SFP 174: Ambitious Travel with Kids

Right now, I’m tired. We just returned from a two-week international trip with our family. Today I’m sharing all the details: the plans, the obstacles, dealing with jet lag, letting go of expectations, and why we keep doing it.

Show Notes/Links:

Ambitious Travel with Kids – Episode Transcription

Hi there. It’s episode 174, and today we’re talking about ambitious travel plans with kids. If I sound a little bit tired, that’s because I am. We just returned from traveling. We were gone almost two weeks. And I knew I wanted to do a travel episode after I returned from this trip. I figured that it would be best to do it right when we got back, when everything was fresh in my mind. But actually my mind feels anything but fresh right now.

I also thought that it was important to do this because I found that when it comes to traveling with kids, that the saying, “Hindsight is 20/20,” is actually not accurate. For me, hindsight is actually really blurry because when I look back at the travel that we’ve done with kids, I usually only remember the good things. I don’t remember the hard parts. Therefore, I wanted to do this right when we returned so that I could keep it real and let you know what it was actually like in the moment.

I’m going to be sharing more details about our trip, the things that we did right, the things we did wrong, things that I’ve learned over the years of traveling with kids. And I’m going to end with a question from an audience member about traveling with kids.

I’ll start with a little bit of background on why and where and what we do when we travel with kids. For anyone that might be new to the podcast, my kids are three and five. Prior to having kids, my husband and I traveled a lot and we loved traveling internationally and domestically, and we knew that we wanted to continue with kids. I was worried if we stopped traveling, that it might be really hard to start again. So I was pretty motivated and ambitious right out the door when we had our first child, that we were to keep it up.

So we’ve made it a priority every year to take one big trip with our family. Our first trip traveling with kids was to Chile and that was when my son was just shy of his first birthday, and he was our only child. Looking back, it was peaceful and beautiful and simple, as compared to our recent travels, that is.

After that, we went to Spain. Then the next year we went to Costa Rica. Then we went to Mexico, to Central Mexico, Mexico City, and Oaxaca City. Then we went to Norway in the middle of the winter, cheap flights. Then we went back to Costa Rica. We just returned this week from Greece. We have become masters of traveling on the cheap.

Traveling on the Cheap

For the first couple of years when our kids were one and two, we always flew with them in our laps rather than buying seats. So we flew for free with them. And we always use Airbnbs. We like to travel during the shoulder season, so after the peak of the tourist season to get better deals on accommodations and flights.

We try to avoid doing a lot of expensive activities and take advantage of the outdoors and the nature, and the things that are free, like just walking around, exploring cities, taking hikes, that sort of thing. Considering we maximize our frequent flyer miles and our credit card points, we generally don’t pay a lot for flights. On average, I would say we budget for around $5,000 all in for food, accommodations, flights, rental cars, that sort of thing. And that’s traveling as a family of four, sometimes five. The past two years we’ve been taking our au pairs with us since they’re part of the family.

Traveling with Kids – Amazing, but Hard

I know that some of you were following my Instagram stories as we were traveling the last two weeks in Greece. I was texting with my best friend during the trip, and I was complaining about something that was going on, being tired or something… I don’t even remember what it was now. She said to me, “Oh, you could never tell from the pictures. That looks amazing.” And that was all the motivation I needed to actually give you the inside scoop and the real deal of what it’s like traveling with kids.

It absolutely is amazing, but it also is really hard. Like I said, hindsight is not 20/20 when it comes to traveling. I think it’s very blurry because when I look back at these trips that we’ve done, I think, “Oh my goodness. They were all so amazing. We are so blessed. We loved every minute of them.” I have to really stop myself to remember just how hard it was.

I actually very vividly remember our trip to Mexico. We spent a week in Mexico City visiting friends, and then a week in Oaxaca City. Both my husband and I look back at this as being one of our very favorite trips. It was incredible. But I also very vividly remember being on the trip saying to myself, “I am never, ever doing this again. This is horrible. Why did I do this? What was I thinking?”

