5 Steps to Simplify Family Travel

It’s amazing how many people equate having children with the end of their free wheeling traveling days. They trade a backpack for a diaper bag and thumb wistfully through guidebooks while sipping coffee at the bookshop but can’t imagine a world in which they could “go there” with kids. How sad. I suppose it’s no small wonder, the way companies use fear and insecurity to sell everything from safe, “family friendly” holidays to the myriad of crap a parent is made to think is part and parcel of traveling with kids.

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can have your cake and eat it, too. You can have your kids and travel, too. In fact, your kids might just be the best reason you have for hitting the road. Is there any better education for them than walking in the world for a while?

If you’re willing to change the way you think about kids and modify your expectation from travel, you’ll find that the world opens up and welcomes family travelers with open arms. Travel with kids does not have to mean Disney World, and it does not have to mean misery either. Here are five steps to empower families and simplify family travel:

1. Prepare at home

Perhaps the biggest point of failure for parents traveling with young children comes when a routine loving child is pulled out of his comfy home shell and thrown into a sea of sights and sounds under prepared. Foods change, biorhythms change, there are noises, lights, and activities that are unfamiliar and a little scary sometimes. These are the very things that adults love about travel, and the very thing that freaks the little people out. Think ahead about these things and spend a few weeks preparing your child at home for the changes he or she will face on the road. You’re not going to magically have a child who eats only white things at home suddenly be happily slurping kimchee on holiday.

If you’re willing to change the way you think about kids and modify your expectation from travel, you’ll find that the world opens up and welcomes family travelers with open arms.

Cultivate flexibility

If you’ve got your eye on growing a little traveler, create a home life that mirrors the real world.  Change things up nutritionally and with your child’s schedule. Create opportunities to practice flexibility: sleep in a tent in the back yard or a hammock on the deck, shift bedtimes once in a while, eat your way around the world at home, and practice trying new things.

Unplug

If your kid can’t happily self maintain at home, I promise you that he won’t on the road either.  There is a place for video games and DVD players, but there’s a place for the absence of them as well. Resist the urge to simplify your life by plugging in your child. Instead, work on cultivating contentment and comfortable interaction with your child. You don’t want your kid to be the one we saw playing his gameboy at the coliseum in Rome; trust me.
 
Do you want to travel more with your family?
 
Play Games

One great way to prepare your child for the discomforts of real travel is by playing games at home.

  • Have an “electricity free” evening once a week and practice making your own fun without modern devices.
  • Post a sign on your bathroom door that “this bathroom has been transported to Mexico… pay .25 to use and get your toilet paper from the attendant.” Kids think that kind of thing is hilarious, and it will make unusual toileting situations less awkward when you’re off the beaten path.
  • Practice going through security scanners at the airport by using plastic bins on your dining table and then walking through door frames like scanners. Make sure you use a ruler to “wand” your child occasionally when the “scanner” goes off.

Travel Local

Make it a habit to “travel local” and take gradually wider and longer trips within a few hours of your house.

  • Practice museum etiquette and picnicking roadside.
  • Practice leaving the house with nothing but a backpack and finding your way as you go through a day and getting comfortable with the unexpected and unpredictable.
  • Practice sleeping in weird places, eating weird foods, attending cultural events, and being uncomfortable sometimes.

2.  Pack Less

Seriously. PACK. LESS. Parents are notorious for packing too much crap for their progeny. Your child does not need extra shoes, fifty outfits, and three sunhats along with a week’s supply of “kid food” and an over sized bag of entertainment. I promise. How do I know? I have four kids.

And here’s another tip.  If you really need it, you’ll be able to buy it on location.

What does your kid need?

Assuming one climate zone and up to six months, not more than:

  • 3 outfits
  • 1 jacket
  • 1 jammies
  • 4 underpants
  • 4 pair of socks
  • 1 pair of all purpose shoes
  • 1 swim suit
  • 1 towel
  • 1 stuffed animal or blankie
  • 1 gallon Ziploc bag of miscellaneous toys of his or her choosing

Seriously. That’s it.

And here’s another tip.  If you really need it, you’ll be able to buy it on location. Everywhere there are people there is the stuff people need, adjust your expectations and quit packing like you’ve got a camel to carry it all.

The One Bag Rule

It’s simple:  If you are a family of fewer than six traveling for less than six months to one climate zone, you get ONE BAG.  It can be a big ass bag, but you only need ONE. Additionally, each person my have one carry-on sized backpack for daily personal use.

Sound impossible? It’s not. In fact, we’ve often traveled with ONLY the carry-ons for several weeks at a time and NO checked bag.

“But how will I get the carseat, playpen, and fifty other big items in if I only get one bag?” I hear you asking.

It’s worth a few bucks to travel light. Trust me on that.

