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Family Travel

Families Meeting Families

Making Vital Connections Overseas Hinges on Trip Planning

If you're a Transitions Abroad reader, it's a fair assumption that you think travel is about people rather than places: When you visit another country you want to meet its inhabitants and learn about their lives, not simply wander through a series of cathedrals and museums. For families traveling with children, then, the challenge is to figure out how to meet other families.

We first took our kids overseas when they were 10 and 13. We had visions of meeting people at the grocery store or on the street and making new friends all over Europe. But this rarely happened. In general, the only connections we made were the ones we planned before we left home.

When planning a trip abroad, stop and think about how you make friends at home. It's almost exclusively through people you already know at work, at your health club, at the PTA. When was the last time you made a friend in the checkout line at Kmart? Have you picked up anybody at the beach since you turned 19?

Even when you do make these chance encounters, they're more likely when you're alone. Family togetherness on a trip eliminates a lot of the need to reach out. So how do you give your kids the rich experience of meeting other kids their own age in another country? The best solutions hinge on how you plan your trip and where you stay.

Planning to Meet Other Families

Start planning long before you travel. One good way to start is by finding a pen pal in the area where you're going. Kids in other countries start learning English in elementary school, so language shouldn't be a barrier. Several kid-centered websites will lead you to a pen pal. If you're wary of cyberspace strangers, traditional pen pal clearinghouses will match your child with someone in your selected country. Months or even years later, it's a huge pleasure for these pen pals to actually meet in person.

Look to any organizations to which you already belong. Are you a member of Rotary or some other worldwide service club? Write to the Rotary in your vacation area and say you'd like to meet local families with kids of similar age to yours. Or write to a local church of your denomination and say you'd like to meet congregation members.

Professional interests work well, too. If you're a teacher, a nurse, or a plumber, write to the tourist office in a town you'd like to visit and ask for information about organizations that cater to your peers locally. As a computer consultant, I made contacts with computer dealers in Spain and England. But I waited until after I arrived instead of writing ahead, and it was almost time to leave by the time I felt really connected and comfortable with my new friends.

Personal connections are best of all. Does your mail carrier know someone in Portugal? Isn't this year's high school exchange with Greece?

Didn't your neighbor's sister marry someone from Hong Kong? Ask them all if they would be willing to pass the word that you're interested in meeting other families as you travel.

Before our first trip, my husband wrote to a half-dozen men he had met briefly on a business trip three years earlier. Two wrote back and arranged Dads-only business lunches. Several didn't reply. But the last one invited us to his country home in Spain for a long weekend. This shocked us: Lew had met Señor Ramos only once. But Pedro and his wife Juana had kids the same age as ours and were eager to exchange ideas. Sam learned that Spanish 10-year-olds like computer games as much as he does. Gema Ramos was surprised to learn that Libby, her same age, got paid for babysitting the neighbors' kids. Without a word of common language, Juana taught me how to slice up a whole fish and peel potatoes really fast, while the men discussed common business interests. The obvious lesson: don't dismiss the smallest possible connection overseas.

Picking Where You Stay

The other big factor that greatly affects whom you meet is where you stay. Park your clan at a Best Western in Paris and you'll meet some nice folks from Cleveland or Tucson--if they venture out of their rooms. Stay in a youth hostel with family rooms, and you'll hook up with folks from all over the world.

Youth hostel family rooms are one of the best-kept secrets in budget travel. Of the approximately 2,100 youth hostels in Europe, over 1,500 of them offer family rooms. You don't have to split up and sleep in gender-segregated dorms; you can have your own room that sleeps four to six family members. Best of all, hostels are designed for mingling, much more so than hotels. There are game rooms, common dining areas, playgrounds and yards--all places where it's easy to meet other people.

Campgrounds are another great place to meet other families. In Europe, camping does not mean perching on a lonely mountaintop in a cramped, leaky tent. European campgrounds are usually near cities. Many locals rent the same site every year and set up elaborate RVs or huge tents. They leave all their belongings and come out every weekend to their "summer home."

You can join in the campground spirit by renting a bungalow or a luxury tent at these same campgrounds, many of which have laundries, discos, chic stores, and movie theaters. One Transitions Abroad reader raved to us about a British organization called Eurocamp, which offers tents with separate bedrooms, air conditioning, and gas grills at campsites all over Europe. You walk in with just your clothing; everything else is there for you.

Many families decide to stay put when traveling with kids. In that case a home exchange turns out to be a great way to meet other families.

You'll be in a residential area surrounded by other families, and your host family will be glad to hook you up with the neighbors. Many home exchanges start with a one-day overlap, when your hosts will welcome you to their home and throw a neighborhood cookout to help you meet their friends. (Or maybe the overlap is on your side and you'll do the same for them.) Your kids will have bikes and basketballs and will head for the local playground, which multiplies the opportunities for meeting kindred souls.