“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Susan Sontag
Travel is a big part of our homeschooling journey. My husband and I want our son to be a global citizen. We want him to understand that many different cultures have looked at situations and come up with equally viable answers, one not necessarily better than the other. We want him to experience and appreciate different cultures and this big beautiful planet he lives on. We started traveling with Sean when he was two years old. Over the past 14 years he has been to 15 countries and traveled to many locations in the United States. Here are some travel tips I learned along the way.
1. You might never come this way again. If it’s raining outside, cold, or you’re tired, even if the kids complain, do not let it stop you from going out and seeing the sights. I like to tell Sean, he will thank me when he’s 30.
2. Expect the unexpected and be patient with whatever happens. “The best laid plans of mice and men go awry every now and then.” It doesn’t matter how well you plan, something is going to come up. Life is short, you can’t have one second of it back, so why spend your time while traveling angry or annoyed. Some of the best times we had while on the road happened when something went wrong.
Three days later, it was all smiles. The next day we flew home.
And then there was the time we got stuck in a rain storm while driving through Chartes, France at night. We liked the town so well we stayed there 3 nights.
3. Tipping differs depending on the country. Tipping is common in some countries and not in others. French servers are insulted when Americans tip. Irish servers hear the American accent and put you at the best table while giving you the best service. Before leaving on your trip find out what the tipping policy is in that country. If you’re traveling, though, and it feels too weird not to tip, go ahead and tip. What’s the worst someone can say about you for doing it, “That you’re too generous?”
4. No, it’s not going to be just like it was back home. This is a good thing, but it can cause some homesickness, especially for kids. Be prepared for it. If your kids are worried about their pets or want to check in with family or friends, Skype is a great tool to use to stay connected.
5. Be as impulsive and free-spirited as your personality will allow. Worried you might make a fool of yourself? You might be right, but wouldn’t it be worse not to get the full experience. And hey, they’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you. That’s what I tell my son. There were a couple of years when he was too worried about how he looked to just get up and let himself go. I didn’t let that stop me though. Now at 16, he joins in the fun.
6. Where should we go next? When we travel, we only have a loose plan. We like to go to places we have never been before. Because of that, we aren’t sure until we get there, what we are going to want to see and experience. I like to ask locals, “If you could tell someone one place in your country not to miss, what would it be? And why?” I’m not looking for the touristy answer with this either. We prefer non-touristy locations. Sometimes it is just happenstance where we will head next. I might be looking for craft beer and see the name Mammooth Beer. Why would there be Mammooth beer in a store in Granada, Spain? I had to know. It turns out they have been digging up mammoth fossils nearby. Then I learned about Orce Man. On the way out of Granada, we took a detour to see the 1.8 million year old hominid fossil. They had to open the museum for us. No one else was there. Later I learned that Orce Man is very controversial. Archaeologists swear it is a real hominid fossil. Creationists are sure it is a hoax. I am so glad I saw that beer!
7. Where should we stay? When we travel, we do not want to stay in the hotels with all the other foreign travelers. Before leaving home, we do some research to learn where people from that country stay when they take their vacations. Doing this we meet more local people, and it costs less.
8. Get an International Driver’s license. Unless you are positive you will not be driving, you probably want to get an International Driver’s license. While you’re at it check to see if your auto insurance covers you when driving a rental car in another country. In the United States, International Driver’s licenses can be gotten at AAA offices.
9. Leave the lesson books at home. The first time we went on a major trip with Sean, we spent a month in France and Ireland. I brought along books for him so he could continue his studies. That was in 2005. I have to laugh at myself now. It is not a mistake I’ve ever made again. I spent an entire month lugging heavy books around that we were too busy to use.
10. Make it educational. That’s not to say we don’t make it educational. You don’t have to run around to see all the sites to make it educational either. Simply by traveling, observing, and interacting with other people and cultures is an educational experience.
11. Check out bookstores. It is really fun to see what people in other cultures are reading. If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you can read English. Lucky you. I have never been into a bookstore in another country where I couldn’t find something that had been translated into English.
12. Learn a few phrases in that language. There are some phrases you really need to know. Do not assume everyone is going to speak English. Even in countries where many people speak English, we have never found that everyone we wanted to ask a question of spoke English.
- “Does anyone here speak English,” is probably the most important phrase to know. I have used that phrase mainly while entering the country. Just remember, you are going to be tired and stressed from hours of travel. Unless you are fluent in that language, you will probably struggle to say exactly what you want if there is any issue.
- If you have any dietary restrictions, make sure you know how to tell someone about them. I am a vegan, and I never leave home without being able to tell someone that in their own language.
13. Try to get on the sleep cycle. The younger your children are, the more important this is. If at all possible, try to sleep while you’re traveling too. Because it is inevitable that when you first arrive, you will be tired and burned out, we always have a place booked to stay for the first three days of our trip.
14. Pack light and make the clothes you do pack comfortable.
- You are traveling with your children, for most of us that means we do not need a suitcase full of fancy clothes. The longer you were going to be on the road, the more important it is that you have clothes you’re comfortable in. Ask yourself, do you really need that bulky camera, the heavy laptop, or three pairs of high heels? Or would you be better off taking your pictures on your phone, using an iPad, and only bringing along sandals and walking/hiking shoes?
- Only take shoes that have been broken in. Most of us do a lot of walking when we are traveling. It is a big mistake to have new shoes with you.
- Make sure you pay attention to what the people in that area wear. I didn’t have to dress conservatively when I was in India or Dubai, but I felt more comfortable doing so. Often when you are traveling, it’s nice to just blend in. To do that you want to be dressed in a similar fashion to the people of that country.