Another tip.  You can rent it all, or buy it cheap. Most destinations in the first world have baby gear rental places (google it). Car seats can be rented with your car. And if all else fails, hit a resale shop upon landing and donate the stroller, playpen, or whatever to the women’s shelter before you fly back out. It’s worth a few bucks to travel light. Trust me on that.

Still don’t believe it can be done?

Let me introduce you to my friend Keri, who breezed off of a plane from Germany for a three week tour of the USA with her four (well traveled) children. ONE checked bag, small backpacks, and nothing more.  And this was a winter shoulder season in the States.

Let me tell you another secret. If you pack less, you’ll travel more. 90% of the frustration incurred by families traveling is due to the goat rodeo that is moving the gear from point A to point B.

  • Downsize the stroller to a baby carrier, or at least an umbrella stroller instead of the massive Graco one.
  • Give the kid a tiny backpack for the toys and leave the diaper bag at home.
  • Teach him to sleep in a little pop up tent that rolls up to nothing and forget the pack-n-play.

One bag. One.

3.  Acknowledge Myth of “Family Friendly”

 

You want to know the fastest way to ensure I won’t take my kids somewhere? Tell me how “family friendly” it is.

To me, “family friendly” means I can expect any cultural content to be dumbed down beyond recognition and a herd of badly behaved children with frightened parents who don’t think their kids can “handle” the real thing.

Instead of seeking to make the world “family friendly,” why don’t we instead make our children “world friendly?” After all, they’re going to live in the world, it belongs to them, so they should get to know it and become comfortable there.

My kids actually find the whole “family friendly” concept a bit insulting. The assumption is that they’re not capable in some way of participating in the world as equals with everyone else, that they have some sort of disability by virtue of their age that requires a more sanitized, less authentic, and less intelligent experience that is arrogantly pre-chewed by the “adults” and spoonfed to them like pablum.

Instead of seeking to make the world “family friendly,” why don’t we instead make our children “world friendly?”

In my humble opinion, the concept of “family friendly” travel is complete BS because at the end of the day, children are world citizens, too. Every culture produces and raises children. It’s all about expectations. If you expect your kids to be incapable, they will be. If you expect your kids to dive in with gusto, learn, travel joyfully, and you structure for that success, then it’s very likely that they will. Will they have meltdowns occasionally? Of course they will (remember that you sometimes meltdown, too, and you’re an adult). But unless you’re talking about summiting Mt. Everest or something clearly skill based and unsafe for children, then there’s no reason to expect they won’t rise to the occasion.

What should you look for in a destination, if not “family friendly?”

  • Look for experiences that are exciting and engaging
  • Look for places and ways for kids to live their interests
  • Look for experiences that will test their skill or cause them to stretch
  • Look for education in the real world (SCUBA lessons to historical experiences)
  • Look for things that are just FUN for them and for you
  • Take them places that you are passionate about and bond over that excitement
  • Take them places important to your family
  • Take them places they’d never expect (an African safari?)
  • Ride things: horses, mules into the Grand Canyon, camels on the Sahara, elephants in Asia.
  • Conquer things: mountains, white water rivers, volcanoes, hiking trails, canyons, oceans

4.   Simplifying the Logistics

If you can simplify the logistics at home and abroad, you’ll find travel with children much more pleasant. Simple things, like maintaining a schedule that is portable and keeping biorhythms as consistent as possible will go a long way to helping keep children (and parents!) cheerful.

Food

Instead of always seeking out McNuggets for your children when you’re traveling, why not work on broadening palates on a daily basis? We know one little traveler who had dug in and decided he would eat ONLY pancakes at home. His mother was at her wits end and worried about traveling for three weeks alone with her son. Instead of catering to the dinnertime tyranny, she simply offered a variety of meals and didn’t cave to the pancake demands. Some meals he ate, others he didn’t. She varied the offerings to ensure a balanced diet and at least some success in getting food into the child. By the second week of the trip, her son was happily poking away at dim sum in Boston’s Chinatown pronouncing, “I LIKE IT!” with a great deal of self satisfied joy. Be persistent. They will learn.

Jet-Lag

I do not enjoy being awake at four in the morning, even if we are in Hawaii. I enjoy it less when accompanied by a toddler. However, jet lag is a travel reality that young and old alike must suffer through.

There are two keys to weathering it with children: Compassion and Creativity.  I know, you’re tired, too, but imagine what it’s like for your little one and find some fun ways to pass the time. Read stories, have a snack, put on some quiet music, and try to snooze together. If all else fails, get creative and head out on the beach. You might just meat a sea turtle at dawn that happens to become the highlight of your trip.

How to Plan A Day

My Uncle Dick has a saying: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.  No where are the seven P’s more applicable than in travel with kids. Planning your day with a balance of activity and rest time, things that will stretch them a bit (a museum visit) with things that are purely fun for all (the park) and making sure that meals and snacks are strategically delivered to keep blood sugar levels regulated is key. If you have little kids, don’t try to fly by the seat of your pants the first few times you travel, plan for spontaneity instead! Make mealtime and bedtime priorities!

