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How to Take a Work Trip across Three Countries with Your Three Kids–and No Partner–without Losing Your Mind

I’d been planning a Cuba trip for a while–I had work to do there and in-laws to visit, and I hadn’t been since early 2013–but for one reason or another, dates just weren’t lining up. Finally, the calendar cleared and I secured multiple assignments that would help pay for the trip, so it was game on– time to book flights.

Except I wasn’t traveling alone.

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My oldest daughter, who would turn six during our trip, had been to Cuba twice, but the youngest, ages 2 and 1, hadn’t yet met their abuela and tias and tio. With a mother-in-law who’s in her 90s, it’s not as if I have the luxury of putting off a visit with the grands. Yes, I needed to work–covering everything from the papal visit to restoration projects and new entrepreneurial ventures–but I also needed to make sure my kids and their father’s side of the family were getting some quality time together.

Only my husband wasn’t going to be a part of the equation.

A complicated immigration status would keep him at home in New York while I sat on airplanes and hauled two suitcases and as many strollers through three airports in three different countries with three children, starting out at 4 AM in New York City and ending up 15 hours later in Havana.

“Are all these kids yours? Are you a sadist or something?” That’s what the US Immigration officer asked when I came back to the US 10 days after I’d left. I just gave him the evil eye. My kids are great travelers.

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

That being said, enough people asked how I managed to make the trip alone that I thought it might be worth sharing my clutch tips about how to travel alone with three kids on a work trip without losing your marbles.

1. Pack light.
Yes, you’re traveling with kids, but trust me: kids don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think they do. I managed a single carry-on for all the in-transit essentials: diapers and wipes for the youngest, a change of clothes for each, passports and all other IDs, plane tickets and documentation, my laptop and wallet, a camera, a book, my phone, and a coloring book and pack of markers. Kids–even kids who travel a lot, like mine–can be entertained for a good long while with seat back safety cards, barf bags (make puppets!), headphones, and tray tables (sorry, passenger in front of us; I’ll try to keep it gentle).

Don’t pack the entire toy box. And as for all those things you think are essential: My rule of thumb when traveling is to not pack items you can buy at your destination. A caveat for Cuba is that you probably should pack all the diapers you’ll need; diapers can be tough to find and are expensive and of poor quality. Ditto wet wipes.

2. Stay organized.
Keep all the paperwork you’ll need in airports close at hand, organized and accessible. Bring along a notarized letter from your children’s other parent–even though many airlines don’t require them–in which that parent gives her or his consent to take your children abroad. You probably won’t need the letter, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you need it and don’t have it. Because my children carry both my husband’s last name and my last name (and because this confounds so many officials), I also carry birth certificates, a copy of our marriage certificate, and vaccination records as evidence of our respective identities and relationships.

3. Accept help if offered and ask for it if it’s not.
The toughest thing about a 14-hour day of travel was–I kid you not–finding a way to go pee without worrying that my one year old would tumble head-first out of her plane seat and onto the floor. Pressing my five year old into service worked for much of the trip and those tasks where I needed an extra set of hands, but never when I needed to go to the bathroom. I searched for a trustworthy-looking adult and asked them if they could watch my kids for a few minutes.

4. Trust your oldest with age-appropriate responsibilities…
… and reward them with praise (and, if you can, a special treat) for shouldering an extra load. My five year old pushed one of her siblings in a stroller through all three airports and even operated a special elevator by herself when we couldn’t all fit into the elevator for a single trip. I knew that she was a little scared, but I also told her I was totally confident in her abilities and that I was watching her the whole time (which was true). When we had a free moment, I bought her a small bag of chocolate-covered coconut as a thank you.

5. Know your danger zones.
I wish I’d thought to ask whether my airline, Interjet, had milk on its afternoon and evening flights, as both of my youngest children drink milk from bottles. It does not– it only has milk available on morning flights. On the last leg of our return flight home, I had no milk and kid #2 spent the last 20 minutes curled up in the fetal position on top of his tray table.

