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Stamps in their passport: The highs and lows of travel with children

I’m really excited to welcome my friend Sarah Ruttan as a guest blogger this week. Sarah and I had our first babies 5 weeks apart when we both lived in Tucson, AZ, and we developed a tight bond as we shared the early months of motherhood. Sarah is also an experienced traveler – with and without kids – so I was thrilled that she offered to write about some of her experiences with international travel with young children on Science of Mom. Today, she reflects on why she and her husband choose to travel with their kids and how it has pushed her to the edge of her parenting comfort zone – and maybe beyond. Tomorrow, she shares her best tips for pulling off an international trip with kids. Enjoy, and please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments!

Stamps in their passport: The highs and lows of travel with children

By Sarah Ruttan

Our family recently returned from a trip to Peru. It was our first travel adventure outside of the U.S. with both our son (almost 4) and daughter (16 months). My husband was headed to Peru for a training program and we decided to try making the journey together. Before you congratulate me on successfully traveling to another continent with two kids in tow, I have a confession to make: I’m REALLY tired. And the trip – while a good experience – was only sort-of-fun, in the way that many experiences with young kids end up being: great highs, followed by meltdown lows.

I’m a slow learner when it comes to this parenting thing. I should have recognized that hauling two kids to Peru was going to be a lot of work and that we would arrive back home exhausted, barely able to process the experience, wondering if it was worth it. Yet, I needed to do it to know what my limits are when traveling with kids, to know how much is too much and what the right balance of adventure is for us at this point in our lives.

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The author entertains her 16-month-old daughter on a 1.5 hour boat ride on the Amazon River in Peru.

Let’s be honest – there was an element of “We just want to prove that we can still do this” in our trip planning. Of all the things we missed most about life pre-kids, it was travel, and in particular, international travel. My husband and I have traveled to more than 30 countries. Some of those trips were taken as a couple in our pre-kid days, others on our own before meeting each other. I have fond memories of both my solo trips and our later trips together – carrying a backpack and exploring new cities, seeing foreign landscapes from the window of a train or bus, and clumsily navigating menus in languages we didn’t speak. These journeys expanded my view of the world and my place in it. We talked on those trips about what kind of travel we wanted to do when (if) we had kids.

I remember meeting a family on a trip we took just a couple of years after getting married. We were in rural Ecuador, staying at an inn in the Andes that could only be accessed by riding along a bumpy dirt road for miles in the back of a pickup truck. The family had two elementary school-age kids, and they had all collected dust in the back of the truck together. We shared a table for dinner one evening and commented on what great travelers their kids were. I was in awe of these parents. I wasn’t even a parent yet, but no matter – when the time came, I wanted to give my own kids these same experiences.

I thought of that family often when we were in Peru. Because the truth is, I do want to be that family. I want my kids to understand that there are many ways of living in this world and that we are but a small piece of a much larger puzzle. I want them to experience that feeling of being completely out of place in a new culture and to learn how to persist through the discomfort. I want them to experience the kindness of fellow travelers – and learn to reciprocate with their own small acts of generosity. I want them to go far enough away from home that they will appreciate coming back to it. I want them to collect stamps in their passport.

I’ll look back on the Peru stamps in our passports fondly, but we’ve collectively decided after this trip that we might wait a few more years before we really start amassing stamps in our passports. I’ll admit – it was fun to return to a corner of the world that I’d come to know as an adult traveler and see it again through my kids’ eyes. I remember stepping off the plane in Iquitos, a humid city in the heart of the Amazon. The kids watched from the windows of the bus, fascinated by the moto-taxis and transfixed by the chaos of urban life around them. As the months pass, these are the moments that stand out when I look at pictures.

Photo credit: Sarah Ruttan

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Photos by Sarah Ruttan.

Yet, while traveling, I was caught off guard by how nervous I felt as a parent. I actually had a dream that our toddler fell off a boat and into piranha-filled waters of the Amazon. I am not typically an anxious parent, and I’ve definitely never considered myself a risk-averse traveler. The trip exposed my vulnerability and reminded me that while our kids can enrich travel, they also make it more complicated.

When we’re not traveling abroad, we love to hike and have spent many a happy afternoon on the trail together. This, too, has changed as we’ve had kids. Initially, my son was happy to sleep in a carrier while we completed the same hikes we had done sans kids. As he grew older (and heavier), there were hikes we started to avoid because neither of us wanted to climb 1,000 feet with a 30-pound toddler on our back.

This forced us to begin to shift our mindset about hiking with kids. We’ve slowly accepted that hiking as a family is – at this point – less about exercise and more about time spent together outdoors. It’s about our son setting the pace and finding treasures along the way. The payoff comes on the other end – when your children can begin to hike greater distances and (soon enough) are able to keep up with you (or leave you in the dust!). As with any act of parenting, there may be several years of input before you complete that magical favorite hike together.

