The Trails & Tribulations of Traveling with a Tiny Human (During a Pandemic)
Prior to COVID, travel was life. It was our sweet release from the grind and our reminder that the world is a big place, full of adventure.
Then COVID hit.
Then, to make travel even more complicated, we welcomed baby girl Francesca Rose into the world on May 11 th 2020. Our first baby in the heart of a pandemic. Surely we could still be jet setters, right!?
But really, while we knew life would slow down tremendously once we entered into parenthood, we still always vowed to continue to make travel a priority. It turns out that maternity leave and quarantine are often intertwined to the point where it’s difficult to tell which one is the leading factor for becoming a homebody.
All of that said, we were still determined to hit the open road, fly the friendly skies and make our baby understand why we chose to give her a travel themed nursery and what the phrase “the world is your
oyster” truly means.
We started slowly with a few trips to lake houses, no further than five hours away when she was still a teeny nugget, less than 3 months old. Aside from a couple of blowouts and long stretches of crying, we
managed to figure out how to time the ride so she napped right when we got in the car and then were able to get her to fall back asleep after we fed her. Wake windows were never longer than 45mins to one hour in those days… and that included the whole feeding process. We used to cover the car seat with the Copper Pearl multi use cover, hang a blanket over the window and turn on the portable sound machine. I would listen to books on my airpods, while my husband worked in silence. Life was simple. Then we got really confident. We thought “we’ve done 5 hours, why not put together a cross country road trip!?”. It’s safer than flying in COVID and we can break things up, take them at our own pace.
Famous. Last. Words.
We had the grandiose plan to drive down to the Tennessee mountains because hiking and hills seemed like a COVID friendly vacation destination with a baby. Cue insta fabulous family vacay. According to google maps, it’s an 8 hour trip from Chicago. From TN, we would head to Atlanta (another 4 hours) for
a night to see my Dad and Stepmom, then off to Birmingham (another 3 hours) to see my brother’s family and my mom and stepdad. The trip back from Birmingham to Chicago would only be 9-10 hours.
Totally doable, right!?
Miss Frankie Rose was four months old and still nursing. I should clarify that nursing for me wasn’t this magical, sweet 30 minute experience every time the baby woke up. Nursing was easily an 1hr-1.5hr
process that included a feeding, supplementing with a bottle of formula and pumping every 3 hours. Throw a diaper change in there and you just turned an 8 hour drive to TN into a 12 hour drive.
If you read nothing else in this blog, read this: Plus up your estimated travel time by at least 30% when you are doing a road trip with a baby. Even if you’re not nursing, you still need to change the baby and get that little person out of those horribly uncomfortable car seats.
Speaking of car seats, it turns out that you can pull all of the material off of them to wash them in case your baby turns out to be car sick, like ours did. I will never forget when we were leaving the mountains,
lost on gravel switchbacks, while I was on the most important business presentation of my year, going in and out of service, sitting in the backseat trying to get the baby to stay quiet, nauseas, Frankie puking from being carsick. Not cute baby spit up… full on puke. It was not our finest moment, but it will be seared in my memory and the largest catalyst for why we chose to fly for our next trip. Feel free to skip ahead if you want guidance on flying with a baby. The part about Hawaii is dreamy and involves less puke.
Then COVID hit… again. My brother and his wife both got COVID (they are both okay now). So instead of making the trek to Birmingham, we thought “what the heck, let’s just drive all the way to Destin
Florida to see my mom and stepdad!”. (Another 6 hours from Atlanta). While we made it safe and sound to Florida, we had to make the (Google Maps estimated) 16 hour trek back. Knowing that trip was on the horizon was like having the Sunday Scaries after going on a two-week bender. We did it in one day. 20 hours.
Biggest Takeaways from the entire road trip experience:
Sleep environment is everything.
o The Slumber Pod is amazing. Purchase it. Use the code WELLRESTEDMAMA and buy me a drink the next time you see me. We’ll sip cocktails and listen to your stories about how your baby slept through the night on vacation and took fabulous naps. It’s basically a tent that goes over the pack and play and it’s pitch black inside. I’m a stickler for sleep environment, and this makes traveling possible. Frankie is a champion sleeper and I thank the Slumber Pod for helping with that. We had her in the bathroom at our AirBNB in TN while we had the lights on, getting ready for bed. She slept right through it. In fact, she takes better naps when we’re travelling because of this bad boy.
o Bring your sound machine. Bring your monitor. I know it’s a lot of stuff, but keeping your baby on their sleep schedule is not only important for their training and development, but also for your sanity and ability to enjoy the trip. Mama’s gotta know when she can throw back a bevvy.
o If the baby doesn’t take a proper nap because you are on a hike or a boat or family is swooning over her, it’s okay. Just shorten her next wake window. I wore Frankie during hike and when it was time for her to snooze, I faced her inward and she slept. She wouldn’t do this now, but when she was little, it was a breeze.
Breaking up a trip doesn’t make it easier. It makes it more annoying because you have so much stuff when you have a baby. Loading and unloading every couple of days is not enjoyable when you are timing everything around a tight feeding, sleeping schedule. Pick a place and settle in.
If your baby doesn’t sit on their own yet, bring a seat (like the Bjorn Bouncer) so you don’t have to constantly be holding them.
It’s better to fly. Although we had a ton of stuff, so driving made it possible for us to lug it across the country, at the end of the day, I would downsize luggage to avoid another long road trip with the baby.
That leads us to Hawaii – The trip of Frankie’s lifetime.
