In the first five months of a ten-month trip around the world with my husband and kids, we’ve taken nineteen flights, nine train rides, eleven bus rides, and too many car rides to cover nearly 5000 miles to count. We’ve spent two weeks of these five months literally in transit. It’s never fun exactly, but neither does it have to absolutely suck, even when you are traveling internationally with small children. Mine are five and eight. Here are some tips that have gotten us through it:
Accept that it’s going to be stressful. Complaining about the hiccups of late trains and wrong departure gates, painfully slow visa lines and corrupt visa officials won’t lesson these headaches any. Of course it’s hard not to snip at each other in stressful moments and everyone needs to vent once in a while, but kids are fun house mirrors that reflect back at you whatever attitude you are putting out there, times ten. Before you know it, there’s a shoving match in the security line and someone’s crying and your stress just got doubled. Do your best to model some cool-headed behavior and your kids are more likely to stay calm too.
Establish no-messing-about zones. Since international travel can stretch for longer than a day, it’s too much to expect your children to be on their best behavior for all of the many hours of it. Instead my kids know that there are certain times when, for everyone’s safety and sanity, they must not goof around. These include checking in at airports, boarding trains, going through immigration control, and when we are lost.
Pick your battles. In our family, it’s all about getting through it. This is not the time to hold fast to your no potato chips or cookies before dinner rule or a fifteen-minute time limit on video games. Yet these rules exist for a reason—so that the kids don’t turn into sugared-up beasts or device zombies or barf all over the car from the disgusting fast food. So we try to mix up the junk food with some carrot sticks or mango slices, to take a break from the video games to play I Spy out the window or take a walk down the train aisle. The kids understand that times in transit are special circumstances and not to expect these freedoms to last once we get where we are going, so they tend to enjoy them without going so overboard that we might take them away.
Audiobooks! Since reading in a moving vehicle can be a recipe for motion sickness, audiobooks are a great diversion and still allow for lots of gazing out the window. Many local libraries allow patrons to borrow downloadable audiobooks for free, in addition to ebooks. While driving through South Africa’s Kruger State Park, our family listened to Hope Davis read A Wrinkle in Time, and we were nearly as enthralled by her wonderful accents as by our hunt for lions. My eight-year-old daughter and I have also been listening to the Artemis Fowl series (by Eion Colfer) during our road trips, using a headphone splitter. Inhabiting together this imaginary world of boy genius criminals and fairie police units, clutching each other’s knees during the exciting bits and laughing behind our hands at the lovey-dovey parts, has been a wonderful time of bonding that we both genuinely look forward to it.
Be Prepared. Make triple sure the kids pee before you get on the minibus without the toilet, and don’t let them drink too much beforehand. Pack toilet paper, since many roadside stops won’t have it. Even in 90 degree heat, bring a sweatshirt in your carry-on in case of too much AC. Don’t forget the snacks! Nuts, dried fruit, carrot sticks and fruit slices like mango and pineapple all travel pretty well. We also indulge our chips cravings, which gives the kids a positive incentive to offset the hours of boredom. Bring a plastic bag in case of motion sickness, and believe it the first time when your kid says her tummy feels funny, otherwise you’ll be scooping vomit out of her daypack at the next rest stop. (Yup, that happened.) Many people swear by eyeshades and earplugs for overnight bus or train rides. I myself prefer a half a Xanax.
Allow for a Soft Landing. While we don’t always book all our accommodation in advance, so we don’t end up paying for a hotel next to a construction site or some place too dumpy to ignore, I try to make sure we have something comfortable lined up after a long travel day (or days). There is nothing worse than having to trudge around an unfamiliar place with the kids and suitcases in tow trying to find somewhere to stay when you are all exhausted and sick of traveling. A place with a pool or decent food in house so you don’t have to go out searching for a meal makes unwinding that much easier. If I don’t have something reserved, one of us will stay with the kids in a cafe or restaurant, while the other ones sets off to find something. And for that first meal, give yourself a break if you end up in a tourist trap so the kids can have a plate of pasta or a hamburger. French fries are pretty good all over the world. Finally first impressions have a way of sticking. Once everyone’s needs are met, then we head out and explore, better able to feel all our excitement and wonder at the newness around us.
Enjoy Some Time for Yourself. Time in transit can be a rare opportunity for quiet reflection, once you have the kids set up with something to do or listen to. Away from the internet and the never-ending need to research trip logistics (does one need a guide for Angkor Wat, and if so, which one; where to stay in Seoul without spending an arm and a leg, how to take an overnight bus from Yangon to Inle Lake, and so on ad nauseam), I can gaze out the window and let my mind drift. Being neither here nor there allows for a clarity of perspective where I can begin to measure the many tracks in us our travels are leaving behind.
What are some of your tips for getting through long travel days?