Vacations with my husband, a history-loving politician, are a little like boot camp -- we once saw 11 state capitals in six days -- so I thought our yearly discovery tour would be scrapped by the arrival of our baby, Emily, last spring. But two things changed our minds. First, we needed a vacation. Second, other new parents convinced us that traveling with infants was possible -- and even fun.
We decided to have an end-of-summer exploration of Montreal, Quebec and Boston, on our way to visit Emily's grandparents in New Hampshire. On our 12-day trip, we traveled by airplane, train, rental car and, on a cold, rainy day in Lowell, Mass., boat.
We were surprised to find out that the vacation was not all that different from ones in years past. I still spent a lot of time trudging through government buildings, but this time I was accompanied by Emily in an umbrella stroller. We learned a lot about strangers' reactions to babies, the most astounding discovery being that young men, rather than grandmother types, were almost always the strangers most interested in smiling at infants.
But most of all, we learned about our new addition: what her normal schedule seemed to be, the length of her attention span and what sorts of things caught her fancy, such as the red, glowing rows of candles in cathedrals. Changing her diaper on a park bench during a break from a guided walking tour, we realized just how adaptable she was.
We also learned about the appeal of "private time": My husband Bruce went to a Montreal Expos game alone, and I had two welcome afternoons of solo browsing. We didn't have the "couples" vacation of the travel ads -- but then we never did. Similarly, leisurely meals never have been our hallmark, so the tag-team eating in our hurried restaurant visits weren't such a sacrifice.
Even though our trip involved a much greater amount of luggage and planning than ever before, our weeks away still provided us with the rest and invigoration we hope for in a vacation. We're far from expert about baby travel, but here's some of what we learned along the way.
Packing Take the least amount of clothes possible for you and the baby. Try to wash clothes at a friend's home or a laundromat instead of taking every adorable outfit with you. Always take a baby sweater with a hood, even in summer, because of air conditioning or wind.
Many parents find that packing a favorite toy or security item is well worth the space it takes up. At 4 months Emily had not become attached to any one toy or blanket, but we'll probably take her now-favorite sock doll on future trips. We did take two small toys, both of which fit in my purse or Bruce's pocket.
Consider taking a supply of formula along: If you're traveling outside the United States, it may be hard to find. We discovered the hard way that there aren't many full-service groceries in downtown areas. In Quebec, I finally located some formula powder in a pharmacy and mixed it with distilled water.
Some books recommend packing only enough diapers for two days and restocking on the road, but I didn't want to keep hunting up stores that sold diapers. With soft-sided luggage, I packed in nearly a big box of diapers, so I only had to restock once.
Flying Don't bother to take the baby in a carry-seat. The airlines require that you either check the seats as luggage or stow them during takeoff and landing, and it's a pain to keep retrieving them.
Because we weren't flying more than three hours at a time, we just held Emily. Children under age 2 fly free on U.S. airlines on the condition that they stay on a paying customer's lap. Few travelers pay the extra freight so that infants can have their own seat. It didn't seem particularly safe, not having her strapped in, but I rationalized that I would have held her the entire time even if we had purchased another seat and had a car seat strapped into it.
The strict federal air safety rules that apply to adults are absent when infants are concerned. Fred Farrar, a spokesman for the FAA, says there are no standards for infants because "there's almost no history of infants being killed or injured more than other passengers." He says the FAA recommends that adults either hold the infant or use an FAA- and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved car seat strapped into its own airline seat. The FAA and NHTSA now have joint standards for car seats, and the major car seat manufacturers meet them. Children under age 2, the FAA advises, should not use seat belts -- either alone or strapped into a seat belt with an adult.
Because of the large number of infants flying these days, several pediatricians I spoke with think that some kind of safety regulations need to be written for these tiniest of passengers.
As for where to sit, we avoided the much-praised bulkhead seats, because we didn't think the small amount of extra floor space made much of a difference. The bulkhead seats have no underseat storage, so you have to search for overhead bin space and later retrieve your belongings. In addition, regular window seats offer a bit more privacy if you're breast-feeding. And we found that most other children on flights sit in bulkhead seats and that their noise often wakes up infants.
Get an airline pillow to cushion your arm or the baby's head, and take a baby blanket for breast-feeding purposes and to counteract the air conditioning.
One fear-of-flying note: Because your baby is on your lap, it's not a given that if you need oxygen there will be an extra mask for your child. The FAA requires that all passengers, including infants, have their own oxygen mask. The federal agency doesn't approve airplanes with pressurized cabins for flight unless they have 10 percent more masks than seats, but the airline personnel we questioned seemed thrown about where the extra masks were located. They told us to share a mask or buy a second seat if we were really concerned. FAA spokesman Farrar suggested that parents ask reservation clerks, gate clerks and cabin attendants for seats in rows that contain extra masks.
As for equipment, we took the lightest, stripped-down umbrella stroller we could find. Once babies are about 4 months old and able to sit up a bit, they can use one. The cheapest one that has reversible wheels will do just fine. Use this -- or a baby backpack at 6 months-plus -- for transporting the baby through the airport and onto the plane. Store it in the plane's front closet (if it has one) or overhead bin.
