Preparing your kids for travel can have a huge influence on how successfully your child adapts to travel.
This is even more important if you are setting off on a family gap year or long term travel.
How successfully – and quickly – children adapt to travel determines how the rest of the family enjoys the trip!
How to prepare kids for travel
No matter what the length of your trip is, there are several ways to prepare your child for long term travel.
It is essential to emphasis to your child that long term travel is not the same as a holiday!
Talk about your proposed trip or planned destination as part of general, everyday conversation.
Talk about your trip regularly, even if you haven’t started planning it yet!
We discussed our round the world trip years before we left our home in England. A family gap year became the ‘norm’ for us and an accepted ‘expectation’ that a gap year was something our family would complete at some point in the future.
Talking generally and regularly about a family round the world trip also helped me psychologically. It made our potential trip feel a realistic possibility rather than an impossible daydream.
Our youngest child started talking about our family gap year as soon as he was able to communicate. He called it ‘the world around trip’. The name stuck and became the name of the Facebook group we used to update friends and family of our travels.
Keep the talk about the trip normal rather than exceptional.
Be careful with your language when talking about an extended family trip. Use appropriate language – make the trip ‘when’ not ‘if’.
Don’t build the trip to be a huge challenge; this will only make the concept of travel scary or daunting for children.
Furthermore, resist the urge to turn the trip into an exciting, ‘everyday will be magical’ once in a lifetime adventure. Some days will be but the daily routine of long term travel can never live up to this hype. (There will be sick days, supermarket and shopping days or hours spent washing the same clothes over and over)!
If you build the trip up too much, the initial weeks and months of an extended family trip will never live up to a child’s expectations or imagination. This will in turn create a sense of disappointment, restlessness and ultimately the desire to go home.
Be aware that family and friends may not feel or talk about your trip in the same way you do. You may need to watch for inappropriate language or discussions around your children.
You will inevitably receive negative comments such as ‘Isn’t it dangerous? How will you be safe?’ or ‘What if you get sick? The kids will miss home so much’ etc.
These overheard doubts and fears will linger in a child’s mind; our children quoted the questions of other people to us.
Get children involved in planning and research.
Another way to prepare kids for travel is to involve the children in the planning and research process. This helps them to get excited about the trip but also gives them a sense of ownership of the trip.
If you have a chosen route, allocate your child the task of researching a particular country; even young children can do this with the aid of picture books.
Older children can utilise the internet or destination guide books to conduct their research. Can they research an indigenous animal you could visit? Are there any cultural festivals you could plan to coincide with? Ask your child to present their research findings to the rest of the family.
Children could learn some basic words of new languages you will encounter and teach them to the rest of the family.
Children love to have ownership of a task and respond well to being ‘the expert’ on a subject.
Research and follow other family travel blogs. Your child could message a travelling child to gain insight into life on a family round the world trip.
The Lonely Planet has a fantastic range of child friendly travel and destination books. Their engaging, educational and age appropriate books not only help to prepare kids for travel but will ignite a love of travel!
Check out Lonely Planet’s latest range here.
Involve older children involved in budgeting and organising the trip.
Long term travel is very different from a holiday.
Extended travel involves a smaller budget resulting is different styles and levels of accommodation, transport and catering than you may be accustomed to on a holiday.
Discuss the different types of transport you might use – what will your budget stretch to? You can read about the different forms of transport we used on our family gap year here.
Help children to see the accommodation your trip budget can achieve before you leave home and they will adjust their expectations accordingly!
Ask your children what are their ‘must haves’ regarding accommodation – what they can live without and what would be on their wish list!
Try to facilitate all choices at some point during your trip!
Several people asked us ‘but how can you all share one room?’ If sharing one room means we can afford to travel, then we are going to share one room!
You can read about the different types of accommodation we stayed in on our round the world trip here.
Allow for compromise in your travel plans.
Family life involves compromise – travelling as a family involves even more!
If your child expresses a wish to visit a particular location, discuss it – even if you would rather stick pins in your own face than go there! Disney anyone….?
Demonstrate to your child that even though you are not keen, you are prepared to include your child’s choice in the trip because family travel involves give and take and compromise. This will pay dividends when you want to drag them round yet another historical museum!
It is important for children to feel their views and wishes are accounted for but children also need to learn that they will need to do activities and visit sites that they don’t want to visit.
Family travel is not all about entertaining the kids and finding family friendly activities to do. Family travel is travel for all the members of a family.
Broaden your child’s palette before leaving home.
I wish we had done this before our family gap year!
Trying spicy foods, dishes of noodles, mutton and unusual vegetables at home in England would definitely have helped our children when we travelled through Asia!
Read books or watch movies set in your planned destination.
Reading books or watching films set in other countries which will spark a desire to visit that particular destination.
This works wonders for getting ‘I’d love to go there’ exclamations and when you are there, the children get a buzz from recognizing a familiar location. Our kids yelled when they first saw the Sydney Opera House!
There are films and books to suit all ages. You could watch films such as Moana (Hawaii and the Pacific Islands), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Iceland) or Paddington (London).
