5 Tips for Long-Term Travel With Kids
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If you're a parent of a school-aged kid, you likely know the summer camp drill: Wait anxiously for the camp's enrollment date window, load up the website and find out the options your kids would love are ... sold out.
Before you go crazy scouring all of the camps out there, I wanted to share the option of spending the money differently: "Camp Mom (or Dad)." Granted, this means you may have to have the time off work as well, so it isn't exactly the same as summer camp, but in some ways it is better. My family has already completed three sessions of Camp Mom and I can’t wait to do it again next summer.
Our recent family travels have included extended trips in Asia, South America and Europe, where we are returning next year. We plan our family outings for both kids and my husband, but he returns home after the first two weeks. For the remainder of the time, it's just me and the kids. (If you're wondering how old your child should be before an international vacation, consider what TPG readers have to say.)
As a budget guideline, I use the average day camp rate in the DC area of $400 per kid per week. We tack Camp Mom on the end of our annual family vacation, so my budget of $800 per week needs to cover hotel, local transportation and activities for one adult and two kids. This is totally doable using miles and points.
I hear from a lot of folks regarding anxieties related to extended travel with kids. Now that I have a few trips under my belt, I am happy to share lessons learned the hard way. They fall into two categories: what to think about before you go and what to know once you're on the road.
Before You Go
There are plenty of things you'll want to be aware of before diving right into your own Camp Mom/Dad session.
1. Minimize Transitions
I’m in the process of planning our fourth extended international family trip. This one is to Spain and Portugal, places the kids have never been. There’s so much we want to do! However, now that I’m booking day by day, I’m keeping my travel mantra in mind: minimize transitions.
When I recap our trips, I try to document the failures as well as the successes and almost every failure I can remember involves the movement from one location to another. We’ve missed the Eurostar, raced with the kids and bags at top speed to make a three-minute train connection, scrambled for flights and gotten lost in rental cars. Mishaps always seem to happen when we’re loaded with luggage and stressed to make a deadline.
So, I go out of my way not to move once we’re set up in a location. This means I schedule activities based on what’s a doable day trip from our home base, and I plan our home base according to what we want to do. It takes more work on the front-end and some flexibility on what you see (and skip), but I find it’s definitely worth it.
For example: In Japan, we had six nights to plan and wanted to see Kyoto and Nara. However, we stayed in neither. Instead, I picked a hotel in Osaka, which was an easy train ride from both. We stayed there six nights instead of jumping around. Osaka was not only half the cost of Nara and Kyoto, but it also meant we didn't have to move our entire caravan. The short train rides to explore other places were totally worth it.
Our last extended trip lasted six weeks and included Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. In six weeks, we only changed lodging six times (not including airport overnights). Because of this, we covered less ground than we could have, but we enjoyed what we did see much more. We had more time to marvel at the Milky Way in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, more time to hike in Iguazu Falls, Argentina, and more time for the kids to meet local children at playgrounds.
2. Space = Luxury
TPG has covered timeshare rentals and Airbnb at length, but I want to highlight them in this conversation about extended travel with kids. In our family, lack of space quickly turns all of us cranky and just plain miserable. If I'm staying in a destination a week or more, I try to get a bedroom for each kid. At the very least, I get a two-bedroom condo so parents and kids each have their own space.
3. Anticipate That Things Will Go Wrong
Parasites in Panama, tummy bugs in Thailand, kidney stones in the Canaries and a broken elbow at Disney World are a small sampling of the calamities that have befallen us on the road. However, none of them entirely derailed our travels because before we left, I bought medical travel insurance. I highlight "medical" travel insurance because while cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offer a generous package of travel benefits and The Platinum Card® from American Express even offers medical evacuation on trips less than 90 days, they may not cover every situation. No insurance program is perfect, but I've had success with Allianz. In my case, Allianz paid a $5,000, 24-page hospital bill, written entirely in Spanish, in 13 days.
In addition to buying insurance, I always check for Western standard medical care before I choose a destination. For my last trip, I knew that a Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital was in Santiago before we might have needed it in a hurry.
One thing threw me for a loop, so I'm warning you: Have a plan for what happens if you get sick. On our extended Asian trip, my daughter got tonsillitis in Hoi An, Vietnam. That was unpleasant, especially because antibiotics didn't come in kid's sizes so my 8-year-old had to swallow horse pills. (We ended up dissolving them in Orange Fanta.) However, it wasn't scary because I knew where to find Western medicine and because I was in charge.
What was scary was waking up at 2am four days later in Hong Kong with a high fever. As the sole parent traveling with an 8 and 11-year-old, I was flying without a net. In another situation, I might have given it 24 hours before calling a doctor but, in this case, I had one in my hotel room by 10am that morning. The diagnosis: bronchitis. The treatment: four different types of medicines. The bill: $400, again paid by travel insurance right away. However, it would have been worth every penny even out of my own pocket.
On Your Trip
Once you're on the ground, there are some tips to be especially aware of.
4. Accept That Long-Term Travel Stinks Sometimes
True confession: I threw my kids’ soccer ball into a ravine in Chile. To be fair, they were warned. Still, it wasn't my finest parenting moment. But, it did get me thinking. Just like nobody shows their outtakes on Instagram, most stories don't tell the truth about long-term family travel. (Even one-off trips can be a trial, but traveling with your kids does get easier.)
There are times long-term family travel legitimately stinks. Not in the needing a hospital kind of way (see above) but in the “if these kids don’t shut up I’m gonna throw their soccer ball off a cliff” kind of way.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from long-term family travel. I just want you to go in with a clear head. Life (probably) isn't perfect at home, and it won't be on the road. But, from time to time, the kids surprise you with their teamwork and their ability to figure it out.
One of my proudest parenting moments came when they were 6 and 9 in Austria. After four weeks on the road, we were all pretty much fried. One afternoon, we were hanging around our vacation rental and the kids were playing near a fountain while I enjoyed a beer. Unbeknownst to me, they hatched a practical joke that ended up with me getting soaked. Instead of getting mad, I was thrilled that they were working together for a common goal: even if that goal involved me needing a change of clothes.
5. Be Prepared for What Happens When They Get Back Home
Another of my proudest parenting moments came a few months later. At my daughter's first-grade parent–teacher conference, her teacher exclaimed, "Your daughter has the most creative imagination!" The teacher then shared how my daughter told her she slept in a castle in Austria, saw the Bastille Day fireworks from the tallest hotel in Paris and used the Giant's Causeway in Ireland as a jungle gym.
I barely kept a straight face while explaining to the teacher, "My daughter doesn't have a great imagination, she has a great memory." All of those adventures did, indeed, happen during her summer vacation and wouldn't have happened if we had just spent that money on a local day camp.