The Truth About Traveling with Young Kids

Just after we’d reached the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

When my two oldest kids were 4 years and 22 months old, I had the chance to accompany my husband to Vancouver. He had a week-long conference, and convinced me to go with him.

I’d assumed that he’d be done with the conference by 1 PM every afternoon, and that we could take the kids exploring in the city together afterward.

As it turned out, he was away from the hotel 10-12 hours a day. I was stuck with two kids: one who couldn’t adjust to the time change, and the other who woke every hour at night. I got maybe 4 hours of broken sleep in a twenty-four hour period.

What did I do?

I rented a minivan, a car I’d never driven before, in a city I’d never visited before, and drove all over the city, hitting every sight I could. I got lost with two crying toddlers in the back seat. I got peed on. I had trouble finding food the kids would eat. We all froze because we didn’t bring enough warm clothing.

But I saw Vancouver, damn it. And though I was unshowered, sweaty, nervous, and stressed out, Vancouver saw me.

That trip to Vancouver served an important purpose in my life. Because it quashed any hesitation I’ve ever had when it comes to traveling with kids.

A little over a year ago, we traveled all over India in a two-week period, with three kids ages 9, 6 & 3. In April, we took them to Seattle and San Francisco. And yesterday, we got back from 4 nights in Paris, and 5 in Amsterdam.

A canal in Amsterdam.

As I posted some of my photos of our European excursion to Facebook over the past 9 days, I worried that I might be painting an untruthful picture of what it’s like to travel, particularly internationally, with young children. Because traveling with young kids isn’t a vacation. It’s an experience. If you go into it knowing that disaster lurks around every corner, you’ll have a much better time all around.

Here’s what the seemingly peaceful photos of my trip don’t show–

1.) My 4-year old, who is going through one of the most difficult phases ever, threw 4-6 incredible temper tantrums a day.

2.) Paris doesn’t have ramps or elevators, so we spent as much time carrying the stroller up and down steps as we did actually wheeling it around.

3.) At every moment during the trip, 1 of my 3 kids was either crying or complaining about something.

Me, and my friend Mona.

4.) At every moment during the trip, 1 of my 3 kids was asking for a souvenir.

5.) Day 3 in Amsterdam, 3/5 of us got a stomach virus. I was thrown up on no less than 4 times, including once as the plane’s wheels left the ground in Amsterdam, en route back to Atlanta.

6.) I yelled at the kids. They yelled at me.

7.) I cursed way too much. The kids heard it all.

8.) All three girls were put in time out in both countries.

9.) All three girls were being complete brats at least twice a day, usually at different times, but sometimes at the same time.

Having a beer (or two) at the Heineken museum helps tremendously.

10.) Paris doesn’t have bathrooms. Someone was always whining that they had to pee.

Despite the difficulties, there is something so magnificent about my trips with my girls that I can’t quite put my finger on. There are moments from our travel that change who I am forever.

Me and the Big Girls, strolling the Paris streets.

Licking ice cream cones in front of the Eiffel Tower, at night.

Perhaps, this time around, it was the moment we reached the second story of the Eiffel Tower, a 669 step journey that all three girls made without any help, without a single complaint. When the wind tussled their hair just so as they looked out over their conquered domain, the height that they’d mastered, the city that their feet had already traversed for miles that day– I found myself almost speechless with pride, with love so limitless I felt dizzy.

Climbing a statue in Paris.

Perhaps it was in the three minutes we had to run from the ticket counter at the Paris Nord train station, to our train on the verge leaving for Amsterdam. As I sprinted with my 4 year old in the stroller, my backpack smacking the top of my head, my 8 year-old’s long, lean legs stretching out so far along the platform like an athlete at a track meet, my 10 year-old managing a giant suitcase all on her own, my husband bringing up the rear, double-checking that we had the kids we came with– I felt like we’d never been more whole as a family. Despite the fact that missing the train would mean we’d miss spending the few hours we had with my cousin’s family in Amsterdam, I spent those sweaty, panicked minutes marveling at how strong and fast my girls had become. How big they’d grown. How, in a moment of impending disaster, they’d pulled it together enough to make it on the train ten seconds before the door closed behind us.

Me, at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, a few hours after we landed.

Or perhaps it was in the middle of a night when, in the dead of sleep, I felt my 4 year old (who’d kicked me in the ribs most of the night) roll over and plant a sweet, wet kiss on each of my cheeks. When I cracked my eye to see what was going on, she was already snoring again, eyes closed, as if one of us, or perhaps both of us, had imagined it.

The world is an amazing place to visit. And perhaps it’s even more amazing because I get to see it with my crazy family. We are, for sure, a head trip. And I’m already planning the next trip in my head.


