10 Ways to Improve Your Family Vacation

10 Ways to Improve Your Family Vacation

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Keith BellowsThe Family Travel Association has assembled a remarkable family-travel brain trust to guide our development – advisors on our board and other councillors, members and partners with many years of travel thought-leadership. Over the coming weeks and months, we will share a bounty of wisdom from their decades of advocacy for and hands-on practice in family travel.

We are pleased to shine our first feature spotlight on Keith Bellows, a member of our Board of Advisors and Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Travel. Today he offers word of 10 Ways to Improve Your Family Vacation (link added when ready), insights gained from long experience on the road.

I’ve always believed that my first foreign trip – an escape to London from race riots that were upending what was then, in the early 1950s, my home in the Belgian Congo (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) – left me with a lingering love of navigating foreign cultures and immense swaths of the world.

As a result, “diversity” and “international” became signatories to my family’s bill of travel. And I developed guidelines for my kids, starting with my diploma-holding 27-year-old and embracing the curiosity of our 9- and 10-year-olds.

Overall the goal has been to allow accidental learning. We started local, but as the kids have gotten older, we wander farther afield to places that are safe enough to explore comfortably but foreign enough to be thrilling. My favorite starter foreign cities are Montreal and Edinburgh.


Based on the lessons I’ve learned, here are 10 tips that will set your kids free to more fully enjoy their travel.

1. Share with your kids your discussions about ideal places for an escape. Consider and accommodate their points of view, if reasonable.

2. Give them a first round of challenges. Have them find an agreed-upon place on the map, determine time zone differences, name the currency and gauge its value compared to your local money, learn about special events and holidays, religion and weather. And family heritage ties too. Have them search for weird-but-trues and superlatives about a place. Kids love these. They should leave for vacation able to recall a country’s basic courtesies, including how to say “Please,” “Thank You,” and “Where Is?” etc. in the local language.

3. Give each child $10 daily “mad money” to spend any way he or she wants as long as it goes to food or a tangible good that is foreign and difficult to find at home.

4. Organize three hours of activities a day. Kids and adults should agree on the selection. Do not over-plan and never spend more than an hour in a museum – unless it is expressly designed with kids in mind. Be sure not to march them through a place. Step aside and let them experience it at their own pace. Encourage curiosity detours. They will feel empowered and it will enrich their visits – and yours. Travel is about surprise and serendipity; this will help make that happen.

5. Help kids make a story of their trip both for their personal use and as presentations to their classes. When we were cruising the Galapagos, we gave our children Mom’s and Dad’s iPhones and an hour to capture their impressions of the ship. They turned them into visual Keynote presentations. (They had to learn how to do that, too.)

6. Exhume stories about your destination – legends, myths, tales like, in Ireland, St. Patrick banishing all snakes from the country and landscapes animated by leprechauns – as a way to further engage your children and stir their imaginations.

7. Travel can be a crossroads of culture and cuisine. Children will be far likelier to experiment with the unfamiliar away from home. It can mark the start of an educated palate. Sweetbreads and bulls heart are unlikely to find acclaim, but our kids have managed excursions into the worlds of sushi, tapas and Thai. And our eldest is a fierce fan of Korean and Scandinavian food.

8. Use the ubiquitous screen. What is a bane back home can become a learning tool when traveling. You’ll find it easier to set limits because of all the competing attention-getters (and electronic games and the like will be a blessing on long flights and other transfers). Foreign TV, however, can prove a draw for the entire family: Homer Simpson speaking Arabic, bizarre Indian sitcoms, variety shows unlike any seen in the U.S. these days.

9. Take seriously Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods. It laments that our children are developing nature deficit disorder and not reaping the rewards an interlude in nature can offer. Make that a part of any well-rounded visit to a place.

10. Let things happen. Leave some “flaneur time. Flaneur is French for “observer” or “stroller” and Honoré de Balzac once called it “gastronomy of the eye.” It was a sometime occupation of many writers and philosophers. Each day, take a moment to sit with your children in a café and linger as the crowds drift past. You’ll all spot wonderful moments – strange behaviors, local characteristics. (In Paris, dogs parade with their owners and often resemble them too.) And who knows what invitation or suggestion may come your way from a passerby, especially one with kids. The unexpected surprise is the lifeblood of travel. It is often what you don’t plan that yields the greatest memories.

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