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Breaking Out of the Toddler Ghettos

By May 7, 2015 November 6th, 2015 5 Comments

Visiting Europe with a toddler, traveling to europe with baby - photo courtesy of Eleni N. GageWhen I was pregnant with our first child, my husband asked mournfully, “Does this mean we’ll have to spend our vacations going to Disneyland?”

After our daughter Amalía was born, I realized that for babies and toddlers, the whole world is Disneyland; virtually everything is new, delightful, and amazing, even if it’s just the weather. When Amalía was two months old, we drove from our home in Miami Beach to Islamorada in the Keys. I took her out on the beach with me and while we sat under a thatched palapa, a quick tropical rainstorm blew past. Dry under the shelter, Amalía watched the storm with great interest, and when it stopped, she started crying. Later, once she could speak, she had the same reaction to a sunset, begging me to make the sun do it again.

My point isn’t that you shouldn’t take little kids anywhere because they’re so easily amused, but that you should take them wherever you want to travel—within reason. We brought Amalía to her first happy hour at a week old, applied for her passport as soon as we had her birth certificate, took her to meet my husband’s family in Nicaragua at four months old and to see my family in Greece at 11 months old. By the time she was two (the tragic age when you start having to pay full price for a child’s airline ticket instead of a mere ten percent), she had been on dozens of flights—all of them fairly noneventful, except for the challenge of changing a diaper in a tiny airport bathroom. (The most difficult time to travel with a toddler is after they’ve learned to walk but before they are old enough to understand that the plane won’t take off if they’re not seated with a seatbelt on; that’s when a bribe, like a coloring book, comes in handy.) In fact, diaper changes aside, traveling with a baby, then a toddler, was much easier than I’d imagined—if we followed a few guidelines we learned the hard way.

Traveling with babies and traveling with toddlers - photo courtesy of Eleni N. Gage

We found that the key to choosing a place to bring your kid is to make sure that their presence will enhance your trip, and the experience of everyone else around you, rather than derailing it. I wouldn’t hike Macchu Picchu with a toddler strapped to my front (but if you would, more power to you).  But I also object to the way we ghettoize children in this country. In the US, I’ve noticed we tend to socialize along age groups. Unless you’re going to a place specifically designed for kids—a playground, theme park, or a restaurant with video games or performing robots)—you seldom see little ones. (And unless you’re in a house of worship, a mall, or a family party, you seldom see elderly people, either—they’re hidden in retirement communities.)

But in Latin America, and many parts of Europe, people of all ages are out together all the time. In Greece, on a summer evening at nine, the main square of any town, village, or city neighborhood is full of toddlers running around, being watched by their grandparents sitting on benches nearby, while their parents are at the café a few steps away, enjoying dinner or a drink. When we travel internationally, we now make sure to choose a country where people love kids, saving cities packed with fine dining restaurants and souvenir shops full of china knickknacks for grownup-only weekends.

Whether we’re traveling domestically or internationally, we’ve found it’s best to pick a spot with nice weather, where bars and restaurants have outdoor seating. If we’re outside, we know we’re not going to ruin anyone’s special occasion if Amalía starts crying, and there’s plenty of room to get up and walk a fussy kid until she calms down. When Amalía was tiny, we’d plop her car seat/carrier on the table during a happy hour on pedestrian Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, and no one ever complained (nor did they about the passing dogs barking, street performers singing, or skateboarders zooming past; we just became part of the happy chaos). When we carried her into a small New York restaurant come winter, I heard someone mutter, “who brings a baby to dinner?” And they were right; it wasn’t an ideal situation for her or our fellow patrons.

Hiking with toddlers, hiking with babies - photo courtesy of Eleni N. GageNice weather also offers plenty of opportunity for outdoor entertainment. Any place you can bring a picnic, you can bring a kid—and we have, whether it’s a Soundscape concert by the New World Symphony broadcast on the wall of the Symphony hall in Miami Beach, opera in New York’s Central Park, or an outdoor cinema in Athens, Greece. Throw in a seashore, beach umbrella, and some sand toys and you’ve got hours of (Ipad-free!) entertainment. (In cold weather, replace sand and sand toys with snow and a sled and you’re golden.) Parks, playgrounds and beaches are obvious spots for kids. But we’ve also had tons of fun with Amalía looking at graffiti during the Wynwood Art Walk in Miami, roaming around ancient ruins and abandoned villages in Greece, hiking volcanoes in Nicaragua (with the help of a baby-carrying backpack), and riding surrey bikes around Governor’s Island off of Manhattan.

There is one thing we’ve given up by traveling with our toddler: a schedule. Yes, Amalia maintained a morning nap and an afternoon nap wherever we went. But when you’re switching settings and time zones, there’s no sticking to a set time frame for them (and if you try you’re going to make yourself, the kid, and everyone else miserable). I do envy my friends whose children sleep from seven p.m. to seven a.m.; the earliest Amalía gets to bed is nine. But now that I’ve returned to working in an office, and I often don’t get home until 7, I’m glad I’ve got two extra hours to play with and talk to her. After all, that’s the reason I’ve traveled with her so much in the first place: I enjoy her company.

ELENI N. GAGE is the author of The Ladies of Managua (St. Martin’s Press; May 5) and a journalist who writes regularly for publications including Travel+Leisure, The New York Times, T: The New York Times Travel Magazine, Dwell, Elle, Elle Décor, Real Simple, Parade, and The American Scholar. Currently Executive Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings and formerly beauty editor at People, Eleni graduated with an AB in Folklore and Mythology from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two young children. Visit her website and Twitter.

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • I love travelling with the kids too and feel we’ve done so many exciting and different things with them, and that these change as they grow older. It makes travelling really special.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more! We have done the same with our two – they have been travelling since they were 8 weeks old and got their passports, have been to 22 countries over the last 10 years and we don’t confine to kiddie friendly places! We try to do more outdoorsy places just because we love nature, love hiking and then the whole national park becomes the playground 🙂 We also love visiting countries that adore children, was great when kids were young. And now that they are 7 and 9, they enjoy lot of the historical stuff – temples in Thailand, Amphitheatres in Croatia and Berber villages in Morocco – as do we! Really enjoyed reading this as very much the same ethos we follow 🙂

  • Meghan says:

    I’ve had this fear as well. Everyone in my family who has kids, all these do is go to Disney World. It’s not a bad place, but I’ve been afraid that in order to keep my LO engaged, it would always have to include some sort of character. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  • Eduardo says:

    I always believe to travel with my daughter , I know how important is for her to see and exspiriebce all this different places , culture and things that me and wife love to do , I see it in her face how happy she is
    Went I was single I never like the beach and now our every yearly trip to clear water is a must happend my dauther camila loves the beach so much that I got so addicted ,too bad I live in Nyc but for sure one day
    I will live by the beach so Camila could be so happy for the rest of her long way life to Come.

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