Travel Dreams Turn into Globetrotting Lessons for the Entire Family, Nap Time Included

I couldn’t imagine waiting until the AARP magazines started arriving in my mailbox to experience a streetside café in Paris or looking up in wonder at the masterpieces in Europe’s grand museums. I wanted to do those things again with my children …

I’ve had the itch to travel my whole life. Whether sitting in the back seat with my sister on a 14-hour straight drive to Phoenix or a summer visit to my grandmother in New York, I couldn’t wait to see what was beyond my front door. At a young age, I sensed there were riches to be found in visiting far-off places. As such, I spent my young adulthood traveling and living abroad.

Then marriage. And kids. A mortgage, weekend soccer games and voilà—10 years passed with vacations to beach resorts, road trips through the Southwest and long weekend getaways to see friends. Don’t get me wrong, an all-inclusive on the Riviera Maya is exactly what a mama’s weary soul needs sometimes. But for me, who’d wandered to Europe and Central America and spent time living in Amsterdam before family, I began to feel stuck. I didn’t want to spend my 40th decade reminiscing about travel days gone by. I couldn’t imagine waiting until the AARP magazines started arriving in my mailbox to experience a streetside café in Paris or looking up in wonder at the masterpieces in Europe’s grand museums. I wanted to do those things again with my children, in hopes they could experience the same delight in seeing different ways of living. 
Despite having three children under the age of 7, my husband and I took a chance and took a three-week trip abroad to Spain. We were already familiar with Madrid, having traveled there on our honeymoon. Our youngest daughter was 18 months, which felt daunting. To manage this anxiety, I kept reminding myself toddlers actually live in Spain, and they too need diapers and naps. She didn’t sleep a wink on the flight, so neither did people around us. The time change was a harder transition than I expected, but after a couple of sleepless nights and exhausting days, we began to find our stride. 

I’d planned to spend hours at the Prado and Reina Sofia but found that young kids and fine art don’t go together as well as I’d hoped. Once at the Prado, we headed straight to the majestic works by Titian, Rubens and Tintoretto. They tolerated my description of the evolution of technique and art historical references for about 30 minutes. We didn’t even see the Spanish masters. Luckily for us, Madrid is a very child-friendly city, and most large museums are free one or more evenings a week. Our time at Reina Sofia was more successful. Modern art, with its abstract and at times whimsy motifs, appeals to children. My three were particularly enraptured and moved by the story Picasso’s “Guernica” tells. We discovered many other things on this trip that worked beautifully. The Parque Retiro was a block from our flat, and we walked through every day. The Spanish schedule of eating a large meal mid-afternoon and staying up late felt like we were immersed in a culture different than ours, even if ever so slightly. 

We have since taken many trips, including Guatemala and London. We chose Guatemala due to its proximity to the United States and to avoid some of the jet lag that Europe presents. This trip was hard; we weren’t prepared for the poverty we encountered. Most have very little there yet are welcoming and generous. Our children saw how fortunate we are in the United States and began to see the importance of gratitude and service to others. Contrast that with our recent trip to London. Our shared language and culture make it the friendliest and easiest destination we have traveled to with children. The familiarity allowed our son to navigate the Underground like a local. The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, even the Tate Modern were big hits for our family.

Traveling with our children is one of the most rewarding decisions we’ve made. In addition to all the new experiences and memories, one unexpected gift has come to me: learning to go with the flow, improvise and problem-solve together. That is why we travel—to learn those things we otherwise would not have by staying home. Go to that place you’ve been dreaming of, and take your kids. Happy travels!

How do we do it? Here is what works for us. 

1. Choose the right accommodation. We use vacation rentals for trips longer than four or five days. A kitchen and living area help everyone feel settled in. We pack only four days of clothing and find an apartment with a washer and dryer. For shorter trips, we choose a hotel. We always stay near a park and start most days with outdoor play.
2. Find the right time of year to travel. We travel in the fall when my husband’s work is slow. We avoid busy crowds of summer travel, are able to take longer-than-average trips and the costs are lower. We take schoolwork with us and work it into our daily schedule. 
3. Adjust expectations. Little bodies sleep when needed and wake when ready, so jet lag takes longer to overcome. We move at a slower pace and create a routine. We start our days with a leisurely breakfast, do schoolwork and leave around 11 a.m. We visit two to three sites a day. As children get older, they tolerate more. 
4. Do your research. Look at neighborhoods, public transportation, expected weather and kid-friendly activities. I monitor airfares and book when low. High-demand sites are booked ahead, but we keep days flexible to enjoy spontaneous local activities.
5. Take direct flights. Denver International Airport now has many direct flights to major European cities. If unavailable, change planes before you fly internationally. 
6. Engage children in the planning. On our recent trip to London, my son chose Stamford Bridge, home of the Chelsea Football Club. My daughter loves the Princess Diana fashion and humanitarian exhibit at Kensington Palace.

Traveling with our children is one of the most rewarding decisions we’ve made. In addition to all the new experiences and memories, one unexpected gift has come to me: learning to go with the flow, improvise and problem-solve together.