This time last year, my family was altogether for a pretty big moment: my brother Jonathan asked his girlfriend Kelly to marry him. Almost immediately after all the hugs, high-fives, and champagne toasts, Steve pulled out his calculator and started crunching numbers. With my brother and Kelly living in San Diego, a cool 3,000 miles from us on the East Coast, we would be booking airfares and lodging times seven in our near future. Then things got interesting: they were doing a destination wedding in Cancun, Mexico. Yay! And, gulp! Now we weren’t just googling great fares, but how to get a crew our size to another country. The sad truth is that there is not that much help to be found on the internet if your group is more super-sized than travel-sized. Here are some of the things we learned about how to travel internationally with a large family.
1. Plan Ahead
Though this one has been drilled into us from a lifetime of trying to go, well, anywhere, getting a brood the size of a basketball team to a tropical destination meant we had to take our planning game to the next level.
Pace yourself. Free-wheeling, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel is for young adults and moms on the lam. We were making lists and checking them twice from about 10 minutes after we got the first text about the wheres and whens and we didn’t stop double-checking them until we landed safely back home.
One important part of this phase was thinking through the travel process itself. We made sure to download movies and podcasts and create playlists for everybody’s tech. Then we picked out books, magazines, snacks, and gum. We loaded backpacks with all of this and then threw in a deck of cards and some plain sketchbooks. Keeping the campers happy during the not-so-fun parts of travel was key to peace in our moveable kingdom.
Give yourself loads of time any time you try to go anywhere. Remember the “20-per-kid” rule. For every child you are trying to get out the door, you need to add at least 20 minutes to your “out the door” time. Somebody is sure to be faster, but that just gives you back precious minutes for your “slower than molasses but we love him anyway” child. Nothing destroys the memories you are trying to make faster than a screaming mother trying to get everyone out the door in time to meet a flight or dinner reservation.
Pay attention to the details. Like. . .
Passports Everybody needs one obviously BUT what if some of you already have one. We almost got punked with this one. Steve’s passport was set to expire about a month after our trip. While you can use your passport up to the date inside the cover, many countries will deny travelers entry if the passport expires in less than six months. Avoid unfortunate, uncomfortable, and expensive consequences and make sure you renew your passport at least nine months prior to the expiration date.
ALSO, and this is HUGE, find a small regional passport office (often a post office) that will let you schedule your appointment. Even though many passport offices will let you just walk in, these are not for you. Also, have all paperwork filled out, all necessary documents (birth certificates and social security cards), and bring the passport photos with you. We did ours at the local Walgreens. Yes, you can get them at the passport office but this slows the already slow process down to a stultifying crawl. Don’t break your people before you have even left native soil.
Fraud alerts. Steve works for a large bank and he has worked in fraud divisions before, so he clued us into the importance of this one. Let your credit card company’s fraud department know what countries you will be visiting and when including any countries you might be changing planes in. This way, they won’t flag your card as stolen and cut you off from funds just when you need them the most.
Flight restrictions We scoured the website to make sure we understood everything we needed to know about who could bring what, luggage sizes, etc.
Be the early bird. For dinner, flights, tours, and just about anything, be ready to get that worm. Understand that your group is large, unwieldy, and largely unwelcome in the world of travel packages built for 4. Google and read travel reviews about what time to arrive and then plan on getting there at least thirty minutes before that. For flights, we were there an hour earlier than the recommended time (usually three hours, but at least two for international flights).
Be flexible. We met twenty of our relatives in Mexico for the wedding, so meal planning was complicated. We used What’s App to coordinate meals, beach time, and wedding to-dos. Our resort also had a great a la carte restaurant on site which was perfect for trying to get everyone together for meals that accommodated picky 7-year-olds and particular retirees alike.
Decide what you are doing about data. While checking out our cellphone plan to solve our “insane international data charges but Instagram-loving teens” dilemma, we discovered that our resort had a special app that could be downloaded to use social media without incurring international roaming charges.
2. Travel Light and SMART
Consolidate where you can. Despite the fancy clothes we would be bringing for the wedding, the rest of our clothing would be bathing suits, cover-ups, and clothes to go to dinner. This meant that we could pack the two youngest boys together in one suitcase, a worthy goal. Make “less is more” your vacation motto.
Plan on checking at least one bag. The idea of trying to fit all of our liquid needs to TSA standards was stressful. Because we were able to get us all into 2 rooms, we decided that we would bite the fees and check 2 bags, one for each room. This meant that each room would have all the big bottles of sunscreen, medications, and toiletries needed without having to worry about fluid ounces or special baggies.
Fly fancy. It’s just good travel advice in general to pay attention to the local customs about what is appropriate attire for dinner, visiting churches, holy places, etc. Our resort did not allow flip-flops or t-shirts at dinner which meant everyone needed at least one nice, closed toe shoe and a collared shirt. We made the decision to fly “dressed-up” so that our bags wouldn’t be as heavy.
Get the good luggage. Ellen knows the sad state of our luggage. As an intrepid traveler, she has many pieces of good luggage perfect for travel and she lent them to us. Good, rolling luggage and carry-ons make a huge difference when herding your cats through an airport or hotel lobby. We loved especially the underseat carry-on which was perfect for our 12-year-old. Roomy enough to fit all the clothes for him and his brother, it also meant I didn’t need to worry about him hitting any seatmates in the head as he tried to stow it overhead, or worse yet, worry about snagging overhead storage at all.
Pack smart. We had everybody pack and then take three things out of their bag. Except for the 8 year old who took out three pieces of underwear, this system was solid gold. Ellen also has a great tip that really saved space. We had a goal to only take 6 bags total. By checking 2 of them, we were down to only 4 bags going through the TSA line which was a huge help, especially considering that the college-aged kid forgot he had a water bottle in his backpack and was detained for a bit.
Protect travel documents. We made copies of all travel documents, then we gave all the actual passports to my husband Steve to distribute to each person right before they were needed. He immediately collected everything again after they were no longer immediately needed.
On the way to Mexico, the flight attendants didn’t give us our country entrance documents until we were disembarking, and the scene below ensued. On our way back, we got smart and asked for them while we were on the plane.
3. Honor your travelers.
Preserve bedtimes, routines, rituals. As much as you can obviously. All will benefit from happy, well-fed, well-rested kids. This even applies to older kids. Don’t plan a 9am museum visit knowing that punchy teens buck at the mere suggestion of being out the door that early.
When they are done, let them be. A lot of travel is overwhelming. Give them space and time to decompress.
Let them do vacation their way.
We have teens and young adults, in addition to younger kids. We took the pretty pictures with my fancy DSLR, but I think I might love some of the ones my kids took of the trip even more. Let them show you the trip through their eyes.
Make the experience of traveling part of the overall fun. Travel is great . . . and boring and confounding and frustrating too sometimes. We tried to make the parts that weren’t as much fun still interesting especially when we saw the troops fading.
AND one more piece of advice,
JUST DO IT!
We are ever so grateful not just that we were able to see my brother and his beautiful bride get married, but that we had the chance to create such a wonderful family memory. The truth is that despite all jokes to the contrary, all families are travel-sized. Don’t let your sheer volume deter you. Slow, steady, and steely-eyed will get you and your plentiful peeps over that finish line known as a great international family vacation.
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