It is perhaps one of the most polarizing issues among travelers, and yet more families than ever are bringing their infants and toddlers with them for vacations near and far, schlepping them despite all the gear, diaper changes and patience they require.
And as more families choose to travel with tots, it seems as if they are being received with greater acceptance and improved amenities as well as with exasperated disapproval and unhelpful loopholes.
When it comes to making it easier to travel with a baby, "travel companies have both taken great strides forward but also many leaps backward," said Corinne McDermott, who founded the parent-travel advice and resource site Have Baby Will Travel.
McDermott provided as an example that while most airlines will check or gate check baby gear for free, many airlines have also done away with family preboarding. Additionally, she said, some airlines have great kid-friendly onboard entertainment, but many planes only have one washroom with a changing table.
Corinne McDermott, founder of parent travel advice and resource site Have Baby Will Travel, with her children in Cuba.
Asked whether she thought there is greater acceptance of traveling with real little ones today than in the past, McDermott said, "If you read comments on internet articles about traveling with a baby, the answer to this would be a resounding 'No!'"
Indeed, a big part of the challenge, according to Marianne Perez de Fransius, co-founder of Bebe Voyage, an online community of globe-trotting parents, is that there is a much more negative attitude toward traveling with a baby in the U.S. than exists elsewhere in the world.
"I would definitely say that in North America, traveling with a baby is seen as much more unnatural or subject to criticism," de Fransius said. "In the U.S. in particular, travelers who travel with babies feel like they're getting the side-eye and feel like they have to fight for things. Either it's perceived as potentially unhealthy for the baby -- what happens if your baby gets sick? -- or it seems frivolous -- your baby isn't going to remember this so what's the point? Is it really worth it, considering all the gear?"
Consequently, de Fransius said, when Americans travel with their babies internationally, they're surprised to find how friendly and welcoming international fellow travelers can be toward their little ones.
"When Americans travel to the Middle East, they'll say, 'It was a totally different world. Everyone liked the baby. Everyone was so excited, and they were entertaining our baby,'"de Fransius said. "Depending on which part of the world you're in, it's a very different experience."
From left, Marianne Perez de Fransius, co-founder of Bebe Voyage, an online site that offers advice for traveling parents, with her husband and son; Beth Ertas, Bebe Voyage’s chief technology officer, with her husband and daughter; and co-founder Juliet Perrachon with her husband and son.
Bebe Voyage was launched in 2015 in an effort to create a supportive online community for traveling parents, people who could lift each other up rather than discourage or cast doubt on a parent's decision to travel the world with small children.
The Bebe Voyage Facebook page, which has more than 6,000 followers, and website are intended to serve as forums where advice, services and information can be exchanged among traveling families to motivate and inspire them to take just about any global adventure with their babies and toddlers.
They swap tips on how to find babysitters in distant locations, what kind of accommodations are most baby-friendly (vacation rentals are often touted as the most convenient), how and where to rent cribs and other baby gear and how to respond to medical or health issues that can crop up.
More recently, Bebe Voyage has also become more involved in legislative issues that impact traveling families. For example, it threw its support behind the Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening Act (Babes Act), which was signed into law in December, just in time for the busy holiday travel season. The law requires the TSA to better train its agents to ensure that parents traveling with breast milk, formula and infant-feeding equipment aren't mistreated and that breast milk isn't forcibly tossed out, equipment isn't broken or flights get missed due to prolonged inspections.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who wrote the act, stated: "For parents, working moms [and] caretakers, air travel can present its own unique challenges, and to accommodate these challenges, the TSA has important exemptions in place that allow passengers to bring breast milk, bottles and feeding equipment through airport security and onboard the aircraft."
Beutler said she introduced the Babes Act in response to numerous reports of traveling parents being subjected to inconsistent, possibly harassing scrutiny from the TSA when attempting to travel with breast milk, formula and infant-feeding equipment.
Play spaces at airports, such as the one at Bermuda’s L.F. Wade, can keep a toddler entertained while waiting. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
The next generation of travelers
Despite the challenges, and perhaps to the chagrin of travelers not interested in sitting next to a screaming toddler on an intercontinental flight or being awakened in the middle of the night by a baby bunking in the hotel room next door, anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of families have embraced the notion of vacationing with a baby. Consequently, a growing number of suppliers are introducing amenities to cater to them.
