#DoYouIndie Day 6 Travel Challenge: Top 5 travel tips…with kids

Us crossing the river with our bikes. Tess is on the left.

QUESTION: What are your top five travel tips for new travelers before they start a trip?

I’m putting my own spin on this and I’m going to append “with kids” to this question, since that was obviously a huge focus for us in our recent travels and the majority of questions I get about our trip are centered around specifics regarding the kids.  So here goes…..

Tip #1: If you are committed to traveling light, then YES, it is still possible even if you are traveling with children! Choose a pack to fit their frame, and only take what fits inside, and what they can carry comfortably for at least 2 miles. Typically, we didn’t have to carry our packs that far, but there were a few times that we were all pushed to our comfort limits in terms of how long we wanted to carry our packs, so best to plan for that. Packing cubes are indispensable travel companions (we each had four), as they allow you to organize your pack by color coding (Yellow=shirts; Orange=pants, etc) and make it so easy to pack and unpack. For certain excursions, such as our trek to Machu Picchu and our week on Ninamu, we each only took 1 or 2 packing cubes, instead of our whole pack. Carrying their own pack teaches them about consumerism as well; my kids regularly made hard decisions based on the fact that they were in charge of their own stuff. They might decide to part with a bulky hoodie so they could expand their beach wardrobe or simply because stuff wasn’t fitting into their packing cubes.


Predeparture. I was kind of joking (2nd from right), but actually I would have been better off with a 65L pack rather than the 85L

Tip #2: Roadschooling is not one size fits all, do your home work, make a plan and then adapt (or toss it out the window) as needed. Before our trip we had met with a family that traveled with their three kids and they told us they gave up on schooling during their year away. At the time, I thought I’d never do that, but as the trip got underway, and I tired of the power struggles over schoolwork, I could see how that mom made the best decision for her family. We had kids in their last year of middle school all they way down to first grade during our year away. Our 7th and 8th graders needed online courses to fulfill requirements for math and history so that they would not need to repeat these courses in high school. My first step was to check with the district to see what courses were accredited. I saw that there were many, so then I searched for those that offered the courses my kids needed. My criteria for picking an online school were a) no books (see tip #1) and b) independent study rather than logging on to participate in class (although they did meet with their teachers and did discussion groups), c) flexible start date and d) works with an ipad, since that’s what they had. “D” turned out to be a deal breaker more than once, but tablet compatibility has no doubt improved in the last 2 years, as it did even over the course of our travels. For our 1st and 3rd graders, we did math books, and both of them completed their current grade and their subsequent grade in a few months’ time. For clear explanations and enhanced math learning and science, we used Khan Academy. All four kids were required to post on our blog and sometimes were assigned papers based on tours that we took. Word of warning here: be prepared to be loathed by your children if you do this, but persevere anway because not only will they learn something on the tour, they will be so happy for that account later. Later in the trip when we were all getting a little lackadaisical, we started basing their allowance on whether they posted to the blog or not. Other roadschooling methods involved interspersing tour and museum days with fun park days or other active excursions. We also encouraged the kids to learn a few words in the local language, and they all avidly played DuoLingo during the trip in the foreign language of their choice. The other big activity was reading – I gave them unlimited kindle accounts and let them read as many books as they wanted. This worked great for all except Viv, who really wanted to have the actual book. In the end, our kids’ reentry into traditional school was seamless from an academic standpoint and they are all doing well. What your children learn on the road and from being with you and their siblings 24/7 is more than they could possible gain from a year in school, and the lessons will impact them for the rest of their lives.

Predeparture. I was kind of joking (2nd from right), but actually I would have been better off with a 65L pack rather than the 85L

Wifi is everywhere.

