I love it when Have Baby Will Travel readers take the time to share their travel stories with me! Heather took her family to the US Virgin Islands, and it sounds like she had an incredible time…
Heather takes her family to St. John, USVI.
We just returned from our second STJ trip with our son, who is currently 17 months old. I thought I would share our experiences/observations in hopes that it helps others in planning a great family vacation!
Flights and Air Travel in General:
We travel for vacation and family visits quite a bit. In the past, we have flown without purchasing our son a seat. The airlines were always kind in ticketing us next to an empty seat, if available. This trip, I decided to breakdown and purchase him a ticket. Comfort aside, we also needed the baggage allowance.
Every airline we flew allows a “free” baggage allowance for gate checking a stroller bag or car-seat. Get a ticket from the gate agent.
No matter what they might tell you, do not count on the airlines to having milk, water or food (free or for purchase) available. The families sitting around us had a hard time getting these items. They were told by well-meaning ticket and gate agents that beverages would be available to the children before or shortly after take off. Not so – I witnessed flight attendants refusing to provide liquids until the beverage service started with no exceptions made for children. The airline also did not have enough food available for purchase.
I packed meals and snacks for the each leg of the trip in a small lunch cooler. TSA allows milk and formula for babies/toddlers. I had everything contained within the cooler – no TSA problems at all.
Speaking of TSA – have a plan of action before you get to security. In our family, my husband is responsible for our son, the diaper bag, and his carry-on. I am responsible for the car seat and my carry-on. Knowing what each person is responsible for makes the transition through security much less stressful.
For our return leg of the trip, we had a Cape Air connection in San Juan. Prior to the trip, I called Cape Air directly to inquire about using our FAA-approved car seat and I was told that I could use the seat. Upon boarding, the flight crew would not allow me to use the seat. My concern was not so much safety in the event of a crash but containing a toddler in a small space. Sure enough, he wiggled his was out of the seat belt within a minute. Fortunately, he fell asleep a short-time after take off so there were no problems.
We will try to avoid the San Juan connection in the future, for many reasons relating to the transfer between airlines and the lack of support staff when problems arose with boarding passes, gate changes, etc. There was simply no one available to assist us with basic questions.
None of us experienced ear problems on flights, although. I do keep a sippy-cup of water or liquid handy for take off and landings.
To keep him occupied we bring one “new” toy or book for each hour of the trip. Often theses are just favourites that I hide two weeks prior to traveling. Forbidden items also work well, like Daddy’s cell phone that he is never allowed to play with at home. (Keys locked in the off position of course)
Cross-pack. We split our son’s clothing and gear between our bags. Good thing we did as the airline lost half of our bags and we had to wait a full day and a half for their return.
The lost luggage drama is something I would like to forget about but I feel a need to inform others about what happens when one loses a bag flying into St. Thomas and is staying on another island.
US Air tells you that they will call you when the bag turns up. In order to claim your bag, you must be waiting at the ferry dock on St. John to sign for it.
It is the waiting for the call part of the process that is frustrating. If you give the villa phone number and you are not there to receive the call, you are sh_t out of luck because your bag goes back to St. Thomas if no one is there to meet the ferry.
The availability of an answering machine doesn’t help because if you are out all day and miss the message, you are again out of luck. We had a 20-minute window from the time we received the call to the time to we had to be at the dock. It was only by luck that we happened to be at the house when the call came in.
Using a cell phone doesn’t help much either as service is spotty. If the calls go to voice mail, you miss the delivery time.
Here is what we learned:
- Get the name of the person at the airline baggage service desk AND the local phone number at the St. Thomas airport. US Air’s 1-800 number was absolutely worthless as you cannot speak to a live operator.
- Get the schedule of incoming flights so you have a general idea about what time you might expect a call.
- Prior to leaving the airport, check the baggage claim areas of the other airlines. We actually found some of our luggage at a different airline. (several pieces came down on a different flight)
- Have your contact number available at all times in case you need to provide it after the initial claim is filed. I called to check on our claim from downtown and was asked to provide the villa phone number, which I did not have on me at the time.
For our family, the benefits of having a pre-arranged taxi at the airport far outweigh the cost. We used Christopher Taxi for three years and his service continues to be top-notch. Knowing that we have the proper amount of time to install the car seat, change a diaper, etc. reduces the stress level all the way around.
We use Dohm’s for water transfer. Again, for us the service is worth the cost but I realize it might not be for other families.
We rented a house that allowed allow mobile children (not all do) and it worked well but it was not child-proofed or particularly kid-friendly. It was decorated with glass topped tables and metal porch furniture that was just waiting to crack a noggin. Also, it had crank-out, floor to ceiling windows inside and out that had sharp corners right at eye level. This actually ended up being more dangerous to the adults – all I can say is ouch!
I took a handful of electrical outlet plugs and two cabinet locks along. They weigh nothing and didn’t take up much room. Cable ties also work very well for securing doors with knobs or levers.
The house we rented had a pool, which we all really enjoyed. There was no safety gate or cover. This was not a big deal for us because we watch our son very closely.
