When I booked our flights to Budapest and Vienna back in June, all I could think about was, “How are we going to afford these high-season fares?” My second thought was, “I’ll bet accommodations are going to be expensive, too, and I haven’t even checked the exchange rate.” My internal dialogue continued: “But it will certainly be cheaper to go now than next summer when my son will be two and we’ll have to pay for a third seat on the airplane.” Only then did it hit me – I had just committed to two, 12-hour flights and ten days in Europe with a 1.5-year-old. The next thing to cross my mind: “Are you nuts?”
Many of my friends asked me the same thing. Traveling with kids is always a
challenge, but long-haul flights with toddlers have got to be among the toughest (perhaps followed by road trips with warring teenagers). Keeping them entertained and quiet on the plane is just the first battle – then comes the jet lag; disruptive break from routine; disorienting language; and complete overstimulation from new sounds, sights, smells, foods, etc.
My son flew two 10+ hour flights to South Africa when he was just seven weeks old, but back then the white noise of the plane helped him sleep so air travel was pretty manageable. Our trip to Ireland when he was 1 was a bit tougher because he wanted to explore the plane, but my son was also at an age when he enjoyed having both of his parents’ full attention and liked being close to us, so he was mostly content to sit on my lap. No more.
Plus, on both of those trips (as well as on numerous visits to California, New York, Florida, and Massachusetts) we were welcomed by family on the other end who provided warm meals and babysitting, and made us feel right at home upon arrival. This time, we showed up in a country we’d never been to, with a language we didn’t understand, food we weren’t used to eating (Hungary is not an easy place for a vegetarian!), and no set itinerary. In theory, it could have been a disaster.
In fact, the whole trip went very smoothly. On the plane, my son enjoyed having his own seat for a few minutes, but then wanted to run around and explore. His dad would take him for a short walk, and then I’d strap him into the carrier for some activities sparked by ideas from friends and other mommy blogs. A few managed to entertain him for twenty minutes or so – threading Cheerios on pipe cleaners (and then eating them off), putting on shows with finger and hand puppets, and playing with masking tape. Other activities were less successful; my son had no interest in coloring or placing reusable airplane stickers in a sticker book. He did sleep for a couple of hours each way, and only had one five-minute outburst of restlessness between the two long flights, so I was pleased.
After arriving in Budapest in the early morning, we all managed to stay awake until
6:30pm, then slept until 2am, ate breakfast, and went back to sleep until 9:30am. From then on, we were on local time. We planned our museum visits for the two hours when my son took his mid-day nap in the carrier, but otherwise, he was an avid tourist along with my husband and me. He gaped at the cathedrals, played in the parks, gazed out of the trams, marveled at the palaces, and generally seemed to enjoy all of the new experiences. Sure, he was equally (or more) impressed by a cool fountain than by a historic building, but our son was never bored during our trip and seemed to be taking a lot in. In Vienna, we visited good friends who have a 2.5-year-old daughter, and playing with her was the highlight of the vacation for our son.
At 18-months-old, my son is unlikely to remember a single thing from this trip. Still, I believe the experience of being in a completely new place with new people, languages, food, sights, and routines was good for him. And the adventure of it all brought my family closer together.
While touring one of Vienna’s amazing palaces, I overheard a young couple explaining that they’d taken three months off to “see Europe” before they start a family “and get tied down for the next twenty years.” I was tempted to interrupt them to point out how much fun the two toddlers I was supervising were having, and brag about my son’s 35,000 frequent flyer miles, but I restrained myself. I know that not everyone has the luxury of international travel, nor the interest in it, but personally, I am extremely grateful that I did not let myself become overwhelmed with worries and “what ifs?” I would have missed out on one of the best vacations of my life.