Before becoming a very proud father in 2006, I had led numerous educational tours in Europe with students as young as 12, but little Finn was only 6 months old when he set out of his first international adventure to Australia and New Zealand (his mom is Tasmanian and I have family in NZ).
During the first two years of Finn’s life I was away far too much, so in 2008 we took the excuse of finishing a master’s degree to move to Paris and take a ‘family sabbatical.’ At 2 1/2 Finn climbed up onto my shoulders and we travelled through Europe and North Africa.
Now that Finn is more independent (and at school) he understands my travel and is ok with me being away more often – with the proviso he gets to travel with me as much as possible and we maximize home / family time!
In 2013-2014 Finn enjoyed a school year in Cusco, Peru and really loved surfing in Ecuador. Most fortunately, Finn learned to speak Spanish. His schooling in Canada is in French and of course he speaks English.
Since that time, Finn has been on numerous tours with me and he seems to love planning trips as much as I do.
Travel with Children: Benefits and Challenges
Any observation I make about travelling with children must, of course, be qualified by one’s family realities and their child’s (children’s) disposition. I am very lucky to have an enthusiastic, healthy son who has taken to travel. All families have their realities which govern their choices, but all things being equal, travelling with your child / children is rewarding, educational and fun!
We hope on this website to highlight some interesting experiences travelling with children and to give Finn his voice to post his own blogs. Consistent with our assertion; there is no one right way to travel, this forum offers parents and children the opportunity to consider different destinations and ideas.
The Benefits and Challenges
We often discuss the benefits of travel and at least in our case I find it quite easy to list a few of the most obvious ones:
Languages: Finn is virtually fluently trilingual and he picks up phrases in other languages very quickly. He is aware people process information in different ways and respects language as an important pillar of culture.
It is often said children are sponges and pick up languages easily. There is no doubt youth is an advantage, but it is not a given. We have met ex-pat children (many of whom are missionaries and arguably very sheltered), who have struggled with second languages even years after long term immersion. Immersion helps, but does not guarantee language acquisition – study is also necessary. In fact doing both concurrently – study & living in the new language – should offer the best results.
Language must be maintained – use it or lose it, as the saying goes. To that end language classes will be a regular theme in Finn’s (and my) life.
Confidence and Self-Awareness: My little boy was outgoing from the beginning and I fully acknowledge this as an innate personality trait, but having to interact and make friends in diverse settings has only added to his personal confidence and perhaps even more importantly his ability to understand different narratives. This is not always easy, but is an important life tool and helps towards real cultural respect.
Tolerance and Understanding: Related to the previous point, travelling with children helps to breakdown the barriers of prejudice and racism. In travelling with Finn, we have avoided falling into the self-congratulatory; “it makes me realize how lucky we are” mantra that is so often repeated.
When around real poverty or oppression we reflect upon the effectiveness of institutions in our own society. We certainly appreciate the fact that many people around the world do not have similar economic empowerment as we do – or even the legal ability (visas) to travel as freely as we do. This fact alone should contribute to tolerance and respect. It also generates both a critical understanding of politics at home and a global view of human rights.
Food: The culinary experience has become a huge element of understanding and travel. Finn’s palate is far more evolved than mine and I have no doubt this is as a result of trying different foods the world over. He loves to cook and try new dishes.
He is never required to ‘like’ a dish, but he does have to give everything a fair try. In watching Finn’s palate develop, he genuinely loves fish and absolutely abhors processed cheese! This makes me happy.
In a general sense, culinary travel can either be a barrier to family travel or a focus. When travelling with Finn, we rarely have late nights and certainly drinking is not a priority, so deciding where – and what – to eat is often a focus.
Dining can all one intensely social and the restaurant environment is a fun way to hook up with other families as well as practicing language and developing vocabulary.
Economics: From a learning perspective, having a finite budget for a trip is outstanding. As we often travel on a very limited budget, I include Finn in the decision-making process and I think he has a good sense of money value and, of course poverty. Sacrificing an activity or purchase or opting for very affordable accommodation are decisions we make almost daily while on the road.
Fun & Health: Kids are fun, active and go to bed early. When I travel with Finn I focus more directly on eating well, sleeping early and partaking in educational activities. It is wonderful to discover a destination through a child’s eyes and events such as long, tough bus rides can become so much fun with a little boy who wants to play and make friends.
