The Truth About Family Travel
My goal is to inspire you to take your kids to incredible places, and through my writing I try to portray the excitement of family travel and the benefits that come from it. When I think back on a trip, whether it’s a week later or a year later, I remember the good things and rarely think about the hassles. I’m naturally a glass-half-full kind of guy anyway. However, I don’t want to be misleading and make it seem like it’s all perfect and always easy. Here are a few things I’ve left out.
Our Kids Fight
Our kids fight with each other when they’re at home – not all the time, but a fairly normal amount for three kids under ten. This is amplified when we’re traveling. First, it’s really just the three of them for weeks or months at a time, with no friends or social schedules to mitigate tensions. Second, we’re in smaller spaces. Whether it’s connecting cruise ship cabins or a hotel room, there’s not much room for time away from the group. Plus, we’re far more aware of the kids’ behavior and noise levels than we would be at home. I’m always on the kids to settle down, in fear of getting a call from the hotel manager or (as happened in Paris) a note slipped under our door by the grumpy lady in the apartment below ours. The photos that I post on Instagram that always show them getting along? Well, that’s because those are the fun, memorable, photographic moments. I don’t take pictures when the kids are fighting – that would only make things worse!
Our Kids Hate Really Hot Days
When it’s hot out (over 90F / 32C), the kids get grumpy. Our day trip to Rome from Florence a couple of years ago was miserable. It was very hot and we walked A LOT. The kids were so exhausted that not even afternoon gelato could save the day. Naxos this summer was in the high 80s most days and in the low 90s a couple of times and humid, and it knocked us out – we had to spend a couple of hours in the room every day after lunch. And it’s been true in a lot of our other destinations as well – when we’re in Hawaii we always need to get out of the sun for a couple of hours during the day, Paris during the summer is tough when there’s a heat wave, and we’ve had bad days in Florence, Orvieto and Santorini too. At home when it’s hot, we can simply stay inside. It’s not that easy on vacations. If we have a pre-purchased excursion to Pompeii, we’re going to Pompeii, and if we’re only in Ephesus, Turkey for one day, we’re going to the ruins, regardless of the heat.
We Have Car Accidents
My wife and I learned how to drive stick-shifts (manual transmission cars) differently. In the Colorado mountains, I learned that you always leave the car in gear when you turn off the ignition. My wife, at sea level in California, learned to park in neutral, using the emergency brake to keep the car from rolling. When we rented a car at the Florence airport at the start of our month-long villa stay, we were not only given a car with a stick-shift, but a brand new car – exactly what you don’t want in Italy. Well, I had parked the car at the villa one day, and my wife was the next one to drive it. She got in and, as the kids were still getting in, started the ignition…without pushing in the clutch. The car predictably lurched forward, the door closed on my daughter’s hand, and the car ran into and over an Italian Cyprus before coming to a stop. My daughter was fine, but the new car and the cyprus not so much.
Postscript: Our villa owner, despite losing a lovely tree, took it upon himself to make sure that we got the car repaired before returning it. His friend Luigi (seriously!) had a garage a couple of towns away, and we dropped the car off for a day. When I picked it up, it looked perfect, and it only cost us 50 Euros. I don’t think we’re going to be as lucky next time!
I’ve Lost a Child in a Foreign Country. Twice.
When my oldest daughter was five, I took her to Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. One of the last things we did was to check out the aquarium. The aquarium is a large spiral – starting at the top, you slowly head down a long, circular ramp several stories until you exit through the gift shop. Towards the top there’s a little side area for kids that goes off to the side, parallel to the main walkway. I don’t remember it being longer than 30 feet or so? My daughter headed into that area and I kept walking to the spot where the two paths merged and I waited for her. And I waited. After a few minutes, I wondered why she wasn’t exiting and went to find her in the side area. No daughter. That’s when my heart started beating A LOT faster and I started running. I ran down a level or two, and then headed back up to make sure I hadn’t passed her since there were a lot of people. Then I ran down another level or so and went back up – I couldn’t imagine that she could have gotten very far. For at least fifteen minutes I ran the levels of that aquarium until I was positive that she wasn’t inside. Then I looked around the gift store and she wasn’t there. That only left…the entire amusement park. Luckily, when I exited the gift shop and started frantically looking around, a Chinese man came up to me and asked if I was missing my daughter. Note: if you are going to lose a red-headed five-year-old, do it at a place where everyone else is Chinese!
