Hello! I'm Sarah's cousin, Julie -- a travel and food writer and mom of two small boys currently living in the DC area. My husband and I love to travel, and when we had our first baby, we got him a passport when he was only a few days old and could barely open his eyes. By the time he was 10 months old, we moved to Beijing, where we lived for 3 years, bringing our baby along with us to fish sauce factories and mini revolutions. So here, I wanted to share some tips on traveling to less kid-friendly places and how to make it still doable.
Traveling when your children are still small can be a challenge, but it also has advantages: limited fees, no school or activity schedules to work around, and fewer opinions to incorporate. :) Though you may not be able to go "off the beaten path" to the same extent you once did, it doesn't mean you're confined to playgrounds and zoos for the next few years (nothing wrong with those, though, as you'll see in #10!). Now, it's true I only have two kids, and they're 3.5 years apart (so I've only dealt with one non-reasoning child at a time, presumably :). And every family has its own lifestyle, mix of personalities, and philosophy toward not only parenting but also traveling. But these are some of the things that have worked for us so far. Though I mention international travel a lot here, you definitely don't have to go far for an adventure, and hopefully some of these ideas might apply to any trip, even through the back roads in your own home town.
1. Treat the journey as an event in itself. Prepare and build up excitement for it. We like to keep track of all the different modes of transportation we take on each trip and learn about the types of vehicles we're riding (monorail vs. subway, tuk-tuk vs. rickshaw). Sometimes, the more off-track you're traveling, the more time and steps it takes to get there. It's a bit of a tradeoff between breaking up the travel days to rest or making the trek directly to your destination so you can stay put for a while.
To bide the long hours on a plane / train / car / etc., we space out activities strategically to give the kids something to look forward to throughout the journey. Save new (or favorite -- 'cause sometimes new can be unpredictable) outfits, toys, and snacks, and dispense these slowly on the way to your destination. I like to create a flexible "program": toy, snack, bathroom break, movie, walk around, play with other kids, and, if I'm lucky, nap. Then, repeat! Intersperse activities that require you to be hands-on with ones that give you a break. For overnight flights, I mark the passage of time by changing the kids into pajamas to signal bedtime, and then into a fresh outfit for morning. Always reserve some special items for crucial moments, like takeoff/landing on a plane (no electronics allowed at that time) and standing in lines (keep in mind you'll need to go through immigration and/or customs when arriving in a new country, plus it can be a long ride from the airport into the city).
Sticker books, magnets, and playdough are some of our favorite travel toys, but my husband is also great at making up games on the go (don't underestimate the entertainment value of ice!). Work with what you have on the journey. On a long flight, you can lay an airline blanket on the floor to create a clean play area. I like to drape it over our bags and under-seat areas so that toys don't roll away. During sleep time, you can hang a Nomad Travel blanket from the seat in front of you over to your seat back to make a canopy, which can be helpful if cabin lights are still on. It can also be a fun blanket fort during awake time. On a train or boat, you have more freedom to get up and move, which is something we do a lot with a toddler. For long car rides, we try to time it so that the kids can both fall asleep during a large portion of it (usually mid-afternoon), and because our older son gets carsick, we do a lot of books on tape, music, and snacks.
2. Account for jet lag. Everyone fears the long plane rides, but for me, the real battle is jet lag. And when there's multiple children, it seems like someone is always awake at any given hour. If you have a choice, consider traveling to places within or close to the same time zone (like South/Central America if you're based in North America). For greater time differences, allot a day to rest and get your bearings (that goes for the trip home too).
Contrary to common advice, lately my strategy for battling jet lag is... to take a nap. Earlier in the day and everyone at the same time, if possible. Take a walk or do something energetic together right before you want everyone to crash. Speaking for myself, I've found that even when I can stay up until 9 or 10pm, I'll likely wake up just a few hours later. But napping earlier on allows us to stay up later in the evening, with the goal of all of us being asleep during the main part of the night, from midnight to 6am. On our most recent trip to Salzburg and Prague, this worked well enough that both our kids slept during their normal hours at local time on the first night.
