Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 - Travelling Long Distances with Kids and Babies

December 10, 2008 Comment on this post [15] Posted in Africa
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Our first trip to Africa with a baby was to Arusha, Tanzania when the older boy was just one. Because we were planning to go into the bush we got our shots, and had our pediatrician suggest the correct shots for the baby given his age and where we were going. Our town also has a dedicated Travel Clinic that is a great resource if you're heading anywhere off the beaten path (anywhere without an airport nearby, for example).

This trip, the older boy is 3 and the new baby just turned one. The flights on the way here were a short one hour hop to Seattle, followed by a 10 hour flight to Amsterdam, then an 11 hour flight to Johannesburg. There were layovers between them, as well. Total wheels-up, wheels-down flight time was about 22 hours, but door to door time was about 30 hours total. Here's a few of the techniques that we've used/developed to make it possible.

  • Adult Sleep - Make sure the parents (that's you) get enough sleep the week before. More than usual even. We tried to get an extra 2 hours a night for the week prior to the trip. This not only cuts down on parents sniping at each other, but it goes a long way towards general sanity. Your kids will be tired. They will be tired beyond reason. If you are also, it'll suck for everyone.
  • Packing - We've done more than a dozen international trips now, so we pack at least a week in advance now and we do it at a very leisurely pace. You'd be surprised how much stress can be avoided by being packed days before your trip. If you pack the night before you will forget something. My wife makes a list of the necessities, and we go back and forth over the list. I tend to pack very light (I did Malaysia for two weeks once with only one carry on), while Mo tends to push the limit by weighing her bags and trying to take the full 100 lbs. I lean more towards Tim Ferriss' style and I'd encourage you to. Depending on where you are going, chances are that they have the same stuff there that they do where you live. You can always buy toothpaste. You can buy diapers. Carry the stuff that your destination doesn't have. Carry special toys, books and blankets. Carry media and medical stuff. You can buy shampoo.
  • Entertainment - Before each trip, we go to the Dollar Store (or Goodwill) and get a bunch of cheap toys and books that the boys haven't seen before. We don't unveil the toys until we are on the plane. We ration them as slowly as possible so there's still toys to be discovered on the flight back. We also picked up a portable Sony DVP-FX820 DVD player. We're not big on TV as it tends to hypnotize little minds, but when you're in hour 13 of a 30 hour  journey, your ideals go out the window. I'd encourage you to embrace this fact and make it work for you. We brought Thomas the Train, the Electric Company DVDs, and School House Rock. They were good enough for me in the 70s and they're good enough for my kids today.
  • Food/Snacks - Don't count on crappy airline food to pacify your kids. We avoid bribing the kids with treats, except on long flights. At this time, all bets are off. If a box of raisins will buy me 20 minutes of peace, bam, here's some raisins. Take lots of fun, but nutritious snacks and full your kids full of them. Full bellies usually mean longer naps. We brought tiny raisin boxes, organic fruit rollups, granola bars, basically anything that doesn't have corn syrup and doesn't need to be refrigerated. We also try to move the kids to the destination time zone sooner than later, so we'll feed them dinner or breakfast based on the time zone of where we're going, even while we're still on plane.
    One other random food-related point, we encourage our kids to eat whatever's out there. As long as you make sure fruits are washed, and avoid ice at restaurants, we let the kids eat everything. Makes for strong stomachs. We do carry a doctor-prescribed dose of Cipro just in case something intestinal comes up, and we also travel with medical-trip insurance to cover all bases.
  • Baby Jet-Lag - The difference between a 1-year old and a 3-year old when it comes to jet-lag is extreme. The 3-year old can be psychologically manipulated, the 1-year old not so much. Our three year old bounds into our room each morning announcing "the sun is up, it's time to wake up!" This was a problem for us, as we prefer to NOT get up at 5am, so we covered his window with a blanket and now he sleeps until 8am, when the sun is bright enough to shine through. We used the lights and the windows on the plane, as well as saying things like "it's soooo late!" to encourage him to sleep. He slept for 7 hours on one of the 10 hour flights, as did the little one (from exhaustion). When we arrived, however, the light tricks and encouragement have worked on the 3 year old, who, on this the third day, is back to sleeping 8pm to 8am. The infant however, is a mess, waking up at 3am (the time he'd usually wake up from his afternoon nap back in our time zone. So, we are taking a tip from science and getting him out in the sunshine early each day, making sure he gets exposed to it early and often, then removing the light in the evenings and trying to set a tone of "sleepy time." So far, he's starting to be up less each night and I suspect he'll be 90% local time by day 5. Most travelers say that it takes one day per time zone crossed to get your body truly oriented. I personally believe, baby or adult, that light exposure can cut that time in half.
  • Routine and Resilience - Everyone wants a baby who can "roll with it" but babies love routine. In fact, if you do something twice, you may think nothing of it, but your baby may now consider it a routine. You can use this to your advantage. We mix routine with new stuff to make baby travel easier. For example, we may not be able to control the sleeping arrangements, but we can control if the baby sleeps on his favorite blanket. There may be a different bathtub each night, but the favorite rubber duck or bath toys can be there. We do the exact same bath time/bed time routine no matter where we are. Bath, Books, Bed. Same motions, same conversations. This routine assures the child that even though things have changed, nothing has changed.
  • Airlines and the Baby Bulkhead - If you're going internationally, your plane has a "baby bulkhead" row. There's a queue in the airline's roster for family's flying. On many big planes it's row 10, but you can check out SeatGuru to find out which row for which plane. However, as I understand it, the gate reserves the right to assign these seats at the last minute, depending on who gets to the gate first. We always call the airline directly (if you've got a lap child/infant) and request to be put in the queue for this row. Then we show up really early and talk to the gate agents to get confirmed. You can only use this row if your baby is under 20 lbs, but if you can manage to get it anyway, most airlines have a small cardboard box you can request to put the baby in at your feet. The only trick is that you'll need to pick the baby up if the Fasten Seat Belts light turns on. We got Row 10 on the flight to Amsterdam, which was cool, but the luck of the draw was not with us on the flight to Joburg, and we ended up in row 45. Yes, that's right, the ass of the plane. Last row, next to the Flight Attendant's area. We initially thought this would suck, but it positioned us near the toilet, near the snacks, near a half-dozen flight attendants who were happy to make smiles at the babies, and we could recline our seats really far as there was no one behind us. It wasn't ideal, but if you can't get the bulkhead, the last row is actually not too bad for babies.