But reflecting, I feel like we’ve grown so much since that point. That trip really stands out to me because that was our first big trip with two kids. My daughter was five months old and my son was just a couple months shy of three. it was hard for lots of reasons, namely that my son was fairly newly potty-trained within a few months, and my daughter was still getting into a napping schedule. But to be honest, she was pretty easy. She slept most of the time.

The hardest part was that we were visiting friends with same aged kids. But it actually got a little bit complicated because their kids were on much different napping and sleeping schedules than ours. For example, every day they eat lunch in Mexico around two o’clock. And every day around two o’clock my son desperately, desperately needed a nap. At that time, I was super, super rigid and controlling about naps. I felt like the whole world was going to fall apart if he didn’t get a nap every day at two o’clock.

Prior to that point, there literally had never been a single day in his life that he hadn’t had his nap at the appropriate time. So this put me completely out of my comfort zone by forcing him to skip a nap and taking him to a restaurant instead. I was so stressed out about it and I was so uncomfortable and paranoid about what he was going to do and how he was going to react.

Traveling Out of Your Comfort Zone

Finally, I realized that I was more bothered by him missing a nap than he was. And this was a huge turning point for me, I think as a mother really, because I felt like I was able to let go of some of that rigidity that I had around our schedule. And while I realized that, yes, it was really great for him to have his nap at a set time every day, the world would not fall apart if he missed it.

We’ve done several more trips since then. I’ve loosened up a lot since then, and we’ve started to enjoy them more since then. But I wouldn’t say that they really got any easier. But we definitely still get pushed outside of our comfort zone every time we go anywhere. And I’m someone that really likes being pushed outside of my comfort zone. It helps me to grow. It helps my kids to grow, my husband, all of us. And I absolutely learn something new every time.

Think of it as a Trip, Not a Vacation

I’ll start by saying that I consider these to be more of trips rather than vacations. I know it’s kind of a fine line to distinguish in between the two, but we haven’t yet taken a trip where we’re just going to sit on a beach and relax the whole time. Usually, we’re going to do things and we’re going to be active.

Generally speaking, we lead pretty low-key lives with lots of white space. We rarely do anything on the weekends, so we have lots of time to recharge. So we don’t really look at these trips/vacations as a time to recharge. We do view them as an opportunity to make memories with our family and to spend time together, but not necessarily to recharge because I feel like we do a pretty good job of that on a regular basis.

If you’re going on a vacation, I think you’re going to be more likely to pay extra for amenities that are going to make your life easy and for comfort. But since we’re not really looking to rest and recharge quite as much on these trips, we don’t really prioritize those things. We try to get good deals on Airbnbs and we go off the beaten path in order to save a little money and to see a little bit more of the local environments.

Now, all that being said, this was the first trip that we’ve taken where we did really intend to spend some time relaxing on the beach. We chose to stay at an Airbnb that was not on the beach. It was in a small city and it was absolutely lovely. We were thrilled with it, but it didn’t have parking at the house. We had to walk about 15 or 20 minutes to our car. So, generally speaking, we were walking 15 to 20 minutes with all of our beach towels, our sunscreen, change of clothes, water, snacks, all the things, and driving to public beaches in remote areas, which were absolutely amazing. Unbelievable.

But they had limited facilities. So most of the toilets did not have toilet seats, which is complicated when you’re trying to get a three and a five-year-old to use the toilet. We went to one beach that we had to hike about 20 minutes down, basically the side of a cliff, and then about 40 minutes back up it after we went to the beach. It was beautiful and memorable, but it was exhausting.

So I think that we struggled to find this balance of really seeing some things that were remote and off the beaten path, but at the same time not overdoing it and just wearing ourselves down physically, because halfway through, we were tired, like really tired. The places that we stayed weren’t exactly well equipped for relaxation, which is something that I need to consider more closely when I’m choosing accommodations in the future.

