It’s Not What You Think: Long Term Family Travel

If there’s one thing that parenthood is, it’s an exercise in adjusting expectations. Remember how easy it all seemed before the baby was born? How you had it all figured out? How easy it was to see what everyone else was doing “wrong” and how obvious the “right answers” were? Yeah. And do you remember the tail spin of realities in those first weeks, months, and years, when you were brought to your knees and the end of your wits by a tiny, helpless being that you loved more than yourself? You learned a lot, didn’t you? And the first lesson you learned was to adjust your expectations.

Travel with kids is like that

Kid on the beach

If you’re contemplating a big time trip with your family, then you’ve likely been spending hours online reading blogs and studying family travel sites with pictures of beaming toddlers on beaches, teens enthusiastically zip-lining through rainforest canopies, and Moms with babies tied on their backs giving Lara Croft a run for her money in the ruins of Angkor Wat. It looks great, doesn’t it?

The blogga-mamas paint these rosy pictures of real world education in the museums of Europe and long afternoons spent learning to make chocolate from scratch in the jungles of Guatemala. You read those blogs, and you are just certain that once you hit the road, it’s all going to be dreamy.

The blogga-mamas paint these rosy pictures of real world education in the museums of Europe and long afternoons spent learning to make chocolate from scratch in the jungles of Guatemala (okay, that one was me!) You read those blogs, and you are just certain that once you hit the road, it’s all going to be dreamy. All of the things that you’re longing to escape: the messy house, the commercial culture, the endless daycare, and school rodeo of drop-off, pick-up, wash, rinse, repeat. The towering piles of laundry and toys – they’ll all magically disappear. You’ll be living light and free. You’ll be spending all of your time focusing on one another. You’ll be having fantastic experiences in exotic places. You’ll become one of those shining families who seem to have it all, do it all, and breeze through life on a steady stream of beach photos with perfect kids.

Can I be the first to say: GET A GRIP

Crying kid

Yes, travel as a family can be, and is, fantastic. That gap year might become your life, as it did for us, and you may find yourselves on an epic, years long adventure that spans continents, with a long trail of drooling blog readers in your wake. It can be done. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s easy.

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We were about six months into our journey, in the fall of 2008. We’d cycled from London, UK, to Austria, and we were beginning to find our travel groove with our tribe. Tony and I were sitting on the tarp outside our tent discussing our progress over a bottle of wine one evening, and he had a perplexed look on his face. “I don’t know what I was thinking… I mean, I guess I thought that once we took off, everything would be perfect, I’d have so much more time to spend with you and the kids, they’d love every moment, every day would be a new adventure… and, well… it’s just not.” I laughed a little, having traveled for months at a time as a child, I was not afflicted with magical thinking. “I’m just figuring out that all of the hard stuff goes with us, you know? *I* go with myself. There’s no such thing as escape!”

I’m just figuring out that all of the hard stuff goes with us, you know? *I* go with myself. There’s no such thing as escape!

If there is one message I’d like to send to families who take off traveling, and to those who read our blog, it’s that: There is no escape. Everything that’s hard goes with you.

The highs and lows of long-term family travel

Highs and lows

In fact, since we’re on the “truth in advertising” train today, let’s discuss the fact that much of a traveling life, especially with children, is harder than life at home. All of the things with kids that are stressful at home: sleep schedules, eating difficulties, the continual parade of laundry and messes, those things are all going with you. You’ll be working to get kids to sleep in a parade of new beds, eat weird stuff they’ve never seen before, and you’ll be hand washing clothes in your hotel shower that you’ll hang like prayer flags around the room in prayer to the travel gods for dry undies by morning. Family travel. It’s glamorous like that.

Don’t get me started on the joys of 12 hour bus rides with a toddler on your lap. If you’re really lucky, it will even be YOUR toddler. Or a five year old with intestinal issues from the tamales he bought from the street vendor in the last city, who is now pooping to death ON the bus. No, there is not an on-board toilet, thanks for asking. Or the child who is puking his guts out on winding mountain roads for days at a time because there really is no other option than to just keep going and get there.

Wrangling emergency hospital care in your third language is fun, when your heart is in your throat over the health of your middle child. It’s even more fun when you don’t speak the language at all, and you have a delirious teenager. Or an hour’s ride by motorbike, in the dark, to the nearest health center where the fish hook can be cut out of your baby’s foot. Then there’s that moment when you realize you really should be carrying your own sterile needle kit because the hospital does not have a suture kit. Yes, seriously.

Don’t let me scare you, though – like life – the lows are really low, but the highs are really high.

I guess it’s a lot like giving birth… the labor pains are very real, and some parts are more horrible than you could have ever planned for, but the rewards are also beyond your imagination and in the end, it’s infinitely worth it.

There are horseback rides through coffee fincas where you learn more in one day about the coffee industry than your kids could ever learn from a book in a month. And there is the sheer joy of watching a little person discover three types of starfish on an unhurried afternoon. Riding camels for Christmas in Tunisia was only topped by riding elephants for a 10th birthday in Thailand. Watching your kids get SCUBA certified in Belize is only slightly better than watching them get kite surfing certification in Thailand. Overhearing a 9 & 11 year old debate the differences in architecture and culture between Khmer and Mayan ruins is kind of an educational high point for a Mom. Hearing your teenagers argue fiercely in a hostel common room that they are not educationally or socially deficient for their adventurous upbringing and then to hear, second hand, from a school teacher who is anti-homeschooling, that they are the “neatest kids,” kind of makes some of the horror stories fade into the background.

I guess it’s a lot like giving birth… the labor pains are very real, and some parts are more horrible than you could have ever planned for, but the rewards are also beyond your imagination and in the end, it’s infinitely worth it.

So what’s the take home message: Adjust your expectations

Kids on lorry

Traveling with your kids will not be like traveling solo in your twenties. Forget full moon parties and all night drum circles. Plan to slow down. Plan to see the world from the kids’ view. Plan for comfort. Plan for days when they completely lose their minds and just want to GO HOME! Plan for the days when you do the same. Read between the lines on those shiny blogs and run like hell from anyone who tells you it’s all dreamy and perfect. Take a good hard look at your life at home and realize that all of these people, their personalities and quirks, strengths and weaknesses are going with you. Pack your mental bags for that reality.

Take a good hard look at your life at home and realize that all of these people, their personalities and quirks, strengths and weaknesses are going with you.

Traveling with kids is the best thing I’ve done with my life so far. It really is. Once you get your mind around the realities and settle into the routines, it’s one of the most natural ways to parent. The time you have together on the road is unlike any other. The memories you make together are for a lifetime. Unplugged from your rat race, you get to explore and learn together in ways that change your lives forever. I may regret a number of things when I get to the end of my days, but this time on the road with my kids won’t be one of them.

To read more about family travel, check out the following articles:


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Jenn Miller has been on the road with her husband and four children for over five years now and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel. Each week Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.

Manifesto - replace broad expectations with nuanced realities

Photo credits: Kevin Krejci, Nezemnaya, footlooseiety, vivianejl





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