Repost: Taking Your Whole Big Family to China

I originally wrote this post in November 2013, after our September adoption trip. This is consistently one of my most popular posts because so many people wonder if taking their children with them is a good decision. This is the only post about travel on my blog, but I have two full travel related chapters in my book.

When my dear husband suggested we take our four children with us to China to adopt Leo, I thought he was crazy.  I had a long list of reasons why it was a bad idea.  But he listened to me, and I listened to him, and in the end I came to agree that there were a lot of good reasons why we should take them along.  I talked to several families who had taken a similar amount of children who were close in age to ours.  I remember asking one to write a blog post with her advice and suggestions.  But she never did, so I decided to write that post as my final post for National Adoption Month.  Because you know what?  Several people have asked me for the same sort of information since I’ve been home.  I guess there are a lot of us crazy families out there!

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So let’s talk about what is involved in taking your whole big family to China.  I’m going to talk about the various aspects of the trip and talk about what worked for us, as well as give general cost information.  If you are still trying to decide whether or not you want to take your children, I think what is most important is to consider the personalities of your children.  How easy going are they?  What are they like when they get off their routine?  Are they picky eaters?  This trip is long, there are times where you will spend an entire day waiting around an airport or driving through traffic so you can travel to a different city.  The food is unfamiliar, the jet lag is exhausting, and you’ll be adding a new family member on top of all that!  This will work best if your children are fairly flexible, old enough to understand that sometimes they’re going to be bored, and tend to be adventurous.

1. FlightsIMG_2140

Airfare is your largest expense in the trip, and there really isn’t much you can do about it.  The fare will vary by season, and while most families will prefer to travel over summer vacation, this is the most expensive time to travel.  We were not able to travel immediately due to circumstances beyond our control and the month long delay bumped us from summer into the fall when fares drop.  Airlines started offering child fares again, and it turned out that delaying travel by a month saved us $1000 per person in airfare.  (There were six of us, so you do the math here.) This may or may not be an option for you, but it is something to keep in mind.

Keeping the children entertained for hours on a plane was one of my biggest fears.  In the end, that was the easiest part of the trip.  Before we bought our tickets we made sure the plane had individual video consoles for every seat.  This meant that each child could watch on demand movies or tv shows for pretty much the entire flight.  We tried to get them to sleep, but since we usually have strict media limits, they all kept saying they weren’t sleepy because they didn’t want the tv time to be over.  In the end, this was very helpful in overcoming jet lag.  We didn’t have to keep awake very long once we arrived in China, and we all got a good night’s sleep the first night.

2. Accommodations IMG_0071_2

Your hotel cost is the second most expensive part of the trip.  Chinese hotels have limits on how many people can stay in a room, just like US hotels. While I have heard of people cramming six or seven into a room, most people will probably need to get a second room or maybe more depending on your party size.  Children age twelve and up are considered adults, and usually the limit is three adults per room.  We had one twelve year old, so we averaged two adults and two children per room.  Hotels will bring a cot to fit in an extra person for fee that is usually around $50.

You will have some choice as to what type of room you will be staying in.  You can choose to have a room with two “twin” beds, which are similar to a US full size, or a suite that has one king size bed and a living room area.  Sometimes you can get adjoining rooms, and other times they are not available.  We were fortunate enough to be able to have two adjoining rooms at all three hotels.  For our time in Beijing we did not pay for a suite because we knew we would be out sightseeing most of the day and would only be in the room to sleep.  The other two cities we did get one suite and one standard room.  We thought the living room area would give us more room to relax during nap time or on rainy days, and we were very happy with this decision.  Many hotels will also have an “executive” option where you pay more per day but have access to more free bottled water, a lounge, and sometimes a light food buffet.  We didn’t choose this option and got along just fine without the executive perks.

3. Food OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Most families really look forward to the free breakfast buffet included with the room.  At all three hotels where we stayed, the amount of food was extravagant.  American, European, and Asian breakfast foods were provided.  Most people say that after eating the breakfast buffet, they only ate one other full meal a day, with just a snack to get by. One problem we ran into was that not all hotels had the policy that all guests could eat free, or that all children under a certain age could eat free.  Sometimes the breakfast was limited to two guests per room, which left us short a few breakfasts.  We had the option to pay for the buffet but at a cost of $20 or more per person.  Since we could feed our entire group of eight people for less than that at a Chinese restaurant, we opted to take turns going to the buffet and the other people would eat in the room or at another local dining option.

Eating the local cuisine will definitely save you a lot of money because it was much cheaper than eating at the western food places like KFC or Pizza Hut.  Our meals out for seven people cost between $12 and $20.  A good portion of that cost was for soda since we couldn’t drink the water, and we didn’t care for Chinese tea.  If you don’t like Asian food, then you will need to budget more for food each day.  Eating at the hotel will obviously be more expensive than wandering out on the streets to find local restaurants.

