We have travelled regularly with our daughters since they were babies. Back then a lot of trip planning went into packing nappy supplies, organising cots and making sure there was suitable infant food at the destination. Now that they are 11 and 17, travelling as a family is a totally different experience, and one which is incredibly rich and rewarding. But there’s still a bit of pre-planning involved…just of a different kind. In this post I outline my best-kept tips for travelling with older kids.
10 tips for travelling with older kids
1. Don’t keep them in the dark
I encourage the whole family to be involved when it comes to planning any travel experiences, so we discuss itinerary wish-lists and preferences as we draw up the schedule. I think it’s really important that the girls are aware of exactly where they will be going, and can look forward to it as much as The Poolboy and I do. It’s also great if they can take on board a bit of the background and context of the destination in advance. Sometimes we’ll watch a couple of movies set in that location before we go, and we certainly discuss interesting facts, traditions, historical events and attractions as I come across them in my research.
Before we got to Japan, the girls and I had discussed onsen etiquette in detail, and (after their Turkish haman experience) they drew the line at communal nudity. So, I made sure the ryokan we stayed at in Hakone had a private onsen bath option.
By being fully informed, they are never caught unawares or thrown off guard, and I’m so thrilled that they both embrace the different, the unusual and the challenging. They will eat local foods, and they accept and respect local customs. They also tolerate and cheerfully participate in some of the quirkier activities I ferret out.
2. Pack lightly and make everyone responsible for their own stuff
One of the significant milestones in any travelling family’s life, is when all the kids are old enough to be responsible for the carting of their own luggage. Hauling their own wheelie suitcases on and off planes, trains and automobiles is a big incentive for them to pack lightly.
We have a set of matching 68cm hard-sided wheelie suitcases in four different colours, one for each of us. They were perfect for travelling in Japan, as they fitted into the boot of taxis (just), into overhead luggage racks on Shinkansen trains, and onto a step of escalators in train stations, plus they were completely manageable, even for the 11 year old Impossible Princess.
3. Provide lots of ‘Instagram-worthy’ moments (and the means to upload them)
Sometimes, no matter how incredible the destination is, teenagers would rather be at home hanging out with their friends. There’s this sense that they are out-of-sight, out-of-mind and missing out on the holiday fun at home. So, I think it’s important to provide internet connectivity for your teens to keep in touch with their mates. I know, I know…it’s not how things were when we were young, but that’s the reality of the life they live nowadays. If they can hook into some wifi or a data connection for at least a few minutes each day, they can touch base with their friends and be in the loop.
Plus they get a lot of happiness out of posting the perfect Instagram shot every few days. What we photograph and are interested in as adults, isn’t always what appeals to teens. When we visited The Hirshhorn Museum at The Smithsonian in Washington DC, the girls’ interest was waning…until they saw the bottom floor which had a striking red, black and white installation by Barbara Kruger called Belief + Doubt. They decided it was the perfect location for taking a multitude of selfies and portraits which were later Snapchatted, texted and/or uploaded to Instagram. Win-win. They got their fun shots, and we bought a bit of extra time to see the museum.
4. Create a ‘holiday highlights’ ritual
Every few days while we’re travelling, we have a ritual during dinner of naming our three holiday highlights so far. We all get a turn to declare our list and explain what we liked about each item. It really focuses our attention on the positive aspects of the experience so far, and we get an insight into each other’s travel happiness. Sometimes I’m surprised by how different our lists are, sometimes they are all the same…and as the journey progresses, it becomes harder and harder to narrow down to three items, which really forces each of us to reflect on the whole experience.
5. Agree that life is full of compromises
Theme parks are really not my thing. The girls certainly wouldn’t put several hours tramping ancient ruins at the top of their bucket lists. But in advance, we all agree to compromise and tolerate each other’s wish lists. By drawing up a really diverse itinerary for each destination, we try to ensure there is something of interest for all of us each day. (Click here to download my free e-guide to creating varied itineraries that rock.)
Some of my most memorable moments have been doing things the kids wanted to do (e.g. ziplining in Singapore), and often the girls create their own fun experience out of something they previously thought would be ‘boring’. In The Metropolitan Museum in New York City, Queenie and our gorgeous English exchangee, Britannia had a fabulous time imitating the Greek sculptures and photographing each other.
Exploring and following the girls’ specific interests has also led us to experiences or places we may not have otherwise found. Queenie’s interest and studies in fashion have seen us seek out an Italian designer outlet centre in the suburbs of Milan, have an ‘Amazing Race’ type experience in the Tan Dinh fabric markets, and check out more formal/prom dresses in the shops of New York City than I even knew existed.
6. Avoid being hangry
When you travel with small children, you are acutely aware of their limitations and usually organise the day around food and nap times. With teenagers, it’s sometimes easy to forget such things and just push on through a packed daily schedule. But for our family, one of the most important contributors to family travel happiness is avoiding situations likely to cause hanger (hunger-induced anger).
