Monday, December 5, 2011

Trip log: Philadelphia (Thanksgiving)

Note: We've gone to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving for the last four years, so this post will include what we've done in the past as well as what we did on this trip.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dates: November 23-29, 2011

Ages: Littles = 4 years 5 months, Noob = 21 months

Methods of transportation: We flew into Philadelphia and rented a car.

Accommodations: Vacation rental in Bryn Mawr, found through

In the past, we've usually stayed out by the airport, as that's relatively close to my grandmother's house. We've stayed at the Embassy Suites, Sheraton Suites, Four Points, aloft, and Residence Inn. They are all fine, although I would recommend one of the three suite-style options (Embassy Suites, Sheraton Suites, or Residence Inn) for traveling with kids, as it's nice having an extra bedroom. Note that the Residence Inn's studio suites do not have an extra bedroom.

Sleeping arrangements: The vacation rental had two bedrooms. Noob always slept in the Peapod Plus in one room. Some nights, Littles slept in the bed in that room. Some nights, she slept in the bed in the other room with me, and Hubby slept in the room with Noob.

Eating arrangements: We typically eat out quite a bit, since we're visiting family, and this trip was no exception. The vacation rental did provide a high chair for Noob, which came in handy for breakfasts and take-out meals at "home." We were also able to host Thanksgiving dinner at the vacation rental, which worked out really nicely!


The main focus of our Philadelphia trips is always to visit family. But when we go for the holidays, we usually end up flying out a little "early" or staying a little "late" (or both!), as the tickets are cheaper. So we do have some time to sightsee.

Riding the SEPTA train into downtown Philadelphia to see the Macy's Christmas Lights Show (a Philadelphia holiday tradition):


Stopping by Reading Terminal Market for some snacks and to check out the holiday train display:


Enjoying a soft pretzel from Reading Terminal Market on the train ride home:


Walking around downtown Bryn Mawr, and stopping at the fabulous Pun's Toys to check out the window displays:


The Franklin Institute. Wonderful hands-on science stuff. My dad practically lived here as a kid, and I have great memories of visiting as a child, too, so I love taking the kids there.


Other things we've done on past trips, which we didn't have time to do this year...

Visited Valley Forge National Historical Park, to walk around and visit the various historical structures:


Visited the Please Touch Museum. We did this last year and had an absolute blast. We could barely drag Littles away. I'd recommend it over the Franklin Institute for younger kids (it's designed for ages 7 and under), although my kids do enjoy both.


Visited the Philadelphia Zoo. This was another favorite spot of mine as a kid. That's Littles at about 17 months old, in this picture:

2008-11-27 001 023

We've also used Philadelphia as a base for exploring the rest of the mid-Atlantic region. We've mostly gone south, to Baltimore and Washington DC, as we have a lot of friends and family who live or lived down there. We've done day trips (it's about a 2-3 hour drive) and also gone down to stay for a few days. Some of the things we've done:

You could also just as easily go north from Philadelphia, into New Jersey and New York. Maybe we'll get around to that, one of these years!

Key piece of travel gear: Noob's new Britax Boulevard 70 car seat + the quick release strap for our GoGo Kidz Travelmate. This combo works really well together! I'll write a full review later.

Biggest challenge: The flights, again. I'm coming to terms with the fact that Noob is a really bad traveler :)

What worked well:

  • Using a vacation rental, yet again. As usual, we appreciated having more room to spread out, and access to a washer/dryer to cut down on the amount of clothes we had to bring. Also, this particular property had two suites available, so my parents were able to rent the one directly upstairs from us. The kids loved having their grandparents so close! (When we've stayed at hotels In the past, we've gotten adjoining hotel rooms, which works well, too.)
  • Location, location, location. The location of the vacation rental was fabulous, with shops, restaurants, playgrounds, the train station, and -- well, sidewalks within walking distance. So we were able to get outside with the kids whenever they got antsy. In the past, when we've stayed out by the airport, that hasn't been an option, as there's really not much around except for parking lots and a few restaurants.
  • Monday sightseeing. We've been to the Franklin Institute a few times on past trips, and we usually go with my parents over the weekend. (They always fly home Sunday night to get to work on Monday.) This year, we weren't able to squeeze it in while they were in town, so we went on Monday and not surprisingly, it was a lot less busy. Next year, we won't be able to stay till Monday, since we'll have to get Littles back to kindergarten(!). But if she has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, I hope we can fly out early and get in some sightseeing during the less-busy times before the holiday.

