International Travel with Infants

According to the song, going to Grandma’s house used to be as easy as riding “over the river and through the woods.” Nowadays, the trek could easily include long plane flights, passport checkpoints and customs agents. International travel has become commonplace in today’s society, and there’s no reason why a traveling lifestyle should be abandoned once young children are brought into the picture. Traveling internationally with a newborn can seem daunting, but it’s easily accomplished with proper planning and packing.

Obtaining A Passport and Visa

Everyone traveling abroad needs a passport, even babies. The State Department issued 6.7 million passports during 1999. Apply for your infant’s passport as soon as you begin to make plans for your trip. You can apply for a passport at many Federal and state courts, post offices, some libraries and a number of county and municipal offices right in your hometown. Apply early and include your date of travel on your application. Routine processing takes about six weeks. If you need the passport earlier, you may pay an expedite fee of $35 to ensure that it is completed within two weeks.

Here’s what you need to apply:

  • Completed Application Form DSP-11 (Visit http://travel.state.gov/get_forms.html to download passport forms — do NOT sign it in advance!)
  • Application fee of $40 (for children ages 16 and younger) plus $35 to expedite.
  • Two professional passport photos, size 2″x2″. Some passport photo centers are not equipped to take photos of a newborn. Be sure to ask your photo center in advance so they can make special arrangements.
  • Two forms of identity/citizenship. For babies: a certified copy of birth certificate (must be long-form in California and Texas), Naturalization Certificate or Certificate of Citizenship, AND a person who can vouch for you, such as a parent with two forms of valid ID.

Your child need not appear in person. You, as parent or legal guardian, can apply for your child. When you receive the passport it must be signed immediately. In the space provided for the signature, a parent must print the child’s name and then sign their own name. Then, in parentheses by the parent’s name, write the word “mother” or “father.” Your newborn’s passport will be valid for five years but may be renewed as needed.

Many countries do not require tourist visas if entering from the United States. Some only require a tourist card that may be obtained on the plane prior to landing. Check with your travel agent or airline when making reservations or visit the State Department’s Web site to see if the country you’re visiting requires one and how to apply.

Flight Reservations

The most important tip when traveling with infants is to maintain a flexible schedule and allow for plenty of “down time.” Babies can become over-stimulated and fussy during travel. Try to schedule your flights during off-peak hours or during the week when it is less crowded. Aim for flights during routine nap times or overnight on the “red eye” flight, where the child may fall asleep naturally.

Cathleen Farrell, who resides in Columbia, traveled with her daughter, Maria Carolina, to more than 14 countries before the baby turned 8 months old. She recommends that parents book non-stop flights when possible and consider bulkhead seating at the front of each section. These seats have no other chairs in front of them, providing more legroom for easier diaper changing and more room to play. Many planes also have a car-bed or a bassinet that can be attached to the wall after takeoff and removed prior to landing. Request bulkhead seating and the bassinet when you book your flight, if desired.

You may want to buy your baby his own ticket (usually at a reduced rate of 50 percent to 75 percent of an adult fare). This will give you extra room for maneuvering and storage and the peace of mind that he will have his own seat even if the flight is crowded. You may either board early to get settled or wait until all passengers have boarded to get a better chance at empty seats together.

If your child has his own seat, you must use an FAA approved child restraint device (such as a car seat) for your infant to keep him safe. Some restraint devices have been banned by the FAA for use in planes: Booster seats, safety belt extensions (or “belly belts”) and vests or harness devices that attach to an adult or to the seatbelt of the child’s own seat are no longer allowed on flights. These may have been manufactured before the FAA’s ban and may still carry a symbol indicating they are approved for aircraft use. For a list of FAA safety recommendations for air travel with children, call the agency’s consumer information hotline at 1-800-FAA-SURE.

Packing List

When it comes to packing, Farrell recommends that parents “avoid tons of gear! You are going to be walking for miles and what seems like hours in airport terminals. Only take what is absolutely necessary and what you can handle.” A good rule of thumb is to streamline all items into one backpack.

Veteran traveler Ashly Marquez of Venezuela also believes that “hands free is the only way to travel; don’t bring gear unless it’s packed.” She has traveled internationally with her infant daughter, Taylor, about 10 times last year and believes a small stroller is definitely needed at the airport and can be gate-checked easily. A baby backpack may also be useful for smaller infants. Other packing tips include:

  • Estimate one premium diaper for every hour of flight. They absorb better so you won’t need to change as often.
  • Bring plenty of wipes and one or two cloth diapers/ receiving blankets to help clean up messes!
  • Plenty of plastic baggies to store dirty clothes, diapers, clean outfits, etc.
  • Pack Cheerios, Zwieback or other snacks for teething babies. Fruit and water or juice in bottles or sippy cups are also helpful.
  • Pack an extra set of clothing for the baby as well as an extra shirt for Mom in case of spills!
  • Keep pacifiers, ready-mix formula and bottles easily accessible if needed.
  • Entertainment essentials include teething toys, favorite blanket/toy as a comfort item and homemade photo albums for baby to look at.
  • Farrell also recommends parents “bring blankets or covers from baby’s crib. The feel and smell are familiar and that will calm baby, but remember — that stuff is bulky!”
  • Be prepared for differences in formula and baby food in other countries. Bring along extra formula to gradually introduce to your baby so as not to upset her tummy. Pampers and Huggies are fairly universal and can be bought at your final destination, but you may want to bring your own wipes.