Some days it feels like it would certainly be easier to just stop for a few years – hang closer to home, relax at the campsite – instead of coaxing a tired preschooler along a trail. I’ll admit that it’s hard to sometimes move along the trail at a turtle’s pace. However, those family hikes build an appreciation and love for the outdoors with our kids so that when their little legs are able to run up the mountain, they’ll actually want to be there with us. These acts of patience are really about building a family culture – a culture that says “we value spending time together outside.” So it’s still about the hiking, maybe just not so much about the exercise in the short term.

I’ve come to believe that this same idea is true for travel. Sure, we could stay close to home for the first few years. Everyone would sleep more, and lots of potential public meltdowns could be avoided. Yet, we’d be missing something along the way. Those early family trips build our family culture – they give us an opportunity to begin to teach our kids about the world around us, even if in small ways on local outings. Great moments – and memorable family stories – come from these journeys.

Our kids, too, build skills just as in hiking. They learn how to navigate airports, keep themselves occupied while waiting, sleep in strange surroundings, and eat food different from that served in our own house. These journeys ensure that when they’re older, we can plan a dream trip and know what we can reasonably expect of our kids as travelers. It’s still about the trip, but that trip might look pretty different these days.

For now, I’ve decided to meet my kids somewhere in the middle of home and Peru, somewhere where we’re both living a bit outside our comfort zone. Perhaps it is all about continuing to adapt – as travelers and as parents. It’s about pushing our kids a little, but mostly it’s about meeting them where they’re at and recognizing that our limits, tolerance, and comfort zones for travel might be different than they used to be. For this too shall pass, and one day soon I’ll be watching both kids roll their own suitcases past customs in a foreign land.

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Photo by Sarah Ruttan.

Author bio: Sarah Ruttan is a lover-of books, mom, and sometimes-writer. She currently lives and works in Austin, TX. When she’s not hiking and traveling, she works as an educator, where she gets to share her love for great books and writing with her students and fellow teachers.

Have you traveled internationally with your kids? How do you find the right balance between adventure and comforting routines for your family?

24 Comments
  1. Jonathan R #

    My family’s international travel experiences involve visiting family members overseas, so we avoid sense of wonder and alienation that Ms. Ruttan ably describes. I wish she had gone into greater detail about the goals that her family members had for the trip to Peru and whether or not they had achieved them.

    Like

    February 18, 2015
  2. Colleen #

    This was such a great post! My husband and I too are lovers of traveling, and the description of why we now travel with our 5 and 3 year old is perfect: I want my kids to understand that there are many ways of living in this world and that we are but a small piece of a much larger puzzle. I want them to experience that feeling of being completely out of place in a new culture and to learn how to persist through the discomfort.
    Thanks for putting my thoughts into words! Right now we limit to taking them to Costa Rica every other year, along with lots of local hikes and trips around the US to family. For the CR trips, we try to increase the ratios of adults to kids so it’s a little more vacation like, but it’s been so great to have them realize that not everyone speaks English in the world, and yeah, monkeys really can live in the trees around your house, and paved roads are pretty darn nice…I look forward to them getting a little older and going to even more adventurous locations 🙂 Some tips I’d add:
    Rent a place with a kitchen- the local grocery store is an eye-opening place, and home-cooked food can still be exciting with novel ingredients.
    Try not to change places too many times in a trip. We keep it pretty simple, and stay one block from a beach with good waves to surf. It offers plenty of fun day trips to check out baby sea turtles or butterfly parks.
    Teach them how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in the local language. Oh my gosh, people are SO appreciative of that…
    happy trails!

    Like

    February 18, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      I definitely agree with your tips – thanks for sharing. We’ve used VRBO (or similar sites) on many trips. That wasn’t an option for this particular destination, but it’s definitely my preference to have our own kitchen. I think our best trips have been those in which we had one home base for the whole stay from which we could explore – multiple nights in different settings can be exhausting and make it hard to get into a routine.

      Like

      February 20, 2015
  3. We don’t have the money to do much traveling right now, but our child has had a passport since she was about two months old. I’m originally from the States and have settled in Canada, so we make occasional car trips south to visit my family. Our daughter seems to be happy wherever she ends up, but she isn’t always thrilled about the journey. We want to go visit other continents when she’s older and we (hopefully) have more money for it.

    Like

    February 18, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      I think starting small makes sense – and is easier on the budget. I’ve become a huge fan of the family day trip – packing up the car for the day and picking a new destination to explore. It’s allowed us to explore the area where we live without spending much money and everyone gets to return home to their beds to sleep – win, win!

