Chris Blattman

Traveling abroad with young kids: Our approach

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A friend asked this on Twitter, and it got me thinking about our approach. To a lot of people, unless it’s a resort, taking kids abroad sounds challenging, expensive, and anything but rejuvenating. We’ve found the opposite. Our foreign trips are easier, cheaper, and more more rewarding and replenishing than our US holidays. Gradually, over regular trips to Latin America, a few Western Europe visits, as well as Canada and Vietnam, we’ve figured out some things that work for us. On the chance they work for you too, here’s our list.

  1. Find the family Venn. I like to investigate unfamiliar, off-the-beaten path locales, eat amazing food, and have time for reading. Jeannie prizes beauty and sun and calm. Our kids want swimming, zip lines, animals, chicken nuggets, and pancakes. There is not a whole lot of overlap here. The trick is to find places that intersect a little each day. For instance, we’ve found that as long as the kids get regular swimming and adventure parks, they’ll tolerate the grownup excursions. It took us several trips to get the intersection right (and of course the kids shift as they grow older). So, be patient, and look at the inevitable failures and moments of misery as a learning experience for the future.
  2. One place base. Moving around always creates minor headaches and costs, but these balloon with little kids in tow. Plus a lot of kids dislike change, and I dislike constant packing and repacking of the ridiculous amount of stuff we lug along. So we almost always stay in fewer places longer. The younger the kids, the more we parked in one spot, and the more rural we went. When they were littlest, we’d get a house in a village, one with lots of space for them to run around, and use it as a base for day trips. Our favorites were 2 week stays in villages in Languedoc and Catalonia, as well as a long visit to Hanoi. We would rent a car and explore whatever random assortment of hikes or ruins or caves or towns or museums were within a short drive. In a dense place, there’s usually a lot there. We also lowered our ambitions, going on one half-day adventure a day, then a languid lunch, then hanging out in the beautiful spot we were staying. As the kids got older, we started moving around more, on quasi-road trips, but almost always staying on one spot for several days. One highlight was drifting along a Bucaramanga—Barichara—Villa de Leyva—Bogotá route in north central Colombia over 12 days.
  3. Home exchange. This was the very best thing we ever discovered, and we have never stopped. Back when the only option was a mutual exchange, we traded homes with a family in rural Spain, and later with another in Bogotá. It was great. Then sites like HomeExchange started a non-reciprocal exchange program, where you get points when a family stays in your house, and you use them to stay elsewhere. It’s transformed our travel. We host a family 2–3 times a year, and in return we’ve had everything from ski chalets in Utah, comfortable homes in the center of Mexico City, huge lakeside cottages in Minnesota and Michigan, and both alpine and urban retreats in France. It’s free, and we’ve never had an adverse experience. The homes are usually spacious, with lots of room for kids to run around, plus a kitchen to cook their nuggets before we had out for the meal I want to eat. Often we can find one with swimming. The places you stay are idiosyncratic, meaning you end up in cities and neighborhoods you might never have visited. Also, we often end up exchanging with families with kids, so we arrive to new toys plus bikes (both of which made an unexpectedly huge difference). Finally, because we’re not in a hotel, we usually end up with meaningful interactions with people other than tourist staff, whether it’s the friendly neighbors or the local market or whomever.
  4. Pick “second or third tier” and explore. We try to avoid the highest-profile cities and destinations, because they’re crowded and over-touristed. For example, in Yucatán we avoided the biggest pyramids and colonial towns. Or in France we opted for Rennes and Grenoble rather than Paris. The first-tier cities and sites are amazing but I find them overfull. The food usually suffers as a result. And the kids get distracted by tourist crap designed to induce their whines. Meanwhile, the so-called third tier tourist destinations are still marvelous, understated, and often calm. More so when we find ourselves the only people exploring a castle or hike, or the only foreigners at a restaurant.
  5. Find second hand stores and flea markets. In our first days, we look for nearby spots and buy a haul of toys, board games, kiddie pools, sports equipment, and beach toys—all for a few dollars. Flea markets are always fun to explore in a faraway place, sometimes have interesting food stalls, and our kids LOVE spending an hour trying to find something for the $2 I gave them. They’re occupied with it when we head to the lunch place I picked out weeks before. And, most importantly, now your kids have activities for the trip. Because NEW TOYS. This probably means some quiet reading for me and Jeannie. Also, because the one place base strategy, we don’t have to worry about carting junk around. And we don’t bring it home—we donate it to our home exchange, or drop it off at the local equivalent of the Goodwill before we leave.
