Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Traveling with Children

We are in full family travel mode here at Costa Rica Expeditions. For the past few weeks many of our guests have been children traveling on Spring break, and we are starting to plan trips for families with children during summer vacation.

So I thought this would be a good time to pass on my take on traveling with children. 

1.The key to getting the most out of traveling with kids is striking the right balance between the challenging and the comfortable, the strange and the familiar.  A good place to start with kids is strange place; familiar food.  With most kids from the U.S., the majority of our guests, you can achieve a lot with pasta and peanut butter and jelly.

2. Getting everybody packed up and moving is often the most stressful part of the trip—especially when a favorite toy is left behind at your last destination.  Unless everybody in the family is experienced travelers, pick one or two places and stay put.

 3. Game boys, disc men, iPods etc are invaluable for keeping kids entertained at airports and on long flights. However, once they are at the destination the experience will not be very nourishing if they shut out the sights and sounds of where they are with the portable sights and sounds of home.  Make the deal before you leave, digital distraction ends when you get there.  It will cause serious withdrawal for some kids—which is not such a bad thing.

4. Replace the digital toys with binoculars. One of the great benefits of travel is that it shows you new worlds. Binoculars show you new worlds within new worlds. Binoculars are on virtually all “What to Bring” lists for nature travel, but they are almost as valuable for other kinds of travel as well.  They are not of much use inside the Louvre, but they are great for seeing the details of the molding above the cornice on the exterior of the Louvre. The same binoculars that work for bird watching work for people watching. You do not need to get your kid $800 Swarwarskis, but $20 specials are worse then nothing. Nikon 7510 Travelite 10 X 25 mm V Binoculars available on Amazon for 80.99 are a good choice for starter binoculars for general use.  For a serious nature trip step something a little bigger like Bushnell 10 x 42 Natureview Plus Binocular, $125.49 on Amazon. Finally binoculars are not hard to use but there are a few tricks.  Find someone to teach them to your kids—and to you for that matter.

5. If the purpose of the trip is for you and your kids to learn about a culture, natural or human, other than your own, try to find a really good guide.  I am not talking about the kind of guide who gives canned speeches.  I am talking about the kind of guide who asks the right questions:  For example, “How do you think families in ancient Rome were different from modern families in your country?”  And then, “How do you think families in modern Rome are different from modern families in your country?” Really great guides who can transform a perfectly good vacation into an extraordinary magical experience are trained professionals and they do not come cheap.  If money is a factor, skimp on hotels, but don’t skimp on the guide.

6. If you want your kids to truly love and savor travel, schedule your family trip for a time when school is in session. There are two main reasons for this.  The first is that because they will not be distracted relating to all the other kids from their country and class who are traveling at the same time, they will be much more able to appreciate where they are. The second is that unless they are fortunate enough to go to one of the roughly five percent of schools that are worthwhile, they will appreciate it that you rescued them from school.

Reading these over I see that they apply to adults as well as kids, but the suggestions are much more important for kids because they are in general more sensitive and more malleable than adults.  Many adults are a lost cause. 

For a much better explanation than I can give on why I have a jaundiced view of schools watch this 18 minute talk by Ken Robinson.

Changing the subject:  I am surprised that there were not more comments on tipping.  I thought it would be a hot topic.

Catherine Donnel, good friend and guide extraordinaire, you have more insight on tipping than most.  Please weigh in with a guest post.

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Comments and Replies

  • At March 24, 2010
    7:05:13 am
    Shannon Borrego said:

    What great ideas from everyone about traveling with children! My daughter, Natalie, is now grown, but her travel experiences with us as a child have shaped her view of the world. Travel is now a passion with her, as it with me. I agree with the comments of others regarding the benefits; her experiences made her more flexible, open-minded and compassionate in general. One more idea to add to the growing list:
    When Natalie was little, I always looked for opportunities to duplicate customs of local families in the country we were visiting. For example, in France we attended an evening concert followed by a post-concert supper in a local bistro. The waiters loved the fact that an American family, dressed in something other than jeans, was making an effort to fit in. They plied Natalie with so much free cake I thought she’d explode! While the shift to late-night meals so popular in parts of Europe can put kids off their normal routine, I think it’s well worth it; however, we always scheduled nap or rest time during the afternoon to avoid crankiness later on.

