Gear: What makes a good travel stroller?
Recently, I’ve gotten some emails and comments about traveling with strollers, especially in Istanbul, and it got me thinking back to my many months of stroller research pre-Vera and now many months of use with her. Our first stroller is the Bugaboo Cameleon, worth every bit of its considerable price tag to me, though in NYC, I now use our UppaBaby G-Luxe more often for subway trips and quick neighborhood outings. For travel, I still prefer the Bugaboo, because it’s not just about the weight. Here are a few things to consider when shopping for a stroller you can use for travel (and everyday):
What most people worry about
- Total weight and how often you’ll lift it: This is what most people use as a gauge for how travel-friendly a stoller is, but I don’t think it’s really such a big deal; you’re never going to have to lift it over your head for long periods of time or anything. The Cameleon weighs 21 pounds with seat, maybe a little less with an infant car seat. This is pretty light for a full-featured stroller, though keep in mind the cargo (i.e. your baby) will add another 10, 20, etc pounds. The lighter UppaBaba is a bit over 13 pounds, and honestly? It’s not that big of a difference once you considerEven in Istanbul, with its many stairs and lack of ramps, I rarely had to lift it more than a few seconds. While I’ve developed some pretty serious upper body strength from carrying a baby for nearly two years, I’ve even hauled it up and down subway steps in NYC by myself (thanks for your help, young man! Not!) without breaking a sweat. Most people will travel with a partner who can assist, but I’ve also managed fine alone on many trips all over the world. So while a behemoth like the Silver Cross pram (still my husband’s fantasy wheels) might not be practical for travel, you can manage fine with most strollers, even if they aren’t feather weight.
- How easy it is to fold and where you are using it: The one real disadvantage of the Cameleon is the folding: you need two hands, you have do deal with two pieces, and it’s hard to explain how to do it to the odd stranger who wants to help (though I’d say this is try for any stroller until you do it a few times yourself). The upside of the two pieces is that she can at least stay in the seat while I fold up the frame, as I often wondered what I would do with the baby when I folded it (usually she’s in a carrier, which makes the two-handed fold challenging without dumping her out on her head, but that hasn’t happened so far). Yes, a one-handed fold is preferable, but think about how often you’ll do it. The most you will do it is on travel days: at airport security, at the gate, getting in and out of taxis or shuttles. Again, I’ve traveled alone to many countries by myself with her, even with the hard-to-fold stroller, without an issue. In Budapest, we walked nearly everywhere (even in January) and used a carrier when we took the subway; in London, we used the awesome buses which make taking a stroller aboard easy; in Venice, we just didn’t use the stroller. New York is tougher: buses require you to fold up the stroller even when relatively empty, and many restaurants won’t let you in it unfolded either. Bottom line: think about where you are going and what you’ll be doing, and do some research before you go.
- Width in narrow spaces: This was another thing I worried about, especially in Europe and New York, which tend to have a lot of narrow shops and sidewalks. With wheels, the Cameleon is 24 inches, the G-Luxe is 20. Honestly, it doesn’t matter that much. There are some spaces where you just won’t be able to navigate with stroller at all, and will have to leave it outside or in the front of a shop. You’re never going to wheel it down an airplane aisle, and most public spaces have to be wide enough to accomodate a wheelchair, so your ride can squeeze through. You will quickly get good at eyeballing spaces and figuring out how to navigate them. For people with multiple little ones, the double wide is generally going to be a pain, but you knew that already, right?
- Car seat adaptability: The thing I miss the most about the first year was the fact that it was so easy to use a car seat with a stroller. I bought an adapter kit for the Bugaboo and easily popped off the bassinet (or later, stroller seat) and swapped it out for the car seat, which made it much sleeker than the average “travel system”. Living in a big city without a car, we rarely used the car seat (and Vera still hates it), but it was great for trips when we might be in a car here and there or just wanted a seat we could carry independently, say, into a restaurant (side note: I recently saw a neat trick in a restaurant: you can use a wooden restaurant high chair upside down to hold a car seat when baby is sleeping; though use with caution, obviously). Unfortunately, there aren’t really any strollers that can be used this way once baby transitions to a toddler seat (there is the Orbit which can work with their own toddler seat, but it weighs a combined 37 pounds!), and it becomes another thing to haul around, along with your luggage, stroller, and baby. Yes, there are some devices you can use to make it a bit easier, but I end up slipping the back of the harness straps over my suitcase handle, which works okay just to get into the airport and is basically a free version of this.
