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Taking little children on big trips

How could we turn down an invitation to a Delhi wedding where the groom would ride in on an elephant? It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But what about our five-year-old son? We weren't willing to leave him behind while we traveled to India for two weeks. Although we'd taken Zane to Mexico twice, this type of international travel would clearly be more complicated. There was the 22-hour flight, the risk of malaria, recent outbreaks of dengue fever and the news of bombings in Mumbai. Were we making the right choice in taking our son halfway around the world for a traditional Indian wedding?

We ultimately decided we were. We wanted to give our family a unique cultural experience, and expose Zane to the reality that not everyone enjoys the luxuries we often take for granted. Fortunately, we found that a little bit of advance planning went a long way. Although we had our share of challenging travel moments, seeing our son ride the wedding elephant and participate in a henna ceremony made them completely worth it.

Although you can't plan for everything, here are some tips to help make your overseas journey a little less stressful.

Gather documents early

Allow enough time for passport processing, which can take up to two months. Obtaining visas can also take several weeks. If only one parent is traveling, you may need documentation that the other parent has given permission for the child to leave the country.

Research health recommendations

Visit the Centers for Disease Control Web site (http://www.cdc.gov/travel/) for health recommendations about your destination country. If immunizations and/or medications are recommended, make an appointment with your family doctor or local travel clinic. Plan early, as some vaccinations need 2-4 weeks to take effect. Although travel medicines and vaccines can be costly, the peace of mind is worth the increased travel budget. Find out what is covered by your health insurance, and call different travel clinics and doctors to compare costs.

Explore itinerary options

For extremely long journeys, consider an overnight layover. By spending the night in Korea on the way to India, not only did we avoid a grueling 24-hour travel day, but we also enjoyed exploring cosmopolitan Seoul. When building your itinerary, try to allow for extra time at the airport to help reduce potential stress.

Find spacious lodging

Roomy suites or rental houses are worth the extra money. Dramatic time zone changes mean that children will often wake up in the middle of the night. It is useful to have an extra room where part of the family can be awake while others catch up on sleep. A kitchen allows you to easily make meals, and a fridge allows you to easily store kid favorites like milk or yogurt.

Pack efficiently

Long flights and jet lag means tired children, and you may find yourself carrying them while waiting in long lines or when running to catch a flight. If your child is too big for a stroller, but still young enough to be carried, you won't want to be unnecessarily weighed down. Leave as many extras at home as possible; many supplies will be available at your destination. Check as many bags through to your destination as possible and avoid overly heavy carry-on bags.

Bring entertainment

The one thing you do need to bring is your child's activity-filled travel bag. Fill a small backpack with lightweight books, pens and games. Buy some new items before you go as a surprise during the long flight. Find out if your airline has entertainment centers available for each individual passenger. If not, you may want to invest in a small portable DVD player and extra battery pack.

Watch what you eat

In many third world countries, you'll want to avoid raw fruits and vegetables that can't be peeled, food from street vendors, and ice made from unfiltered water. Only drink bottled water and juices. Pack travel-size bottles of hand sanitizer and have your child sanitize their hands several times a day, particularly before eating. If you are traveling in remote areas, you may want to bring a water bottle that doubles as a purifier.

Keep snacks handy

Since overseas travel often means unanticipated delays, it is smart to always have snacks on hand. Even airlines with excellent service have long spans between meals. If you are going to a country with wildly different flavors or levels of spiciness, bring a few easy food items with you. We brought peanut butter, cereal bars and macaroni and cheese to India and were very happy we did.

Allow for down time

Although the temptation will be to pack in as much as you can, don't overdo it. Young children are easily over-stimulated and need daily down time. Even adults will find that usually simple tasks -- such as getting cash or finding lunch -- can be much more tiring in a foreign country. Plan one or two things a day, keeping in mind that young children don't tolerate crowds, museum visits or long lines as well as adults. Pay attention to your child's moods and respect their limits.

Pack your sense of adventure

Remember that overseas travel with young children can sometimes take very interesting (and exhausting) twists and turns. If you keep your spirit of openness, adventure and humor, you'll find that within some of the most difficult moments are gems your family will treasure for years to come.

Lisette Austin is a frequent traveler and freelance writer who contributes regularly to local publications. She lives in Seattle with her husband and son.

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