We pulled the trigger on the entire trip about a week before we left. The opportunity to escape Chicago
in December in the heart of COVID and winter, with drastically reduced hotel rates at nice hotels and cheap air fare on empty planes was too good to pass up. At the end of the day, we really just wanted to prove to ourselves that we can travel long distances with the baby so we can continue our annual Italian summer vacations with bebe in tow.
So why not make her first flight a 9-hour flight with a time change!? Why the hell not!?
Much to my dismay, Frankie Girl was a dream. Here’s why I think we had positive experience:
We had a middle seat for the baby. Although she’s still a lap child, this is something that I am going to spring for the next time we take a long trip (hopefully Italy this summer if they will have us). It was a total game changer. After we disinfected every possible surface she could touch, we created a bed for her. We got a blow up footrest that goes between the edge of her seat and the seat in front of her to extend the seat into a bed. We covered it with a blanket and then we draped a sheet above her using string to create a tent from her headrest to the seat in front of her. Sounds like a real McGyver job, but it was actually quite simple. When it was time to nap, we fed the tiny gal and put her in her tent. She only took 45 mins naps, but she took three of them on the way there. On the way back, she slept most of the time the entire plane was also sleeping since it was a red eye. Before we put her down for her long sleep, we put her in her pajamas and read her a book, just like we would at home during her bedtime routine. My recommendation would be to do direct flights or as long as you can on one flight to create this type of setup and settle in. We had a connection in Honolulu, but it was only 45 mins to Kona, so we just kept her on my lap and kept her awake for the short flight.
Poppin bottles for takeoff and landing. We made sure that Frankie was drinking a bottle anytime there was a pressure change… so takeoff and landing. Babies can’t pop their own ears, so the act of swallowing will help them do that. You could also do a binky or a sucker. We found the bottles to be the most effective. We also got one of those formula stacking towers to measure out different bottles throughout the trip so we didn’t have to bring a large container of formula and measure each time. You just open the top and pour it in. We did more frequent, smaller bottles so we could make sure she was drinking one during takeoff and landing, even when we had a short flight to and from Kona.
She was at a good age. Not yet mobile, not yet verbal, Miss Frankie Rose was the perfect age for a long trip. We brought a handful of toys and books that we gave to her at different times throughout the flight to keep her interested. Sophie was a fan favorite, as was what we call her boombox. The little handheld toy that plays music and lights up. We also purchased snap ties that she wore around her wrist and attached to the toys so they didn’t fall on the ground every five seconds. Ground in COVID = poison. She was also no longer nursing, which was a game changer. We had also introduced pouches and solids so we brought teething crackers and pouches to give her on the plane, which helped pass the time and break up the journey. She was also only taking two naps (in a normal day), which gave us some more freedom. She also acclimated to the time zone on the first night. I’m not sure if we are lucky, if it’s because of the Slumber Pod or if she was at a good age… but we were pretty stoked about that. We were all so exhausted when we arrived home, but we all took a long nap when we got back and she snoozed just as long as we did. She was also sitting on her own, so we didn’t need to bring a chair. Lots of “alsos”.., but general gist is around 8 months is a sweet spot for travel with a baby.
COVID Concerns were lessened. Hawaii was one of the first places to make travelers have a negative COVID test in order to board the flight, which made us much less worried on the plane. We wore masks the entire time and covered Frankie with the car seat cover when she was in her stroller in the airport, but otherwise, it wasn’t much of a concern. Once we arrived in Hawaii, we were tested again, so that continued to lessen the concern. There were two cases on Kona the entire time we were in Hawaii, so it was the perfect reprieve from all of the anxiety around COVID. I didn’t realize how much of it I was carrying around until I didn’t worry about it while in Hawaii. It was magical and it’s coming to our real lives hopefully soon.
We had extra help. We travelled with our brother and sister-in-law and their two high school kids. They were all a tremendous help. Frank and Margo took the baby for a night while we went diving with the Manta Rays, sandwiched between a sunset cruise and an incredible sushi dinner. They also watched Frankie when we took their kids ziplining. Someone was always around to hang with her if one of us wanted to go for a run or hang at the beach. Biggest plus was that the monitor worked while we were at the pool. If we wanted to go down to the beach, we would facetime someone so we could listen for her. She took two solid two hours naps per day (slumber pod). She would eat an awesome breakfast with fresh mango and papaya everyday, swim (loved kicking her legs in the ocean) in the afternoon and then join us for dinner at night. She tried all kinds of new foods, fresh fish, fresh veggies and fruits. She was living her best life and we had family there to help us enjoy all of these new experiences.
Packing essentials. We purchased a travel stroller that fits in the overhead compartment and we absolutely loved it. It was super easy to cart her around everywhere and it was really light. We also bought a car seat bag that was padded so we wouldn’t ruin our car seat. We needed to bring that bad boy so we could get to and from the airport and go on excursions. You are able to check the car seat bag for free at the check in counter, so we stashed a bunch of her stuff in that bag. We only packed two bags for my husband and I. Most of her stuff went in the car seat bag. It was awesome. We checked both of our bags, so we didn’t have to deal with them, so we just had a backpack, a diaper bag and the stroller walking through the airport. Smooth Sailing. Total pros. Baby’s first flight. Fake it ‘til you make it. The hotel had a pack and play, and we brought the slumber pod (packed in the car seat bag).
All in all, I would HIGHLY recommend Hawaii right now. We stayed at the Mauna Lani, an Auberge Resort and took the United flight from Chicago to Honolulu, then connected to Kona. We got our COVID tests at Walgreens (rapid test, schedule opens 4 days before at 6pm). The Spirit of Aloha was alive and well. We are looking forward to the next adventure with our tiny human.
Packing Essentials Links: