And you thought traveling to Grandma’s for the holidays was tough—and she lives in the next town over. Ha! How about visiting 31 countries on six continents for nearly nine months with a 2 year old?
As exhausting as it sounds, that’s what Natasha Sandhir and AJ Ratani did starting when their son, Aarav, was 23 months old. In July 2017, the crazy-ambitious family set out from their home in Charlotte, North Carolina for the travel adventure of a lifetime.
The travel bug
“Traveling is in my blood because I’d done so much of it as a kid,” says AJ. The trip was his idea. “I thought he was kidding,” Natasha says, who tried to dissuade him because traveling is so much work, even without a child in tow. But AJ’s inspiration won out.
Check out their itinerary
Starting in July 2017, the family ventured from Charlotte to Anchorage, Alaska, where they took a one-way cruise to Vancouver, British Columbia, which offered breath-taking views of Glacier Bay National Park.
In August, they traveled to from Vancouver to Seattle then onto Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco followed by Iceland then Barcelona, Spain, which is home to the famous Museu Picasso, which features one of the world’s largest collections of Picasso’s work.
In September 2017, they family continued covering a lot of territory with a road trip through southern Spain (Tarragona, Cartegena, Malage and Seville) then boarded a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona to Rome and Florence, Italy, for some of the world’s best pasta, gelato and cappuccino.
October 2017 brought them to Venice, Croatia and Budapest. In November 2017, they set out for Asia: Shanghai, Macau, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Kyoto, Delhi and then to Rajasthan, India, a northern Indian state bordering Pakistan that has been described as India’s most colorful region–a sensory experience of pinks, yellows, greens and yellows dominating the landscape, architecture, cuisine and regional garb.
December of that year, after spending time with family in India, the trio navigated their way through southern India (Kerela) before flying to Sydney, Australia.
In January 2018, they welcomed in the New Year in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (Cairns), then set out for Singapore and a cruise through southeast Asia, Bali, back to Dubai, ending the month in Johannesburg in the vibrant heart of South Africa.
February 2018 brought them to Botswana for a safari and Victoria Falls, Cape Town, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Then it was on to South American: Buenos Aires, Patagonia (via El Calafate, Torres Del Paine), Iguazu Falls and Salta, a sophisticated city in the Lerma Valley that also offers plazaside cafes, folk-music clubs and colonial Argentinean architecture.
In March 2018, they toured South America: the Mendoza wine region, Santiago, Lima, Guayaquil (Equador), Galapagos Islands and Panama City. Finally, in April 2018, they landed in Austin, TX before heading back home to Charlotte, NC.
Navigating between the northern and southern hemispheres, “we were chasing summer,” Natasha says. “We had summer for two years.”
It was such a great experience, the Sandhir-Ratanis, who are both 37, want to do it again and again, hopefully with another child in tow (fingers crossed).
BabyProductsMom caught up with Natasha and AJ to learn more about this far-out experience, what they did right and what they’d do differently the next time, when traveling with Aarav (and hopefully baby #2). Come on along and live vicariously and learn from their mega trip tips.
BPM: How could you two afford to go on such a grand adventure?
Natasha: We’re both computer engineers and we have a good skill set. After business school, I worked at Bank of America. I quit that job to start my own brick and mortar clothing store in Charlotte. After three years, when the lease was up, I thought let’s see how this travel idea goes before I get another job. It was good timing.
AJ: I used to work for a tech company that started with 25 employees and ended up with 3,000. My roles and responsibilities changed a lot. It was a great job, but I had been at the company for 12 years. I was ready to move on. The job enabled us to create a little security to take a trip like this.
BPM: Good for you! Ok, logistics. How did you plan your trip?
AJ: First, we created a bucket list of things we both wanted to see and do. On the top of my bucket list was scubing diving in the Great Barrier Reef and going to the Galapagos Islands. Natasha wanted to visit Italy. Friends helped us out with the planning. We used Excel spreadsheets to create our itinerary.
Natasha: Oh, those Excel spreadsheets! I definitely didn’t share the excitement about those. They were overwhelming.
BPM: What was the most difficult place to travel with a 2 year old?
AJ: The Galapagos Islands! There are different islands and traveling from island to island is extremely hard. (The Galapagos is made up of 13 major islands and six smaller islands.) At the airport, you have to take a cab to a bus, to get on a boat, to cross a river, to get in a cab, and that’s just the first island.
Natasha: And it was hot, and very rough seas.
AJ: And we had two bags. We were carrying our stuff all over. But it was easy water to snorkel in. We have such a funny and amazing video of Aarav by a sea turtle.
BPM: What was one of the most exotic places you visited with Aarav on your trip?
AJ: Going on safari in Botswana. The coolest moment was when Aarav saw an elephant in the wild. It was the first time he said “elephant.”
Natasha: You’d think a safari would be hard, but it was a lot easier and more comfortable than traveling to the Galapagos.
BPM: What was the most family friendly country? Italy?
Natasha: Spain beats Italy! Our number one country on the whole trip in terms of family friendliness was Spain. Italy is pretty laid back compared to other European countries, but Spain is even more laid back. What’s great about it is that they have restaurants around the town square.
In the evening, parents eat while their kids play in the plaza. It’s made that way so families can eat and have fun together. The kids are screaming running around. Nobody says: You child is running. Make him sit down.”
AJ: In Spain, 8:30 PM is dinner time. One night, while we were eating, he went to this other couple’s table. They were elderly and we were sitting adjacent to them.
Natasha: Aarav starts tapping on a chair at their table. My instinct is to get up because I think he’s bothering this older couple having to have a nice dinner. The older man hand-gestured me to sit down, as in “No problem. Sit down, eat.” I was shocked. It was almost like he said, “Why are you worried about this?”
AJ: At midnight, there were 30 to 40 kids running around in the plaza in Spain, including Aarav. In Spain, midnight was Aarav’s bedtime. Also, it’s a community-based culture. If you go to the playground, all the other parents are looking out for all the kids. If a kid falls, all the parents will go help. It’s very laid back and people love kids.
Natasha: In Spain, you never feel like you’re inconveniencing someone. That’s the vibe. Kids are just part of life.
BPM: Spain sounds like a dream for new parents. What baby gear really delivered on your trip?
Natasha: The GB Pockit stroller. It’s super compact and easy to use, even in places like Seville, Spain, where the streets are very narrow and tippy. We went on a food tour there. Everyone said not to get a stroller. But the GB Pockit was great. It also came in handy in the Vatican, which is an extremely small, touristy area with lots of stairs and not a lot of elevators.
AJ: The GB Pockit is also great on planes. You can take it on the plane and stow it underneath the seat. It’s that small. In a lot of places in Europe, if you check your stroller at the airport, you can only retrieve it at baggage claim. Sometimes baggage claim is far away from your gate.
Also, if you have to go through immigration, you have to stand in line without a stroller. But with the Pockit, Aarav could get in the stroller on the plane. We could open it up right in the aisle, have Aarav sit down and go!
Natasha: For sleeping, we used the Guava Lotus travel crib the entire trip. It’s durable, simple to use and easy to carry. It becomes a backpack. We used it the entire trip and checked it at the airport most of the time.
(If you’re traveling in the U.S. or Canada, you can also rent baby gear like a Guava Lotus travel crib or it’s close cousin, the Baby Bjorn Travel Crib Lite from a Babyquip quality provider–as in moi; I service Connecticut and New York City.)
AJ: And instead of using a car seat for the airplane, we used the Kids Fly Safe airplane harness. It’s approved by the FAA. Instead of carrying a car seat on the plane, the Kids Fly Safe harness made it so much easier.
It’s more comfortable for the kid and Aarav couldn’t kick the seat of the passenger in the front of him. To get Aarav to sit when he was required to sit, we carried a backpack with all his toys, books and device. We used everything possible to make him sit.
BPM: What about when traveling by car? Which car seat did you use?
AJ: We used the Immi Go car seat, which is not meant for an infant. It’s foldable and super light. We checked it in everywhere. It’s easy to carry, not bulky and such an easy car seat to install.
When we were traveling long distances, even if that country didn’t require a car seat, such as Patagonia, where you can travel 100 miles per hour on the highways, we’d put Aarav in the Immi Go.
BPM: Any other family travel must-have products, even for yourself?
Natasha: A mobile charger, for charging your phone or iPad anywhere.
AJ: T Mobile as our cell phone provider. T Mobile provides unlimited data in 140 countries across the world. It was super convenient because wherever we traveled, we had data, such as Google maps and Trip Advisor, which allowed us to access things.
When you have data, you’re so much more confident about distances and where things are. Google maps works well across the world, except China, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. But everywhere else had T Mobile.
More worldly family travel tips:
- Choose bulkhead seats on airplanes so you have more space in the front, so your child could literally move about the cabin.
- Load your devices with educational apps, while keeping limits in mind. While your tot is learning his ABCs and numbers, you can relax. And bring snacks, of course!
- Let your child run around the airport as much as you can before getting on the plane so he dosen’t feel cooped up.
- Schedule longer flights for nighttime and naptime. The Stokke by JetKids BedBox is an ingenious suitcase turned fold-out bed for stress-free long or short haul travel.
- Cruising is a great way to travel, especially if you have a child. The family took a Princess cruise twice, once in the Mediterranean and the other in southeast Asia, and Holland America once. Daycare is provided on most cruises, so you can take a break and your kiddo has something to do, or you can use the cruise’s daycare facilities as a playground. Plus, cruising is convenient. You can travel to different countries without the hassle of packing and unpacking and all the transportation and issues with Visas are taken care of. It’s an easier way to travel.
- Use a timer to give each other a break. “We set a timer for 20 minutes and traded off taking care of Aarav,” AJ said. While one of us was playing with Aarav, the other was doing whatever he/she wanted, whether it was reading, catching up on email or taking a quick nap. After 20 minutes, the “on” parenting switched to the other parent. “Setting a timer was an organized way to relax and support each other,” Natasha says.
The biggest surprise about worldly family travel with a toddler?
‘Traveling around the world with a 2 year old was a lot easier than we thought,” Natasha says. “People aren’t as judgmental as you think they’re going to be, in the U.S. or overseas. If your child cries, they don’t look at your funny. Plus, the world can be very helpful. If you’re struggling to carry your stroller up steps, strangers will help you.”
Some countries try to make traveling easier on families. In South America, Asian countries, they have a separate line for immigration if you have a child so you don’t have to wait. “Standing in a long line trying to get through immigration is hard on a child,” Natasha says. “I’m still so shocked we did it.”
Also, kids can be resilient and adaptable. “Aarav would just go with the flow. As long as mom and dad were there, he was in his happy place,” AJ says. “It was fun traveling with him. If we can do this another three to four times in our lifetime, if we’re lucky enough. That would be an incredible life to live.”
Traveling can also help you a more resilient and adaptable parent too.
“We don’t get as frustrated when something doesn’t go as planned or when Aarav doesn’t do exactly what we want him to do, like if we’re at a party and all he’ll eat is a cookie rather than the main dish,” AJ says. “After all, we made it through Galapagos. What’s the big deal?”
This family travel post may be helpful too.