Perhaps avoid Jaws…
You could read books together based in a destination such as Percy Jackson (Greece), Anne of Green Gables (Canada) or general books to inspire wanderlust.
Our family’s favourite wanderlust book is the brilliant ‘The Snail and the Whale.’
Focus on your child’s interests to encourage their desire to travel.
If your child loves dolphins, ask them to research where in the world you can take a dolphin watching trip.
A child fascinated by dinosaurs could research the world’s top fossil locations and dinosaur museums.
It they are missing a particular topic at school, plan your trip to accommodate this.
Our daughter was missing a topic on ‘Rainforests’ so we went to Costa Rica!
Our son is obsessed with flags. Before our trip he built up a collection of flags he wanted to see and then collected pictures of flags he did see. He can now name 94 flags by heart!
Prepare safety strategies
At some point in preparing your kids for travel, you need to discuss ways to stay safe on your extended trip.
This is not easy to do as parents but it is essential to do it, even with very young children.
Talk about possible scenarios and discuss what to do in each situation. Practice if necessary.
Learn more by reading our comprehensive tips on how to travel safely with children.
Create a family travel wish list for your trip
Ask each family member to choose one thing they must see, do, eat or experience during your trip.
Our wish list ranged from seeing ‘live lava’ to ‘swimming with pigs’ and ‘going to Legoland.’ Each person researched their chosen wish.
We achieved 4 out of 5 wishes – we chose not to visit the swimming pigs after reading reviews about the experience. We searched for an alternative and chose to swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida which turned out to be one of the highlights of our family gap year. It hasn’t stopped our daughter asking about her wish!
Be prepared for behaviour changes before your trip
Children may get increasingly anxious in the run up to an extended trip, particularly older children.
They may not be able to articulate their feelings which may manifest in their behaviour. Be prepared for tantrums, emotional outbursts, sleepless nights and grumpiness!
Reassure your child, be patient, give them plenty of love and hugs and when appropriate, some space! Trust me, it will help you too!
Practical preparations for long term travel with kids
Start decluttering and packing up your belongings as early as you can – it takes longer than you think it will.
But be considerate to the wants and needs of your child.
It is better for a child to do declutter and pack gradually rather than be overwhelmed with the pace of change. Let them choose what to bring, store, donate or sell.
Don’t force your child to give up items they are not ready to give up. Put it into storage and if necessary, try again in a few months.
Our children were more likely to declutter the second time the choice was given to them. Some items we donated, others we sold giving the money to our children for their travel fund. This usually eased any anxiety of parting with their unplayed with toys!
Help your child to compile their own contact list
Help your child create a contact list of people that they would like to keep in touch with during the trip – especially friends that they might be scared of losing touch with.
Include phone numbers, home address, email address, Skype address etc.
Recognise that children will need to bring a comfort item on the trip.
Children, particularly young children, will benefit from bringing a comfort item on the trip.
If you are concerned about your child missing a treasured family member, give that person a teddy to give to your child. This will help your child feel that a little part of the person they love is always with them.
We decided to leave our children’s favourite teddies at home as we envisaged them getting lost and ending in tears, mine included! Each child got a new travel teddy specially for the trip.
Stagger your goodbyes
The hardest and by far the worst part of our family gap year was leaving home.
It was an emotional roller coaster and saying goodbye to family and friends was upsetting. Saying goodbye to our parents was awful and seeing our parents say goodbye to their beloved grandchildren was heartbreaking.
We had anticipated this to an extent and tried to stagger our goodbyes as much as we could. We did not have a send off party and refused to allow anyone to see us off at the airport.
We gave the children as many low key play dates as we could and kept them in school until the day before we left.
Prepare kids for travel vaccinations
This was one of our big pre-trip headaches!
We had 11 vaccinations in the months before we left the U.K. Two of our children barely blinked at having a jab. the third child would take around 45 minutes of sobbing and writing before we could get the nurse to put the needle in! Check the vaccinations you may need here.
Looking back, I think we should have prepared her better and ensured she fully comprehended the need for her vaccinations. I would also have researched needle phobia!
So, is a family gap year worth all the upheaval?
Kids, especially younger children, do not get much say in what their parents plan for them. Children do not find change easy, do not like uncertainty and often struggle out of routine and away from familiarity. Family travel has its ups and downs and there will be good days and bad.
But children are impressively resilient, capable and adaptable and a family gap year is worth every minute of uncertainty and upheaval.
On our family gap year our children frustrated us, helped us, worried us, made us laugh, drove us crazy, entertained us and surprised us daily with their ability to embrace new places and people.
We learnt so much about the little people that we thought we knew best in the world!
Our family round the world trip was completely different to our previous experiences of travelling as a couple or as a solo backpacker. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
We introduced our children to new experiences and they introduced us to new experiences. We saw the joy of discovery and exploration through their eyes and regained a sense of wonder ourselves through travelling with our children.
Are you preparing your children for a family gap ear or extended travel? What preparations worked for you?