We’ve been traveling with our kids for quite long now – my eldest child is 16 and she’d been with us to 3 continents by the time she was 1 1/2 – and we’ve learned a lot along the way. I’m often surprised by how much we perhaps have NOT learned, but we’ve improved a lot ! So here are lessons we’ve picked up over the years, and I’m not talking about the things you see everywhere, like find a theme park or a restaurant with kids menus – I’m talking about real life lessons we’ve learned.
My mantra I’ve developed over the years is that if your children are not happy traveling, you won’t be either. So if there’s a site or museum you really want to see, or a restaurant you absolutely have to go to, think twice about how happy your children will be. Believe me, if they’re miserable, you will be too. We’re all parents now so this is a calculation you just have to take into account. You may need to improvise, but I promise you, it’s worth it. Ultimately, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of discovery with your children.
1. Food. There are few topics more discussed and stressed over when dealing with family travel. That need to hunt down the restaurant with the kids’ menu, or the one ‘western’ style restaurant in some fairly remote destination.I think people sweat over this too much; there is an excitement and joy over discovering and trying out new, different foods all over the world. We insist on knowing what we’re eating and we’re not overly daring, but part of the experience is trying local foods whether in a restaurant or in a market. Be careful though that the establishment looks clean. If you’re worried about it, see how many local people are in the restaurant – if there are very few, try somewhere else. If you want to try things out but are too scared of foreign foods, hire a guide for a day. Generally they’ll be very good at ordering for you. We found this really useful in China and Vietnam.
2. Agenda. Kids often are not good at meandering, something adults often love to do. Our kids need to know the goal of the exercise, the ‘where are we going to land up ? ‘, the ‘what are we actually doing ? ‘ question. So have a goal, an ending point. This also arouses curiosity and can keep them engaged. Of course, some places are made for wandering : Cartagena, Barcelona, London, Antigua (Guatemala), Lijiang come to mind.
3. Toilets – again, much is made of this, especially in less developed areas. So, surprise, surprise, in our family, almost always it’s the grown ups who make a far bigger fuss over the toilets than our kids. Generally, like with other aspects of traveling, they just seem to roll with it. (I have to admit I have had my less than memorable moments when my kids were very small (and not so small) – trying to change a diaper in a toystore in Amsterdam – they did not like that; unable to leave the car on safari – we used an empty waterbottle; and more recently a very unfortunate scene in a huge indoor market in Beijing.
4. Hotels. Again, our kids never seem to notice much, whether we’re in a 4 star hotel, or a run down place in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. In fact our experience has been that the cheaper the place, the nicer they are, and never try nickel and dime you for every single thing. Case in point : how many top hotels provide free internet ? we’ve found that the cheaper the hotel, the better the chance of free internet (one of my top travel gripes: when you’re already paying so much for a room, why still charge for internet ?).
5. MODES OF TRANSPORT – I put this in capitals as it’s so important. Please, please, don’t try underestimate this. If you’re somewhere a little remote, usually in the developing world, and you’re offered a great excursion, think very carefully about the transport. How many times my kids have got sick on a car/bus ride on terrible, windy roads, or seasick, I do not want to remember. And every time I thought why did I not anticipate this ?
6. Tours. a little bit like 5. Tours of course can be excellent, interesting and sometimes a way of seeing something otherwise hard to get to. On the other hand, they’re unbelievably restrictive. Once on, you can’t get off, and if someone’s bored, it’s a recipe for disaster. Much better is hiring a private guide where you’re in charge and can basically do whatever you want, or try do it on your own. If you have doubts that your children can sit happily through, for example, a one day boat ride admiring the scenery (someone tried to sell us this at the admittedly stunning Li River; we opted for a short private ride instead), don’t do it.
7. Involving your kids – I mean all the way, through all the stages. For older kids who are somewhat reticent about family travel, do some research with them and let them choose a couple of activities. Let them contact operators or tour guides, or hotels. And let them take lots of photos and videos, if they wish.
8. Don’t try do too much – this was long a personal failing. I wanted to do and see everything possible, no matter how tiring. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not so much how much you see but the quality of the time you spend together. So sitting at a coffee shop in Guatemala, or strolling through indigenous markets in Asia and Latin America may be time-consuming, but has provided our family with fabulous memories.
9. Beaches. I have to include this. For us, if all else fails, try get to a glorious beach with wonderful water, and all will be forgotten.