Our favorite family activity, by far, is to travel.
We especially love international travel. We’ve taken our kids to places all around the world, from Dubai to Scotland, Japan to Guatemala. In our tiny kid years, we pushed strollers through airports and toted toddlers in travel backpacks around major cities. We packed our favorite snacks and extra diapers in our carry-ons for airplane rides.
These days, our kids range in age from 9 to 13, which means they’re capable of walking around and carrying their own bags. They’d be happy if our carryons contained solely iPads and headphones. It has gotten easier, but isn’t without its challenges. If you’re considering traveling internationally with your kids, I’m here to help.
We choose travel over fancy cars and live in house full of hand-me-down furniture. We love it for many reasons: Adventure, creating lasting memories, bonding as a family. What’s not to like? As it turns out, many of my friends feel otherwise.
Is it even worth it? It sounds like a lot of hard work. And so expensive.
What if they don’t remember it? Why bother?
How can you make it fun for everyone? No kid wants to sit in an art museum all day.
International travel with kids can seem daunting if you haven’t tried it. Here are a few ways that we’ve found to help make it enjoyable for everyone involved.
1. Mix kid-friendly and parent-friendly activities.
If we expected our kids to partake in sightseeing activities (like museums and historical tours) every day and leisurely dinners at nice restaurants every evening, our trips would fail spectacularly. Instead, we try to mix it up. When they were young, we’d explore some historical place or corner of a city in the morning and then hit up a playground, a beach, or a pool in the afternoon. We’d hit up palaces and museums some days but find aquariums and children’s museums on other days.
As they’re now a bit older, we try to add activities like zip lining, canoeing, paddle boarding, shopping (even at places we can get at home!), and high ropes courses into our itineraries, along with whatever sightseeing we parents might find interesting.
We’ve also found that many traditional sightseeing and tourist places have kid-friendly options. Art museums and historical sites often offer guides designed for kids, filled with scavenger hunts and games. Sometimes, small prizes are even offered to children who complete the tasks. Even our middle schoolers find these rewards enticing.
We usually plan our own itineraries for trips (it’s my husband’s hobby), but it’s also possible to book kid-friendly tours, cruises, and riverboat trips with an established tour company. Just be sure the mix of activities, sightseeing, and downtime is good for your group.
2. Stay in apartments or houses.
We do not like going to bed at the same time as our kids. We’re also a family of five and don’t fit well into the two-queen-bed hotel model. Some hotels do offer suites, bless them, but for the most part, we’ve found that rental apartments and houses (via VRBO and Airbnb) are our best bet for lodging in most places.
We like putting our children to bed and sitting in another room (with lights on!) and chatting about the day, prepping for the next morning, etc. We also appreciate having a fridge and kitchen to make meals and prepare snacks easily. Eating out is a wonderful part of traveling internationally, but it can be a lot when it’s three times per day for a week. That is, a lot of energy and discipline and sitting still for a child, and a lot of expense for parents.
We also find that grocery shopping in foreign countries is its own adventure, and we enjoy picking out some easy meals and snacks to have stocked at our apartment. The kids also enjoy throwing a couple of items into the cart for us to sample back at the rental.
3. Embrace quick eats.
Sadly for me (who loves a leisurely dining experience!), lengthy or fancy meals don’t work well for our crew. Happily for all of us, however, delicious street food and quick eats are generally easy to find worldwide. We like to find markets, taco stands, and food trucks wherever possible. We also like to do a little research to find restaurants that offer great food but aren’t too fancy or stuffy. The internet has made it easy to find all of these things.
4. Let some of the rules go.
We have rules at home regarding soda, screens, treats, etc., and we majorly loosen them when we travel.
After many trips with these kids, we’ve come to find that treats and privileges grease the wheels when we’re on a trip. Every kid enjoys a bit of spending money here and an ice cream cone there. It’s a vacation, after all! Moods and attitudes generally improve when we’re more free with a “yes” at the candy store.
Getting to order grape soda at a restaurant is considered a big privilege in our family, and generally results in a pretty happy kid. Jet-lagged crabbiness can be set aside with a little extra screen time or a new trinket. Extra treats aren’t the focus of our days, but being a little flexible (call it lax!) makes our planned activities and sightseeing go more smoothly.
On one trip (Venice), we purchased a Micro scooter for our daughter because we found ourselves with an utterly miserable three-year-old whose legs got tired walking and who did NOT want to sit in a stroller. Problem solved.