The summer travel season is upon us and that means families will be hitting the road. If you have children, then your trip will be nothing like your romantic trip to the all inclusive resort where you had two massages per day and stayed hydrated on coconuts and Heineken. Rather than fruity drinks and tropical oils, you can expect sour milk in a sippy cup and an ammonia backpack that makes your eyes water when you open it to find that water balloon diaper you stuffed there ten hours ago in the museum. Forget the romantic dinners and the walks along the beach. You will enjoy left over yogurt puffs scrounged from the seat of the stroller and an endless loop of the Dora the Explorer theme song playing in your head as you try to fall asleep for a momentary reprieve from vacation hell. Why would anyone travel with young kids?!
Over the last nine years, my wife and I have travelled with our young children to thirty-nine countries. Okay, maybe it’s forty-something. I’m not really counting anymore. We did not take a year off from work for a worldwide sojourn and we are not the hardcore backpacking types. I am a lawyer and my wife is a speech language pathologist. I am employed full time and we have a house, a collection of various kid’s toys, and an oak kitchen table that we bought at an unfinished wood store with the money from our wedding and stained ourselves. In short, we are regular people. We are not experts, but we have learned a few things along the way about traveling with young kids. Here are six tips that will help you have the best summer vacation ever.
1. Plan Less.
Family travel is a different animal from single travel or couple’s travel. It is almost an entirely different species. Don’t compare them in your mind and don’t expect your family trip to even resemble your single trip. It is like the difference between chocolate ice cream and pâté. They are both great, but if you are expecting one and get the other, you are in for a nasty surprise. It’s the same with family travel. It’s great! It’s rewarding, life changing, and bonding for your family. But it will not be like your summer spent backpacking in Europe. The biggest lesson I have learned over our many adventures is that a trip is better when I put less into the itinerary.
We are slow and cumbersome. We tire easily. We have a limited capacity.
In Kyoto, Japan, I had a litany of sights we were going to see with our five and two year old. Instead, we ended up walking along the river under the cherry blossoms. My wife was pregnant with baby number three and suffering serious morning sickness. Nearly everything we ate made her nauseous and the kids just weren’t that interested in sushi and octopus or historic temples. We didn’t make it to any of the sights I had planned. We did, however, find an ancient playground along the river with a slide and a few swings. The kids loved it. I wrestled with my inner voice that said we should be seeing all the “must see sights.” I finally silenced that voice and just enjoyed the magic of the moment, listening to my kids squeal with delight underneath a canopy of perfect pink blossoms.
In Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Cave Temple were enough for one day. We were hot and exhausted after just two items on our expansive itinerary. We passed on the remaining things we had planned for the day and went back to swim in the pool.
It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to miss sights in order to gain a shared experience with your kids. In Ireland we saw some amazing things. We drove around the Dingle Peninsula, explored Galway and Dublin, and climbed on the Giant’s Causeway outside of Belfast. However, the kids’ favorite activity was a picnic of sandwiches, cheese, and lunch meat that we ate on the grass outside of a gas station. Plan less and slow down!
2. Raise Your Expectations.
Even though we plan less, we expect a lot of the kids. Travel is a chance for them to gain competencies and abilities they will need in life. Travel is a stretching experience that requires kids to step out of their comfort zones and helps them grow. Travel will give them a chance to be uncomfortable, eat food they may not like, do things they may not enjoy, and carry their own weight, literally and figuratively. For starters, the act of traveling by car or by plane is often tedious and boring. They may be tired and uncomfortable. That is no excuse to have a bad attitude or a tantrum.
When we fly to the United States to visit family, the door-to-door trip from our house in the Middle East to our destination in the United States usually lasts at least twenty-four hours. We still expect the kids to behave. These marathon flights have helped the kids become more resilient. They have learned that no matter how tired they are, no matter how hungry or uncomfortable they might feel, there is no excuse for a tantrum. And that’s an important lesson, really. We all hope for the best for our children, but no matter how well we plan, there is no way to protect them from the pains of life. The only thing we can do is help them develop the resilience to deal with whatever comes their way. That starts with higher expectations.
Plan an itinerary that is fun for everyone. I find it is best to mix things up with big city time as well as time in nature. Mix historical sights with down-time at a park. Just because you are travelling with young children, doesn’t mean that the trip has to be kid-centric. In Belgium, we walked through First World War trenches. In Normandy, we contemplated Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.