  6. Avoid large or major hotels. We can’t always exchange a home. Our other approach is to find a home or apartment to rent on VRBO or AirBnB (like the villa we got in a tiny colonial Colombian mountain town for less than the price of an Ohio Howard Johnson). Absent that, I’m a fan of mom and pop hotels and small boutique hotels and B&Bs that welcome kids. Most of the places we travel are full of these, and I’ve found TripAdvisor to be one of the more reliable raters (especially in South America, but almost anywhere). Our kids are happiest if swimming, so if we can find one with a pool, then they are delighted and I can read. In Europe and South America it’s often easy to find one with a great in-house restaurant, so that the kids can go to bed early in the room and Jeannie and I can be downstairs relaxing. In a 10-room hotel that’s not a big deal, and the kids know where to find us.
  7. Ask around for what the locals do with their kids. People who live nearby want a Saturday excursion with their kids. Where do they go? Often there’s a park or lake or the like nearby for a relaxing afternoon. We found a lot of remote and remarkable cenotes in Yucatán this way, and treetop adventure parks in Germany. You might be the only foreigner there, which is interesting in an anthropological way, even if the place isn’t spectacular. Usually there is good local food. We’ve also ended up at a huge number of weird theme parks this way, only a few of which are really good. Most tend to be a bit campy. But our kids are overjoyed, and campy things are more interesting when they’re another culture’s version of campy.
  8. Combine with work if you can. This is easiest as an academic who studies international development married to an executive at a humanitarian organization. Others might have conferences or sales meetings or something. If you can manage it, I love it. When one of us has a conference or field visit, sometimes the whole family tags along. We exchange a house. Because one of us is working locally we usually have a number of colleagues. This becomes a source of babysitting (there’s always a teenager or someone’s part-time nanny to hire) so the other spouse can work remotely for the week. The work is also a source of local activities and friends, so you end up getting to know a range of people at their homes or restaurants, and parts of the city you would not otherwise see. Then after the week of us both working, we go on a holiday nearby—something on the beach, or in a village, or a quasi-road trip. You leave with a much deeper appreciation for life in a different place, which to me is one of the most lasting gifts of the holiday. Now, when I go to a country as a simple tourist, it feels superficial and short-lived.
  9. Special advice on the youngest. We are out of practice, but here are some miscellaneous tricks that worked for our kids and our sanity over the years.
    • The easiest time to travel adventurously was when our daughter was 3-6 months. She was totally portable and we could eat out, hike, whatever. This is the golden time for new parents to travel if they can. It will be your last holiday with normal dinner conversations for…. well a very long time. Take advantage of it.
    • As our daughter neared 1, we took her to Vietnam to visit her grandparents, who were working there. We discovered that it is completely normal for restaurant and tourist attraction staff to take and entertain your child for hours. Many people have had the same positive experience across Asia. Highly recommended.
    • As the kids got older but were small, we invested in a few different carriers. Because we were carrying them all the time. But this freed us up to do walk in the countryside or explore interesting places while they napped or stared. Nap times were perfect for the all-important fabulous lunch.
    • Car seats are a lot to lug. If we weren’t doing a long road trip, we brought these travel vests that make adult seatbelts safer for kids. They are fabulous for short trips and taxis (and indeed, when we lived in Manhattan, this is what we used in cabs on a regular basis).
    • When the kids were <8, if we weren’t going to a place we knew had new toys, Jeannie would plan a a surprise a day. Usually this was a craft or small lego, and it would create a couple of hours of occupation. We’d buy the one for the plane in advance, then try to get most of the rest at a flea market or second hand store. This was the easiest way to get some relaxation time after a morning adventure, or to occupy them during a restaurant lunch.
    • Always pack fever and cold medicines, a thermometer, and many bandages. You will need them. Especially if you forget them.
    • From a young age, we got the kids used to carrying their own backpacks with activities and small toys (most important for the plane). From about age four, we got them their own roller bags too (first small, now regular size) focusing on ones that are easy to roll. We also gave them packing lists. We found this helps (a little). It’s an ongoing investment in the future.
    • We got them both cheap tablets (we’ve gotten Kindle Fires for less than $100) and fill it up with movies and games that they can use on planes or for occasional meals where mom and dad want grown-up conversation.
  10. Expect periods of sheer misery. Any self-guided trip or adventure will end in occasional disaster. That’s a standard part of any of our trips, long before kids. But those moments are more frequent and louder with children in tow. So be it. Remember in the moment that this too will pass and everyone will be happy again in a few hours.

