Once upon a time, an infant, a toddler, and their parents contracted Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease while vacationing in a remote-ish cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It was utterly miserable, and the matriarch decided never again to travel with children. Ever. For as long as she lived.
But, like many mothers, she forgot the worst details and most wretched parts of the trip as time passed – and three years (and a few kid-free vacations) later she was ready to try again.
Across the ocean.
Dragging kids through the streets of London and Paris sounds like a nightmare, right? Surely this woman and her husband had lost their minds.
Well, no one got sick. No one got arrested. No one got lost. And it turned out to be an unforgettable adventure that left them ready for more!
10 Tips for International Travel with Kids:
1. Start adjusting for jet lag before you leave. There are differing opinions as to whether or not this is effective. A few days before our flight, we began going to bed earlier and rising earlier – adding an hour each day – to make the 6-hour time difference less painful. We were tired the first day but tried to catch as much daylight as possible. We felt great by Day 2, so I’m inclined to say that it works! Coming home, our jet lag and vacation hangovers seem to last much longer though.
2. Prep kids (according to age) for the important sights! Are the Louvre or Shakespeare’s Globe a child’s ideal use of a Saturday? No. But since we had studied Van Gogh, Monet and DaVinci ahead of time, they knew what they were looking at! They each had maps and lead us through exhibits to find their favorites. We read through a children’s book of Shakespeare’s plays and memorized a sonnet before visiting the Globe Theatre. As we watched YouTube videos about Big Ben and did Eiffel Tower art projects, they grew more and more excited, and that eagerness went a long way to minimize whining and boredom.
3. Prep the kids for foreign languages and cultural customs. Teaching our kids useful phrases in French (“please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, etc.) not only made them feel less cut off from people whose language they didn’t speak, it also went a long way with the citizens of Paris. When they were greeted in French and could see we were trying, they were more patient with our confused questions. Likewise, teaching our children that we would drive and walk up stairs on the left side in London and to bring up the weather (while avoiding asking personal questions) when speaking to strangers for the first time helped us not to stick out so much as obnoxious Americans.
4. Prep yourself for the worst case scenario. Each time we went to a new city or large attraction, I explained to my kids (ages 4 & 7) where to go and what to say if we got separated. I pinned the American Embassy to the map on my phone in each new country. Before we left, I made sure our health insurance would cover us in the event of an emergency, and I carried an Epi-Pen (for the kids’ food allergies) and steroids (for my Crohn’s) with us everywhere. While all this sounds stressful, it actually alleviates your anxiety to know you have a plan in place and won’t have to think when you’re in fight or flight.
5. Pack lightly and wisely. Our trip was almost 3 weeks long, but we knew we didn’t have enough hands to carry 21 days’ worth of clothing and toiletries for our family of 4. We decided to pack 8 outfits each that could mix & match to make MORE outfits, and then do laundry halfway through the trip. We brought 2-3 pairs of our most comfortable walking shoes so we could alternate (i.e. ballet flats one day, and sandals the next to give any sore spots a break). Be sure to throw a full change of clothes in your carry-on, too, in case your luggage gets lost or your 4-year-old covers himself in orange juice before the plane even takes off (ask me how I know!).
6. Skip the line when you can – but still be prepared to wait. No one wants to waste precious vacation time standing in line – least of all the parents of small children! TSA Precheck will drastically reduce your wait time at the airport when you fly out of the U.S. Many attractions offer the option to purchase tickets ahead of time, thus skipping the bulk of the wait time (if not altogether). For a slightly higher ticket price, we side-stepped the crowds at the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, and many other spots. Our kids hadn’t spent all their energy entertaining themselves outside and were much more interested (and well-behaved) inside. Additionally, we obtained Global Entry for each person in our family to make zipping through customs a breeze when we returned to the U.S.!
7. Map out your itinerary and restaurants before you go. Prioritize the things you MUST see/do vs. the things you’d like to do if you have time (and everyone is feeling cooperative). Find a few restaurants near each attraction – especially if you have dietary restrictions – so you have multiple options. We visited Paris at the height of summer holiday and lost count of how many times we arrived at a café or brasserie only to find them closed for the month!
8. Bring help. Load up on all those snacks that are off-limits at home. Gummies? Juice boxes? Cookies? WHATEVER DISTRACTS THEM. Download shows and games on your devices before you go (so you’re not reliant on Wi-Fi), and make sure everyone has their own charger. Books and toys are great, too, but remember that space is limited. We made our kids carry their own backpacks, so we knew we couldn’t weigh them down too much. Tablets give you the most bang for your buck since they’re light and can offer a variety of distractions from shows and games to the camera!
9. There’s an app for that. Use City Mapper to get you from A to B by foot, car, bike – even using public transit. Download an app like Flush to show you the bathrooms closest to your location. Duolingo is fun for learning foreign language basics, and apps like Happy Cow and Find Me Gluten Free can help you locate restaurants close to you that will work with your dietary restrictions!
10. Don’t forget the kid stuff. I have no delusions that my children will remember (much less appreciate) all they saw and did. We want our children to enjoy seeing the world and develop a broader understanding of life outside Wichita, Kansas – but we can’t FORCE it! So we sprinkled in things that brought them joy, too: playgrounds, parks, carousels, castles, ice cream shops, and more. We waited in line for an hour at King’s Cross Station so my 7-year-old could get her picture taken at Platform 9 ¾, and we took them to a child-filled matinee performance of Matilda on the West End.
After all, it’s their vacation, too!