11 ways we embrace traveling with kids

Hey! While we're traveling as a family in Hawaii right now, I thought I'd republish this essay I wrote back when I wrote a separate travel site during our year of round-the-world travels. Perhaps it'll encourage you that traveling with younger folks can be more than endured—it can actually be fun. -t


We officially passed the halfway mark of our trip awhile back, and it whooshed by uneventfully somewhere between train platforms and market shopping trips. It's now the downhill stage, where we see a faint pinhole of the end in sight, when we start listing the things we want to make sure and do as a family. This epic adventure has merged with the daily liturgy of life, and it now feels a bit... normal. The Thing We Do right now.

I understand the general notion that traveling around the world isn’t for the faint of heart—especially with three kids age 10 and under. When we tell cafe waiters or guest house employees our current modus operandi, the response is usually the same: wide eyes, an exclamation of good fortune for the kids’ childhood experience, and a bit of head shaking. Sometimes, they’ll also add, “I could never do that.”

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That’s a common thought among most of our friends and family, too—it sounds amazing, but traveling around the world isn’t for us; it’s for unusual risk-takers like you guys. Sure, I’d love to see more of the world myself, but since I’m a parent, I’ll just wait until I’m an empty nester, when I can enjoy it without the burden of parenting simultaneously.

I understand that idea, I do. Goodness, just writing that sounds lovely. Kyle and I would easily embark this trek differently if it were just the two of us, the way we explored Europe when we met there 15 years ago. But that’s just it—travel happens differently when it’s done with kids in tow. It has to. And that’s okay. Going in with this attitude is more than half the battle, I’ve found.

To celebrate our passing the halfway mark, here are eleven ideas that make this trip with our three small kids more than endurable—they actually make it more fun for us, too.

11 ways to embrace travel with kids. It can be done, and it can actually be a blast!

1. Go slow.

As you know, we embrace a rhythm of sightseeing and adventurous exploration with lots of down time. We’d rather see a few places well than cross off a legal pad sheet’s worth on our bucket list. So we’ll dive in deep to the ancient sites of Beijing and Xi’an, China, using crowded metros and pounding serious pavement to see some of the world’s greatest landmarks. But then we’ll spend five days in tranquil Yangshuo, strolling around the peculiar karst mountains, sampling local cuisine, and not doing much of anything else.

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We'll savor the slow-paced life of east Africa and go with the flow, just like they do.

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(Rinse and repeat for one year or so.)

2. Become a student, too.

Enhancing their education was a major selling point to embarking on this trip while our kids were still young and their brains still moldable. Their schoolwork is absorbed in to our travels—research is done and papers are written about the natural and historical world around us, often right outside our door.

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We’ve done science lessons on the rising properties of heat during Thailand’s Loy Krathong festival; grammar and handwriting is put into practice when writing an essay about snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef.

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And you know what? This enhances Kyle’s and my education, as well—and therefore our whole trip experience. I enjoyed our time in New Zealand more because we learned about the history of the original Maori people with the kids. It helped me fall in love with that country even more.

3. Use the minutiae of travel as part of the educational process.

You can’t escape checking off “life skills” with a trip like this. Our kids are learning the fine art of budgeting, time management, reading maps and timetables, and basic traffic laws via the osmotic process of travel—not to mention classic life skills like forecasting time for line-drying denim, converting currency, dealing with unmet expectations, trying new foods, waiting in long lines, and embracing discomfort.

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4. Pack light.

One main backpack each (and one small daypack) is the only way we’re traveling sane. Because of the laws of physics, this means we’re each allotted only a few items of clothing, our basic toiletries, and our work and school needs. Souvenirs are chosen very thoughtfully.

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Sure, we could pack more if it were just me and my husband. But our forced downsizing has been more enjoyable than I expected. I miss some of my clothes, but sticking with my (very) few basics have forced me to think more creatively—and ultimately, not place that much stock in what I wear each day. It’s been freeing.

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5. Live like a local.

There is absolutely no way we’d do this trip by staying in only hotels. Our kids are young, so they need room to run, freedom to be loud, and an environment where we can try to live a bit more like we do back home.

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We do our best to find a home with a yard, or even just in a location that’s off the beaten path and not in a loud, touristy city center. Services like HomeAway have been a godsend for families like us, who want to enjoy daily life amenities like cooking real meals in a kitchen, catching up on laundry without paying a service fee, or shutting bedroom doors for a bit of privacy.

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6. Eat simply.

Speaking of food—our trip is much more affordable because we’re willing to do a bulk of our meals at home. We enjoy eating out in countries where it won’t break the bank, but in places where prices are steeper, we could easily blow our budget just on food. But we like sticking to simple, healthy meals at home, where we can enjoy a quiet family meal and save a lot of money. A kitchen is one of our absolute necessities.