Tip #3: Give your kids an allowance; it engages them in day to day transactions, gives them greater independence, and teaches them valuable life skills! I think we were a couple of countries into the trip when Jon and I had finally heard the last we could stand of “can I have a smoothie with lunch” or “can we please get gelato?” We explained to them that if we were to buy a beverage with each meal for each of us, then that is automatically another $20 on our tab in some countries. We hastily decided on a $5 per week per child allowance, paid in the local currency and life on the road got a whole lot more enjoyable for all of us. Of course, $5 went a lot further in SE Asia than it did in Australia, but the kids quickly learned to scope out the best deals, save their money up and buy what we really spoke to them. Which, is a “sub-point” here that I want to reference from a previous post: If you really want something while traveling, just buy it!

Travel day. Viv is especially loaded down with her birthday loot, a hat that she made on Rangiroa, and a little "slap" bracelet she got in Australia

Travel day. Viv is especially loaded down with her birthday loot, a hat that she made on Rangiroa, and a little “slap” bracelet she got in Australia

Tip #4: Think hard about what “living in the moment” means to you and do whatever it takes to make that possible. For some, it might be giving up their smart phone; for others it might mean booking the entire trip down to the last tour and accommodation so they aren’t doing that while on the road. For others it might actually mean not booking anything in advance so that they can be as flexible as possible (although I wouldn’t recommend this if you have small children or large families, where booking accommodations can be challenging). I can tell you that each day can easily be consumed by what at first might seem to be a small distraction. Booking an excursion, researching “things to do” in Trip Advisor, or trying to get your laundry done can easily kill an entire morning on the road, where you don’t have your usual routines and destinations all dialed in. A trip to the grocery store will take at least an hour longer than usual, as you hunt for your “familiar” items and get distracted by all the new and unusual finds. I spent an entire day in the French countryside (by bike!) distracted by the task of trying to buy contact lens solution before I realized that they only sold it in pharmacies and not supermarkets. A little advance research on certain individual “needs” of your family can save you a ton of time and help you make the most of the days that you are able to spend in a city or country.


The unhappy roaming joneses – tired of running errands for mom

Tip #5: Engage with local people as much as possible. As I’ve touched on in previous posts, for our family, this is where the secret to meaniningful and authentic travel lies.  Meeting locals and engaging with them unlocked so many amazing experiences for us.  Although certaininly not a requirement for this tip, I think traveling with children made us more approachable and also in many ways less of a target for sketchy characters.  Gifts and hugs were bestowed upon our children on a regular basis and I think the kids were often what drew people in and helped us start a diaglogue. If you are invited to someone’s home, say YES and offer to bring something.  If you have an opportunity or the adventuresome spirit to stay in someone’s home, by all means, this is the ticket to the real deal.  Just try it!  If it doesn’t work out, book a hotel at your next destination!

I was reading a post by Hallie O’Reilly at Little Talks and she made a salient point that I want to restate here:

i do not, will not, nor will i ever claim to be ANY kind of expert on the subject of traveling.  that’s the beauty of the traveler’s journey, you become seasoned, you become experienced, but you are ALWAYS learning…so for this fact, i will not ever consider myself an expert on anything having to do with travel…no matter how many countries i adventure to.

So true!  Each of us is unique, and when it comes to kids, only you know what’s best for your family.  That fact that you are even reading this tells me that you are an adventurer and you might even be considering stealing your kids away from their routines for a year or indefinitely to see what is out there in this beautiful magical world we live in.  To that, I say, GO! Just do it.  It IS within reach and you will never regret it.

#DoYouIndie Travel Challenge: Living Like a Local

Day 4 of the BootsnAll Travel Challenge asked us to tell about a time when we got information from a local, and also encouraged us to pose as a tourist in our town and ask 5 strangers about things to do and then go do it.

There is no equivalent to experiencing a new city like a local when you are traveling.  This is true whether you are on another continent or just a nearby town, but it is especially magical when you require this inside scoop because there is no other way to obtain this coveted knowledge other than asking someone who lives there.  When you find that special experience, that place where no guidebook or travel blog or Trip Advisor review could have led you, you instantly feel a connection with and a deeper sense of the place you are in.

