When it comes to travel articles, you'll find all sorts of content out there about travelling with babies, toddlers and even older children to all-inclusive resorts to places that are not so far away. I'm talking about destinations like Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean, often to all-inclusive resorts, where you have all your meals taken care of and there are built-in activities for young and old. Get on the plane, show up to the resort, do your thing for a week, then leave. There is a lot of great info out there about this kind of travel.
This is not one of these articles.
Maybe it's because I seem to do nothing the easy or conventional way, or perhaps it's because my travel history has always been a little more adventurous. I like wandering a city as much as I love lying on the beach - and maybe even more. (This is why I love Barcelona so much, because it has all the most wonderful things about city and beach together in one gorgeous package.) Please know that I have nothing against resorts, I just seem to have more experience travelling in other ways.
My son Archer is now 3 years old, and the first time we travelled with him was when he was 13 months old, to San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. A five hour flight during which he barely slept, and just used as human jungle gyms throughout was challenging, but not unbearable by any means. Since then my husband and I took a one week trip by ourselves to Spain for a wedding (oh...how we slept IN. It was glorious) but missed the little guy so much. So - when the opportunity arose to travel back to my husband's home country of Taiwan - both to collaborate on a travel article for a publication and to visit some of his family - and just to generally adventure around for three weeks, we knew we wanted to bring our then 2 and 3/4 year old with us. First, it was an incredible and meaningful opportunity for my husband to introduce him to his heritage. And really, we just didn't want to be away from him for that long. Archer speaks and understands Mandarin, and is familiar with the food - so we figured, even if he is even more active than the usual almost 3 year old, it would be a relatively smooth transition.
Well - yes and no. There were definitely failures, and we definitely learned a lot. A LOT. But before I get to those lessons and tips, let me tell you a little about our trip.
Taipei is - give or take - a 15 hour flight from Toronto. Direct. Let that sink in for a second. Obviously, we figured direct would be a better idea than a stopover (unless we did a midway stopover that we could spend a few days in, maybe). Personally, I have a hard time sitting still for more than one hour (perhaps where my son gets it from) so we braced ourselves for that to be a challenge. But things went a little more smoothly than I had feared. In our past travels to Taiwan we had flown with EVA Air, which is a Taiwanese airline that has in my experience, always provided us with excellent service. We booked with them again, and were really happy with their Premium Economy service. Extra comfy seats, extra legroom, really fantastic food and beverage options, service and other little luxuries. Plus, there were extra goodies for my son to keep him occupied, and we really appreciated how kind the cabin crew were to him. If you can fly an airline that offers this kind of experience, I highly recommend it. But still - once he got over his initial excitement of being on an airplane, then dozed a little, he was extra wiggly. So we needed to devise some strategies for that. (More on that soon).
Once we reached Taipei, we had three weeks and 5 different places to stay. That's right. FIVE. Not simple, not straightforward. But each one was great in its own way. This included a vacation condo to the northwest of Taipei in the city of Keelung that my husband's Aunt owned (and was currently not staying at, so we'd be solo there), Taipei Mariott and W Hotel Taipei, both luxurious hotels in their own right but with very different personalities in different neighbourhoods. In between the stays at these two we were back at the condo in Keelung for a few days. Then there was Grand View Resort Beitou, a luxury hot springs resort in the northernmost portion of Taipei. And finally, a very central and practical little Airbnb for our last few days. Plus many restaurants, cafes and nightmarkets to check out, both for our own desires and for article research.
So - I know. This was complicated, and looking back, I'd say the first lesson I learned is NOT to try and write a non-family focused travel article whilst travelling with a toddler. Trust me. But in the end, it was a wonderful adventure. We learned a lot about travel with a little one in general, especially when it comes to longer stay and long distance. So just in case you are considering such a thing, let me share some tips with you.
1) BRING A LITTLE BIT OF HOME WITH YOU - I can't imagine what two 15 hour flights, 5 locations and three weeks away would have been like if we hadn't brought some of my son's familiar comfort items with him. Blankie, stuffed toys, familiar books and definitely familiar snacks are all a great idea. I hadn't banked on the snacks being as important as they ended up being. At times, our little guy was adventurous and at others he just refused to try food in restaurants that was even similar to what he would eat at home (see point # 4 below). So the snacks we did bring came in very handy to tame the hangry. But, the fun thing also was that I was able to find some news things in Taiwan that he absolutely loved - liked dried (unsulphured, unsweetened) mini bananas. He loved them so much that I cleaned out one store where I found them so that I had enough for the trip and to bring home.