6. Ease your reentry.
I scheduled in a two-night layover in Mexico City on our return trip, mainly because I love Mexico City, my former home, and because I had some reporting work I needed to do there. But it also ended up being a welcome way to transition between Cuba and home, what with a comfy hotel bed, running water (which we did not have in Cuba), and a room service splurge. If you can break up your travels into more manageable bits, it will be easier on kids… and on you.

7. Take advantage of Trusted Traveler, Global Entry, and similar services.
When booking your tickets, make sure you elect for TSA pre-check if you’re eligible, and take advantage of your trusted traveler/Global Entry memberships if you have them so you don’t have to wait in line for ages when you return home.

8. Bring snacks. Lots of snacks.
Cheerios, fruit chews, apple bars… these are my go-to snacks for kids when we’re on the road or in the air. A snack produced with a parental flourish at the precise moment preceding a meltdown can prevent crisis.

Also, if traveling in areas where you’re not the one in control of when, what, or how you’re eating (as was the case at my in-laws’), bring some breakfast basics for your kids. Instant oatmeal is the best choice; it packs flat, weighs practically nothing, is easy to make, and is filling.

9. Have a clear work plan.
I had A LOT to do in Havana, and while I had my sister-in-law and niece to help care for the kids, I was still the one who had to fit all the usual parenting tasks in at the beginning and end of the day. Being organized before I landed and staying organized each day by following a work plan I’d set for myself was essential to not losing my mind.

Why it might be good to apply for a job you don’t really want

Late last year, I was tipped to what, at some point in the not-so-distant past, might have been a dream job for me: an editorial position in the Mexico City bureau of a major news agency.

I wasn’t in the market for a job, but I felt strangely compelled to apply. The application required more time and effort than I should have invested in something I didn’t want, but it was an excellent exercise. I had to stop and think about what I’ve accomplished over the past decade. The application forced me to identify and list my skills; quantify and qualify my former and current professional responsibilities; and articulate my career goals. It also made me take a hard look at the choices I’ve made– why an MSW over a Masters in Journalism or Latin American Studies? I turned it all over in my mind for a bit.

Then, I hit “Send” and didn’t give the application a second thought.

The next day, the bureau chief emailed to say that she thought my application was strong and she wanted to see some of my editorial work. If she liked what she saw, we’d proceed with scheduling an interview.

Gulp.

Was I truly a competitive candidate amongst applicants who were probably more qualified (at least academically) than I, vying for this position in a tough economy? The thought that the answer was “Yes” was a serious confidence booster.

I pulled together some writing and editing samples and sent them to her the same day. Then, I sat back and started thinking: If this got to the point where I was offered a job, what was I going to do?

There was a handful of reasons why I really couldn’t take the job, chief among them being that Francisco can’t travel or live legally outside the US. There were more reasons why I wasn’t sure I wanted the job, including the fact that it was for a massive organization that was surely bureaucratic and I don’t function well in that type of environment. There was also the fact that I was pretty happy with what I was/am doing. Still, there were some dangling carrots: the (presumed) boost that working for this organization would likely give my career; the experience of working for a major news outlet; the possibility of making a living wage (not an unimportant variable); and, most alluringly, the chance to spend more time in D.F. , Mexico City, my maximum city, the place where I feel best.

As I mulled over all the possibilities, a strange thing happened. I realized that I wasn’t invested in the outcome of this application at all, and the lack of investment meant that I had the courage to ask for almost anything: an above-market salary, the possibility of commuting back and forth, and oh, could they possibly assist with housing and residency in Mexico?

Ultimately, they decided to go with an internal candidate, which was good; I didn’t have to make any tough decisions. But the entire exercise was a really helpful experience, one that gave me reason to pause and assess where I am and what I want, and one that helped me realize something key about myself: Why am I reluctant to ask for what I’m worth and what I deserve when the job is something I DO want, and why am I willing to go all out when the stakes aren’t so high?

The answer isn’t as simple as it might seem, and it’s given me a lot to work with.