We’ll still try new things—spices, vegetables, cooking processes, and the like, so it’s not like we’re missing out culturally. In fact, this adds a whole dimension to our travel experience that we’d miss if we stayed only at hotels. (Plus, we eat healthier and know what’s in everything we nosh.)

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7. Embrace the kids’ needs, don’t fight them.

Our kids need a lot of sleep—they’re still growing and maturing, just as they would if we weren’t traveling. They need downtime to read, they needs lots of time to play (especially outdoors), and they need a sense of their place in the world.

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We do this by keeping up with our traditions from back home—nightly dinnertime conversation routines, for example, and bedtime stories before prayers and pecks on the cheek. And yep, sometimes we all stay out late and sleep in later the next morning, but oftentimes, we’re just at home and tucked in earlier, just as if we were home.

That’s okay. This ensures we get better sleep, too, and we’re also able to carve out the work time we need to keep up with our jobs. Sure, this is different than if it were just the two of us, but it’s a fairly easy trade-off.

8. Learn the meaning of the the word “flex.”

Plans change. Flights are delayed, museums are closed on random days, the food isn’t what they said it’d be like, and it thunderstorms on beach days. Such is life.

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Yes, this happens in real life, too, but it seems to happen more often than not on extended worldwide travel. It can be hard on my sensibilities as an adult, but embracing change and learning to go with the flow teaches my kids how to flex in all parts of life. In fact, they’ve taught me a thing or two in this department—it’s been a joy to watch them adapt to changes and adjust their expectations on the go.

(Though I still need help in letting go of my American practicalities when it comes to queueing in line. Particularly in those countries where line-cutting is par for the course. Glory be...)

9. Be okay with saying no.

Just because we’re on the trip of a lifetime doesn’t mean our kids get to do whatever they want—and just like all children, this isn’t always their favorite thing to learn. Souvenirs are okay once in a blue moon, but it’s just not reasonable to fill up our packs and schlep them all over the world. Sometimes we have to eat the food we’d rather not, because it costs too much to order something else. And just because it’d be fun to go to all the theme parks offered in every country, it’s really not in the budget. This is common sense to us as adults, but kids on the road sometimes adapt a vacation mentality, and they need reminders that we're living a version of "real life."

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It’s been good for me to embrace my limits as well. That dress in the window or the locally-made necklace isn’t always necessary, I don’t have to parasail over the Indian ocean to still enjoy the view, and sometimes we just have to cook at home instead of fork over 20 bucks for a small hamburger (I’m looking at you, Australia). None of this has cheapened my experience so far.

10. Work out a realistic budget.

Our trip budget is based on our current reality, and it's the only way we're practically able to do this trip. We work as we go, so we didn't have to save up as much in advance as other families who'd prefer to take a complete sabbatical. This has been good for the kids—we don't want them to live like it's a year-long vacation, and seeing us work helps validate their need to do school as well.

Plus, we actually like that our frugal budget forces us to travel with limitations, and we prefer that our kids don't see travel as a tour de hotels and luxury resorts. Our brand of travel looks like local-style living, thanks to our finite funds.

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11. Let go of that bucket list.

We were told before our trip that nothing we do will satiate our wanderlust, that as soon as we cross off something from our bucket lists, we’ll add three more things. This is true.

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There are limits to what we can do; just because we’re “near” some place monumental doesn’t mean it’s reasonable of us to detour there, all in the name of checking it off our list. As I said, we’d rather enjoy a place well than see everything there is to see.

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Kyle and I decided within two weeks of our trip that this really isn’t the Trip Of All Trips for us. There’s a good chance we’ll do this again when we’re empty-nesters, and we’ll certainly continue to visit more countries with kids in tow even when this year is done.

It’s been good to let go of this idea of traveling the world being the be-all, end-all. It tempers expectations, keeps the wanderlust juices flowing, and allows us to embrace all these other ways of living that keep us sane on the road.

I’m sure we’ll go back to galavanting around, just the two of us, in a couple decades or so when we’ve packed up our youngest kiddo’s bedroom. In the meantime, we’re going to embrace our love of travel and share it with our kids. We can’t think of a better childhood gift to give them. (They think it's worth it, too.)

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38 Comments

  1. Linda Sand

    For me, the best part about travel with kids is seeing the world through their eyes. They have an entirely different view of things and I love that.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yep, agreed!

  2. Jamie Pettett

    This is a great list. I find that kids notice things we don’t and make observations we take for granted.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I love that about traveling with kids, too…

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Thanks, Haley! Grateful for you.

  3. Gertrud Buck

    Sorry, but I can’t see all the text. It’s hidden under the photos. Maybe you can fix it? Because I love your blog.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Hmm… I think it may be on your end, Gertrud. Perhaps try clearing your cache and hitting refresh, or switching Internet browsers? Sorry you’re having trouble.

