I have an intense case of wanderlust. I’ve had it my whole life.
I went on my first big solo adventure at the end of high school. A bicycle tour of Europe. While my classmates were switching their tassels from right to left I was hopping on a plane to Paris. Armed with a backpack, my bike and a Rick Steves guidebook I made way from Paris to Amsterdam that summer.
Several years and many adventures later, when my daughter was born I sung “He Went To Paris” by Jimmy Buffet to her every night with the hope that I would somehow subconsciously plant the idea of making a life for herself abroad someday. (That and you don’t have to be a Pavarotti to be a Parrot Head).
We’ve traveled a bit in those 16 years since she was born and whether it was the singing or the travel or both that did it, I don’t know but, she’s definitely got the travel bug.
Now that the pandemic is behind us, Holden who's 7, is ready for all the travel too. So, this fall we hopped on a plane for his first European adventure!
Here’s my best tips for traveling abroad with kids:
Don’t weigh your bags down. You’re going to have to lug those things all over the airport or train station or from rental car to lodgings and although I’m a big proponent of having Holden carry his own weight, I definitely have to manage some of his stuff some of the time so, I pack open ended play items like notebooks and crayons. You can avoid a lot of boredom with games like tic-tac-toe, drawing or spelling words. If your kids are younger then Holden draw simple shapes that they can color in or make a big letter and have them tell you things that start with that letter. Check for ideas on Pinterest before you go. Pack magazines instead of books. They’re generally lighter and kids can read them then you can toss them leaving more room for souvenirs if you want to. But also, give yourself some grace and maybe pack a tablet or something they can play some games on. A little extra screen time on a long flight may make the difference between a memorable and joyful journey versus one filled with choruses of “are we there yet???”
Learn before you go. Help your kids do a little research on where you’ll be. Explore the internet together to find things to do and places they might want to see. Let them have a hand in some of the planning. Giving them some ownership gets them excited and on a big trip where they might start to feel they’re being dragged from one landmark or museum to another, where the food may seem different and the scenery unfamiliar, giving kids some agency over the schedule will likely give you some bargaining chips. Holden loves to search Airbnb with me to help me decide which house he wants to “live in”. This time he wanted All. The. Stairs.
Be a good role model. If you’re traveling to a country where you don’t speak the national language, learn some key phrases and help your kids do the same! I highly recommend the app Duolingo if you want to brush up on a language you know or just to learn some basics. Holden absolutely loved learning French on the app and I challenged him to speak to at least one person in French. He ended up saying "merci" to everyone and "bonjour" or "au revoir" often. It took me a long time as a language learner to get over the fact that my grammar maybe off or that my accent was awful but in France we found that trying went a long way and because all kids are cute, people generally had big smiles that he had made the effort!
Also, take some time to learn the etiquette that may be different than what you’re used to and make a point to explain to your children that you will be a visitor in someone’s home county and that is just like being a visitor at someone’s home. Respect is key.
Spend a day (or more) being a local. It’s easy to get caught up in seeing "all the things" but I suspect most kids think seeing "all the things" isn’t the most important thing and likely "all the things" become a blur (to adults too, I think!). We love spending a day wherever we are, just like a local. We go to the grocery store and check out all the aisles. It’s great fun to compare their favorite treats and snacks to what local kids might be taking in their lunchboxes.
In the US we buy milk in the refrigerated aisles and eggs too! Holden was super intrigued by the idea that these things were not refrigerated in the store. He also loved learning the French names of fruits and vegetables. Some are so similar but he was absolutely dumbfounded by the courgette! Then we like to take a picnic to the park if the weather is nice and other kids are there to play with. Language never seems to be a barrier when there’s a slide, swings or balls involved.
Most importantly, try not to sweat the small stuff. Travel is a “big picture” type of thing in so many ways. The small stuff is just that, small. Kids have an astonishingly keen recollection of fun and adventure so if you focus on those things you’ll probably find that’s what they remember the most anyway!