What didn't: Nothing, really. Noob made the flights pretty miserable, but we did the best we could with flight times (flying during naptime in both directions -- he did nap on the way out, not on the way home). As I said, he's just a really bad traveler!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Trip log: Florida Keys

Locations: Miami, and Big Pine Key (about half an hour east of Key West)

Dates: September 16-24, 2011

Ages: Littles = 4 years 3 months, Noob = 19 months

Methods of transportation: We flew into Fort Lauderdale, which was cheaper and less insane than the Miami airport. Upon arrival, we rented a car for the week.

Accommodations: Hotel room for the first two nights in Miami. Vacation rental in Big Pine Key, found through

Sleeping arrangements: In the hotel room, Noob slept in a hotel pack n play, and Littles slept in the Peapod Plus.

In the vacation rental, Hubby and I slept in the master bedroom. Littles and Noob shared the second bedroom, with Littles in bed and Noob in the Peapod Plus. (The vacation rental provided a pack n play, but Noob is able to climb out of those now, and we didn't want him doing that without an adult in the room.)

Eating arrangements:There was a grocery store right on BIg Pine Key (about a five-minute drive from our vacation rental), so we bought food there and cooked most meals at "home." The vacation rental provided a booster seat, which we used for Noob.

Checking out the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Key Biscayne (a short drive from downtown Miami):


Visiting Everglades National Park, and walking the Anhinga Trail (we did this on our drive down to the Keys):



Bahia Honda State Park, just a short drive from Big Pine Key. We visited all the beaches and hiked up the old railroad bridge.




Fishing in the channel behind our vacation rental:


Day trip to Key West to visit the Key West Butterfly Conservatory, and Fort Zachary Taylor State Park:



Checking out all sorts of wildlife at Blue Hole and other areas of the National Key Deer Refuge, which covers most of Big Pine Key:

(yes, that's an alligator visible between the slats...)


Making buttons at the fabulous (and free!) visitor center for the National Key Deer Refuge. This little gem is a must-visit if you find yourself on Big Pine Key with kids. In addition to the buttons, they had various stuffed animals, and a table full of things for kids to touch (key deer antlers and skulls, snake skins, turtle shells, etc.)


Enjoying some amazing sunsets (and stargazing far from city lights):


Key piece of travel gear: The Peapod Plus. Versatile enough to work for both Littles and Noob!

Biggest challenge: The flights. We chose late afternoon flights (around 4 PM) in both directions. Big mistake. Noob got his usual nap in before both flights, and therefore didn't sleep at all in the air. It's only about 2.5 hours from Dallas to Fort Lauderdale, but that's a long time to occupy an active toddler on an airplane...

What worked well:

  • Going in September. It's hurricane season, which means that rates are lower. We made sure to choose a vacation rental that had a full-refund policy in the event of a hurricane, just be safe. Obviously, that didn't happen, so we enjoyed a great vacation for a lot less money! It did rain almost every day, but there were more than enough periods of sunshine to do everything we wanted to do outdoors.
  • Big Pine Key. We chose this key over the more-famous Key West because it was much less touristy and offered more of the outdoorsy stuff that we love to do. (Bonus: Outdoorsy stuff is cheaper than touristy stuff!) Plus, it put us much closer to the beaches at Bahia Honda, which we far preferred to the ones at Fort Zachary Taylor. And Key West was still a very easy day trip.
  • Using a vacation rental, again! This is definitely our preferred way to travel with kids. One nice perk of this particular one: It included a Florida state parks pass, which saved us about $40 on entrance fees to the two state parks we visited over the course of the week.
  • One nap a day. Noob dropped his second nap after our Panama trip. It was nice being able to go places in the morning without having to worry about when/how he might nap.

What didn't:

  • Our hotel room in Miami. We stayed at the same hotel that we stayed on our first Miami layover during our Panama trip, but the room we got this time around was half the size. The bed, Peapod Plus, and pack n play took up virtually all the floor space.
  • Mosquito repellent. Lots of mosquitos in the rainy season. We all got bitten in spite of repellent -- except Noob, for some reason.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Top kid travel gear: Safety First Go Hybrid Booster


When Noob outgrew his infant car seat last December, we opted to move him into Littles' old convertible seats, and purchase new seats for Littles. I selected two seats that convert from forward-facing 5-point harness seats into belt positioning booster seats as the child grows. In Hubby's car, Littles sits in a Graco Nautilus, and in my car, a Safety First Go Hybrid Booster. Both seats are our everyday car seats at home, but I chose the Go Hybrid specifically with an eye towards traveling as well. Our recent trip to Panama was our first opportunity to see how the Go Hybrid performed on the road.