Many families pack extra food along.  One woman I spoke with said they packed an entire suitcase of food!   We packed light, but you will definitely want to pack at least some snacks for times when you are traveling or are too exhausted to go out and get food.  Foods that most people pack include oatmeal or cream of wheat packets (there is an electric kettle in the room), granola bars, peanut butter crackers, travel packs of peanut butter, applesauce, pudding, or fruit cups, and tuna in the vacuum sealed pouch with some mayo packets.  Anything you can think of that travels well and can be eaten straight out of the packet or prepared with boiling water will do.  I also packed some of those disposable plastic red Solo bowls and a ziplock with plastic forks, spoons, and knives.  This was really helpful for when we had takeout in the room, and you can take plastic forks along when you eat out for kids who are too young to eat with chopsticks.

4. ToursOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You will need to decide if you want to travel straight to your province, or stop in either Beijing or Hong Kong for a day or two of sight-seeing.  If the budget is tight, then this is the best way to cut costs.  However, we felt that if we were going all that way, we didn’t want to miss out on seeing famous sights like the Great Wall!  You will pay per person for tours, and the ones we were offered ranged from $30 to $100+ per person.  This included transportation, English speaking guide services, and often a meal.  Some families will arrange for to use one of the several private guides recommended by others in the adoption community and this can be significantly cheaper than the tour companies.

We decided that touring in Beijing was important to us, and we did pay for extras like the guided tours because we knew those first two days would be rough while we were jet-lagged.  After that, we planned on seeing China without tours.  There are a lot of great things to see in Nanjing and Guangzhou, but we thought that just walking around in the hotel area to see the parks and shops would be entertaining as well.  That is what we did, and we had a great time.  I printed out maps ahead of time that showed the areas around our hotels as well as read up online to see what other adoptive parents said they liked to see and do at that location.  That’s how we ended up eating at the wonderfully tasty but still unnamed dumpling shop.  Guangzhou has a great subway system that is easy to navigate, so you can also try getting around that way.  Bringing Home Holland has very good directions on how to get from the China Hotel to the Safari Park on her blog.

We also felt that doing some fun touristy things on the front end of the tour would give us more flexibility after Leo joined our family.  Many children come with medical issues such as an ear infection.  It is not uncommon for them to grieve heavily through this transition time, and Leo had his sad moments.  We explained to the children that we might end up staying in the hotel all day if it seemed better for Leo, or because of poor weather.  I think we would have been more likely to have one of us and Linda take the older children out or down to swim in the hotel pool if Leo was grieving, but we wanted the children to understand that the trip was not a vacation, and to help them to empathize with Leo.  Things went very smoothly for us, but these are all things to consider when you are choosing whether or not to take your other children with you on the trip.

5. Packing IMG_2120

We packed so light that this picture shows all of our suitcases (minus three backpacks and my mother-in-law’s luggage).  It was great to not have to haul a huge amount through the airport!  Now, we were fortunate enough to travel in warm weather so we didn’t have to pack winter clothes for Beijing/Nanjing and summer clothes for Guangzhou.  My biggest advice here is to remember that you can buy pretty much anything you need in China–clothes, food, diapers and formula are all readily available.

In the carry on bag, I packed one outfit for everyone, medications, and toiletries in case our other two bags got lost.  The two larger bags I designated as the Beijing bag and the Nanjing bag.  I wanted to have everything we needed in Beijing in the Beijing bag so we wouldn’t even open the Nanjing bag until we arrived there.  The Beijing bag had outfits for the two days and swim gear while all of the baby stuff was in the Nanjing bag.  This system worked very all.  All of our important documents and electronics were in the backpacks we kept with us on the plane.

I packed about three pairs of shorts and four shirts for everyone, all mix and match.  Most of the shirts I packed for the children could fit at least two different children, so it was easy to find something that was clean enough to wear.  I mostly packed free activity related shirts for the kids that we could toss at the end of the trip.  For shoes, everyone but myself and my mother-in-law wore Keens.  We wore the same shoes every day, and that saved a lot of packing room.  Again, I know this isn’t possible for everyone due to weather or foot issues, but it worked out great for us.  We packed a reasonable amount of snacks and medicines, trusting that we could buy things we needed in China.  I only took one pack of American diapers, one bottle with two nipples, two sippy cups, and one can of formula.  I took most of the medicines out of their boxes or containers and packed them in snack sized ziplock bags, all clearly labeled with dosing information, and then packed the 15+ snack sized ziplocks into one quart sized one.  It saved a ton of space and kept everything together!  I highly recommend packing Melatonin to take in the evenings to help with jet lag.

