Traveling with kids
Traveling with kids can be fraught with anxiety. But, if we’re being optimists, it can also be an amazing opportunity for excellent family-time and memory-making, and the chance to show our kids new places and share exciting new adventures.
Hillary McCoy, of Currie & Co. Travels Unlimited, shares some of her best tips for making traveling with little ones smooth, sensible, and really, really fun.
Are there any destinations or places that you would unequivocally call off limits or throw a “wait until they’re old enough to drive” label on?
In general, I am a proponent of taking your children anywhere you want to go, but there are a few places I would save for the more mature traveler.
Africa is a long flight, but that can be conquered with melatonin and iPads. Stillness and silence in safari trucks is imperative for maximum animal viewing. No one wants to hear a child have a meltdown in the bush! There are exceptions, but I wouldn’t send a child younger than eight on a safari, and some camps have their own age requirements.
Trips that are more physically challenging, say the Milford Track in New Zealand or the Camino de Santiago in Spain, will be far more fun when your children can carry their own weight, or at least their own water and windbreaker.
Finally, if you plan to collect Michelin stars while away, line up hotel babysitters or leave little ones at home. Most chefs in great restaurants don’t mind simplifying for well-behaved younger customers, but who wants to expedite an evening of culinary artistry?
How can we incorporate kid-friendly activities into destinations that aren’t typically thought of as kid-friendly? Say we want to show our kids Paris or Tokyo, how can we make this world-expanding opportunity interesting and relevant for kids, as well as for us?
The best thing about traveling with children is that it forces you to break from the typical American tempo of breakneck speed. Instead of packing every piece of art in the Western canon into two days, visit a museum with one iconic piece in mind, be it the Venus de Milo, la Pieta, David, or the Mona Lisa. (My older girls now think that Degas’ Little Dancer is a friend, and they race through the Musee D’Orsay to pose just like her, and yes, be documented in the act).
If you slow your pace down, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of discovering the way that children elsewhere live. Swiss children beat heatwaves by skinny dipping in pristine Alpine lakes. French children devour nectarine ice cream while riding century-old carousels. Japanese children slurp udon and ramen in sailor-themed duds. You might learn a lot more about the culture and history of the place you’re visiting through your children’s questions.
While not essential, a tour guide can take a little of the pressure off of parents to know exactly where to go when, and at the same time elevate the children’s behavior ever so slightly.
Some of the guides that I work with have specially crafted children’s tours that keep kids engaged and reward them for their curiosity.
I have a diploma from the Wine and Spirits Institute in London, and when I’m in countries with great wine, I tend to gravitate toward vineyards. I’ve found that many winemakers love having children visit their facilities. In Burgundy last summer, our children were offered a flight of diluted fruit syrups and asked what flavors they were tasting. As they were happily occupied, we leisurely sampled and ended up with a big shipment of wine later that fall.
Do you have a personal favorite kid-friendly destination?
France. Paris is an incredibly walkable capital city, dotted with parks, cafes, carousels, and playgrounds. It is so easy to enjoy history and culture, fresh, simple cuisine, and amazing shopping. Driving in France is very straightforward, and you can see greatly varied terrain in every direction in just a few hours. Castles, wine, beaches, mountains…France has a lot of what motivates me to travel.
Last summer we visited Rocamadour, France’s second-most pilgrimaged site. A stunning city overlooking a steep valley, it has a church and town built into a sheer rock face. Five minutes down the road, we happened upon La Foret des Singes, a sanctuary park filled with Barbary Macaques. Clutching handfuls of popcorn given to us by the keepers, we fed many macaques and learned all about their species. It is challenging to drive more than 15 minutes without being drawn in by another historic site or place of natural beauty. In Normandy, the American cemetery and landing beaches are in between the beach towns Monet painted (Deauville and Trouville) and a tiny fortress island, Ile de Tatihou. It is possible to visit all of this in one day and fill up your heart and camera memory. I cannot underscore enough how much the French love seeing families with young children. Don’t be surprised if the chef at a great restaurant comes out to meet her youngest patrons or if the elderly couple next to you says good-bye with a hearty ‘bravo’ and big smile.
Other European and South American countries love little tourists too. Try the beaches and castles of Portugal, the hills and lakes of central and Northern Italy, the natural beauty and refined urban bustle in Argentina…just to name a few.
Any suggestions on what to look for when you’re choosing your hotel?