When Accommodations Get Lost in Translation 

We stayed at an Airbnb in Athens, and then another Airbnb in Rethymno, which is in Crete. When we went into the first Airbnb in Athens, I was like, “Where’s the sofa?” I sent a message to the apartment owner saying, “You said there was a sofa and I don’t see a sofa.” She said, “Yeah, it’s right there in the kitchen. The sofa was a bench that was about four feet long by two feet wide. Very much, in my definition, a padded bench.

So this padded bench was supposed to be our sofa for the week, but I was also not informed that it was actually also supposed to be one of the beds in one of the rooms. So this padded bench got a lot of use as it was my three year old’s bed and it was also the sofa for relaxing on. And if you have kids that go to bed early, you know that it’s kind of hard to use something for both of those purposes.

So for four days, we really didn’t have a sofa. So it was really hard to come back after a long day and just chill out and relax. I fully intended to write about this in my Airbnb review, this fact that the Airbnb does not have a sofa because I thought that was pretty significant, until we arrived at our next Airbnb and they also had a padded bench in the living room, at which time I decided that apparently the Greeks and the Americans have very different definitions of sofas.

So the result was that we spent most of the vacation without a comfortable sofa and didn’t really sit down much. Now, this is obviously a first world problem, but when you’re on a vacation and you’re being really active, having a comfortable space to come back to, to relax and recover, is really important. It’s not something that I considered or thought about much when I was choosing our accommodations.

The Airbnb that we spent most of the time in, we spent seven nights there, was in Crete. And it was absolutely gorgeous. It was an older building that had a lot of antique furniture in it, and my children’s most favored activity for downtime was to ride around on their spinny wheeled suitcases. So that was obviously out of the question.

I did feel like I had to spend a good amount of time protecting the furniture and protecting the space and the decorations, which was kind of exhausting. I also had a similar experience with this about a year and a half ago when we went to Norway and we booked an Airbnb in Bergen. It was someone’s house, which I didn’t realize from the photos. It was a family’s house, and they just left the house for the weekend so we could stay there. And it was fully packed with all their stuff, including medicine in the medicine cabinets.

So I really had to be on the whole time that we were in these places because I was worried about something getting broken or something getting damaged or my kids getting hurt. So put that on the list of things to look for when you’re choosing an Airbnb. Is there a comfortable space to relax? Are there a lot of things that your kids might break or get into?

Pack Light

I know that some of you watched my packing videos on Instagram and you can still go back and see those. If you go to my Instagram story highlights, I saved our packaging videos to show what we packed and how we packed it so each family member took one carry-on bag. We went a lot lighter than we have in the past. I’ll tell you that it actually still felt like we had too much stuff.

Overall, I’m happy that we took less, but I think we can go even a little bit lighter next time and it’ll make our lives a little bit easier, because we do always choose to stay at accommodations that have washing machines, which I think is super important when you’re traveling with young kids. For me, packing light is really important because we can avoid checking bags. But also because if you’re switching from one accommodation to the next, unpacking and repacking your stuff, that can take a ton of time. So I love traveling lighter so I don’t have to worry about investing as much time in moving from one spot to the next.

But also when we get back home, it’s easier to unpack and to get settled back into our regular life. Overall, we had an awesome trip. I absolutely loved it. I will say that I think it was harder to go off the beaten path with kids going to the beach because we didn’t have running water. We had to carry everything in. There were no beach chairs to relax, that sort of thing. It ended up being fine, but I think it just took more energy out of us carrying all the stuff and transporting all the stuff.

Adjusting and Jet Lag

A few final words on switching time zones and jet lag. What I found works best is to adjust bedtime by two actual hours every night. My kids usually go to bed at 7:00 PM, and this time we changed seven hours. So I put them to bed the first night at 5:00 PM Eastern Time. Then the second night I put them to bed at 3:00 PM Eastern Time. Then the third night, I put them to bed at 1:00 PM Eastern Time, which, if you adjust that by seven hours, that puts them to bed at eight o’clock in Greece.

