By Erin Long, contributing writer
My daughter’s ticket was kicked off our flight.
My son’s bag would arrive a day late.
My toddler was sick. Like, really sick.
My husband and I had dealt with more meltdowns than we could count.
Everyone was exhausted.
And that was all before we left the airport in Paris to start our long anticipated vacation.
Travel with kids is never easy, especially when you visit another country. There will be plenty of tears and tantrums. You and your kids will be exhausted. Your kids might not want to eat the local food or resist visiting a famous landmark and then mope once you get them there.
So I get why people don’t want to travel abroad with their kids. It’s a lot of hard work for the parents and it can seem like kids are getting very little out of their experiences.
But can I get on my soapbox for a minute here? I’m going to grab a megaphone because I want everyone to hear this: INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL WITH KIDS IS WORTH IT!
Kids, and adults for that matter, can’t help but be impacted by what they experience outside of their home country’s borders. By exposing our kids to other cultures and different ways of life we give them opportunities to learn empathy, compassion, resilience, confidence, and to be open minded and hearted. And they’ll have a story to boot.
And you don’t have to wait until your kids are able to get themselves through airport security for both them and you to have a great time abroad. The sooner you can get them in the travel frame of mind, the better.
My oldest was five months old when she made her first transatlantic flight and since then I’ve traveled seven more times either transatlantic or transcontinental with at least one child in tow, and almost every time one of my kids has been a baby. So I’ve had my fair share of travel ups and downs but the number of ups overwhelms the downs.
And the profoundly positive impact international travel can have on kids makes every down moment worth it.
It’s amazing to watch a child open to new experiences as she sees the world through a different cultural lens in each country she visits. She can see that other people hold different values and priorities and she can evaluate those differences without judgement or from a place of superiority, just one of curiosity.
When kids are exposed to different styles of dress, food, architecture, behaviours, customs, and languages, much less different value systems and ways of ordering life, they inherently understand that the world is much bigger than their country’s four borders and that everyone is better off when we’re willing to learn from each other.
I’ll let Mark Twain sum up this point for me:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”
In our ever increasingly globalized, and fearful, world it’s important for our kids to be sensitive to and accepting of people from different backgrounds that their own.
And kids not only get to learn about other people as they travel, they get to learn about other places. The world becomes their classroom and what was once dry information in a textbook becomes vibrant and real.
My kids first learned about D-Day while visiting the battle sites in Normandy, France and when they’re old enough to study it in school they’ll actually know what it’s like to stand where the soldiers fought and how the sea wind felt on their faces as they looked out over the sites. That’s an education that stays with kids and makes them want to keep learning.
International travel doesn’t just impact kids individually, it impacts the whole family. When a family gets out of their comfort zone together they have to depend on each other in ways they don’t when they’re at home. Siblings have to look to each other for companionship and depend on their parents. Parents get to see their kids learn and grow in new ways.
Plus families will have some awesome stories. My husband grew up traveling with his family and it’s so fun to listen to them reminisce about riding camels in Morocco or kayaking off a Scottish island shore. The bonds international travel create are strong and they help weave a unique family story that can hold a family together over time and space. (Read more about The Importance of Non-Holiday Traditions in Our Family).
Okay, I’ve saved the best benefit of international travel for last: it’s fun. It’s fun! My kids loved running through the main square in Skopje, Macedonia, visiting Christmas markets in Hungary, and seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time will be a life highlight for my five-year-old. It’s just a blast to do new things, especially when they’re on a grand scale, and I actually have more fun traveling when I’m with my kids than when it’s just me and my husband (total shocker, I know).
When I ask my kids how their day went after even a hard day traveling they always tell me about the fun things they did and the challenges we faced didn’t even register to them. All they remember is the highlights and that’s what they carry with them after the traveling is done.
But fun as it may be, international travel with kids is a lot of work. I’ve found that keeping it as simple as possible is the best way to make it enjoyable for everyone. Here are the three main areas I focus on:
I keep things pretty simple at home (read How Our Family of Five Lives in 800 Square Feet) so we take that on the road with us. No matter how long we’re traveling we bring 4-5 outfits per person and we do laundry along the way. Our kids bring a couple books, an activity book, and one or two toys.
