Smarter family travel: An interview with a Family on the Loose

Last week I reviewed Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids by the traveling husband-and-wife team Bill Richards and Ashley Steel. It’s chock full of excellent advice about traveling with kids – everything from how to plan to what to do once you arrive at your destination. I found after reading it that I had some questions for the authors; I wanted to know how their own experiences had influenced the advice they offer. Reading Bill’s excellent answers – also full of great advice – I realized that that Bill and Ashley truly exemplify the tagline of my blog “Bringing the world to your kids and your kids to the world.” I’m honored to share their inspirational family travel stories and philosophy with you today.

In your book you recommend a “little discomfort” as being not such a bad thing when seeking out unique accommodations. What’s the most interesting place that you and your family have stayed? What did you like about it?

We are suggesting that travelers seek out lodging that is different from what they find at home.  There’s little adventure in traveling halfway around the world and staying in a regular western-style hotel, with two queen beds, a TV, and a bathroom.  There may be times when you need standard comfort, and you can generally find “vanilla” places anywhere. But we try to find lodging that is unique to the place, so that the hotel room is part of the cultural exchange. In Tokyo, we stayed in a tatami room at a traditional ryokan where we slept on futons on the floor. The deep tub in the bathroom was the size of small swimming pool and controlled by an elaborate panel of buttons.  The room was simple, comfortable, and we could push the futons together to make one large bed for the four of us. Futons on tatami mats, it turns out, are much more comfortable than the pull-out futons in the United States.

Tatami room Japan

We’ve also stayed in alpine huts where sleeping is communal and everyone shares in meal preparation and clean-up.  We’ve stayed in a range of bed and breakfasts where we can meet the family and enjoy a traditional meal. Fried tomatoes in England were not a big hit with the kids but made a good story to tell their friends at home. In New Hampshire, we stayed on a farm where collecting eggs in the morning inspired us to keep chickens at home. We’ve had particularly good luck renting apartments for a few days at a time, mostly in European cities. The apartments get us into neighborhoods we wouldn’t necessarily visit, where we can view life away from the tourists, have access to a kitchen, and often pay significantly less than in a hotel.

Before kids, I stayed in a Buddhist monastery with fierce frescoes painted on the walls, and look forward to returning with the girls someday. Ashley stayed on an enormous sailing ship in Stockholm and a floating hotel in Amsterdam. These rooms have generally been too small for families, but the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach (of all places) has a family room we’re interested in testing out. There are several cities (Ottawa, Ljubljana, Falun) that have converted jails into hotels/hostels, but we haven’t had the chance to stay in them yet.

I love how you point out that it’s important to help children understand that they are ambassadors for their own culture. Can you offer examples of how your own children have done this on your travels?

The first thing that leaps to mind is what our kids don’t do on our travels.  They don’t expect other people to automatically speak English to them.  And they don’t (or at least they try not to) melt down in public places, especially over strange food or in traditionally quiet places.  Obviously, they used to melt down when they were two years old, but we expect a little more of them every year.

We stress being polite and trying to learn some basic phrases in other languages. This really isn’t a big challenge for them because they can memorize a few words so much faster than we can.  And they try to behave as though they are guests (as they are). They try to use good manners – at least in public.  We are always invoking “the queen” when we are educating the kids about proper etiquette as in, “would you act that way if you were having dinner with the queen?”  It all came to fruition at a formal dinner outside of London, where our kids displayed most excellent behavior.  The queen wasn’t actually in attendance, but we laughed at our methods.

Doll Museum Japan

No matter how hard we try, we are going to come off as American tourists on some level.  Just being aware that everyone is judging not only you but also your whole country can shift behavior.  We try to be open-minded and to be sensitive to cultures that may do things differently from our own.  We try not to assume that the way we do things is the only way or the best way.  And we actively talk about the differences that we see when we’re traveling, and encourage our kids to be tolerant and respectful of those differences.  I think this is most evident in our kids’ behavior when they meet a foreigner at home, whether it’s an exchange student or a lost tourist.  Our kids tend to interact, ask questions, and make few assumptions. Watching these moments, I am particularly proud.

What was your biggest travel-with-kids fail and what did you learn from it?

A couple of instances come to mind where our preparations were less than perfect.  When our youngest was about three years old we went to Santiago de Campostela in Spain at the start of a longer European vacation. At the cathedral, she became more than a little upset with the images of a crucified Jesus. It seems that our attempts to teach our kids about the world’s great religions had left out some important points.

Living statue Spain

On that same vacation, we encouraged our daughter to put money into the cap of a street performer, a human statue in Barcelona. He came to life and terrified her.  She would have nothing to do with statues, the stone kind, for the rest of the journey. You can imagine the hysteria when we tried to take her to see the statue of David in Florence!

Another memorable example was closer to home. We were hosting a college student from Japan at our house until she was able to find her own apartment. We wanted to show her some of the unique things about the Pacific Northwest and arranged a long weekend trip to see mountains, a hot air balloon festival, and Native American culture. Our big mistake was that we weren’t flexible enough to allow changing conditions to alter our original plans. We ended up having a miserable nights’ sleep in a teepee at a reservation campground because of freezing temperatures, missing the early-morning balloon lift off because we then overslept, and never quite making it successfully anywhere. There were so many fun ways to spend that weekend and so many possible nearby destinations but we clung to our original plans. Those memories have helped us be more flexible since.

What is the best trip you’ve taken with kids and why?

Our best trip is always the next trip we’re going to take because we’re so filled with anticipation. But seriously, all of our trips have been good for different reasons. Sure there are challenges on each trip too, but our philosophy is to travel hopefully and that helps us see the glass as half full. We even learned something from that cold night on a wet, cement floor in a rented teepee.

A great example of spontaneous hopeful travel, also described in our book, was when we volunteered to get bumped from a flight while changing planes in Memphis on New Year’s Eve. Not only did the airline give us travel vouchers that offset the cost of a future trip, but they paid for 24 hours of sightseeing in a city that previously wasn’t even on our radar. We discovered Beale Street, the ducks at the Peabody Hotel, Elvis’ Graceland, and the Lorraine Motel; not to mention two rounds of great barbecue. The things that you don’t plan on can be the best parts of the journey.

How often do you travel? Where are you headed next?

We both have full-time careers apart from our travel writing, so our family travels are not quite as frequent as we’d like them to be. Some days we feel like we spend all our free time writing and searching for cheap plane tickets. Plus, as much as we love travel, we don’t want to loose our home base. It’s good to be home too.

Even with all the limitations of jobs, school, home, and budget, we manage to do a lot. We try to extend professional trips into family travel adventures where possible. For example, we spent six months in Austria on a Fulbright Fellowship. We aim for one big adventure every year and one smaller trip to spend time with family. We try to mix in travels that are not too distant or too long, exploring our home region and the many cultures found here. In two weeks, for example, we’ll head to Richmond in British Columbia for one night to attend a karate tournament and visit the biggest Chinese temple in North America.

We spent a year in southern Thailand before we had kids and we’ve always wanted to return.  In the coming year, we hope to rediscover some of our favorite memories in Thailand, discover all the changes since we left, and write about traveling in Asia with teens.

Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids Bill Richards is author of Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids, which is available in both print and ebook editions. He also curates with his wife, Ashley Steel. Follow them on Twitter @familyonloose and on Facebook.

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