When we traveled around the world with our kids we were continuously trying to get off the tourist track, away from the tour buses and restaurants with picture book menus.  Inevitably, in the same places where we sought these back door experiences, we also needed guides and drivers in many locales where for instance, driving wasn’t recommended (Sri Lanka) or language was a major barrier (SE Asia).  Our guides would often try to take us to the major tour stop restaurants and we would try to redirect them to something more authentic, asking them “Where would YOU eat?”.  Usually, they would chuckle and say that no, the food they would eat wouldn’t be good for our stomachs.  We nearly always succeeded in cajoling them into taking us to a local restaurant, where we sat amidst the local lunch crowd, nary a foreigner in site.  Sometimes, it was just pulling over at a card table laden with some homemade recipe with the cook standing there in her apron while her children played nearby.  These culinary adventures didn’t always end well or weren’t universally appealing to all six of our palates, but we always walked away happy in at least one sense, feeling that little prickle of having “broken through” and looked in the face of the real thing.  We had gotten out of our comfort zones and experienced something new.   For a couple of stories about these adventures, check out these old posts here and here.

I lay in bed this morning and posed the #DoYouIndie Travel Challenge topic to Jon, and we reminisced about some of our favorite local experiences.  They are too numerous to recount here, so I decided to share one that really stands out for me.  We were very fortunate near the end of our trip to have a unique opportunity to stay with an American expat family in Peru.  They were running an AirBnB in a big colonial home in the heart of Cusco with their 4 kids and a few chickens running underfoot, and we instantly saw the potential for a great connection.  Bill and Nic were the consummate hosts, and the most genuine and open people, and their generosity allowed us to really see Cusco from a local’s perspective.  They do run a few tours from their AirBnB and one, A Day in the LIfe, involves eating Cuy (guinea pig) and seeing how a Peruvian farm is run.  I think timing and other factors conspired against us doing that, but we were able to have some other amazing experiences together.  Bill had heard that we had some baseball gear with us, and the idea began to form that we would have a big family ball game.  So, we packed a picnic lunch and carpooled to the nearby historical site, Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”).   It felt a little strange running around a baseball diamond made of sweatshirts and stocking caps while tourists looked on from their explorations of nearby 1000 year old ruins and a hallucinogenic, Shaman-led Ayahuasca experience was happening in the background at one point.  But it was intensely memorable and I laugh every time I check out the photos, remembering how surreal the whole thing was.

Our baseball diamond in the midst of the famous Sacsayhuaman archeological site

Our baseball diamond in the midst of the famous Sacsayhuaman archeological site

Another morning, the whole Roaming Jones clan took a bus to an open air market with Bill and one of his kids, where we trailed along behind as he picked up breakfast staples (provided as part of the room rate to their guests) and food that we would need for a shared meal we were all cooking together that night.  His fluent Spanish and familiarity with the market helped put everyone at ease and made it easier to take photos and get questions answered about unfamiliar foods or anything around us, really.  On the way home, we were all crammed onto a standing room only local bus, and a woman said something to me – Bill translated that she had commented on how good the large bunch of mint I was holding smelled.  Instant connection and warm smile.

The busy marketplace

The busy marketplace

Bill picking out some produce

Bill picking out some produce


Bill asked this man if I could take his photo and he was more than happy to oblige!

Bill asked this man if I could take his photo and he was more than happy to oblige!

My "friend" from the bus, thanks to Bill's help as a translator

My “friend” from the bus, thanks to Bill’s help as a translator

One Saturday morning, Nicole and I woke up early and walked to the local flea market, where she hunted through her usual haunts for used and antique goods for their AirBnB.  Nicole is blonde and looks every bit the American that she is (or was) and it was fun to watch the faces of the vendors as she held up an item and inquired basically, Cuanto?  They would name some ridiculous tourist price, to which she would spit out an indignantly fluent tirade and begin to set the item down.  She nearly always walked away with her prize, and a satisfied look, while the vendor sat smiling and shaking their head, also pleased with the spirited transaction and impressed by this white girl’s skills.  If my memory serves me, after a few hours, we had procured some amazing woven blankets for the beds, some sheets, a couple of dishes or trinkets and nearly a cool green sofa set that was just too expensive at the time.  Another night, Molly and David agreed to watch the kids (our 2 and Bill and Nic’s 4, of whom the youngest was 1) while Bill, Nicole, Jon and I snuck off to a local Irish Pub to watch the US defeat Ghana in a world cup soccer game.  We felt and acted like American tourists there, but it was a great break for Bill and Nic and we all had a blast, concluding with a very entertaining walk back to the house.

