Have Kids, Will Travel

A guide to taking big adventures with little explorers.

I was never in one place very long growing up. The nature of my father’s job took us to a different city—from Chicago to NYC, LA, Dallas and several cities in between—every two to three years. 

By the time I entered college, staying put was not on the agenda. I itched to get out and ended up finishing my four-year degree in photography in three years just to regain the option.  

My discovery of Hermosa Beach shortly after threw a wrench in my wanderlust plan. I had found a home that gave me a taste of everything. The ocean … a small, beach-town feel … but with the city just a short drive away. 

Needless to say, it grabbed my attention, and 10 years later I’ve married and started the most incredible family in this very place. Jack, age 6, and Sam, age 5, are as outgoing as ever, and along with my husband—whose adventurous spirit matches my own—we’ve made plans to explore new places as a family as often as we can.

Last year we took our first big leap and spent 16 days in Costa Rica. We played it safe and booked our entire stay in one city, but three days in, our wanderlust ways took hold. By the trip’s end, we had driven up and down Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, hiked and discovered national parks, and stayed in five different hotels while discovering it all. 

 

 

For this year’s spring break, we were ready for another taste of Central America. Panama was at the top of our list, and we planned 10 days in the jungle paradise, taking what we learned from Costa Rica to plan a memorable trip.

Now to say traveling to new and exciting locations with kids is a breeze would make any parent cringe and make me, well, a liar. There’s turmoil and tantrums, and sometimes you find yourself wondering if it’s worth it at all. 

But in the end, there’s just something about exploring new destinations with small adventurers. Igniting their excitement for travel and listening to them recount their adventures for months—it just doesn’t get any better. The only thing it takes is a little know-how, pre-trip planning and, above all, confidence. 

Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way that will help build your traveling nerve and hopefully prepare you for your next international family vacation.

 

      

Left: Jack and Sam check out the surf at Playa Bluff in Bocas del Toro. Center: Jack enjoys the sights. Right: making a friend at a Boquete jungle preserve; 

 

Keep the Brood Happy

Nothing kills a parent’s traveling spirit more than a tiny complainer, and just like any day trip you might plan to the local zoo, museum or park, keeping the kids entertained, fed and interested (and all at once) is key. Prior to our vacation, we always make a trip to the local bookstore to stock up on fun workbooks and fresh crayons. The kids don’t see any of it before the trip, and the joy and attention the books provide at the first sign of complaining is well worth the investment. 

Upon arrival our first stop is always the market, where we stock up on snacks, beverages and other essentials we might need for the length of our stay. As experience has shown, my kids at ages 5 and 6 are cranky for the same reasons they were when they were rolling around in diapers—they’re either hungry or tired. I’ve also learned while traveling that a little mid-day hour of rest (no one is sleeping, who are we kidding?) along with always having snacks on hand (yes, healthy ones too!) is enough to keep them as happy as little clams.

 

 

 

 

Do Your Research but Maintain Flexibility

First things first: Start with a good guidebook. We love Lonely Planet’s approach, and I keep the book close for months prior and throughout our journey. By the time we left for Panama, we were well-versed in Panamanian geography and had selected four main cities to check out. 

We ranked our list, and rather than book a single hotel this go-around, we made reservations at our top two spots to bookend the trip. This gave us enough flexibility to decide once we arrived whether we wanted to make the additional stops. 

We asked just about every local we came across and got a good tally of suggestions. It ultimately led us to the small town of Boquete (Panama’s primary coffee exporter and about 20º cooler than the country’s two coasts), and it was a welcome break from the beach for all of us.  

 

      

 

Encourage Involvement

This trip is going to be a learning experience for everyone, but especially for the kids. One of the things that gets me really excited is the chance to brush up/start from scratch on a new language. After five years of Spanish in school, I am a strong believer that learning a language is best by immersion. 

Involving the kids and getting them excited about it makes it that much more fun. We speak, we sing, we read as much as we can of the foreign language when we’re traveling. I was beyond proud when they asked me how to introduce themselves to a local girl their age. They were really making the effort, and they gained a new friend out of it!

Let this also be a time for them to really prove their independence. Easier said than done, I know, but making them do their share (even if it’s carrying their mini-backpack through the airport) makes everyone feel good about the experience. Have them explore the map and “help” lead you to the family’s next destination. 

And lastly, make it educational. Our hands-down favorite game to play—and one that makes eating in restaurants painless—is the “Answer Questions” game. We give questions around the table relating to just about anything. During our trip, it was all about Panama.

 

Jack splashes in the Pacific waters of Santa Catalina.

 

Celebrate Small Victories

I can’t stress enough how important it is to celebrate even the
smallest victories, so don’t set your standards sky-high. If the entire family is able to sit through a great meal with real conversation (as much as a kid can handle) and authentic food, it just about makes our day and we celebrate it. If we can drive from one city to the next peacefully and take in some new sites from our window, we feel like we’ve really succeeded. 

It’s truly a process, and in the end you may not tackle everything on your list. But the more you do it, the better they get at it, and the more you can enjoy and conquer in the future. Easy stuff but
so crucial!

 

Photograph Like a Professional

So you’ve got the camera, you’ve got the camera phone, but you’re still ending up dissatisfied with your results. Take a deep breath and make it simple. 

A few suggestions on composition: Get close, no closer, no even closer to your subjects. Then change it up and back up. Show the kids really taking in their environment. Combine your landscape with your portrait (those are always my personal favorites).  

For your phone, don’t leave for your trip without a waterproof case—the best investment for a beach-oriented vacation. For
storage, upload those images to your preferred cloud backup. I make it a nightly ritual to lessen anxiety about losing images during our travels.

Hopefully these ideas will awaken the traveler inside you and perhaps give you the confidence to start planning your next big trip. After all, traveling to unique destinations is something many of us began doing as soon as we were able—so why stop just because you decided to have a family? 

Your kids are your instant pals, your best buds, your sidekicks. Share your love for the world with them, and they’re sure to love it just the same. 

 

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