A year later she got lost again, this time in Paris, and again I was the parent in charge when it happened. We were renting an apartment a block from the Eiffel Tower and three blocks from the Champs De Mars playground. I was working in the apartment, my daughter was reading, and my wife and two younger kids were at the playground. At one point I called across the apartment to see if my daughter wanted to walk over with me to meet up with the others. There was no response. She had already decided, some 10 minutes earlier, that she wanted to go to the playground and instead of telling me, simply slipped out the door to head to the playground herself. So I (once again) took off running. I ran to the playground and…she wasn’t there. My wife hadn’t seen her. So I ran back to the apartment, searching the park and the base of the Tower. When I made it back to the apartment, there she was, sitting outside in the courtyard. Apparently she made it as far as the Eiffel Tower, got turned around and was trying to get her bearings when a family asked if she was lost. That made her start crying. Luckily, she was able to lead the family back to the apartment building and even remembered the gate code to get into the courtyard. I thanked the family that helped her and they left, but they had already called the police just to be safe. So two officers came and interviewed me and took all of my information. Somewhere in a file cabinet in Paris there’s a Bad Parent report with my name on it.
We Have a Daughter Who Wishes She Were In Another Family
My five-year-old is the third child. Being the third child, she doesn’t get to make a lot of the family decisions. And because she doesn’t make the decisions, she frequently rebels against family decisions, especially when we travel. This summer she threw a lot of mini-tantrums, usually when we were walking somewhere. At one point in Naxos she stopped walking to lunch, said that she would NOT walk any further, and said that she wanted to be adopted by a Japanese family. I have no idea why she thought that a Japanese family wouldn’t ask her to walk as much? But she was insistent that life would be better with her Japanese family. Fast forward one week to Florence. We weren’t staying at the Four Seasons Florence, but I wanted to see the property so I arranged a tour. Two of the kids were fine with the half-hour walk from our hotel to the Four Seasons, but my youngest stopped several times along the way refusing to walk any further. It wasn’t pretty. Through a little coercion and some carrying, we finally made it to the hotel lobby, but she was NOT happy about being there. I asked her if she still thought life would be better with a Japanese family. Big mistake. She yelled at the top of her lungs: “I DO NOT WANT TO BE ADOPTED BY A JAPANESE FAMILY!“. Her voice bounced off the stone walls. Everyone in the hotel stopped talking. It was horrifying. Funny and horrifying. We won’t be checking in anytime soon.
And if she’s not refusing to walk, she’s frequently running…away from us. When she was two she started taking off from us in shopping malls. We would wait to see at what point she would stop to look back. She never would. This has continued through our travels, and she always chooses the absolutely perfect times. She’s run away from Parisian passport control lines, going under the ropes while we had to zig-zag past dozens of people to retrieve her. It’s happened at airport security – last month at the Florence airport we had reached the front of the security line and handed over our tickets when she took off running and made it all the way back to the check-in counters. That was fun! And it’s happened on a Disney Cruise, right when my wife and I were going in different directions. I thought she was with my wife. My wife thought she was with me. Twenty minutes later we met up and both asked the other where our daughter was. If a Chinese theme park is a good place to lose a kid, a Disney cruise ship is an even better place! The ship personnel had seen her wandering around and checked her into the kids club.
So what’s the truth about family travel? Most of it is going to be great. Just don’t get frustrated by the bumps in the road, or the few times you may lose a child! People always ask me if the actual travel portion (planes, etc…) is as easy as I make it out to be. Really, it is – we don’t think twice about 12-hour flights. The kids are used to leaving home at 3am and entertaining themselves all the way to our destinations, no matter how long we’re in transit. When they were under two it was harder, but travel is cumulative, and once the kids had flown a few times they learned the ropes and it got really easy. Take your kids everywhere! Even when it doesn’t go perfectly, at least it usually makes for a good story!
What’s your most horrifying family travel experience that’s now a good story, or at least a lesson for others?
OMG!!! Thank you so much for writing this piece:) I have lots of stories to tell and I am waiting for that day to write it down:) BUT Sorry… I was laughing with your incident in HK. LOL… it’s definitely easier to find her there:)
Eric Stoen says
Thanks for the comment! Yep, it was the perfect place!
I love that you travel all over with your children! We did, too. Road trips and flights. Strange hours, strange places, and all that! Our kids have always travelled well, and now as adults, they travel with their children, too. It is the number one thing that has kept our family close–being willing to travel a lot!
