When my wife and I decided to take the plunge and get pregnant with our first child, lots of friends asked us how we knew when the timing was right for this life-changing decision. Our answer: “We didn’t know the best timing.” We were not psychics with a crystal ball with a clear picture of what our financial situation and family would look like in five years. What we did know was that starting a family was important to us and we wanted to do it sooner than later, so we did. My oldest daughter was born three weeks before my 28th birthday.
The same principles of identifying what’s important and trusting your gut apply to the hardest questions in life, including when you should start a family, when you should quit your job, when you should start your business, and most importantly, when you should travel with your kids.
Keep in mind, traveling with your kids is something that you can do until the day you die. However, the window of opportunity gets smaller and narrower as time passes and kids grow older. Newborns and toddlers need to see their grandparents, children need to go to school, teenagers need to play on the soccer team, university students need to study for final exams…the list goes on and on of things that can get in the way of putting together some extended time for traveling together as a family.
Below is a look at some of the pros and cons of traveling with kids in four different age ranges from 3 months to 6 years.
Travel with Kids: 3 to 12 Months Old
After about 3 months, babies are able to control their bodily functions to a point, in which you, at minimum, could sneak in a 2-hour power nap in intervals on a long-haul flight. Our best international flying experience was our oldest daughter’s first one at the ripe age of 3 months on a 14-hour direct flight from San Francisco to Shanghai. With a bit of planning on feeding schedules, our daughter was out cold in her car seat on an open middle seat for nearly 12 hours with a couple of feedings in-between her sweet slumbers. There’s something magical to be said about the loud din inside of airplanes and the intoxicating smell of circulated air for getting infants to sleep on airplanes.
Did you know that toddlers below the age of two fly completely free on domestic flights on most airline carriers? You don’t even need to reserve a ticket for them. Just walk up to the check-in counter and get a complimentary infant-on-lap airplane ticket. And did you know that it’s only approximately 10% of the ticket price and taxes for infants on laps for most international flights? How much did it cost to take our oldest daughter to China with an open middle seat for her car seat/bed? Approximately $100. We repeatedly cashed in on this amazing deal and our oldest daughter visited her grandparents on three separate occasions for a total of 3 months before she had to start paying full price of about $1000 for her seat on the airplane.
Travel with Kids: 1 year to 2.5 years Old
Still not yet ready to take the dive into making your infant a world traveler? Looking to start when they can walk and talk? Traveling with kids ages 1-2.5 years old can be the most rewarding, yet challenging travel your family will ever do. Rewarding in the sense that kids at this age are sponges of love and affection and will help you open doors of compassion and generosity in any country you visit. Challenging in the sense that you still need to take care of everything they do (i.e. eating, sleeping, playing, diaper changing). By traveling abroad, you are not relinquished of your parental duties at home. Moreover, those parental duties are intensified on the road.
But the rewards far outweigh the challenges at this age. Because we had a small child with us, we’ve been offered seats on crowded buses in Hangzhou, subway seats on the congested subways of Buenos Aires, and day trips to the beaches of San Juan del Sur to name a few. Small children are magnets for bringing out the best in anyone, no matter how poor or dangerous the country you are traveling to is perceived to be.
Travel with Kids: 2.5 to 4 Years Old
This age range is really the sweet spot for travel with kids. They’ve gained a sense of self-control, can be kept quiet on an airplane for two to three hours straight with the help of an iPad loaded with lots of age appropriate games and movies, and are most impressionable. Everything they see or do is something new and becomes a learning opportunity. This is when they are able to shape their personal lens of the world.
Language learning, cultural affinities, and personal biases are really shaped during this age range. Essentially kids are most vulnerable during this period. And that’s what traveling is all about: Putting yourself out there in unfamiliar environments to get help from others, learn and grow, and to get a better sense of yourself.
During this age range, my daughter started indulging herself in every Dora the Explorer video she could get her hands on. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of sitting down with children and watching Dora, she is a 4-5 year old girl who has animal friends that she travels with around the world, mostly in her imagination. Dora speaks both English and Spanish to her friends. Both languages are reinforced through the intermittent pop quizzes for the little viewers.
Like every young girl who watches Dora religiously, she unconsciously learned some simple Spanish along the way. But she wasn’t done there. She wanted to really start using her Spanish. Multiple rounds of Spanish bingo at home could not appease her voracious appetite for learning the language. We had to take it to the next level.
While traveling in Nicaragua, our daughter was living out her fantasy as Dora the Explorer. When she needed a spoon, she would go up to the waiter and ask for a “la cuchara”, when she wanted to say thank you, she would say “gracias”, and she most certainly figured out the Spanish word for ice cream or “helado”. She was learning Spanish in a natural environment that made it easiest for her to learn and have the desire to learn.
It’s an incredible thing to watch your child step out of his/her fear and start showing you the way to do things. Subsequently, I started ordering my made-to-order breakfasts and coffee in Spanish rather than pointing to the translated English on the menu: “Gallo pinto con dos huevos. Un cafe con leche, no azugar. Por favor.” or “Rice and beans with two eggs. One coffee with milk and no sugar. Please.” With the inspiration of my 3 year old daughter, I too started with baby steps in my language learning.
At this age, let your kids take charge of their experience and follow their fearless lead.
Travel with Kids: 4 to 6 Years Old
If your child has not yet stepped out of the boundaries of the country you live in, your child already has built up a bank of preconceived notions of what the world is supposed to be. If you are living in the United States, that means having access to endless TV and cartoons. When that is not available, iPads are available for maximum entertainment until eyes get crossed and watching can no longer be sustained. Once that option is exhausted, play time with uncountable toys are available at their disposal without any conscience of how much time and energy it will take their parents to clean up their mess after them. If all of the options have been fully utilized and your child is still bored, playing at the park with local neighborhood kids is a last-ditch option.
This is the sad state of what this generation of kids is growing up in. The very things that have been the greatest sources of utility for the knowledge worker in a digital world have now crippled the fundamental development of kids at their most crucial learning stages. Reading hard cover illustrated books and coloring are the minority of activities at home, if it all. Playing in the sand and games like hide-and-seek are substituted for kids plopped in front of the TV with no end in sight, while their caretakers or mothers and/or fathers take care of errands, cooking, cleaning, and/or work in the background.
This is the age range when kids figure out their interests, likes and dislikes, talents, and what makes them happiest. For our oldest daughter, her interests and talents have always been associated with anything creative, be it dancing, singing, painting, or drawing. Coloring within the lines like some of her peers has never been her forte and she is well aware of this. Put a dress on her and a fake microphone in her hand, and she can entertain herself for hours on end.
Taking kids out of their comfort zones at home and traveling to foreign countries during ages four through six will help them develop a sharper sense of self and help them realize at a very early age what their passions and talents are. On the beaches of Puerto Rico, our oldest daughter turned the seashells and sand into her art canvas with pictures of mermaids, dinosaurs, and written notes to herself. She also made sure to claim her “art” with her signature. Stuck in the middle of torrential rains in December, she couldn’t wait for the sun to come out so she could start her art project at the beach.
“I knew it would be sunny,” she said matter-a-factly just as the rain stopped and the sun began to poke out from the clouds that had enveloped it. “I prayed to God about it just before this.”
And that is where the biggest payoff is. Kids will surprise you with how much they’ve grown through their travels, even when you are least expecting it.