So by the third day, we were on an 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM time schedule, and we just stuck with that for the time that we were there. So, yes, that meant the first night my kids stayed up until midnight, and the second night they stayed up until 10:00 PM. But by the third night, they were down at 8:00 PM. And sleep, generally speaking, was pretty good. I think the only struggles that we had were the days that we were in the car in the late afternoons and they fell asleep in the car and got that dreaded late afternoon nap and had a hard time getting down to bed at night, which I don’t think is any different from being home. We deal with that at home too.

Why Bother if Young Kids Won’t Even Remember?

So after hearing all that, you might be wondering why do we even bother? You might be wondering what we’re hoping to get out of these trips, or what we’re hoping that our kids are going to get out of these trips because I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “Well, they’re not going to remember it anyways.”

The memory is an interesting thing in the sense that when we have a life experience, we don’t actually forget it. Sometimes we just have a harder time retrieving it. So these early travel memories, especially before kids really have a good solid hold on language, these memories are not forgotten. They’re just stored in different ways.

Before you have language, before you can talk, you’re storing your memories in pictures, and in sounds, and in sense. And you’re using your sensory system to retain and to recall those experiences. If you don’t have language, then you can’t think in words either. You think in pictures, you think in sounds, you think in smells. Then once you do acquire a language, you start to recall your memories in words, in your thoughts.

Once you have that ability, it starts to become difficult to retrieve those earlier memories that were stored differently. So it’s not that they’re gone. They’re there. They’re stored in there. Those life experiences still very much impact our kids, whether it’s the multitude of new tastes that their tastes buds experienced or the new smells that they experienced. They’re integrating those things into their sensory system, and into their brain, and into their life experience. So these early experiences are not forgotten. They might just not be recalled the same way that the later life experiences are. So all is not lost.

World Education by Osmosis 

Now thinking about travel from an educational standpoint, I would really love my kids to be learning about the world as they’re traveling, but we’re not doing any kind of formal history lessons or anything like that. Instead, at this age, I’m really just hoping that they’re going to become noticers. We went to Greece and the Greek alphabet looks entirely different than the English alphabet. My son is a very, very early reader, but he was able to identify that the words on the signs and everywhere around him looked different. He noticed.

They heard the languages that they were surrounded by, and they were noticing. They ate new types of foods and listened to new types of music, and encountered new types of people. And they noticed. They noticed the differences. They noticed the similarities.

While they’re not coming home and writing any kind of reports on their experiences, the value and the learning opportunities were abundant. While I realize that trips like this are far, far out of reach for many families, I think that if it’s a possibility for your family, it’s worth considering because there is a lot of value in it, and there are a lot of amazing memories to be made. Will it put you out of your comfort zone? Yes, 1,000 million percent. Will you grow from it? Yes, absolutely.

Question From a Listener

Now I have a question about traveling with kids that’s coming from an audience member, and this is coming from Theresa. We’re going to be traveling with two kids on an 11-day trip around South America in June. What tips do you have? My husband’s uncle is taking the family and extended family, a large group, on a tour of sites in Guatemala, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. My kids have never flown and this is going to be seven to eight flights. I’m starting to wonder if it’s a bad idea to bring the kids. They’re eight and five.

Okay. Theresa, this sounds like an amazing once-in-a-lifetime trip, and it’s so exciting, I’m sure. But it probably is also very nerve wracking. Do I think it’s a little crazy to bring an eight and a five-year old on this trip? Yes, I absolutely do. Do I think you should do it anyways? Yes, I absolutely do. At this age, I think they’re going to be old enough to sleep in new places without too much problem. Younger kids sometimes have trouble adapting to new sleeping environments, but I think moving around more won’t be such a problem at this age.

I do think they’re going to get really, really tired. I think you are going to get really, really tired. This is probably the most ambitious travel plan that I’ve ever seen. Seven or eight flights in 11 days? But it sounds like it’s going to be an incredible family experience, and your kids are going to remember it forever. I can promise you that. And so are you. But it’s not going to be relaxing. Probably not at all.

