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Family Travel Handbook

Traveling With Children—The Why’s and How-To’s

As someone who lived abroad for 18 months with two children ages 3 and 8, I bristle when I hear someone say “Travel is wasted on children,” or “Now that we have kids, our traveling days are over.” If either of those sentiments approximates your own, be forewarned that I’m going to try to change your mind. I happen to think that traveling with children is a) Incredibly valuable for both kids and their parents and b) Not difficult if you’re prepared to make some basic concessions.

Why Travel With Your Children?

Traveling with kids is important because traveling is not a spectator sport and it creates a family bond like no other. Not only do you and your kids spend more time together and learn to rely on each other in different ways, but you also go through amusing, unusual, and occasionally frightening or difficult experiences together. These experiences take on a myth-like status and create an enduring family narrative.

Our children will always talk about the beach trip where the pick-up truck we were riding in veered off the road and nearly flipped over. They often recount the midnight visit of the scorpion that dropped from our palapa roof and decided the back of my leg was a perfect place to snooze. There have been difficult moments during our travels when it felt like our family was alone against the world. And there have been astonishingly beautiful moments when we turned to each other and shook our heads at the mystery of what was unfolding in front of us. These adventures have become a rich part of our family story, one we continue to write with each new adventure.

Secondly, if you’re traveling in another country, your kids will have to be exposed to a different culture and language. Even if you don’t travel long enough for any second language fluency (which typically takes six months or longer), you will all be exposed to all the sounds, rhythms, patterns, and different intonations of foreign speech. Later in their lives your kids’ brains will be more sensitive to these nuances and they may very well pick up languages more easily and speak with less of a pronounced American accent.

Traveling also helps prepare your kids to be world citizens--critical to all of our futures. One of the hardest lessons to learn and absorb is that other people think and do things differently. Traveling together gently introduces children to points of view that are different from their own, without the implicit threats that are often part of the news coverage of tumultuous world events here at home.

And perhaps the most important reason to travel with your children is that kids are universal diplomats who can truly enrich your own travels. We Americans are met with suspicion or downright hostility in some areas of the world and our children open doors that might otherwise remain closed. Kids greet the world with honesty, innocence, and spontaneity. Despite language, cultural, and political differences, they’re quick to meet other kids and help build bridges between parents who may not immediately sense much common ground. It’s our kids who reach across boundaries to cajole a smile, share a game of kickball, and perhaps initiate a conversation among adult strangers. These conversations can often lead to a second play-date, dinner, and can ultimately unlock the door to someone’s heart and home.

Fun Family Travel is Not Impossible If…You Accept the Reality of Life With Kids

Traveling with children can be wonderful, but I’d be lying if I said that it was always a picnic. It can at times be an unsatisfying marathon of treats, souvenirs, and trips to the bathroom. You may find that your level of frustration during a trip increases in direct proportion to the number of museums, churches, restaurants, and stores you have to leave early or abandon completely to accommodate your children’s whining. During a trip to the Mexican city of Queretaro, the only way we saw any of its beautiful plazas and Spanish colonial architecture was by convincing our children that the best ice cream shop in the city was on the other side of a historic church, across two plazas, and around the corner from Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras’ amazing Neptune fountain. (Luckily in Mexico there seems to be an ice cream shop on every block.)

There’s a learning curve to traveling with children. Everyone gets better at it the more you do it. This is partly because you learn to adjust your expectations, and partly because everyone gradually becomes a better traveler. The reality is that nobody will be able to do everything they want while traveling. Both you and your kids will have to compromise at times so that everyone gets some of their needs met along the way. With that in mind, the following suggestions may help quicken your family’s learning curve and improve chances that everyone will have some fun during your adventures right from the start.

Five Tips for Actually Enjoying Traveling With Your Kids:

Tip #1: Be flexible when it comes to treats and food.

The rules are different on the road and even very young children can understand that. Flexibility is the key to making the experience more pleasant for everyone. Sometimes an ice cream cone “right now” instead of after lunch can save the day. Flexibility is crucial. Try to bend rather than break.

Tip #2: Plan for things not to go smoothly.

If you’re prepared for the worst, you’ll be able to face tough moments with more grace and good will. Because “the worst” rarely happens, everyone will feel extra cheerful when you’re prepared for things to go badly and they actually go well.

Tip #3: Whenever possible, build a visit to a beach, swimming pool, or lake into your trips.

Water plus beach plus sun adds up to big, big fun. No matter what. And it doesn’t have to be a beach. Hotel pools, hot springs, even a sprinkler can quickly turn a bummer into a blast.

Tip #4: Don’t let your kids’ reluctance to the unknown sway you.

Plan to be adventurous. Although it initially took ice cream bribes to get our kids interested in new adventures, they eventually looked forward to all the fun surprises that inevitably happened along the way. After a little whining, your kids may discover how much fun embarking on new adventures can be.

Tip #5: Plan trips with your kids’ energy levels and interests in mind.

Surrender to the reality of young children or be prepared to be frustrated. Plan outings carefully. Don’t try to do more than one activity per outing. For example, hit a museum in the morning and then go to the park or swimming in the afternoon with a picnic lunch. This can be disappointing to the adults but makes for a more relaxed and ultimately more enjoyable trip for everyone.

Bonus Tip #1: When all else fails…go swimming. This is a critical piece of advice.

Bonus Tip #2: Maintaining a sense of humor can save the day when maintaining a sense of perspective is impossible.

Half the battle of enjoying traveling with kids is remembering that kids are kids. Obviously there’s got to be some give and take. Kids can’t have everything they want and neither can adults. But if you plan your travels with kids in mind, you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to relax. By all means take your kids to visit that important museum and that famous monument. But be prepared to stop at the bakery, laugh at the sidewalk clowns, and hop on the streetcar along the way. You may not get to spend as much time inside that museum as you’d hoped, but you’ll have fewer headaches and a lot more fun during your travels.

For More Info

Basic Daypack Supply List

Don’t feel the need to walk around overburdened and ready to do battle with every eventuality that might befall your family. You really only need a daypack filled with the following basic essentials to allow your family to wander around for most of the day without forcing you to return to your hotel before you’re ready:

  • Disinfectant wipes and/or antibacterial liquid for dirty hands
  • Water (bottled)
  • Extra diapers/pull-up if necessary
  • Small, portable changing pad if necessary
  • Map of City
  • Small Bilingual dictionary
  • Small ball, frisbee or hackeysack for impromptu play
  • Snacks
  • Tissues or toilet paper
  • Sunscreen/small first aid kit (with lip balm, Band-aids and antibacterial ointment)
  • Empty bag for carrying gifts, food or other items home
  • Money in secure carrying pouch or money belt