How to travel with kids in tow

This family found ways to make traveling fun for Mom, Dad – and son.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When our son, Alex, was young, he hated to travel. We suffered through temper tantrums in London, Paris, Brussels, and Naples. We endured refusals to visit one more museum, even if it was the Louvre. We coped with a child who balked at eating mussels in Brussels and onion soup in Paris and who insisted he would like nothing more than ordering room service at the hotel and watching TV. At those moments, my husband and I found ourselves wishing that we had left our son home with a relative or wondering if we should postpone traveling until he was in college.

In calmer moments, we knew neither alternative was an option. Loving to travel and eager to share a broader worldview with our son, we knew we had to find a way to make traveling more enjoyable.

Over the years, we have come up with several hard-earned but reliable strategies to help kids cope on long-distance trips.

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First, we recognize that some children have trouble adjusting to new environments, food, time zones, and schedules. These children cling to the predictability of routines and favorite food.

So, in advance of a trip to England, we literally gave our son a taste of the new culture by making shepherd's pie for supper. He loved the mashed potatoes, brown gravy, and savory chopped meat.

For Paris, I made quiche. For Italy, we sampled homemade pesto served over linguine. For Amsterdam, I cooked up a pot of comforting pea soup and baked a delicious apple pancake called pannekoeken.

Then, when we traveled to these places, he ate these foods, and they seemed like a taste of home. They provided a link to the new culture and became part of our son's culinary repertoire.

In addition to food, we always sample the culture beforehand by reading books and renting movies from the countries we will be visiting.

For Italy, the book "Italian Folktales" by Italo Calvino and the films "Johnny Stecchino," "Cinema Paradiso," and "Il Postino" gave our son a glimpse of the Italian way of life.

For Britain, we rented "Mr. Bean" and "Billy Elliot," and enjoyed stories by J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. For Amsterdam, he finished "The Diary of Anne Frank."

Before we leave home, we also ask Alex to leaf through tour books and pick out activities that appeal to him. He was excited about visiting the London Dungeon and the Imperial War Museum, and taking a ride on the London Eye. They turned out to be big hits.

In Paris, a visit to the top of the Eiffel Tower and cruising down the Seine on a bateau mouche (excursion boat) were obvious choices, but we also discovered the roller coaster in Le Jardin du Carrousel and climbing to the top of L'Arc de Triomphe, where we peered down at the traffic on the Champs-Élysées. He also opted to visit Les Égouts (the sewers of Paris).

Tramping through dank sewage pipes like Jean Valjean was not my idea of having a good time in the City of Light, but Victor Hugo also wrote, "Paris has beneath it another Paris; a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation...." He was right. After an hour of touring this subterranean marvel, we walked away with a greater appreciation for the cleanliness, sophistication, and efficiency of French engineering.

Because Alex's preferences were given equal attention, he was more tolerant of his parents' selections, such as visiting Chartres Cathedral, the Van Gogh Museum, and L'Accademia.

We've also learned the hard way that dragging our son out of bed early in the morning guarantees that he will be grumpy all day. Now that he is a teenager, we let him sleep in while we sip coffee at a cafe, work out at the hotel gym, or take a long walk. We have even managed to squeeze in a quick trip to a museum and returned just as he was ready for a late breakfast. This makes our time together much more pleasurable.

We give our son a set amount of money on the first day of our vacation and let him decide how to spend it. This eliminates the pestering to buy this trinket or that DVD. Now if he wants something, he debates its merits and decides whether or not to spend his money on it.

Our last bit of trip wisdom is learning not to overschedule our time. Highly structured days have to be followed by more relaxed ones. Although we would love to visit as many museums, attractions, and highlights as possible, this isn't realistic with a child. It's also true that after hours of touring, we all need some downtime.

In the late afternoon, our son spends an hour or so listening to music, surfing the Internet, or watching TV at the hotel while we relax as we like.

After years of traveling with our reluctant tourist, the good news is that despite our son's initial resistance to venturing beyond his comfort zone, he now loves traveling as much as we do. He even talks about living in Europe someday and is planning road trips with friends to sample new food and cultures.

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