 

Have you ever applied for a job you didn’t really want? Do you have a tough time asking for what you’re worth? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. 

What’s a blog trip? How is it different from a press trip?: An interview with Arantxa Ros

View of the Pyrenees from prop plane, one of the incredible #inPyrenees blog trip experiences

View of the Pyrenees from prop plane, one of the incredible #inPyrenees blog trip experiences

This year, I’ve participated in two trips spearheaded by Arantxa Ros, who collaborates with regional tourism boards in Spain to plan “blog trips” for travel writers who are deeply engaged with digital and social media.

During the first of these trips, I wasn’t entirely sure what a blog trip was and how it differed, if at all, from a traditional press trip (also called a FAM trip, such a dumb and ugly term). I soon learned that it was quite different, and in important ways. During the second trip, while on a bus transfer through the Pyrenees, Arantxa and I spoke at length about the distinguishing characteristics of a blog trip.

**

Julie:  What is a blog trip, and how is it different from a traditional press trip?

Arantxa: A blog trip is a different, unusual, and modern initiative to promote destinations or a brand [within the] tourism industry. The first thing is the high tech component; we want to focus on digital users. That’s why we need digital magazines, applications [apps], and blogs–to approach those users who are more into the Internet world than into traditional media. But [we don’t want to] forget about traditional media, especially nowadays. The wisest thing is not to think only about bloggers; I believe in communicators.

Julie: In terms of the actual outcomes on a traditional press trip, often the PR firm or the DMO [destination management organization] is looking for coverage in a print magazine. What are the products or outcomes you’re looking for on a blog trip?

Arantxa: We want to promote [the destination and its stakeholders] but we are not focused only on media [outlets]; we’re focused on the people who are representing those media. [With blogs], the interests and reach of these people are wider; they have different readers and users with different interests. The real-time factor is also important. By using social networks such as twitter, flickr, instagram, or facebook, [these bloggers reach more people through diverse media].

Julie:  Talk a little bit about those applications and the real-time effect of the #inPyrenees trip, both in terms of the reach that you’re seeing during a trip and the impact after a trip. How key are the social media platforms for real-time dissemination of what’s happening on the trip?

Arantxa:  The real-time impact is something we like and we’re experimenting with, but these actions are not just for the moment. If that were the case, we could just organize a tweetup or a facebook meeting, or whatever- have an event, select a group of participants, and and as soon as the event is over, you measure and that’s it. With the blog trip [it’s different]; it takes seven days; it’s a very [diverse] group of people. I expect immediate results, but also long-term results.

Nellie Huang of Wild Junket blog

Nellie Huang of Wild Junket blog

Julie: How do you choose the people who come on the blog trip? When you look at people who are “travel blogging influencers,” how do you make those determinations about who to invite on trips?

Arantxa: Well, first of all, I’ve been following all of them for three years… not just the people on this particular trip, but [travel bloggers in general]. You get to know the person in this way. I have done my best to meet most of them personally, not just me [face-to-face], but attending meetings or conferences, seeing how they interact [with others]. You also investigate the interactions they have with other bloggers and their own audience. I do this by looking at several sites, not just their own blogs. There’s also an interest in their market– the adventure market, for example–and languages. I’m looking for bloggers who are from or who reach readers in countries that produce actual visitors for Spain. Someone in New Zealand, for example isn’t very, very important for us; they might be very cool, but we can’t expect many visitors from there. [I have a] meeting [with the tourism board] and we decide what languages we need, what topics we need–gastronomy, adventure, culture–, and then we start to find the digital ambassadors.

An important part of the decision-making involves [making an assessment about] quality. You can’t determine quality by reading just one post. You have to be following for a long time. The technical tools available on the market also give me a lot of information about [readership/statistical] data. I also request information [from prospective bloggers] to get the data I can’t collect with my tools. If someone does not want to give [that information], then they’re not invited.

