When my husband and I moved back to the United States from living in England, we vowed that we would be back one day. That “one day” turned out to take a lot longer than we had anticipated. (Funny how having 3 babies within 46 months will do that!) But, we finally made it back just over a year ago, with all three kids in-tow. Never thought about taking kids overseas? If your children are in elementary school or older, it’s easier than you might think, and the educational value of the trip (not to mention all the eye-popping wonder and excitement) makes it so worth it. I’ll break down how we made it all work.
1. Flight miles. The very first step is to get a good flight miles card — one that earns at least 1.5x miles, but preferably 2x miles. The best flight-miles cards will come with annual fees, but your first free flight more than pays for that instantly. Don’t forget to pay in-full every month, so you don’t incur interest charges! We took our time collecting our miles, so we were able to fly our family of 5 out for not much out-of-pocket.
2. Backpack it. Yes, you read that correctly: backpack it. Why? Portability. We travelled all throughout England, from the southern coast up to the north using trains. There is a lot of walking involved, too, and there is nothing worse than lugging huge suitcases on and off trains and down old streets with uneven brick or pavement. Each person was responsible for his or her own backpack, and it was simple. We had each child bring their school backpacks, and we packed them with 3 changes of clothes only. Don’t fret, we had a way to wash our clothes (more on that below). The front pocket of each backpack held some mechanical pencils and their journal. Bringing journals was a great way to have them chronicle their experience while we were on a train or back at the flat, plus they liked to use them to draw in or play games. The grown-up backpacks carried our own clothes, of course, but they also carried our documents (only when we needed them) and a portable phone charger. The portable charger was essential, since I was using Google Maps and other GPS apps on my phone, along with my camera, all of which ate my battery. I kept my phone plugged into my charger in my backpack, which has a USB port, so I was never low on battery; I recharged the portable charger at night. Save buying your toiletries for when you get to your destination, and carry them in your shopping bag back to where you are staying. Just like at home!
3. Airbnb. If you want to keep costs down, I highly recommend using Airbnb, or another similar site. (We actually used HomeAway for most of our stay, which was a mistake, so I can’t recommend them for international travel.) I totally understand if you are skittish, and want to stay at hotels: they are predictable, offer loads of services, and you can always talk to a live person. But, if you want to keep costs down, I have to recommend arranging your lodging in a flat online. You usually can get the entire flat or apartment to yourself, so there is more privacy, you can feel like a local, you can cook your meals (saves a lot of money!), it can give you and your kids a feeling of having a home-away-from-home, and you can do your laundry at night. That last one was key for us! We specifically booked places that had en-suite laundry facilities, so we just did our laundry when we were in for the night. That helped to keep our packing light and portable.
4. Do your research at home, and try to buy as many of your experiences and train tickets online as possible before you leave. For example, we knew that while we were in London, we wanted to visit certain sites and take a ride on the London Eye. It is a giant time-saver to just sort out your trip itinerary and then book your experiences online before you leave. This helps you avoid long lines and frustration once you are there, and saves your kids from getting too cranky and frustrated themselves. Another thing to remember is that many museums are free or free-with-donation, so definitely seek those out, and be sure to plan for museums designed specifically for kids, which are great fun and educational! Also, if you are moving from city to city or country to country using trains, many offer ticket sales online. I would highly recommend you take advantage of this and order your tickets before you leave. Once you have your itinerary set, complete with your transportation and experiences details, save those on all of the devices you are taking with you (as a backup), and save all of your sales confirmation emails, and back those up as well. Finally, don’t forget to purchase a SIM card for your phone, if needed, so you can make local calls.
5. Locate playgrounds and take time for breaks. This was another biggie for us! I dubbed our trip to the UK a “Tour of Her Majesty’s Playgrounds.” Kids are kids no matter the circumstances, and they want to play. They need unstructured play to help them unwind and be themselves. So, you will do everyone a giant favor by using a maps app or Siri or Google to help you locate playgrounds near where you are. Even just 10-15 minutes of play will go a long way towards keeping your kids happy during your trip and less fussy. Another helpful tip is to make sure you take some breaks, too. We usually stopped for afternoon tea in a café and let them have juice and a snack. This gave everyone a chance to slow down, take in the experience, and recharge. Honestly, trying out all of the different cafés became one of the highlights of the trip for our kids!
Taking kids with you on international trips can be an amazing adventure and a sure way to create special moments they will never forget. By taking your time with saving flight miles, doing careful research, and doing a lot of planning ahead of time, you can have a great trip that is packed with fun, and have some restful moments, too! We already have another international trip in the works, and I can’t wait! What kind of exciting travel adventures would you love to give to your children?
**This is an update!** While we were at the airport, it really helped us to find play places where the kids could play a bit while waiting on our boarding. Not all airports have these, but I think more and more are starting to add places where kids can play a bit. I know the award-winning Indianapolis International Airport has a kids spot! Walking around as much as it is possible is helpful, since it helps to keep them busy and active, and when you do have to be near your gate, games and word searches are fantastic ways to help them keep busy. Finally, try not to board immediately if you can help it. Your kiddos already have to sit for a long time on the plane as it is, so adding an additional 20 or 30 minutes when they have to be in their seat is tough for them (although do make sure you take some laps in the aisle from time-to-time when it is safe to do so). Happy travelling!