  4. Breanne

    I loved this. We’ve talked often about taking a year or two off when our girls are in their early teens to travel and we’re cutting our teeth on long road trips, cross-country flights and living small at home.
    Thanks for keeping it real and for making me want to travel with my children even more.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      You totally should, Breanne! That sounds fantastic.

  5. Melanie Hugill Bourque

    Wonderful post! Very insightful and lots of good things to consider and think about.
    With a 3rd on the way, travel is seeming to become expensive and limited, or so I thought. Definitely things to consider before we take our next family trip!
    Thank you

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      It definitely adds up the more kids you have, but it’s certainly not as impossible as many people think. It just takes discipline and a bit of creative know-how!

  6. Courtney

    I loved this post! There are some great ideas in there. And I also laughed out loud at the part about queuing in line. I’ve had my feathers ruffled a few times by cutters in other countries. It makes me laugh how different our cultural sensitivities can be, and makes me wonder how many times I’ve offended people of other cultures without knowing it, too! 🙂

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Oh my goodness, right? Who knows what I’ve done to make people shake their heads at me…

  7. Tiffany

    Oh my gosh, the boys look so much more grown up already!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Right? All three kids have grown up sooooo much.

  8. Guest

    Great post and pretty much what we’ve figured out for domestic travel. 🙂 We have started in earnest on an adventure to see the states. Everything you’ve said is what we’ve found is essential for road trips and long vacations. We also rent houses instead of hotels so the kids have space and so do we. It also helps to be able to cook, have naps, etc. If we aren’t somewhere long enough to rent a house, we try to rent a suite so there’s a little more room, small fridge and usually family friendly breakfast. Similarly, we learned (painfully) last year that you should NOT try to see everything that comes up along your route. We did 2,500+ miles in a week and it was ridiculous. I was so exhausted and stressed that I had an IBS flareup. Not even kidding. “We’re so close to X. We should go!” Not.

    For those who aren’t ready for a round the world trip, I think there’s so much to learn and see and do in your own country – wherever that is. Or travel your state/province.

    My husband and I have both had extensive international travels and we look forward to taking our kids someday but for now, the US is pretty awesome to explore!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes, we can’t wait to explore more of the U.S.! These travels have even gotten us excited about just the Pacific Northwest corner, where we are…

  9. Bethann Johnson

    Love your post! So many great reasons to take kids and travel the world! What a gift you’re giving your children!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Thanks, Bethann!

  10. Sommer

    This is a GREAT post! I am loving following your family’s travels this year. We have one child and one on the way and I am already planning a similar journey in maybe 5+ years (with an unknown number of kiddos at this point). You are inspiring AND practical and I appreciate that. For now, we are traveling in the US when we can and planning a shortish international trip next year (with a 2-year old and infant). Thanks for sharing all that you do and keep it up!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Good for you, Sommer! Kids definitely enhance travel, not take away from it – in my opinion, anyway…

  11. Brittany Bergman

    This is so good for me to read, even before I have kids. We’ll be the kind of family that travels with our kids in tow. I’m hopeful that even though it may be more difficult, kids really do enhance the travel experience. I want my future children to be independent, thoughtful decision-makers and explorers, and I can’t think of a better way for them to learn real-life skills while making amazing family memories. Thanks for being so real about how you guys are making this trip work and what you’re learning along the way. It’s so much fun to follow you all on this journey!

  12. Jen Crane

    Even as a single gal, I loved this post! I found myself saying, “yes, yes, yes!” I spent 7 months traveling last year and definitely embraced several of your tips…the biggest one being “letting go of that bucket list.” It was hard to do, but once I did I was able to thoroughly enjoy what I doing rather than looking ahead to the next thing. I really think these tips can and should be used by ANYONE! Thanks for this post!

  13. Laura Camacho

    These pictures totally made me well up with tears! What a sacred experience it is to get to know the world.

  14. Robin Dance

    Tsh,

    I cannot imagine how formative this is for your children, how this will shape the way they see life for the rest of it! Parenting through this, setting and re-setting expectation, maintaining a realistic approach–ALL exercises in flexibility, adaptation, and going with the flow! I love it! I realize how closed Tad and I were to doing this sort of thing with our children when they were young, and I suppose in large part it’s due to how we’re wired. BUT…I know what living in Germany did for them (especially Stephen, who got to live abroad the longest), and they’ve told me how it’s affected college, applying for jobs, scholarship, etc. I can only imagine how different *I* would be had I done this when I was younger!

    LOVE how you’re chronicling experience on your trip blog and in shorter form on social media; even just reading about it is educational and formative in terms of mindset.

    xo

  15. nicole

    A question I have about a journey like your is how you recreate the rhythm of spiritual community for yourselves & your kids while there is so much movement in your trip. When we’ve traveled, it has been difficult either because of language, location or timing.

