RTW Family Travel: The Case for Slowing Down

When you’re sitting with your map on the dining room table planning your RTW trip, it’s tempting to keep adding dots to your route. There are so many places to go, and a year seems like a very long time to travel. Except that it’s not, really; it goes by alarmingly quickly. Knowing that, you resolve to see as much as possible, and you pour over the maps, not wanting to “miss out” on anything really good. Pour yourself another glass of wine, and let’s take a second look at your plans, and mine.

Our original route

Cycling alone

I recently came across my planning lists from 2007, the fall before we took off for what we thought would be a one year trip across Europe, North Africa and maybe the fringe of Asia on the Turkish coast. It’s a relatively small geographical area. Perfect for our plan to cycle. Very “realistic,” we thought.

But the biggest thing we didn’t account for was our own exhaustion.

It’s laughable to look at those plans now, so seriously made at the time. Half of what we planned went unrealized in the actual journey, for a variety of reasons:

  • We over estimated our capacity for moving forward on bicycles, with kids, camping.
  • We underestimated the number of fascinating things we’d encounter (and detour for) once on the road.
  • We didn’t account for falling in love with Vienna and staying 3 weeks instead of three days, or Marseille and spending half a month instead of a long weekend, or Prague.
  • Nor did we account for an opportunity to serve in Germany that took up a few weeks of our time.
  • But the biggest thing we didn’t account for was our own exhaustion.

The first month we were in Tunisia I took four pregnancy tests. I didn’t know whether to pray for one line or two. I was so bone tired deep down that I knew I was either pregnant or dying of something horrible. Turns out it was neither. We’d been cycling for seven months, moving forward every day or two, and had criss-crossed a continent under our own steam, literally dragging half of our kids and all of our gear. That wears a girl out, evidently.

When we hit Africa, we hit the proverbial wall along with it. We rented a house half a block from the Mediterranean, and we proceeded to sleep it off for two of the three months we had. We were learning a lot of things at that point of our journey, and we were in the process of taking it from a one year lark to a lifestyle, but perhaps the most valuable thing we learned was that we needed to pace ourselves and slow down.

We were learning a lot of things at that point of our journey, and we were in the process of taking it from a one year lark to a lifestyle, but perhaps the most valuable thing we learned was that we needed to pace ourselves and slow down.

I made friends with Monya, the veiled mama who ran the bread store beneath our apartment. I became known as “Canada” to the taxi drivers who patrolled our strip. One would wheel an illegal U-turn anytime he saw me and holler in french, “Hey Canada! Where we goin’ today?” He taught me about Islam, a nifty trick for inflating the skin around your sheep sacrifice on Eid Al Kebir, making it easier to skin out, and the finer nuances of making a living around the margins in a “benevolent dictatorship.” This was before the Arab Spring swept the land.

The kids settled into a routine of barefoot stickball in the street with neighbor kids, and we ate our weight in clementines (thirty cents a kilo) and artichokes (thirty cents a piece!) It was a good winter. We dug in. We learned. We experienced Tunisia in a way that isn’t possible when you’re just passing through, no matter how intentionally. When we pushed our bikes back onto the ferry, headed for Marseille, in the spring, we were rested, renewed, and ready to tackle the road again.

Our slow-travel strategy

Slow down

Since then, we’ve developed a pattern of moving forward a few months at a time, and then dropping anchor, renting a house somewhere, and digging in for a bit. It allows us to work, and to school, and to cultivate the routines that are important to us while still adventuring on and seeing new places. We’ve come to have a real appreciation for our three to six month stints in homes away from home. There’s a depth that’s added to your experience when you get off of the hotel strip and into a community, when you begin shopping where the locals shop, walking, eating, and sleeping where the native population does. There are things that we discover three, four, eight weeks into a place that elude a traveler on the first pass, or the fiftieth.

There’s a depth that’s added to your experience when you get off of the hotel strip and into a community, when you begin shopping where the locals shop, walking, eating, and sleeping where the native population does.

It’s also been our experience that kids travel better when they’re allowed to travel slowly. Anyone who has tried to rush a toddler through a week’s vacation with a hectic itinerary knows what I’m talking about. Kids need time to rest. They need time to detox. They need time to play and be kids. They need parks to hang out in and other kids to rub elbows with. Sometimes they just need to spend a month of mornings building pillow forts, watching Knight Rider with Arabic subtitles, and perfecting their consumption of couscous as a breakfast cereal without anyone harshin’ on their mellow about museums or historic sites.

I almost wrote, “the smaller they are, the more true this is,” but in reality, I think the teens need it as much. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are fantastic travelers, better than I am in lots of ways. They take all night bus trips and long Mekong boat rides in treacherous flood stages in stride. They’ve been raised on the road, largely. They’re down with long waits, weird food, lost in translation moments, and the full array of travel discomforts. They rarely complain; someone will just burst into a lusty chorus of “You can’t always get what you wa-ant!” They laugh, and tough it out.

But I’ve noticed something. When we get a house for a few days to a few months, something happens. They spread out, and they relax. All of a sudden boys start laying in their beds reading until nine in the morning. Lego is spread like a thin carpet through the entire dwelling, and kids can be heard telling space stories to one another as they build big ships. Hannah starts baking, even if she has to walk a couple of miles to find a whole pumpkin to cook down as the base for her signature range of pumpkin themed goodies. Movie nights spontaneously re-emerge, like mushrooms after a rain. After a few days of cocooning, they’ll start venturing out in pairs, exploring their new “home,” and coming back with stories of discoveries and adventures. They love to move forward, but they also love to have a home base to adventure from.

Slowing down and renting a house or apartment in a particular place has also proved a perfect opportunity to share our journey with friends and family. Grandparents have joined us in Guatemala and Tunisia. Friends have stayed with us in Thailand and on Cape Cod. Those visits are so much more enjoyable for everyone in a home instead of a hotel!

The longer we stay in one place, the more we realize what we haven’t seen yet. It’s why we travel so slowly, because more and more we realize that the way to see more, is to see less.

Take another look at your map. Those inches between dots make the world look deceptively small, don’t they? It seems like no problem to zip between them, and breeze through the world on a perpetual honeymoon high of family globe trotting bliss. Perhaps you could do that. But what might you miss if you do? Have you considered what you might miss by seeing more? The longer we stay in one place, the more we realize what we haven’t seen yet. It’s why we travel so slowly, because more and more we realize that the way to see more, is to see less.

If you’re part of a traveling family, sign up for Plan Your RTW Trip in 30 Days-Family Edition, which starts today. This free program will walk you through the process of planning a big trip like this.

For more articles about traveling as a family, check out the following:

manifesto - slow down and enjoy





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