2) DO YOUR RESEARCH, TAKE THE RIGHT PRECAUTIONS AND LEAVE BEHIND WHAT YOU CAN - There are so many details you need to know about where you are travelling, obviously for health reasons. Can we drink the water? (Not unless we boiled it.) Are there any illnesses that are a potential risk? (We made sure we got the vaccines we all needed.) Are mosquitos an issue? (Fortunately for us, not when we were there in January. But in the summer? OH YEAH.) What about car seats? Do we need one, where can we rent one? Even if the laws are a little more lax where you are going, you're obviously going to want to keep up your standards of safety. If you need to bring your car seat from home - it can be done! Did we need to bring a million pull-ups or diapers? NO! Just enough to get us through our travel time there and our first day, which saved us a lot of space in our luggage, obviously. Here's one thing that some may not understand that was a lifesaver for us: We bought a little contraption for our son with one side that attaches to his wrist and the other to one of ours, with about a metre of cable between it. Some people call that a leash, some people call it terrible, but trust me - in an unfamiliar city with scooters whizzing by constantly, not always the widest walkways and a kid that is extra curious, I call it SANITY. And genius. And really, he kind of thought he was walking US. So he was thrilled. And so was I.
3) IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU (SO BUILD IN PLENTY OF FUN KID TIME) - I don't want to seem like a total idiot, but this may have been the biggest lesson that I learned on my trip, and I'm a little embarrassed about it. It's not that I planned to ignore my son's needs - and I didn't. But look, I could wander and explore places to eat and see (and ummm, shop) endlessly when I travel and even my husband gets weary of it. So you can only imagine how a toddler felt. So we quickly learned to look for playgrounds to stop at for regular intervals so my son could blow off some steam. Luckily, Taipei also has TONS of indoor playground options for kids as well (for when it is too rainy or too hot). So many more than Toronto, in fact, and so much more interesting for the kids that we were very impressed. So we would schedule days or evenings there as well. If you have any sort of network at your destination that might include kids - perhaps friends of friends of friends, that would help too. We didn't have too much time to spend with other kids directly, but one particular evening spent with some slightly older cousins was just the perfect break that our son needed from us, I am sure.
4) PACK PLENTY OF PATIENCE, EMPATHY AND A SENSE OF HUMOUR - Always, when you travel, but ESPECIALLY if you are travelling with a toddler. There is a huge difference in travelling with toddlers vs. babies, by the way. (Babies sleep A LOT more, weigh less, and don't run around so IMHO it's easier to travel with them). The toddler years are a time of massive growth, development, discovering and asserting independence and likes, wants and dislikes. Don't underestimate this for a second. They need all the love and attention that babies need, but they will throw you curveballs of major league status. For example, my son, who is generally pretty cool with eating in restaurants (he is MY son, after all) and was relatively familiar with the kind of food we would be eating in Taipei was just suddenly....not....having....it. There were one or two locations where we entered a restaurant only to have him start yelling "NO DINNER!!!! NO DINNER!!" at the top of his lungs. (I can assure you, this garnered a few stares. It was not fun.) At first, it was incredibly frustrating, but firstly, that's what all the snacks were for (see point #1) and secondly, I had to realize that to him, meals often felt like they were interrupting the flow of his fun, because he couldn't run around in a restaurant, or it took him away from the playground we had just been at. So I just had to understand, and adapt. We discovered he loved teppanyaki, which is fortunately plentiful in Taipei. It's not my favourite, but kids love it, because they get to watch the action. (It's dinner and a show, right?) So I didn't hit every restaurant I wanted to, but in the end, it was ok. OH....and look, if you need to have an iPad with you so that you and everyone else can eat dinner in peace, USE IT. You are not a bad parent, they will not be damaged. It's worth it for the sake of your sanity.
5) IF YOU NEED A STROLLER, THE HAVING THE RIGHT ONE IS INVALUABLE - Especially for city travel. We have been devotees of our Bugaboo Bee 5 since our son was born, and for good reason. It is sturdy enough to be our every day stroller from the newborn stage (with pram body) on up, and light enough to be a travel stroller. It was FAR more comfortable for our little guy to nap in when needed (thus freeing me up to do all my exploring) than a flimsy umbrella stroller would be. Plus, it was his stroller, therefore familiar, and therefore far preferable to him.
6) SPEND YOUR TIME AND MONEY WITH COMPANIES THAT GET IT - I was really looking forward to staying at W Taipei for my own personal reasons (great service, design, food, atmosphere) but I didn't immediately expect how awesome they would be with kids. This is a place known for serious nightlife, so obviously I wasn't initially looking for them to be super kid-friendly. But I was so pleasantly surprised at how kind and patient all the staff were there, and the cute extra little details like crayons and colouring books at mealtime for my son, plus the cutest animal-shaped steamed buns for him to eat. Of course, my son loved their extra luxurious king sized bed as much as we did, though he equally loved the comfy single foldaway bed they placed in our room for him. There were so many details that made a huge difference to us, and I will definitely continue to be a repeat customer for that reason.
7) MAKE ALL THE MEMORIES - Sure, there were people that told me one simply shouldn't travel with babies and children. It's too dangerous, it's too inconvenient. I'm glad I decided to not listen to that for this trip. We had challenges, for sure, but so many incredible moments as well. I don't think I'll ever forget my son seeing the sun rise in Keelung with us, and saying "Oh, it's so beautiful" - a sentence that I had literally never heard him say before. Or him visiting my husband's childhood. This was a really special time for our family, and we have memories that will last forever from it.