On July 8, 2019, my husband and I started to travel the world for a year… with our two kids. People thought we were a little crazy. Do I blame them? No. What is that adage, “A vacation with children is called a trip”.
We knew that it would take mental strength and a lot of deep breaths. But we also knew that it would be worth it.
I had always dreamt of selling everything and traveling long term. But, honestly, I gave up on that idea once we had kids. That was until I read about a family of six who traveled around the world for a year.
In that moment, the dream of traveling long term wedged itself inside my head. I began thinking about it constantly and finally worked up the nerve to share my far-fetched plan with my husband.
We pondered it many nights after putting the kids to bed. You can probably imagine the questions that we asked ourselves. “Shouldn’t we just save money and travel when we retire?” “Would the kids get anything out of traveling while they’re young?” But deep down we knew that if we pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones, there were so many experiences out there that would change us forever.
After a year on the road, we’ve learned the ins and outs of how to travel the world with our kids. And I’m sharing all of our most successful travel survival tips here with you.
- Preparing Your Kids for Travel
- Homeschooling While Traveling the World
- Surviving Travel Days with Kids
- Teaching Your Kids to Be Travelers
- Dealing with Homesickness
- Imparting Valuable Life Lessons
Before the Trip – Preparing Your Kids for Travel
Traveling abroad can be daunting for adults and children alike. Even if your child doesn’t seem phased by the upcoming trip, they are aware of so much more than you think. Step away from your packing list and take time to chat about your upcoming travels.
How to Help Your Child Get Excited About Travel:
- Read children’s travel-based books: I love to pour over beautiful travel books (like Maps, This Is How We Do It, and Everything & Everywhere) with my kids. Take note when something on the page interests them. Ask them questions about what they think kids in that country eat for breakfast or what games they might play at school.
- Play Airport: Airports can be overwhelming for kids. So many rules! Set up a little airport in your home and practice the steps. With backpacks on and maybe even a suitcase or two, walk through your front door and pretend to head to “check-in” in your living room. Put your bags through “Airport Security” in your kitchen, etc. Also, ask them questions about what they think the airport and flight will feel like and listen for concerns. If our kids are nervous about traveling, they usually have concerns about the flight.
Packing Tips for Traveling with Kids:
- Pack their Favorites: Yes, I’m on team carry-on luggage. I’m also on team sleep through the night. It’s worth ditching a few other items so that I can pack my kids’ favorite blanket and stuffed animal. Travel is a lot easier when you have your favorite lovey.
- Toys: Your kids will need less of their toys than you think. Our kids become fascinated with life around them while we travel. Also, hotel phones (unplugged) make for hours of entertainment.
- Be Prepared for Pool Time: Bring an inflatable pool float so that you can actually enjoy the pool without holding a small child the whole time.
How we Homeschooled Our Kids While Traveling the World
A huge benefit of spending a year together was that we were immersed in our children’s learning unlike ever before. Instead of getting a glimpse of what they were learning in school by way of homework or a school project, we were their main teachers. It was a struggle and there were more than a few tears, but it was such an amazing investment as parents.
Deciding What Type of Homeschooling is Right for Your Family
Ask yourself: Will we spend multiple hours each day on school? Do we want school hours to occur every weekday, like regular school, or would we like to set our own schedule? What sort of breaks will we take? These questions will help you narrow down what type of schooling you’re looking for.
How to travel the world with kids – Homeschooling options:
- World Schooling: On one end of the educational spectrum is World Schooling, where kids learn from the experiences and world around them. The idea is that travel presents learning opportunities through reading, visiting museums, and learning about the environment they are in, supplemented with resources to strengthen the fundamentals.
- Your Home-Country School District: On the other end is homeschooling through an educational system based in your home country where they learn online from a teacher or have regular check ins.
- Local Schools: Enroll your children in a local school in your destination. Best when you are based in a location for three months or longer.
- Online Homeschooling Programs: Independent, online-only program that provides a curriculum and learning resources that you can complete at your own pace. This is the option that we went with and loved.
Other Ways Your Child will Learn While Traveling
- Museums: Visit museums that the whole family will enjoy. We love ethnographic and archeological museums. And, always get the audio guide!
- Languages: Our children love learning new languages. Often by the first week in a new destination, they were correcting our use of the language.
