My husband, two daughters (aged 11 and 13), and I recently returned from a one-year trip around the world, during which we visited 22 countries and over 70 destinations. It was, in all respects, the trip of a lifetime that I urge every family to consider doing. Even a three-month, multi-country trip will be life-changing.
It was usually just the four of us, which got old fast. So one bit of advice I’ll offer right up front is this: with so much ‘togetherness’ on an extended trip, if you have the opportunity to travel with other families as part of a group, go for it. Looking back on our adventures, there are dozens of other lessons learned, but these ten stand out:
1. Let someone else plan it
When you think about how much time you spent planning your last one-week vacation to a single destination, imagine that multiplied by 20, or 50, or in our case, at least 70. For example, we declined the opportunity to let someone else plan our “greatest hits of China” tour through Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Guilin, thinking we could save money doing it ourselves. I later calculated that we saved negative $1,200. Yes, it cost us more. And we were absolutely exhausted by the learning curve, logistical planning and fumbling. We did learn our lesson, though. In Croatia, we hired a skipper to take charge of our one-week cruise with friends, so that we wouldn’t have to think. In the Galapagos and Amazon Rainforest, we joined group tours and had fabulous experiences letting someone else do the work. It’s good to outsource when possible.
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2. Get the kids involved up front
Global travel can be tough on kids. The key to getting (and keeping) them excited is to get them invested. In our case, we brainstormed fantasy destinations and activities together in advance. We talked up the trip at family dinners to build anticipation. And we gave them roles. We dubbed our oldest the trip videographer and got her a nice camera. She took her responsibility to document the trip very seriously, and had a lot of fun with it. Our youngest did research on each destination in advance and educated us on what was to come, which helped all of us learn more. As a result, they were “into it,” even when the going got tough.
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3. Follow the “Action Sandwich” rule
It’s one thing to go-go-go during a 1-2 week vacation, knowing you’ll soon be back to your normal routine at home. But extended time out of your comfort zone is different. Most kids need plenty of down time. So follow the “Action Sandwich” Rule: slide a day of absolutely nothing in between every 1-2 consecutive days of action. Let the kids set the agenda on down days, and let them mellow out as much as necessary. They need to feel some sense of control over their lives and schedule, and nonstop tourist action is just not sustainable.
4. Kids need other kids
Regardless of age, kids need friends to hang out with. And the older they are, the more important this becomes. Try to make it a priority to find peers for them to hang with who speak English or a language your kids speak. Family-oriented group trips are great for this. Facebook is useful, and local schools and organizations can also help. While in Sydney during the local school break, we enrolled our kids in summer camps, where they made heaps of new friends.
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5. Animals are key
Animals are wildly entertaining to kids, so we worked them into our activities whenever possible. The key here is to follow these guidelines and to only do activities that are respectful to the animals (e.g. no elephant rides!). For example, our kids had a blast pet sitting our Airbnb host’s rabbit in Prague. We went horseback riding in New Zealand and Costa Rica. We visited numerous animal sanctuaries, including two in Chengdu, China, whose missions are to restore the wild panda population. And we had respectful encounters – at a distance – with wild animals in Chilean and Bolivian deserts, the Galapagos, and other destinations. (Note: Be careful not to touch or let animals brush up against you, including domesticated ones, unless you are confident it has had a rabies vaccine.)
6. Tour guides are wildly helpful
As much as you might fancy yourself a Rick Steves in the making, I promise that your kids will find a third-party tour guide infinitely more interesting and worth listening to! With so much time together as a family, they’ll be begging for fresh faces. Spring for a tour guide whenever possible; instead of moaning and groaning, your kid will perk up, listen, and learn so much more. Our kids can name every guide we had throughout the year; they were that memorable. Even the horrendous tour guide we grabbed off the street in Beijing turned out to be a source of entertainment as the kids observed how bad he was. Our terrible experience became one of their favorite stories from the trip.
7. Cities are boring, unless you do this
After about two cities, your kids are going to think all big cities look the same and are B-O-R-I-N-G. We got around this by eventually skipping the standard walking tours, Hop-on-Hop-off buses, museums and churches. Instead, we opted for one-of-a-kind experiences and foods. We toured the fjords near Bergen, Norway. We explored Copenhagen by bike. We checked out medieval torture devices in Prague. We watched a tango show in Buenos Aires. We ate gelato in Rome until our stomachs ached.
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8. Your interests are not necessarily their interests
The kids went along with our game plans for a while, but eventually started to revolt. My husband finally got to the point where he’d just do his beloved city walking tours by himself. No harm, no foul. About nine months into our trip, we mostly stopped visiting big cities altogether. We opted instead for as much nature as possible, realizing how much happier the kids were in those settings. Global family travel with kids is going to be different from what you’d do on your own. Make sure you give them a voice. Cater the trip to them, and you’ll all be happier.
9. It will change them (in a good way)
These trips are very hard at times, but the long-term impact is always good. One day, your kids will thank you for making them eat their vegetables, floss their teeth and take trips like this. There will be a lot of complaining, and meltdowns, and guilt trips like, “You’ve ruined my life!” (wrong!!). But they will be more flexible, more resilient, more tolerant of differences in people, cultures, values and politics. They’ll understand what lucky lives they lead and how good they have it. And they will be citizens of the world.
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10. It will change you (in a surprising way)
You may not come back from global family travel a radically different person. But you will be a different person, no question. You probably won’t care about possessions as much. Some bias or prejudice or judgement regarding another culture you didn’t even realize you had will be gone. Your awareness of politics in other countries will be broader. You’ll be more zen about almost everything. And your family bonds will be stronger. After all, you’ll have weathered some pretty intense experiences together, and what in life can be more beautiful than being even closer to your children than before?
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All images C/O Theresa Stevens.