Have Kids, Will Travel
Updated: Jan 26
Bonjour! Jet-lagged and worn out from a vacation in Paris, I am basking in our family adventure, and recounting what we did right to make it work. Yep! We did something right, so we should celebrate! We did a few things wrong, too, but that is for another post. We have done a considerable amount of travel abroad, with and without kids. When my son was only 8 months old, we took him to Holland and Belgium. Many people crowed "but he won't remember", "he's too young to care", "it is such a pain to travel with kids". My 8-month-old does not remember Holland. But he remembers the pictures of that experience, pictures of his parents showing him another part of the world. He probably didn't care about Holland, but traveling as a family together was something we cared deeply about. And, while I agree that it is a pain to travel with kids, it is worth the battles. That 8-month- old that we dragged along to Europe, and the islands, and across this country and on road trips, and on countless other adventures, is now a well-traveled, ready-to-travel 10-year- old with an adventurous spirit. We might be lucky. Or we might be great travelers.
Either way, here are my updated tips for making travel with kids bearable and, dare I say, enjoyable. I'm sure most have heard these before, in some form or another. They may not be unique to me. I recount them here because I believe they actually work.
1. Pick a hotel that can be "home". We use loyalty miles to fly so that we can splurge a little on a nicer hotel, with enough room and comfort for all of us. We pick a location close to restaurants and transportation. And we stay put in that central location for the duration of the trip. We unpack and tuck suitcases away. We claim our spaces. We put our books by our beds. We tidy it up before we leave each day. And we come back "home" after a long day, ready to crawl into bed and refresh. The extra money spent on a solid hotel is worth it every time, especially with kids, who enjoy the creature comforts of carpet under their feet, a work table for writing and drawing, and fluffy towels to wrap in after a shower.
2. Arm them with a few key phrases to practice and use. We traveled to France and without much effort learned some vocabulary. They absolutely remembered it and were fighting each other to use it at every opportunity. And speaking the language goes a long way. You are rewarded with smiles and kindness. Often, you are rewarded with an English response, their way of saying "nice try, but let me help you out". And the kids learn that speaking another language takes times, and we all deserve the opportunity to try and learn. I hope they will treat people in the US, travelers or newcomers alike, with that same patience and kindness.
3. Plan out meals and dining options, especially dinners. Kids will not tolerate the foraging for food. They are tired and hungry. The internet provides us with details about restaurants, their menus, locations, and more. Plotting out a back-up plan is even better. Our tour ran late, the restaurant was too far away and the kids were tired. We had a list of cafes close to the hotel that were a great back-up option. Our kids are great eaters but if your children are not or have other dietary needs, planning is even more critical because you need to be sure that your restaurant serves something they can and will eat. Making reservations saves you the mental energy for other things, like enjoying your vacation.
4. Pack light. Heavy bags, heavy carry-ons, and wayward kids are a terrible combination. Loading in and out of cars, getting through the airport, trying to squeeze into a hotel room. We pack enough undies and socks, but plan on using pants and tops twice. We pack 2 pairs of shoes for each of us. But we leave behind special clothes, lots of books, toys with lots of pieces. One activity for non-device entertainment, one snack, maybe a deck of cards - that's all we need. I play the pack mule, so that's one carry-on for all of us. My son knows that we never pack anything we couldn't stand to lose. So we tuck in our luvies and favorite pillows at home, telling them we will miss them and see them soon.
5. Let them eat cake, and crepes, and other local faire. We try to eat healthy. But on vacation, we do our best to explore places and food in equal parts. Have dessert! Have two! And even taste a little wine if you are allowed. Learn about the new place through the foods they eat and the way they eat. Get back on track once you get home.
6. Create scavenger hunts or other kid-friendly quests to keep it interesting. Pick out a few postcards at the museum gift shop and ask them to find those items during your visit. On a walking tour ask them to be on the lookout for certain words, or features of buildings. In Montmarte we were on the lookout for town square fountains. Shutters. Things that are blue. Crepe stands. Pick something. Let them search for it. There are countless resources online for museums and other destinations and books galore. Use them.
7. Use devices sparingly. You are on vacation to a new place. See the new place. The screen will be there later. We do not allow screens at meals (at home either) or even if they are getting bored during a tour. Screens have no place during meaningful family time. They overdose on screens on the long plane ride, and when they can't sleep because of jet-lag. But other time is sacred. Don't ruin it with a screen because the adults are unable to get creative about distractions. Need a worthy distraction? See tip #8.
8. Hand them the camera. Allowing them to control the focus and see the world from their perspective is so powerful. I had to be reminded to just let them take videos or photos, even if they were of blurry ducks on the Seine, or the dirty insides of the subway stations. It's their vision and their decision. And it kept them entertained and content. Reviewing them also provided great conversations while we waited for a meal, or for the train to arrive.
9. Make every part of the vacation an adventure...finding the bus route, looking for street signs, determining exchange rates. Keep kids involved in the process of getting from point A to point B. Have them read the map. Help them decode signs in the stores. They will stay engaged. They will ask questions. And they will get to know a new place, which is the whole point of traveling in the first place.
10. Rest. Sometimes, you just need to sleep. Enough said.