Culture or torture? Lessons learned while traveling with kids


What did we do when the kids got cranky at the Colosseum? Bottled water and cheap sunglasses bought us another hour of touring.

Ah, Summertime … that happy time of year when, after months of running the veritable hamster wheel of work, school, bills, and chores, we finally loosen up and have a little fun.

Hike the Appalachian Trail? Take a Caribbean Cruise? Stay at a B&B in the French countryside? Camp in the Grand Canyon? Sightsee at Yosemite? Rent a beach house in the Outer Banks?

Simple, adventurous or extravagant, the point is to relax and have a good time.

But wait. Hold up. Just a sec. [Cue tire-screeching sound effects.] What do we do with the kids?

Unless you have a team of well paid nannies who will keep your offspring entertained at home all week (not likely on our military budget) then I’ve got some bad news: the kids are coming along.

Instead of leisurely lunching on brie and wine at a Parisian street café, you’ll find yourself at nibbling nuggets at the McDonalds on the Champs Elysee. Rather than braving class 4 rapids on Pennsylvania’s Ohio Pyle Gorge, you’ll be splashing the sticky cotton candy off your face on the logjam at Six Flags. Forget about scheduling your couples massage at the spa, because you’ll be wading in a suspiciously cloudy kiddie pool at a motel off the interstate.

Take it from me. I know.

In Paris, we took the kids to climb the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, just so we could have a sit down dinner in peace.

In Paris, we took the kids to climb the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, just so we could have a sit down dinner in peace.

While stationed in California, England, Virginia, Germany, and Florida, I planned countless family trips. I wanted to jam-pack our time overseas and in different states with cultural and educational experiences that our kids would appreciate for the rest of their lives.

Problem was, I forgot. Oh, yea, they’re kids. Bummer.

I soon learned that kids don’t want to wait two hours for traditional indigenous foods at an authentic local restaurant. They could care less about mountain scenery or sylvan country settings. And they absolutely hate lingering in art and history museums.

We discovered the hard way that, unless we were planning a trip to the Threshold of Hell, we’d better figure out how to keep the kids happy.

First, we adopted The Cardinal Rule of Traveling with Children:

“Lower your expectations.”

Don’t envision authentic ambiance, cultural experience, thrilling adventure, and romantic interludes. Just tell yourself that your family vacation will be about as relaxing and cultural as chaperoning a fifth grade field trip to Bowl-O-Rama. With that mindset, you’re bound to be pleasantly surprised.

In Spain, the girls had lice, and our son had an attitude... good times!

In Spain, the girls had lice, and our son had an attitude… good times!

Next, follow the strategies I finally learned while on the brink of family vacation insanity:

  • My kids are so cultured, they have thrown up in six states and seven foreign countries. Nothing kills ambiance like the lingering scent of upchuck on your shoes, so keep gallon zip-lock bags and wet wipes in your purse at all times.
  • Take appropriate steps, literally. Bell towers, monuments, castles, sand dunes, forts and tall buildings are great places to run the “squirrelly” out of kids. Beware that you may need a portable defibrillator for yourself, but a coronary event may be worth it if it means your kids will sit through dinner.
  • Pommes fritz, furai, chips, papas fritas – whatever you call ‘em, don’t even think about sitting down at a restaurant that doesn’t have French fries on the menu.
  • Space out. No, I’m not suggesting that you take sedatives while traveling with the kids, but find wide open spaces where you and hubby can soak up local ambiance while the rugrats spread their grubby little wings and fly. You can nibble local cheese and bread while they scare pigeons in the piazza, chase bumblebees in an alpine meadow, or roll in the grass at a city park.
  • Wet them down while you wet your whistle. When deciding where to stop for a glass of wine, look for a nearby fountain, stream, lake, pond, beach or tropical fish tank. If they can splash, throw rocks, feed ducks or tap on the glass, you have a decent chance of sipping your wine in peace.

Oh – and be sure to take lots of photos, because no matter how torturous family vacations may seem, take it from me, someday you’ll look back and wish you could do it all over again.

Francis Cam - Fall 09 231

A happy family moment on the windy beaches of Holland.

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Comments: 2

  1. wanderlynn August 16, 2015 at 4:45 pm Reply

    Ha! We’re recently stationed in Italy and feel this SO deeply. Our kids are 2 & 4 and have spent most of their lives in England, from which we dragged them to Germany and France and Spain and Scotland… and I’m so glad to finally report to my husband that it’s not just them. I look forward to them being old enough to not be sad, sobbing messes at dinner after a day of exploring! And yes, there will be fries.

    • Lisa Smith Molinari August 19, 2015 at 10:37 am Reply

      Fries are like valium to kids when traveling!

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