The Family Traveler’s Handbook
By Mara Gorman
136 pgs., Full Flight Press, $16.99
By Michael Lanza
Let’s face it: Traveling with kids can be difficult. Perhaps even, at times, somewhat less than fun, especially when they’re little. Taking the kind of trips you took pre-children when you have, say, an infant and toddler can feel so daunting that many parents mostly give up on it for several years. I’ve met many who have said to me, “We used to [fill in the blank here: backpack, hike, camp, ski, climb, travel internationally, etc.]—until we had kids.”
But you don’t have to give it up at all. And Mara Gorman has written an inspirational, positive, and fairly slender (read: no heavy studying for the time-challenged) book to help guide parents who enjoy travel but feel overwhelmed by the prospect of doing it with kids.
Gorman, a Delaware resident and the person behind the family-travel blog, The Mother of All Trips, has been traveling with her two sons for over a decade, including a 13-month adventure across six states, three countries, and two continents with her toddler. In this book, she doesn’t tell parents where to go; instead, she offers her seasoned perspective on how to travel smartly with children, as well as tips from other experienced parent-travelers. (Full disclosure: She solicited some free tips from me, but I have no financial interest in the book.) She ranges nimbly from safety and maintaining your child’s routine (“Find the nearest playground”) to managing children at various ages while traveling (“Involve your tween or teen in planning the trip”).
Gorman sets off into somewhat hazardous terrain, trying to bust some durable assumptions about traveling with kids—that you can’t, for instance, go backpacking, visit museums, or set foot inside any restaurant that’s not already teeming with other loud, food-throwing kids. Not so, says Gorman. She suggests, counter intuitively, “Don’t underestimate what your child is willing to eat.” She espouses traveling “like a local,” writing: “For me, a singular pleasure of travel is to imagine you live in the place you are visiting.” If that sounds more like traveling adult-style than family-style, you’re starting to catch on to her philosophy. But she also offers nuggets on how to deal with problems when—inevitably, whether you’re with children or not—things don’t go as planned.
With careful planning and flexibility, Gorman says, parents with kids of any age can still enjoy adult-style traveling—and she makes a persuasive case that it can actually be immensely rewarding and enjoyable to share these experiences with your kids. I wholeheartedly agree.
I have camped, backpacked, rock climbed, skied, canoed, kayaked, rafted, flown solo (with a toddler and preschooler), and driven up to 15 hours in a day with my kids—so believe me when I say: I’ve known the pain. I also agree with Gorman’s observation: “Children almost universally like to be outdoors, and whether you like to kayak, bike, canoe, or ski, you’re sure to find that your kids will be eager companions.” The Family Traveler’s Handbook covers all the bases for new parents who have a thousand questions about how to pull this off, and yet offers insights even for those of us whose kids have logged some serious frequent-flier mileage. It’s a quick, enjoyable, informative read for any parent who cannot—and will not—squash that travel bug.
Find out more about The Family Traveler’s Handbook at thetravelershandbooks.com/family-travelers-handbook. Buy the book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Follow Mara Gorman at facebook.com/themotherofalltrips and on Twitter @motherofalltrip.
I caught up with Gorman recently to talk about her new book and how to inspire parents to overcome the natural fears and apprehensions about traveling—or taking serious outdoor adventures—with their children.
ML: Why did you write The Family Traveler’s Handbook?
MG: The short answer to this question is in the subtitle—I want to inspire families to travel together. Why is that important? After spending a year on the road with my oldest child between the time he was one and two years old, I realized that traveling with my son had taught me some incredibly valuable lessons about parenting. I learned to get by without any child-proofing, how to keep toys and other “stuff” to a minimum, how to eat out with a toddler, and how to introduce myself to strangers so that my son would have other children to play with.
But perhaps the biggest lesson—and the biggest gift—of traveling with my child was the realization of how much purposeful time as a family it offered. On the road, I couldn’t fall into a rut because I was outside of my comfort zone. I also had the luxury of uninterrupted time with my family that no other situation ever offers.
