Long before I was a mom, I was a traveler. I traveled far and hard, and I swore that would not change when I had kids. People tried to tell me it would all change, that I would have to take a travel hiatus, maybe until my kids were teenagers. Colleagues of mine in the travel industry had never taken their school-age kids out of the country. They were waiting, they said, until it was easier, until their kids would get more out of it, until it was less work to entertain their kids on planes.
I had visions of trekking below 20,000-foot Himalayan peaks with my child strapped to a yak. I had visions of tossing my kid in the back up a beat up car and driving across the grassy plains of Central Asia in the Mongol Rally. And I had visions of cruising the turquoise waters of the Eastern Mediterranean on a wooden gullet. My husband reminded me that Delhi belly in small kids can be life-threatening, that putting a child to bed in a different yurt every night would be miserable for all involved (and that's even before you factor in the bedbugs), and that a child with no swimming skills and no impulse control should not spend a week on a boat.
My husband was right -- things would have to change. We'd have to find a way of traveling that worked for everyone in the family because not traveling was not an option. Not for me personally, and not for the type of child I wanted to raise. There are plenty of articles out there about traveling with babies, but it seems that once people pass the honeymoon period before baby crawls, they often put travel on hold indefinitely, which is a shame. Fast forward seven years and 10 countries and here's what I've learned about traveling with young kids.
Don't move around a lot. Children need consistency to feel secure, and trying to have them sleep in a different bed every night will lead to sleepless nights and miserable days for all. Find a place that would be fun to explore with day trips and hunker down so that your accommodations become "home." This is an opportunity to get to know a place like a local.
Rent a house. For us, this is the only way to go. My daughter sleeps with a light on, my son needs darkness and my husband and I want to enjoy our evenings past 8 o'clock bedtime. For the price of about one and a half hotel rooms, you can often find a three-bedroom house for rent. You get lots of space, more comfort and a full kitchen, which saves you time, money and frustration from eating out with the kids at every meal.
Find a babysitter. We've hired local babysitters in Nicaragua, New Zealand, Russia, Costa Rica and Florida, and have always been happier for it. Taking care of and entertaining young kids is hard work, and gets harder, not easier, when you travel. If you do not have the means to travel with a nanny (and most do not) you can still hire local babysitters. Our babysitters have always been referred to us by a local mom -- either our hotel or property manager -- and we've arranged it ahead of time. As with any childcare, do your due diligence, start slow and have clear guidelines for the sitter. But don't be afraid to try it. Those few hours exploring like a grown up may end up being some of the most memorable of your trip.
Try to keep some semblance of routine. The last three tips all help with this. One kid still naps and the other doesn't? Having a babysitter enables the napper to keep to his routine without forcing everyone else indoors. Staying in one place and renting a house allows you to find the local grocery store and cook some foods that your kids are familiar with. And not spending every evening at a restaurant allows you time to read a bedtime story and snuggle with your little one just like at home.
Take it easy. Build in time for you and your kids to get over jetlag and settle into your new digs. When you are ready to explore, give your children some control over the activities you will be doing as a family. Most of all, don't over-schedule yourselves with activities, and be prepared to drop things from the schedule depending on how everyone is feeling. This is not a forced march -- you want your kids to enjoy traveling and to look forward to their next trip.
Feed them what they want to eat and don't worry about nutrition. My daughter spent two weeks in Nicaragua on the "white" diet: plain pasta, rice, milk and bread. It's hard enough to get your kids to eat properly at home, but it's next to impossible when you've just rocked their world, and even simple things like cheese are different from what they're used to. Things are feeling a little out of their control, so let them control this. Bring a multi-vitamin and a mild laxative, and don't sweat it for a couple of weeks. Oreos and chips won't kill them either, even if you would never allow them at home.
Travel with friends. Traveling with another family can make it more fun for everyone. The kids will keep each other company without your constant entertainment. The grown-ups have a built-in social life, and can even trade off on babysitting and making pancakes in the morning.
Get your kids water safe. A great way to keep your kids happy on vacation is to stay in a place with a pool. But please, please don't do it if your kids can't save themselves if they accidentally fall in. You cannot monitor your kids every single second and your number-one responsibility as a parent is to ensure their safety. Set firm limits and controls on pool usage, lock doors and gates as necessary and invest in high-quality swim lessons prior to the trip.
Videos, videos, videos. Just do it, seriously, even if you are morally against them. Pay the six bucks on the plane and you will stop all chair kicking, toy throwing and seat-belt snapping. Put a DVD player in the back of a rental car or bring it to a restaurant and life will be calmer. It's like the white food diet -- you allow it on vacation and the world gets back to normal when you go home.
Most importantly, don't put it off. The single biggest reason I've heard from parents for not traveling with their kids is that they want to wait until their child is older and will remember the trip. By that logic, why take your child to a movie or throw them a birthday party until they are 10? No matter what age, your child will be stimulated, challenged and excited by the new cultures, landscapes, animals and activities they experience. On our recent trip to Costa Rica, my kids boogie-boarded and zip-lined, hiked in the rain forest, learned a few words of Spanish and watched monkeys playing in the trees. My seven-year-old tracked a sloth and a kinkajou and found her passion for reading, and my four-year-old rocked out to traditional guitar music. Both of them got more quality time with less stressed-out parents than they ever would at home.
While our travel style has evolved to accommodate the whole family, we have not sacrificed our need to explore and we continue to create incredible travel memories. My husband and I enjoy watching our children grow and blossom abroad, and we hope we are teaching our children to be flexible, curious, fun-loving and respectful world citizens.
What other tips can you add to this list? Leave a comment below!