Casual and comfortable is a great combination when traveling for weeks. Just remember, unless you stay in the same place the entire time, you will we carrying your clothes with you every time you move from one location to another.
15. There are a few things you want to make sure and pack.
- Earplugs: Even if you have never used earplugs before, you should pack some for your trip. Most people are used to the night noises at home. The night noises when you travel are going to be different, and this can keep you or your kids up. There is nothing worse than being tired the entire time you travel.
- Hand sanitizer: The germs are different where you are going. That makes it really easy to catch infectious germs your immune system has never seen before. When that happens you can get sick. Make sure you bring small bottles of hand sanitizer, and use it often. The most common places to pick those germs up are handrails, elevator buttons, and money. Most people do not wash their hands after touching those three things. Use hand sanitizer whenever you or your children touch them. I very rarely get sick when I travel.
- A first aid kit: You are traveling with children. It’s a good idea to be prepared with Band-Aids, Neosporin, and necessary first-aid supplies.
- Plugs for that country: You don’t want to get to a foreign country and find out you can’t charge any of your electronics. Do not assume you will easily find these plugs when you are out of the country. That has not been our experience.
16. Make sure everyone has a bit of cash. One of the most annoying things parents deal with is their children constantly asking them to buy things. We solved this by giving Sean a set amount of money he can spend. How much depends on where we’re going and how long we’re going to be there. Doing this also cuts down on the tension from you telling your child you can’t believe that’s what they want to buy. It’s their money so they can buy whatever they want with it, even if it’s not something you would buy.
17. Is your passport up-to-date for the rules of the country you are traveling to? Do you need a visa? In May, 2015 we traveled to Spain. We were also planning on traveling to Morocco. The trip was planned months before we left. We all checked our passports to make sure we didn’t need to renew them. Two days before leaving for Spain, I happen to read the information sent to us from our airlines months before. It informed us that when traveling to Spain our passports would need to be valid for at least three months beyond our intended departure date. My passport expired one week early to meet that date. We actually ended up changing the date I was to fly back by one week. Then when we got to Spain changed my departure date to its original date and time. In addition to that, we couldn’t go to Morocco, because I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back into Spain. How much stress did this add to the beginning of our vacation? I had a serious cold sore by the time I got to Spain.
18. Journal daily. The first trip we took out of the country with Sean was to Costa Rica. We had been home just a few months when I realized we were starting to forget many of the details from that trip. We had taken lots of photos, but I couldn’t recall many of the details with those alone. Since then I always journal every day when we travel, and blog about it at Blair Lee Blog. We love going back through the journals. I have encouraged Sean to journal daily as well. Some of his entries from when he was young are pretty funny.
19. Press flowers. I like to press wild flowers in the pages of my journal.
20. Try local specialties. I am one of those people who are very curious about food. I have had some interesting conversations with people about what they are eating. Many times people gave me a bite of food from their plate. The irony of this is, I am a bit of a germaphobe, but I just go for it.
Guinea pigs running around the house eating leaves from a coffee plant…
21. Meet and talk to local people. I have been told by one of my stepsons that I like to have random conversations with random people all over the world. This is a trait that has brought pleasure to all of us, as we have found ourselves in interesting and unique situations.
22. Bring both digital and physical copies of your passport, visa, driver’s license, birth certificate, health insurance card, and important phone numbers. The best thing to do is to take pictures of all of these and save them on your phone. It’s a good idea for everyone who is traveling together to have copies of these on their phone as well.
23. Volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to learn about an area and to meet local people. It can take work to find opportunities if your children are younger, but they are available. The academic enrichment your children will gain through volunteering can’t be duplicated in any other way.
24. You are with your children, so you want to make sure everyone can stay in contact. Before you leave, make sure your phones are set up so that it is easy and as inexpensive as possible for all of you to stay connected.
25. Plan activities for everyone. When traveling with a group where there is a range of ages, the best thing to do is to take turns planning activities.
26. You are better off seeing fewer places and getting to know the place instead of cramming as many places as possible into your trip. This is especially true if you are traveling with children. There is a movement called slow travel. When you slow travel, you spend a week or more in a place, and take the time to get to know that place and truly enjoy it. Slow travel leads to a much greater appreciation of where you are, and keeps all of you from feeling rushed and stressed out.
27. Read nonfiction and fictional books about and/or from that country before you go. You can do this in the car while you’re traveling too. If you happen to travel through La Mancha, Spain, and you realize you are the only person who knows the story of Don Quixote, you have some reading to do aloud for your fellow passengers while traveling toward Seville.
28. Make sure you have downloaded good music, videos, and books on tape. Sometimes when parents travel with kids they are concerned their kids will want to be plugged in the whole time. It has happened to us, so before we go I always lay out the ground rules for how much time can be spent on the electronics. On the other hand, part of travel is getting there. It is nice for you if your kids have some way to check out when they’re sitting at airports or in the car. This helps prevent you from going insane during these times.
29. If you are on the road for any length of time, yes, you are going to have to wash clothes. I have found you’re better off not getting too behind on this.
30. Just do it! I have people tell me all the time that they would love to travel like we do. They want to know how we manage it. We start by treating travel as if it is a priority, then we save, plan, and make it happen.
If you can think of any tips I missed, add them to the comment section. Who knows, maybe I will use your tip on our next adventure!
Blair Lee loves to read, cook, laugh, hang out with friends, and homeschool. In 2015, she co-founded Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers SEA Homeschoolers on Facebook. Blair writes for the Real Science Odyssey Series, RSO, as well as blogs and magazines. Blair speaks about eclectic, academic homeschooling, science, and travel at homeschool conventions. You can follow her at blairleeblog, Twitter, and Facebook.