What you should also consider
- Multiple usage in the early months: For Vera’s early months in Istanbul, we had no nursery or even a crib for her, she slept in the stroller bassinet. We later had a pack and play from a previous tenant, and now a proper crib in Brooklyn, but she still sleeps with us more often than not. Having a bassinet as an option is useful for the early months so you don’t need to scare up a hotel crib (often on the sketchy side, especially abroad), and later it can be a high chair when you are dining out. I chose the UppaBaby G-Luxe over other umbrellas because of the recline: I hate seeing kids sleeping slumped over sitting upright, and when you travel, nap time will often take place while you are out and about.
- One-handed steering: When you were stroller shopping, odds are you did it in a store with no baby (yet) and both hands. Now imagine you are in an airport, with one hand on a wheelie suitcase, a diaper bag slung over your shoulder, a wriggly baby in a stroller or in a carrier, and your tickets and passports precariously stuffed in your bra (er, maybe your purse). Now you will appreciate a stroller that doesn’t have a mind of its own when you push it with one hand. This is one major advantage of the Bugaboo, I can push it with one finger as opposed to the UppaBaby, which I have to practically brace my entire body against while carrying aforementioned items, to prevent it from careening into a TSA officer.
- Decent storage: Another Bugaboo advantage: the awesome large storage bag which can be shut with a drawstring and left full when folded. When I travel with this bad boy, as soon as I’m through security, I throw everything into the bottom I won’t need during the flight but would want immediately after (or if my bags were lost): winter coats, stroller toys and blankets, even non-breakable duty free items. With an umbrella stroller, you generally have to remove everything before you fold it, and all that stuff has to go somewhere on your person. I travel pretty light, but I still have too much to carry when boarding a plane. On a related note: we never got the storage bag to put the whole shebang into, and I think it would just be another thing to deal with for the vast majority of the time when you aren’t getting on a plane. Also, some airlines (yay for Turkish!) will give you a big plastic bag to cover and protect your stroller when they put it under the plane.
- The tipping point: I swear, I’m not being paid by Bugaboo for this, but again I have to give them credit. I can load the stroller handle with my purse, diaper bag, post-security water bottles and other purchases, and then take the baby out and it still stays upright. The UB is so sensitive to weight, I have to remove everything before I take her off or it will tip right over. This might not seem like a big deal, but I have nearly burst into tears (and broke a bottle of wine or two) more than a few times when the stroller fell over while I rushed to take a crying Vera out of it.
- Cobblestones, sand, and other rough terrain: Living in a city like Istanbul with poor sidewalks and some cobblestone streets makes for a rough ride. We used to joke that Vera was so calmed by rolling over the bumpy streets, she might later have a Pavlovian response to cobblestones and feel sleep when she walked on them. The nice big wheels of the Bugaboo skid over them easily, and while I haven’t tried it out yet, the ability to go on two wheels over sand or snow was another big selling point. Your everyday life might be a bit different than mine, but if you plan on much time traveling outside English-speaking countries, you’ll appreciate some sturdy wheels.
When we take our next big trip (I’ll tell you where we decided on when we finally book tickets this week), I’m not sure stroller which we’ll take. These days, Vera wants to walk on her own or be carried (I still love and use the Boba wrap, but she is getting heavy!) most of the time, and for trips in the US when we are in and out of cars a lot, I take the umbrella. But this is also one of the rare trips where my husband will be with me every step of the way, so having another set of hands might mean we take the comfier option.