The Basics
The Go Hybrid provides a forward-facing 5-point harness for children who are at least 1 year old and between 22-65 lbs. It does not rear face, so I do not recommend it for children under age 2, per the AAP's recently revised car seat usage guidelines. Hence why Noob doesn't use this seat.

It also converts to a backless booster for children who are at least 3 years old and between 40-100 lbs. Again, remember that just because you can use it as a booster does not mean that you should. Please review this information to determine whether your child is ready for a booster seat. Littles is 4 years old and just shy of 40 lbs right now, and I have zero plans to convert this seat to a booster anytime soon.

I also want to call out that the Go Hybrid does not convert to a high back booster, only to a backless booster. There is some great information about the safety of each type of booster here. High back boosters are considered to be a little safer, but I’m not too worried about this. When the time comes to move Littles out of the harness, if I’m not comfortable with her being in a backless booster, I figure we’ll move Noob into the Go Hybrid’s harness, and buy a new high back booster for Littles. High back boosters are much cheaper and lighter than regular car seats, so this should be a very workable solution both at home and while traveling.

There is detailed information on this seat’s limits and measurements at

The seat has a unique design with a soft, flexible back. Because of this feature, it is very light, weighing in at around 8 lbs, and it also can fold up to be just a little larger than the base. This makes it an excellent seat for for traveling! It even comes with a handy (although somewhat thin) travel bag. Here is Littles' Go Hybrid in its travel bag:


Also because of this flexible back, the seat requires a LATCH top tether. It is unusable without it. Ironically, that means that this fabulous travel seat is not usable on an airplane! This is fine for our purposes, because Littles has not used a car seat on an airplane in nearly two years anyway. (If you like the Go Hybrid for the car but want protection on the airplane too, check out the CARES harness, which will provide compact and lightweight protection while in flight.)

At home
The Go Hybrid has been Littles' seat in my 2007 Honda Fit Sport for about seven months now, and I love it. Installation was a breeze when using LATCH. I did try a seatbelt install, and could not get it tight enough to be safe no matter what I tried, so I've stuck with LATCH.

(As a side note, LATCH anchors are typically stated to have an upper weight limit of 48 lbs -- check your car manual to confirm. This is based on a child-plus-car-seat weight of 68 lbs and the assumption that the average car seat weighs around 20 lbs. Since the Go Hybrid is much lighter, it can safely be used with LATCH anchors with a child weighing up to 60 lbs.)

The Go Hybrid works great as an everyday seat. The harness is a little unique in that it is tightened on either side of the child's legs, rather than in the middle, as most seats do. But it's easy to use once you get used to it, and I find that I have a lot fewer problems with twisted straps in this seat vs. our other seats. Her preschool does a car line drop-off, and the various teachers who come to get her each morning never have any trouble with the harness. I also love that it's an "infinite adjust" harness, so I don't have to take the seat out of the car to adjust the harness height.

The seat does not have a lot of padding, and on the rare occasions when Littles does sleep in the car, her head slumps in a way that doesn't seem comfortable at all:

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At home, June 2011 (almost 4 years old)

But I should note that the head-slump thing happens in the Graco Nautilus, too. And for the record, Littles has never complained about comfort. She seems to really like this seat. In particular, she loves that the low-profile design puts her closer to the actual car seat, so she's able to reach her books, toys, etc. It really looks more like a "big kid" booster seat than a "little baby" convertible seat, so it's a great way to keep older kids harnessed longer!

On the road
But there are lots of seats that work great for everyday usage. What really sets the Go Hybrid apart is how well it works while traveling.

Because the seat folds up so small, it was a breeze to travel with. We were able to place it on top of one of our large rolling suitcases when walking around the airport. This was fantastic, as it meant that Littles' car seat didn't "use up" one of our hands. One person could handle one large suitcase, Noob’s car seat on the GoGo Kidz Travelmate, and the Go Hybrid. The other person could handle two more large suitcases. Had we used a regular car seat for Littles (on a Travelmate, of course), we would have had to leave one suitcase – and some of our stuff! – back at home.

