When we decided to take our three young kids to China a few years ago, we expected the worst. And although our two week trip had its challenges, it was a life-changing experience for all of us. Trust me, once you get through that first seemingly difficult trip with your kids, you realize that with the right game plan, you really can take your kids with you anywhere in the world (and actually enjoy it!) These are my five tips for adventurous family travel – I’d love to hear yours!
1. Take an overnight flight and then torture your kids with a brisk walk.
We’ve done this with great success on trips to China, London and Italy. Be warned: your children will not be happy with this plan, but you will be once you realize you are pretty much on local time by day two.
Here is how it works: book an overnight flight that lands at your destination the next morning. Don’t count on your kids getting a lot of sleep – they will probably be way too excited about the upcoming trip or over stimulated by the on board entertainment options.
Once you’ve landed, the challenging part begins: keep them up as long as possible, with a goal of making it to dinner time or later without any substantial sleep. The trick is to plan something for that first day that requires you to be outside and walking. Sunlight is your friend; warm, cozy hotel rooms are not! In China, we made our kids walk from our hotel to the Forbidden City (about 15-20 minutes). In Rome, we walked to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. In London, we walked to Harrod’s for lunch and then got on the hop on/hop off bus. Did my kids have total meltdowns? Absolutely! Did they sneak in short naps on buses or taxis? Definitely! We tried not to get too crazy about those short lapses (of course we were exhausted too), but in general we stuck to our plan.
The trick is to plan something for that first day that requires you to be outside and walking. Sunlight is your friend; warm, cozy hotel rooms are not!
Of course, bribery is also helpful. We always planned something for the late afternoon that they wanted to do (swimming at the hotel pool, ice cream) so they had something keeping them going. By dinnertime, we all were happy to take a hot shower, enjoy a meal close by (or at) the hotel, and then get in bed around 9. The next morning, we were up early and ready to go.
2. Encourage your kids to eat local food but don’t let it bother you when they hate it.
Full disclosure: If your kids are willing to try anything, then move on to the next tip. This is a tough one only because many times, eating local cuisine at non-touristy restaurants is an important part of the travel experience. My three kids range from very picky to somewhat adventurous. We learned this lesson in China. Our kids love Chinese food at home but of course real Chinese food doesn’t look like Golden Duck down the street. We were taken by friends who live in China to a very authentic Chinese restaurant. By authentic, I mean you chose your own fish from big dirty tanks and then watch someone kill the bigger fish over the head with a hammer. Needless to say, my kids stuck to white rice that night. We learned to pick our battles – this meant skipping some delicacies like fried scorpion on a stick. Instead, find certain things that you want them to at least try – we made our kids eat all parts of the Peking duck at a famous restaurant, including the fried skin dipped in sugar (sounds gross but really is delicious). Other days, we just gave in and let them eat off the kids’ menu at the hotel (pizza, chicken fingers and pasta seem to be the same everywhere). One funny story is we kept arguing with our pickiest eater in Italy because he wouldn’t try anything with red sauce. Finally, our Italian tour guide set us straight by telling us that the way most Italian kids eat pasta IS with butter – lesson learned.
3. Don’t overschedule or pay the consequences.
Traveling with kids is different so just accept it. Plan one major objective for your day (preferably early in the morning) then give everyone the rest of the day off. If that means that you miss a few museums, that’s OK – if you are lucky enough, you will be back. The payoff is sometimes your best memories happen during that down time. Especially if you heed my next piece of advice…
4. Book a hotel with a pool (hopefully an indoor one).
Pools have saved many trips for our family. It’s the perfect bribe – “let’s go to just one more museum then we’ll go back for a swim”. If it’s a pool with a bar, then even better.
5. Give your kids homework.
I know this sounds like the worst advice, but let me explain. When we go on a trip involving any culture (which let’s be honest kids don’t always appreciate), it helps if you ask them to become an expert. We give each of our kids a particular city, historical site, museum, or even a famous person, and then ask them to do research. Once we are on the trip, each of them is in charge of one day or excursion. The result – kids are fully engaged and everyone ends up learning something. To me, that’s what traveling is all about!