How to Stay Sane When Traveling With a Baby
One of my favorite things about traveling is that feeling of vulnerability when you find yourself in totally unfamiliar surroundings. I never planned extensively for any trip because it seemed to take the wind out of the adventure sails. But then came parenthood.
When you have an infant, it’s impossible to do anything on a whim. Heck, I bring a fully loaded backpack — first-aid kit, eight diapers, three bags for garbage, baby lotion, disposable and reusable wipes, three changes of clothes, two pairs of socks, two blankets, toys, water, teething biscuits, and the stroller AND carrier — wherever I go with Baby Boy. Yet for all the planning and anticipation of worst-case scenarios, it’s never enough. This became crystal clear during a recent trip to Greece. The three of us — Mom, Dad, Baby Boy — spent a two-day layover in Athens as part of a month-long European trip.
Two days isn't enough time to see any city, but we wanted to pack in as much as possible. We put together an itinerary that was comprehensive yet allowed for wiggle room. What we weren’t prepared for, however, was for it all to fall apart. Take it from me, and follow this ultimate guide to traveling with an infant if you want to avoid the same.
Make a Checklist
Unless it’s for groceries, I never think to make a list for anything. Creating the two-day Athens itinerary was a big leap for us, and we never thought to make a list of all the things we needed to bring for the overall trip.
Unfortunately, that was the list we needed the most.
Remember the Carrier
This seems like the easiest thing to remember, but it can also be the easiest thing to overlook. We’d hardly traveled 30 miles when this oversight first reared its ugly head.
At the airport’s curbside dropoff, we realized that both the car-seat travel bag and the baby carrier were still at home. Our initial reactions were to blame each other, which eventually led to valuable travel lesson No. 2...
Don’t Search for Blame
Take it from me, don’t blame your spouse, partner, family member or whoever else might be traveling with you when something goes awry.
Finger-pointing and anger will not suddenly make your forgotten items appear before you, so save your energy for the long journey ahead. As long as the missing items aren’t essential for survival, you will find a solution.
Realize That Airlines Are Actually Baby-Friendly
Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise to everyone, but airlines allow many baby items to be checked for free, and parents with small children are given priority boarding and shuffled through the general malaise of airport security.
While we were aware of this going in, we honestly didn’t expect it to be true since airlines seem most intent on gouging customers and making them as uncomfortable as possible.
Airlines Even Know What You Need More Than You Do
Since we forgot the bag for the car seat, the airline provided a sturdy plastic covering that we were able to reuse throughout our journey. That certainly gave us peace of mind, although we knew we’d be on the hook for a new carrier once we landed in Athens.
There was no way a stroller alone would suffice for the entire trip, especially after we read that the sidewalks of Athens are cramped and crowded.
Bring Baby’s Favorites
Before this trip, we’d made one other flight with Baby Boy: a cross-country U.S. trip that proved to be a great test run. The little guy was largely agreeable for both flights, so we had high hopes for the 13 hours from California to Istanbul, where we transferred for a short flight to Athens.
In preparation, we bought noise-canceling headphones for Baby Boy and brought a few of his favorite toys and some carrot and celery sticks for him to gnaw on (as a baby-led weaning family, breast milk was still his primary source of food). But in the end, he wouldn’t keep the headphones on, and he wasn’t interested in the veggies because, magically, he slept for almost the entire flight. And when he was awake, he was mostly just observing. What a guy!
Avoid a Stinky Situation
Like all parents, we’ve always known Baby Boy is the most amazing baby to ever live. Still, we were prepared for the worst. We used 12-hour nighttime diapers and stuffed the baby bag with muslin clothes, garbage bags, three sets of clothes, two jackets, two blankets and extra socks to put on his hands for changing time, after reading that airplane bathrooms are covered with bacteria. He certainly consumed a lot of breast milk, and we changed wet diapers twice, but we never had any stinky situations.
We lucked out, but this is one area that, for the sake of baby, parents, other passengers and the crew, over-preparation is good planning.