The downsides of the Go Hybrid? The reliance on LATCH proved to be a little bit of a pain. Our cab driver at the Miami airport got pretty annoyed with us because it took a while to find the LATCH anchors and tethers in the unfamiliar car.

Also, not every car comes with LATCH (or ISOFIX, as it's called in many other countries). If you're renting a car in the USA, you shouldn't have any problems, but if you're traveling internationally or if you'll be driving with a friend who might have an older car, you should confirm that LATCH will be available.

Also, due to the soft back, the Go Hybrid must be installed in a seat that has a back high enough to support it, when used in harness mode. That is, when your child is seated in the Go Hybrid, the car seat's back plus the headrest (if available) must be at least as high as your child's head. We didn't have any problems with that on this trip, but it's something to look out for, especially when using this seat with taller children.

The verdict
I love this seat and highly recommend it! It is a wonderful everyday seat, and the fact that it works so well while traveling is simply icing on the cake. This is hands-down the best car seat I've seen for traveling, as long as you're confident that you'll have LATCH at your destination.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Trip log: Panama

Locations: Playa Blanca Resort, Panama City

Dates: July 7-17, 2011

Ages: Littles = 4 years 1 month, Noob = 17 months

Methods of transportation: Flying to get to Panama. We had to go through Miami, as there are no direct flights from Dallas to Panama City. We opted to do overnight layovers in both directions, so we left the Miami airport and spent the night in a hotel, rather than doing straight shots between Dallas and Panama City.

On the ground in Miami, we relied on taxis and hotel shuttles to get around. In Panama, we rented a car.

Accommodations: Vacation rental at Playa Blanca Resort, found through Regular hotel rooms for two nights in Miami and one night in Panama City.

Sleeping arrangements: We spent the bulk of the trip (7 nights) in the vacation rental. It had three bedrooms, so Hubby, Noob, and I stayed in the master bedroom, my sister-in-law stayed in a second bedroom, and Littles had the third bedroom to herself. Noob slept in a pack-n-play provided by the vacation rental owner; the rest of us slept in beds.

In the hotel rooms, Noob slept in the Peapod Plus, and Littles slept in one of the beds.

Eating arrangements: We bought food at a grocery store in Coronado (about half an hour away) and cooked almost all our meals in the condo. The vacation rental provided a high chair, which made eating with Noob much easier.


Hanging out at the beach. In addition to the beach at Playa Blanca itself, which was just a short walk from our condo, we also visited two other beaches (El Palmar and Santa Clara) located nearby. There are lots of these up and down the Pacific coast from Panama City, so you can take your pick. Many of these are open to the public but do charge an entry fee -- El Palmar cost $10 per car, and Santa Clara cost $3 per adult.


Riding horses on the beach!


Hanging out in the pool at the condo.


Visiting El Valle (about 40 minutes inland from our condo), a cute little town with a nice arts and crafts market, along with the Chorro Macho waterfall.


Watching ships pass through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, from the terrace of the excellent visitors center.


Key piece of travel gear: My solarveil mei tai carrier. We were in and out of the water all week, so it was nice having a carrier that I could use wet or dry. Also, the ocean was sometimes a little rough, so on those occasions, I loved putting Noob in the carrier so that he could dip his toes without being washed away.


Biggest challenges: Getting Noob's passport, as I explained in a previous post! Also, during the trip itself, we were worried about the kids and/or us getting sick from the food or water, so we were cautious about what we ate and drank, especially at first. But we found that food/water standards in Panama are much higher overall than they are in many other Latin American countries. None of us had any problems with illness.

What worked well:

  • Overnight layovers in Miami. This did extend our trip slightly, but it was so nice not having to get off one plane and get right back on another one. It also greatly cut down on the stress of trying to make our connection, especially when our outbound flight was delayed by an hour.
  • Mia's car seat. This was our first trip traveling with the Safety First Go Hybrid Booster, and it worked out beautifully. I'll write a full review later.
  • Using a vacation rental. Some of our favorite features of our condo, compared to a hotel room:
    • Separate bedrooms and a living area. This allowed the adults to hang out in the evenings while the kids went to sleep.
    • A full kitchen. Our food costs were ridiculously low, and it was so much less stressful eating in the condo vs. packing up the kids to eat out.
    • Washer/dryer in the condo. This allowed us to cut down dramatically on the clothes we brought.
    • Little extras, like the pack-n-play and high chair for Noob, a telescope for Littles to play with, a collection of kid-friendly DVDs, etc.
  • Being within walking distance of the beach. For example, this allowed all of us to go to the beach after breakfast, and then one of us could walk back to the condo with Noob when it was time for his morning nap.