  16. Johanna

    This is so true! We are living abroad for three years and am just about to have our 5th child and 2nd one while here. What this means is that our life as expat experience is VASTLY different from those who don’t have children, have children that are a little older, or only have one or two kids. Coming to grips with our norm for expat life has been essential. Love following your trip, Tsh!

  17. Beth

    Just for those thinking of trips, I would not recommend a major (international or lengthy cross-continental) trip for a family with littles, especially infants. We are expats in China and we fly back to the States once a year for 1-2 months to visit family. We love (mostly) the expat experience and what it has to offer to our 22 month old son (and future children) but the traveling is a bit of a nightmare for everyone. We just finished one of our visits to the States and for the first time he traveled relatively great (unlike one 13 hour flight where he cried for about 10 of the hours). But even still it took over a week of being up with him for 1-3 hours in the middle of the night before he adjusted to the time change (this is on top of our own exhaustion with traveling.) Babies do best with lots of sleep, a regular schedule, and familiar surroundings – all of which get interrupted when traveling. We travel because we have to to visit grandparents but if you are thinking of traveling (on a major trip) just for experiences and enrichment I suggest waiting until your youngest is past the toddler stage. And like mentioned several times above, be very realistic with your expectations. I think traveling is great for kids – I love what the Oxenreiders are doing – and I don’t think you need to wait until they’re teens, just maybe not toddlers 🙂

  18. Abbie

    Thanks for these great reminders – many of them apply just to living a full life with children. I have four from 3-9 years old and many people don’t understand how I do “normal” things. But I use many of your suggestions, and I hope to use them traveling the world someday. Until then we’ll keep exploring the mountains, creeks, paths, museums and experiences all around us! (btw, I’d love an update on how you are feeling about what you packed both for yourself and for the kids) Thanks for sharing!

  19. Tara

    Beautiful words and so true. Although we do travel a lot, we have jumped in feet first like you have. I am a bit envious, but just love that you’re documenting your experiences so the rest of us can share in your adventures.

  20. Michelle Miller

    Awesome blog! Thank you for all the great info! My husband and I are getting ready to embark on our round the world trip this coming summer and have been researching quite a bit- what to pack, how to make it happen, etc! It is great to hear all your advice and insider knowledge!
    We are hoping to travel a year just the two of us (a sort of “honeymoon” since we just married last June), then potentially start having kids along the way, if we so feel inclined. I am curious to hear what you would say about traveling with kids “as you make them,” so to speak, and if you would recommend this or not…? Our friends here in the states with kids think we are insane. I’d love to dream otherwise… 🙂
    Michelle- CO, USA (for now!)

  21. Kylie

    Did you buy the blue long sleeve shirt in Australia? My daughter has the same shirt!Just found your blog and loving it!

  22. Pamela p

    Hi Tsh! I have subscribed to the Art of Simple for awhile now, but just recently began making time for podcasts. I have been listening to your year round travel episodes while I do laundry and they have been really affirming to me. We are from Arizona but currently living in Spain with our three young children. I found myself nodding to everything you and your husband were saying. Everywhere is kid friendly! Public transport is the highlight of each of our trips, for our children, it seems! Airbnb! We are getting ready to travel around Europe for the next two months – a much smaller effort than yours, but doing a mix of air bnbs, hostels, and we have also found some couch surfing families to host us part of the way. We were shocked to find to find out kids travel free, with assigned seats on eurail, and if you travel together the whole time you are assigned first class seats! We are finding it challenging already to balance our love of slow travel with our desires to see so much. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  23. Addie

    Just curious about your stay in china…. we travel a lot like you as we have 4 small children and are planning a trip to china within the next 5 years or so (2 of our children were adopted from china)…. I really want to rent a house/apartment or stay with a local, but this seems daunting when you consider the Chinese laws of registering with the local police station – it just seems easier to stay in a nice hotel where they do it for you…. what do you suggest? what did yall do? any tips or advice?

  24. Corrine

    We actually live in Hawaii. I hope you are enjoying it! We are getting ready to move to Germany. It’s my dream to travel (with our 3 homeschooled kids). Thank you for republishing! I love your blog! ?

  25. Becky Evans

    I LOVE this! Thank you for your insights. We are also living in Hawaii right now (as of your repost) and our family of 6 has been on a three year simplifying journey! Your book has been such an inspiration to help me. In 5 years, when we are out of the military we are taking our four kids around the world for at least a year. Thanks for thinking out side the box. LOVE.

  26. Jennifer

    Hi Tsh.
    I pre-ordered your book. Looking forward to it! However, I’m having a heck of a time figuring out how to access the freebies. Can you help me? I don’t wanna miss out on the travel journal:)
    Many thanks,
    Jennifer

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