We are big fans of exploring our own backyard, but there is a great big world out there that we also want our children to see. That’s why we think it’s important to teach our kids about the world with international travel.
We started small – we drove to visit friends in Canada and made a big deal about crossing the border. The kids learned to recognize the Canadian flag and loved pointing them out whenever they saw one. They also identified differences between our home city and the towns we visited (hello, Tim Horton’s).
It was such a great experience for our family that we knew we would continue to take our kids out of the country. What great experiences those trips have been for both our children as individuals and for us as a family!
Here are some tips to consider when traveling abroad with your entire family:
1. Proper paperwork – Did you know that children’s passports are only valid for 5 years (unlike the 10 years for adult passports)? Make sure you not only have valid passports, but have passports that will remain valid for several months after your trip. Several countries won’t allow entry unless the passport is valid for at least three months after the date of arrival.
Other countries require detailed birth certificates, visas, or shots. There are even more requirements if the children are traveling with only one parent present, so keep that in mind if the whole family is not traveling together. Be sure to check the U.S. Department of State website to see the requirements for the country you are traveling to.
2. Sleep on the plane – Melatonin, Benadryl, warm milk… use whatever will help your kids (and hopefully you) sleep on the plane. This is especially important when you are traveling west to east overnight. One of the best ways to combat jet lag is to get decent sleep as you travel.
Of course, this is hard because airplanes are simultaneously exciting and uncomfortable. I make sure our kids have fully charged devices with the Kindle app (much lighter than bringing each book that they want to read) and a white noise app. We also set a time when they know they have to try to sleep.
It’s also important to plan a lot of down time on your first day. You need to build in time to let your bodies adjust to your new time zone.
3. Try new things – One of the best parts about traveling is the new experiences. Before you leave home, talk about the new foods you will be able to try, the things you will see, and the languages you will hear. Teach your children, “It’s not weird, it’s different.” This little motto will help your kids adapt the mindset they will need to embrace their new experiences.
When we went to Scotland, Luke and Ellie not only tried, but they both loved haggis. Their willingness to embrace the opportunity to try new things made for one of the most memorable moments of our trip. (Seriously, last week Luke told me that someone needed to open a Scottish restaurant in our hometown so that he could eat haggis and drink Irn Bru – a Scottish soft drink – whenever he wanted.)
Also make a point of teaching your children to speak a few words in the native tongue of the places you visit. At the minimum, learn hello, goodbye, and thank you. Teach your children that you are visitors in someone’s homeland, and you should respect them enough to show that you are trying to speak their language. Shopkeepers in Paris were very receptive to Ellie when she greeted them with a “Bonjour” as she picked out her pastries from in front of the counter.
4. Pack light – Y’all, this is so important, so I’ll say it again. Do not overpack. Don’t be tempted to bring a new unique outfit for each day of your international travel. Don’t bring every travel book you bought to research your trip. Don’t bring the perfect pair of shoes for each top. You. Will. Regret. It.
Each member of our family is allotted one suitcase (the carry-on size) and one personal bag. Anything you want to bring needs to fit into one of those two bags. My personal bag holds all of our travel information; Matt’s personal bag holds his camera; Luke and Ellie carry their own entertainment and activities in their backpacks.
This philosophy holds true both coming and going. Don’t gather a lot of knick-knacks to bring home. If you must purchase souvenirs, consider shipping them home to yourself from overseas so that you don’t weigh your suitcase down with your new treasures.
There is no better time to take your children abroad than now. You are giving them a precious gift – a peek into foreign cultures, languages that have different musicality, and a sense that there is a great big world out there, ready to be explored.
What is your favorite international destination for families?