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Traveling with Children: Get More From Your Trips

Guest post from my wife

Judy wrote this 17 years ago; the advice is still on point. Enjoy.

In my experience, international travel has always brought out the very best in my kids.  Sure, at home I have days where I can’t imagine even taking them around the corner to the local park, but put them in another country and watch them rise to the occasion.  Since we have traveled to some pretty far-flung destinations with our three children, starting as early as two years old, I wanted to add a few thoughts:

1. If you can, involve the kids in pre-trip planning.

Get them to help you look through websites, picture books, and field guides to learn what you are about to see. Check out fiction books from the library that deal with your destination– whether it be Anne Of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island, or a picture book about the Okavango Delta like Honey, Honey, Lion!, books can set the scene for what you are about to see. In the non-fiction shelves of the Children’s section of your local library, there will be a state-by-state, country-by-country set of books about destinations. See if you can get them to put in opinions about what they want to see. Sometimes they have strong negative feelings, too– my 8 year old staunchly refused to go anywhere near a volcano on our trip with Costa Rica Expeditions. We’re saving that for our next visit.

2. Never underestimate the value of postcards and local guides

Upon arrival in the airport, while you are waiting for bags, one parent can pop into a newsstand and buy a few postcards of places you are likely to see.  You can use these as a sort of treasure hunt when motivation seems to drag along.  In Costa Rica, you can buy wonderful waterproof field guides for the rainforest in the airport, and the kids can use them all over the country.  This also works at the entrance to a museum– stop by the gift store and buy postcards of things within, and then embark on a treasure hunt to find everything.

3. Have them record the experience however they can.

Travel art kits can be wonderful for long bus rides– think watercolor pencils and a brush with a water-fillable base to draw that scarlet macaw or statue.  Bring along a small scrapbook and a glue stick and tiny pair of blunt scissors and let them glue brochures and maps right into their journals.  Encourage some time each day for reflection, drawing, and writing about what you saw and what made you laugh.

4. I have a bag of tricks...

…actually I have a set of opaque drawstring bags, each with its own trick– a card game, some dice for Yahtsee, new crayons, finger puppets, the above mentioned art supplies, a favorite snack. I keep these hidden in my day pack. I try to label these with some incomprehensible code so the kids don’t know what’s in them.  At low points or that excruciating 15 minutes after you order in a restaurant before you are served, grab a bag and voila! a new activity that they didn’t know was there.

5. Technology:

Unplugging is good once you get to your destination, with one possible exception.  Audiobooks and quiet music on an ipod can buy a kid some space from an irritating sibling in a hotel room or bus ride.  Mine have to ask to plug in to their headphones, but sometimes if gives them a little regrouping time and reduces pre-dinner whining.

6. Language:

Every child should know “Hello”,  “Thank You”, and “Please” in the language of your host country.  It is amazing what doors those words can open.  Encourage your kids to ask questions on buses and subways, in gardens and on tours.  If you are lucky enough to have a wonderful guide like CRE provides, get your kids to come up with three questions for the next day.  Four years later, my three can all give you the names of the tour guides who introduced them to the magic of the rainforest.

7. Money:

For some reason, our kids lose teeth in every country we visit.  It’s great fun to have the tooth fairy bring new coins.  Older children should try to manage currency and purchasing in the host country as well– from making change to calculating tips, they can learn a lot from being involved.  Our 11 year old learned the art of barter in Zimbabwe and has never been the same.


8. Play

This is important for everyone in our family.  We need to remember to schedule some time to just play.  My kids have made friends in playgrounds all over the world with kids who don’t speak a word of their language, and had a great time.  Our trip to London (when our oldest was four) involved a visit to two playgrounds a day, often with a picnic.  A swim in the pool can accomplish the same thing.

Four years after a great guided trip with Costa Rica Expeditions, my kids are torn between wanting to return to places they have been, and wanting to explore new territory.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also love the 1-minute nature videos that Judy publishes to

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