So many people say they want to travel, but they don’t because they have kids. You know what? Kids are flexible and if you really want to, of course you can visit that far away destination. Don’t use your kids as an excuse. Naturally kids change the way we travel, but that’s no reason not to go!
We’ve traveled for most of last year. We spend two months in Dahab, Egypt and eight months traveling around South-East Asia. When we left The Netherlands, our home country, our son was 18 months old. Sure, traveling with a small child is very different from traveling as a couple. But different doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun! It was a fantastic experience and we would go again in a heartbeat.
Fear and other excuses not to travel long term
Both of us have a serious case of the travel bug. And we’ve backpacked (and later flashpacked) a fair bit before our son was born, both solo and as a couple. We always dreamed about leaving Holland for a longer time, doing a world trip or living and working abroad for a while. One of my favourite quotes says that you’ll regret the things that you didn’t do much more than the ones you did. But somehow the timing was never quite right. Steady jobs offering financial security, fear to give up our home and our stuff, family obligations… there was always an excuse. Until suddenly the timing was exactly right…
A child is no reason to stop traveling
One of the first things we agreed on, when we talked about having a baby, was that it would not be a reason stop traveling. Of course you can’t tell upfront what your little one will be like, but that was our intention anyway. Nobody can prepare you for the experience of becoming a parent for the first time. It completely rocked my world and travel was the last thing on my mind. But after a pretty rough start the first three months, things settled and we decided to spend the last month of my parental leave in our holiday house in Dahab, Egypt. While there my boss informed me that due to reorganisations they were forced to let me go. I was shocked and angry, but looking back it was the best thing that ever happened to me. We ended up staying in Egypt for 2,5 months. We had a great time and came to the conclusion that, even though we were now three instead of two, we could definitely make long term travel work.
No more excuses, we’re leaving!
Over the course of the next year we talked about leaving a lot, but it was still only talk. And although we did mention our dream to some of our friends, we didn’t take any real action. I didn’t have a job anymore, my boyfriend was self employed and could leave at any time, we had some savings, there really wasn’t anything standing in our way. But, we had a very affordable rental apartment that we didn’t want to give up. Our final hurdle. And that’s when, very unexpectedly, good friends of ours broke up. He would stay in their house and she said she’d take our apartment. And just like that it was settled. No more hurdles, no more excuses, we were leaving!
Uhh, so where are we going?
We could sublet our apartment for maximum one year, so that decided our time frame. We had no set plans about where we were going, just that we would travel around South East Asia because that’s where we figured our money would last the longest. We had only three very short months to clean out our house, sell or store our stuff and in the mean time we had a demanding 1-year old to take care of. Weirdly enough, after dreaming about leaving for so long, our bucket list was suddenly completely empty. So we decided to go to our house in Egypt again and figure things out from there.
Changing our mindset
We figured traveling with a toddler simply meant traveling at a slower pace and choosing destinations that were a bit less remote with more facilities. Even though we’re in our late 30’s now, in our hearts we’re still the 20 something happy go lucky backpackers we used to be. The traveling families we met while backpacking as a couple always made it seem so easy. I don’t think we really understood how our son would change the way we travel. We had to say goodbye to things we loved about being on the road, but also welcomed a lot of fantastic new experiences. It really took us a while to adjust to this new way of traveling. So what were our challenges?
Challenge 1: Destination and accommodation stress
I have always been a bit of a control freak. Even when it was just the two of us, I would often book a place to sleep for the first night in a new location. Just to be on the safe side. I would look at the reviews, but if it was moderately clean it was fine. It took on whole new proportions when traveling with our son! My inner control freak went totally nuts and I spend hours online researching new destinations and accommodations. Did the place have hot water, was it clean, was there a pool, what were other people saying about it, was the room big enough for Jace’s travel tent so he’d have a place to sleep… Things I never even considered when it was just us two. Combined with our relatively small budget, the fact that we usually decided where to go fairly last minute and the sometimes terrible internet connection, it was quite stressful. When you have so many requirements it’s often easier and cheaper to book well in advance. We did have a few places though where we would have loved to stay a bit longer, but couldn’t because we’d already booked onward flights. It’s a challenge finding the right balance.
Challenge 2: Too much luggage
Maybe you went a little overboard buying baby stuff for your firstborn? Well, preparing for your first big trip with a child is quite similar. Looking back, the amount of luggage we hauled around was absolutely ridiculous. Children don’t need a whole suitcase of toys and books, or 20 different outfits to wear. On top of that we also chose to bring some of our scuba dive equipment. What were we thinking?? This was such pre-child travel behaviour! We did go to some awesome diving destinations, but could have easily rented the equipment. If you pack too much stuff you’re attached to, it’s hard to loose when you decide you need to travel lighter. And trust me, this point will come on such a long trip. Sure, it’s practical to bring some extra clothes for your child. They usually get dirty a lot easier then we do and doing laundry isn’t always an option. Some lego is great and can be used for lots of different games, but also for learning colors and counting. And of course your child’s favourite stuffed animal or doll to keep them company and help them sleep (be really really careful not to loose it!). But keep in mind that kids don’t need much. Sticks, stones, mud and plastic bottles are great toys too. We gave away at least half of our stuff during our year on the road, and still had too much.