When looking for a hotel, I consider location, amenities, dining options therein or nearby, level of luxury, and activities. In practical terms though, there is one really critical question: Can this hotel accommodate this family? Many hotels abroad don’t offer two queen sized beds, so bedding configuration and the availability (and guarantee) of connecting rooms is critical.
A pool is a huge bonus if you are in a place where other exercise for children is limited. Pools help ease jetlag, fill the gap between late afternoon closures and civilized meal times, and just refresh everyone from big-city grime.
A good concierge who recognizes your family quickly and gives insider tips on the surrounding blocks is terrific, too.
What are some tips to help plan full days, while still keeping young ones engaged, but without overdoing it?
Don’t make plans for every single minute. Create a rough sketch of what you want to accomplish while in your destination. Forgive yourself in advance for the things you don’t accomplish. Seek quality, not quantity. Leave room for unexpected experiences, and try to be flexible enough to adapt to what your children are enjoying in the moment.
Getting ready for a trip is an experience unto itself. Share with us how you stay organized when traveling with little ones.
I print an itinerary and also keep a copy on my phone.
I don’t let children bring carry-ons until they are old enough to handle them while walking at a brisk pace. A tight connection in an airport is more harrowing with unanticipated pieces of hand luggage and the children who thought they should come along.
I always put one extra set of undergarments per child in my carry-on (or theirs if they are old enough to have their own). For flights, I make sure that everyone has another layer in case they’re chilly. In addition, don’t forget an extra of the beloved sippy cups or loveys. A late flight is the worst time for a child to discover that their attachment item is missing.
I pack as little as possible, with the philosophy that a stained white t-shirt can be tossed and a new one picked up rather easily. I always pack a few things I plan to leave behind so that I create room for souvenirs I buy while traveling. Old running shoes are my favorite thing to drop. In their place, I’ve brought back art, porcelain, linens, baby gifts, and so much more!
Global Entry is completely worth the logistical effort of the application. Waiting in a flooded queue at customs and immigration can easily translate to a missed connecting flight. When you sail through the touch kiosk and end up in your own bed that night, you will be smiling inside.
What are good activities for the plane and while waiting in airports?
For toddlers and younger, new tactile objects are a source of several hours of joy. Squigz are fun, as are rings of plastic keys, rain maker rattles, and books with different textures or sounds. Books are a terrific thing that can be repeated many times before interest diminishes. Melissa and Doug make a series of reusable coloring books with a pen you fill with water.
Eating is always a good way to distract little children, so bring a variety of snacks, but avoid those that might make your bag or your child’s clothes a sticky mess. With babies, something to soothe irritated ears is great to keep close by. That might be mom, a bottle, or a bag of gummy bears.
For older children, flash cards, card games, books with invisible ink pens, word searches, books, iPads, or portable board games all work well. The one thing I have found that my own children enjoy is my interacting with them (as opposed to my own technology or magazines). Travel time is a great time to ask open ended questions and tell stories about your own childhood memories that they may have not heard before. You can always play ‘20 questions’, ‘In My Grandmother’s Trunk’, or ‘Telephone’.
Do you think it’s a good idea to ask the kids ahead of time what they want to see and do? If yes, how do you decide how to incorporate that into the trip?
I think that for many children, travel is the best gift they can receive. Sometimes the destination is already part of the design: a parent has work travel to a certain place and decides to have his or her family accompany them. Other times, the genesis of the trip is the child’s desire to see a specific place or animal or to travel in a certain way--in a seat that lies flat or in the sleeping car of a train.
My husband and I have given our children family trips as their ‘big’ Christmas present for the past few years. We pick the destination, and unveil this well in advance, so that they can research what there is to do when we arrive. This year, they’ll be unwrapping Barcelos roosters to herald our adventure to Lisbon, Porto, and Madeira. We have also picked landmark birthdays, in our case, turning seven and 12, as a chance for our children to select a place they want to go and the parent they want to take with them. My childhood memories of traveling, and the stories my parents and grandparents told me about the adventures they had while I was but a twinkle in the sky, are among my fondest, and certainly fuel my love of what I do today. I consider it such a privilege when my clients ask me to help them create these experiences and memories for their own families.
Thank you so much, Hillary. You have reminded us to find the magic and the wonder of travel as a family. This is so much more than just “cross it off your list, been there, done that” type of travel. This is what it’s all about, 100% genuine, and amazing. A beautiful reminder and call to action for us to pick a place, pack a bag, and go to see the world with the ones we love most.
If you would like to email Hillary, she would love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org