My husband and I have both travelled a lot, separately and together, but this is the first time we have travelled extensively as a family of four. We are eight months into a year away with our children who are aged 9 and 7 years and we are discovering first-hand the vast differences to our former solo travels.
Here is what we have learned so far from eight months living and travelling abroad:
No homesickness but serious logistics
Having your nearest and dearest by your side means that the homesickness of previous solo trips is virtually nonexistent however the decision making, logistics and compromise is enormous. Meeting the needs and fulfilling the desires of four very different individuals can be hard going.
Our solution, which is still a work in progress, has been to identify each person’s interests and take turns participating in each other’s preferred activities. Making a family agreement to do this helps but it continues to be a juggle to decide which activities we can do and when.
For example, our son has very little interest in wandering and exploring new places. He also despises hiking in nature, preferring structured activities like sport, games and school (I’m not complaining about the fact that he loves school!). I, on the other hand, love hiking in the mountains and exploring new places on foot. When planning trips, we have to factor in different interests and make an agreement to compromise, trying not to spoil each other’s favourite activities. When that fails, we are not averse to using bribery! Packets of Spanish league soccer cards work wonders with our son and promises of sushi are our daughter’s currency.
We’ve realized that for every confined and controlled adult space we take the kids – like a museum, church or café – the kids need some time to let loose and play in an open space.
Next month we will go to Morocco and I have had to carefully plan our time to accommodate the needs of four people. We have struck a deal with our children that if they spend three days wandering and exploring the vibrant and crazy city of Marrakesh without complaint, we will reward them with three days at the beach in Agadir where they can swim, run on the beach, play ball games and possibly meet kids their own age. Once they have had their fill of play, we will take them trekking to the Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains. By sandwiching their reward in the middle of the trip, we are hoping they will participate willingly in the things we want to do. We have clearly explained that not all the trip will be their kind of fun but that they have to compromise, just as we are compromising by staying in a large, impersonal beach resort.
Trains (never), planes (sometimes) and automobiles (always)
Naively, I thought we could do as many exciting things as in previous trips however the reality is you either have to double your budget or halve the things you can do. Paying for four of everything rather than just two has an enormous impact on what we can afford to do but it also varies depending on the country. In Scandinavia for example, children travel at a discount or for free and enter museums for free however in Spain where we live, there are few discounts for children. So despite dreaming of train travel as a family, it has not been viable and we are yet to take a romantic train journey anywhere in Europe. Instead we have rented cars or opted for budget airlines like Easyjet, Vueling and Ryanair to move around. For four, renting a car or flying has been more affordable than the train or even a bus for that matter. It is a great pity that the cleanest form of transport for the environment is the most expensive for a family.
Hotels are out, airbnb apartments are in…
Our kids have begged us to stay in a hotel – “Just once?” they say, “so we can try the buffet breakfast!”. But we can’t justify spending double for a 25m room with four beds squashed in, when airbnb has a smorgasbord (excuse the pun) of gorgeous apartments and houses for half the price and triple the space… with all the comforts of a home.
We have had the most wonderful experiences with airbnb: generous hosts, gorgeous places and brilliant tips on what to see and where to eat. I can’t even imagine how we would have done this trip prior to airbnb. I guess we would have done far fewer trips. So far we have had amazing airbnb experiences in Paris, Tallinn (Estonia), Montana-Crans (Switzerland), Ronda, Almeria, Cadiz and we have already booked further airbnb places in Seville (Spain), Marrakech (Morocco), Lucca and Rome (Italy), Jerusalem (Israel), Tarifa (Spain) and Lisbon (Portugal). The hosts vary depending on whether they usually live in the apartment or run it as a business. So far some of our generous hosts have provided food, ski equipment, ski clothes, advice on the best places to visit or eat and more…The links above are to all the places we have stayed or will stay!
With four people, hunger can strike at any moment, and that can ruin even the most significant and scenic places. It’s not just the kids who get grumpy when they are hungry; I am prone to say some nasty things when I am hungry followed by profuse apologies after I have had my fill.
When it comes to snacks though, we are becoming a well-oiled machine out of necessity. We are now experts at carrying snacks EVERYWHERE and we rarely leave home without a cucumber, capsicum, banana, apple and salty crackers in our bag. The Swiss army knife has also been brilliant provided we remember not to take it on aeroplanes.
Eating out has been harder since one member of our family is an extremely fussy eater. Great debates ensue when deciding what to eat. Sometimes we divide and conquer with the girls opting for some adventurous eating while the boys go for simpler foods like pizza or toasted sandwiches. Yesterday in Cadiz, the girls went to a funky tapas bar called La Candela to eat this:
Meanwhile the boys went to a bakery for toasted sandwiches and soup.
Ipads and ipods for long trips ONLY, after that they are put away
We’ve learnt that i-devices are wonderful to keep children occupied for long journeys where there is not much to see from the window (like 24 hours in a plane from Australia to Europe). However if we allow them to enter our daily life beyond the planes and car rides, we risk missing our children and our children missing the incredible experiences right in front of them. So, with agreement from the children, they are only permitted to use their i-devices on long journeys after which they are hidden far from temptation. This has made a significant difference to the quality of our interactions as well as the experiences and memories of the places we have visited.
Like most things in life, there is a bitter sweetness to travelling as a family. The sheer joy of sharing these adventures with the ones you love exists alongside the strain of sibling rivalry and fulfilling the disparate desires of four individuals. Ultimately though, we will prevail with fond memories, a few scars and many fabulous stories to tell.