How to survive an international vacation with kids
All the planning, packing, flying and entertaining tips I learned when I took my family abroad
If you're heading out on an international vacation with your family, you're going to need a lot more than luck. Travelling with kids to a foreign country requires planning, flexibility, and a steadfast sense of humour. I know this because I did it, recently, and survived — our family took a memorable, overseas trip to Greece last month. Would I leave the kids with the grandparents next time? Not necessarily. But I definitely have newly acquired planning, packing, flying and activity advice that I'll never leave home without again.
Tips for making planning easier and successful
Family vacations are busy. No matter how relaxing the setting, you're going to be helping the kids sort out new situations and navigate the foreign terrain (where's the bathroom?!), all while trying to keep them hydrated and fed. So don't anticipate having a moment, or wifi for that matter, to look up things once you're there. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you plan your time abroad.
Lower your expectations
This trip will not be like that trip you took to Thailand in your twenties. There will be ups and there will be a lot of downs; plan for them. Construct your days without cramming too much in, and remember that a child's tolerance for new experiences can hit maximum capacity pretty quickly, and usually at the worst time... like on the stone steps of the Acropolis, for instance.
Make a list of what you absolutely want to experience on the trip
Your time away will go by fast and it'll be easy enough to spend all of your time catering to the kids. Prioritize what you want to do, see, and even shop for. Your list can be as ambitious as a winery visit and as a simple as lying in a hammock alone with a good book, but either way, have a discussion with any other adults going on vacation with you about how to arrange days and times you can trade off kid duties. Remember, a family vacation means you'll probably be spending more time together than you're used to, and it may be best for everyone to schedule in a break.
Make sure your accommodations are kid-friendly
Contact renters, directly, before booking to make sure they welcome kids. For us, this made things easier when things did go awry… like when our jet-lagged toddler graffitied the couch on the first night of our stay. It also opened up the lines of communication for questions about things like the safety of the unit, including balcony railing heights, staircases, and any existing pools.
Build your trip around shorter drives
Driving in a foreign country can be hairy at the best of times, but throw screaming kids into the mix and you'll wish you never left home. I found it best to limit driving to no more than three hours a day, and asked our hosts to recommend places to stop along the way. Hitting the road around nap time is always a solid strategy too. It didn't work every time for us, but when it did, we sure covered ground.
Dive into the country's history before you go
Since it's virtually impossible to do a two-hour guided tour with young kids in tow, and you can forget about them having the patience to let you read the signage, it's in your best interest to learn a bit about the country's sites before you go. Bonus: you can appear smart(er) in front of your kids when you regale your knowledge.
And while you're at it, memorize a few historical tidbits your kids will find interesting as well. My oldest daughter loved the story of an olive tree planted ages ago and was motivated to hike to it and see it IRL. (Getting her to pose for an epic photo beside it was a different story.)
Family packing tips
Family travel is never light, but you can avoid hefty baggage fees and still take all the essentials if you pack it right. Here are a few space-saving tricks I learned, as well as the gear that made our trip easier.
Learn how to roll your clothes
Watch a few YouTube videos and you'll be a pro. I found that by rolling and packing each kids' clothes into smaller bags or packing cubes, it saved us space and helped keep things organized on the trip. Hot tip: when possible, travel in the summer when your clothes are lighter.
Bring stuff the kids will actually wear
It's easy to get caught up in all the things you think you might need, but there's no point packing that long SPF hat with neck coverage if your kids won't wear it. However, the life jacket that keeps your kid afloat? Totally worth the space if you're aiming for any sort of relaxation near the water. And be sure to test drive any new outfits before you set off to ensure any itchiness complaints are worked out on home turf.
Save space by going digital
Books deliver entertainment mileage, but they take up a lot of space. Download ebooks and audiobooks from your local library onto a portable device if you've got one and take that instead. Still, a few favourite floppy books can be helpful on the plane. "Let's read a book!" is an easy distraction for young kids. You didn't actually think you were going to get to finish a movie, did you?
Pack gear that will help your kids sleep
Getting kids to sleep is hard at the best of times, but throw in another time zone and the struggle becomes next-level. Make things easier on everyone by packing gear that'll help your kids sleep on-the-go. We found an umbrella stroller, a baby carrier, a shade tent, and a waterproof outdoor blanket to be essential. They allowed our kids to sleep when they needed to, and experience things like beach naps, which really are the best.
Assemble a small diaper bag for the airplane that you can sling over your shoulder
Since washrooms on airplanes are tight and the change table likely won't have safety straps, a compact and wearable diaper bag will keep you hands-free for messy tasks. I like my mini backpack which I store inside a larger bag so it's easy to grab. Side pockets are perfect for little toothbrushes too, so I was able to keep up our bedtime routine in the air, and convince my kids to actually sleep.