    • At March 23, 2010
      8:43:47 pm
      Jennifer Fletcher said:

      The talk by Sir Ken Robinson was superb & funny.I thoroughly enjoyed it & have forwarded it to many friends.
      I taught Grammar School in the UK & many years of High School in Canada.
      The last few years were very difficult.I could see quite clearly that the students were being grossly cheated .Many were bored stiff.
      It was not easy to move in a system where everything is structured into 5o minute segments, where music & art were phased out as “not useful”long ago .
      My husband, however ,taught at the elementary level & was ,miraculously ,left to plan things himself.This meant many visits to nearby woods collecting pond water,studying plants,etc, & a classroom full of living stuff.His math teaching was innovative. He was truly a gifted teacher. He is retired now, & is still most highly thought of by those he taught – they enjoyed themselves. Their parents loved him & couldn’t wait till their youngsters got to Grade 6 because they knew they’d have a great time & learn a lot.
      He always said that he could never, ever be able to bear being fettered by the constraints of High School.
      He is still very much involved with ecological concerns , biodiversity being his greatest concern now.
      I myself was told, as Ken Robinson said, that continuing with art would not secure a good job for me.It was done with the best of intentions, but was absolutely wrong. The trouble is that people say that because they think you have to be a GREAT artist, a Picasso, a da Vinci. They never think that one can work at illustrating children’s books, graphic art, decorating furniture & so on, as well as being modestly successful at selling some of ones work.
      So I dropped art at school & went on to Advanced Level Latin, French & English,all of which I enjoyed..I became a French specialist.This was not horrendous since I did a lot of literature, & it does mean that I speak French .And also some Spanish, since I was taught that ,too.I enjoy knowing other langages.
      And I am a reader ,rather that an athlete!So maybe I do live in my head a BIT!
      So things weren’t too bad in the end – but the school system today? Ah, that’s another matter! A sad state of affairs….& as Ken Robinson says, no preparation for the future that awaits our youngsters, whatever it may be.Even 5 years from now is hard to fathom.
      Your posting was most interesting. Thank you!

      • At March 23, 2010
        6:39:04 pm
        Terry Burridge said:

        I just wanted to expand on Judy’s suggestion below about involving your children in the pre-trip planning. When my twin sons were 10, we went to London for a week. I told each of them beforehand that they were responsible for an entire day — what we were going to see, how we would get there (walking, Tube), where we would eat. They studied the guide books beforehand, subway and street maps when we got there, and we had a great time on “their days.” I saw things I would never have chosen (London Dungeon and an exhibit of Dali paintings) but the boys had a great time being in charge. I felt they were more willing to see things my husband and I were interested in because we went along with their wishes. My sons are now 21 and in college; to the dismay of some of my friends, they are more than willing to travel with us and we still have a great time on our family vacations, which they help plan!

        • At March 23, 2010
          2:29:22 pm
          FamilyGoBoston said:

          Agree with Alice…my “kids” are teens now and are fabulous travelers because they have been doing it for years! (and by travel, I mean experience the place as is, not eat pasta and play game boy by a pool) It has made them better people- more respectful of other cultures, and socioeconomic circumstances, more appreciative of nature and the environment, more independent learners and able to entertain themselves in almost any situation. You will not be sorry, Alice! That said, they still have their cranky moments and meltdowns like the rest of us;-)
          Some things that worked for our family:

          Food: We set a policy for the kids to try new things but without judgment from us, just matter of factly try it- if they don’t like it, go to the old standbys. My kids still shock everyone by ordering ceviche when we find it on a menu because they loved it in CR when they tried it!

          Entertainment: I agree with Michael, everyone likes something to do on a 10-16 hour flight, but put down the electronics and definitely put away the phone (you too, mom and dad!) both to enjoy the destination and each other! An entertainment surprise box worked wonders when they were little (books, snacks, little toys and markers) As of 8-10 they pack their own bags and I might buy a few new books or games “just for the trip.”

          Guiding: I agree with Michael, that a good guide can make all the difference. On one of Michael’s trips, the guide was helping us spot a well camouflaged animal, and I was getting fed up with trying to help my 10 y o spot it but the guide was the picture of patience…working with her calmly till she spotted it with her binoculars, and she was so happy, both to see it and to be important enough for someone to take the time with her. One word of caution on guiding for kids- we have been on trips where the guides or children’s counselors spend more time babysitting and setting up “homelike” distractions (i.e. games, TV??!!!) that the kids don’t get to enjoy the destination. I would ask this question of your tour operator and seek answers from other travelers on various message boards too. We took our girls on a cruise in Alaska and the program was advertised as a National Park Ranger led program to earn the Jr Ranger badge and see glaciers calve in Glacier Bay. After I picked up (my very disappointed) girls they told me the ranger never came, the other kids got bored “waiting” for the glacier to calve and the whole group was herded into an interior room to play Nintendo (this was pre cell phone- so they couldn’t call us to save them) My girls missed the calving glaciers and now I am very fussy about doing any “family” trips with out asking very pointed questions about the itinerary.

          School: So many people debate this, but I traveled as a kid with my family, occasionally missing school. I remember every trip, but not much of what I learned in school! I don’t believe schools are bad; just that what we have to teach our children on the road will stay with them far longer!!

          Happy Travels!