Chef Xesc Rovira of Michelin-starred Fonda Xesc

Chef Xesc Rovira of Michelin-starred Fonda Xesc

Julie: The activities we’ve had on this trip have been top-shelf experiences, and it seems like a massive amount of planning and coordination goes into the blog trip. How far out do you start planning them and what are some of the behind-the-scenes challenges and tasks involved in planning a blog trip of this magnitude?

Arantxa: It is a lot, because as I said before, we’re not planning an itinerary for a particular media [outlet], but for the people who are coming… the things they like, the things they don’t like, the things they are willing to do, and the things they’ve already done. We want the trip to have a “wow factor”– an element of surprise. And that’s something that we’re giving to a person. We’re not giving it to a magazine or a newspaper, but to the person. We’re looking at their interests, their dreams, their expectations. The itinerary is built up around all these considerations.

Jaume Marin of Costa Brava Tourism Board, briefing bloggers on #inPyrenees blog trip

Jaume Marin of Costa Brava Tourism Board, briefing bloggers on #inPyrenees blog trip

It’s quite complicated [planning the trip], because it’s not just the tourism board doing it alone. They involve a lot of people, a lot of brands and other [local] tourism boards, to create a collaborative team. That is very nice because everyone feels like they’re a part of the promotion or at least they had the chance to participate. It’s up to them. There are people [in the tourism industry] who are very willing to try new things [like the blog trip]. There are others who are more conservative,  but they are all given the chance.

To do things properly and get everything coordinated–the hotels, the providers of meals, and all the activities–takes a minimum of four months. Six months are ideal. There are always things you want to get–something important you don’t want to miss–and you depend upon the agenda of other people, so that has to be factored into the planning process. When nature is involved, you have to take weather into account and you have to have a Plan B. So you can have a great itinerary, but you have to have a side itinerary too.

Julie:   It also seems that a key factor in planning for a blog trip versus a traditional press trip is making sure that you have the technological connection. Having the MiFis on this trip, for example, is really critical. If the tourism board is going to get maximum return on its investment on a blog trip, then the bloggers have to be connected.

Arantxa: Of course. Without it, there’s no real-time element. We’re aware that [the participants] are working on these trips. It’s not just have the experience, take the photo, and you’re done. You’re [all] editing, uploading, writing blog posts, and communicating with your followers. Some of you are managing [online] communities; we understand you can’t just disappear for a week.

Julie:  You have really been the forerunner in establishing a blog trip model but I think that, as with any promotion, you can’t just pick up the model and import it to another destination and expect the same efficacy. If other people are looking at your efforts as a model for blog trips, what are some of the things you think are key that they could adapt for their own market?

Owner of SK Kayak, one of many industry providers on #inPyrenees blog trip

Owner of SK Kayak, one of many industry providers on #inPyrenees blog trip

Arantxa: These initiatives have to be inside a frame, aligned with a marketing and communications strategy. You can try to do one to see if it works, if you feel comfortable [doing this sort of initiative], and see if brands [and industry stakeholders] are willing to get involved. You have to experiment. There’s not a magic formula. Within [a tourism board’s] marketing plan, there has to be a digital marketing plan. Do your first blog trip as a test to see what works. Then, develop a long-term plan. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the maximum value.

Julie: How do you measure the return on investment of a trip like this? This is a massive investment.

Arantxa: I prefer to talk about “return of engagement.” Obviously, this is not cost-free, but when you get [industry stakeholders] involved, the costs are not as high as other [marketing] actions… if the brands really want to work with you. This is key. Working together, we spend less, we get more, we go farther. I think collaboration is a must.

Julie: Anything else you want to say about blog trips or about what you’ve learned after having planned several blog trips?

Arantxa: I think we have to keep exploring. We have to lose fear. We have to be wise, have wide expectations, think about the future and the new generations and the digital world and its continual evolution. There are many opportunities. The ones who try and test will get results. I don’t think you can maintain your brand simply by doing the same thing you’ve been doing for the past 50 years because it’s not enough. Communication for me is a must and focusing on the people is everything; the bloggers who come here become part of a project, a collaboration that continues beyond the trip.