14 thoughts on “The Truth About Traveling with Young Kids

  1. “Because traveling with young kids isn’t a vacation. It’s an experience. ”

    So true! We’ve been traveling with our kids since E, my youngest, was 6 or 7 (he’s 10 now, and my daughter’s 13). Two things prevented us from traveling much before then. 1. Lack of money. We loved to travel, but it’s more expensive with 2 kids. and 2. E has Asperger Syndrome and was difficult to manage in public for a while. But two things happened. He calmed down/matured a bit and we inherited some money. The money gave me an out. I wouldn’t feel bad about splurging on a taxi to get back to the hotel if E had a meltdown. Or I wouldn’t have to find the most inexpensive place to eat; I could go somewhere the kids wanted to go even if it was a little more money.

    But never do I assume that it will be relaxing.

    I’d love to hear about places to go in Amsterdam. There are so many cities in the world I want to visit, and Amsterdam is near the top of the list.

  2. Wendy,

    I think Amsterdam is an extremely kid-friendly place to visit. First off, it’s small (something like 800K people) so you won’t have the crowds and noise to deal with like you do in other urban European cities. Second, everything is very close. If you stay toward the center of the city, you can walk almost everywhere, and what you can’t/don’t want to walk to, you can take either a tram or a canal boat to. Third, while there are wonderful museums, they don’t take a lot of time to do because they’re smaller. Van Gogh was outstanding, but we were in and out in an hour and a half. Anne Frank’s house had a long wait, but the house itself took a little over an hour. (And I’ve heard you can reserve the tickets ahead of time so you don’t even have to wait.) Rembrandt’s house was also about an hour, as was the National museum which had most of his famous paintings. The Heineken museum was great fun, too, and we had a wonderful afternoon relaxing in Vondel Park.

    But really, you can just wander the streets and have a great time. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, and they all speak English, which makes it much easier with kids!

    Happy travels!

  3. I can’t wait to go! Thanks for the info. Btw, the way we dealt with souvenirs is by telling them they could have a certain amount of souvenir money for the whole trip. If they didn’t spend it all, we would give it back to them. So for our recent PA trip, they had $50 each. My son spent $27 of his on a puzzle, a large pencil, a cookie, and 2 hilarious nose things. I have a pic–I’ll post it on my blog. He got $23 in cash back, which he’s putting towards the Nintendo DS he wants. My daughter spent all of hers on a bunch of stuff, including a pillow from Hershey Chocolate World, which she gifted to a friend of hers whose birthday was the Saturday we got back. Not sure if that was planned or not. The best part is if they want a big ticket item, then can get it. If they want the cash, they don’t bring home junk. If they absolutely must have that big pencil (E has a thing for big pencils), they can get it.

  4. Love it! So true! We also noticed the lack to handicapped and stroller accessibility in France.

  5. Anjali-

    I loved hearing the good and the not so good stories about your trip. It was so real and thought many times that could be my family. I love to travel too. After graduating from UGA i was able to spend 2 years working in Southern Germany. I still dream about living overseas today(even though it was 15 years ago). I just can’t let it go. I ran a marathon in Rome Italy about 10 years ago just so I could leave the US and my fiance/Boyfriend(now husband) would come with me. I still try to think of excuses to go travel anywhere. My husband does not quite have the bug I have. If it was up to me we might spend our entire savings traveling. I guess someone has to be practical one in the household. We are threatening to take a road trip to northern Colorado next summer which could be really interesting since my husband does not like to drive more than 6 hours in the car. We have 2 kids Addison she would be 8 next summer and James would be 4. I will keep you posted and until then keep traveling! Wendie Eubank Henderson

  6. Yes, Angela! It’s kind of sad, because if you have any kind of physical disability that makes walking challenging, you just can’t do Paris.

  7. Wendy,

    We are not so disciplined about souvenirs abroad. If they find something really special in a different country, if it’s reasonably priced, I’ll let them have it. Who knows when they’ll be back? Stateside, we don’t really do much in the way of souvenirs.

  8. Wendie,

    I can only imagine how wonderful Germany was to work in for two years! And running a marathon in Rome must have been amazing! (I went to Rome very briefly when I was in high school. It was my favorite European city at the time.)

    The bug to travel is a catchy virus. With your passion and enthusiasm, I think James, Addison, and your husband will be chomping at the bit to travel abroad soon!

    Happy travels!

  9. Sounds like an excellent time. I think we need to pack up and go to Europe, soon. This makes me feel like it’s doable!

  10. That’s a nice way of looking at things, I have to remember that once my second is born, it took us 3 years to make an international trip with my first!

  11. I love traveling with my kids! LOVE IT. And yet. This post rings so, so true. Still, giving my kids different experiences is important enough and better yet, FUN enough, to put up with all of the annoyances. 🙂

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