International Travel with Five Kids!
It's now only 16 days until we fly out and begin our first international trip as a family. We've had a number of comments in the lead up to this, mostly people expressing surprise, trepidation and some disbelief that we are traveling as a family of 7. So I thought I'd try and dispel some of those 'concerns' that other people seem to have!
I will say, we are extremely organised for this trip. Mostly because I'm a little bit of a freak when it comes to needing to feel in control. I have lists to keep track of the lists of stuff I've made! Well, maybe not but almost. I have been planning this since before we booked the tickets which was all the way back in February!
First off, we did our homework when it came to the tickets. We spent literally months watching flight prices on several booking websites like Skyscanner and Expedia. We also didn't use credit for the tickets. We saved for around a year and had enough for the biggest chunk of the cost, the international leg, by January this year. We went to the travel expo with the aim to find better prices than the ones we had seen online and we did! We booked and paid for them and then didn't have to concern ourselves with changing prices for the rest of the year! Our travel agent did give us the tip that big travel expos will almost always get you a better deal so if you plan on attending one. You'll need to pay then and there so plan on having your ticket funds organised beforehand if you attend one. Purchasing the bulk of the tickets that early also allowed us time to save for the rest of the flights as we knew we'd be able to still secure cheap internal flights online closer to the departure date.
The next thing to organise was the passports. The Awesome One and I had ours, but all of the kids needed passports. Kids' passports here last for 5 years, which with an infant seems kind of ridiculous but that's the way it is. You need to get both biological parents to sign the application forms, so you need to allow extra time if there could be issues getting that other signature. Thankfully there weren't too many obstacles in our way to get their forms signed, although it still took a good 6 weeks or so to get their passports issued. We left Miss P's till the very last, and waited as long as we could to get it so that her photo would be easier to take.
Australians don't need a visa to enter the USA, as we participate in the Visa Waiver program. You do need to pay $14 per person though and get an approved ESTA application. This allows you to enter the USA as many times as you wish within a two year period provided you don't stay longer than 90 days each time.
With all that done, we were well on the way to being completely organised. We booked our hotel online, and booked and paid for our internal US flights after spending more months watching prices the same way we did for the international flight. It's important to weigh up pros and cons when finding cheap flights though, as when you are travelling as such a large group with a toddler in tow you want things to be as smooth as possible. So cheap flights might sound awesome, but it's best to check that it doesn't leave at 5am, or have you stopping over in another city for hours on end.
So now all that was left was to organise luggage. We have a massive bag allowance with our flights, but realistically who has room for 12 suitcases?! The older girls were getting all excited about all the 'stuff' they could buy with such a large baggage allowance, and then we brought them thumping down to earth. We explained that the logistics of transporting that many bags were not doable and they would be packing a small carry-on size suitcase each. To say they were initially less than impressed is the understatement of the year!
Even the Awesome One was somewhat dubious as to how two weeks' worth of winter clothes would fit in small cases. This is again where being kind of OCD about researching stuff comes in handy. I have read almost a zillion blog posts on packing in small bags, and I followed all the tips given. Those being mostly to roll everything, stuff underwear into shoes, and above all to travel light! Make a list (another one!) of clothes you think you'll need then organise that into how many of those do double duty. Only take things that can be worn multiple times, and make sure to include one nicer top so that you can dress up your jeans to go out for dinner. We had a practice packing day, where all the kids (aided by a list I wrote) picked out their own clothes and brought them to me for approval. We then 'packed' the suitcases. And what do you know?! They all fit two weeks' worth of clothes AND a large winter jacket into their small carry on sized cases.
You might wonder about making them take small cases when we have checked luggage allowances. The logic behind that is that then they can all comfortably handle their own case through airports, even though the bags will still be checked onto the plane. This means that the Awesome One can handle our case (and the pram and portacot), and I can handle Miss P.
And on the note of airports, we've also talked extensively about the procedures that go on in airports. The kids all know what to expect in terms of checking in, going through security and customs/passport control and can be excited about it without worrying that they don't know what's going on. We've discussed carry on bags, and talked about things like the regulations about liquids and gels and having to take their shoes off through security. They know that the iPad and laptop will be in The Awesome One's backpack, and any lotions, toiletries etc... will be in my bag. They even know the order we'll be going through security checks in, in order to facilitate an easier time. Me first with Miss P (who will be in a sling for most of the airport time), then Little Dude and The Eldest One (who are airport and travel buddies). After that will be Miss Emily and the Social One who are also buddies. The Awesome One will bring up the rear to ensure that nothing is left behind.
It might sound pedantic, but they know me well enough to know I mean business. I refuse to be that chaotic family that we've all seen. The one with parents screaming at each other in frustration, kids' crying and sulky and confused. We've spent a lot of money on this trip, I want everyone to be able to enjoy themselves. I want the kids to be able to be excited and enjoy all the new experiences and sights, while still being aware of what's going on. Most of all I don't want stress and confusion to take away from that experience.
I believe that the key to doing anything with a big family is organisation, and travel is no exception. I can't see why I should be scared of it, or at the extreme, should put off traveling until they are all older. At the very least, if it all turns to crap at the airport or on the plane, if major meltdowns happen, well it's a small part of the overall trip and we'll have more good memories than bad. That's what I'm telling myself anyway! ;)
So what do you think? Are we insane, or have we got it all covered?