International Travel with 2 boys: Hard Lessons Learned

Not many people take a five-year-old boy on a transatlantic flight. Now I know why. Going to Europe with young kids is like having the proverbial root canal without lidocaine. Maybe your family deals with jet lag better than mine (if so, props to you), but my kids start to act like hooligans when confronted with jet lag. And yes, our parental patience is shorter when we’re sleep deprived (why’d we become doctors again then?) 😉

3 weeks is a long time to travel with a 5 and 7 year old. We used this trip (which was a home exchange) to “test and scale” for a bigger trip down the road. Originally we had been thinking about doing a “gap year” next year to travel extensively. After a lot of thought, we decided no. Sure, a gap travel year sounds awesome on paper, but the actual day to day of it isn’t something we’re interested in doing right now. So we decided to do something else instead (stay tuned for future news about these plans—they’re big. Well, at least for us.)

Am I glad we took the kids to southern Spain, etc. for 3 weeks this past summer? Yes. It was incredible, unbelievable, surreal—and amazing memories were made. But it was also a very difficult journey that stretched us to our limits (I know: first world problems. Sorry). Lucky you though: I took notes during that trip so I could share my scar tissue with you. Read on to avoid my mistakes.

1) We should have gone to a country that involved lots of running around instead of staying on narrow roads and sidewalks as cars drove close by. Our home exchange to Iceland in 2016 was much more ideal for young kids. The narrow cobblestoned roads of Morocco, Gibraltar, and Spain…yeah, not so much.

2) Use the bathroom on the left in the airplane. When we walked up the aisle, my younger son chose the bathroom on the right. Well, so does everyone else apparently. The one on the left was noticeably cleaner by the end of the flight.

3) I wish I had laid out what to pack, then put half of it back. I need to be more like the amazing Dr. Corriel, who I am in absolute awe of. But when I wasn’t living in my bathing suit, I was in my dark grey skorts that other PMG members have raved about being great for travel (because they are!).

4) Listen to your gut and dress according to the local customs. A Spanish woman told me it was fine to wear modern Western clothes like shorts and a sleeveless shirt to Tangier, Morocco.

Don’t. Just don’t.

5) I should have made our slow travel approximate life at home. When we were squeezed for room packing, we made the conscious decision to leave our exercise clothes home, thinking we’d be walking more than we actually ended up doing. By the end of the first week, my body ached from not running. And once out of a habit for that long, it’s hard to get back into it—much less work my way back up to the running shape I was in before I left for the trip.

6) I should have booked a hotel in the city we landed in that first morning. Instead, we drove almost 3 hours to Alhambra—and ended up with two traffic fines because we were so exhausted we didn’t realize we’d driven into a “no private cars” area until after we’d done it (my Spanish worsens with exhaustion).

7) I shouldn’t have made reservations to be at Alhambra at 8:30 in the morning the day after our flight arrived in Spain. Again: jet lag.

8) I wish I had found Aldi’s sooner. I find grocery shopping in foreign languages to be mentally taxing, especially as I have a family member who is anaphylactic to milk/butter/cheese. But Aldi’s is a store I’m comfortable in and grocery shopping was much easier once I discovered Aldi’s is also in Spain.

9) I was short on time, so I went through a travel agent for a car rental. She booked an SUV—which for two people used to driving a Prius on wide American roads…yeah, it was as awful as you can imagine. (Our first home exchange, in Iceland, included a car swap. Since the Spain exchange was a second home on the beach, the car wasn’t available for swapping.)

10) It wasn’t worth the money I saved to come back the evening before I had to be back at work—instead of the day before that. Leave a day of wiggle room when coming back home—it makes going back to work much easier.

Next blog will be about the things I did correctly for this trip—because we did do some things wonderfully right and have such fond memories from this amazing home exchange.

Until next time, do one thing to get your financial world in better order. I believe in you: you got this!

18 thoughts on “International Travel with 2 boys: Hard Lessons Learned”

  1. Luckily our 5 year old daughter is a really good traveller. However, travelling with kids is definitely different. We try not to plan too much in each day and are often back before dinner. Home exchanging or an Airbnb allows us to cook dinner and get the little one to bed at a reasonable time with a comfortable place for my husband and I to relax in the evenings.

    I’m also all for packing light. I hate being burdened with bags. That said, I still tend to overpack for my daughter. Next trip I’m going to try to cut back a bit more though. I figure I can always wash an item of clothing in a sink if she dribbles food or something before I’m ready to wash a whole load of clothes.

    1. I hear ya! It’s amazing the difference in traveling with a 5 vs a 7 year old! Like night and day difference! (Hence why our now 7 year old is going solo with me to the UK in April!)

      1. I will be travelling solo with my daughter to the U.S. later this year. We will have at least 30 hours of travel time. 😲 Wish me luck! At least my husband will be with us for the return flights.

  2. So timely, we just used credit card points for tickets to Spain down the road. Reading with baited breath, and enjoying the lessons learned. Our trip will include a 9 and 11 year old which is a world of difference. You remain my bravery superhero for travel, B.C.!

    1. Woot woot! We LOVE Spain. You’ll have a blast, but here’s hoping you picked up at least one good tip from my scar tissue 😉 Thanks for the kind words, I missssssss you! (My virtual friends always make my day)

  3. I love this! Taking the kids internationally is so tough/awesome/exhausting/worth it! But… packing light and planning margin is so important! Thanks for getting me excited to go on another trip!!!!

    1. Yes, packing light. I am still working on that—to the point of taking notes after I unpack from a trip about what we never even used! Have a blast making memories on another trip. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I was planning on taking my kids on a trip to Europe when they were about 8 and 10. Then I went on a cross country trip on a plane. After watching the other kids on the trip, I decided against it. I was not willing to go through that long flight with little kids since I didn’t have to. We stuck with shorter flights and motor home travel and were very happy.

    I like your tips and will include this in my Fawcett’s Favorites this Monday.

    Dr. Cory S. Fawcett
    Prescription for Financial Success

    1. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the inclusion in your favorites! We are also switching to trips closer to home with campers…for now. 😉

  5. I feel your pain! We took our then 18 month old to Italy, starting in Venice. Tantrums on both flights, jet lagged toddler, getting greys trying to keep him away from the water in Venice… terrible! But, we spent a relaxed few days in Tuscany, which was a lot better. It’s definitely an adventure!

    1. Oh wow. You’re braver than me!! And Tuscany is always wonderful—DH and I biked across it after we finished residency. It was one of the best trips we ever took! Thanks for stopping by.

  6. I figured out the key is luggage! We bought some cases that could be pushed or pulled that way I could manage the luggage myself and my wife could manage the kids. If you have a young on they make a kid backpack which is on a regular backpack frame. My wife practiced with our kid in the back pack while cooking and such around the house. My girl was able to see everything and she didn’t fuss at all. I’m going to put something out there probably controversial. I use a technique I call snap to control tantrums. Its just a little rubber band on the wrist. When the kid acts out just give em a snap. They immediately get the point. Eventually all you need to do is put the rubber band on the wrist and things settle down

    1. Ours have gone beyond the back pack age…but the tip on luggage is a good one! I’ve managed to get our luggage requirements down this year and everyone in the family is responsible to pull one (DH gets two, the poor guy!). We do time outs. I don’t care if we’re in restaurants or grocery shopping—the misbehaving kid gets to go stand in a corner. People can stare, but I don’t care.

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