How to weather the flight
Probably the hardest part about travelling internationally with kids is the fact that it's flanked with that unavoidable and most often very long flight. I won't candy coat it for you, but I do have some tips that I hope will make things easier.
Fill a gift bag of fun things your kids get to unwrap during the flight
Kids love presents, and it's a great distraction to hand over a bag they get to open. For this flight I filled their bags with reusable sticker pads, I Spy books, a few (crumb-free) edible treats, and pads of paper with washable markers. I also wrapped up old toys and art supplies of theirs that I'd been putting aside for months. No one complained they were receiving them a second time, and it kept my in-flight food costs down.
Jump on that in-flight entertainment
If your kids can sit through movies, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to be entertained, for as long as possible. (More movies for you!) If you can, download content onto a device in case they tire of the in-flight entertainment. Make sure you've got kids' headphones, along with an earbud-style version for yourself which you can lend to them for plugging their ears for take-off and landing.
Make friends with the flight attendants
Flight attendants often understand your pain. If you find one you can make your BFF for the flight, they could end up being pretty effective at steering a child away from a full-on blow up. In fact, I'm convinced that the "turn a disposable glove into a turkey" game is part of their training. (They also hold the key to that extra glass of wine, which can come in handy, just sayin'.)
Things to do once you're actually there
Less is more on a family vacation, but having structured activities to do may also be the challenge you need to get everybody up and dressed. Here are a few ideas for things you can do together, to get you out and exploring a new place.
Embrace the time change
Some of the best advice I received was to let my kids stay up until midnight (!) at my destination, by napping during the day (crucial) and sleeping through much of the morning. Not only did this make transitioning back to our time zone easier, but we could enjoy leisurely dinners on our vacation without having to rush the kids off to bed. Do what works for your family, of course, but don't be too hard on yourself if what you want to work, doesn't.
Seek out a city's green space
Most cities around the world have ample, family-friendly green spaces. Oftentimes there's a playground or a place for the kids to run in, and they can be a quiet refuge from the main drag too. We booked our first accommodation right across from Athens National Gardens, knowing we'd appreciate a place to roam freely at odd, jet lag-tinged hours.
Visit a farm
When a winery visit is not in the cards with kids, head to a local farm instead. They can hold a lot of history, having maybe been run for generations. Kids love picking (or really just eating), and you'll probably get to chat with locals and learn a thing or two about the country while you're at it.
Book a kid-friendly tour, or plan your own scavenger hunt
Companies like With Locals and Airbnb offer tours and experiences specifically for families. Treasure hunts, jewelry workshops, and cat feeding tours could all be part of the itinerary, depending on where you're going. And if you don't feel like shelling out the cash, create your own scavenger hunt. The promise of a prize always gets kids out the door.
Make meal time an activity
You don't have to be a food lover to learn something about a country through its cuisine. Make restaurant visits a time for learning and exploring. Read through the menu with your kids and talk about what's different between the food there and at home. Seek out family-run places which often value… families! If you're struggling to find them, ask a local. Most people will be more than happy to share their go-to place.
And if going to restaurants with your kids positively scares you, hire a private chef to cook a meal in your rental. Depending on your party size, it can be comparable in cost to eating out, and you may even get a cooking lesson out of it too.
Schedule in down time
To give everybody an opportunity to recharge, don't be afraid to pencil in whole rest days, or at least large chunks of the afternoon. Sure, schlepping your family across the globe isn't cheap, and you'll probably experience anxiety over wasting a second of it, but once you relax into a more balanced go-and-recharge cycle, you'll set yourself up for an enjoyable trip.
This down time doesn't have to mean lying in a dark room and sleeping (but it can!). When I could tell my kids needed a break, I found that time spent doing familiar activities like playing cards, colouring, or reading books together helped rejuvenate them.
Practice letting go
What I finally realized, maybe too far into the trip, is that it's more beneficial to look at a vacation abroad as one big, but short, experience. With that perspective, you'll have an easier time of letting go and allowing your kids to do things they wouldn't otherwise do at home.
Let them order from a street vendor in a foreign language. Let them stay up until midnight and play with the local kids in the square. Let them nap on the beach when you're too far from a bed. If you give your kids the opportunity and emotional space to sort these new situations out for themselves, your trip will brim with valuable life lessons.
Encourage your kids to reflect on their experience
I packed a stack of blank index cards to record my oldest daughter's thoughts. Every day — or on the days we remembered — we'd sit down and write out her favourite part about that day. When we got home we printed the photos out and matched them with the index cards to create an instant picture journal of her trip. It was a great way for her to make sense of her experience. My daughter has carried that photo book with her everywhere since we've been back.
And while the trip itself came with many tears, tantrums, and parenting hardships, those memories are already starting to fade. And yours will too. That's the beauty of a vacation. You will survive. And you'll have the pictures to prove it was fabulous.
Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.