Call me crazy, but I love traveling with my kids! Yes, jet lag is a pain with toddlers and the midair-meltdown-potential is pretty high. I’ve heard the objections (“but they won’t remember the trip!”) and navigated airport tantrums. However, my husband and I have found that the benefits for our children’s growth and learning far outweigh the challenges. Since life with toddlers and preschoolers at home is no walk in the park, why not go on an adventure instead?
We’ve traveled to five countries and many U.S. states with our now 4-year-old daughter since she was an infant. Next month, we will add our 1-year-old son to the mix. We’ll travel the 23 hours to Taiwan to celebrate a family wedding and see friends from the nine months that we lived there.
With the right perspective and preparation, we’ve found international family travel pays dividends in our children’s development and connection as a family. Keep reading for our reasons why we travel and survival tips for those loooong long-haul flights.
The 3 C’s of Why We Travel
There are as many reasons to travel as there are people — and they change with different seasons. As a mother of young children, my “why” is different than when I was a teenager living in Europe. We prioritize travel for our children to: 1) encourage their unique cultural identity, 2) foster curiosity and 3) increase our family’s connection to each other and the world.
There really is no better substitute for deepening a child’s cultural identity than living or visiting the country of their heritage. My husband and I spend a lot of time trying to be intentional about raising our multicultural children. We want them to know and embrace their unique cultural heritage. Traveling to a country of their heritage not only exposes children to the outward parts of culture (i.e. language, foods, clothing) but also to the less visible parts like values, humor and beliefs. We lived in Taiwan when my daughter was 18 months old. I credit this to her strong connection to her Chinese heritage. Now at age four, she will often introduce herself by her name and “did you know I’m Chinese, too! I’m from Taiwan!” This is invaluable to us.
Curiosity is a foundation to a lifelong love of learning. Traveling with young children provides tons of opportunities to foster that curiosity! They get to experience new smells, sights, sounds, and foods. Kids are naturally aware of the world around them, and when that world looks different, they notice. When my daughter was two years old, she was commenting about the differences between Thailand, where we visited, and Taiwan where we lived. For us parents, it’s such a joy to see the world again through our children’s eyes.
Even though my daughter doesn’t remember a lot of the places she visited when she was two years old, she remembers the excitement and feels a connection to these countries. When she meets someone from Hong Kong or Thailand, she is excited to learn more about the country she visited. Movies and books come alive to her now because she has seen herself in pictures in those places. Travel also brings our family closer together through the good times as well as the challenging times. Even though the pace can be a bit slower with children (and include more naps!) it’s often when we slow down that we learn the most about a new culture.
Survival Tips when Traveling Internationally with Small Children
- Set your expectations: Travel day will be hard with kids but time is linear (yes, even flying across time zones) and “this too shall pass.” Even if it’s the worst day of your year, at the end of it you get to start your adventures. Or conversely, you get to return to your comfy bed at home.
- Help your child set expectations: There are lots of exciting parts of travel for children (watching planes takeoff, TVs on backs of chairs, and for my kids, JUICE!) but it’s good to help set expectations for your children too. We start explaining to my four year old weeks beforehand about what the travel day will look like. She has started to tell people “on the plane I get to play, eat, sleep, and eat again!”
- Bring extra clothes for everyone including adults: I learned this lesson the hard way when our lovely complimentary ANA wine spilled all over me, and I met my new Taiwanese relatives smelling like alcohol…
- One packing tip from our great pediatrician: If you are going to borrow a crib from a hotel or friend, bring your own fitted sheet because: 1) it’s a lot softer than the harsh bleached ones, and 2) the smell will remind your child of home and help them sleep better.
- Good Traveler Awards: During my childhood, my mom was the queen of traveling with three kids from Germany to Egypt and everywhere in between. She created a great tradition of GTAs, or Good Traveler Awards. When my sisters and I were well behaved, she would magically pull out a wrapped gift. We would squeal with delight! Usually they were small things like coloring books or silly putty. But once in awhile they would be our favorite Adventures in Odyssey Cassettes. We would listen to these stories for hours. We’ve used GTAs for my daughter on trips to Asia. They have been a wonderful reward for good behavior. And let’s be honest, they’re also a bribe when the going gets tough! This time, I am going to also put little dollar store finds in plastic Easter eggs for small surprises throughout the trip.
- A tip from my neighbor who has made the US-Japan trip multiple times with small children and without her husband (saint!) is to stretch every activity to last as long as possible. Cheerios for a snack? Line them up, count them, make a shape on your (cleaned) tray and then eat one at a time. Fruit by the Foot? Pull it out slowly, read the paper, eat a bite then tell a joke and repeat!
I would love to hear your travel stories with your kids you in the comments below!