Enjoying the homeschooling art supplies at Bill and Nic's

Enjoying the homeschooling art supplies at Bill and Nic’s

When I look back at that time in Cusco, it almost feels like we were locals, despite not speaking the language and only having stayed there a couple of weeks, simply because we were able to shadow Bill and Nic as they went about their daily lives.  Like I said in an earlier post, it is always about the people.

Speaking of which, a second part of today’s challenge was to ask people in my own city where they like to go and choose one of those suggestions and go do it.  I am proud to report that I DID ask a few locals about their favorite things to do in Seattle and here is how it turned out:

1) Pike Place Market

2) I’m not from here (and he thought I was hitting on him so I dropped it), and

3) Suggested I try out his restaurant in Ballard, called Copine, that will be opening in April.  You heard it here first, folks!

Even though I didn’t get any great insider tips that I could act on today, I loved getting outside of my comfort zone by striking up conversations with random strangers.  A bit of thaw on the Seattle Freeze reputation!

Beautiful Andes

Beautiful Andes

#DoYouIndie Travel Challenge: Traveling is not Vacation and Other Realizations

Day 3: What has long term travel taught you?

I could fill a book with all the things that occurred to me as we circumnavigated the globe last year, and in other trips with Jon or our children.  Although many of these are not profound or deeply introspective, they are just a few of the things that come to mind as a sit down tonight to take on this writing challenge.  I hope you enjoy and that it causes you to ponder the same thing – what have you learned in your travels…about yourself or about the world in general.
  1.  The world up close is not as scary as it looks on your TV.  Americans are really cautious people, and we get even safer with each passing year.   My brother who is 12 years younger than me, rode in a car seat from day one.  Me?  My mom used to let me ride around in the trunk!  My parents tucked me and my older sister into sleeping bags in the back of our blue station wagon and cruised off to the drive-in movie hoping we were sound asleep in the back (we weren’t, and I’m still afraid of sharks).  And I am not that old (I keep telling myself that).  Before we left on our trip, I had planned to check the US Dept of State website and also register each segment of our trip with them (S.T.E.P.). A few countries in, I realized that reading an alert on a website is very different than actually being there, and largely abandoned this process. We had very few close encounters with criminal activity in one year abroad.   One ipad was stolen, but it was an inside job by someone who had a key to the volunteer apartment we were staying in while in Nairobi. And Jon was pickpocketed on a bus in Denmark, of all places!  One of the “scariest” places we went, at least if you were to listen to the news, was Turkey. Even in Instanbul, where we spent nearly a week, there was no evidence of uprisings that were so famously displayed on the news, and no sense of unease at all.  In fact, our children agreed that the nicest people on the planet live in Turkey (which was Jon and my conclusion when we visited there 18 years ago).  One of our flights out of Egypt was cancelled by the airline, due to civil unrest (July 2013), forcing us to reroute that part of our trip.  Otherwise, we were safe, even when taking public transportation late at night, or letting the kids run short errands on their own in nearly every country we stayed.  And back to the car seat point, we accepted that Vivian, at 6 years of age, and Maggie, at 8, were done with car seats the moment we left the US (and I still get the occassional disapproving scowl when I tell a fellow mom here at home that Vivian doesn’t need a booster, even though **gasp!!** she isn’t 4’9″ tall or 9 years old).  Of course when we weren’t riding in a Songthaew, Tuk Tuk or some other prewar era vehicle, we insisted on seat belts for everyone, because at the end of the day, we are Americans.

