Mar 25, 2012

Traveling With Kids: Lessons Learned

Not being an expert on traveling with children, naturally I feel inclined to write a blog post about it. Mostly,  I want to write down a few things that I've learned from our last few trips, so as to not have to relearn them on our next trip. Much of these tips are geared towards a big-city tour in Europe, where there will be lots of museums, cathedrals, and other things not at all enticing for children, but many can be applied to most any vacation with children in general (the words "vacation" and "children" being used together do not necessarily imply a mutual correlation).

  • Start things off with something exciting. For example, in Paris, go to the Eiffel Tower first, then take a boat tour. In London, I would also start with a boat tour, and climb to the top of St. Paul's. Do the things that give you a good feel for the city, and that will give you a spectacular view. In Amsterdam, ride a boat through the canals, climb the Westerkerk tower, and then head over to Vondelpark (on your bikes of course). It will probably all go downhill from there, but you know what they say about Alpha and Omega. Well, actually it's really just about the Alpha. 
  • You will be tired the next day. Even if you're not dealing with jet lag. Don't plan for anything early, and feel good about yourself if you get out the door by noon. Pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you are awesome.
  • Kids need cameras on vacations. This I learned by default: in Paris, nothing made our kids happier than getting a hold of our cell phones to take pictures.  And of course, nothing made us more nervous than our kids having free reign with our cell phones. For our next trip, each kid will get an inexpensive digital camera to take blurry pictures with to their heart's content. I think it's Newton's 4th law that a body that is preoccupied with taking pictures will forget to to whine and complain that it doesn't like all the things it is taking pictures of. Can't argue with science, people.
  • Along those lines, little backpacks for each child are a must. They can carry their own water bottles, snacks, and cameras. And if your kids are anything like mine, they might pick up a few tourist pamphlets, give or take a hundred.
  • Another thing kids need for their own: money. Having a small amount of spending money for souvenirs and treats that they they get control over just might make them realize, miraculously, that they don't actually reallyreallyreallyreallyreally need that 10th miniature Eiffel tower after all.
  • Bribery. I recommend it, but it needs to be specific. I purchased a few little items they could earn each day (travel puzzles/games, small Lego sets, moon sand), and then spent the whole day dangling it for good behavior. The entire day was just too much. Instead, keep the bribery specific to the places and times you want them to behave. "I have a small prize at the hotel for anyone who doesn't say 'stupid' or 'poopy' while we're in the Lourve." Or, "we're going to be riding the Metro a lot today, and we'll get ice cream this afternoon for all kids who pretend to be a deaf-mute on the train." I don't really love the cheap toys as prizes, but they ended up keeping them occupied at night, which is a big improvement from jumping all over the beds. And definitely use whatever local treats and desserts are being sold in little roadside stands.
  • I know they are super touristy, but the Hop On/Hop Off bus tours are actually a great way to see a city with kids. Chances are you're going to want to see most of the things on the route anyway, and you might be surprised that your kids actually listen to the prerecorded audio tour for a few minutes before they start climbing all over everything. It's not necessarily inexpensive, but I really regretted that we didn't do this in Paris. Riding the metro might have been more efficient, but you don't get to see the city underground.
  • After 3 days of sight-seeing, they are going to need a day to chill. It stinks to be in an amazing location and have your kids need a day to decompress in the hotel, but bring a book, catch up on some emails, and let them watch a movie.  Take turns with your spouse going out on your own, and then find a park to let them play. 
  • If you'll be going to a museum, check their website for any kid's activities or packets that they offer (usually for free or very low cost). The museums in London are fantastic this way; the museums in Paris? Not so much.
  • When your kid throws a mammoth tantrum in the middle of some public, famous attraction, do not acknowledge that you are related to them in any way. Just keep repeating, "Don't worry, little girl, I'll help you find your mother."
As for ideas of actual things to do with your kids on vacation, I love My Little Nomads, CiaoBambino, and Kids Can Travel for ideas.  Also, feel free to comment with your own tips of the trade. It takes a cyber-village to take your kids on vacation, after all. 

Mar 18, 2012

Paris With Kids: The Story of a Regrettable Family Vacation

Every family has a bad vacation story. Our recent trip to Paris wasn't our worst, but it wasn't our finest either. In 2010, Mark and I took the kids on a road trip that we fondly call the Western States Rotavirus Tour. That was a bad vacation. Puking your way through most of the Western US, and passing out in Disneyland does not make for happy, pleasant memories. But it does get you a wheelchair and a pass to the front of the line. In case you don't believe me, I offer this:

Moving on to Paris. Lovely, amazing Paris. Fantastic bakeries. Incredible art. Rich history. Everything that is entirely unimpressive to our kids in other words. Also not impressive: our traveling skills. I should say, our lack of traveling skills. And with all the whining, crying, and fighting, we may have done some irreparable damage to US-French relations. It didn't help that Mia woke up sick on the morning we were left. Actually, at first it did. Weirdly, Mia gets more easy going and sweet-natured the worse she feels. So at first it was great. We had to kick Nate out of the stroller and carry around a barf bag, but we spent a perfectly enchanted evening at the Eiffel tower (and now have 9 Eiffel Tower chotchkies to prove it). As far as anyone could tell, we were just a nice family who gets along on vacation and enjoys buying overpriced, pointless souvenirs (as if there any other kind).

But as the trip progressed, Mia started feeling better and better, and the rest of us kept wishing she was still sick. Not that she alone ruined everything. Certainly none of us were getting enough sleep, and even mouth-watering croissants can't be your only form of sustenance for too long. Wait, I take that back. Yes, yes, they can. Generally however, Sam and Nate are usually game for whatever we drag them along to, assuming there are adequate snacks and bribes provided. Mia, on the other hand, will make you pay for one excruciating hour of being dragged through the Louvre, and will continue to make you regret it even the next day when you take her to an wonderful(ly expensive) little park with rides, animals, treats, playgrounds, and not a single piece of art or culture in sight. She won't enjoy that outing, oh no, or let anyone else for that matter, and will end up screaming at everyone until someone (who may or may not have been me) screams back and we leave the park with the majority of the family in tears. That's just speaking generally though. I wouldn't know any of the details because I've pushed them deep, deep down where they'll be sure to fester and turn into some obsessive compulsive disorder in a few years.

Mark and I were discussing what was worse, dealing with whining or vomit while traveling. My initial stance was that repeatedly cleaning up barf from car seats was way worse, hands down, any day. Mark was team whining. I still disagree, but admit he has a point. External viral threats make you miserable, but you rally together and get through it. Internal bickering and conflict? I thought we might not speak to each other again.

It's guilt-inducing to admit to a sub-par vacation in Paris. The fact that we even have the chance to travel there, and so easily (3 1/2 hours by train) is mind-blowing. We're traveling in Europe. touring 900 year old cathedrals, standing in front of master-pieces, and arguing in front of UNESCO World Heritage sights. I'm in awe of how incredibly lucky we are. After all, not everybody gets to have such bad vacations.

Time for some pictures. If it makes you feel better, even if we look happy, we were probably miserable inside.

(Don't let these happy, hugging children fool you. 
Three minutes later they were trying to kill each other. )

You know you've been married a long time when you try 
to take a picture kissing in the most romantic city in 
the world, but mostly just feel really silly. 

Fighting in a park. Ah, how sweet. 

My favorite picture from the trip: Nate asleep in front of the Venus de Milo. 

And Mia, when you read this when you are much older, I want you to understand that we love you, and we hope that one day you have a child that makes your vacations just as miserable. (As your parents we only wish the very best revenge on you.)