The only other thing we needed on the plane was a combination diaper and bottle bag, containing a change of clothes for Emily. Our days of carry-on luggage definitely are over -- we'll be waiting at baggage carousels from now on. What worked for us was one large pullman (27-inch) suitcase on wheels that held all of my clothes and the baby's needs, including a soft, foldable travel crib. The suitcase's built-in handle allowed me to half-lift and half-wheel the suitcase without much trouble, even while to carrying the baby, my purse and the diaper bag. Bruce carried the stroller, his own suitcase and a shoulder bag. (We didn't put the baby in the stroller for the walks through airports because of the frequent escalators and the need to board minibuses.)
Car Rentals All 50 states require adults to place babies in infant seats in automobiles, but the seats are not universally available at car rental companies. Even when they are, the rental charges are high. .
This is such a problem nationwide that the American Academy of Pediatrics voted in September to investigate ways to get the problem corrected, including advising parents to take their own infant car seats as airline baggage. Virginia Kucera, a program manager at the academy, said the unavailability is due to a reluctance on the part of rental companies to assume liability if a child is injured while in a car seat supplied by the company.
Jane Moss, executive director of the American Car Rental Association, says there is no industry-wide policy on whether to offer infant seats, but noted the lack of seats in some locations may be because 70 percent of their cars are rented for business, not vacation, travel. Spokesmen for Avis and Budget Rent-A-Car said it is up to the individual licensee to follow state laws, and therefore not all locations offer them.
Allyson Zedlar, a spokeswoman for Budget Rent-A-Car, said that 64 percent of that firm's outlets have infant seats, but only 3 percent guarantee that theseats will be available on a certain rental. For Budget, at least, liability isn't the problem. Zedlar said the company never has had a negligence claim arising out of a crash that cited the infant seat as a problem.
When you can find seats, the rental companies charge between $2 and $3.50 per day, or $10 to $15 a week. With many agencies, there's a $15 charge if the seat is returned to a different rental location -- in addition to any other drop-off charge for the car. You have to sign a separate agreement for the infant seat, and any damage to it can cost you as much as $45.
We called in advance to reserve a seat, and specifically asked for an infant seat. However, the one we got was sized for a much older child, and was difficult to install. That was another rude surprise: The car seat wasn't actually in the car. We were handed it at the counter, as if we didn't have enough to carry.
Expect to spend some frustrating minutes trying to figure out how to hook your car seat up. The rental agents in our case did not know how.
Hotels Most hotels are experienced at accommodating small children. Call ahead to reserve a crib for your room. One was supplied free in all three hotels where we stayed, although there were no bumpers available, so we used rolled-up towels.
The mini-bars in many rooms are a boon for storing bottles. You also can use an ice bucket to store milk or formula, and run the bottle under hot water to warm it. (Be patient.) Or take along a device such as the Snugli Bottle Warmer, which warms bottles by use of a saline solution. It sells for $15 and is widely available at juvenile and baby stores.
Restaurants We ended up eating several meals in restaurants that were fancier than we'd expected. As long as the restaurateur is forewarned, he or she can help by seating you as suitably as possible. Tip: Arrive early or late to give the establishment more flexibility. Time is precious, so skip appetizers. We were prepared to take Emily out at any instant if she got disruptive, but it only happened once, at the end of a meal in a family-style restaurant.
We were lucky. For two meals, Emily slept in her stroller as we ate. It looked a little odd, having a stroller right next to our candle-lit table, but no one seemed to mind. The worst problem for us was avoiding patrons who smoked.
Other helpful hints:
Try to take an afternoon nap with the baby.
If you're traveling with a spouse or friend, arrange your schedule so that each can take some time to sightsee or shop while the other baby-sits.
To bathe the baby, it's useful to take one of those sponge baby bathtub inserts that cost about $5. Emily had safe baths in hotel tubs, lying on her back on the sponge. Carry it in a plastic bag in case it doesn't dry out completely.
Bus tours, which I once dismissed as unimaginative, were an easy way to see a new place with Emily. Out of fairness to the others, some of whom were understandably wary when we boarded, we were ready to debark if she got cranky. She didn't, but we probably overfed her to keep her quiet during those 1 1/2-hour trips. Buses usually put her to sleep, as did the three-hour train trip between Montreal and Quebec.
Leave for the airport at least 15 minutes before you normally do. Everything definitely takes longer.
Don't automatically assume that your normal activities are out once the baby arrives. Because Emily was in a stroller, we were allowed to skip the 40-minute line into the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. We took the elevator. She did well during the half-hour stroll through the museum because of all the activity.
Another time, we gambled and took her in a Snugli carrier to a night baseball game at Fenway Park. After three innings, she slept. The first home run screams roused her, but by the time Dwight Evans hit a three-run homer, she was oblivious to the crowd.
We're told that it's easier to travel with an infant than a toddler. We'll see -- we plan to go to the Smokies next summer.
Margaret Engel, executive director of the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation, is on leave from The Washington Post.