- Local History: We would look up YouTube videos that covered the history of the country we were visiting. Many are beautifully produced and presented by university professors or experts in their field.
- Khan Academy: Older kids can learn about a country’s history through Khan Academy’s courses. They are relatively short videos and have quizzes throughout the learning to make sure you are actually digesting the information along the way. Also, their lessons are downloadable. An important element for learning on the road!
Travel Day Tips for Kids
Travel days fill our kids with energy. We could be taking an international flight or moving to a new accommodation on the other side of town, travel days always bring the same excitement, no matter the destination. And they always exhaust us more than we expect. Here are our favorite travel day survival tips:
- Get to the airport early. Yes, I know you want to squeeze in one last sight to see or to sleep in. Children walk slowly, and it will never be more obvious than when you’re rushing for your gate.
- Board as late as possible. As long as you’ve already checked your luggage, try to board the plane on the later side. You will already be spending hours onboard. No need to add an additional 45 minutes.
- Snacks and unlimited screen time for the win! There are no rules when it comes to how our kids spend their time on a flight. Pack disposable, paper cups to portion out snacks.
- After arriving at your destination, always use the restroom before passport control. We’ve experienced an hour-long wait before officially entering the country. Which only seems to take longer with a small child who needs to pee.
Teaching Your Kids to Be Travelers
Our early travel days were filled with carrying more luggage than our share and all of the responsibilities that come with getting kids ready for the day. After one week of travel, my husband and I looked at each other and committed to teaching our children to be capable travelers (for their age). We quickly learned that while it’s much faster to do something for them, kids are so much more capable than we think!
4 Ways to Teach Your Child to Be a Capable Traveler:
- Teach them to pack: You might pick out what they’re packing in their backpack, but they can put the items inside. Extra benefit: they might remember where something is located and not constantly ask you for help. No promises!
- Walking long distances: Don’t offer to carry your little ones. (I catch myself doing this too often!) When they ask to be carried, challenge them to walk five more blocks. The same goes for when they ask you to carry their backpacks. Our kids also love to make boring things a game. Can you walk along that wall or skip to the next light? Little games like this go a long way in keeping your kid from melting into a pool of tears right there on the sidewalk.
- Applying sunscreen: Kids hate getting sunscreen applied and I don’t think any parent loves that responsibility. We taught our kids how to apply sunscreen and never looked back. Everyone was happier for it. And, honestly, their success rate of not missing spots is as good as mine!
- Ordering for themselves: Ordering for your kids isn’t hard, but it sure is a lot cuter when they order for themselves. Especially if they can do it in the local language! Servers would often compliment our kids on their use of the language and their effort occasionally was rewarded with free ice cream.
5 Ways to Get Your Kids Engaged in Travel
- Be the Travel Planner: The kids loved learning how to navigate maps and museum guides. They would lead us home on the metro or search the internet and guide books for things to do in a new destination. Also, nothing will keep them engaged like being the one who picked how the whole family spends the afternoon.
- Scavenger Hunts: While we visited Musée d’Orsay in Paris, my son played a game of finding all of the paintings in the museum brochure. Instead of constantly telling him to quiet down and keep his hands to himself, it became a time where he was engrossed in looking at the art around him. Our children have also been challenged to find 20 dragons through Ljubljana and to follow a route through the streets of Hoi An.
- Restaurants: Want to eat at a nice restaurant? I’m a big believer that any restaurant is kid-friendly before 7 o’clock. Have a handful of dinner games in your back pocket. We love Categories (where you take turns naming items in a category, e.g. “Animals”, alphabetically). Or the “What’s Missing” game (put 3-5 items from the table in front of your kid, have them close their eyes, and then take one away). Simple, requires no materials, and keeps them entertained.
- Make Taking Photos Bearable: You don’t need the perfect photo of your kids in front of every landmark. Let kids pose themselves and stop when they’re over it. Nothing makes kids lose their patience like another photoshoot where they’re squinting into the sun. Put your phone away and make some memories.
- Playgrounds & Ice Cream: The promise of ending the afternoon with a trip to the playground or a gelato can do wonders for your child’s attitude. Heck, the promise of a beer at the end of the day is usually what keeps me going!
Remember that the simple moments are the best. Your kids don’t have the same level of expectation around travel that you probably do. They are often amazed and more engaged with everyday experiences while traveling.