All this added up to a difficult, but not nightmarish or oppressive flight. Both boys did famously and are having a blast so far. I'd encourage you do try these tips (tweaking for your kids' personalities, of course) and get your kids of their home country and show them the world.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 10, 2008 20:21
I'm surprised cipro is appropriate if you're in a very sunny place; cipro causes photosensitivity so if you do start taking it, please stay out of the sun (particularly given your comment about sunburn!).
December 10, 2008 20:40
Thanks for the tips. We are leaving in seven days on a trip to New Zealand. Wheels up in St. Louis to landing in Auckland is 24 hours.

Rick Arthur
December 10, 2008 20:42
Oh yeah, as an international-travelling-geek, any tech tips you want to share?
December 10, 2008 20:59
Nice, i like how they give you a cardboard box for the baby.
December 10, 2008 22:07
"The 3-year old can be psychologically manipulated"

Love that line and fully understand what you mean!
December 10, 2008 23:25
Great tips! I'll need this for later when we decide to take a trip back to India after our first child is born. I'm expecting a harrowing experience but posts like this make it seem less frightening!
December 11, 2008 1:20

Regarding the DVD player. If you pick up a 30 GB Zune, you don't have to worry about packing dvds. Plus there's the home movies and pictures you can put on the zune. We had the dvd player for a year for our 3 year old. When we got the zune, he had no problem picking up the navigation and there are over 30 GB of movies ripped onto it and home videos for him to watch. No changing of discs and no need to find a suitable surface to place the player.

Enjoy your travels.

December 11, 2008 1:22
My son is almost three years old now, and he has more frequent flyer miles then I did at age 30. A couple months ago I bought an iPod Touch for him to watch on trips. I put several of his favorite movies, and tv shows on it. Yes there are battery concerns on really long flights, but having a video library on the iPod is much nicer then having to mess with the DVDs. He has figured out how to work the iPod, and will play some of the children's games from the AppStore. Great entertainment that doesn't take much space!
December 11, 2008 1:42
You mean you don't give the older boy raisins normally for an at home snack?! Seriously, a treat is a box of raisins in the Hanselman Home?!!! ;)
December 11, 2008 4:24
Good advice, quite a few I use myself as I have a 3 & 4 year old kids. Here are some more tips:

- Get a dvd or movie player which can stand on the table. Not ones that the kid has to hold all the time.

- Depending on your players, get extra batteries, battery packs, battery-based chargers for the players.

- Don't have loose batteries in your bags. Tape them together. Some airports like my last trip to Cairo, would confiscate loose batteries. They claim they produce sparks if they hit each other. Luckily I had tape with me but they weren't happy I was carrying too many batteries!

- I got two PSP's (one borrowed and bought a used phat version). I hacked the phat's firmware which enabled it to play games from the memory stick (16G from eBay, a lot cheaper than stores). Loaded them with movies too. PSP's have great battery life and keep kids entertained for a very long time. Make sure they are connected to headsets.
(The phat's firmware can be modified easily. The slim version is harder. The latest 3000 hasn't been hacked.. yet)

- Get your airlines tickets as early as possible. Then go to the airline's website and reassign the seats if needed. Avoid the bad seats as recommended by seatguru. Depending on the aircraft, the last seat may not recline as it's against the wall behind (usually the bathroom's). I would also stay away from seats close to bathrooms.

- Stay as far as possible from the back of the plane. That part of the plane vibrates the most. (some people think it's the safest part in an accident and sit there!)

- If seat assignments split your family, politely ask the passenger(s) to switch their seats, They usually oblige when they see you have kids.

- Bring an empty bottle and fill it with water from a water fountain after the security checkpoint. You can also convince security guys the water is for the kids. Drink a lot of water. Airplane air is dry and it eases jetlag. Avoid salty snacks. Dry fruits is great.

- Bring your own pillow. Many airlines stopped having them.

- These are items I like to carry with me: chewing gum, saline spray, eye drops, glasses case, earphones and good quality ear plugs, disposable toilettes, magazines, little puzzle book, neck rest, extra socks (AC can make feet cold).

- Plan for missing your flight so pack pj's, underwear in carry ons.

December 11, 2008 5:16
So much info...i will definetly come back to this blog when I am travelling with my children :)
December 11, 2008 6:14
The thing which distresses me about this post is finding out that Thomas the Tank Engine is called Thomas the Train in America :S
December 11, 2008 12:45
Thanks for the tips Scott! But I personally can't imaging how you can travel with such small kids for 30 hours! We are in a real panick during 3-hour drive with our 1,5 years old :)
December 12, 2008 5:16
oh my goodness. With 3 kids UNDER age 3 (!!!) I am DEATHLY afraid to take plane trips, knowing I will be pissing off a TON of people.

THese are great tips, but you're far braver than I am.
December 16, 2008 1:43
The cardboard box sounds like a very good idea, I've often wanted to put my son in one when he won't shut up, and now airlines are providing them, what service!

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.