Packing up the kids
Between work, the arrival of your youngest and obligations piling up faster than your laundry, you probably don’t even consider taking the kind of trip that shaped your life as a young adult. But it’s not too late to head out on more adventures.
by Hélène Lefranc
[ 2007-08-30 ]
Annie Gilbert, assistant manager at Ulysses bookstore, rubs elbows with all kinds of travellers, including backpackers who, contrary to popular belief, don’t just fall into the 18-35 age group.
“Professionals and even retirees set out with their knapsacks and sleeping bags. Many of them stopped globe-trotting when their careers got underway, but then found that the itch came back in time. Some plan family biking trips while others drop the kids off with grandparents to holiday with their special someone. Single men tend to go it alone while single women usually travel with friends.” Of course, all this depends on whether or not you can find a travel buddy on a similar budget, with the same interests and who you can count on to play it cool in any type of situation.
People in their early 20s often leave with a plane ticket in hand and few worries on their mind. Oblivious to any potential risks at their destination, they focus on the fun and adventure ahead. But this attitude changes once careers take off, and people find they have a lot less time for tourism. Workers then try to get as much as they can out of their vacations. “Organization becomes the name of the game,” says Gilbert. “It’s easy to spend a whole day trying to find something to do when you’re away from home. That’s why it’s so important to be prepared and have a good travel guide on hand. You’ll save time and money.”
Long hours of pre-travel planning can also be part of the fun. Forty-five-year-old Luce Champoux, whose annual three-week trip has taken her to Bali, Kenya and Tanzania, starts planning at least two months in advance. “I’ve always found it interesting to learn as much as I can about the countries I visit, so I turn to books and the people I know for information.”
Freelance journalist Pascale Guéricolas is another who takes trip planning seriously, whether she’s off to Turkey, Egypt or Poland. Now with two kids aged 5 and 11 (who have accompanied her on trips since age one), the 39-year-old finds that she needs to plan her treks more carefully than she used to.
“When I was 20, my boyfriend and I jumped on a plane and figured out the details after arriving at our destination. Now that I have kids, I make sure that I’ve reserved two or three places to stay for the trip.”
Thankfully, means of communication have come a long way over the years. “Years ago, contacting hotels in Eastern Europe was a real challenge,” explains Guéricolas. Today, a lot of Canadians do their trip planning and turn to travel forums for advice. “I often plan my itinerary based on suggestions made in forums. You can always find someone who’s been where you’re going.”
Another must when travelling with kids: well-prepared bags. Make sure you’ve got a good-quality backpack that fits you properly. From an ergonomic standpoint, backpacks have evolved significantly since you first went travelling. But then, so have prices! The best can set you back $350. The amount of weight a person can carry varies significantly, and the best way to find out how much you can handle is to fill up your bag and go for a walk. If you prefer to travel light, pack a few washable go-anywhere outfits.
Once you’re on your way, don’t weigh yourself down with souvenirs. If you absolutely must have that replica of the Kheops pyramid, send it home by mail. That said, you might find it’s worth carrying around a first-aid kit and your little one’s stuffed toy.
At the end of the day, everyone has their own trick for limiting how much they have to lug around. “I use a smaller bag. That way, even when it is full to the point of bursting, I can still manage,” says Luce Champoux. On her last trips to India and Africa she didn’t even have any luggage to check. You can’t travel much lighter than that!
According to our travellers, you should think hard before heading out on a camping expedition because it involves carrying a lot of heavy gear. Unless, of course, you plan on hiring a Sherpa. As for nights under the stars, your reduced stamina will probably mean that you’ll fall asleep without really appreciating the celestial display. Then there’s the fact that aching muscles the next day can really put a damper on fun. For inexpensive accommodation, try a youth hostel instead. Despite the name, they accept travellers of all ages and offer beds in dorms as well as private rooms for couples and families.
Small, family-run operations are another interesting option. “You can find small inns almost everywhere,” says Bernadette Thibodeau, a 37-year-old nurse and mother of two girls, aged 6 and 8. “In Mexico and Guatemala, we always managed to find rooms in these kinds of places, even without reservations. And when the little hotels were full, they sent us to stay with their relatives.”
Bed and breakfasts, farmhouse inns (perfect for kids), staying with friends, housing swaps and rooms found on the CourchSurfing network are all great accommodation ideas. Whatever you choose, alleviate stress by making a reservation for your first night away.