What didn't:

  • Having to install/uninstall the car seats multiple times (due to the Miami layovers), in multiple unfamiliar cars.
  • Not speaking much Spanish. Luckily, my sister-in-law (who lives in Panama) was able to translate.
  • Line drying. Being in the tropics during rainy season is not conducive to swimsuits, towels, etc. drying quickly!
  • Sharing a bed with Littles. On our outbound layover in Miami, we booked a room with a single king bed to save a little money, and on our last night in Panama, Littles shared a fold-out couch with my sister-in-law. Littles is all over the place when she sleeps, and so the adult(s) did not get much sleep those nights :)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

How to entertain a toddler on a flight

People often ask what to bring on a flight with small children to keep them entertained. When Littles was an infant, I used to pack a ton of toys in the diaper bag, but I found that the amount of time that they entertained her for was not worth the hassle of bringing them.

So now, I take a pretty minimalist approach. Littles is easy. She'll quietly watch DVDs the entire flight, so we make sure to pack the DVD player, the car adapter (we usually fly American Airlines, which has DC power outlets at many seats), and a couple of DVDs. We have an extra Zune at home and I keep saying I'm going to set one up for her with her music and movies, since that would be even more compact, but I keep forgetting until minutes before it's time to leave for a trip. One of these days.

Noob is much more of a challenge. Here's how I kept him entertained on our flight from Dallas to Miami on Thursday.

1:32 PM - After a one-hour delay -- prior to boarding, thankfully (I should do another post on "how to entertain a toddler and a preschooler during a flight delay") -- we settled into our seats. Noob and Littles both started checking out one of their favorite "plane toys," the safety instructions card:


1:39 PM - Noob started playing with his shoes. He loves taking the insoles out. That's his shoe in his left hand and the insole in his right hand:


Note the pacifier. We rarely give him one at home, and when we do, it's strictly limited to times when he's in bed. But it was pretty much a permanent fixture during this flight. You do what you gotta do.

1:50 PM - Takeoff. Noob spent a few minutes just looking out the window in amazement:


He started closing his eyes a bit. It was naptime, so I knew he was tired, but he has a really hard time falling asleep when there is stuff going on around him. I hoped he would fall asleep anyway, but no such luck.

1:55 PM - I packed three board books in my bag for him. He read through two of them:


2:03 PM - He was done with the books. Note how little happy-baby time I got out of what I brought. I don't think it's physically possible to carry on enough toys, books, etc. to amuse a child of this age for a reasonably long flight -- say, anything longer than an hour or so. Their attention span just isn't that long.

So we moved on to more "plane toys." We opened and closed the window shade:


This was his favorite game. (It was Littles' favorite, too, when she was his age.) I just turned on/off the overhead lights. Over and over and over. Whenever he pointed at one:


This game is really fun when you're on a plane (mostly one of the the larger ones that does international fights) that has the light control in the armrest. When we flew to England when Littles was 2 years old, I think she was fully convinced that she could actually turn the light on and off just by pointing up.

2:19 PM - The light on/light off game lasted longer than the books did, with no additional stuff to drag along in our bags. Score! Next, Noob moved on to playing with my phone. He's learned to slide his finger up to get to the keypad where I enter my password to unlock it. He hasn't learned the password yet, though. I'll give him some time. He's only 17 months old, after all.

2:31 PM  Hubby handed back a bottle of water (he and Littles were sitting in the seats directly in front of us), so I gave a little to Noob. Most of the water itself ended up down his shirt and in his car seat, but screwing and unscrewing the top gave him a few minutes of amusement.WP_000458

2:44 PM - The water bottle started to create more frustration than amusement, so I decided it was time to stretch our legs a little and change Noob's diaper. This ended up taking quite a while, because I quickly discovered that the lavs at the back of the plane (near our seats) didn't have a changing table. So I had to wait for the beverage cart to clear out of the way so that I could access the middle lavs. Once I was done, I came out to find the trash cart blocking the aisle, so I had to wait for that cart to make it past our seats before I could sit down. That meant standing at the very front of coach/back of first class, with Noob wiggling and crying in my arms, for close to 10 minutes. Fun times. I'm sure the passengers in first class, in particular, were really thrilled with me. Or not.

