On Traveling with Children and a Lesson in the Value of Different Perspectives

by David Ng

I’m currently on vacation right now, exploring some of the prettier parts of British Columbia. For now, here’s a piece I wrote for Boing Boing a while back on the merits of traveling with kids. You can also check out the original post, which also has some great comments from other traveling parents. I also use the anecdote at the bottom sometimes, as a lesson in the value of different perspectives – you just never know where the best ideas come from.

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One of the things you have to do when you’re on sabbatical in a city like London, is make sure you take advantage of your travel opportunities. For my family, this equated to visiting a number of iconic European cities, a luxury that from Vancouver (where I’m usually based) would have been far too costly. Anyway, it’s been clear to my wife and I that during these once-in-a-lifetime visits, our consciousness is very much overridden by one central question: “What will Ben and Hannah do?”

(Clockwise from left) Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy; Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France; near Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland; 2010

Just so you know, Ben and Hannah are my children. You’ve might have seen them in this previous post, and like any parent, I love them dearly. Nevertheless, traveling with very young children is an interesting experience, as it is by turns wonderful, exhausting, memorable, frustrating, and (just to be clear) exhausting. You are, after all, interacting with a tourist that would most likely rank the playground or the cat that they saw by a tree, far above the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Also, if you’re lucky enough to be staying somewhere where there is indoor swimming, then you can rest assured that you will hear of nothing else.

Despite this, one of the things I relish about traveling with kids is how you, as a parent, get to bulk up on your storytelling repertoire. Each travel is its own epic, with logistics as critical as any Everest expedition, a cast of characters that cannot be any more three dimensional, and more video and photographic footage than anyone would ever care for. Best of all, you are part of the cast: you might not have the biggest role, but that’s o.k. – you get to be responsible for the Director’s Commentary.

And oh what a commentary! The trip would have it all. There will be drama, there will be tears, there might even be vomit, and in my son’s case, there will always be plain pasta with only butter on it. If nothing else, you can tell your listeners that the best part of traveling with children is how funny they can be: they interact with culture in their own special way. For me, I still don’t think I’ve laughed any harder than when my daughter, during an outing to one of the many cathedrals we’ve visited, looked upon a crucifix and then with a slightly confused look on her face, asked in a loud clear voice, “What is up with that guy?” Seriously, the stories you build from these experiences can pretty much cover every conceivable narrative theme (with, I suppose, the possible exception of sex – see previous note on exhaustion).

This is actually why I’m surprised that I haven’t found a good website whose primary aim is to collect such personal kid travel commentary. Wouldn’t such a hub be a great resource for families everywhere? The advice that it would reveal would presumably not only be incredibly useful but also very entertaining to read. Indeed, it might even be emotionally relevant. It could be that first crucial step in combating a long festering anguish, the sort that a mishap during a family vacation might inadvertently create. This, I know to be true: I am speaking as a parent who once booked a hotel with a swimming pool that was off limits to children.

Anyway, if ever such a website existed, here would be my most useful and surprising travel tip. It would concern a vacation we took when my daughter was only 9 months old, where we took it upon ourselves to spend 4 weeks exploring, on the cheap, the European Alps. I can’t remember why we did this, but “because we were idiots” seems to work. What I do remember, vividly, is my wife and I being incredibly stressed before the flight to France. This was due to the prospect of being stuck in an enclosed airplane for double digit hours: obviously not the best setting for a potentially fussy baby. In fact, we were so stressed about this, that we had been unable to sleep for two whole days prior to the flight, and to add further insult, we were unable to get a wink in during the flight itself. Contrast that to Hannah, who ended up not even aware of the plane, having slept peacefully throughout the entire experience. Worse still, we hadn’t properly considered the consequences of arriving in France so late in the evening. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to check into our cramped hotel until after midnight. Physically, we were two parents who were fatigued beyond belief. Emotionally, we were crushed. Our late arrival meant that we would be now be navigating an experience ostensibly entitled, Overnight in a thin walled hotel room with a fully rested and loud baby.

Hannah at a playground, Chamonix, France; 2002

So how did we deal with this predicament? The short answer is that we didn’t have to, whereas the long answer wonderfully demonstrates that the most brilliant of ideas can come from the most unexpected of places. When we arrived at our hotel, as tired and as anxious as humanly possible, the hotel manager booked us into our small room and told us of the small crib that would be provided. He then calmly informed us that since there was also a deaf tour group staying at the hotel, he had taken the liberty of strategically booking these hard of hearing customers into all of the rooms around us. In other words, he had in effect created a baby noise buffer zone, and to this very day, I look back at that moment as being one of the happiest of my life.

In any event, there must be other parents reading this right now, with their own useful and surprising traveling tips, or maybe an epic to share. Would be lovely to hear a few more.