Eric Stoen says
That’s awesome – I definitely hope that our kids keep traveling – while in college, post-college/pre-family, and with their kids too. We’re letting them keep all of their frequent flier miles, which should add up to at least 500K per kid by college, so that should be some encouragement right there!
Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers says
What amazing life experiences your children will have had, a few bumps along the way are unavoidable when travelling and seeing how you handle them is a great learning experience for them too.
Haha this made me laugh, although I am not sure this was intentional.. and at the end of the post, the recommended post to read is, The benefits of traveling with kids. The irony 🙂 but I guess there are just goods and bads, just like with everything. With four kids, kudos to you for going on despite the hassle!
Eric Stoen says
That’s funny – just saw that too. But it’s true – lots of hassles, but major benefits as well!
I don’t have my own kids and I’m sure they provide a lot of added challenges on the road, but it’s so worth it to expose them to other cultures from a young age. Your kids are so lucky they get to travel with you.
Trisha Velarmino says
I asked myself a lot of times: will I ever be able to travel if I have kids. I don’t know the answer yet but I salute those who can. It’s a tough job but I am sure it’s fun! A lot of family travel blogs make it look easy so it would be really nice if you can post something about the hardships of being a parent on the road!
Dawn Kealing says
Oh my, this post literally made my whole day!! It sounds like traveling with kids can be an adventure in its own! I understand being the youngest, it certainly is tough, especially when you’re the only one who doesn’t want to do what everyone’s voted to do. I think this post is great because people really need to see both sides of everything, it’s not always sunshine and roses. I think as time progresses your daughter will see how lucky she is to be going all around the world, she’ll take advantage of it all! ^_^ Your kids are so cute!! Love the Japanese theme park photo! 🙂
Eric Stoen says
Wow, thanks for the great comment Dawn!
I applaud you in your extended travel with kids! I am not sure I could handle it and would have probably booked the next flight home after losing one! Good for you to stick it out and reap the benefits of family travel! Here’s to many more great adventures, and fewer lost children!
Bobbi Gould says
I’m sorry, but some of this is hilarious to me! LOL Your youngest yelling about the Japanese family– OMG! And the story about losing your kids? I’d cry. It makes me remember why I don’t have kids yet. I lose everything! Terrifying. Great stories here. Thanks for giving it to me straight!
Thanks for sharing–it’s always nice to hear both sides of the spectrum! I can’t even imagine losing a kid like that–so glad you had good outcomes both times–scary! And, that’s amazing you were able to get the car fixed for so little!
Oh man, the stories about losing your child twice made my heart race. You definitely need to check out iTraq+. It uses cellular tracking and GPS to track your luggage (or kids) virtually anywhere in the world. Loved your stories! Safe travels!
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Susanne. Usually I don’t approve promotional comments, but we could definitely benefit from that! I’ll look into it before we head to Europe next summer, or if you want to work with me, just let me know.
First time reader. Great post. Losing a kid is my biggest fear, as I have traveled without my wife a few times, but fingers crossed it has never happened. I dont quite understand why someone would leave a car in neutral. First time I hear that and I grew up in a country where 95% of the cars had manual transmission.
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Nic! I agree on leaving a car in neutral obviously – not sure why they taught it that way in California.
I learned to drive a stick shift in the mid west. We were taught to put it in neutral and set the parking brake. I haven’t driven a stick in 40 years. I learned on a manual with the gear shift on the column. 1960 Chevy my brother named Whoopie.
Eric Stoen says
Wow, you’re the first one to stand up in support of my wife! Good to know she has company. My first car was a 1987 Jeep Cherokee Laredo, manual, but with a standard gear shift. I’ve never driven a car with a column shifter!
I google it cause I couldn’t believe it, but it is real. Haha I can’t think of any benefit of parking in neutral…wonder if there was a good reason.
Love it! We took our kids for six months, backpacking around SE Asia earlier this year. Your article made me smile. Our experience was awesome. But…where’s the romance of four in a bed in a hot room with no air on? Our nightmare moment – having to take my daughter to a clinic following a monkey bite in Bali. I had to do my best sing-song mummy voice to counteract the doctor talking very frankly about rabies implications. Fortunately all was ok but I can empathise with your heart-stopping sentiments. Doesn’t stop us from planning the next trip does it?!
Eric Stoen says
Romance? What’s romance? 🙂 Don’t tell me that about a monkey bite! My daughter loved the monkeys crawling all over her at the Monkey Forest in March. She was getting scratched and nibbled and thought it was the best thing ever. Other people jokingly questioned my parenting. Hmmmmm.
