Editor’s note: for regular readers, you’ve become accustomed to seeing the world not only through Sam Spector’s eyes, but also those of his wife and their now year-old daughter. Here, they explore one of my favorite countries, and one I’ve considered moving to: Portugal. Enjoy! And for more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
I have written a couple of articles about traveling with an infant and how my wife and I were determined to not let having a kid put an end to what we enjoy doing, but rather to incorporate her into becoming a traveler as well. I am happy to share that by age 14 months, our daughter will have been to 8 countries, 13 states, and the territory of Puerto Rico. With that traveling, we have experienced moments that having a kid with us has greatly enhanced the journey and been a joy, and there have also been a few learning moments and frustrating incidents. Why am I once again writing about this? While I write a few articles on my most recent big adventure, I felt that our readers needed to hear where the most baby-friendly place in the world might very well be.
Since the day we got pregnant with Miriam, I researched what the most baby-friendly destinations in the United States and the world are; one place that kept coming up time and again was a country that I had not visited, Portugal. With this in mind, we (sort-of) booked a trip to Portugal. Why do I say “sort-of”? If you are going to Portugal, it is likely that you will fly via Portugal’s main carrier, TAP Airlines, which is affordable and has many direct flights from the United States. However, TAP has something rare and wonderful in its booking process (IcelandAir has this as well); you can book a flight to a different destination and add – for no cost – a layover in either Lisbon or Porto for anywhere between one and five days. As a national carrier, this strategy is genius, promoting tourism in your country (and hopefully having tourists spend lots of money to boost your economy). As a result, we did not book a flight to Portugal, but rather, a roundtrip plane ticket to Barcelona that included a four-day layover in Lisbon.
With TAP, like many transatlantic carriers, if you call in advance and book a flight for a lap infant (while free domestically, often for international flights there is something like a $100 cost), you will get a seat in what I call “poor man’s first class”, that seat at the very front of economy class on large planes with the wall in front of it and about three feet of legroom. You also will be given a bassinet that you can strap the baby into while she is sleeping, making your journey much better. We were so impressed with the kindness and compassion of the TAP staff towards Miriam. Part of what they do with a baby is to make sure that we were the first ones on the plane, and then throughout the flight help us at any point. They also presented us with a plate full of different types of baby foods and formula and let us pick out anything that our daughter would want or need, but the cherry on top was when they gave us an entire baby gift pack, which included a Velcro playmat, a pacifier clip, and a stuffed airplane, among other baby-friendly items. It would be dishonest of me if I did not also share (and I do not know if this was the issue of the airline or the airports) that we have never had a more frustrating trip in terms of our car seat and stroller being lost or misplaced, which seemed to happen at the end of every single flight, culminating in our return to the United States, where it took about a week to have them returned to us after they did not make our connecting flight. With TAP, solid A+ grade on how they treated our baby and us on the flight, but not nearly as good when it came to the gate delivery of car seats and strollers.
Upon our arrival at Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado International Airport, named for the Portuguese national hero, founder of TAP Airlines, and general who tried to overthrow the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (which lasted from 1933 to 1968, and continued for another 6 years with a successor), we encountered an unbearably long customs line. These lines are often the necessary evil that international travelers face, and we groaned when we saw that this line was going to be easily an hour long. However, an airport employee stopped us and said, “You have a baby, come with me,” and took us up to the very front of the line. After leaving the airport, we went to go get our rental car, and again we found a queue for the rental car agency that was 45-minutes long; once again we were approached by another lady who told us again, “You have a baby, please go to the front of the line.” It seemed like we had this experience everywhere that we went. However, the one that topped the list was when we went to the most visited landmark in all of Portugal, the Pena Palace in Sintra (a future article), a fairytale-like castle in the suburbs of Lisbon. Like with other destinations in Europe, such as the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, and the Pergamon Museum, we found ourselves waiting in what was likely a two-hour line in the hot sun to enter. Yet, within a minute, you guessed it, an employee directed us to walk in front of the hundreds of people who had been waiting to go to the very front. Sheepishly, not wanting to be “that guy”, I made my way to the front of the line holding my daughter and apologizing and explaining myself to nearly every person that I passed until a Portuguese tour guide stopped me and explained that I do not need to apologize. He went on to inform me that I was not coming across as entitled; rather, there was an actual law in Portugal that families with small babies are not allowed to wait in any lines, and that there could be potential fines in place for anywhere that made us wait in line. For a brief moment, I had visions of renting my baby out to the highest bidder in lines throughout Portugal and making a fortune.
Aside from this wonderfully convenient law, every person we encountered in Portugal (minus a rude French tourist, but that is not on Portugal), was above and beyond friendly to us and wanted to ask how they could help. They all waved and played with our daughter, and their faces lit up upon seeing a baby. One thing that Americans should mentally prepare themselves for is that in the United States, I do not think it is appropriate or culturally acceptable (although it happens) to touch a stranger’s baby without permission. However, in Portugal and Spain, it is very much acceptable, and after a couple of days we became accustomed to friendly locals pinching Miriam’s cheeks and squeezing her chubby thighs and arms. We happened to celebrate Miriam’s first birthday when we were at the convenient, affordable, and very pleasant Esqina Urban Lodge hotel in central Lisbon, and they presented us with a special cake for Miriam with a candle and a bottle of wine for me and my wife to celebrate.
Though I plan to write a couple more articles on the places that I went in Portugal, one place that is worth noting for this article is Cascais. Understandably, for a lot of people who travel with a baby or small children, seeing all the famous churches and palaces is not as much part of their itinerary as finding a beach and relaxing and not having to navigate transportation. While, for better or worse, we still ran around to all of the main attractions, a place on our trip that I had read was a great destination for parents with a baby or toddler was this suburb of Lisbon. Cascais is an upscale, charming town about half an hour north of downtown Lisbon. There is good public transportation to there, but we took Uber, which is fairly affordable and convenient in Portugal. As somebody whose alma mater is UC San Diego, I instantly felt right at home in Cascais as it reminded me a lot of La Jolla. There are picturesque beaches along the Atlantic coast with quiet inlets and coves full of sunbathers. Like other places in Portugal, the sidewalks and pedestrian streets are made up of tiny black and white cobblestones making fun and beautiful patterns. In addition to great restaurants, Cascais is full of fantastic souvenir shops and we spent hours with gelato in hand going from one to the next. We also had the good fortune of visiting Cascais on Portugal Day, where there were dozens of parades and locals dressed in traditional Portuguese attire and doing well-rehearsed traditional dances.
With Portugal being only a 5.5-hour affordable direct flight from New York and Boston (way closer than Hawaii) and being the closest place to the United States in mainland Europe, Portugal is a convenient place to visit. It is also known to be the most affordable place in Western Europe, and this is the most affordable time to go as a result of the weakening of the Euro. If you are like us and want to explore and sightsee the highlights of the country, there is nowhere better to do so with a baby since you will never have to wait in line; but if you want a family-friendly destination with beach fun, relaxing, and great streets to wander, get off your plane and head straight to Cascais. Have a great time in what might be the most baby friendly destination on earth!
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