Tips for planning a first international trip with kids.
Travel with kids can be stressful even when it’s a short domestic trip so it’s not surprising that parents worry that an international trip is more than they can handle. With the right planning and the right attitude though traveling abroad with kids can be just as easy as a vacation closer to home. Here are a few tips that will help with the planning of a first international family trip.
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Choosing a Destination
The first, and likely most important, decision that you will have to make is choosing a destination. There is a very short list of places that I have no desire to visit for safety reasons but other than that pretty much any place that you would want to go can be kid-friendly even if it’s not a mainstream destination.
1. The first thing parents should ask themselves is whether there is a destination at the top of their travel wish list. Our planning process generally starts with a list of destinations that my husband and I would like to visit – either places that we haven’t been before or places that we would like to return to with the kids.
2. If your kids are older then consult them to see what destinations they are most interested in visiting. When our daughters were younger my husband and I decided where we were going on vacation but now that they are older we either ask them for suggestions or give them a few choices and solicit their opinions. With older school-aged kids and teenagers you will find that they will be much more cooperative while traveling if they have had some input into choosing the destination and the activities.
3. Once you have selected a destination then find some age-appropriate reading material about the destination for the kids. One of my favourite ways to prepare for travel is to read about the destination so I have always tried to find books for my kids to read as well in order to build excitement about the trip. When my girls were young I had to search high and low to find books but there are now several series of non-fiction guide books written specifically for kids. One of my favourites is the Lonely Planet’s Not-For-Parents series which includes a great selection of city and country guides. I also like to find fiction that is set in our vacation destination as a great novel or storybook helps create a sense of familiarity with the city or country being visited.
Trip Preparation Details
There are a fair number of not-so-glamorous details that have to be attended to as well in order to ensure a successful international travel experience.
4. If either you or your children need passports then apply for them at least a couple of months prior to your travel date. You want to be certain that you have them in hand well before your travel dates so that you aren’t panicking that they won’t arrive in time. Applying for them with plenty of time to spare also ensures that if something goes wrong in the process that there is time to fix it. If any family members already have passports then confirm that they do not expire until at least 3 months after your return date. (Check the specific requirements of the country that you will be visiting as some may require a longer period of time.) If there is any other documentation such as travel VISAs required to travel to your destination then be sure to have that paperwork completed ahead of time as well.
5. Consult your family doctor or attend a travel health clinic to confirm whether there are any recommended vaccinations or medication needed for travel to your destination. Don’t leave this until the last minute either as there is often a period of time required for vaccinations or medications to take effect. The Canadian Government recommends that travelers visit a health care provider or travel health clinic six weeks prior to travel to review immunization history, make sure immunizations are up-to-date, discuss any health concerns related to the trip, and assess needs based on where you plan to travel and what you plan to do.
6. Always notify your credit card company in advance of where and when you will be traveling so that they don’t flag your card for unusual activity. You definitely don’t want to have your card denied when traveling abroad.
7. Arrange necessary pet sitting services in advance. Remember that several months notice may be required for popular travel periods such as holidays and spring breaks.
8. Consider whether you need to purchase travel insurance.
9. Book transportation from your home to the airport and from the airport you are arriving at to your hotel. Although it’s less expensive to take public transportation, we often arrange transportation ahead of time when we are traveling abroad because when traveling with exhausted kids after an overnight flight it is generally easier even if it costs more. If your children require car seats and you won’t be traveling with your seats then confirm that seats will be provided if you are being transported in a passenger vehicle.
10. Purchase some foreign currency so that you will have cash on hand when arriving at your destination. If you are Canadian then you can use the recently-launched CIBC Foreign Cash Online service which makes it easy to cross this item off your pre-trip To Do list. The service which is available to both CIBC and non-CIBC clients offers access to up to 75 currencies which may be purchased conveniently online and securely delivered to your home, to any CIBC branch in Canada or to Toronto Pearson Airport. Existing CIBC clients can order foreign cash online via their online banking accounts, their account will be debited immediately and they can choose from the three delivery options. Non-CIBC clients can order via CIBC’s e-Commerce portal, pay via credit card and choose to have the currency delivered either to their home or to the Toronto Pearson Airport. In either case, delivery generally takes two-to-three days for most urban branch or home locations and three-to-five business days for most rural locations. That’s one less thing to have to run around and get down before heading to the airport!
