Is Your Dream Trip a Nightmare for the Kids?

In what seems like another lifetime, I did a lot of traveling in Europe – first as a college exchange student in France, and years later, with my husband on a three-month tour of the continent. When kids came into the picture, I vowed to keep the travel bug alive and well so they’d have an appreciation for the world outside of their hometown and the U.S.

In the past several years, our family’s been on some great trips, and now we’re planning the biggest adventure of all this summer – Southeast Asia! The challenge of bringing kids along on your dream vacation – even if they’re old enough to lug their own bags and not have a melt down at a Parisian café – is that ultimately all they care about is having fun; at least as much fun as they’d have if they were hanging out at home. Looking back on our various travel adventures, I’ve found you can count on the following kid-pleasing activities almost anywhere you go.

It’s Always Cool in the Pool

My kids love playing around in the water, so with very few exceptions, I always look for accomodations with a pool. When we were in Munich, for example, our hotel (a Holiday Inn with two double beds – a rare find in any European city!) had a huge indoor pool that my daughters would have gladly stayed at all day. It was the perfect way to cap off a tiring afternoon of sight-seeing, and since the girls were able to swim on their own, my husband and I could relax on the sidelines and plan out our next day.

Even in the Caribbean, where I expected the kids to be endlessly entertained at world-class beaches with pristine waters, they were almost always nagging us by midday to return to the hotel pool. They’d happily hang out there for hours on end with intermittent dips in the Jacuzzi and smoothie breaks at the pool bar. I guess it beats getting sand in your bathing suit!

The Call of the Wild

Cat at Largo Argentine, Rome

Cat at Largo Argentine, Rome

I’d bet all my frequent flyer miles that there isn’t a child who doesn’t love animals. Mine are no exception, so prior to any trip, whether it’s in the urban jungle or the real jungle, I research opportunities to be in contact with animals. In a big city, it could be a zoo, a horse and carriage ride, or even a visit to an animal shelter. While we were in Rome, we stumbled upon the ruins of Largo Argentina, a small plaza where Julius Cesar was supposedly assassinated and that also happens to be home to dozens of stray cats being cared for by a local no-kill shelter. The kids couldn’t have cared less about the Forum or Palatine Hill, but everyday, we had to pay a visit to the cats of Largo Argentina. Good thing it was near our hotel.

In less urban areas, there’s always horseback riding or opportunities to encounter more exotic animals, depending on your destination. Horseback riding is so popular with my girls that we’ve made it a staple of almost every family trip. We’ve enjoyed trail rides in both Hawaii and Costa Rica, and in researching activities around Siem Reap in Cambodia, I found a nice stable that we intend to visit this summer. During this trip, we’ll also look into seeing elephants in Thailand, with an eye towards groups that are committed to humane treatment and conservation. (That could be a future blog post, since the topic of elephant shows and rides in Thailand is somewhat controversial.)

Winter the Dolphin

Winter the Dolphin

Finally, if your trip brings you seaside, you can check out local aquariums or marine centers. What kid wouldn’t want to hang out with dolphins or sea otters? My parents live in Clearwater, FL, and on our last visit we checked out the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home to Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail whose heartwarming story was made into a popular movie. During our visit, we signed my older daughter up to be a “trainer for a day”, and our younger daughter had the chance to touch and pose for a photo with one of the resident dolphins.

Hop on the Bus, Gus

The Hop-On, Hop-Off bus that is! When I told my 13-year old that I was writing this article, she said I had to include the Hop-On, Hop-Off tour. These brightly colored double-decker buses may scream “tourist”, but let’s face it, most kids (including my own) don’t have a very high tolerance for walking long distances and being a human pack mule is hardly fun for mom and dad. The tour bus lets everyone rest their weary feet and is a great way to quickly get the lay of the land in a city, especially if it’s a first-time visit.

Most kids also enjoy buses and trains of any kind, so getting around on public transit (this time with the locals!) could actually be as much fun as the destination. Keep in mind though that any trip over an hour or two will drive even the most imaginative kids to boredom, so be sure to bring along activities to keep them occupied.

Think Like a Local, Act Like a Kid

Carnival in Paris

Carnival in Paris

During our trip to Paris a couple of years ago – the first for our daughters – we decided to go to the Louvre. Knowing the girls would not be up for a long visit, I decided we’d go on Friday evening, when the entrance fee is lower and there are far fewer crowds. As we walked leisurely through the Tuilleries Garden towards the museum, we caught site of a giant Ferris wheel, brilliantly lit by the late-afternoon sun. The carnival was in town, and not even the prospect of seeing the world’s most famous painting could stop the kids from taking this exciting detour. We must have stayed there for well over an hour, and to this day, the carnival’s funhouse is my kids’ favorite memory from Paris. We eventually made it to the Louvre, but honestly, I don’t recall much about our visit. I do, however, remember enjoying the opportunity to practice my French with the non-English speaking carnival staff, meeting some local French girls who were nice enough to accompany our daughters on the roller coaster, and my kids’ never-ending laughter as they emerged from the fun house, over and over again.

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Bike riding in Munich

The point of this story – and this whole article really – is that no matter where you are in the world, there are activities and places universally adored by children. When I research a travel destination, I seek these places out – parks, children’s museums, aquariums, festivals, carnivals, etc. I try to organize our time so that at least half of it is spent doing things a local parent in that city or town might do with their own children. In Munich, we rented bikes to ride along the river; in Rome we watched boys skateboard and roller blade in the city’s lovely Villa Borghese park; in the French town of Bayonne, we hung out a medieval faire that was going on during our stay and watched Bastille Day fireworks in the town square.

Sure, there are plenty of tried and true tourist sites that kids will find cool, and by all means, you should not miss them – the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, Buckingham Palace – you know what they are. But by viewing your destination through the eyes of your kids, you’re bound to uncover many more unique travel experiences.

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