Being able to travel at any age is wonderful. However, the experiences differ at different stages (age) of your life. Not better or worse, but just different.
When I was in my 20’s, I definitely saw the world in simpler terms, and everything in it was brighter and rosier. Everywhere I went was new and different, and I inhaled and absorbed new environment as if tasting a delicious buttery croissant for the very first time.
Then, came my 30’s, and my discoveries became more cynical. I traveled all around the world and began to see the reality of life in places that I regarded so highly. The beauty of Parisian café clouded by chain smokers or surly waiters whose favorite pastime was judging and making snide remarks about the tourists. The picturesque European countryside tainted by the locals who viewed people of color with disdain as if they were alien invaders from Mars. And witnessing the inequities that exist in the most desolate and impoverished parts of the world. The more I traveled, the more cynical I became.
Now, in my 40’s, I have gotten back the joy and the thrill of travel, and it is purely because of our son. Seeing the world through his eyes has allowed me once again to see the beauty of the world that we live in, and I’m learning all over again to take delight in the little things that make life wonderful.
Therefore, I’m always surprised by the people who tell me how difficult or even impossible it is to travel with children. After traveling all over the world as a solo traveler, then with my husband for almost two decades, and for the past 7 years with our son, I can honestly say that traveling as a family has been the best experience for me.
Of course, traveling with children has its challenges, and the experience of traveling as a family is not going to be the same as the trips my husband and I took as a couple. Forget packing an overnight bag and flying to Paris for the weekend at a moment’s notice. Everything has to be planned and planned well with a little person in mind, who seems to be running on his own schedule.
Gone are the days when the two of us took a road trip without a destination, driving for hours listening quietly to anything that came on the radio in whatever language it was in. Now, we have to plan exactly where to stop for breaks, lunch breaks, snacks, potty breaks, and the occasional “let’s get out of the car and run around so that our little boy won’t climb the backseat of the car” breaks. There isn’t a lot of room for spontaneity, but our trips nevertheless are full of unexpected adventures.
The first time my husband and I took our 5-year old boy to Berlin, I realized that our experience of traveling will never be the same. While planning the trip, it became apparent that we couldn’t go to most of the places we used to hang out or do the “cool” things listed on Time Out (which used to be my travel bible). No more underground clubs, sitting at smoked-filled cafes for hours or strolling through dingy flea market looking for communist era memorabilia, and we definitely couldn’t stay at a hip little hostel that required us to roll down the bed from the ceiling like a drawbridge.
Instead, we decided to rent an apartment in a neighborhood that we loved (Prenzlauerberg), and we spent the week hanging out at playgrounds and outdoor cafes overlooking some of the most idyllic streets in Berlin.
To my amazement, it turned out to be a wonderful experience. We spent much of our days doing what most Berliners do, shopping at the local markets, taking our kid to the park and playgrounds, having Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) as a mid-day snack, and just enjoying the summer in the city.
Although Prenzlauerberg was a neighborhood that is relatively well-known among tourists, during the week, we rarely encountered other tourists. We felt like we lived there and were one of the locals, and the best part of it was that as our little boy interacted with other children in the playground, we were able to engage and get to know their family.
I realized that I didn’t need to be in a remote island in South Pacific to have an authentic encounter in a foreign country, or to experience real human connection with someone half way around the world. Traveling with a child and as a family allowed me to have that experience, and everywhere we went, we were able to connect with people in a much deeper level.
I loved traveling with my husband. However, when we traveled as a couple, most of the time, it was just the two of us with the occasional encounters with expats and fellow travelers along the way. Even if we were able to speak the local language, everyone saw us as tourists, and our interactions never surpassed friendly chats or small talk.
However, when you’re traveling with children, there’s a bond that develops immediately with the locals. You’re accepted into their world, and you don’t even have to speak the language – as if you have a “members only” card into a global village of parenthood.
There’s no need to get “off the beaten path” or to seek out an authentic experience because when you travel with children, it happens organically. The same locals that I tried to get to know when I traveled as a solo traveler or as a couple would voluntarily come up to us to ask about our child and to freely talk about their own children. It’s an absolutely wonderful experience to discover that parents from completely different parts of the world share the same hopes, dreams and concerns for their children – something that no travel guide can capture or describe.
Also, the most beautiful thing about traveling with children is that they see everything – and I mean, EVERYTHING with wide-eyed amazement, joy and awe, and no matter where we are, they will always find ways to amuse themselves. Although I don’t know if our little boy has fully grasped the significance of the places he has been to or the things he has seen, the joy that he feels is palpable and contagious!
I remember during our first trip to NYC, how excited our little boy got when he saw a pile of rocks in Central Park. To him, it may as well been Mount Everest. Being that it was his very first trip to NY, I’d planned a list of places and things I wanted to share with him. Instead, we ended up spending the whole day climbing and just hanging out in the park, which our son still remembers as being the most fun thing we did on that trip.
That’s the most extraordinary thing about traveling with children. You never know what may turn out to be the most memorable experience, and something that you may overlook as being mundane or insignificant turns out to be the most wonderful moments of your life.
I’ve always looked for that moment when I travel. A connection to a place or to people that feels special and authentic. Most often, “being a local” means having the day-to-day normal experience and interactions with people – ask New Yorkers how many times they’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building.
As a seasoned traveler, I understand why people seek out places that are off the beaten path or haven’t been discovered by millions of tourists, and the travel guides and blogs certainly do their best to market these so-called secret places that only the locals or few tourists know about. However, when you travel with children, every place you go turns out to be a hidden gem.
Traveling with children allows you to find wanderlust in the ordinary, in the everyday life, and see the world through child’s eyes, and traveling as a family has made me realized that wanderlust is not just embodied in an exotic place 5,000 miles from home or in a smoky underground club in Berlin, but a pile of rocks in a beautiful park.