If you want to stick to land travel, you’re pretty much restricted to the American continent. While most people travelling abroad start by boarding a plane, local customs determine how they get around on the ground. Europe has very efficient trains, especially the TGV, a high-speed train that connects France with its neighbouring countries. Asia, too, offers great rail travel. Luce Champoux tested out the Indian system last year. “In my youth, I always opted for third class to save money. This time I went for second class with air conditioning. It sounded nice, but in the end it was almost as packed and still had rats!”
In South America, buses are a comfortable way to go. In Egypt, Pascale Guéricolas got around on a bike, in a collective taxi, on the subway and on local buses. “When I was 20, we mostly used public transportation. But when you’ve got a family, it can sometimes be cheaper to rent a car.” As for hitchhiking, it’s just as risky as it used to be and takes just as much patience. You might want to think twice about it if you’ve got your kids in tow.
Walking is always an option, as long as you leave your favourite old, beat-up shoes behind. But be prepared to cut distances when travelling as a family. “Children under the age of six can’t usually handle more than five kilometres a day,” indicates Bernadette Thibodeau. Strollers, both the foldable and all-terrain versions, aren’t much use off the beaten path.
Once you’re no longer eligible for student discounts, travelling on a shoestring requires a little common sense. Borrow a travel guide from the library, avoid holidays during peak season, shop around for deals on airfare at travel agencies or on the Internet. If you’re travelling to Asia, a trip to your local China Town can save you money on flights. However, if you’re not one for long-term planning or if you’re strapped for cash, you can often find last-minute deals on the Web.
For more information on travelling on the cheap, check with local youth travel organizations or travel websites.
When travelling with children, you have to accept that the pace is just not the same. “Long trips are possible, as long as you schedule in some time for R and R,” advises Pascale Guéricolas. “Kids hate to rush and change location. We try to stay in the same place for at least three nights so they can adjust.” The types of activities you choose are different, too. “In Florence, we went to fewer museums, but I saw things from a different point of view. My daughter Alice wanted to stop and draw a picture of a bridge, which got me to look at my surroundings in greater detail.”
Bernadette Thibodeau agrees that travelling with kids involves less moving from place to place. “We spent a lot of time by the water and in nature in general. And because of the kids, locals people are more receptive to you. In their eyes, you’re no longer just a tourist because you have something in common with them.” Pascale Guéricolas has experienced the same thing. “In Mediterranean countries like Morocco, even though they think a family with two children is incredibly small, we were not considered the typical imposing tourists.”
According to Sandra Carreiro, a marketing coordinator at Tourisme Jeunesse, travellers over the age of 35 “party less and are more interested in cultural events.” Luce Champoux, for one, goes out less when she’s away from home. “I’m more interested in rising with the sun!”
To really make the most of your trip, pack an extra measure of patience and your sense of humour. Pascale Guéricolas tells of her time in Egypt when she felt harassed by persistent camel guides who wanted her business. Determined to walk, she needed to come up with a way to get them off her case. “I turned things around by offering them tours in my stroller. After all, I explained, it was a top-of-the-line model and I had plenty of experience driving it.” Once the roles were reversed, the guides relented. “This tactic worked because Egyptians have a great sense of humour.” Basically, you’ve got to roll with the punches the way you did when you were 20. And now that you’ve got more years of experience under your belt, you’ll be better able to deal with bumps in the road.
Youth hostelling network:
For free accommodation in private homes:
Travel Cuts, a specialist in student and budget travel:
For backpacking information:
South-east Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonsia) offers a genuinely unique experience, even if language barriers can limit your interactions with locals and culture. Plus, these countries are relatively safe places for women travelling alone. India, land of contrasts, is often a challenging destination for Westerners, who either love it or hate it.
Just as exotic, Africa is not the ideal place for lone voyagers. Instead, signing up for a group safari is a better option. Central and southern Africa are the most accessible areas for tourists. Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, make for easy trips. Flying there is expensive, but these countries are a backpacker’s paradise. Latin America is always a popular destination, especially Argentina, Chile and Brazil, which offer big cities and nature at a reasonable price.
Does Europe call your name, despite its sometimes geriatric pace and astronomical prices? Try Spain or Croatia before these countries become overrun by mass tourism.
No matter where you go, call a travel clinic to find out if you need to get any shots before you leave home. For information on the sanitary conditions and political situation in different countries, visit the Foreign Affairs and International Trade website.
Sources: Suggestions from Sandra Carreiro from Tourisme Jeunesse, Annie Gilbert from Ulysses and experienced travellers.