By Katherine Scott Jones
Last summer my husband and I toured Southeast Asia for the first time: 10 flights and five countries in 21 days. Along the way we sat at table with Muslims breaking Ramadan fast; squirmed through Vietnam’s claustrophobia-inducing Cu Chi tunnels; and were guided around Angkor Wat’s temples by a survivor of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide. Any one of which makes for interesting watercooler conversation, but the bit that invariably catches people’s attention? We did it all with our school-age children.
We’re an ordinary, middle-class, American family, and we have been traveling the globe together since our kids were 4 and 2. More importantly, we’ve enjoyed it enough to make it a budgeting priority. Now, a decade since our first foray, we’ve set foot as a family in 14 countries on 4 continents.
Why undertake the expense and, yes, sometimes stress of international travel with children? We do it because we believe worldwide travel shapes our family’s values the way little else can. With proper planning, it’s also a lot of fun.
It seems we’re not alone in thinking this way. Travel agencies have noticed a spike in family travel, enough to tweak popular packages to accommodate kids. According to Ralph Foulds, Director of United Kingdom based Encounters Travel, families with kids between ages 6 and 12 hit a sweet spot for travel. “That’s when children are starting to learn properly about other countries and places at school,” he said. “They’re learning about mountain ranges, deserts, big rivers, and different religions and cultures. Taking children to different countries during this time gives parents a chance to open their eyes to the reality of what they’re learning.”
American geography means that our kids tend to be more isolated and less traveled than counterparts in other Westernized countries. CNN recently underscored this fact when it reported that only 30 percent of Americans hold passports, compared to Canada’s 60 percent and the U.K.’s 75 percent. Yet few things more quickly educate kids as to how others live than to see it for themselves.
Kirsetin Morello, a Grand Rapids writer, first traveled abroad with her family when her boys were 8, 6, and 3 years old. “One of the things my kids realize when we travel in Europe is how big Americans live,” she says. “Everything is on a bigger scale: our kitchens, bathrooms, cars. The experience broadens their perspective in general.”
Which also opens opportunities for parents to talk about entitlement. “It’s very easy for kids who live comfortably to desire every new thing,” Morello says. “I don’t think world travel is the only answer to combating that, but it can be a part of it. If your kids are seeing you make certain choices at home so you can spend that money to travel, it teaches that experiences are more important than things.”
Parents may also recognize travel as a means to expose the world’s great needs, while inviting kids to be a part of the solution. “It reinforces what we see here at home,” Morello said. “When we travel, the need doesn’t disappear. There’s no place you go that you don’t see poverty. It opens the conversation and reinforces that we all need the same basic things: food, shelter, people who love us. It doesn’t matter where you live. It’s a big problem, something they can work on here as well as on a broader scope.”
My husband and I have learned to appreciate how travel stretches us and the way it strengthens family bonds. For example, on a recent trip to Scandinavia we missed our connection, causing a rerouting that finally delivered us to Copenhagen well past our planned arrival time. Meanwhile, our checked luggage went astray and our rental car was given away. By the time we got everything sorted, we found ourselves navigating an unfamiliar city in the dark in an unfamiliar rental with full bladders, empty stomachs, and mind-numbing fatigue. We spent hours circling the city, trying to find our reserved bed and breakfast before settling for the first hotel that would take us in. The bright side? The whole miserable experience forced us to lean on each other for wisdom, cheer, and perspective, all of which brought us closer together.
Travel also offers unique opportunities for Christian families to live out their faith. When we were lost in Copenhagen, for instance, my husband and I prayed aloud for God’s provision, allowing us to put faith into action in full view of our kids.
Photographers Brian Tausend and his wife, Me Ra Koh, have known similar experiences with their kids. “It’s part of living in the unknown with God,” Tausend said. For them, travel becomes a way of leveling the family playing field. “We fell in love with exploring and doing things together for the first time,” Tausend said. “It put us on common ground. It wasn’t just mom and dad doing things, but the kids doing it too. For the kids to see us being vulnerable gave them a voice and a confidence they didn’t have before.”
Their experiences birthed the Adventure Family Show (YouTube.com/AdventureFamily). “The purpose of our show is to inspire families to unplug from life’s demands and take an adventure together,” Koh said. “To experience cultures not their own. A lot of us are afraid to experience what’s not familiar. We want people to see that differences can be beautiful, not just threatening.”
Exposure to different cultures expands our perception of “normal” in people, places, and food. No wonder Mark Twain observed that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
More good news about traveling abroad: “It’s not as expensive as you think,” Tausend said. “The most expensive part is airfare. Lodging isn’t as expensive if you go with alternatives, like a rented apartment or staying outside the big cities.” Renting an apartment also lets families shop at local markets for preparing meals themselves, often for considerably less than in the United States.
In addition, Koh encourages parents to think about where they can go for the experience they want. “Pick places that have shorter flights,” she said. “Costa Rica is a short flight that will get you a jungle experience. Or do you want to spend a month in Thailand or six days in Maui?”
The effort is worth it, Tausend said, most of all for what different cultures will give back to your family. “The things we get access to when we’re with our kids—from the airlines to the local people—they want to invest in the future, in the kids,” he said. “Travel is so much richer with kids. Our hope is that families will go out and explore the world and see it as a friendlier place.”
Katherine Scott Jones is a Pacific Northwest novelist and blogger.
PLAN LIKE A PRO
• Pick and plant. “The best thing to do when traveling with kids for the first time is to pick one place and plant,” Koh said. “You’ll have the experience of being together and not running a million miles around. People make this mistake all the time, of thinking, this is the only trip we’re going to take, and try to cram it all in.”
• Think family friendly. You might choose the U.K., for example, to give the advantage of a common language and similar culture. “We picked a place that was age appropriate,” Koh said. “Thailand has jungles, which kids love, and a culture that loves children.”
• Research. “I strongly prefer starting with actual books,” Morello said. “The Internet has a ton of great resources, but it can be overwhelming. Go to your bookstore and look in the travel section. Those books have very well laid out explanations of where to go, what you might consider doing, and cost. Then go to the Internet and research your options there.”
• Prioritize. “Which sights and experiences are most important?” Morello asked. “With kids, there’s a good chance you won’t get to them all. Prioritize your top five, knowing you might get to two.”
• Schedule downtime. “You may think your kids need only one afternoon off, but you are wrong,” Morello says. “You’re making a sacrifice when you travel with kids and need to include time when everyone can just chill out. It will make the whole trip happier for everyone.”