        • At March 23, 2010
          2:09:19 pm
          Judy Drew Fairchild said:

          In my experience, international travel has always brought out the very best in my kids. Sure, at home I have days where I can’t imagine even taking them around the corner to the local park, but put them in another country and watch them rise to the occasion. Since we have traveled to some pretty far-flung destinations with our three children, starting as early as two years old, I wanted to add a few thoughts:

          1) If you can, involve the kids in pre-trip planning. Get them to help you look through websites, picture books, and field guides to learn what you are about to see. Check out fiction books from the library that deal with your destination– whether it be Anne Of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island, or a picture book about the Okavango Delta like Honey, Honey, Lion!, books can set the scene for what you are about to see. In the non-fiction shelves of the Children’s section of your local library, there will be a state-by-state, country-by-country set of books about destinations. See if you can get them to put in opinions about what they want to see. Sometimes they have strong negative feelings, too– my 8 year old staunchly refused to go anywhere near a volcano on our trip with Costa Rica Expeditions. We’re saving that for our next visit.

          2) Never underestimate the value of postcards and local guides. Upon arrival in the airport, while you are waiting for bags, one parent can pop into a newsstand and buy a few postcards of places you are likely to see. You can use these as a sort of treasure hunt when motivation seems to drag along. In Costa Rica, you can buy wonderful waterproof field guides for the rainforest in the airport, and the kids can use them all over the country. This also works at the entrance to a museum– stop by the gift store and buy postcards of things within, and then embark on a treasure hunt to find everything.

          3) Have them record the experience however they can. Everyone should have a journal. Travel art kits can be wonderful for long bus rides– think watercolor pencils and a brush with a water-fillable base to draw that scarlet macaw or statue. Bring along a small scrapbook and a glue stick and tiny pair of blunt scissors and let them glue brochures and maps right into their journals. Encourage some time each day for reflection, drawing, and writing about what you saw and what made you laugh.

          4) I have a bag of tricks… actually a set of opaque drawstring bags, each with its own trick– a card game, some dice for yahtzee, new crayons, finger puppets, the above mentioned art supplies, a favorite snack. I keep these hidden in my day pack. I try to label these with some incomprehensible code so the kids don’t know what’s in them. At low points or that excruciating 15 minutes after you order in a restaurant before you are served, grab a bag and voila! a new activity that they didn’t know was there.

          5) Technology: I agree with Michael that unplugging is good once you get to your destination, with one possible exception. Audiobooks and quiet music on an ipod can buy a kid some space from an irritating sibling in a hotel room or bus ride. Mine have to ask to plug in to their headphones, but sometimes if gives them a little regrouping time and reduces pre-dinner whining.

          6) Language: every child should know “Hello”, “Thank You”, and “Please” in the language of your host country. It is amazing what doors those words can open. Encourage your kids to ask questions on buses and subways, in gardens and on tours. If you are lucky enough to have a wonderful guide like CRE provides, get your kids to come up with three questions for the next day. Four years later, my three can all give you the names of the tour guides who introduced them to the magic of the rainforest.

          7) Money: For some reason, our kids lose teeth in every country we visit. It’s great fun to have the tooth fairy bring new coins. Older children should try to manage currency and purchasing in the host country as well– from making change to calculating tips, they can learn a lot from being involved. Our 11 year old learned the art of barter in Zimbabwe and has never been the same.

          8) Play. This is important for everyone in our family. We need to remember to schedule some time to just play. My kids have made friends in playgrounds all over the world with kids who don’t speak a word of their language, and had a great time. Our trip to London (when our oldest was four) involved a visit to two playgrounds a day, often with a picnic. A swim in the pool can accomplish the same thing.

          Again, four years after a great guided trip with Costa Rica Expeditions, my kids are torn between wanting to return to places they have been, and wanting to explore new territory. We can’t wait to return!

          • At March 23, 2010
            3:36:54 pm
            Michael Kaye replied
            to :

            Judy, There is lots of great advice in here that I had not thought of. Thank you.

            Actually I had thought of knowing a few words in the language. Shame on me for not putting it in.

            There is one other phrase that really helps, “How do you say?” Point at things and ask the question and eventually you can learn all the nouns.

            Do charades (act things out) and ask the question and eventually you can learn all the verbs.

          • At March 23, 2010
            1:21:40 pm
            Alicia said:

            Also, it’s never too early to travel with your kids. We have taken our daughter to Costa Rica since she was 2, our son was 7 mths on his first trip and we’re planning on taking baby #3 with us this August and she will be 2 months old. Our now 5 year old daughter still has fond memories of her trip as a 2 year old remembering how the crocodile splashed her and the monkey swiped our cheese in Manuel Antonio. It is a fabulous thing to expand their minds when that young, they pick up the language amazingly quickly and there is no school to even worry about during the preschool years.

            • At March 23, 2010
              4:33:46 pm
              Michael Kaye replied
              to :

              Alicia, Good point. I forgot about starting them young. Since Costa Rica is close and relatively easy, many of my friends’ children’s first trips were to visit us in Costa Rica. Some of the kids are no in their mid twenties. When I see them now they remind me of their visit.