By publishing my tips (as well as tips from other family travelers) I give parents the tools they need to successfully travel with their children. My stories show parents see the value and joy that can come out of family travel.
Travel may be less glamorous, more work-intensive, and sometimes more costly with children than without—but it is also more deliberate and meaningful. I wanted to share that meaning with other parents.
ML: What are your top tips for planning family travel?
MG: Parents need to start their planning by asking themselves a series of questions—and answering those questions honestly. These questions include:
• What is my budget in both money and time?
• What are my goals?
• How many places do we want to visit on a given trip?
• Are their activities that every person in my family will enjoy?
The reason it’s important to answer these questions is that they remove any preconceived notions of what you “should” do on a family vacation. For instance, you may think a family trip isn’t worthwhile if it doesn’t last ten days and involve a plane ride. But if you have limited vacation time or resources to spend on a family trip it might be better to plan a series of long weekends at destinations you can drive to instead. Plan the trip that works best for your family and you’ll all have a good time.
ML: You talk about “living like a local” with kids. If this book is about family vacations, why is that important?
MG: For me, a singular pleasure of travel is to imagine you live in the place you are visiting. Even though I may have no intention of ever moving there, I still love the exercise of pretending I have an apartment in London, or a ski house near Lake Tahoe, or a cottage on the beach in the Outer Banks.
Children like to keep many of the same routines they have at home, and don’t necessarily expect or want their lives to be utterly different when they are on the road. If playing at the park is their favorite thing to do in your neighborhood, it’s what they are going to want to do on the road as well. If they nap every afternoon at two o’clock, they are likely to want to do the same while you are traveling. So it is that when you are on the road with kids you can easily enter into the everyday rhythm of a place you are visiting. And that means both you and they can learn a lot about the place and its culture.
ML: What do you think is the biggest myth about family travel?
MG: I think that parents often believe they can only travel to a “family-friendly” place. In my experience, almost any place can be family friendly if you figure out how to make it so.
Children are often capable of so much more than we give them credit for. The key is to finding age-appropriate ways to engage them with or accommodate them in whatever place we are visiting. For younger children that might mean spending more time in the outdoor sculpture garden than in the main building of the art museum. For school-age kids you might prepare them in advance to see a city with books about the history of the place you are visiting. And teens might want a little independence to explore on their own before joining back up with you to share their thoughts and opinions.
ML: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of traveling with kids?
MG: Like many things about parenting, the challenges of traveling with kids change with time. Traveling with a toddler can be difficult because they won’t sit still for a meal or a plane ride or because they stop sleeping through the night when you leave home. Older kids have their own opinions about what you should do on a family trip, and those opinions may or may not match yours.
The fact is that kids, like all humans, are unpredictable. They also need to eat a lot more often! But from the time my children were infants, I’ve always found the benefits of family travel to outweigh any negatives. When we travel with our kids, we prepare them for the unknown and share the joy of the unexpected. We also show them how precious and beautiful the world is and encourage them to think about protecting it and making it better. I can’t think of any better reward than that.
ML: What advice would you offer a family, with children of any ages, who are attempting an outdoors trip, or even a wilderness adventure, unlike anything they’ve done before?
MG: The first thing I’d suggest to a family trying a new kind of outdoor adventure trip is to take some practice runs. If you’ll be backpacking, take a dayhike with everyone carrying gear to see how it feels. Set up your tent in your backyard and sleep out there to see how you and your kids do. Want to go on a multi-day cycling trip? Put your family in training through shorter rides, gradually adding miles over time. And if the activity you’ve planned involves something a bit more skilled like kayaking, you might first take a guided lesson with an expert.
Another great way to introduce your family to a new outdoor experience is to join a local outing club and go on one of their group trips before you venture out solo. You may discover that you like being with other families so much that this becomes your go-to.