The world is getting smaller. Countries that were formerly seen as completely out of reach, are becoming increasingly popular family vacation destinations. But with an increased interest in international travel comes new questions. How do you successfully take your kids overseas? What should an international itinerary look like? For first-time adventure seekers, the prospect can be overwhelming. But with a little help, you can turn a trip filled with flight delays, grouchy children, projectile vomiting and wrong directions into something your family will treasure for a lifetime.
Seasoned family travelers have learned a lot of tips about how to plan the right kind of trip to keep everyone happy. Whether you are traveling with toddlers or teenagers, there are certain things you can do to make your trip go more smoothly. While touring four continents with three kids, our family has discovered five rules that made our adventures much easier. I share them with you here, hoping that more parents will feel inspired to take the leap and set out into the world with your kids. The benefits are endless and immeasurable, and you will be amazed at the perspective change even young children gain while exploring other cultures.
1. This is not your vacation
If you have already traveled extensively on your own, you may already have a clear idea of what your travel style looks like. This trip will not look anything like that. You need to cut your itinerary down to one major event per day, and fill the rest with laid-back, kid-friendly activities. Eat ice cream. Find playgrounds. Act like locals. The more things you try to cram into your day, the more mini-meltdowns you are going to have to deal with.
Even teenagers are not going to appreciate all the things you see, but if you let them, children will teach you how to immerse yourself in new experiences in a new and wonderful way. Our son Simon still counts "playing with Greek kids on the flyey-spinny thing in the greatest playground ever" as the best part of one trip. Kids want to see the monuments, but they are still kids, and you have to respect that.
2. Don't bring a carry-on
This one seems counter-intuitive, especially for first-time travelers who feel compelled to bring everything they might possibly need on the plane with them. We've learned the hard way that trying to get through Airport Security with bags bulging and no free hands for the wandering toddler is a recipe for disaster. I have accidentally left car seats, strollers and even shoes behind at security because of being over packed. Cut your carry-ons down to a bare minimum, ideally one large backpack for each adult. If you can't fit it under the seat in front of you, don't bring it.
3. Write off the first day
This is one you usually only learn by experience, but it's vital. Your first day is going to be consumed with all the travel-related mishaps that you never plan for. Flights will be missed, luggage will get lost, rental car reservations will be misplaced. Or, like me, you might spend three hours sitting on a pile of luggage with a cranky baby in a Spanish airport while your husband gets accidentally trapped on the wrong side of security.
Things happen, and if you have planned a major event for the day you arrive, odds are you are going to miss it. That's a terrible way to start out any trip, so make no plans for day one. It's fine to have some back-up activities in mind in case everything works perfectly, but you should only plan on getting from the airport to your hotel.
4. Two locations only
In the same spirit as the first rule, you need to alter your expectations for this kind of travel. Although by yourself you might visit four or five different cities over a week, when you are taking your family the best ratio seems to be two per week.
You are going to be seeing things at a much slower pace, and will need the extra days to cover everything you want to see in any given city. But more than that, the sense of stability kids gain from staying in one place for several days can do wonders for morale. When kids get to have ice cream at the same nearby cafe for several days in a row, their sense of upheaval will be much less.
5. We will laugh about this someday
This is the most important rule. In every trip, something is going to go wrong. It might be big, it might be small, but it's going to happen. The Forbidden City will be closed, the GPS will send you 100 miles in the wrong direction, the penguins will refuse to appear (long story).
To prevent these problems from ruining your trip, it's crucial to cultivate an attitude of amused detachment. You're going to laugh about this someday, so you might as well start now. Most problems you encounter while traveling, like missed flights or sick kids, can't be fixed, but only be endured. So prepare now to accept them, push through and enjoy what you can. Don't let the one day of terrible spoil your enjoyment of the six days of great.