The absolute best way for your child to learn a new language… is to actually go to a country where they speak it!
Kids need a reason to use language - and you give them the biggest one when they get to see, hear, smell and breathe it in all its glorious action.
Here are some tips for those (not so glorious) international flights…
Part 1: Getting Ready to Go
No need to swat that travel bug when kiddos enter your life. Our son Christian just turned 4 and he already has 12 different countries stamped in his passport. Traveling will most likely take a very new form, but in our experience, it became much richer and more meaningful with him at our side. (And we now of course couldn’t imagine it any other way!)
Let it be known…traveling with him wasn’t always a walk in the park. Our first international flight without daddy will haunt me for a very long time (and perhaps every other passenger who shared the journey).
Experience is the best teacher.
Here is our ultimate list of lessons learned along the way.
Welcome that itch - and start packing!
The Younger the Better
Just like language acquisition, practice makes perfect, so starting early will make traveling as second nature as eating and breathing. It will ease your anxiety as you learn on the job…and ease your little one’s anxiety as they become accustomed to the adventure – and not to mention come to associate these moments with intense family bonding. (It is also never too soon to acclimate their ears to the sounds and rhythms of the target language.)
Visit your doctor or travel clinic 3 months or more in advance to ensure you have time for needed vaccinations (some require more time to take effect).
And you know the adage, prepare and you won’t need what you prepared for in the first place? Let’s hope this is the case when you pack your first aid kit.
Think sample sizes to get you through the worst until you can make it to a pharmacy. Prepare for colds or flus that can creep up following those long flights, motion sickness, cuts and scrapes, blisters (particularly if doing city visits), nausea and tummy aches.
Check your passport expiration dates – and the particular requirements of the countries you’ll be visiting. Some countries require that your passports be valid for 6 months beyond your travel dates, and apparently some airlines will not even let you board the airplane if your passport is soon to expire.
Visa check: If your trip is for longer than several weeks, call the consulate of the country you wish to visit to ensure a travel visa is not required to enter the country. If so, this could require weeks or months of preparation.
Scan your passports and other important travel documents and email them to yourself just in case. Think visas, green cards, birth certificates, passports, and drivers’ licenses. I once lost my son’s green card on a grueling day of 22-hours of international flights and found myself stuck in our home airport immigration office for many, many more. Having scanned documents to prove our citizenship would have gotten us in our beds much quicker that trip.
Learn Key Words
Most people in the world do speak English, but what’s the point of traveling if we’re not able to leave our comfort zone and experience another’s cultural tradition?
Check with your local library, a bookstore – or even YouTube to learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” – and even “where is the restroom” in the local language before your trip. It’s a fun thing to do together as a family - and will almost always be very well received by the local people. You might just make some new friends out of the deal!
And for kiddos actually learning the target language, there is nothing sweeter than experiencing the language - and being able to apply what they’ve learned - in a real, natural context.
Travel lightly. Believe me, you’ll thank yourself for keeping it limited to a light backpack - especially if you’ll be traveling with an infant. I actually needed physical therapy from another international flight - also solo with baby - where I thought I could manage diaper bag, carry on, toys/books/food – and baby. Bring only what you absolutely need. It will be worth just buying anything extra you may need at destination. There are of course always exceptions, depending on your destination. Check with your pediatrician if traveling with an infant, for example, who still uses formula. Such items are not the same from one country to another. And you definitely do not want to deal with tummy aches (or worse) during your international rendezvous.
That being said, do still bring a piece of home with you, namely your child’s favorite stuffed animal or blanket. It could definitely save the day – and comfort them in times of extra need. It’ll be worth the hassle of making sure it isn’t lost…and perhaps even having to have it dry cleaned more than once after the dirty flight and city streets. Comforted child = comforted parents.
If your child is 3 or older, consider giving them their own bag or suitcase – on wheels. It’s a great way to get them involved in the trip – and provide the autonomy they’re so desperately seeking at this age.
Other essentials: hand sanitizer and wipes. International flights are long…and messy. A few light coloring or sticker books and crayons; a few light toys or a deck of cards also help a little one who is unable to sleep buy time.
Consider a tablet device with kid friendly games and pre-loaded movies even if this isn’t typically your cup of tea. You might be kicking yourself wishing you had!
Snacks. You can never have too many when kids are involved. They’ll be bored, tired and most probably cranky. The food will be a welcome distraction. Not to mention relying on the airplane, or airport, for food could be dangerous. We flew to Belgium in August and on both legs of the trip the airline was out of the healthy option. On another trip we had a cancellation and were stranded in an airport at an ungodly hour where all the shops and restaurants were still closed.
