How to Nurture Family Adventures Overseas
Combine Safe, Affordable Travel with Your Kids' Passions
By the time we hit Buenos Aires and headed to the docks to catch the ferry to Uruguay, all four of us were loopy from lack of sleep and the vertigo of moving quickly through a new country. One of the boys mentioned
a funny moment from a similar situation on a previous trip. Then my wife Judith recalled another moment. Pretty soon we were all giggling over comic accidents and odd encounters from the gamut of our past adventures—a terrific reminder
of how many shared memories our family travels have produced.
I was a child of the road myself. My parents took me off to Europe for three years and we camped our way across the continent. This was post-war Europe, with a divided Vienna and rationing in Britain, and some tremulous
moments in front of Yugoslav tanks. But those experiences shaped me for life. Once I found a willing travel partner, Judith and I have spent the past 17 years covering the globe.
Now we have two boys for travel companions, and ever since they've been old enough to carry their own gear we've shared as many fresh adventures as our budget and schedule have allowed. They've been to 22 countries
on four continents, and we hope that we've helped make them citizens of the world. Our boys are physical, outdoor types who love challenges. The oldest wants to master techniques—how to sail a boat, how to climb a cliff—while
the youngest has a fertile historical imagination. Give him a castle and a couple of cues, and he's off for hours reliving the siege of Montsegur.
We look for spots Judith and I haven't already been, places with a varied appeal, something for all of us. On our last day in Tunisia we fell to talking about "What's next?" and decided that we'd have each family
member choose a trip. Our youngest, Evan, who was into military history, immediately piped up, "The beaches of Normandy," and our decision was made.
When it was our older son Alex's turn, he didn't have a specific country in mind, but he preferred "English-speaking, with beaches... and jungle. Animals. Stuff to do besides history." Belize met all these criteria.
Then comes the months of planning, with maps, websites, guidebooks, medical insurance, etc.
In cities, we're cautious about which streets we walk, but that's no different than at home. We've been through some dodgy border regions (Paraguay is notorious for drug and weapon traffic; the Pyrenees is thick
with smuggler trails), but I've never felt in any danger. On the island of Djerba we visited one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world; a year later the synagogue was bombed by terrorists. Does that mean we shouldn't have risked
going? Yesterday nine people died in a school shooting in our home state. Be wise, not paranoid.
Each of us carries copies of each other's documents in our passport pouches. We rarely split up, but when we do we take the time to walk through directions and back-up plans.
Save frustration and pack light. We each carry a backpack or shoulder bag. A couple of changes of clothes, something for rain or the beach, basic toiletries, flip-flops. Judith carries the medicine kit. I've
got the camera, maps, and guidebooks.
When they were younger, each boy brought a stuffed animal to share the experience—and to cuddle close in many a strange bed. Now a Walkman serves the same purpose, and makes bus rides or airport waits far more
Until recently we chose a special book for each trip to read together during long evenings. Treasure Island was perfect in the Caribbean. The best ever was Camel Caravan, read at an oasis while we waited for a Sarahan
camel trip to unfold.
We now anticipate that each boy will have a meltdown early in the trip. At first these baffled us (Head under bed-covers for an entire afternoon? Defiant lethargy?) but we came to see that these were understandable
reactions to the dislocation and sensory overload inherent in traveling. The tremors would pass after a few hours and they'd go about their business as if nothing had happened. Now we plan for downtime and don't begrudge them the need
to cocoon in front of a hotel TV.
Our guys rarely present problems at mealtimes, but the occasional burger or pizza stop does wonders for their mood. If it's time to get adventurous, be sure there are options on the menu. Evan's fall-back is always
spaghetti. We look for local treats they can indulge in: ice cream in Argentina; Kinne soda on Malta; chocolate croissants in France. After a night in the desert, they helped bake bread in the ashes of the fire and wolfed it down. Carry
snacks: kids' batteries need frequent recharging.
Before having kids I was a fanatic about traveling cheaply. Now I accept that cheapest is not always wisest. Still, we keep things basic. We budget $12 per night per person on lodging. Often it means fitting
four of us into one room. The boys are fine with sleeping in odd corners, and when we find a cheap enough place they get their own room. We've used hostels in South America; pensiones in France and Spain; ferries and trains in the Baltic.
To reduce food costs, eat regional specialties in spots frequented by locals. Many a meal can be a picnic; they'll enjoy helping choose ingredients.
Public transport can be exciting. Ride the subway. Ask about the bus routes. Let them help you watch for your stop. Long-distance buses in parts of South America are double-decker sleepers with meal and drink service.
In North Africa, 5-passenger Peugeot louages run regular routes between cities. Baltic ferries are a delight: roam the decks, watch sailors at work, then snuggle in your own cozy berth.
Sure there'll be hectic moments, but if you connect with your kids' passions you have "hooks" that can pull them along into new and unexpected directions. Besides, if you can balance your need for another museum over
the chance to romp in a local park, you'll actually find yourself entering more into the everyday life of the country you're visiting.