3:05 PM - We finally got back to our seats. I could tell Noob was exhausted, so I tried to get him to sleep in his car seat, but he was having none of it. Hubby got up and took him to the back of the plane to see if he could bounce him to sleep. A nice thought, but Noob really just wants Mommy these days, so it wasn't working too well.

About a minute after they got up, Littles had to go potty, and when we came out, Hubby handed Noob back to me and said, "Here. He wants you." Being back with me seemed to calm Noob down, and pretty quickly, he started closing his eyes and laying his head on my shoulder. After a little more bouncing in the back of the plane, he was out. I returned to our seats and put him down in his car seat:


4:16 PM - Noob woke up as we were on our final approach into Miami. He was content climbing between his seat and my lap for a few minutes until it was time to fasten seatbelts for the final approach. Then, he looked out the window and played the overhead light game some more. That kept him reasonably calm and content until we were at the gate.

4:23 PM (5:23 PM local time) - We made it! Definitely not the most fun flight I've had, but I doubt a bag full of toys would have helped much, given that two books lasted all of eight minutes! Heck, even the shoes lasted longer.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How NOT to get a child's passport

Getting Littles' passport four years ago was a breeze, so when it came time to get Noob's, we thought it would be the same. Instead, we ended up doing so many things wrong that I realized I could write a post detailing what not to do when it's time to get a passport for your child.

1. Wait till the very last minute.
This page gives the current processing times for passports. As of this writing, it can take up to 6 weeks. If you wait till 6 weeks before your trip and then start the process... Murphy's Law will inevitably kick in, you'll hit a bump in the process, and you'll end up having to pay an extra $60 to expedite.

We started the process about 8 weeks before our trip. Plenty of time, right? Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

2. Lose (or forget to request) the child's birth certificate
You need to provide proof of citizenship to get a passport, and by far the easiest proof to provide is a copy of the applicant's birth certificate. So, if you've misplaced your child's birth certificate, or if you never requested a copy, you'll need to do so.

If you still live in or near the county where your child was born, check with the county clerk's office first, as they may have a copy there that you can quickly request in person. Otherwise, you'll need to go through the state capitol.

Noob's birth certificate had not been sent to our local county clerk's office, so we had to go through Austin. We opted to have it mailed to us, rather than doing a road trip to pick it up in person. They said it would take 10-15 business days. It took 15 business days on the nose.

That put us at 5 weeks before our trip, so we knew we'd need to expedite the passport.

3. Lose (or forget to request) the child's Social Security card
You don't need the actual card to apply for a passport, but you do need to provide the application's Social Security number. So if you haven't memorized your child's SSN and you can't find the card, you'll need to get that straightened out before applying for the passport.

We have Noob's (and Littles') Social Security card tucked away in a safe spot in our house, so this wasn't a problem. Yay!

4. Just show up to your local post office to apply for the passport.
Not all post offices have passport facilities, and those that do may require an appointment. Check this page to identify a post office or other nearby facility that accepts passport applications. It states whether or not the facility requires an appointment and also gives the hours, but you should call to confirm both.

We knew our local post office did have passport facilities, and when I checked the page above, it stated that appointments weren't required. So we just showed up... and found out that they had started requiring appointments about two weeks before. When I pointed out that the website said no appointment was required, the lady told us, "Oh yeah, they haven't updated that website yet." Great.

She gave us the option of scheduling an appointment for mid to late June (for a July 7th departure!) or going to our city's main post office, which did not require appointments for passport applications. We chose the latter.

In retrospect, it would have been a better idea to call other nearby passport acceptance facilities, to see if any of them had appointments sooner... but we didn't.

5. If you don't have an appointment, expect to be in and out in an hour.
We arrived at the main post office at 9:30 AM. We didn't leave until after 1 PM. We packed the diaper bag and snacks for Noob, but left them at home -- oops. Luckily, I had plenty of time to run home midmorning to pick them up, because we definitely needed them.

6. Send just one parent to apply for the passport.
When applying for a child's passport, unless one parent has sole legal custody, the child and both parents need to appear in person, or one parent must appear with a notarized Statement of Consent. (Full parental consent requirements are here.)

Thankfully, we knew this, but woman directly in front of us in line did not. And so when she finally got to the front of the line after waiting for nearly 4 hours with her two kids, she was told to go home and get her husband. Ouch.