Misty Ewing Belles, managing director of global public relations at Virtuoso and herself a traveling mom, said, "Overall, the traveling public continues to grow, and as a result there are more traveling babies out in the world. Busy working parents want to take advantage of every available second with their kids, and multigenerational travel, great baby- and toddler-friendly travel providers, all factor into it."
She added: "It's also why Gen Z, your kids and mine, are poised to be the best traveled generation to date and, most likely, the most influential at an earlier age."
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McDermott observed that select hotels and resorts have made it their policy to be more baby- and toddler-friendly in an effort to be more competitive with the growing vacation-rental industry. Many hotels, she said, no longer charge for cribs or cots, and some even offer welcome packages for young guests including baby toiletries, mini-bathrobes, stroller rentals and milk and cookies during turndown service.
According to Julie Danziger, director of luxury travel services for New York-based Ovation Vacations and a parent traveler, the investment in the youngest members of the family makes sense.
"Travel companies have come a long way and are truly taking it up a notch understanding that the happiness of the baby or toddler is literally what will be the secret to a happy customer who will come back," Danziger said.
Some of the most baby- and child-friendly upscale properties, Danziger said, are Ritz-Carlton ("They have put tents, popcorn machines, board games, activity mats and scavenger hunts around the hotels, in our rooms."); Four Seasons (They "really focus on making the toddlers and babies feel that they are VIPs."); Acqualina ("They have all the baby gear you need ready, from Diaper Genies to baby-friendly bath products."); and Aman ("They do an amazing job with kids, and many of their rooms have private pools, making it easy to nap the baby and still enjoy some time in your suite by the pool.").
Author Michelle Baran arrives in Maui with her husband, Jonathan, and 6-month-old son, Niko, for the tot’s first big trip. They stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua and Kukui’ula in Kauai, both of which had baby-friendly amenities. Photo Credit: Provided by Michelle Baran
Travel sellers interviewed for this story also cited Disney resorts and cruise line as being obvious good choices for traveling with tykes but also gave high grades to Club Med, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. There are, of course, numerous additional resorts and cruise lines that are courting this business, from all-inclusives to cruise lines, from ski resorts to theme parks. Depending on the family's needs, travel sellers should ideally be able to recommend the right brand and price point that suits them (many traveling families are on a budget, after all).
Lesley Egbert, owner of Helena, Mont.-based Live Longitude, an independent agency member of the Avoya Travel Network, said the key to building a successful vacation for a family traveling with a baby or toddler is qualifying not just the parents but the little ones, as well.
"It's really finding out about what the family's interests are and really designing a package working around what's going to work best for them," she said. "Not all kids are created equal. I've had 4-year-olds who can walk 10 miles."
Daniel Lakey and his kids on a Yellowstone vacation. His sister, Lesley Egbert, owner of the Live Longitude agency in Montana, helped plan the family trip.
Flight options are important, too, she noted. For example, it helps to get a direct flight when possible or allow for enough time during connections, considering it's hard to move as fast when traveling with a baby. She cited Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue as more baby-friendly carriers, with Virgin Atlantic, for example, offering a bottle-warming service.
Vacations with a baby in tow can range from something pretty easy and low-key in closer-to-home destinations such as Hawaii or Mexico to something a bit more complicated, such as a European getaway. Because of the additional logistical challenges of traveling with a baby, travel sellers who have tapped into this market have something unique to offer in the way of advice and service.
Danziger can speak to the issue from personal experience.
"Food can be a big issue for many," she said. "That is why kitchens are important to many these days. Connections and long flights also can be an issue. Personally, I've struggled with sleep. If the crib is not comfortable, the room is too bright or the space is not great, it makes it really difficult for a baby to sleep. Sleep is probably the most important part of a hotel room for my baby."
Clearly, traveling with a baby is not without its trials. But that hasn't stopped families from hitting the road with their munchkins. While that puts some travel suppliers in the difficult position of having to please both those traveling with and without babies, the hope among those who advocate for family travel is that ultimately travel companies will view babies as just as much a priority as any other passenger or guest.
Said Bebe Voyage's de Fransius, "In my opinion it would be nice if they started seeing the babies as potential long-term customers."