      Like

      February 20, 2015
  4. I really enjoyed this post! Thank you for sharing! Our family has not traveled internationally but flying across country feels that way. It’s not easy. I reside in NJ and we try visit my parents in Tucson every year. But with our youngest being very fussy, we haven’t gone since she was 1 year old. I told myself that we will wait until she was older and finally we are making that trip again in May. She is 3 years old now, potty trained, more manageable, less stuff to pack, etc. I applaud Sarah and her family for sticking it out with such young children. Great post!

    Like

    February 18, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      Thanks for your comment. I think you’re almost in the clear! Both sets of grandparents live out of state (in different states) so we also make multiple domestic-flight trips per year to see family. It’s definitely never easy but will get MUCH easier so hang in there. My personal opinion is that the span of time from 1 year (or when your child starts walking) to 2.5 years is hands down the hardest age-range for flying. Once they hit 2.5 you can begin to reason with them more, and they can sit still for longer periods. This is also about the age when my son could wear a pair of headphones and be occupied for periods of time with a video or game. Good luck and happy travels!

      Liked by 1 person

      February 20, 2015
  5. I really appreciate this read, what a great experience and opportunities for you and your family. I have two small children, but have never traveled with them yet. We are planning a family vacation for early next year and my kids cannot wait to ride an airplane! I, on the other hand, am a bit nervous; not nervous for myself, but nervous for them… how will they react? After reading about your experience, I have realize that I just need to embrace and enjoy this time… it will all be just fine :).

    Like

    February 18, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      Our kids always rise to new challenges, and I’m sure yours will love plane travel. A favorite book at our house for talking about planes is “The Noisy Airplane Ride” by Mike Downs – you might want to read this a few times before flying so your kids know what to expect.

      Like

      February 20, 2015
  6. We have travelled a lot together–with our four kiddos–tis a huge undertaking. Completely worth it. We refuse to put travel dreams off till we’re 65. We’ve volunteered in east africa two years ago, west africa a couple months ago. And Europe too, with lots of American & Canadian travel. Its a different kind of training, travel parent training…hyper organized & kids have to be taught to listen to parents to maintain sanity & safety but the life lived in those trips is worth it;). I travel blog at followthewiedricks.wordpress.com

    Like

    February 18, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      Thanks for sharing – look forward to following your travels and checking out your blog!

      Liked by 1 person

      February 20, 2015
  7. I’m in the middle of a six month international trip with my just-turned-three year old. Your experience rings true to me. I would add that travel experience will also depend on the temperament of the individual child – some are more anxious, some more gregarious, etc, and as parents we know our own children best and can plan accordingly.

    I often find myself wondering what my son will remember from this trip and what lessons it will teach him. I hope that he becomes the kind of person who seeks to understand different cultures and, like you said, to understand that our life at home is just a small sliver of a more diverse whole.

    Like

    February 18, 2015
  8. We are from America but are currently living in Japan with our 4 kids (7, 5, 2, 8 months) and, just since having the new baby, we have gone to Singapore, Bali, Hawaii, and California. The previous year (with ONLY three kids lol) was Australia, Korea, Singapore, England, America, and other parts of Japan. More than half of those trips I did by myself with the kids as we travelled to meet my husband in various parts of the world. I will admit that people think I am crazy to travel so much with so many children but I think bc it has been such a part of all of their lives since a very young age, it just seems like normal life to them to be circumnavigating the globe. I don’t treat the actual traveling (meaning the flight or cross country train ride or whatever) as a big deal and I don’t bring a whole bunch of extra things like bags of toys or anything. They are used to spending time in transit occupying themselves by chatting with each other or reading or something and they don’t expect me to provide them constant entertainment (because, let’s be honest, with that many kids and only one adult, I can pretty much only carry the essentials). I think the key to travel with kids is making traveling light the norm and not getting stressed out or acting like it’s a big deal as a parent. There will inevitably be snafus along the way (flying back from California last week the baby had a blowout diaper so bad that I actually had to wash her hair in the airplane bathroom) but my mantra is, eventually this flight (train ride, boat trip etc) will end and I will never have to see any of these people again anyway 😉 The more you do it, the easier it gets. My children nonchalantly ask, “What country are we in now?” every time we get off a plane. I want to keep it that way; the idea that the world is accessible and seeing other countries and other cultures is a normal part of life. Besides, how else would I have found out that a plastic cup of ice could entertain a toddler for 4 hours? 😊

    Like

    February 18, 2015
  9. I’m returning from a recent trip in Central America. My husband works in tourism sector, and, my 3 years old son and I, have joint him in miami for a long trip in the Caribbean Sea.
    I started from Europe alone with the kid, my first experience alone with him around the world, in a 15 hours long trip (more or less). I admit that he normally is not so quiet, but in travel he is another baby. he watches tv on the plane, eats and sleeps. is a good baby, but I have use stroller yet because he doesn’t want walk alone, but if he wants he goes where is most interesting place for him… not after me. For this reason I become crazy with suitcases, bags and him… and I prefer push him, it’s less heavy!
    Have you ever traveled alone with kids with no husband?

