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