My first thought on this is really focusing on keeping the kids healthy. I’ve traveled a lot around Latin America and I have the tendency to always get sick, to get traveler’s diarrhea. Traveler’s diarrhea happens for a variety of reasons. It can happen because you eat bad or contaminated food, but it can also happen just because the natural bacterias that occur in other countries where the food is a lot different can just impact your stomach in a negative way. So it doesn’t mean that the bacteria’s necessarily bad. It just means that it might be very different for you and different for the kids.

And if anybody gets sick, it can be completely debilitating for a couple of days. So planning so much into this short period of time, if somebody gets sick, it could really wreck your plans. My first suggestion is don’t eat the cheese. I spent a couple months living in Latin America and I’ll tell you that the cheese got me pretty much every time.

A lot of the fresh soft cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk. And if you get some from a batch that the milk wasn’t pasteurized and the milk goes a little bit bad before they turned it into cheese, you can get really sick really quickly. I’ll never forget. My husband and I were in Arequipa, Peru, which I think is the second largest city in Peru. I had already been in Peru for several weeks and I had already been sick several times. I figured out that the cheese was what was doing it. So I pretty much just stayed clear of the cheese entirely.

We went to a hotel. We were actually at a really, really nice hotel in Arequipa. There was a buffet breakfast and there were omelets and there was cheese. And I said to my husband, I was like, “Just don’t eat the cheese.” He said, “Oh, it will be fine. This is a really safe place to eat. I’m sure that they’re careful with the food and with the cheese,” whatever. He ate the cheese and didn’t leave bed for about four days. We watched a lot of BBC that week.

We did not see the largest canyon in the world, which is what we went to see, and we did not see the condors. We did not climb the volcano. None of the things that we intended to do happened because we spent the entire time in bed watching the BBC. This is definitely one of those “I told you so” kind of moments. I literally said, “Don’t eat that cheese.” And he ate the cheese, and two hours later he was sick.

Not to say that the cheese all over Latin America is bad or anything like that by any means. I’m just saying that you do have to be a little bit more careful when your body’s not used to eating different types of foods when you’re traveling.

I have a friend whose dad is a pediatrician in Guatemala and he recommended that we give the kids and ourselves a supplement called Saccharomyces boulardii, and I’m probably totally butchering that, but I’m going to put it in the show notes. The Jarrow brand, J-A-R-R-O-W, sells it, and that’s what I usually buy. And there’s also another brand called Florastore, which you can find more commonly at CVS and Target and that sort of thing.

You’ll find it near the probiotics, but it’s actually a yeast. We started taking this a couple years ago and giving it to our kids and no one has been sick since we started this. So taking the yeast about a week before and during the trip to help balance your gut, drinking a lot of water and choosing your food wisely.

Maybe the most important thing to staying healthy is getting rest. Since you’re traveling with a large group of people, I would say right out the door, before you even leave, I’d have a conversation with whoever’s planning the trip and tell them that your boys are going to get tired and there are going to be things that you’re going to have to sit out of. There might even be things that you plan to sit out in advance and choose not to buy the tickets so you don’t feel bad about it.

You might even do as much as planning one day on of activity and then one day of relaxation, one day on of activity and one day of relaxation, because generally speaking, that many trips to the airport are going to feel like a lot of activity and you’re going to need a break from just that alone. So, yes, take the trip. It’s definitely going to stretch you all in new and amazing ways, and it’s going to challenge you. Don’t be afraid to rest while you’re there.

I do think prepping your travel companions in advance that you’re planning to need rest will be helpful so you don’t feel like you’re letting anyone down if you have to stay back. I hope you found this episode helpful. If you were following along on my trip on Instagram, I just want you to know that it definitely wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. It was a lot of work. I do think that it was worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat. But with all the good, happy pictures comes a lot of sad, tired, grumpy, exhausted kids and grownups too. So I’m hoping that this episode helped to keep it real.

Thanks again for tuning in. If you want to learn more about Simple Families and stay in touch with what’s going on on the blog, on the podcast, and in the community, go to simplefamilies.com and leave your email address. You can stay in touch with the email list. Have a good one, and I’ll chat with you soon.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.