    Like

    February 19, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      Your recent travels sound great! I do have some experience traveling on my own without my spouse – it’s definitely always more challenging, but sometimes necessary. In fact, I flew back from this trip to Peru on my own (my husband stayed for work). It wasn’t fun, but we made it all in one piece. I preview everything about the trip and review it with my son ahead of time so that he’ll understand what’s happening, what he can do to help, when I need him to do something on his own so I can help his sister, etc. I echo the sentiments of other commenters and try to just remember that (1) most strangers are more than happy to help if you just ask and (2) if they don’t want to help you’ll likely never see them again once the flight is over.
      Now that my son is 4 he can roll his own (small) suitcase and – though I’d prefer not to- I pay to check as much as possible and try to line up someone to meet us at baggage claim to help. The only other advice I have is investing in a good baby carrier and using it so that you can have your hands free. Hang in there! It will get easier as your son gets older.

      Like

      February 20, 2015
  10. Kristin #

    As a professional travel blogger and mother of three squirmy kids, I think that the best way to travel with your kids is to research beforehand and know your limits. A lot of the meltdowns can be avoided. I don’t think you should avoid traveling with your kids all together until they get older, just plan better next time.

    Like

    February 19, 2015
    • Oh, I’m sure it is only a matter of time before Sarah is planning their next big adventure, with many smaller trips in the meantime. Also, she’s literally the best planner I know, so I bet you two would be kindred spirits!

      Like

      February 19, 2015
      • Kristin #

        I’m sure we would be :)! When I started traveling there were not really any good resources for traveling such long distances with small children. That is what inspired me to start my website, after many traveling attempts that could have gone a lot smoother. Her post inspired me to do an inventory of my site and make a section that organizes the most important posts by topic (something my hubby has been suggesting I do for a while now). So I am thankful that motivation. I wish her, and you, happy travels!

        Like

        February 23, 2015
  11. Kendra #

    I admire Sarah’s journey, if only for the learning experience it gives us as parents. The truth is the more we expose our children to our amazing world and beautiful cultures the more likely our children will be more accepting, more humble and above all more grateful when they are adults. She is right about being more cautious and nervous abroad with children. Being in a developing country when your child is extremely sick was a reality I hope to never face again. But nonetheless we leave our comfort zones and we experience life through different eyes. Thank you for sharing Sarah.

    Like

    February 19, 2015
  12. mt #

    My big recommendation for overseas travel with young kids is to consider skipping the mega metropolises. Maybe it’s your dream to taste all the delights of Paris or Tokyo, but with a jet-lagged kid who still needs a daily nap, you might miss out on a lot of your “to-do” items. (You can skip a nap for a day or two, but there’s only so long that can go on without consequences–at least, in my experience). For naps/early bedtime, someone is going to have to stay in (possibly in a dark hotel room) with the little napper while the other person(s) are seeing the sights. I’ve been there. Not fun. Or worth the money.

    Instead, if you want to travel abroad, perhaps consider the countryside–a cottage in the mountains or on the seaside. You’ll see a part of the world you might not have otherwise, and possibly get a richer cultural experience. And, if you read a book on the porch while the little one snoozes, you won’t be bitter that your partner got a whole day at the Louvre and you didn’t. Instead, you could be looking out over a beautiful meadow with wildflowers. You can do things more at the kid’s pace, and it’s wonderful to slow down a bit and partake in their wonder.

    Also make a note of the daily rhythms of where you’re going. In some countries, restaurant dinners don’t really get going until 8pm or later, and there can be siesta/midday break times when everything–even cultural/activity sites–close down. If you’re caught off guard, it’s easy to find yourselves starving and stranded.

    Happy travels!

    Like

    February 20, 2015
    • Sarah R. #

      You bring up excellent points! Big cities can be super overwhelming even for adults, leading to over-stimulated and overly tired little travelers. My advice would be if you can’t skip the big city altogether, at least follow it by a smaller town and slower pace to balance the experience for all. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

      February 20, 2015
  13. Roger #

    Children can be needy and reach their limits more quickly, but it always amazes me how quickly they learn and adapt. Something can go completely wrong the first time and just fine the second time. For instance we have some land with a pickup camper on it. The first time the kids (2yr old and 2x 6mo old) were fussy and desparate from being in a foreign environment. The second time it went just fine. So I think you can do almost anything with kids as long as you build up to it, show your confidence, and don’t exceed their stamina

    Like

    February 22, 2015

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