International Travel with Kids
article & photos by johanna kennedy
I’ve never dumped the contents of a bag so quickly. We were one hour into an eight-hour drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Nepal, in a 12-passenger van overflowing with humans, luggage, and exhaust. As we wound and bumped our way up the narrow road, my daughter turned to me with alarm in her eyes and vomit in her mouth. Eight hours later, seven of the passengers had lost their stomach contents. On this same two-month stint while recovering from giardia in a hotel, my husband and I jokingly compiled a list of tips we picked up while gallivanting the globe with four kids. Here is that list.
1. Sleep: Nothing can derail a day faster than a sleep-deprived child (or spouse). The general rule around jet lag is one day for every time zone change to sync circadian rhythms. It behooves the brood to sleep whenever possible. Sleep on flights, in hotels, and on long train rides. Splurge for the hotel on long layovers (some international airports have hotels onsite). Six hours lying down does wonders for morale (and swelling). However, do try to follow the time zone of your destination. If it is going to be morning when you arrive, put younger kids in pajamas for the “nighttime” flight across the pond.
2. Food: Foreign food can be adventurous or scary. Encourage your kids to try the local empanada or dal bhat, but don’t force them. Food battles aren’t worth the energy. On a trip to Europe, one son ate only yogurt. He found what looked like yogurt everywhere we went and brought it to the counter for purchase. Explain the consequences of ingesting unsterilized fruit, vegetables, and water in developing countries. The same yogurt-eating son didn’t heed our warnings that the water in tfhe Philippines would make him sick. His confession came between repeated rounds with the toilet. Speaking of food, it often comes up while taking local transportation. EXTRA: Gallon-size plastic bags make the best container for motion sickness. For those who have a tendency toward queasiness, stick them in the front with no books or screens, just straight windshield time.
3. 2.5 Times More Excited: Remember The Lego Movie’s theme song, “Everything Is Awesome?” Adopt it as your theme song. Everything you see, hear, taste, smell, sit on, lie on, ride in, it’s all SUCH A GREAT EXPERIENCE. When our five-hour walking tour of Jerusalem turned into eight hours in 100-degree heat, we made it a game to spot as many of the city’s 2,000,000 cats (rodent killers) as possible. We were also so excited that we had the opportunity to stretch and strengthen our legs! EXTRA: Say “Sure!” “Yes, let’s try that.” “Why not!” whenever you can. Consenting reaps dividends in a child's outlook on the travel experience.
4. Complaining: This ties in with #3. Don’t complain. About anything! When parents complain, it gives children carte blanche to unleash their criticisms. Rat scat on your hotel floor? Quietly clear away the evidence while humming your favorite tune. Cockroach in the shower? Create the story of The Adventures of Cory the Cockroach (Spoiler Alert: Cory dies at the end.).
5. Downtime: My husband has a great motto. We can only go as fast as our slowest companion. Foreign lands can overload children’s senses. The smells, sounds, dress, food, and language are all different. So if you have a child (or spouse) melting down, retire for a bit and let the kids (or spouse) recalibrate. Following recalibration, you’ll be surprised at the questions and insights they will share about what they’ve experienced.
6. Pre-Game Prep. Talk: Here’s another motto in our home. Just because we say it doesn’t mean they hear it. Just because we explain it doesn’t mean they understand it. So get down on eye level and over-explain everything. Generally, international travel isn’t the best time to spring surprises on children. They need to know what to expect and that you’ll be right by their side throughout. This is especially important when traveling in developing countries. Details like throwing toilet paper in the garbage, explaining how to use a squatty potty, or how to take a bucket shower are important for children to know BEFORE entering the bathroom.
7. Pack Light: Slogging through airports, train stations, and hotels with kids in tow takes significant stamina. Don’t exacerbate it by maxing out on luggage. One carry-on for each traveler is ideal. If you must, try for just one checked bag. Trust me! Besides a daily change of underwear, everything else can be washed in a sink. However, don’t forget the comfort toy. We have a small stuffed dog resembling our dog, who currently has nine countries on his (fake) doggie passport.
8. Traveler vs. Tourist: This concept would benefit from more explanation, but here is a snapshot: A tourist angles for position in front of the iconic image, eats what they are comfortable with, and is annoyed when their itinerary is disrupted for any number of national reasons and expects locals to speak English to and with them. A traveler seeks to understand the culture by researching beforehand, asking the locals for advice and tips, and experimenting with their palate and the language. EXTRA: Teach your children a few basic phrases. Nothing warms the hearts of locals more than a child respectfully attempting to say Bonsoir (good evening) or con permiso (excuse me).
9. Destination vs. Experience: Lastly, if your ultimate goal is the family photo on the gondola in Venice, you’ll miss 100 organic memories made on the way to that photo op. Instead, might I suggest that you travel low and slow with your kids? Walk slower, look longer, and wonder. Wonder alongside your children at the incredible diversity of our world, and be thankful for the opportunity to experience it with them.
5 Expert Tips from Brian Mathis at Travel Cafe
- Keep it Simple. Consider a child’s age when planning activities.
- Travel Documents: Do you need a visa? Expired passport? Are there any vaccination/immunization requirements?
- Health Care: Know where to go for an antibiotic, a broken limb, or a stomach bug while in the country. Check with RiverStone Health to see if your destination requires certain immunizations.
- Reasonable Expectations: Caviar might be a stretch if your kids are used to pizza.
- Trip Input: Give each family member a vested interest by allowing them to plan an activity or a day.
Johanna and her husband Chris are parents and foster parents to five beautiful kids. Together they are the Directors of Haven Camps, which provide summer camps for children in foster care. Johanna is passionate about people of all ages, stages, and life experiences and loves to celebrate and share their stories. She spends her time teaching, parenting, writing, reading, and dreaming about the next big adventure.