Take the plunge: Travel abroad with your kids
Traveling internationally with your children: it can be expensive, it can be a hassle ... but it's definitely worthwhile. Your kids' horizons will be broadened as they're exposed to new ways of living and thinking, new languages and foods.
Children are international conversation starters and ambassadors – you'll likely meet more locals, and be more warmly welcomed wherever you go, with your offspring in tow. And nothing brings a family closer than the shared adventures – and challenges – of travel.
But don't take my word for it. I went straight to the source: I talked to two well-traveled young women about how their families' trips abroad have impacted them.
Skyla is 19 this year and has traveled in western and eastern Europe, Mexico, Britain, China and Turkey with her younger sisters and parents. And after touring Europe with her mom when she was in high school, Elizabeth, a year older than Skyla, spent a pre-college "gap year" studying Spanish in Seville and exploring Europe on her own.
Looking back on their families' international trips in their childhood and teen years, here are some of their tips and memories to inform and motivate you to take the plunge and head overseas with your kids.
Margaret: How old were you on your first international trip? How young do you think a kid could be to appreciate and enjoy it?
Skyla (center) and family.
Skyla: International trips are enjoyable at any age. At 13, I enjoyed learning, eating, traveling, and having a completely new experience, while my younger sisters enjoyed the warm weather and souvenirs. I think the best age is definitely when you're a teenager – so much correlates to what you've been beaten over the head with in history classes. Now my classes are so much more interesting with my experience to back up facts. Being able to recognize a landmark or a great battle scene allows me to identify with the historical period, and I absorb the information better.
Elizabeth: I was 16 when I first came to Europe with my mom. I had been an avid Travel Channel watcher from a young age and been begging for an international trip. To get the most out of the history and culture of an international destination, I think a kid should be at least middle-school-aged, though high-school-aged is ideal. It depends on the destination also: an 8-year-old may enjoy a day at the beach in Italy, but would probably yawn in the Louvre.
What have been your favorite international destinations?
Skyla: Venice. Venice is perfect. It was the first place I'd been internationally, and it will always hold a spot in my heart. It was such a purely new and European experience. I loved it so much.
Elizabeth: The Cinque Terre in Italy was amazing, with fresh seafood and a gorgeous setting. I also loved the Irish countryside. We took a cruise down the Shannon River and stopped in these teeny tiny towns. It was a very authentic taste of small-town Ireland and the people were so friendly!
What's one of your favorite memories from your international trips?
Skyla: In the subway in Rome, an Italian woman asked me for directions and I, throwing together the little of the language I knew, gave her an actual answer. It was so unbelievably cool to be mistaken for a local. I don't think I'll ever forget that.
Elizabeth: My mom and I were hiking up a mountain in Switzerland. By the second hour, I was literally on my hands and knees, gasping for air. Just then, this elderly man and woman came trudging past us. They were barely breaking a sweat! At the time, I was so annoyed, but now I know that Europeans are just better walkers!
Did you stay connected with your friends at home electronically, or did you take a break from email/Facebook/Instagram/etc.?
Skyla: I communicated with my friends through postcards and rare visits to Facebook. I love that I still see my cards hanging on people's walls. Minimal social media is definitely the way to go.
Elizabeth: I'm just like any other teenager: addicted to social media. When I travel, I definitely keep an online presence. I keep an active blog and post pics on Instagram and Facebook. I think it's a great way to let your friends and family see what you're up to, while encouraging them to travel too. Keeping it in moderation is important, though. If I find myself looking at my phone instead of the Eiffel Tower, I try to unplug for a little while.
Famous museums and cathedrals are often on a parent's "must-see" list. Are you glad your parents took you to them, or were you totally bored? If you actually did enjoy them, what helped – an interesting guided or audio tour? Exploring on your own? Your parents bribing you?!
Skyla: Exploring museums on my own has been more enjoyable than an audio tour. Guided tours seemed to go on forever sometimes, and although they were interesting, my feet would have loved a break. I am glad I saw all the famous "must sees" – learning in school about how magnificent Michelangelo's "David" is doesn't compare to the real thing.
Did seeing how people live in other countries make you appreciate anything at home more? Are there things that people have, or things that people do, in other countries that you wish we had here in the U.S.?
Skyla: I appreciate the tap water in Seattle so much more now that I've been around the block a few times. I also enjoy not having to squat over a small hole in the ground to go to the bathroom. Actually in terms of bathrooms, I loved that the stall doors in Europe were actual doors. There's definitely some added, and much appreciated, privacy there.
Elizabeth: I really miss Walmart when I'm abroad. We don't realize how lucky we are to have such variety and accessibility to almost in anything we want in the US. I spent almost an entire afternoon looking for cookie dough in Spain (they don't have it!). Europeans are also a lot more energy conscious than Americans are. I lived with a host family in Seville, and I got in trouble for taking a 15-minute shower. The next day, I found a timer next to my shampoo. It's taught me to be more aware of the energy I'm using – and not take it for granted.
Did your parents give you some independence on your trip(s) – and were you brave enough to take advantage of it? And did traveling internationally with them give you the inspiration and courage to continue traveling on your own as an adult?
Skyla: This isn't even a question for me – I would love nothing more than to travel on my own. Jetting around Europe with my parents has shown me both how hard, and how easy, backpacking could be. I've been planning my own trip in the back of my mind since I was little, and knowing how accessible independent travel can be has made my dream so much more of a reality.
The older we've gotten, the more independent my parents have allowed my sister and me to be – provided we stick together and keep a map with us at all times. This makes vacationing so much more fun. I love my family but being able to figure things out for myself and have the freedom of an adult makes for a better experience.
Elizabeth: After my first trip to Europe, I knew I wanted to live there! My gap year in Spain was the best experience of my life. I'm definitely glad I got a taste of Europe with my family a few years ago first. We were on a tour so my mom let me explore on my own sometimes, but I had the "safety net" of knowing where she was and that I had our hotel room to return to! It ultimately influenced me to take the plunge and live abroad by myself. Now I have plans to visit every continent and become trilingual!
Anything else you'd like to share with other kids and parents?
Skyla: When my family travels abroad, we've learned to go with the flow. There's no point stressing out when we're powerless against a situation. The worst thing we've experienced is probably the cancelling of two flights in a row. Instead of worrying about the school we were missing, we realized we had two more days in Mexico. Which is pretty awesome.
Elizabeth: I'm thankful to everyone who has sparked my love of traveling. Mostly my mom and dad, who took me along when I was younger – and then let me travel halfway around the world to Spain to conquer my enormous dreams.
Editor's Note: This article originally ran in September of 2014.