They have to be able to carry their own carry-on bags and to at least roll their checked bags through the airport, so that sets a good limit how much ‘stuff’ they can bring. I keep my medicine kit simple, too, and you can read what I bring here.
Packing minimally also makes it easier to pack everything back up when we move locations. I don’t want to spend a lot of time repacking suitcases and searching for stray items. There’s so many better things to do!
Because our kids are still little, we keep our itineraries pared down and build in plenty of free time. For us, one big site or event a day is enough. If the kids are up for more, great, if not, at least we’re not disappointed.
At times we need to let them dictate the pace and take their lead. This can be hard because it can mean that us grown ups don’t get to see and do everything we want to but we operate under the assumption that we can always come back to a place if we really do want to do something we missed.
As our kids get older we plan to pack more into our itineraries but even then the kids will play a major role in deciding what we do.
While this isn’t always possible, we find that the less moving around the better. Most stress in travel comes from packing and getting to a new place so the less you do of that the better. Kids can also get a better sense of the places they visit and feel more connected if they’re not on a whirlwind tour.
When I say ‘simple’ I could also say ‘low’.
Flights are going to be rough. Everyone will have a bad attitude at some point. You’ll get lost. Your plans will not happen the way you want them to.
This is all part of travel and it’s only more complicated when you have kids.
So we go into a trip knowing there are going to be rough patches and we won’t enjoy quality R&R. We plan to have a good time, absolutely, but that’s not what we’re going for. We’re giving our kids the opportunity to experience the world. So my trip might not be what I would ideally prefer it to be, but the sacrifices I make are worth it.
My kids are still young so I’m just now starting to see how their experiences impact them. I’m thankful my husband and I have been able to travel with them and I am excited to continue exploring the world a family.
It’s one of the greatest gift I can give my kids – and they give me the priceless gift of seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
P.S. For further reading, check out my friend Steph’s blog, EntreFamily. She and her husband are work-from-home entrepreneurs, and they travel the globe as a family (of 7) quite frequently. She writes tons about her experiences on her site!
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We live in Tijuana, Mexico, so our ‘international’ travel usually means visiting family who live in the PNW of the USA. It’s a bit jarring for me (as a mom) to see my kids fit in but not fit in when we are there. They look like all the kids around them (which is a big change from where we live!) yet they notice things that others overlook – patches of green grass, sidewalks, front yards, where the toilet paper goes after using the bathroom, how it’s okay to drink the water at Grandma’s house when they take a bath. It is so worth it because it connect our kids with their roots (they may be ‘from’ Tijuana but their family heritage is PNW) even with the frustrations that travel with the little ones can bring.
Shout out from another international-living PNWer!
YES!!! As much as I love traveling with my kids I’ve loved the times we’ve lived abroad with them more and am anxious to get back abroad permanently. You summed up raising third culture kids so well: fitting in but not fitting it. That is the challenge but what you’re giving them is so much more impacting and positive. It is so interesting to see what differences stand out to them and to see how it all impacts who they are.
This sounds really fun!! Except that one of my daughters is in a wheelchair and is exclusively g-tube fed… I get a little scared by all the extra medical details. I am also curious, how do you keep flight and lodging costs down?
I can understand why you’d be a bit scared by the extra medical details! That definitely would make things more challenging but it might be worth looking into which countries are the easiest for people in wheelchairs to travel in. But even traveling within North America would still have its benefits!
As for keeping costs down, we like to use Best Travel Store (http://www.bt-store.com) for booking flights and we just check to find out when and where is the cheapest. Our itineraries usually aren’t the best (we took two red-eyes to get to Macedonia) but it saves us hundreds of dollars so it’s worth it. As for lodging, we just started using Airbnb (https://www.airbnb.com) and we LOVE it. In many places there’s lot of options so you can find the price and amount of space that’s right for you. The cheaper places are usually farther out from the city center so you do have to factor in transportation costs but it’s usually much less than staying in a downtown hotel. And staying in a place with a kitchen allows you to eat more meals at home and not at restaurants and that adds up to substantial savings. There are other great discount flight and accommodation booking websites but those are the two we use and can recommend.