In Hiroshima, we explored the Peace Memorial Museum and learned about the devastation of the atomic bomb. It is an intense place and at one point our five year old started crying. It gave us a chance to talk about war and violence and what we can do in our lives to live at peace with others. I want my children to understand, as Henri Nouwen said, that “[i]n the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face, and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.”
At Petra in Jordan, we hiked over thirteen miles with three young kids. It was a stretch for our four-year-old, and by the end of the day we were all exhausted, but everyone made it. The kids ended the day with a sense of accomplishment. In Vienna, we attended a Bach and Mozart choral Christmas concert at St. Stephen’s Cathedral with a three-year-old and a six-week-old. Before we went inside, we talked to the three-year-old about our expectations and what was appropriate inside the cathedral. She made it through the entire concert without a peep. Similarly, the kids were excited to see the Prado Museum in Madrid and chatted with the docents. Our travel experiences have led me to one inescapable conclusion – children will rise or sink to whatever expectations you establish. Raise your expectations to give your kids the best trip possible.
3. Practice a Spirit of Active Travel Now.
You don’t have to go around the world to travel. You don’t even have to leave your town. For me travel is questioning. It is asking the who, what, when, where, why, and how of everything around me. It is learning the stories of those who have gone before and realizing that they were not that different from me. It is questioning the things in my life of which I am certain and daring to ask, “what am I missing? What am I failing to see? How might I be wrong? How does life look different from another perspective?” No matter your location or income you can travel today by actively looking at the world around you.
This is something we practice with our kids every day. We look at bugs outside. We walk around the neighborhood collecting rocks. We talk about the plants that are blooming. We go into our local town in the Middle East and practice haggling. In South Florida, we explored local state parks. Most of our “travel” is done in our neighborhood. That means that when we go on a trip, we don’t really stray from our usual routine. We do the same exploring as always just in a new location.
Take your kids to the grocery store. Look at the produce. Practice picking out the perfect avocado. Talk about where avocados grow and try growing one of your own. This is what active travel looks like. It requires something of the traveler but it also rewards the active traveler with riches never found by passive tourists.
4. Take Advantage of Having Mini-Ambassadors with You.
Traveling with a child is like bringing along a mini-ambassador who will open up doors of cultural interaction that you would never have otherwise. When you travel with young children you draw a lot of attention.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we attended the annual Janadriyah festival. In the evening we sat on the ground to eat a traditional Arab meal of rice and roasted lamb slow cooked over hot coals in a hole in the ground. Relaxing on the ground, I practiced eating with my fingers in the traditional style. Before we could stop her, our toddler waddled over to a group of completely covered women and dove into one woman’s lap. Burning with embarrassment, I ran to grab my daughter. The women laughed and fed our daughter sweets while they took pictures of her on their phones.
Trick-or-treating through Bangkok with two little kids, I met people I would have never met on my own. In Istanbul, a concerned Turkish mother was certain my baby would catch a deadly cold because she was wearing sandals. The mother insisted on giving me socks for the baby. In Spain, our youngest of three flirted with the flight attendants. In Lebanon and Jordan we had more conversations than I can recall about children and how they are God’s ultimate gift. You cannot be low profile with young children. Go with it and take advantage of all the new friends you will meet on your next trip because of your kids.
5. Pack Less.
My favorite travel writer, Rick Steves, https://www.ricksteves.com says there are travelers who pack light and travelers who wish they had. The same is true of travel with kids. On one of our first multi-country trips with a baby, we went to Norway, Denmark, and England. I still remember changing trains at Victoria Station on the London Underground with two giant suitcases in each hand and a huge baby cot. As I struggled up the steps of the station, an elderly woman pleaded with me to let her carry one of the suitcases. When you have so much luggage that old women feel pity for you and want to carry your stuff, you are doing something wrong! I vowed then and there to do better the next time. Last summer we took all three kids on a ten-day road trip around Iceland. We fit everything for five people into two duffle bags. Believe me, you will be happier with less.
6. Stop Comparing.
When I first started travelling with the kids I kept a list of all the places we had been and shared it with everyone. I was determined that our daughter would make it to twenty-four countries in twenty-four months. We accomplished the goal and do you know what happened? Nothing! No one cared. I came to understand that the checklists and maps with pins in them to show all the visited cities mattered only to me. No one else was paying attention.
When you travel this summer, you are taking the trip for you, not for anyone else. Make a conscious effort to let go of thoughts and concerns of whether or not this trip is good enough and comparisons to someone else’s trip. Release any spirit of competitiveness or keeping up with others. You are not in competition. You are on the trip to build experiences and a deeper relationship with your family. Who cares what anyone else thinks!