Prepare for the Inevitable Aches
We were certainly planning an ambitious if relaxing first day in Athens, but Baby Boy just wasn't having it. He awoke around 6:30 a.m. local time, which was 8:30 p.m. at home, feeling hot and sweaty. He didn’t appear to be in pain, but he was clearly not his usual self. We did bring a thermometer and soon discovered that he was warmer than he should be. But when I went to give him some infant ibuprofen, I discovered yet another item that we forgot.
We decided to give him as much time as he needed, even if that meant the whole day. I set out solo around 9:30 a.m. to buy the baby meds we forgot (and a carrier). Now, do you see why having a checklist is a good idea?
Take Advantage of Sales Tax Exemptions
I found a shop called Mothercare that’s located in the Monastiraki shopping district, which is in the city center and near all the archaeological sites. It had three floors of clothes and gear, seemingly designed for travelers who were in our position of leaving something essential behind. I chose a carrier from Stokke that can be used on the front and back, which made it the most expensive of the lot — but, hey, only the best for Baby Boy.
Of note: At the register, there were signs indicating that tourists were exempt from Greek sales tax, which is often the case in several foreign countries. An employee was extremely helpful in explaining how I could be reimbursed about 10 euros, so remember this if you make any sizeable purchases.
Don’t Forget Your Partner
Being the husband of a Yugoslavian means I’ve eaten plenty of burek, an ultra-thin pastry layered with various savory or sweet fillings like cheese or apples and sometimes even a spicy salami called kulen. A slice of this with drinkable yogurt is a common breakfast throughout the Balkans. Greece is no exception, although their pies are a bit different. Most people are familiar with spinach-heavy spanakopita, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Feta, yogurt, ham, mushrooms, chicken, beef — Greeks put anything and everything inside their phyllo sheets.
With Baby Boy asleep and Mom super hungry, I needed some pies. Near to the baby store was an unassuming storefront called Ariston. It showed up on many best-of lists, so I gave it a shot. Although much different than burek, the pies were nonetheless a hit back at the hotel room.
Bring Appropriate Gear When Venturing Out
By the afternoon, the baby meds I purchased had kicked in. It seemed like Baby Boy was recovering enough to go out and enjoy some of the warm sunshine that blanketed Athens in mid-October.
We initially set our sights on Lycabettus Hill, which is where you can get a panoramic view of Athens if you’re willing to make the 30-minute uphill trek or wait in line for the cable car. It seemed close enough to the hotel, so we set out on foot for the cable car. The plan was to check out the view then find a baby-friendly lunch spot in the neighborhood just below the hill. We took the stroller, which was a mistake, especially considering the European sidewalks and the hill I mentioned. But we also took the newly purchased carrier, which seemed to be our best move yet.
After 10 blocks that reminded us of San Francisco’s Nob Hill, we decided Lycabettus and lunch was too ambitious. Plus, the slender and beaten up sidewalks were no place for a stroller, and Baby Boy was less than thrilled with the decibel level of the streets.
At the base of the hill, we opted for lunch over a view we could get from the Acropolis or even the rooftop bar at the Hilton. Luckily we were in a neighborhood, Kolonaki, with plenty of restaurants. Case in point: Flexibility is the name of the game when traveling with infants.
Make a Reservation
Looking for seafood, we opted for Papadakis from acclaimed-chef Argiro Barbarigou. The “First Lady of Greek Cuisine” is known for her modern spin on ancient and traditional Greek recipes, and it’s more upscale than most restaurants, but that's because of the careful preparation of the dishes.
The restaurant staff were happy to accommodate a baby for a 3:30 lunch, but indicated that it would be harder to impossible had we showed up for dinner without a reservation. This was yet another reminder of the additional planning involved when you’re traveling with a baby.
Don't Mind the Smoke
Living in the U.S., it can be difficult to find restaurants that make sense for babies or that will even allow them at all. Greece seemed to be the opposite. At lunch, kids entertained themselves while their parents ate, chain-smoked cigarettes and chatted away. This reminded me of how the French are known to sometimes prioritize the parents’ desires over those of the child.