7. Wait till you get to the passport acceptance facility to fill out the application.
It's faster to fill it out online and print it at home. That also gives you the chance to gather all the required information ahead of time.

We were almost ready to leave for the passport office when I thought, "Hey, why don't I take a minute to fill out that application online?" Good thing, because we don't have Noob's Social Security number memorized, and as I mentioned earlier, it's required on the passport application. Filling out the application ahead of time saved us another trip home to get the card.

8. Wait till you get to the passport acceptance facility to take your child's passport photo.
Again, not all facilities have photo capabilities, and even if yours does, it might be hard to get a good photo with your young child. I explained how to make your own passport photos at home in a separate post.

After all that, we finally managed to get Noob's darn passport... so now we can forget about this whole process and just renew it by mail in 10 years, right? Wrong.

9. Forget that kids must renew their passports every 5 years, in person.
Adult passports expire after 10 years and can be renewed by mail. But kids' passports expire after only 5 years, and must be renewed in person -- essentially using the same process as first-time applicants. That means that we'll be going through this entire process again for Littles next year. I plan to not follow the advice in this post :)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Making a child's passport photo

UPDATED January 2012: We recently needed passport photos for our Chinese visa applications, and I discovered that you can use ePassportPhoto's free service to easily create passport photos. This replaces steps 6 and 7 in the instructions below. I've left them in here for reference, but I highly recommend ePassportPhoto now. See more details below.


We are leaving today for Noob's first international trip! Preparations started weeks ago, because we needed to get him a passport. The first hurdle was getting a good passport photo for him. He is in a serious separation anxiety phase right now, so I knew that taking him to a passport photo place would be a no-go, because this type of expression is probably not acceptable in a passport photo:

"Hey! That's Mommy over there! Mommy! Come saaaaaaaave me!"

Instead, I did his passport photos at home -- just as I did for Littles when she got her passport. It's really quite easy!

Step 1: Review passport photo requirements
This State Department page explains the requirements for passport photos, so you'll want to start off by reviewing it carefully and ensuring that you understand all the requirements. Don't worry too much about the exact sizing requirements right now; focus on things like avoiding background shadows, eyes must be open, etc.

The Photo Examples page is also very useful, showing examples of correct and incorrect passport photos.

Step 2: Find a white (or off-white) sheet to use as a background
We use white sheets on our bed, so finding a white sheet is easy. The hard part is getting all the wrinkles out, since the background needs to be non-textured :) This was my first attempt at Noob's pictures. See all those wrinkles? Ugh.


Step 3: Set up the picture
Littles was about a month old when I took her passport pictures, so I just laid the sheet down on the floor and then laid her down on the sheet. Super easy!

Passport 026

Noob is much older and more mobile, so I had to figure out a way to restrain him for the pictures. I ended up draping the sheet over the fence in our backyard, then putting Noob in his booster seat on a chair in front of the sheet:


Step 4: Take the picture. And then take another. And another. And another...
Seriously, this is the great thing about doing pictures at home. I took over 20 pictures for Littles and over 70 pictures for Noob, all in the space of less than 5 minutes! Just keep shooting, because a lot of them will look like the pictures above, i.e. super cute but totally unusable for a passport photo.

Remember that your child needs to be directly facing the camera, so you'll need to get directly over a child who is laying on the floor, or crouch down to the level of a child sitting in a chair.

If you feel comfortable using the links above and the information on this page to get the sizing right on the pictures you've taken, you can skip the rest of this post. If you don't, read on...

Step 5: Download the pictures to your computer and sort through them, looking for one that meets the photo content requirements
You still don't need to worry about the sizing requirements in this step. Just for a photo where your child is looking at the camera, has a neutral facial expression, etc. If you can't find any, go back to step 4.

Here are the pictures I chose for my kids:

Passport 031


UPDATED January 2012: You can skip steps 6 and 7 below, and instead use ePassportPhoto to easily create passport photos with the right dimensions. All you have to do is upload your raw photo (like the ones shown above) to the site. It provides a photo editor with a box that shows lines denoting where the top and bottom of the head should be. You get the head in the photo properly positioned in the box, and voila! Perfect passport photo! ePassportPhoto then creates a 4"x6" image with four copies of your passport photo, suitable for printing (see step 8).

This saves a ton of time! I recently had to do photos for all of our Chinese visas, and it took me less than five minutes per photograph.