Introducing a Foreign Language
11. Unless your family already speaks more than one language then you aren’t likely to become fluent prior to an international trip but it is fun to try learning at least a few words and there are a number of resources out there to help. Anywhere that we have traveled we have always found locals that could speak English and help us out but it’s a good idea to learn at least a few phrases in the language of the country you are visiting anyway. You will feel more confident getting around with even a few words but more importantly it demonstrates that you are making an effort as a guest in another country. I have always told my kids that, at the very least, they need to know how to say “hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and where’s the toilet” in the local language!
Planning for a Long Flight
12. Long flights can be difficult for anyone and can be especially trying for young children so parents need to attempt to make the experience as fun as possible. Pack your carry-on bags with anything that you think might help pass the time on the flight – books, electronic games, toys, portable devices for watching pre-loaded movies – whatever you might need to be comfortable on the flight. When my kids were young I always had surprises for flights – as they got older we would bring along a couple of new books or items to keep them busy on the flight. If it’s an overnight flight then be sure to have what you need to try and settle down for some sleep – a favourite stuffed animal, cozy blanket etc. and even pajamas if you think changing for bed will help younger children follow a bedtime routine and sleep on the plane.
13. If your children aren’t frequent fliers then it might help to prepare them for what happens during security screening at the airport so they aren’t confused or frightened by the process. When my older daughter was 4 or 5 she became very upset at airport security in Chicago because they insisted on taking her doll away from her and putting it through screening with our bags and she didn’t think it was going to be returned to her. If we had explained ahead of time then we could probably have avoided that scene altogether.
Dealing with Jet Lag
14 . Jet lag is an unfortunate side effect of traveling great distance and everyone has their own method for dealing with it. This is what works for us. We try to fly overnight when traveling to Europe from North America so that we are able to get some sleep on the plane and arrive in the morning. Once we arrive we drop our bags at the hotel and head out for a walk. This helps us to become familiar with the neighbourhood and the fresh air and exercise during daylight hours helps keep us going until late in the afternoon. We have an early dinner on our first night and stay up as long as we can which generally means until early evening and then head to bed for a good night’s sleep. We get up at a normal time the next morning and plan a day of light sightseeing for our first full day. I avoid planning to do anything strenuous or booking any tours for the first day as it is impossible to predict how tired or grumpy everyone might be. Usually after a day or two we have adjusted to the time zone.
Planning a Family-Friendly Itinerary
15. When planning an international family trip you don’t have to limit yourself to so-called “kid-friendly” attractions but you do need to plan with kids in mind.
16. Don’t plan to do too much in one day or everyone will be exhausted and grumpy.
17. Don’t worry if you can’t see and do everything – it’s more important to have an enjoyable vacation than to check everything off a list and you can always return some day.
18. Alternate activities such as museum visits with play time at outdoor attractions or parks so kids can blow off steam.
19. Limit the number of times that you change locations – kids will be happier to stay put for a few days and you will be less stressed.
20. Include visits to attractions or sites that relate to your children’s interests or to topics that they are studying in school. We have visited quite a number of Harry Potter attractions during our travels because of one daughter’s obsession with everything Potter-related and many of the activities on our Mediterranean cruise seemed to revolve around Percy Jackson and the Olympians as our younger daughter was immersed in that series at the time of our trip.
During Your International Travels
21. Consider renting an apartment if you are going to be in one location for at least a few days. Not only will you save money and have more space for your family but you will feel like you are part of a neighbourhood and live more like a local while you are there. Cooking your own meals will mean that you have to visit the local grocer or market which will lead to all sorts of cultural discoveries and the opportunity to practice your language skills in real life situations.
22. Encourage your kids to try local foods instead of gravitating to familiar choices (and model that behaviour yourself). You might be surprised to find that even kids who are the pickiest of eaters at home might be willing to try new foods when they are traveling. My younger daughter can be quite picky but absolutely loved the food in Paris. To the delight of our waiter in a bistro one evening, she loudly exclaimed that “even the water tastes better in Paris!”
23. Take a tour with a local guide. Sightseeing on your own using a guidebook is fine but it is amazing how much you can learn from a local guide who wants to share stories about his or her home with you. A good guide will engage the kids in the sights of a city and can bring historical attractions to life. Some of our most memorable international family travel experiences have taken place in the company of a local guide.
24. Take advantage of any opportunity to interact with local kids. Parks are a great place to take kids to play and language tends not to be a barrier at all.
Record Memories in Travel Journals
25. Have your kids record memories of their trip in a travel journal. Journals are an excellent way to encourage kids to contemplate what they have seen and done on their holidays and they become treasured mementos of family travels.
Have you traveled internationally with your kids? Do you have any tips to add?
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*DISCLAIMER: This post is brought to you by CIBC Foreign Cash Online TM. All thoughts, opinions are my own.
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