started because my mother-in-law never had a daughter.
When MIL learned I was having a girl, she stated that she was going to take her granddaughter to Paris when she turned ten. Paris has a storied past for my husband’s family–they have visited frequently, and even lived there for a short time. My husband was conceived there, and he proposed marriage to me on the Pont Neuf. We celebrated our betrothal with his family, who had traveled to Paris with the engagement ring.
As my daughter’s tenth year approached, we dithered about what to do with her twin brother. We thought about taking him somewhere, but one of our commandments of twins parenting is “Parity, as Much as Possible.” Since his sister was having an adventure, we wanted our son to have one too, preferably with my relatives who have their own haunts and places. We approached my family, and decided that we would send him to Portland, Oregon where my brother and his wife live.
Meanwhile, my husband and I decided we would embark on our own trip, just the two of us. Neither of us had visited South America, and both of us had harbored childhood dreams of touring the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Paris, Portland & Peru.
Thus began lots of intricate planning to launch three separate journeys on three separate continents during one spring break. I learned a ton along the way, and wanted to share our mistakes, victories, and lessons learned.
1. Check All Necessary Travel Documentation Months in Advance
This may seem obvious, but it is essential. If your child is traveling internationally, passports must be up to date, and that is a whole process which takes a few months to complete, at minimum. My daughter’s passport had expired, so we had to renew it. We began the process in December, and received her new passport in March, about a month before she traveled. Some countries in Europe require passports to be valid six months after you arrive, so check the expiration dates. We also renewed my son’s passport at the same time, because he would require a photo ID to travel on his plane rides.
2. Provide Your Child With a Device That Can Make Calls
We decided to buy iPods for the children, and set up the Skype app for both (so our daughter in particular could make international calls). We don’t want them to have smartphones yet, but we wanted to make sure in an emergency, they would be able to call us. Neither of them ever did, but both texted us quite a bit. Bonus: both children took lots of photos, and sent them to us, which was a good way to see how their trips were going in real-time. We had parental controls on the devices, so they were limited in what they could do.
3. Start the Packing Process Early
I really hate packing, and packing for three different trips seemed daunting. What helped was making lists early (two months prior) for each person. I needed to buy toiletries for both kids (shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, etc) and both were going to be in different climates. Both also needed better rain gear than what we had. We ended up going to REI, as my husband and I also needed to purchase rain gear, as we were going to be in a rainy climate as well. I had the kids very involved in what they wanted to bring, and they were active packers, although I did the final checks. Our own packing was the hardest: we were traversing a number of climates and altitudes in one short trip, and there were many flights so we didn’t want to check our bags. I ended up buying a new carry-on suitcase which fit the standard measurements for international airlines, but had the most room possible, and packed everything in it. This guide to what to pack for Peru was helpful–practical, with some cute ideas of what to wear in Lima.
4. To Do Lists Up the Wazoo
Keeping track of packing, travel rules, documentation, who needed what when: to-do lists were the key to making sure everything got done. I had one master to-do list, which informed the packing list, and my daily to-do lists I created. I had dates for each item on the master list to keep me on-track.
5. Take Advantage of Credit Cards with Points
Not really related to our kids’ travel this time, but an excellent hack nevertheless. We both use Amex cards connected to Starwood, and try to pay for big purchases on them (we even bought a car with our card!). The key is to pay off the cards monthly, so you are not paying fees. My husband also has an airline Visa card. We cashed in our Starwood points, and did not pay for a single hotel in Peru. We didn’t have enough points to pay for our flights, but we did use points to upgrade to Economy Plus, which was nice.
6. Read about the Travel Destinations Together Before They Go
We got books at the library to get the kids excited about where they were going, and tailored travel activities to suit their interests. My son, after reading about the Shanghai tunnels in Portland, decided he wanted to do a tour. He loves basketball, so we got him tickets to go to the Trail Blazers game with his uncle. My daughter loves ballet, the impressionists and fashion, so MIL booked a ballet performance, a tour of Monet’s gardens and a fashion show.
7. Provide Extensive Documentation to Caregivers
My MIL is an active caregiver here at home, and knows my daughter’s eating habits well. But my son is a notoriously picky eater who also is in a phase where he is having trouble gaining weight. He needs a ton of calories each day, and only eats a handful of items so that’s a challenge. I provided my family with a detailed list of all the foods he ate for breakfast, lunch, heavy snack and dinner. I also detailed his bedtime routine, and how he needed to brush his teeth because of his various orthodontia gear.
8. Be Prepare for the Unexpected to Happen
All our planning and to-do lists didn’t help when my mom broke her ankle, and it wasn’t healed in time to travel with my son. I had to move to Plan B: Unaccompanied Minor. Unaccompanied Minor meant my son was to travel alone on the plane, and there was a lot of documentation and coordination to pull that off. Luckily FIL was able to fill in and pick him up from the airport, as we flew in the next day. It also meant I had to drive him to the airport, be there 90 minutes early, watch the plane take off before leaving (and of course his plane was delayed). I hadn’t planned for that much time to be occupied when I was wrapping up my work for the week, and so had to work quite a bit the night before we left. Plus there was more mayhem…
9. Chill the Heck Out
I was a stress case the few days before we all left, because my daughter’s airline decided to go on strike, and it was unclear whether she would be able to go to Paris after all. I needlessly stressed about all the logistics that were already set, while also tying up all my many loose ends at work. I’ve been better about managing stress in general, but not during this time, and suffered two sleepless nights. I also hate flying, so was on edge about that.
I should have remembered my stoicism, and stayed in the moment. Most of what I was worried about was out of my control, and I should have only been laser focused on what I could control. Don’t do this!
The end result was two kids who came back more confident than before. Something about traveling without us challenged them, and created a sense of independence. They both felt like VIPs as well, showered with family attention which was nice for twins, who often struggle to get one-on-one time with us.
Bonus: my husband and I had a great time. He is my favorite person to hang out with, and we got in some fun quality time. Machu Picchu is one of the few places I’ve been that lives up to the hype, it truly is an awe-inspiring sight. Peruvian food is really delicious and we had a once-in-a-lifetime meal at Astrid & Gaston. Finally, baby alpacas are officially the cutest animals I’ve ever seen.
Have you sent your kids to travel without you? Why or why not?