In recent weeks I have been planning a new season of travel and this one promises to be busy: Winter holidays in the States, Chinese New Year in Bali, and a photography trip to Kenya in February. Travel planning always gets me thinking about how and why we travel, and how great it has been for us, as a family, to travel with Vivian these past six years.
Six years ago, my husband and I faced a choice: to sign on to a travel-heavy lifestyle, even though we would be accompanied at all times with our child, then newborn, or to stay at home and travel no more than absolutely necessary. Mind you, some travel was unavoidable, because we had just moved from the west coast of the U.S. to South Korea on a three-year work contract. As expats, a yearly home leave was underwritten by the company, so some travel was expected and unavoidable. The choice, however, was in what to do in the long months between visits home.
Travel, or stay home?
Back then, chances were that if we chose to travel, we would suffer. Not only were we inexperienced travelers, but we were inexperienced parents. With only a few trips to Europe and Central America under our belts before our daughter was born, we were by no means complete neophytes, but neither were we seasoned travelers. We didn’t know how to plan itineraries, choose the most comfortable flights, get the most out of our mileage plan, or leave non-essentials behind. Neither did we know exactly who was the little person we were bringing with us, what her demands would be, what exactly we would do in an emergency, and whether the places we were going were suitable (or even safe) for a child. Back then, we didn’t know how to parent or how to travel, and suffering seemed the most likely outcome.
Not to mention that we had also heard nightmare family travel stories from our expat friends: stories about babies who cried the entire 13 hours between Tokyo and San Francisco, about dangerous and terrifying rides in taxis with no seat belts, about dodgy water and food that just couldn’t be palatable to a preschooler. Then there were the stories of actual hardship: medical emergencies in medically under-served places, transportation strikes that left an entire family stranded in the airport for days, natural disasters, evacuations.
Despite all the apparent reasons to stay at home, we chose instead to travel. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. True, there are times when I fantasize about independent travel with like-minded adults, but looking back on six years of travel with a small child, twelve flights across the Pacific Ocean and 17 countries visited, I wouldn’t change a thing. We have learned some lessons along the way, and some very good reasons to bring your child with you when you embark.
1. Travel with a child helps you to slow down. Families with young children simply cannot travel for more than a day or two at an adult pace. We quickly learned to adjust our expectations, and itinerary, to make sure that our child gets what she needs to thrive; just like at home, she needs simple things like adequate rest, unstructured play time, and quiet time with her mom and dad. To make sure her needs are met, I expect to accomplish less in a day. We plan to visit fewer attractions, and we expect to go slower, and spend a little more time at some (but less time at others, like art museums!). By my personal rule of thumb, if I can see all I want to of an area in two days with another adult, when I am with my child I plan four days. Twice as much time means I get to see what I want to see, and my girl gets all her naps, playtime, and meals.
2. Travel with children helps you to connect with locals in new ways. No matter where you go, people love children. In Asia, where most people have dark hair and dark eyes, my daughter is a standout with her blonde curls and blue eyes. Many people just want to touch her and look at her (and of course, photograph her). The attention can be unnerving, and at times unwelcome, but if you are open to it, those moments of gawking can turn into moments of real connection and even form the basis for an enduring friendship.
3. Travel with children opens doors. Those unexpected moments of connection and friendship can turn into travel moments that lifetime memories are made of. For instance, my family and I were invited to dinner at a traditional village in rural Yunnan province in southern China, and ours was the first group of foreigners to ever visit this particular village. The opportunity arose because my daughter, who speaks Mandarin, was willing to be interviewed briefly on the local TV news. The journalist was so grateful that he invited us to his village for dinner that night, a night which turned into a celebration and a village event.
4. Travel with children can bring unexpected perks. It might seem unfair to travelers without children, but if you are lucky, having a baby or child in arms can get you bumped to the front of long queues at the airport, taxi stand, and museums. Keep in mind this isn’t your right as a traveler with a child, but it can certainly make that last hour at the airport more pleasant for everyone involved. And that free ice cream or pony ride can make all the difference.
5. Travel with children takes you to places you might not go otherwise. We try to keep an open itinerary when we travel with our daughter, planning each day as we go so that we have time for impromptou choices, like a day at the local circus in Austria or an unscheduled stop at a traditional puppet show in Japan. These may not be must-do activities that top every traveler’s list, but they are the kind of little pleasures that give an extra dose of local flavor and get us off the tourist road.
Traveling with our daughter has turned us into the kind of travelers we never were before: we are slower, more thoughtful, and more willing to think off the tourist track. Six years of experience has helped us to be more flexible, more open to opportunity, and more spontaneous. Just as parenting has challenged and enriched us in unimagined ways, so has travel with our child. Often challenging, often spontaneous, but always rewarding and memorable.