3. Minimize gear. Obviously, the less you can bring, the better. We've always left our stroller at home and used a carrier instead, which keeps us hands-free and allows us to navigate stairs, unpaved roads, and tight spots (see #8). For us, we prefer to take more breaks than to be limited by the stroller. And kids who are of walking age can manage more than you might expect -- and often have excess energy they need to burn off anyway. :) We've also gotten so used to dining out without high chairs that it still doesn't occur to us to ask for one, even now that we're back in the US. We often either hold or keep our baby strapped to us or corral an older child with toys somewhere out of the way (ask for a corner table when possible).
Car seats can be a dilemma, and we've planned the details of entire trips around whether or not we'll bring them. If we do (usually only if a road trip will be involved at some point), then we'll budget for cab rides to/from the airport as well. Otherwise, we'll count on taking public transportation. In some places, you can rent a car seat along with the car (which was the case on our road trip around the island of Hokkaido, Japan). And the truth is, in many parts of the world, children don't use car seats, especially in taxis, but whether you're comfortable with that is a very personal choice.
We wouldn't bring it everywhere, but the one piece of gear we've made exception for is our Bjorn travel crib (we got ours used on Craigslist and will simply resell it at some point). In less kid-friendly places, it's served as a safe and clean space to confine a child who is in that mobile but not-yet-reasoning stage. And it also gives us flexibility in lodging options, so we don't need any extra beds or a lot of space. It folds up easily, is big enough to hold up to a 2-year-old, and even though it'll count as a piece of luggage, it makes up for that by being super light and easy to carry (in fact, we cram it full of toiletries and shoes to lighten up our other bags). On an overnight train ride from Beijing to Xian, we wedged it into the aisle between our sleepers, and I think our toddler slept better than any of us that night. We've since moved on to the Peapod, which weighs less than 4 lbs., folds flat to fit inside a suitcase, and is supposed to hold up to a 5-year-old. It seems to be a popular option among traveling families. Our kids love having their own portable beds, and it's become that safe, familiar space for them that remains constant from one unfamiliar place to another.
4. Bring a few necessities so you can hit the ground running. Sure, you can buy diapers, toiletries, etc., locally, and at some point you probably will, but it can be a challenge to arrive in a foreign country after a long voyage with an "emergency." And even though you can buy most things anywhere in the world these days, sometimes you really pay a premium for it. I line the bottom of our suitcase with enough diapers to last the first couple days, and we always bring a thermometer, children's Tylenol, Dramamine, and Pedialyte. On flights, I bring an extra set of clothing for each kid and, if I can spare the room, the adults too, along with some Ziplock bags for wet/dirty items (throwup / poop can get everywhere, and there's the off-chance that your luggage won't arrive when you do). Snag as many vomit bags from the airplane as you can too. You don't have to stress about preparing for every possible scenario (there are kids in every country, and many people are more than willing to help when little ones are involved), but bringing just a few supplies to get you started will help everyone ease into a foreign place.
5. Provide some structure, but leave room for spontaneity. With kids, it's always a delicate balance between routine and flexibility. Usually, the length of the trip determines how much leeway we give to things. If you're going to do something completely outside of everyone's comfort zone, keep it short. For longer trips, create a "new normal" -- temporary routines and habits to help everyone adjust. With our preschooler, we've discovered that simply going over our plan for the day is a huge help. This way he doesn't feel like everything's out of his control and knows what there is to look forward to.
Take advantage of cultures where the rules are bendable (we kinda miss the "anything goes" attitude of China!). Master the art of the stand-up diaper change. Our kids have slept well in carriers, so we don't go home for naptimes. Instead, as soon as they fall asleep, we drop everything and hightail it to either a coffee shop or restaurant. On a visit to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, we weren't planning at all to eat at the cramped, counter-only sushi restaurants, but when our toddler fell asleep in the carrier, we were able to squeeze into the corner of a tiny restaurant and enjoy a quiet sashimi breakfast. To make up for being out all day, we do go home early so the kids can get a full night's rest.
We thought we were a somewhat adventurous family, but then in China we met our expat friends with twin toddler boys who really took it to another level. Their travel philosophy was not to book anything in advance, giving them the freedom to stop and go as they please. We took a roadtrip with them one weekend with a general destination in mind -- one of the mountain areas outside of Beijing. When we arrived, the dad pointed to a structure up at the tip of the mountain peak and said, "Let's stay there tonight!" And we did.