Finding Moments Sans Kids
One, seemingly obvious, aspect of traveling with your kids for a year? You’re going to be with your children all of the time. We obviously love our kids and we love being able to complete a conversation longer than two sentences.
Here are a few, creative ways that we found moments sans kids:
- One word: balconies. A hotel balcony or outdoor seating area gives you a space to enjoy a glass of wine and talk once the kids are in bed.
- In Koh Lanta, our kids got massages on the beach while we enjoyed a beer at a table less than 10 feet away. Best and cheapest babysitter we’ve hired so far!
- Cruise ship or hotel kids’ clubs for the win.
- While traveling with our kids in Europe, our ground-floor apartment window in Athens faced a tiny bar across the side street. Which means that we could enjoy a kid-free date and see our kids play in the apartment at the same time.
- We once splurged on a babysitter who we met on a boat, and our hotel confirmed was legit, in Positano.
- And sometimes, we simply handed over our phones to entertain the kids while we enjoyed dinner.
Dealing with Homesickness while Traveling
During almost a year of long term travels, we didn’t experience homesickness very often. With the exception of our 5-year-old. She missed our friends and family back at home terribly.
I chalk it up to her being too young to truly understand what our travels would be like before we left. On the other hand, our 8-year-old son had a harder time before we left. He was settled into school, his friends, his martial arts classes. He had already gone through the process of being sad and saying goodbye, and then jumped into the excitement of our journey.
We came up with a few ways to cope with the homesickness on the road:
- Standing FaceTime calls: Seeing our family member’s face is ten times better than just hearing their voice. FaceTime calls with friends usually resulted in the kids just showing each other their toys, but they still loved it.
- Bring that favorite toy or blanket: A handful of their favorite toys help ease the longing for home.
- Make a list of things to enjoy when you get back to your hometown. We would make a list of playgrounds and restaurants to visit when we were missing the comfort of a familiar place.
- Hide the photographs of family and friends during hard times. Our friends made the kids a photo album to travel with, but it was hard for our kids to look at it. We only brought it out during moments when they were feeling good about traveling.
International Travel = Valuable Life Lessons for Kids
When we arrived in Cambodia from Japan, my husband and I went through culture shock. Our kids didn’t blink an eye. They knew their surroundings were different, but it didn’t bother them much. I loved that they were so adaptable, but I also wanted them to learn more about the people and places around us.
Our family is incredibly privileged. A huge reason that we wanted to travel around the world with our kids was to teach them how lucky they are and that they have the ability to make a change in the world.
And for our kids, at their age, a big part of that learning is to get to know the people around them. Listening to how life is different for them, how it is the same. To learn that the world is filled with many different religions, different customs, different foods.
That people are different, and to respect and honor the differences, but that ultimately we are all also very much the same. These are lessons I certainly wished that I had learned at their ages.
At times, we did feel concerned and questioned what we were doing when we traveled to less safe areas. We felt guilty that we needed to educate our kids on what to do if someone took them from us or what would happen if they got lost.
But this is the role of a parent. At the end of the day, nowhere is 100% safe and even if we were at home we would need to be teaching our children these lessons. Ultimately, the biggest lesson we were teaching them is that, yes, the world can be dangerous, but it’s worth it to learn how to be aware and then go explore and enjoy it all anyway.
If you’re still wondering if traveling abroad with your kids is the right option for your family, I will leave you with this. We would 100% do it all over again. There are awesome benefits that come from traveling with kids.
People around the world love children. Our kids would attract so much attention from servers and guides, grocery cashiers and bus drivers. We would get to know the people around us so much more because of their interactions with our children. In Turkey, our son’s hair was constantly ruffled by servers and people that we met on the street. In Japan, a sweet, older man on the metro didn’t say a word, but gave our children a packet of origami paper. A restaurant owner in Cambodia, who we visited a handful of times, presented our kids with gifts during our last dinner together.
Countless people wanted to take pictures with our daughter in Southeast Asia which sounds crazy, but is a normal thing when you travel with a little, white kid with curly hair.
We would never have had memories like these while traveling alone. Meeting other people and the interactions that we made are the memories that our kids, and us adults, will remember most about our year of travels.
About the author
Valerie Hilton is the author of How to Travel the World: Long Term Travel Planning. After a short stint working in television production, she spent 10 years in Training and Development for a restaurant company. Teaching and sharing knowledge is in her blood.