By Katie Dillon of La Jolla Mom
Traveling with kids can be tough. When you share the world with your children, however, you’re giving them a very special gift. Traveling kids explore new places, meet new people, and experience new cultures in an immersive way. In the process, they learn to be more open-minded and more accepting of everything from new ideas and new ways of doing things to new foods.
I also know that traveling with kids can sometimes feel like an ordeal. Not every child (or teenager) will be excited to try new things. Luckily there’s a lot that we as parents can do to help our children have rewarding travel experiences and embrace new cultures. Here are my top tips for parents who are excited to help their kids get more out of travel:
1. Be a model of openness. Make sure your kids see you expressing excitement about your next destination. Once you’re there, make sure they see you enjoying unfamiliar foods and activities with gusto. Younger kids will follow your lead, and though teenagers might not seem to be paying attention, they’re definitely watching how you respond to your surroundings when you’re traveling.
2. Get kids involved in planning. What kinds of things are your children interested in? What are they studying? In 4th grade, my daughter had a teacher who assigned fun projects about major artists, and she studied El Greco and Monet. The following summer, when we went to Europe, we made sure to plan a trip together to The Prado in Madrid to see El Greco works and to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to see the Monet water lilies painting in real life that she replicated for a school open house.
3. Find out of the box activities. You’ll usually pay for these, but sometimes they’re the easiest way to get kids interested in a destination. For instance, we did a private lion scavenger hunt in Venice with another family through Context Travel. The guide took us on a three-hour walking tour, during which she taught the kids the entire history of Venice as they hunted for special lions around the city. It was awesome! Sometimes you can find free activities, too. Before we visit major museums, I check the children’s programming to see if something of interest might be on offer while we’re there or if there are any scavenger hunts available (e.g.
4. Know your kids’attention span. Plan accordingly! Like most kids, my daughter’s tolerancefor major museums is much lower than mine. Before we visit, we look at themuseum’s map to develop a strategy for seeing the highlights (especially thingsmy daughter might study at school) in a manageable amount of time. Whether you’re visiting a museum, a famous landmark, or an interesting town, your kids will enjoy the visit more and remember more of it if you don’t try to see everything in one shot. Also, don’t forget that kids really do not havepatience for waiting in lines. Whenever you can, buy tickets to attractions and museums ahead of time.
5. Eat your way around your destination. But be flexible! Food plays a huge role in travel, and I know that kids can be picky. Personally, I don’t make a big fuss out of trying something new… act like unfamiliar food is normal and kids will often do the same. If they’re wary of trying another country’s delicacies, you could start with sweet stuff. Egg tarts in Hong Kong or baklava in Greece can be your kid’s first foray into trying the traditional foods of a new country.
6. Make sure everyday includes something for kids. Just because you’re traveling with kids doesn’t mean you can’t see and do what you’re interested in. I’ve been able todo a lot I personally want to do on vacation by integrating at least one thingmy daughter wanted to do into every day’s itinerary. For younger children, animal experiences (from pandas in Chengdu, to simply feeding birds in CentralPark NYC, to visiting aquariums and zoos) are usually a good go-to.
7. Teach them a few key phrases before you depart. It’s always a good idea to know how to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and some numbers in the language of your destination. Besides helping kids feel more invested in an upcoming trip, it can also help them feel more comfortable once they’ve arrived. You may be surprised to find that after your kids learn how to say a few things in a new language, they want to keep learning. Duolingo is one app that older kids, teens, and grownups can use to learn the basics of a new language, though there are also language apps for younger kids.
8. Manage theirexpectations. Younger kids, in particular, need to know what to expect ifyour destination will be very different from home. Talk frequently about what you’ll eat, where you’ll stay, and what you’ll do before you depart. You canalso look at multicultural websites, try ethnic food at home, and read booksabout your destination to prepare kids for what they’ll encounter.
9. Be flexible! Planning and having a schedule is essential when you’re traveling with kids, but don’t be afraid to go with the flow. Maybe you need to slow down. Maybe you won’t make it to every attraction you planned to see. Or your children may be so energized by your destination that you can actually do more. Leave some room for unexpected experiences (and unexpected downtime) in your schedule, and give yourself the freedom to go off script when interesting experiences present themselves.
Finally, the most important advice I can give you is simply don’t stress. If this is your first time traveling abroad with children, there will probably be some hiccups along the way, but in the end, the experience will be an amazing one for your kids — and for you.
Katie Dillon is a luxury travel and lifestyle writer who lives in La Jolla, California with her husband, daughter, and one needy pit bull mix. She is the founder of LaJollamom.com and has been the San Diego editor for USA TODAY and a contributor to FourSeasons Magazine and Luxury Retreats Magazine.