Challenge 3: Changing your perspective
Becoming a parent is a life changing event. Suddenly the world doesn’t revolve around you anymore. You often hear people say ‘when my child is happy, I am too’. Of course that’s not completely true, it goes both ways. So when traveling with children it’s a challenge to establish some middle ground and find activities that you both like. It really requires you to change your perspective on travel. Slow down, enjoy everyday life in a new culture… it’s not about seeing and doing as much as you can anymore. Maybe you don’t get to visit that museum, but spend your day in a playground instead. It’s a lot healthier to live in the present moment anyway. All this is fairly easy when they are small, but it gets harder as they get older. We already discovered the difference between a 2 and a 2,5 year old. We’ve seen just about every playground in Vienna, Prague and Berlin when we were there recently, and only a few other things. But all three of us had a great time :-)
Challenge 4: Diaper hunting
Different countries, different customs. Where we live they simply sell diapers in all shapes and sizes in the supermarket. But we quickly found out that’s not the case everywhere. In Dahab we needed to go to the pharmacy to find diapers, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter some obscure small shops sold them. Each new location posed a challenge in our diaper hunt and sometimes it really took some persistence to find them. From experience I can tell you that diaper pants (most practical for an active toddler) are even harder to find than regular ones. This ‘hunt’ for diapers was something we obviously never even considered when we didn’t have kids.
Challenge 5: Feeding your child
I have some friends whose kids are picky eaters and boy are they struggling! We’re so lucky our little world traveler eats just about anything, but still, finding healthy food for him was a challenge sometimes. Where, when and what you eat isn’t such a big issue when you’re traveling by yourself. With a child it’s a whole different matter. They’re hungry and they want to eat… NOW. When we first started traveling in Asia our son’s diet mostly consisted of white rice and chicken. And fruit, lots of fruit. Of course eating in restaurants or street stalls wasn’t always easy either. Toddlers are so easily distracted! The one country where we really struggled was Sri Lanka. He really didn’t like the spicy curries, didn’t like the rice there and especially further up North non spicy Western type food was hard to find. So he ate mostly roti and fruit and I did worry a bit. After Sri Lanka he completely made up for it though, eating two full hot meals a day in Thailand. He still often chooses noodles or rice over french fries.
Challenge 6: Nap time
We chose to let our son determine our pace. We woke up when he did, chose activities that we could do in the morning, went back to our accommodation so he could sleep after lunch, went out for a bit after his nap, had dinner and made sure he was in bed by 8PM. It may sound a bit boring, but keeping this predictable routine made sure he was happy and rested. He would sometimes fall asleep in the stroller or in the back carrier, but he slept much better in his bed. I think it’s different when you’re on a 2-week holiday and want to see and do as much as you can, but we knew we’d be away for a whole year. Of course this was a big change from our normal travel routine, where we would go out in the morning, go sightseeing all day and get back late at night. I think it was the one we struggled with the most, especially when we were staying in a hotel room with no outside space and at least one of us was ‘stuck’ there during his nap time as well. At almost 3 years old he’s now no longer napping anymore and when we recently went on a two week trip to Vienna, Prague and Berlin it was a huge relief to be able to go out all day again.
Challenge 7: Contact with the home front
A simple text message saying we arrived safely or moved to a new location used to be enough. We didn’t think about home too much when we were traveling. But of course, back then our parents weren’t grandparent yet. Big difference! Grandparents want to talk to their grandchild every few days, hear all the stories, all the developments and be kept in the loop. FaceTime and Skype became our new friends :-) Sometimes it was a bit frustrating and a real challenge to find an internet connection that was fast enough though.
Everything changes but the most important stays the same
When you read our story above you might think that traveling with a child is one big challenge, but really it isn’t. A lot of things that we love about travel stay exactly the same. Living outside most of the time, always a little bit outside of your comfort zone, feeling the freedom and unpredictability, having a lot of family time and no obligations, meeting lots of new people, experiencing new environments and new cultures… That’s what makes it so exciting and that’s why we’ll always continue to travel. It’s addictive and our son simply adds another dimension to our adventures. Now we get to share all those fantastic experiences with him. What more can we wish for?
Lisa van den Berg has spend most of the past year traveling around South-East Asia, together with her partner and their toddler son. Currently they’re back in Haarlem, Netherlands, contemplating their plans for the future. Lisa is an experienced online marketing professional and trying to become a digital nomad. If time permits she likes to read, write, travel the world and dive.Website: http://www.flipflopglobetrotters.com