IMG_1299Laundry is very expensive to have done at the hotels, and fairly expensive even sending out to a local place, just because you generate a lot of laundry.  I did all of our laundry by washing in the bathtub or sink.  I used Tide travel packets of soap, along with a bar of Fels-Naptha.  I found it worked best to just wash a few things every day.  We didn’t have any trouble getting things to dry, and you can finish off clothes that are a little damp by using the ironing board in the room.  I packed our clothes in large travel roll-up ziplock bags.  I was able to get one outfit for each of us (a full day’s set of clothing) in each bag.  It worked best if I took the time every evening to sort out what needed to be washed, what could be reworn, and sort clean clothing into outfits to go back into the bags.  It made it much easier to stay on top of the laundry and to have a clean outfit for everyone ready for the next day.

6. EntertainmentIMG_1392

There is a lot of time to fill in a two week trip to China.  We usually went out both in the morning and afternoon but we still had time in the hotel, in the van, and in the airport to kill.

I packed three backpacks: one for Matt and I to share, one for Mary Evelyn and Max (12 and 10), and one for Gregory and Vincent (7 and 4).  Mary Evelyn is wearing the Gregory/Vincent backpack here which doubled as our diaper bag when we went out.  The older two kids took their Nintendo DSes and I purchased a new game for each of them to help keep them entertained.  Gregory and Vincent took iPod shuffles filled with audiobooks.  Gregory loves to listen to audiobooks, and I purchased several new ones for him.  Vincent isn’t as occupied by audiobooks, but we already had an extra shuffle and he would listen to Winnie the Pooh or Beatrix Potter for half and hour at a time if needed.

IMG_1526Besides these bigger electronic items, each bag had items like a coloring book and crayons, word find book, packs of card games, travel play dough, colored pipe cleaners, and other little items that I picked up cheaply at a dollar store.  My mother in law Linda came armed with her own bag of entertainment and she saved us many times by pulling out some new little toy when tempers were running short and people were getting bored.

In the adult backpack we took our Ipad, which I used to blog and was our secret weapon during Leo’s naptime.  We were able to stream Netflix for American entertainment using a VPN to circumvent China’s internet restrictions.  Matt knew how to hook it up to the big screen TV provided at all the hotels so the kids could lounge around on the bed and watch a movie while the adults got some quiet recharging time.  We were also able to Facetime with Grandpa back home using the Ipad.

IMG_1348The last way to keep busy is the hotel pool.  I packed our swimsuits, swim diapers for Leo, goggles, and two swim rings which packed completely flat in the suitcase.  If you are traveling during cool weather, make sure you pick the items up during the summer when you can still get them in stores.  Check to see if your hotels have indoor or outdoor pools.  Many hotels require swim caps in China although we didn’t pack them and didn’t need them.

7. Bringing Extra HelpIMG_1519

We decided to see if my mother-in-law Linda would be interested in coming to China with us and we were so grateful that she said yes!  It was so helpful to have an extra set of hands so that our child to adult ratio was lower.  Our kids are old enough that we could have done it by ourselves, but it was much easier with Linda along.  If you’re thinking of bringing a friend or relative along, I’d recommend asking the same sorts of questions you would ask when thinking about bringing the children along.  Is this person an easy traveler?  Do you get along with them well?  You will be spending two weeks in close quarters, so you want to make sure that your companion won’t add friction to an already stressful trip.  Also consider whether they will be respectful of the attachment process.  Linda made sure she let us always carry, feed, and change Leo.  She mostly cared for the older children, and didn’t give any extra attention to Leo.  She asked me to take this picture as we were packing up to head home because she’d done such a good job of hanging back that she hadn’t ever held him like this before so they didn’t have any pictures together!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, I hope this has been helpful if you are thinking of taking several kids with you to China.  If there is something you are wondering about and I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment and I can add to the article.  I’d like to thank Ann from Crazy For Kids, Mandy from Our Bigger Picture, and Yvette from Bringing Home Holland who all gave me advice and encouragement.  While we were on the trip, I met Kristi from Fireworks and Fireflies who is very experienced at taking a large family to China.

Some blog posts which were written after we traveled: Nicole at Living Out His Love has a post on her experience taking siblings to adopt.  A more recent post on traveling with a large family is here and they traveled with children in wheelchairs!  Jill Bevan at Hilltop Memories gives some great tips from her trip here. Remember, you can do it, and you will have lots of fun making memories on the trip of a lifetime!

Note: Our trip was in September 2013 so keep in mind that the prices or options may no longer be accurate.

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