I’m not going to lie: the idea of traveling with my 4-month-old son was borderline terrifying.
But my husband was flying to Japan for work for the last time and we figured this would be a great chance to tag along. His trip would be paid for, our son would be under 2 and could fly free, and I was still on maternity leave. The plan was to fly up my mom — she hadn’t been to Japan before — to help with the baby. It was the perfect scenario.
Well, except for the “traveling with a baby” part.
I have friends who have taken their newborns everywhere — to Disneyland, to ski resorts, to Paris — so I knew it wasn’t impossible.
But I’ve also been on many flights where I’ve witnessed well-intended parents struggling with crying, inconsolable babies. It’s not pretty. For anyone.
And I was terrified I’d be that mom.
So I asked all of my friends for help. I read every blog I could find. And then I did a trial run — a day trip to Maui — to test some of these techniques and figure out what works with my kid. (Because every kid is different.)
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Plan But Stay Flexible. I’m not one of those over-planners when it comes to trips; I prefer flexible itineraries that leave room for wandering and random discoveries. But with a baby — and a mom who’s never been to Japan — it was necessary to have a solid plan in place. I researched kid-friendly hotels in Tokyo and mapped out routes to various destinations in the city. I needed to know how, exactly, we’d get from the airport to the hotel, and whether the hotel was located near convenience stores that would carry baby essentials such as diapers and wipes. I came up with a schedule of what we were going to do every day we were there — but I kept it flexible. We didn’t know how the baby would be, so we didn’t book a three-hour train ride to Kyoto. But we kept that option open. (Turned out, we didn’t make the trek to Kyoto and took an hourlong train to Kamakura instead.)
Know the Weather. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how much weather can affect a trip with a baby. Not only will you have to pack different clothing, you’ll have to bring different gear, too. It was in the 40s (Fahrenheit) while we were in Tokyo, and we figured we’d buy whatever we needed there. But what we couldn’t buy — and we were so glad we brought with us — was a rain guard for the stroller. Though it didn’t rain, the clear cover kept the baby cozy and warm.
Car Seats, Taxis and Public Transportation. Before you even start packing, you’ll have to answer this basic question: are you planning to rent a car or use public transportation? If you’re going to rent a car, I’d recommend bringing your own car seat (and preferably one that snaps right into your stroller, like the Britax B-Agile/B-Safe Travel System). Most car rental companies offer car seats — for around $15 a day — which is a great option, but as we found out on Maui, these car seats aren’t always a good fit for your child. The one we got with our rental car was too big for our newborn, and we had to stuff swaddles and burp cloths into the seat just to keep him secure. Not the safest, but there wasn’t anything else we could do at that point.
If you choose to use public transportation — which is what we did in Japan — you’ll have to figure out what that will be like. In Tokyo, for example, you can’t take strollers onto the subways. (Though we did see mothers sneak in with their strollers if the cars weren’t that full.) That meant we would have to quickly pack up the stroller and lug it onto the train with us. So the stroller we were planning to bring mattered. Instead of something big and bulky, we borrowed a Babyzen YOYO+ stroller, which collapses into something small enough to fit in overhead compartments on airplanes. (And yes, borrow when possible.)
In Japan — as in many countries — there are no rules about car seats in taxis. And you won’t find them. There is, though, a chauffeur service in Tokyo called Cocoro Taxi, which is run by women, that caters to families with babies and the elderly. These cars are outfitted with car seats and booster seats, making traveling safer and easier. Look for options like that wherever you’re traveling.
Stroller or Baby Carrier? We did both. A friend of mine who travels to Japan with her three kids a few times a year explained that the stroller is really for all the bags you won’t be able to hold if you’re wearing your baby. And it’s true. It was too hard to wear my baby and carry the diaper bag. A stroller also enabled us to nap him — make sure it reclines! — and change him without having to find a public restroom (which isn’t the easiest to do in Tokyo). Since we were bringing a new stroller, we made sure to use it for a couple of weeks before the trip, just to get the baby used to it.
Seats Matter. We flew to Japan on Hawaiian Airlines. Though I made the reservations online, I called customer service to secure bulkhead seats, which gave us extra leg room and space. It cost $150 per seat extra, but it was so worth it. This gave us more space to spread out, to stand and stretch out. It made a huge difference. (You can’t sit in the exit aisle if you have a baby. Passengers need to be adults and able to assist others in the event of an emergency.)
Bassinets Onboard. Some airlines, including Hawaiian Airlines, have bassinets on board. You have to reserve them ahead of time, and sometimes there are limits and restrictions. For example, the bassinet on this airline can only accommodate a baby weighing less than 25 pounds. (Our baby was about 20.) And if we wanted to use it, we would have had to change seats because the bassinet couldn’t work in the bulkhead aisle. Some airlines, such as Japan Airlines, are equipped with formula and diapers. It pays to do a little research and pay more for a better flight experience.
Strollers at the Airport? Some parents say baby carriers are better in airports, but I’d have to disagree. While carriers take up far less room, it limits you on what you can do with your baby. Since mine was too young to walk, I’d have to carry him. And since we were flying internationally, we would be at the airport for at least two hours. There was no way I was going to carry him for that long. Having the stroller — and one that reclines! — saved us. Our baby could nap comfortably and we didn’t have to physically carry him the whole time. We gate-checked the stroller on our way to Tokyo (it was waiting for us once we deplaned) and took it on board as a carry-on on the return flight.