Checking In

When traveling internationally, be sure to arrive at least three hours in advance for check-in. Use curbside check-in if it’s available. There’s no sense in toting tons of bags if you don’t have to! Or, rent a cart to carry your belongings. You will need to pay a departure tax at this time in either cash or traveler’s checks. This tax may be more than you paid for the infant’s ticket! Call ahead to your airline for the tax amount per passenger. Ask whether certain items such as the stroller and car seat can be gate-checked and how the airline treats carry-on luggage for a baby. Many airlines do not allow extra luggage for your infant. Only passengers with their own seats are allowed luggage rights.

Flight Expectations

Keep the entertainment items for your baby close at hand. Dress baby in a short sleeve shirt and pants but bring along a sweater — airplanes tend to be very cool. Nurse your baby or use pacifiers/bottles during takeoff and landing to reduce ear pressure. Babies love motion and many fall asleep as soon as the plane begins to taxi down the runway! In addition to maintaining a comfortable — and quiet — sleeping area, do your best to stick to the infant’s eating and sleeping schedule.

Whenever flying with an infant, the flight attendants will help you as much as possible by bringing extra blankets and pillows, filling water in baby bottles or just heating up the bottle. The attendants may even hold your baby while you visit the restroom if you’re traveling alone. Changing diapers in the latrine is difficult due to the small space, so be sure to change diapers prior to boarding or at your seat. And, the attendants’ jump seat makes a perfect spot for this task, too!

Red Light, Green Light

Carts are available at baggage claim for you to load your luggage. Have your plane ticket, visa and passports ready for the customs agent. Most customs areas will have you go through a line and then either a red or green light will shine telling you to pass through or move to the inspection line. If traveling from the United States, many agents won’t hassle you with details if you have a child in tow. But, they will certainly detain you if you look suspicious.

Check with your airline or the consulate of the country you are visiting if there are certain things that will be forbidden at customs. Many Muslim countries do not allow alcohol, fitness magazines or books depicting women with bare arms, etc. to be brought into the country. U.S. Customs currently allows each U.S. citizen to bring $400 worth of merchandise duty-free into the country. The next $1,000 worth of items brought back for personal use or gifts are subject to duty at a flat 10 percent rate. Agricultural products may not be brought into the United States. For other customs guidelines read the State Department publication #10542 “Your Trip Abroad.”

Helpful Tips

  • Have a tour group adopt you if you are unfamiliar with the language. Most travelers are eager to help a family with a young infant and will assist you in collecting baggage and talking to airline employees if you don’t know the language.
  • If traveling alone with your child, bring a friend to the airport to help with the check-in. It can be difficult to drag luggage, dig for passports and feed a baby all at the same time.
  • Consider renting or borrowing baby gear at your final destination such as cribs, strollers and car seats (available at car rental locations if reserved), so that you don’t bring more gear than necessary.
  • Bring proper documentation if traveling abroad with only one parent. Many countries require written consent from the other parent to leave the county. Also, bring all adoption papers, copies of birth and marriage certificates if traveling under maiden name, as well as military IDs if applicable. Be sure to make photocopies of all documents and carry them separately from the originals. Leave a set of copies with a family member or friend who has your itinerary. Having copies makes it easier to produce new documents if the originals are lost or stolen during travel.
  • Avoid traveling with infants younger than 3 months old. Airplanes can be bad for babies with weak immune systems because they re-circulate the air, causing germs from other passengers to be spread easily to your baby. Be sure that your infant is current on ALL vaccinations and check with the Health Department or Centers for Disease Control to see if there are any additional ones needed in the countries that you’ll be visiting. Avoid drinking local water and eating uncooked vegetables, and remember to only prepare formula with bottled water.

“The baby takes his cue from you,” says Cathleen Farrell. “If you are a calm and collected traveler, he will be, too. If you are nervous, he will pick up on that.”

“Take a tolerance pill and have fun,” says Ashly Marquez. “It’s an unplanned adventure.” But, most of all, enjoy the ride! Traveling to your destination is also part of the whole adventure!

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