I so appreciate this article. We’ve taken our 2-year-old on numerous trips and flights already and have our fair share of OMG moments to go with those travel memories. We’re expecting Baby #2 in a couple months, and we plan to keep traveling once he arrives. I’m always so happy to read about what’s normal for other travelers with children. Traveling with kids is always worth it, but in those harried moments, it’s nice to know we’re not alone.
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Rachel! Yep, I didn’t want people to think that travel with kids was always perfect by any means. But it’s still worth it! Congratulations on your new baby, and safe travels! Travel definitely gets easier after two years old.
Thank you! I always love to hear that!
My husband and I will be empty-nesters in 4.5 years. We raised three active boys. Travel with them was filled with rambunctious fanfare.
Melissa Conn says
Thank you for your honesty! Hopefully the not-so-little one is no longer trying so hard to escape. So far our only issue, though it’s a bit of a serious one, is that our 5.5yo is extremely picky about eating AND prone to low blood sugar. So while we may bring an assortment of snacks with us during the day, he often rejects them. Hopefully that will change as we travel around the world and he’s pushed to adapt. His little sister seems to have no trouble!
On our recent Europe trip he would be so crazed and on the border of a meltdown by meal times that he’d immediately ask the friendly waiters for a bottle of apple juice and chug it — only to get a massive sugar spike and be a total wreck! My potential solution, which sounds crazy, will be to give him ice cream MORE often. I figure that he’ll get the same amount of sugar (bad) but some protein and fat (good) as well and that will help his regulate better. Plus, every kid is happier after they’ve had an ice cream. And travel should always be FUN – for us and the kids.
Fortunately outside of that issue and a frequent preference for the stroller rather than their own legs, our kids are in a relative sweet spot for travel. Old enough to be over the “baby needs” and do great on flights, but young enough not to complain too heartily as long as we’re somewhat sensitive to things like hunger and heat.
Jean Farrell says
I’m so glad that you wrote this. I sometimes get tired of all the perfection on family instagram accounts. Traveling with kids is an absolute joy, but it is also really hard sometimes. I took my first international trip with my son when he was 5 months old, and he’ll be 16 soon. We have a lot of stories. Not all good! (But the bad ones are the best ones.)
One thing that I’m so lucky about is that my kids fight a lot less when we travel than they do at home. My twin daughters fight incessantly at home, but get along well on trips. And my son mostly ignores his sisters at home, but really hangs out with them on trips, when he becomes what they call “vacation Conor,” their favorite Conor of all.
Jessie Wong says
love this post, this truly is all of us traveling with little ones!
i often think what my alternate caption would be on my beautiful instas/posts #traveltruth
Eric Stoen says
Thanks Jessie! Instagram should allow for two distinct captions, the idealized one and the truthful one!
Such a reassuring read! We had a great trip to Sicily with our kids this year and felt incredibly smug about our travelling prowess. Then we had a disasterous weekend in York which totally brought us back to reality!
Esther Maranian says
Really enjoyed this! So honest but hilarious at the same time! The worst things that have happened to us? Our first morning in Dubai, my toddler trapped his fingers down the side of lift door. Luckily, no harm was done and he learned a valuable lesson about not touching moving doors. He also had a major melt down in Mexico when he insisted he was jumping in the adult pool and I stopped him because he couldn’t actually swim. He behaves well most of the time, think it helps that he doesn’t have siblings, but yeah there are times where his behaviour make me look like a crazy woman. Good thing the positives way outweigh the negatives!
Eric Stoen says
Ha! I think we all look crazy at some point. The only people who judge us are non-parents who forget that they were kids once.
Jaclyn Sutton says
Really enjoyed your article. We’ve traveled all over with our kids since they were each 3 months. You even inspired us to book our upcoming trip to Easter Island this June with a 4 and 8 year old! A year ago we lost the then 3 yr old at the Peace Lodge is Costa Rica while my daughter hubby and I lined up to try cow milking, the 3 yr old went on a self tour of the farmhouse area. That was a high adrenaline 5 mins of running around like a crazy person. I now make both kids wear engraved bracelets with our cell phones and email. I figure no matter the country someone would be able to email us.
Eric Stoen says
Your travels sound great Jaclyn! The bracelets are a good idea. We’ve talked about doing that, or wristbands or even just using a Sharpie when we travel, but haven’t. But also, our kids all have cell phones now, so they can just call us!