    It wasn't all helmets and seat belts for us....David preparing to plummet from the 111 meter Victoria Falls Bungy

    It wasn’t all helmets and seat belts for us….David preparing to plummet from the 111 meter Victoria Falls Bungy

  2. People are generally very nice.  Of course there are always those people you encounter that clearly were bitten by the grumpasaurus as they stepped out of bed, and we encountered a few of them on journey, notably in France and Austria, but for the most part, people are kind, friendly, generous and open.  And the good far outweighs and outlasts the bad. In fact, the same day we encountered the crazy guy chasing us down the canal, we had taken our family on bikes to a nearby market for some food. It started to rain so hard just as the store was closing.  Rather than letting us venture out into the deluge with our bags of groceries, the store owner insisted that he drive us back to the canal boat in his truck.  It is no secret that Americans tend to be a little more stand-offish and travel has helped to smooth those hard angles a little for me.  Now when I’m traveling, if someone I meet in line waiting for food invites us over for dinner the next night at their house, I smile and accept, where as before, I might have demurred, assuming they couldn’t possibly mean it, that the invitation was only a friendly gesture that I was meant to decline.  But no, in other countries people really are that nice.  They want to show you their hometown, introduce you to their family and their customs, and share their food.  One of my favorite memories of Iceland is that when departing, instead of giving the expected “ciao” or “goodbye”, they simply say “bless”.  It always made me feel hugged.  Whenever I looked back and thought about how much I enjoyed a place, it was always the people that mattered; they ultimately became the measure of a city or a country.  Kind of a sobering thought when you apply that to how foreigners visiting the US might perceive our country!P1020938
  3. Our country is not the greatest country on earth.  Before you start berating me for my traitorous wasy or accusing me of being an ingrate, just think about it. The US has affluence, many freedoms, and political prowess, but we are not first in education, safety (no matter how many laws are written to prevent us from harming ourselves), or even happiness. The best post I have found on this topic on the internet is here, and there are great statistics to back up these rankings. No single country is the “best” at everything, and it was impossible not to compare each place we went to the last, and also to our good ‘ole USA.   We traveled to some of the poorest countries on earth and saw the happiest people, with no worldly possessions but emanating pure joy.  An empty water bottle given to a small child in a school in Nairobi created such a stir, it might be compared to telling an American child that he has been given an all expenses paid trip to Disneyland and we would be leaving that moment!  In Cuba, where I was just last spring, I had a little insight into what a truly communist country looks like.  The people there have awesome health benefits and can be educated in any field (for free!) but they can’t earn a salary that will allow them anything “extra” over fellow countrymen.  Our guide remarked on Molly’s braces, which in the US cost us $7000, but for his daughter in Havana, they were paid for by the government.  As I was struggling to come to terms with this painful disparity, he told me that he was taking his daughter the following day to be a “dolphin trainer for a day” at the local aquarium.  The price?  Fifty-two cents.  I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly.  When I asked him why pay anything at all if the fee is so small and he replied with an unreadable expression that I took to be sincere, “it pays the trainer’s salary”.  So there it is….they have many freedoms but are not free in the full sense of the word.  They are not in control of their destiny and the undercurrent of sadness was palpable in many places.  I learned that our way was not always the best way, it was simply one way of many≠≠.  I saw the opposite side of many conflicts, and it was enlightening.  I will never forget my trip to the “American War” museum in Vietnam.  I gained a new perspective on many things that I had only considered before from a single dimension, the American point of view.P1030911
  4. Traveling ≠ Vacation or in other words, traveling can be a lot of work!  Especially with kids.  I think we were four weeks into the trip when it kind of hit us like a ton of bricks that we were really travelling and this was no longer a trip that we would soon be returning home from, but “this” was actually our home for the next year!  As expected, sometimes our frenetic pace became too much and we needed to slow down.  Although, because there were so many places we wanted to go, our maximum stay in any one place was 2 weeks, and because we had all become so accustomed to the thrill of doing something new every day, 2 weeks felt like a long time, almost TOO long to stay in one place.  We tried to keep our minimum to 2 nights, so that there was at least one full day to actually go do something without our “stuff” in tow sandwiched between two travel days.   In that same vein, travelers ≠ tourists.  But if you are reading this, and you follow travel blogs like Bootsnall, then I’m preaching to the choir.  There is a huge difference between staying in a resort, and staying in someone’s home; taking a prescripted tour and traveling independently. I’m not sure I gave a ton of thoght to this before our big RTW trip, but now it is something I notice every time I travel, and my kids do too.


