Traveling abroad with children

Parents who want to broaden their children’s horizons should consider international travel. Taking children abroad gives them an opportunity to experience other cultures, customs, histories, and heritages. To make the most of your family’s overseas endeavor, choose a destination with activities that will engage both children and adults.

This is what Yvonne Tomassetti did when considering a vacation to the United Kingdom with her 9-year-old son.

“Justin and I like to go to renaissance fairs and he has always wanted to see real castles. He’s also interested in bagpipes,” she says. “So I found a group castle tour that took us from Buckingham Palace to Edinburgh Castle and a lot of places in between. I knew there would be a good deal of walking but he was old enough to enjoy it without getting too tired.”

Brenda Hunsberger, director of travel programs for AAA thinks it’s a good idea to plan the itinerary with your child’s age and interest in mind.

“Consider the activities from his perspective,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘Will he enjoy this?’ ‘Will it keep his interest?’ ‘Will it be too physically taxing on him?’ Then plan accordingly.”

Prioritize what you most want to see, but avoid over-scheduling. Balance structured time with unstructured activities, such as playing at a park, shopping for souvenirs, or enjoying a local treat. These are ways children can connect with the culture on their level and ease into the environment. Martha Benintende found this to be true.

“When we first arrived in Italy, we rented a car and stayed on a farming estate in Tuscany for the first five days,” says the mother of two, John Patrick, 7, and Quinn, 10. “We spent a lot of mornings just walking around the farm while the kids played with the animals there. In the afternoons, we’d take short day trips to nearby ancient hill towns to grab a bite to eat and explore the area. It was a great way to deal with jet lag and ease into our trip.”

Once the Benintendes were acclimated to their new environment, they traded a life of leisure for downtown sites of Florence, Venice, and Rome. But not before considering what they wanted to see and who would show them around.

“Because we were traveling with my 75-year-old mother, I thought private tours would be the best way to see what we wanted to see and have it geared toward my children’s interests but paced at my mother’s needs,” she says.

Getting a tour guide is one of the most important things parents of school-age children can do when traveling abroad, say Amie O’Shaughnessy, travel expert and founder of the online family travel agency Ciao Bambino.

“The guides know how to tailor the content for kids to make it interesting and fun.”

You don’t have to go with a private guide, either. Group tours may be just as engaging for children.

“When we went to Edinburgh Castle, there was a lot of walking, but the tour was still geared for kids,” say Tomassetti. “In a couple of rooms there were swords and re-enactors were acting things out. Justin really liked that.”

But what really helps children enjoy the sites is to acquaint them with information in advance.

“Get a child-friendly guidebook while you are still planning the trip and point out fun facts and things to see,” says Hunsberger. “If you can find virtual tours online, do that.”

“Maps and globes are good primers too,” says O’Shaughnessy. “This will give your child a perspective of where he is going in relation to where you live. Another fun activity is to teach your child a couple of basic words such as ‘hello,’ ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ ”

Benintende did this.

“We bought an Italian dictionary and the kids learned a few words. Almost everywhere we went the people spoke English, but my kids still said a lot of ‘ciaos’ and ‘grazies’ and tried to order the food themselves. Their pronunciation wasn’t the best, but they had fun,” she says.

Beintende also purchased journals so her children could record thoughts about the trip.

“While we were in Tuscany, the kids would sit down every night and we would talk about our day, then they would start writing. It was their way to unwind,” she says.

Justin kept a record, too.

“He took a lot of pictures with his camera and picked up brochures,” says Tomassetti. “When he got home we integrated them into a photo album-scrapbook. Then he took it, along with some coins and souvenirs, and shared it with his class.”

Both families brought back mementos from their respective countries, but it was the day-to-day encounters that left an indelible impression.

“Our trip to Italy has opened my kids’ minds to things they had never really thought about before — art, history, geography, religion, and politics — and certainly not in this broad of a perspective,” says Beintende. “I think they’ve always had a sense that the world is bigger than where we live, but seeing is believing. Now they know it’s the real deal.”

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.