Pack Smart. The carry-on diaper bag is important. You have to prepare for the unexpected — like getting stuck on the tarmac for two hours (which has happened to me) or delays to your flight (which has happened more often than I can count). We brought enough diapers, formula, wipes and change of clothes for two days, just in case. We made sure to have plastic bags (for trash, poopy diapers, wet clothing) and medicines for both baby and us. Pacifiers were key, too, since that was the easiest way to get him to nap during the flight. (Be sure to attach them to clips like this one from Matimati Baby, so you don’t lose them.) I also downloaded apps on my iPhone to distract him while he was awake. There are tons of checklists online; bring what you need — and then some. There are no convenience stores onboard! (If you decide to bring breastmilk and/or liquid formula on the plane, put them in a separate bag and ready to pull out for TSA. You’ll need to let the TSA officer know that you’re carrying liquids for your baby in excess of the 3.4-ounce rule. Read more about that here.)
Board First or Last? This is entirely up to you. Ideally, you would have someone else — husband, traveling partner — board with the carry-ons to secure the overhead space, while you stay back with the baby. But that’s not always possible. Since we had bulkhead seats with lots of space, we didn’t mind boarding early. We wanted to nab the overhead space since we would need to have quick and easy access to baby essentials. (Turns out, there was enough room in front of us for all of our carry-ons, so we didn’t need the overhead space.)
Feed, Nurse, Pacify at Takeoff and Landing. This is tried-and-true advice. Babies need something to suck on in order to clear their ears during the altitude change. We timed it so it would be his feeding time right around takeoff. He took the bottle and didn’t fuss at all.
Expect the Worst. I know that sounds very pessimistic, but it’s helpful advice. If you expect the worst — a baby who screams for the entire 10-hour plane ride — you can plan accordingly. You’ll pack what you need. You’ll be patient and apologetic to your fellow passengers. I’ve even seen some parents pass out bags filled with candy and a note of apology, just in case their kid cried during the flight. It’s always better to be prepared than not.
Choose Your Hotel Wisely: That same girlfriend who recommended bringing a stroller also sent me a list of kid-friendly hotels in Tokyo. We chose the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku for several reasons. The Airport Limousine bus had a stop right at the hotel, making the trek from Haneda Airport quick and easy. (And it only cost around $12 per person.) It was located just a couple of blocks from the busiest train station in the world; meaning we could get anywhere from this one station. There were lots of convenience stores and restaurants nearby, so getting food and essentials wouldn’t be that hard. The rooms were slightly larger than the typical hotel rooms in Japan; more space for baby and me. The hotel also had cribs guests could borrow. (We ended up not using it, but we did get a guard rail for our bed, which was perfect for us.) And the best part? The hotel had coin-operated washers and dryers on every floor. That meant we could wash our clothes and not have to pack as much. It was great!
Consider a Travel Bassinet. I’ve had friends who used a portable bassinet — like this one from BRICA — that works well in small spaces (like Japanese hotel rooms). If you plan on doing this, be sure to get it well ahead of your trip and use it. You want your baby to be used to the way it feels.
Buy, Don’t Bring. If you’re traveling within the U.S., consider ordering diapers, formula and wipes — all the bulky stuff — from Amazon or Target and have it delivered to your hotel. It saves you a lot time, energy and money. In our case, it would cost too much to have those items delivered to our hotel in Shinjuku, so we did the next best thing: buy everything there. (You’re going to throw away the diapers, wipes and formula anyway. Why bring that stuff with you?) We did a lot of research on the baby formula in Japan. Since we weren’t sure if our baby would take to the new formula, we brought some of his powdered formula in Ziploc bags — that was easier to pack than the canister — and a bunch of ready-to-feed liquid bottles, just in case. I also changed his formula at home, just to see how he would react to something new. Since he was quick to adjust to a different formula here, I figured he would have no problem with the formula in Japan. And I was right; he transitioned easily.
Swaddles are Awesome. I’ve long been a fan of swaddles, especially those soft, muslin ones. But I never loved them more than while traveling. They are so versatile. I used them as nursing covers, stroller covers, changing pads, blankets. They’re great. Bring several.
Plan Feedings and Naps. This was probably the most difficult task: planning where and when I would fed and nap the little guy. I didn’t want to have to return to the hotel room every three hours to feed him, so I knew I had to find a place to do this while on the go. And it wasn’t easy. There aren’t a lot of public places to nurse/feed your newborn in Tokyo — and the cold weather didn’t help. The best place, we found, was Starbucks. These coffee shops are set up for people to sit and linger for hours. And they almost always have restrooms. We weren’t the only mothers holing up in Starbucks, feeding babies and sipping on much-needed lattes!
Stick to the Same Routine. As much as possible, do what you normally do at home. We bathed the baby at around the same time, read his favorite books, and swaddled him before bedtime. We tried to keep the routine similar so he would know what to expect.
No Matter What You Do, It May Not Work. We were really lucky. Our kid never fussed, he slept well in the hotel room and napped in the stroller, he had no problem with the new formula. He was the easiest travel companion. But, that said, it was still hard to travel with a baby. We had twice the amount of luggage. We were constantly worrying about him. We couldn’t eat at restaurants, mostly because many of the eateries in Tokyo don’t accommodate strollers and babies. And we were back at the hotel by 6 p.m. so the baby could sleep. It was an entirely different trip from the ones I had been on. We couldn’t do the same things — no onsens, no late-night karaoke, no stops at izakaya — and we had to always find places to sit and rest. IT WAS HARD. And not everything went according to plan. We were planning to walk to Enoshima, a small island off Kamakura. But it was too cold and the walk a little too long, so we headed right back to the train station and back to Shinjuku. And that’s OK. I had no expectations that this was going to be easy or that I would get to do everything on my bucket list. There were just a few things we wanted to do and see — namely, eat a mochi donut from Mister Donut and shop at Tokyu Hands — and we got to do that. And that was enough.