    A familiar travel day scenario. I think this was in Sri Lanka, where seat belts actually might have made me feel a bit safer (in case we were to collide with an elephant or tuk tuk)

  5. Living in the moment is not easy.  At the beginning of the trip, I stated that this would be one of my big goals, and I found it to be an even larger challenge than anticipated.  When you travel long term, each day, each city, each experience has three different dimensions, and they overlap so that on any given day, you are dealing with the future, past and present of several different parts of your trip.  Confused?  So was I, and often.  Sometimes, I had to give up on documenting an amazing experience on our blog (Prague) so that we could enjoy the country we were currently in (France), or even plan the next leg of our journey (Austria, which we arrived in just one day after we had booked our stay and with no transportation to get us there)!  It was a constant battle of preserving our precious memories, savoring the awesomeness of what was actually surrounding us, and planning ahead a little so that we could optimize our experience in our next destination.   But not planning so much that we couldn’t be flexible….or live in the moment!P1030250
  6. However hard it is, document it.  Whether it be Instagram, a journal, the Notes feature on your iphone, a blog, or even black and white film. If you don’t tell your story somehow, the colors, smells, names, faces, tastes, and intensity will fade with time.  I’ve already mentioned Prague, but there are many, many, many other small moments, days, and even entire countries that remain undocumented.  However hard I try, if I were to write about it now, the story would be different, just removed enough that you couldn’t feel the weight of the dozen keys that were meant to get us into our apartment, or the name of the restaurant where ran into our friends from Seattle.  The framework for the story is there, but the feeling of being there is gone.
  7. Less is more.  I still can’t believe how few clothes I had with me compared to what is currently in my closet (until I look at the photos and see the same blue shirt a million times). For a long musing on this topic, see yesterday’s post, but basically, it was just kind of exhilirating to realize that sometimes washing four things in a sink and drying them on a bush to stretch another week out of my wardrobe was worth it if it meant we got to spend an extra 6 hours doing something we really liked, in a place we had never been.  I also took to cutting my own hair, mending my beloved smart wool socks with my little sewing kit, and many other strategies that saved us a lot of time hunting around for “the western equivalent” or spending a lot of money.  I went a year without a pedicure, without highlights, and with the same 2 pairs of shoes. But, never the purist, I did lug around my heavy Sonicare for a year, and carried extra tubes of my favorite mascara
  8. If you see something you really want, just buy it!  First of all, your money stimulates the economy and it is likely that whomever you paid for the item needs the money far more than you even if you are traveling on a “shoestring” budget.  Second, if you don’t buy it, you may waste hours futiley searching other shops in nearby towns for that exact item, to no avail. Believe me, there were those hand knitted, double thickness gloves at the highest peak in San Pedro de Atacama, and that bag in Venice, and countless other items I passed up because of various uncertainties, and then I wasted time and energy and sometimes money seeking out that exact item elsewhere, and never really finding it.  I realize that there are entire posts on travel websites all over the internet telling you the exact opposite, that if you see a souvenier, hold off on buying it because it is probably the same thing you will see in all other shops for a better price elsewhere.  But I’m telling you, if you see something that really speaks to you, sometimes it is worth it to just trust your excellent taste and intuition, and fork over the cash (after a fair attempt at haggling over the price of course).  And third, it will be a treasured momento when you return home to the sameness of your life – it will be a little bright spot, a carved wooden story on your nightstand, a woven silk memory under your bare feet.


    One dollar well spent

I’m stopping here.  I have to save something to write about later this month, right?  And I’ve now taken so long with this post that it is actually the 4th!

Older posts «

Fetch more items