Culture or Torture? Lessons learned while traveling with kids

My column in the April issue of Military Spouse Magazine!

My column in the April issue of Military Spouse Magazine!

April is the month of Spring Break, and Spring Break is a time for travel!

The possibilities are endless: a Caribbean cruise, camping in the mountains, sight-seeing in Rome, hiking the Appalachian Trail, a B&B in the French countryside. Simple, adventurous or extravagant, a change of scenery takes you from the late winter doldrums into an invigorated spring.

But wait. Hold up. Just a sec . . . What about the kids?

Unless you have a team of well-paid nannies who will keep the kids entertained at home all week (not likely on a military budget) then the kids are coming along. And the presence of children during travel tends to change things a bit …. Ahem, that’s the understatement of the century.

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 d’Elysie. 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 log jam at Wally World. 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, asking yourself how this could be happening. Again.


Take it from me, I know. While stationed in Germany, I planned family trips to Ireland, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, France, England and Scotland during our three-year tour. I wanted to jam-pack our time overseas with cultural and educational experiences that our kids would appreciate for the rest of their lives.

Problem was, I forgot. They’re kids.

Oh, yea. Bummer.

I soon learned that kids — my kids, at least, and very possibly yours — 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 learned the Cardinal Rule of Travelling with the Kids:


Sure, you want to think positive. I’m all for that. But don’t envision life-changing authentic ambiance, edifying cultural experience, thrilling adventure, romantic interludes and indulgent relaxation. Family trips have the potential to turn out to be 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.

Now, in order to avoid the brink of insanity while traveling with the kids, I’ll share some strategies we learned.

#1 Oh my gosh, gross!

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.

#2 Take appropriate steps, literally.

Bell towers, monuments, castles, 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 be so tired that they’ll sit through dinner peacefully tonight.

#3 Kiddie comfort food.

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.

#4 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, or chase bumble bees in an alpine meadow, or roll in the grass at a city park.

#5 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, 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.

#6 Capture the memories.

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

Pick up a copy today!

Pick up a copy today!

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Comments: 9

  1. Colleen April 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm Reply

    Love it, Lisa. One of our best strategies has been a hack sack–no matter the age! It’s so portable and always puts a smile on a kids face! We even had a whole row of vendors in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul playing!

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm Reply

      Wow, great idea! I also always keep a miniature deck of cards in my purse – it has come in handy MANY times. On planes, trains, in restaurants, and waiting rooms. I spent a dollar for the deck and it has proven to be worth every penny!

  2. Sharon April 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm Reply

    Been there, done that!

    To Anonymous: Liar, liar, pants on fire!

    When I worked in a travel office a woman called and wanted to go anywhere within an hour’s drive because her 3 and 5 year olds couldn’t handle a longer trip. I replied that when mine were that age they flew to Germany (PCS) and did well. She responded, “Well, if that’s the way you want to treat your children!” I had to burst out laughing. It was the first time I’d ever heard that taking your children to Europe was child abuse.

  3. Brain-Dead Mom April 22, 2013 at 8:39 am Reply

    Love it! We are off to Italy with a 4 and a 6 year-old next month. Already packing the ziplocs – I remember getting sick all over the back roads of Ireland! Great tips for finding a spot for wine by a fountain.

  4. Anonymous April 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm Reply

    My children were always well behaved, never whined, never created a scene and were perfect little ambassadors who represented America in a manner that would make a mother proud.

  5. susandaoustyoung April 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm Reply

    Yes, we all have memories of good intentions gone bad while traveling. But wait, there’s hope…we are now retired with grown (well, almost, the umbilical cord is still not completely cut with some) children and we are traveling a lot…all by ourselves! Now they are jealous and want to see every photo and hear all the details. We tell them they have to pay their dues before they can take advantage of old age. Thanks for the memories, Lisa.

  6. lauriebest April 20, 2013 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Oh, man, the truth shall set you free! Brings back those same memories of when my kids were young and I traveled with them. You haven’t lived until you fly alone with three small kids. I was busy changing the 3-month old so my 4-year-old offered to take my 2 -year-old son to the washroom. The toddler then walked back the entire length of a plane, naked from the waist down. His sister said, in her defense, “Mommy, I couldn’t get his diaper up!” The rest of the plane thought it was hilarious. Me, not so much…

    • Lisa Smith Molinari April 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm Reply

      Classic! Toddler bums are so cute, the other passengers should have thanked you for the entertainment!

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