6. Consider all dining options. Dine during off hours (but first make sure the places are open). Save sit-down meals for lunch (when it's usually cheaper too) and cook at home for dinner. Embrace picnic meals. We take advantage of jet lag and early wakeups to squeeze in two breakfasts -- perfect in Asia where wet markets open early, and breakfast is arguably the best meal of the day. Market meals can actually be pretty fantastic, and I love seeing how families eat on a day-to-day basis.
We always carry some snacks and food for the road or in case we want to try dishes that our kids won't eat, like spicy food or more questionable things (squirming octopus tentacles, anyone?) or just expensive food we don't want to waste on the kids (ha). We make stops at local supermarkets (which I love to do even on my own) for fruit, veggies, and snacks. We feed the kids breakfast first thing in the morning, so that we're not in a rush to eat when we eventually get out the door.
7. Do things by neighborhood. Now's the time to practice the art of slow travel. With kids, we tend to only do one or two major activities in a day, or restrict ourselves to one area per day. Situate yourself in a walkable neighborhood so you can still go out and do something in short stretches of time. I'm particularly fond of lesser-visited, more low-key neighborhoods in large cities, like the Bastille Quarter in Paris or Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. We've often rented apartments so we can cook or watch movies after the kids go to bed (bring white noise as an app on your phone, or play it on a portable speaker, so they won't be disturbed). But in more affordable countries, we've found it can sometimes be easier to do a hotel instead. We also sometimes take turns doing something by ourselves, usually during one of the kids' naptimes or after bedtime. In Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class, and my husband went to get a foot massage.
8. Mobility is key to independent travel. The trips we've loved most have tended to be those where we could wander freely on our own. Big cities with good public transportation make it easy to get around, especially when language is a factor. A frequent itinerary of ours is to bookend a trip with big cities (we fly one-way in and out of different cities), with a stretch in between for a roadtrip to less-populated areas with a car rental (make sure to check if you need an international license). For places where you don't feel comfortable driving, consider hiring a driver, even for a few hours or a day. Biking is also an option if you can get child's seats, as we were able to in Japan. In Beijing, it took me a while to get comfortable riding a bike around the city (with a toddler in tow), but once I did, it changed so much of how I experienced the place. Similarly, when we finally got our local driver's license in China, suddenly the whole world seemed to open up to us. We took a roadtrip to Inner Mongolia and camped at an unrestored section of the Great Wall, where it was just us and the birds. We even drove on newly paved roads that were unfinished halfway through. That trip is probably my favorite memory of our entire time in China.
9. When you are a kid, everything is an adventure. Which is a great attitude to carry into adulthood! One of our favorite things to do with our boys is stopping to watch the local trash collection, making note of how garbage trucks look in different countries. In Bali, my older son was blown away by a "kitchen motorcycle" (portable food vendor) -- for him, that was the best of both worlds! And we're slowly adding to our collection of international toy vehicles from around the world.
Rather than commercial, kid-centric activities, we try to emphasize real-world experiences -- the woods, local wildlife, medieval castles, fortresses. One way to build up excitement for this is to capture their imagination beforehand with story books, movies, and youtube clips while at home. During the trip, we keep a journal / scrapbook to document our travels -- we've done this since the time our oldest son could scribble (we'd just write a sentence or two in for him to describe the day). Admittedly, kid stuff can still elicit more excitement, but whenever possible we try to keep the experience cultural (what do the local kids do?) or else get it out of their system when at home.
10. Do what you want to do, not what you think you should do. Travel is personal, and everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a "vacation," "adventure," or "quest." When we were still based in Beijing, we really needed a break from the pollution, so we took a 3-day trip to Seoul, during which we didn't see a single monument or historic site. Instead, we tried lots of new foods, visited a ton of markets, got scrubbed down by a Korean grandma at a spa, went to a local show (with our 2-year-old!), visited the kimchi museum, and made the trek to the outskirts of town for a story I was researching. As writers, my husband and I have also found that traveling with a theme or project in mind helps bring focus and purpose to a trip, giving you reason to interact with people and allowing you to engage in ways you normally wouldn't. Traveling becomes an opportunity for us to pass on to our kids some of the things we love about the world. And kids are a great ice breaker with strangers -- teach your little ones how to say "hello" and "thank you" in the local language, and you'll find that it really gets you far.
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