We know for a fact that we’re people who don’t function well on empty stomachs, so we don’t fight it. We always have a big breakfast each day, and schedule in regular meal and snack breaks to keep up the calorie intake while we’re out and about. Plus this gives us the opportunity to experience lots of different local foods and treats.
7. Get there by opening time
Adults don’t like queues. Older kids? Even less so. No teenager came home from a trip saying, “It was fantastic! All up we queued for 14 hours in the first three days.” But in many cases, the only way to minimise the queuing time for major attractions is to get there before the crowds.
We’re early risers, and like to pack as much into a day as possible. Our strategy is usually to get to the biggest ticket item on that day’s schedule (i.e. the one likely to have the longest queues or largest crowds) well before opening time. On one infamous occasion, we got there quite a long time before opening time. However, this strategy has also been known to back-fire. In Istanbul, the opening time queues for the Topkapi Palace were huge due to several large cruise ships being in port…but when we left the palace around lunchtime, the queue was non-existent.
There is nothing surer to kill a kid’s enthusiasm for a place than to make them queue for hours to get into it. (And me, queuing for hours for a ride at a theme park? It just isn’t going to happen.) Do some research and plan ahead to minimise the wait times.
8. Have a memorable Christmas away from home
‘Christmas away from home’ experiences can create memories to be treasured forever. And being so far from family (and the familiar) on Christmas Day can give all of you a refreshed understanding of the importance of home and a gratitude for some of the traditions your family shares.
When you’re an adult, part of the attraction of being overseas for Christmas is to experience different traditions and ways of doing things. However, kids don’t always see things that way. It’s good to have a clear idea of what they need for Christmas to seem familiar and meaningful. For our girls, a Christmas tree is non-negotiable. So in both the places that we have had Christmas overseas (New York City and Hoi An, Vietnam) we’ve managed to have a tree in our accommodation to put the presents under.
Plus, being away from home is a great opportunity to create new traditions. The year we were in Hoi An for Christmas with our gorgeous English exchangee’s family, we chose some matching t-shirts at the markets in Saigon that the kids all wore to sleep in on Christmas Eve. Plus Queenie, The Impossible Princess and Britannia took off to the hotel day spa on Christmas Eve afternoon and asked the girls there to paint their nails in fun designs to celebrate Christmas. I’m not sure who enjoyed that experience more, our girls or the day spa staff who laughed as they painted tiny kiwfruit, strawberries and watermelon on our girls’ toenails.
9. Talk about emergency plans in advance
No-one likes to think anything is going to go wrong while you’re on holiday, but it’s much better to have thought about the possibilities (which hopefully are remote) and ensured the kids are informed of safety procedures in advance, than to be ignorant when you need it. Unlike small children who you would just scoop up in your arms in the event of an evacuation, older kids may well be in a separate hotel room, or off doing an activity on their own, and need to know what to do.
As soon as you arrive in your hotel room or lodgings, locate the nearest stairwell exits with the kids. If you’re in an earthquake-prone region (like we were in Japan), check out the room to identify the safest place to shelter. Familiarise yourself with the hotel’s advice regarding evacuation plans. Brief the kids on what to do in the event of emergencies of various types (e.g. fire, tsunami, earthquake, civil disturbance), and determine a family reunification plan in the event that you are separated during an incident. Agree a contact back at home (family member or friend) that can be used as the go-to for coordination of communication if you were separated, and make sure all the kids have memorised that number.
10. Reminisce and reflect on your travels often
The benefits gained from family travel experiences don’t end when you return home. You can spread out the current joy, knowledge and wisdom gained for years to come. The trick is to reflect and reminisce often with the kids about all you saw, what you experienced, the foods you ate, the people you met.
Obviously, photos play a large part in this process. Using photos in highly visible ways keeps all the experiences top of mind. I’ve created photo books for the coffee table, made calendars as Christmas gifts for family and friends, used photos as the screensaver on the computer and TV, and even gone old-school and stuck some printed ones on the fridge.
However, photos aren’t the only way to reminisce. Souvenirs that have a useful role trigger happy memories in our house on a daily basis – the glass light fitting above our dining table reminds us all of Murano, the bone salad servers of Hoi An, and the cotton pool towels of Istanbul.
Another reminder of our travels is incorporating foods we’ve enjoyed into our day-to-day menu. I make a ripper New York cheesecake, and The Poolboy is a dab hand at künefe and Vietnamese dishes. We brought back some matcha tea from Japan so we can recreate the tea ceremony experience in our own home (minus the kimonos).
Plus, of course, we talk about our travels often. Sometimes, out of the blue, one of the girls will ask a question about something we saw years ago, or a place we went…or will remember something funny that happened, and suddenly, we’re right back there again, re-experiencing the pleasure of that particular trip.
Do you have a tip for travelling with older kids to share? Or do you have memories of travelling as a teen and what you really enjoyed about the experience?
This post on my Best Kept Travel Tips for Travelling with Older Kids has been written as an entry to the 2015 ProBlogger Virgin Australia competition. You can find more details about it here.
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