What advice do you have to add?

4 Responses

  1. This is one of your very best entries! Already forwarded to some friends that have small kids. With teenagers it changes a bit. In our case where one is an intelectual and the other an athlete, Nature always works and we have not done hotels in a long time. Just houses. One thing though, you forgot the actual trip. For that there is always Benadryl.

  2. Oooh great tips. For kids that are on the extremer end of “I don’t like change”, and/or kids that still nap but won’t do so in moving vehicles and carriers, travelling with a camper van can be a great workaround. We drove one around Japan for 6 weeks with a 3- and 1-year-old and it was brilliant. Do sightseeing in the morning, park near a supermarket/coffee place/laundromat so the youngest can nap, drive to the next destination, repeat. All pre-COVID, obviously. This was 2019 but it feels like a million years ago.

  3. One thing we have done regularly (and that builds on your idea of the family Venn) is to ask the kids to choose one activity they would like to do or a special place they would like to visit during the trips (in some cases they get a full day to do what they like). We also have tried to travel with another family with kids. Both suggestions have become very relevant now that my children are teens

  4. I’m a couple weeks from becoming a parent, but growing up as missionary kids in southern Africa, we took a lot of day trips to remote villages, week-long trips to different countries around the region, and through-trips in Europe on our flights back to the States. Here are some things that worked on us (3 boys, 1 girl, ages 5+):
    (1) Comic books. Between four kids spanning six years, there weren’t many books that could be consumed by everyone. Comics books can be passed around, don’t weigh much (we would get digest-style), and are easy to pick up and find your spot.
    (2) Toys for joint play. Having toys that more than one child can play with means that they’ll need fewer toys and can keep each other entertained. If your location is in a part of the world where the local kids share a language (as long as we weren’t in the Kalahari, all the Tswana kids we met had a working level of English), then this can include toys for playing with the local kids. We would usually bring a soccer ball (no common language or culture needed) and some Magic the Gathering cards (pictures and novelty) and run off with the kids while my parents did their thing. This is easier to do as boys.
    (3) Chalet-style lodging. Kinda along the lines of HomeExchange/AirBnB, chalets (or other multi-room lodging) offer more space to run around or hide and usually come with a kitchenette. We would eat one mom-cooked meal in our chalet, so that everyone got at least one meal they enjoyed each day.
    (4) Splitting up. While staying together is ideal, sometimes one moody child can bring everything down. My dad would take that child on a short trip while mom would handle the rest. With dad, it meant being somewhat spoiled (usually a candy bar), but also doing what he wanted to do. I was once the culprit, and had to navigate grocery shopping with dad in a marketplace of a strange former colonial town that had resumed its long-standing role as a tribal center. It’s one of the only things I remember from the trip.

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