Travel has always been an exciting challenge for me. I love creating the itinerary, planning the logistics, stepping onto the first plane, the actual adventure and, maybe not so much, the final leg home. As I started planning travel for a family of four, I realized that my typical challenge had transitioned into something new, and I started taking notes. Here are some of the lessons I have learned so far while traveling with kids:
Sometimes all you have time for on the go is a selfie. We just hopped off our boat on the La Seine in Paris. Check out the Batobus for a great way to get around the city.
Before You Leave:
1. Location: Before planning your trip, consider your location. Where are you going? Why are you going? Do you have a choice of your location? Is it a safe and/or beneficial place for your aged kids?
2. Get Excited: Prepare your kids for the cultures they will encounter on your trip. You could plan to cook them a traditional meal from the country you are planning to visit, check out books about the country from the library or create an activity book with information about your destination.
3. Flights: You may not have a choice on the time of your flight, but if you do, it can be helpful to plan long flights over night to try and simulate a regular night as much as possible while traveling. If you are planning a stopover consider the timing carefully. When flying to Rwanda we were able to bookend the trip with stopovers in Europe which helped with travel time and jet lag.
The girls enjoying exploring Kerið Crater in Iceland.
4. Accommodations: Lodging choices may vary greatly depending on your destination. For example, in Europe rooms are often smaller and offer fewer beds. If you are planning on housing a family of 4 in a normal hotel room, you may be disappointed. Beds are listed differently and family sized rooms are more rare and labeled as such. Be sure to read what types of beds are provided to make sure it will work for your kids.
5. Health: Give yourself time to talk to your kid’s doctor about your trip and research recommended vaccinations for their age. Each parent will need to decide how they want to approach travel vaccinations and their children's health. If you choose to vaccinate, you may have the choice between oral and traditional vaccines. Also your doctor may recommend bringing an antibiotic, an inhaler or other medications to have on hand and will write you a prescription prior to your trip. I always chose to travel prepared with what appears to be a small apothecary in my bag, but ironically I am the one who typically gets sick while my family is gallivanting about without a care!
6. Jet Lag: Keep track of what time it is at home and your final destination. We are all sensitive to time changes, but as we know, kids take that to a whole new level. My daughters were old enough to voice that...constantly. They actually had way too much fun talking about time zones and how off they were on sleep. We used kids chewable melatonin to help adjust to the time changes and attempt to get back on a normal sleep schedule.
Sharing my favorite campsite in Norway with my family.
7. Plan for Down Time: The days of hitting the ground running are over. Plan buffer days after long travel days and just plan for more time in general. Everything takes longer with kids. Plan on accomplishing half of what you could on your own in the same amount of time. Also recognize when to cut bait. You may have your heart set on seeing a particular sight, but it will not be a fond family memory if everyone is too tired or falling apart. Reset your expectations.
8. Transport: I used to enjoy learning to navigate foreign cities on foot and just figuring out the public transport. I had to reconsider my laissez fare attitude to getting around when traveling as a family. Turns out that simple bus ride from the airport can be a nightmare with tired children and extra bags. Before arriving familiarize yourself with public transportation options if you are not renting a car. If you can buy tickets ahead of time, it may save you stress when on the ground. If you are arriving and wiped from a long travel day, consider the quickest option to and from the airport, even if a costs a bit extra.
Catching our breath after an amazing hike in Norway.
9. Count Your Steps: Speaking of transport, do not expect your kids to be able to bop around a city. I did not realize how many miles I would usually log on my own until little legs were following me. Before arriving familiarize yourself with the city and make sure you have a map. Always be aware of the closest public transport options in case of a breakdown and have a plan back to were you are staying that does not involve walking a mile. You may find some fun alternatives that will be a highlight of your trip. We used a hop on hop off boat pass in Paris to help navigate the city and loved the experience while saving our energy.
10. Food: Parents understand that food is of utmost importance with kids, but it is always harder away from everyday routine. Bring familiar snacks….lots of them. I was amazed at the amount of space I dedicated to snacks when flying to Rwanda. If you are trying to decide between that extra shirt and another box of your kids’ favorite granola bars...go granola. Bringing snacks does not mean you should not encourage your kids to eat the local fare, but it does arm you against unplanned delays and late meals.
11. Freebies and Discounts: Sign me up! When researching our trips, I looked into a myriad of museums, tours, churches, monuments and other attractions to visit. Most offered free or discounted admission for kids. But just because they offer discounted kids tickets doesn’t mean the lines and your child’s attention span will be compatible. If you have a few attractions you plan to prioritize, if possible, try to buy tickets ahead of time to avoid at least some of the lines or avoid waiting in line just to discover it it sold out.
12. Interests: Travel is an incredible opportunity to learn. Sometimes as parents, you get to introduce your kids to something that you love, for example I made my kids go camping in Norway, and sometimes you can find things that cater to interests your children have. One of my daughters loves geology, and we made a point see Þingvellir National Park when in Iceland. The national park is a unique location where tectonic plates meet. Seeing some sights that catered to her interests led her to share about it with her class. Taking the time to look for attractions that will spark interests in your children is worth the effort.
Saying goodbye to Rwandan friends from the back of the van.
13. Share About Your Trip: Give kids a chance to share about their trip with friends or family members to help them remember what they experienced. Create a photo book for them to share. Invite friends over for a meal (maybe something they ate while traveling) and have your kids tell about their highlights and what they learned!
This list is far from comprehensive because I expect that I still have much to learn and will be adding to it throughout the years. Although it adds a layer (who am I kidding, I mean several layers) of complexity to travel with your kids, it is worth the effort! It is such a joy and privilege to share these experiences with them, and I never want to take these opportunities for granted. I have found a renewed sense of excitement and wonder as we discover and learn more about other cultures together.