He Said / She Said – 10 Tips for Travelling with Kids
As someone who has spent a lifetime travelling and hits the road around 275 days a year, I feel almost more comfortable sleeping on airplanes than in my own bed (almost, but not quite!). While travelling solo, I can dart past lines with Global Entry and my status card and use lounges and long flights to catch up on work and sleep. But that all changes when travelling as a family of five!
Recently, my wife and I took our three girls, aged ten, nine and six at the time, travelling for more than two months. We took over 15 flights through five countries, including New Zealand, Australia, India, Fiji and Singapore.
Now that we are back and recovered, we enjoy reliving our adventures through our photos and stories. Many a dinner table discussion has centred around what we learned from our travels. Everyone seems to have many things that they remember fondly, but there are also memories of things that did not go as smoothly! My wife and I certainly took different things away from the trip. Here are our tips for travelling with kids and each other!
1. Give back.
One of the opportunities that this particular trip provided our children was to understand how fortunate they are to be Canadian. I believe travelling is a chance for our children to reflect on their good fortune and give back to society, exercise empathy and discover how they can make a difference. The children saw people living on downtown Auckland streets and asked us to buy a few extra meals packed “to go” to share with them on our way home. After visiting a village school in central India and seeing no art supplies, they decided to leave behind their pencil crayons with the 15 students there, who also had no desks.
2. Incorporate cultural learning.
Travelling is about learning. We are very fortunate to live in a school district where the teachers encourage our girls to travel and understand the benefit of it. As parents, we also need to ensure the learning happens when we are away. That means keeping the children caught up with their peers at home as well as taking advantage of the wealth of learning opportunities in the new country, culture or environment that we visit that day. In our case, that manifested many different ways. Sometimes it was math homework in the morning and then a sugar cane factory in the afternoon. Other times, spelling tests and then flying kites with local children, or spending a day wandering local markets and then cooking in people’s homes. The opportunities to learn are endless, but it was our responsibility to facilitate them.
3. Fly smart.
Take advantage of early boarding with kids, skip as many lines as possible and use the airport lounges (if you have access). ALWAYS have everyone use the bathroom before you board, whether they say they have to or not, and always go again before leaving an airport. Being transported to your hotel can take a long time even if the distance is short, especially in places like India.
4. Schedule lots of rest time.
This one was challenging for me! I usually explore a new city from dawn to dusk, and I am always on the move when I’m on my own. With children, however, I quickly had to change my mindset. Long travel days and jet lag are tough for any traveller, and even more so for those in the ten and under set. We scheduled afternoon naps and later starts to our days. We may have only seen a fraction of what I would have on my own, but the reward was enjoying it with a happy crew!
5. Give kids a camera.
Children are inquisitive and have a different perspective on the trip. They look at each destination without jaded eyes, and also, from about two feet lower down. Let them capture what they are seeing and what they think is important. This will also allow them to relive the trip through their own eyes when you return, and create their own photo book.
6. Journal every day.
We were encouraged by the girls’ teachers to have them journal their trips. The bonus is that it is a great way for the kids to remember things, especially when they are young and on such a big adventure! Journals can be traditional and hand-written (which also helps with spelling and grammar lessons), or they can be digital, through dictation or videos. Whatever they decide, make sure you set aside time each day to do this.
7. Make sure kids always have your contact info.
Give your children contact info for you so they can always get a hold of you if you get separated. Include your name, cell phone number, email address and local address. Update this as you move locations.
8. Don’t let kids wear a watch.
Follow the time zone in the place you are in. This will help them adjust better to sleep and eating schedules, especially if you are moving between time zones a lot.
You need to be able to go with the flow. This was the hardest one for me! Most of my business trips are uber structured. When travelling with kids, you have to be more flexible and go with the feelings. Some days will be off or down days, especially when travelling for weeks on end. Embrace it as a day off for you, too!
10. Make sure Mom ALWAYS has her morning coffee.
1. Be prepared for discomfort.
Try to anticipate the things that could make kids uncomfortable so you can either avoid the situation or nip it in the bud. This is especially important on long flights, long car or bus rides or long days of sightseeing. When travelling, we are only as happy as our unhappiest family member. Small everyday problems seem so much bigger when we’re away from home! Something as simple as having a package of mints to hand out to settle carsickness, neutralize smelly places or alleviate boredom felt a little bit like mom magic.
2. Bring backpacks with activities.
I had hoped that we could be “screen free” travellers. I had great (pipe) dreams that we would research and discuss our next destination while at an airport, but let’s get real. Honestly, tablets are such a great source of entertainment for long airport waits and flights with no in-flight entertainment. The girls each had a “go bag” packed with books, colouring, games, comfort stuffies and journals. However, I have to admit that the main source of entertainment was their tablets. My rule: they could only be used at an airport or on the flight.
3. Dress in layers.
Airplanes are always cold, especially on long haul flights. And cold, uncomfortable children are not pleasant travel companions. From Fiji to Singapore, the girls walked on in summer clothes, but had socks and pants as well as comfy sweatshirts stowed in their backpacks to stay warm on the plane. Once we got to hot and humid Singapore, off came the layers!
4. Pack a travel hospital.
I always kept a bag with me that had with band-aids, antihistamines, anti-nausea medication, pain/fever medication, anti-itch cream (you’d be surprised how much this came in handy), sunscreen, hand wipes and hand sanitizer. That allowed us to deal with any situations that arose while we were on the go, without having to stop at a pharmacy or head back to the hotel to get my big first aid kit. I also kept a couple of bags and a 1/4 roll of toilet paper around just in case. This was mostly for our trip through central India, where Western toilets with toilet paper were few and far between!
5. Keep everyone well fed and hydrated.
Sometimes there were really long days of travelling and meals got missed. We adults can take that in stride, but younger children, not so much. It made for a slower start to the day, but we always had a good breakfast and planned for lots of snacks and as regular meals as we could manage. Kids with full stomachs have lots of energy to tackle long days of travel or sightseeing, and are infinitely more pleasant! Most moms know this, but I always kept bars or crackers in my bag to hand out if I saw them flagging, and we always had water on hand.
6. Let kids choose the activities.
In cities where we didn’t have scheduled tours, I got the kids to help choose the activity for the day. In the mornings after we finished our homeschooling, we would decide whether we wanted to walk down the beach for lunch or hop onto the bus to look for a bookstore and ice cream in a neighbouring town. As Eric said before, the children have a different perspective in these new places. It was lots of fun to follow their lead on our daily adventures.
Life is not what you know, but who you know. Meet people from all walks of life in your travel and be social. It helps the children — and even us as adults — understand our place on this planet. The result: you develop networks and friendships that could last a lifetime.
8. Keep a regular daily schedule.
Every family is different, but I found that our children were happy, energetic and ready to explore. We avoided meltdowns by limiting consecutive late bedtimes and early mornings. Sometimes it couldn’t be avoided, so we would try to fit in an afternoon nap or at least some down time.
9. Choose a trip to fit the ages of the kids.
I don’t think our epic trip through India and the long days of tiger safaris would have been much fun if the girls were all under the age of 7. But the beach holiday in Fiji and our time chilling in Australia and New Zealand would have been just fine.
10. Take candid photos.
I took lots of candid photos of our everyday hanging out rather than posed photos. That way, we could remember what the house with the trampoline looked like, or what kind of beach creatures we found. The girls also had an opportunity to take photos, which helped them remember the trip from their perspective as well.