Here’s the next part of what could be quite a long series. After traveling with our kids for 16 years and 6 continents, these life lessons add up, and although I’m often amazed at how little we seem to learn, we have picked up small nuggets of knowledge over the years. Again, I’m not talking about the stuff you read about everywhere (snacks, naps, what toys to take) – I’m talking about being prepared and being able to appreciate real travel. Remember, travel can be stressful and family travel even more so, so every bit of planning, preparation and awareness helps. So here goes, Part 2 :
1. Go to and get to the airport early. Yes, I know this might fall into a more mundane category. But family travel can be stressful, so don’t make it more so. Remember, you’re never in total control of all circumstances, so don’t tempt fate too much. If you’re in your home city, consider the potential traffic. If you’re not, find out how long it really takes to get to the airport, and double-check your mode of transport (once in New York City, the taxi driver asked me how to get to JFK. Not good.) My experience is that USUALLY the airport is a breeze. But on those (hopefully) rare occasions when things fall apart, you’ll be so grateful for the extra half hour you gave yourselves.
2. Luggage. OK, I know this is a topic debated on the same level as food and toilets. Hand luggage only ? Overpack or travel light ? There are no obvious answers. One thing I know though is to pack clever. As a family, the more pieces you have, the more that can get lost. Mix up your luggage among family members, so that if 1 bag gets lost, you’re not stuck with one person without luggage. Also, put key clothing in hand luggage, even if you check your luggage. So if you’re going on a beach vacation, put bathing suits and sandals in your hand luggage just in case. And if you’re like me and my boys, and you like buying t-shirts all over the world, don’t bring too many from home. I have tons of long sleeved light running shirts – I always take a few for anyone who needs a bit of warming up. They take up virtually no space, and can fit in almost any pocket.
3. Do your homework. A lot of unneccessary stress is caused by not being prepared. Family travel is incredibly rewarding, but there is work involved. Be prepared. Don’t be like me and just assume Iceland is warm in summer (it’s not, actually mostly it’s really wet and cold). Check and double check flight times – they change more than you’d think, and sometimes quite a lot. Check flight connections. Check rules different countries have for passports (while my whole family waltzed into Ireland, I was at first denied entry for not having enough place in my passport for the entry stamp) – some want 2 clear pages, some want the passport to be valid for 6 months after entry. We also have our passports scanned into our email just in case.
4. Involve everyone ! I was already traveling quite a lot when our kids were born. So, for a while, I felt the travel was mine, and the kids were coming along for the ride. After a while, I realized this wasn’t working. As I’ve said before, if one of your kids is miserable, you will be too.Also, why shouldn’t our/your kids have an equal say in planning and activities ? It’s their trip too, even if they’re not paying for it. Your family experiences will be so much richer and wonderful if you make your children a full part of every aspect of the trip. The excitement of getting to a place researched and planned by your children is truly amazing (In Hanoi in 2007, Ilani virtually coerced us into going to Angkor Wat – I am eternally grateful.). Have them keep blogs, take photos, videos. Just keep them engaged. They’ll remember these family vacations forever, and you will all have shared something really special. And if they think they can do something really challenging, let them try (thanks to our kids, we jumped out of a plane at 12,000 feet in New Zealand – I would never have thought of doing that.) If your 10 year old feels he can do a ten mile hike, well, believe in him – we had an incredible one day hike at Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
5. See through your children’s eyes and go with the flow: Some of the best laid plans just don’t always work. In Bogota, Benjy was bored in the Gold Museum (#1 must see in Bogota) after 10 minutes. However just outside we found a little market and a street full of shops selling soccer shirts. Redemption ! Many, many times we’ve been in a must see or do place and the kids have become bored. Quickly. Don’t force the place on them. Just take it in stride – you’re not traveling solo, and everyone is entitled to a good time. The great thing about travel is that in a foreign place with a different culture you’re always just minutes away from something fun and interesting. Usually this entails walking the streets for 5 minutes. And enjoy seeing the world through their eyes – our kids noticed that children of similar ages in Cambodia were far shorter than them, and that people in China have inordinately long nose hairs ! You can learn a lot from your children !
6. Try relax and enjoy yourself ! If you’re like me, you may just be a travel perfectionist who wants everything to run smoothly, according to plan. And sometimes it just doesn’t go that way. Things happen in life, and they happen in foreign countries too. Sometimes it’s big stuff (flights getting cancelled), sometimes not so big (overnight fevers). You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s never as bad as it seems and can be dealt with. Often, when I’m really upset by something, I’m buoyed to see that nobody else really cares – they’re just carrying on, not worrying about it. Just put it all down to experience.
7. Keep traveling as a family ! This is harder than it sounds. Our daughter is almost 17 now, and the days of our own family travel are somewhat limited. But it’s really important to try traveling as a family for as long as possible. As they get older, they may start strongly resisting the notion of family travel (that same daughter shouted out ‘ I want new parents’ in the Coromandel, New Zealand, ironically as paradisiacal a spot as you could find), but you should try keep them engaged. In our planning we use books, videos and maps. Look for activities that may appeal to older kids (we studied Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala) And as I said, you’ll learn a lot from your kids, and your travel will be a rich source of family anecdotes years later. And you’ll be closer. Our most cherished photos are not of Halong Bay, Angkor Wat or The Great Wall of China, but of our family together in these places. Try it, you won’t regret it.