Teach Your Kid to Roll With It

Some kids are, by nature, more flexible than others, but even little ones who enjoy the same things, day after day, can learn to be flexible travelers. If you play the games, prepare at home, and work to broaden their sphere slowly, you’ll soon have brave travelers. Here’s a little secret though: Your attitude matters. More is caught than taught.  If your kids see you gracefully rolling with the punches, taking disappointment and unexpected bumps with a sense of humor and adventure, they’re more likely to do the same.

You can do this. You can. What’s more, you should. Why? Because the open road calls to your soul, and the world is the very best classroom for your children.

5.  The Secret Weapon

No sane parent should travel without a secret weapon. When everything is going wrong, it’s your life-saver! What is it? A bag of tricks designed to distract and delight.

Loading the Weapon

What should it hold? That depends on the age of your child, but some multi-age favorites include:

  • Balloons
  • Puzzle books
  • Stickers
  • Magic Ink books
  • Travel games
  • Magnetized toys
  • Write and wipe boards
  • New books
  • Sticky frogs
  • Origami paper

Contents need not be expensive, but they do need to be special, different, and exciting to your child.

Deploying the Weapon

How do you know when to use it?  Trust me, you’ll know. Preferably ten seconds before your child starts into a stage four meltdown. Make it last, give out one item not more often than once every thirty minutes and stretch the fun value of each item as long as humanly possible.

When All Bets Are Off

Here’s a demoralizing fact: your kid is going to lose it in public and be just DONE with travel at some point. What are you going to do when that happens?

That’s the moment when all bets are off and you make a beeline for the first “family friendly” option you can find. Yes I know, I just spent several paragraphs railing against “family friendly,” but here’s where it can be put to good use: as an extreme comfort measure for your child when the day has just been too much for everyone. If McDonalds in Europe is a once every three months affair then when you do go the kids are over the moon for their hot fudge sundae, and it can change the whole tone of the day.

For example:

  • After cycling for three straight weeks in rain in the UK dinner at an IKEA food court was like heaven on earth for our road weary children.
  • After weeks of knedliky and svickova in the Czech, the children hopped around like grasshoppers when we caved and visited a KFC.
  • In Kiev this winter with my friends 3 newly adopted boys, an American McDonalds with balloons, ice cream, and fun music was the perfect way to keep them distracted for the thirty minutes she needed to buy plane tickets home.

You Can Travel With Your Kids

You can do this. You can. What’s more, you should. Why? Because the open road calls to your soul, and the world is the very best classroom for your children.

Our children have been traveling fulltime for over four years; they helped me write this article.

Hannah, who’s fifteen, says to tell you that travel has helped her to see the world as bigger than your own culture and have experiences she’d never have in a classroom. She says to tell you that your kids will thank you for it. Gabriel, who’s fourteen, says he’s learning things traveling he could never have learned in school, and that he wouldn’t want to be raised any other way. Elisha, who’s eleven, wants you to know that travel is the best way to learn more languages, and that street food and chicken buses are the best part. Ezra who’s nine, says that if you pack less you’ll be grumpy less and to remember to take your vitamins so you don’t get sick.

Take the plunge: travel with your kids.

Been there, done that? Share your stories and tips in the comments section below!

To read more about traveling with your family, check out the following articles:

Photo credits:  woodleywonderworks, Joshua Berman, js42, all other photos courtesy of Tony and Jenn Miller and may not be used without permission. 

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Leave a Comment

  • Paige Conner Totaro said at 2012-05-21T21:17:20+0000: Amen! I love it! Can't wait to hit the road with my kids in September!
  • Karlene Hudson said at 2012-06-29T02:10:15+0000: Instead of seeking to make the world “family friendly,” why don’t we instead make our children “world friendly?”.
  • Lisa Bond said at 2012-06-12T22:58:25+0000: Great article! I'm always hitting the road with my kids. I most recently traveled to London for a week with my 8 yr old and a friend and her 9 yr old. We let the boys have a day to choose what they wanted us to do, sights to see and food to eat. Turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip!
  • Lyuba Mather said at 2012-06-27T11:49:56+0000: Brilliant article! great advice--but most important it is so positive and inspiring! I was dreading travelling to Asia with my 2.5 and a 5-year olds, but now I am not only calm as a rock but will also ditch a couple of my numerous suitcases full of things "just in case"! Thank you!
  • Amy King said at 2012-05-01T23:02:34+0000: Great article - love it! Thanks for a refreshing reminder of why I admire how your family lives.
  • Rebeca Groover said at 2012-05-01T22:51:11+0000: Great advice right here! I love the last paragraph. :>