Best of all, it's completely free! The trickiest part of the whole process is finding the link to download the free copy of your passport photos. ePassportPhoto also provides a couple of paid services (which are a rip-off, in my opinion, as they cost the same as getting passport photos done locally), so you have to look closely for the "No thank you" link that allows you to bypass those and just get the downloadable image of your photos.

I've left the old steps for doing this in here for future reference, but I highly recommend using ePassportPhoto instead, if at all possible.

Step 6: Crop and size the photo
OK, this is where you need to start worrying about the photo sizing requirements.
This page explains the precise sizing requirements.

For Noob's picture, I just used the good ol' Paint program that comes with Windows 7. And a little bit of basic math :)

Paint comes with a handy option to show picture sizes in inches, rather than the default of pixels. This is the Properties page under the File menu:


And it has another handy option to show gridlines on the picture:image

I counted the number of "boxes" between the top of Noob's hair and the bottom of his chin. It was a little over 8 boxes. I knew from the photo composition page that in the final picture, this measurement needed to be between 1" and 1 3/8". I shot for the middle and tried to make it 1 1/4". That meant that each "box" in Paint represented 1.25" / 8 boxes = .15625 inches per box.

Going back to the photo composition page, the eye height must be between 1 1/8" and 1 3/8" from the bottom of the photo. Again, I shot for the middle and tried to make it 1 1/4", or about eight boxes. I counted down 8 boxes from the row containing Noob's eyes, and that gave me where the bottom of my photo needed to be. I've put a red line in the picture below to show this:


The cropped picture needs to be a 2" square, so 2 inches / .15625 inches per box = a total of 12.8 boxes. I rounded it off to be an even 13 boxes.

Of course, I knew where the bottom of that box was (the red line shown above), so I knew where the top needed to be, too. For the sides, I counted how many boxes wide Noob's head is (about 7 boxes), and then "padded" appropriately on each side of his head to get to a total width of 13 boxes (so, 3 additional boxes to each side).

Then I used the select tool to draw my square. My calculations were a little off and I had to add another box to the width to make things look right. That's fine, as long as the final square really is a square :)


Then I used the crop tool to crop out the rest of the picture:


Now I had a picture that should be the right proportions, but I needed to resize it to actually be 2" by 2". It would be really nice if Paint allowed you to resize to a specific size in inches, but unfortunately, it only lets you resize by pixels or percentage. So, I choose a percentage that I knew would get me close to 2" by 2", but would still be a little larger. Then I started resizing one pixel at a time until I get to exactly 2" by 2":


The final pictures for my kids:

Passport2 IMG_4393_edited

Step 7 (optional): Create two copies of the photo
You'll need to have two copies of the same photo, so to save paper when printing, you may want to create an image that has the two copies side-by-side. To do this in Paint:

  1. Press Ctrl-A to select the entire picture.
  2. Press Ctrl-C to copy it to the clipboard.
  3. Go to File | New to create a new blank image.
  4. Go to File | Properties and enter the size that you want the new image to be. I knew I'd be printing on 4" x 6" photo paper, so I used that as the size for the new image.
  5. Press Ctrl-V to paste the picture into the new image.
  6. Press Ctrl-V again. This will paste another copy of the picture. It will be directly over the first copy at first, but you can drag and drop it to somewhere else in the new image.
  7. Save the new image.

Step 8: Print
I printed a low-resolution copy on regular printer paper first, then got out a measuring tape and made sure that all the sizing was accurate.

Then I printed the final version on photo paper. You can find this at just about any store that sells printer paper. I even saw some in the check-out aisle at Dollar Tree a few days ago!

UPDATED January 2012: For Noob's passport photo, I printed myself, and it was accepted just fine. For our Chinese visas, our visa processing service recommended not using printed-at-home photos. Since we were in a bit of a time crunch to get the visas, I didn't want to do anything that might put us at risk of rejection. So I "splurged," and sent the images to Walgreens for printing. Normal price for this is about 20 cents a print, but there are always coupon codes floating around online that will give you a significant discount. I ended up paying a whopping 38 cents total, to print all four of our passport photos. Not bad at all.

And that's it! It does take some time fiddling around to get the sizing right [UPDATED January 2012: a lot less time if you use ePassportPhoto!], but for my kids, at this age, it was worth it to avoid the trauma of attempting to get a professional picture done.