The world is shrinking every day. When we started exploring the world with our kids seven years ago, our family travels were shocking to many people. Now international travel with kids is quickly becoming the norm. But these changes have brought new questions. What does a trip with kids really look like? How do you know what to expect when you take a toddler to Europe?
For first-time family travelers, the whole process can seem impossible. But with a little help, you can turn a trip filled with delayed flights, jet-lagged tweens, projectile vomiting and missed trains into something your family will treasure for a lifetime.
While touring four continents with three kids, our family has discovered five rules that have made our adventures easier. I hope that by sharing them with you, we can inspire you to set out into the world with your kids. The benefits are never-ending, and you’ll be amazed at what even the youngest children can gain from seeing the world first-hand.
1. This is not your vacation
If you have already traveled a lot by yourself, you may already know your preferred travel style. You need to accept that this trip will not look anything like one without kids along. Cut your itinerary down to one major event per day, and fill in the rest with laid-back, kid-friendly activities. Eat ice cream. Feed the birds. Play at the playground with local kids. The more activities 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 everything you see, but if you can step back and slow down, your children will help you immerse yourself in new experiences in a completely different way. My son Simon still remembers “riding with Greek kids on the flyey-spinny thing in the greatest playground ever” as the best part of one trip to Athens. Kids do want to see the monuments and the museums, but they are still kids who need to play. Your trip will be more fun for everyone if you respect that.
2. Don’t bring a carry-on
This one feels wrong, especially for first-time travelers who want to bring everything they could ever possibly need on the plane. But we’ve learned the hard way that trying to get through airport security with 10 bags and no hand left to corral the wandering toddler is a seriously bad idea. We have forgotten car seats, strollers and even shoes at security because we had too much stuff. And any bag that is stuck in the overhead compartment when your kid gets sick from turbulence is not doing you any good. Cut your bags down to one backpack per adult. If it won’t fit under the seat in front of you, don’t bring it.
3. The first day is a loss
This is one that you usually have to learn by experience, but I hope you’ll take my word for it. Do not plan anything for the day you arrive. No matter what time your flight gets in, the first day is very likely to be lost to missed connections, lost luggage or mile-long rental car pickup lines. Schedules count for nothing while traveling, and if you have planned something important for the day you arrive, odds are you are going to miss it. That’s a terrible way to start out any trip, so plan absolutely nothing for the first day. If you want to have some back-up activities in mind, go ahead, but the only thing you should count on is getting from the airport to your hotel. The real fun begins on day two.
4. Take the slow lane
When you travel by yourself you might visit four or five different cities in a week. When you’re taking kids along, your best plan is to only stay in two locations in seven days. Obviously when you are only seeing one or two things a day, you’ll need the extra days to cover everything you want to do. But even more important is the sense of stability kids gain from staying in one place for several days. You can increase this feeling of being “home” by eating at the same restaurants repeatedly. Most kids like knowing what to expect, and having at least a few familiar landmarks and food choices can work wonders for morale.
5. You’re going to laugh about this someday
This is the most important rule of them all. In every trip you take, something is going to go wrong. It might be big, it might be small, but it’s inevitable. The Parthenon will be closed, it will rain on all your beach days, the taxi drivers will be on strike.
If you don’t want these problems to ruin your trip, you need to go into this adventure with an attitude of amused detachment. You’re going to laugh about this someday, so you might as well start now. Most of the problems you encounter while traveling can’t be fixed, only endured. So prepare now to accept them, laugh your way through and enjoy what you can. Don’t let one day of terrible spoil six days of amazing.
Olivia is a writer, a mother and a compulsive traveler. She blogs about traveling with kids at www.aroundtheworldin80diapers.com