The entire patio was tiled. When wet, this made for a very slippery surface. The patio was essentially the only outdoor area for play.
If a pool cover and kid-friendly design of the house in general is important for your family’s enjoyment and piece of mind, make sure you really question the rental agent on the subject.
I am not criticizing the villa or the rental agent; I am just mentioning issues that other parents of a toddler might find worthwhile to consider prior to selecting accommodations.
We stayed in the Chocolate Hole area. Drive time to the North Shore beaches was 15-25 minutes (going through Cruz Bay) depending on which beach we visited. Hawksnest was the shortest drive. Maho was by far our favourite. Both have parking close to the beach.
We also visited Francis and Jumby. Nice but not very convenient for transporting the boy and his gear. Cinnamon and Trunk have the most facilities and parking. We did not visit either on this trip.
Most beaches do have some shade but not always “good” shade. Sometimes shade means crawling under bushes (not fun) into areas already occupied by ants or bugs (even less fun).
We took a beach umbrella along in our checked baggage. It was a better quality model with a wind vent and screw anchor; both were absolutely necessary. We didn’t need to use it much but it was definitely one of those “better safe than sorry” pieces of travel gear.
In the past, we used a pop-up travel shade tent. The pop-up was great for an infant but would not have worked for this trip as our son would not have sat in it willingly.
We are fans of the Neat Sheet. It repels water and sand, is reasonably priced, and comfortable to sit upon while in a wet bathing suit.
We had no problem at all with naps on the beach. We packed the cooler full of food and beverages and made a day of it.
Our son is very fair. We found spray-on sunscreen to be great for his head and face. I basically painted him like I was using a can of spray paint. We coated him prior to leaving the house and periodically during the day.
Doing the first coat prior to hitting the beach was a lesson we learned the hard way on day one. As soon as he hit the beach, he raced into the water and became covered with sand. Trying to apply sunscreen to a squirming, sand-covered toddler is not an experience I want to repeat. He would not wear a t-shirt or hat. SPF 45 kept him pasty white!
We kept a jug of fresh water in the back of the rental vehicle to rinse him off after we were finished at the beach. A quick change of clothes and we were on our way in comfort.
The villa had a serviceable collection of sand toys. Toys were also available at St. John Kids (Wharfside Village) and Chelsea Drug Store (Marketplace).
We have both a pop-open hamper and a smaller, pop-open toy basket that I purchased at the local big-box retailer. Each cost less than $4 and what a stress reducer! These are mesh with a flexible metal interior frame and fold down to a little packet. The toy basket especially came in handy for keeping the house in order. I can’t stand clutter and a one-minute toy pick-up twice a day kept the floor clear of toys.
We took very few toys, though – just enough to occupy our son on the plane. He found the villa’s plastic containers far more interesting than any of his own toys.
Last year the villa rental agency provided us with a pack-n-play free of charge. This year, we took a sleeping tent pod(for lack a better term) that completely zips closed. It breaks down, very handy for travel and toddler-containment at night.
We also took a travel high chair (purchased from the same source) that came in handy as the furniture in the house wasn’t toddler-friendly for dining. In town, not all restaurants have high chairs.
There is a rental service on St. John island for kid items, ask the villa agent. Because we already had these things from prior trips, we took them along.
The villa we rented was small enough that we had no need for a baby monitor. Our son slept on the floor of our bedroom.
We have yet to take a stroller on vacation. The usability of a stroller on St. John probably depends on whether or not your kid is a “stroller kid.” We use a backpack for foot journeys. It has the added feature of lots of stroller compartments, which eliminates the need for a diaper/gear bag.
Personally, I don’t think the St. John roads or the streets of Cruz Bay are stroller friendly due to the lack of sidewalks in many places and the driving styles of both residents and tourists. That being said, we saw lots and lots of families with strollers during our trip.
Food and Other Stuff:
Advance planning really helped in the feeding area. For good or for bad, I am the family member responsible for the deciding where, when and what we eat.
I made a menu calendar to plan out meals, which I used to make the shopping list. This was not nearly as uptight as it sounds, I just wanted to have a plan of attack so I could get on with my day. Left to his own devices, it would take my husband an hour to cook a huge breakfast, an hour to clean up and another hour to pack our lunch.
The Starfish Market had a great selection of fruits, veggies, pre-cooked foods, etc. I used the same small airplane cooler for our day trips to the beach. Knowing what to cook for breakfast and what to prepare and pack for the beach saved us valuable time that was better spent enjoying our vacation.
We ate out at a number of restaurants. As I previously mentioned, high chairs were not always available. Our son eats what we eat so dedicated kids’ menus weren’t a concern for us. I did make a point to glance at prices; expect to pay $10 or so for a children’s meal.
We rented a Jeep Liberty for this trip. Having four doors made the in and out of car seat travel much easier than in a Wrangler or similar two-door vehicle.
Sleep has not been a problem on vacation. By nature, our little guy is a good and heavy sleeper so strange noises are an issue. The amount of early morning sun did have him up sooner than normal.