International adoption travel can be tough. You are meeting your new child, in a new country, while trying to navigate traveling in a country you are probably unfamiliar with. If you are new to international travel as well, it just piles on even more stress to an already nerve wracking situation. Anyone who has traveled anywhere knows that packing . . . the knowing what to take, what to leave, and how to cart it all about . . . can be an art form. I’ve done four international adoption trips to two different countries. Here is what I’ve learned.
1. You will overpack.
This is true for everyone except for perhaps the people who are traveling with only carry-ons. It is just human nature to want to be prepared, but to not really know what that means. I usually find I have brought just a few too many clothes and medicines. I was closest to bringing the right amount with the last trip we made. Practice for this form of travel is useful. If you are new to it all, I would suggest laying out everything you will think you will need, and then putting a third of it away.
2. Take more in your carry-on.
After four trips, you would think I would learn to pack a new outfit for everyone traveling in the carry-ons, but nope. Even when traveling to adopt older children, accidents involving various bodily functions and possibly sticky soda will happen. And when those accidents happen, it will usually be on your clothes. Learn from my mistakes and take a change of clothes (yes, including underwear) in your carry-on.
3. Remember that you are not traveling to the moon.
Except in the most underdeveloped countries, you can purchase most things that you need, if you need them. Because of both weight limits and sheer navigation through giant airports, you want to keep things as light as possible. For most things, I would say, wait and buy them in country if it turns out you really do need them. We bought paper plates and cups for the hotel room, snacks, clothes, pool toys, swim goggles, stools, child’s scissors, crayons, and many other items in-country as we saw a need for them. The exceptions to this list would be pull-ups, swim diapers, and feminine protection (though I’ve bought that last item in-country, too.)
4. Learn from those who have been there.
Read a lot of different packing lists from experienced adopters who have traveled to your child’s country. What is going to be vital to have is going to vary from country to country. While you can buy most things there, you will still want enough of the necessities to keep you going through the jet lag.
5. Take the medicines that you think you will need.
We have always traveled with scabies medicine (used one time out of four), analgesics, antibiotics (used one time out of four), children’s Dramamine (used every time), children’s analgesics, and some sort of diarrhea medicine (used two or three times), saline solution, and extra contacts. What is important to you will vary slightly from someone else. Yes, you can get most of these items in-country, but they are also the sort of thing that when you need them, you don’t want to have to go out and find them.
6. You will want items for your new child.
Most children come with the clothes on their backs. Take some clothes that match the measurements you have been given, but don’t go overboard. Many parents have met their child only to discover that the clothes they brought do not work at all. I have more than once needed to use the sewing kit I brought to tighten waistbands and hem up pants. We also went shoe shopping after we had our child. It’s just easier to fit a foot that you can actually see. Besides clothes, a backpack with some toys and activities in it is also good. Remember that many children in an orphanage have limited experience with toys and stuff. You do not want to overwhelm them. We took a few toys and things, but also found it helpful to see what our new children were interested in when we were out and about.
7. For older children, you will want to think about communication.
Many parents now take apps on their phones to aid in translation. We have never done that, but have brought other things to help facilitate understanding. For instance, I made a lot of photo cards with things that I thought our new child could possibly want or need, so he or she could point to the card. Having some games along which did not require language was also helpful. Those days in the hotel can drag on without something to do. Uno was by far the most popular, but we also brought a matching game, coloring books, puzzles, and Yahtzee.
8. Think about what you can bring to help calm you.
No one talks about this, but it is important. Adoption is stressful. International travel can be stressful. If your child is not managing well, it’s stressful. The whole thing is about as far away from a vacation as you can get sometimes. Bring some things that you know will help you calm yourself down . . . even if you need to lock yourself in the bathroom to do them. You need to be calm in order for your frightened child to slowly ratchet down. Most important is a way to communicate with people at home, especially experienced adoptive parents. This was a true life saver for me on our first adoption. To reach out to people and have them tell me that they had experienced the same things and it would be okay was huge. Other things I have brought for my own sanity have included knitting (yes, you can bring knitting needles on airplanes), books to read (light, fluffy, non-intellectual books), and grown-up coloring books and colored pencils.
9. You might want a little food.
People can swing to opposite ends on this. We took the bare minimum . . . protein bars to keep people from getting too hungry. That’s it. We are adventurous eaters and food is everywhere. I do kind of wish we had brought some good tea as well. The English breakfast tea we found was not terrific. Other people pack a whole suitcase of snacks, instant oatmeal, noodles, peanut butter, etc. You will have to decide where you comfort level is.
10. Remember that everything you pack, you will have to carry.
Sometimes you will have to carry it for long distances. Sometimes you will have to carry it for long distances, while at the same time carrying your child and running through the airport which is miles long because the van delivered you late and you are perilously close to missing your flight home. At this point, you will wish you had really done what I said in #1, and taken out a third of what you thought you needed. If you want a good sense of whether you are overpacking or not, carry your suitcase and carry-on and maybe a 20 pound bag of dog food around the block. If you are ready to leave it all behind before you get home, I would rethink your packing.
Traveling is an adventure. If you look at it in that light, it can take some of the pressure off of your packing. You will forget something, but that doesn’t have to ruin your trip. Either purchase it in-country or do without.