Word of warning (mostly for U.S. parents) on cigarettes: Greek people and Europeans, in general, like to smoke. It would be rude to judge or overreact, but know that you will encounter secondhand smoke everywhere you go, including indoors. C’est la vie, or eínai zoí.
Our driver from the Athens airport was eager to share his recommendations for coffee, wine, food and sightseeing, but his most valuable advice by far was how to walk around the city. He explained in great detail that pedestrians are largely the enemy of drivers and that we should never expect an automobile to stop for us even if we have the right of way.
This proved to be exactly the case in Athens but is a good reminder when traveling in any major international city. Even with a stroller, we felt vulnerable and took the cue of other pedestrians for when it was appropriate to venture off the curb.
Prepare for a Real Fever
The next morning, Baby Boy woke up early. He was sweaty and extremely warm, and he could hardly even sit up. He’d never been sick before, so this was new territory for us. Visions of a Greek ER shot through my head. We took his temperature and both of ours, and clearly he was running a fever.
We decided against the hospital but agreed that Baby Boy was not leaving the hotel room that day. This put a huge crimp in our plans, but his health comes first, second, third, fourth, etc. Mom stayed in while I attempted to sightsee.
Buy a Tourist Pass
I set out on the subway for the Acropolis around 8 a.m., which is when it opens. But instead of waiting in a long line for a ticket there, I first went to Hadrian’s Library to buy a multi-location pass for 30 euros. With it, I could visit eight different archaeological sites, including the Acropolis. Hadrian’s Library is located just below the Acropolis, and I was among a handful of others who thought it might be an interesting detour (for the record, it was).
The trek up to the Acropolis, Parthenon and the other ruins on the slopes was fairly easy for a solo traveler, although it would’ve been very difficult to impossible with a stroller (lots of narrow stairways) and quite the workout with a carrier (steadily uphill). Regardless, buying a tourist pass is a no-brainer when sightseeing solo or with the fam.
Plan for the Masses
Acropolis hill is easily visible from almost anywhere in Athens, but it’s worth the climb to see it up close. The only problem is that tons of other people have the same idea as you do, including annoyingly large tour groups, even just after opening on a Thursday in mid-October (operating hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily). I would estimate I was among at least 500 other folks.
Tips for folks with kids, especially babies: Don’t bring a stroller in high tourist areas. Not only are there crowds of people, but historical sites often have rough terrain. In this case, it was important to be cautious when walking on the super-slippery rocks.
Bring a Map
While finding my way up to the hill, I also constantly thought I was lost or going in the wrong direction. For a good bit of the trek, I was traipsing through narrow city streets, and all I could see was the hill in the distance. There was no signage indicating that I was on the right track on the path I took.
So, to keep infants from having a full-on freakout while you’re trying to find your way, bring a map or have a reliable one on your device.
Taste the Local Flavors
Being an unabashed food lover, I was eager to see the endless stalls of seafood and meat and the purveyors hawking their goods to any passerby who’d listen at Central Municipal Athens Market. The market is legendary, and even if you’re not going to buy that extremely fresh fish and meat, it’s still worth a visit just for the atmosphere.
Like most international food markets, this one was also no place for a stroller, but older and more adventurous kids might find it appealing in a controlled chaos kind of way. If you’re bringing an infant, bring the carrier and watch out for elbows.
Don’t Forget the Wine
I finally made it back to the hotel room with some local goods for my wife to try. With a full day of rest, Baby Boy was no longer feverish but still lethargic and not fully well. We decided to stay in for the remainder of the day and enjoy the fact that we didn’t have to visit a Greek hospital.
Sure, the entire itinerary we’d created was a total wash. Mom saw almost nothing in Athens, and Dad did some fun things but alone. Nevertheless, we learned valuable parent lessons along the way and will be well prepared for the next adventure.
Out on the hotel room patio, we watched the sunset over the Parthenon with a bottle of indigenous wine and a plate full of dairy delicacies — the perfect end to a whirlwind two days in Athens.