Of course along with all the obvious benefits for children and their parents travelling, it would be remiss of me not to explore some of the potential negatives:
Homesickness & Readjustment: On longer journeys Finn has really missed his friends at home and upon return he has sometimes struggled to find his place. Of course living in a hockey culture (note: I love watching you play), missing a full season at age 7 is difficult. This can also be true emotionally. Educational-oriented travel broadens the mind, but this may be a lot to deal with while one’s emotional maturity catches up. I have met many adults who also struggle with this, but for young people, learning about some of the less palatable aspects of humanity can be shocking. The good news is with the Internet and programs such as Skype we are far less disconnected when travelling than in previous generations. Finn can be in regular contact with his friends, school and family. Nevertheless, that sort of communication is not the same as managing daily relationships.
Opportunity Cost: As with hockey development, the dimensional reality of not being in two places at the same time means our love of travel competes with our love of other actives and where to assign limited resources. If you have a passion for travel, but it is not the best fit for your child, someone makes a sacrifice!
Security & Health: When travelling with children, we obviously want to find adventure without putting our little ones at undue risk. I find the world over 99.9% of people are kind and good, but in certain places your child may be a target of crime, or in the worst case, kidnapping. Far more dangerous than the extreme examples of kidnapping are the realities of road traffic in many developing countries. At 2 1/2 Finn learned quickly to be aware of traffic in Paris (a good learning opportunity) and he has taken many forms of transportation that would simply be illegal where we live. This is a calculated risk, but one a parent must decide upon.
Another concern is illness. Up to this point, Finn has not travelled to areas with malaria as evidence suggests the anti-malaria medications can be too strong for children under 8. I do know families who have ventured to such areas with no reported problems, but that was a choice we made.
Style of Travel & Costs
Finn has twice travelled to resorts in Mexico and has taken a three-week Mediterranean cruise in addition to his many backpacking, camping and tour adventures. All three all-inclusive trips were last-minute offers and proved less expensive than buying flights and backpacking on our own. Nevertheless, I struggle with the educational value of these experiences. Excessive drinking at all-inclusive resorts and subservient staff referring to young children as ‘sir’ just does not feel like the best environment for my child. That noted, the full-package option may indeed be the best first-trip for families with little international travel experience or indeed hoping to manage costs. It can take time to pick the right destination, cruise or tour. We are here to help!
Backpacking with children is great fun and packing is even more important! In Latin America children are almost always free (except when a transportation seat is required) and splitting meals is common. I mention this, because Spain was distinctly different – my young child regularly incurred a significant extra cost in restaurants and hotels.
As you find throughout this website, we travel in many different ways and on varying budgets. When travelling with Finn I make an effort to shorten travel times and always carry good snacks. Camping is excellent, but in cities I do try for hostels where he can meet people from around the world or for better hotels with a swimming pool! If the trip is more of a beach vacation, I try very hard to create an educational element.
Flying with a little one does increase costs significantly – and in that one respect it has been much easier travelling with one child rather than two or three. Airlines do offer some minor price reductions for children, but after age two, kids take up a seat and incur similar costs. I find Finn sleeps well on flights, usually stretched out over me or his mom, but I do no sleep quite as well, if at all.
I am happy to say I never was the type to get frustrated with little people crying on planes. Taking off and landing is hard on their ears and they usually settle quite quickly. Having flown significantly with a toddler, it was interesting to see how people around the world reacted: one man complained loudly about Finn breastfeeding (its that or crying at take off, mate) and I remember being warned by one lady she wanted to sleep. Yes ma’am. Generally most people have been friendly, helpful and kind. From our personal experience we have had the most unpleasant seat mates when flying to / from New Zealand with a baby. I do fly United Airlines – for a good laugh, enjoy the video developed by band called Sons of Maxwell who had their guitar wrecked by United! I do fly United quite often because of their connections to South America, but we have had two distinctly horrible flights with that airline, where they took no responsibility in trying to seat Finn apart from his mother.
As a parent travelling alone with your child can be so much fun, but does raise a few issues. Finn’s mother and I often travel independently with him and it is very important to have a legally notarized document giving express permission to do so. We have expedited this by signing, with a lawyer, a universal travel document. Additionally, we always write a separate letter concerning each specific trip. To this date, we have found Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia have all requested this documentation. Somewhat alarmingly we have never been asked for it in Latin America.
There is so much to add and discuss, but I hope this introduction simply adds to the conversation.