During the holidays, many families hit the road to visit grandparents and relatives or celebrate the days off of school with a vacation. Whether you are driving to the next state or flying to another country, every parent deserves to enjoy the vacation as much as their kids do. Here are some ideas to build into the itinerary, as well as an excerpt from my book, From the Rut to the Ledge, about our own travel experiences and what we learned after nine months traveling together around the world.
While we saw and experienced many of the world’s wonders, what we learned as parents and as a family was just as powerful. Our son, Luke, was seven years old when we departed on that first 22-hour flight from Georgia to New Zealand. During our journey across 18 countries, we as parents had to adjust our expectations for what we could accomplish in a day. We intentionally traveled slowly to allow for the pace of our child. But the added benefit was breathing in every experience like locals, instead of squeezing in too many activities as tourists are tempted to do. Here are some of our favorite trip tips for family travel.
Learn from the Experts
If your children are anything like mine, they always seem to learn better from others. If my husband and I attempt to lead our family on a self-guided walking tour, it inevitably lands on deaf ears. But, we discovered in many cities we have visited in the U.S. and in foreign countries, there are free walking tours led by young, smart and engaging guides who not only keep our son’s interest, but engage him in conversation between stops on the tour.
These 2-3 hour tours are an excellent way to start a trip, get the history of the city and lay of the land. Some tours offer street food stops to introduce local fare. We’ve even taken a tour of our hometown! You would be surprised what you discover that is unfamiliar and new in your very own zip code. Because the tours are free, we never feel bad about bowing out early if our son gets tired. However, we always tip them graciously because it is great value for money. The guides also provide local recommendations on restaurants and answer questions about local transport or other sites. Google “free walking tour CITY” to find one at your next destination.
Teach the Joy of Giving Back
A vacation is a vacation, but there is something rewarding about giving back to those in need. We’ve found that there are plenty of opportunities to work with organizations in the U.S. or in foreign countries, either for a week or a day. It usually requires some time and research online to find a charity or cause aligned with your interests. But, some experiences can be as simple as asking your local hotel or tour guide to point you toward a “voluntourism” opportunity. Especially during the holiday season, there are many opportunities to serve a meal, donate time or gifts to a homeless shelter or volunteer at an animal shelter.
For a child, seeing their parents give back and working alongside other volunteers while learning about an important cause plants positive memories and a future desire to serve. Giving of themselves while seeing the benefit it provides others is a worthwhile lesson to teach early.
We learned when traveling with a child that you must sprinkle in some pint-sized activities with the adult wish list to keep everyone happy on your journey. When kids are small, finding a local playground entertains them and gets out that never-ending energy. The adults might like the atmosphere too, engaging with locals or other traveling parents. We’ve also found it intriguing to see what playscapes foreign countries use to entertain. While the U.S. parks may never shoulder the liability of a zipline in a public playground, they are quite common in other countries and our son’s favorite thrill ride!
If a playground is not enough to interest your little ones, we have found that renting bicycles is the perfect way to see a new place and expend some energy. Many rental outfits offer child seats on bicycles, or once your child is on two wheels, consider a biking tour or explore a nearby riverfront or park. We’ve found that we can cover much more ground in a new destination on two wheels instead of two feet.
Whether you are traveling to another country, or even just out of your zip code, these tips and tricks aim to bring out the best in your children and help you find the most joy in your travel experiences. Don’t be afraid to try something new and different on your next vacation. And, if you are visiting family this holiday season, ask them to join in the fun. Rather than sticking to the staid holiday traditions, your kids will thank you for introducing some new family activities that are sure to make lasting memories.
Excerpt from “From the Rut to the Ledge”
Hoi An was a Vietnamese French colonial town in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries known for its trading port and midway position between the northern and southern ends of the country. Largely undamaged by the Vietnam War, the yellow two- and three-story buildings that make up the pedestrianized Old Town have the worn charm of villages in the South of France today. Still a port of commerce and trade, as a tourist you can see authentic Vietnamese life happening at the waterside open market and in the many haberdasheries where a tailored suit can be custom made for a fraction of what it would cost in the United States.
We booked a room at a homestay—the Vietnamese version of a bed and breakfast—with a precious family of three generations. This homestay offered five spacious and modern rooms and an outdoor courtyard for serving breakfast. They immediately took us in, asking if we would join them and the other guests for a family-style dinner. It was a delicious feast of noodles, beef, spring rolls, and cakes for dessert. We fell in love with their hospitality and warmth, and I was quickly won over and convinced that most Vietnamese had long since moved on from the negative feelings they may have once harbored for Americans.
“They’ve got free bikes, Mom!” Luke exclaimed after breakfast our first morning. “Let’s ride out to the beach!”
“I read Anthony Bourdain found some delicious banh mi sandwiches in the Old Town. Maybe we could get lunch there?” Mitch added. Food and freewheeling. Our day’s plans were firmed up by 8:00 a.m.
Our favorite family activities were slowly formulating as we ventured into each new town and discovered things all three of us could enjoy together. One delightful surprise was our love of discovering a new city via bicycle. Luke impressed us with his willingness to adapt to any size and style bike, and we found we could cover much more ground on two wheels instead of two feet.
Our intention was to purposefully spend time together soaking up what life was like around the world. We wanted to peel away the layers of schedules and busyness that enveloped our family and spend weeks at a time in different places where we knew only each other. At home, it was sometimes hard to slow down and find time to play a simple board game or take a bike ride as a family. Old fashioned family activities seemed to be drowned out by baseball, basketball, Cub Scouts, swim practice, and of course, TV. But on our journey, simple was all we had. Seeking out a bicycle rental outfit in almost every city we visited became a treasured part of our routine, spending hours riding side by side as we explored.
Another surprise delight was investing in cooking courses to learn the country’s cuisine. In Thailand and Cambodia, we had taken cooking classes and we wanted to do the same in Vietnam. We found that the key to our hearts was through our stomachs when arriving in a new destination. There seemed to be no better way to make the unfamiliar look appetizing than to chop, stir, and cook it ourselves.
Each cooking guide takes the group to the local market for fresh ingredients, a great lesson in the local fare. This was Luke’s least favorite part because of the inevitable stinky fish and seafood purveyors, but I loved perusing the stalls and gazing over the brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. Later, back in the classroom kitchen, we each chose the dish we wanted to make from a selection of options and set up our ingredients at a cooking station. Traditional dishes that may have been intimidating on a menu now looked, smelled, and tasted delicious. Luke has always been a picky eater, preferring simple and uncomplicated meals where no two items touch on the plate. But the process of shopping, chopping, and the new responsibilities of cooking over his own stovetop miraculously opened his mind and palate to the local cuisine.
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