17 countries in 210 days ... with kids!
After years of dreaming and talking about it, Victoria and Todd Thiessen decided to pack their bags and take their two children on a trip of a lifetime. The family is currently on a 7-month journey through 17 countries with their young daughters. We caught up with the adventurous couple for their advice on traveling internationally with kids.
After years of talking about it and dreaming about it, we finally decided to take the trip of a lifetime. Todd has been at his current job for 16 years, and with accrued sabbaticals and vacation, a leave of absence, and time off, we could make a 7-month journey. Although we’d traveled extensively as a couple before, we have never been in such close proximity for such an extended period of time. And now, with two daughters, we knew it would be a different kind of trip altogether. Where would we go? Where would we stay? What would we do?
We looked at the globe and chose some places we had never been and some places we had enjoyed and wanted to share with our children. We also let the girls each pick one place. Lucy (age 9) picked Singapore because a good friend from school had moved there. Natalie (age 8) picked Paris because she wanted to have lunch at the Eiffel Tower. Other considerations included weather, friends, family and significant events. Thus our tour began in Sydney, Australia to welcome in the new year and officially begin what we have been calling “Big Trip 2016.”
As for places to stay, through his business travels, Todd had acquired many Starwood points. The Starwood hotels and resorts would be the most luxurious of our accommodations. We also rented a motorhome for 2 weeks and stayed at campgrounds, and we booked many bed-and-breakfasts, Airbnbs and apartments (washer and dryer were a must for those). We included a few fun places, too, like a treehouse and a houseboat.
What would we do? Well, hours and hours of research on the internet led me to so many tour guides and activities, that sometimes I found myself overwhelmed and unable to make decisions. In the end, I just told myself, “we can’t see and do it all, but we can have fun no matter what I choose.” And yes, we were (and still are) nervous about the trip. Todd worries about driving on the left, exchange rates, airport security, unknown cell connectivity and big, crowded tourist areas. I worry about school work and over-scheduling us. But we did it. We rented out our house, we sold the car, and we are currently wandering the world.
There is so much we want Lucy and Natalie to get out of this trip. We want them to have fun, of course. We want them to see extraordinary places--places they’ve read about and heard about, places they could never imagine. We want them to see and meet all kinds of people, locals and fellow travelers. We want them to experience different cultures, their foods, arts, and history. We want them to learn and become open and accepting individuals.
We have such high hopes for them and for this trip, that we are a little nervous of what they will say at the end, when we come home, when people ask them what they learned or liked most. Will they mention the Aboriginals in Uluru? Will they think about the well we donated in Cambodia? Perhaps they will talk about the Easter processions in Seville or not seeing the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland?
Or will they simply say, “The best ice-cream in the world is in Rome”?
So, we have convinced ourselves no matter what they say, it will be ok. The girls will not necessarily remember all the experiences that we think of as life-changing, but just having lived through them will be transformative. And even if ice cream is what they focus on, at least they will have tasted ice cream from many different cultures, and just through that little bit of understanding of the differences and similarities in all of us, they will have begun their life-long journey to empathy, one scoop at a time.
Tips for traveling internationally with kids:
1. Let your children get involved in the planning so they have ownership of the trip as well
If you have the flexibility, you might want to let them choose a destination. If that is not feasible, then let them pick a museum, park, restaurant or an activity within the location(s) you have chosen. It gives them something to look forward to.
2. When booking tours, look for family-friendly tour companies or guides
This will ensure that your tours are short enough to keep your children’s attention and that the information they get is at their level. The tour guides might have more illustrative materials, fun stories, and scavenger hunts to keep children engaged. They should also have more energy and patience. If it’s not a private tour, it’s also a good way to meet other kids and families.
3. Give your children projects to research and focus on as you go along
For instance, on our blog, Lucy is in charge of animals and fashion. When she sees an exciting animal, she will research it and come up with some facts to share. For fashion, she has been writing about traditional costumes, such as what Aboriginals used to wear, or about what people wear for specific jobs or celebrations. This project has meant that we ask a lot of questions of certain people, another good way to connect. Natalie chose currency, which isn’t as exciting as she thought, so she is sharing animals now. She also chose treats, which is a lot of fun as we have been doing taste tests of locally made candies and cookies.
4. Take different classes together
If you do research, you will find all sorts of one-day classes, many based on the culture you are visiting. In Australia, we took an Aboriginal dot-painting class. In France, you can find fencing and perfume-making classes. In Italy, you can take classes on frescoes, mosaics, and masks. You can even learn to be a gladiator. In Japan, you can learn about calligraphy, origami, their tea ceremony, dance, and the ways of a samurai. You will also find cooking and art classes just about everywhere. These experiences are a great way to learn about local culture and also to bond as a family.
5. Incorporate cultural performances in your itinerary
Music, dance and drama are also important aspects of every culture and may not be as obvious a choice for activities as art and architecture.
6. Physical activities are important, too
Walking tours are great, but more vigorous exercise is also good. Take time to go canoeing, hiking, or biking. And a zip-line adrenaline rush is a great break for everyone.
7. Have children keep a record of the trip, whether it’s on a blog or a journal
Besides keeping up their writing, drawing, and observational skills, this will help them remember the trip for years to come. It is also fun to see what different family members thought was worthy of documenting.
8. Include free time for playing
Kids need to run around and exercise and playgrounds are a great place to meet other kids and families.
Thank you to Victoria for sharing her story on the SPG Weekend Channel. If you want to learn more about their travels, please visit her blog at BigTrip2016.com.
By Victoria Thiesse