Our first big International vacation was to Italy for two weeks. Knowing we would be seeing countless churches, driving many hours, and pushing the limits of our kids, I decided to find a way to make the trip interesting to them. At the time, They were four and six, so I was probably expecting a lot out of them.
We started our journey in Florence, where we showed the kids the cobblestone streets that they would be seeing all through Italy. We pointed out churches, which are so different than the hundreds of mosques we have in Cairo.
When we toured our first church, I sat down with the kids and taught them the etiquette for being in a Catholic church. I showed them people praying and explained that they needed to be respectful. I showed them the stained glass windows, the people lighting candles for loved ones, the tombs in the floor, and the beautiful nativities. It really gave them a list of fun things to find in each church and made the rest of the trip like a scavenger hunt. We'd walk into a church and Liam would say, "Let's find Jesus!" It was adorable.
After that learning experience, we now do that with every trip. We try to find a few things that are part of the culture and let the kids keep an eye out for those things. Whether it's types of food, different clothing, different minarets, we try to keep it fun for them.
Part of the fun for kids is due to the advance prep that I do. Now that Piper is older, I bring her a notebook and pencil to use as a travel journal so that she can digest her day. We also bring a small notebook (think pocket-sized) and either a couple crayons or some mini-markers so that the kids can entertain themselves at a restaurant if we have slow service, or if they just start getting wiggly. For Liam, I packed a small lego kit, which he rebuilt every evening when we returned to our apartment. Any tour guides I book, I research heavily to make sure they are kid-friendly and ready to help our kids invest in the trip.
We have learned over the years that hotels are not awesome when you have kids. One room, four people, no kitchen, loud, one toilet = no bueno! We prefer to stay in vacation apartments, which I generally find through AirBNB. I have since started to scour the reviews for key words like "comfortable bed", "quiet street", and definitely air-conditioning in the Summer and heating in the Winter. We found out the hard way that in Rome, all heating is government controlled after we FROZE last Christmas. I pay attention to the windows, as in Europe curtains are not a given.
Perhaps the best lesson we learned was to pick up a portable internet puck through the car rental agency when traveling through Europe. This way we can use our iPhones as GPS and Google as we drive in a foreign country. Also, most apartments that advertised internet had very limited access.
When you are prepping for your vacation, don't forget to set kid-friendly expectations. You may not be able to spend nine hours in the Louvre. You will probably have to look for toilets or buy a coffee to use one in a cafe. Rather than run yourselves and your kiddos to utter exhaustion and meltdowns, plan to enjoy your trip. You don't see everything. Your hyper-planning may have to take a backseat if you see an awesome park and your kids need to stretch their legs. Take the opportunity to have a cappuccino with your SuperHub, watch your kids play with children who don't speak English, and magic happens. You are getting much more than a vacation out of this trip. You are immersing your family in all that is travel.
Kids take their lead from you. If you are racing through the louvre and not appreciating the art, so will they. If you make a game out of the trip, they will have fun even if you take them to thirty different churches. Kids love travel, and with a little prep, you can even enjoy traveling with them more than you did without them.