For us personally, sugary snacks send our little man over the edge. Add travel to the mix where he’s excited (and extra tired) and it can get downright nasty. We’ve noticed when we keep it healthy his mood is so much more serene (and our airplane neighbor likes us better too). Our favorites: string cheese, grapes, apples, bananas, crackers, and healthy sandwiches in individual zip lock bags for quick and easy administering.
A day of clothes in an individual ziplock bag per family member works absolute wonders. It keeps the suitcase organized and makes the start of each new day easy breezy. If they’re old enough to dress themselves – they may just get a kick out of being handed the bag to execute the start of each day themselves!
Use more ziplock bags to seal all liquids. Things really do shift in flight and baggies have saved us more than once…By the way, be sure to check the airline and airport where you’ll be traveling to verify the limitation of liquids allowed on board. In most instances anything over 3.4 ounces (100 ml) will need to be put in your checked luggage. Some airports allow you to bring infant formula and children’s drinks with you through security – but not all. It is definitely wise to check so you don’t find yourself throwing those expensive contents right into the trash at the security checkpoint.
Put a day’s ziplocked contents into your carry on. If your bags are delayed – or worse – you’ll have time to figure things out. But again, prioritize light bags over stocked ones. I still have a tingle that comes and goes in one of the shoulders I damaged trying to bite off more than I could chew…
Pack a small digital camera (that takes great photos all the same) or use the one on your phone. A fancy camera will be tough to juggle with kids anyway – and one less thing to have to worry about being stolen.
Get online storage for photos. The most important thing to us next to each other is our photos. Lose them and it’s like losing a child. Avoid the mourning and come prepared with backup storage. Some of the most well-known services that make it easy to back up your photos are Apple iCloud, Google Photos, Amazon Photos and Dropbox. There are other services available as well such as Backblaze and Carbonite, which can backup your computer automatically (I hear angels singing). A great article that simplifies it for those who need that: A Beginner’s Guide to Backing Up Photos.
Notify your credit card companies before you leave. This one has bitten us in the butts before. Banks have become more and more vigilant when it comes to any irregular activity. All it takes is one little charge at a gas station in a new locale to find your card frozen stiff -with a customer service department back home still in bed. Just call your bank or credit card before departure and you’ll be smooth sailing.
Take more than debit or credit card. Cards work differently in foreign countries. We’ve had issues many times with ATMs and restaurants in particular with more limiting payment or banking options. My husband and I like to take a different card each and keep them in different places so if anything is lost or stolen, we have a back up plan. (Emailing the customer service numbers of both cards with your passport and other documents you emailed yourself above keeps it all in one email – so quick and easy access should something happen.)
Slim money bags that you wear under your shirt or around your wist (under clothing) also provide peace of mind. (They can hold your passports too.)
Airport security: Just like all things, talk with the kids about what to expect so they aren't confused or frightened by the process. Present it as a positive experience with people who are helping us. And prepare for the probability that you - and their furry friends and cuddlies - could be separated very briefly to walk through scanners and the like.
My son loves Usborne’s First experiences book which includes the short story Going on a Plane. The airport scanner experience, as well as during and post flight moments are presented. Hopefully your experience is just as rosy as the one recounted here!
In-flight helpful items: It can get cold up there, so we always wear a sweater or jacket to the airplane (even if we’re initially sweating our tootsies off). We always end up being cold up in the sky and grateful we did. Particularly if it’s an overnight flight, consider kiddos wearing pajamas to the airport, plus favorite blankey and sleep buddy. It will set the tone and prepare their bodies. (It doesn’t always work, but it sure is worth trying!)
Window or Aisle? This is a toughie. If you want even the slim chance of sleep for yourself, think window. But if you have an active toddler, the aisle might be best to facilitate bathroom access and general movement up and down the aisles. Your neighbors may give you nasty looks, but believe me, it may be worth it!
Be the last on the airplane! Yes, I did actually just say last. Most of us want to be first – at all costs. But reconsider where international flights are concerned. After all, you’ll have the next XX hours to make the airplane your own…and if you’ve packed lightly as suggested above, you won’t need to worry about cabin space. Besides, with kids and their short attention spans (and requirements) – you’ll need all the items in your carry on near you at most times anyway. Just stick that bag under your chair and you’ll be ready to roll!