Traveling with kids is a big enough challenge for most parents, but what if you’re planning a trip of a lifetime to faraway China? Guest blogger Dana Rebmann of family travel site Ciao Bambino weighs in with her tips on how to prepare kids for long-distance travel.
My kids are travelers. I’m lucky and I appreciate it. But it didn’t just happen that way.
My husband and I never really let our kids have a chance to not like traveling. From the time our youngest daughter was 2, we’ve “dragged” them onto planes around the world. We started with Japan, then Switzerland, England, France, and Spain.
Each trip got better than the last, and it didn’t take long before they started asking, “Where are we going next?”
What came next was a new challenge: China. Three weeks in China, to be exact. As excited as the whole family was, I will admit to a good deal of parental angst. Packing your kids up and going to Europe during the summer is one thing.
Packing your kids up and going to China is not the norm.
I didn’t let the bewildered expressions from family and friends dampen my enthusiasm. In the months before our trip, I found all sorts of ways to teach my girls—then 8 and 10—about China. That might have been trickier 10 years ago, but the 2008 Olympics in Beijing put China on the map for many Americans, and opened up a wealth of information.
BEFORE YOU GO
Learn About Where You Are Going
Learning ancient history was easy, thanks to modern technology. How did they build the Great Wall? Google has the answer, along with maps, pictures, satellite images—you get the idea. Do a quick DVR search and you can meet one of the farmers who discovered the Terra Cotta Warriors without leaving your couch (my girls met him in person on our trip). Thanks to swimming superstar Michael Phelps, there were a plethora of newspapers and magazines writing about China every day and my girls were intrigued.
Speak Their Language
Obviously, no one in my family was going to become fluent in Mandarin. But learning some key words wasn’t that complicated. My children spent a week in a Chinese language camp learning the basics, then tried to teach it all to my husband and me over dinner. Their, albeit limited vocabulary, came in handy more than once. Ultimately, my 8-year-old helped me negotiate a great price on a silver necklace! Empowered, she spent much of the trip wheeling and dealing as she collected souvenirs to bring home.
Start off with some language fun–check out Signs in China: A Guide to Understanding Common “Engrish” Expressions.
Eat Their Food … Or at Least Try Some of It
Before we took off for Beijing, we spent more than a few weekends wandering through San Francisco’s Chinatown, taking in new sights and smells. Not always pleasant ones, I might add.
Most of the smells come from food, and can turn even the strongest stomach. Food could have been the deal-breaker.
It took a trip or two, but we got up the courage to do some shopping in the markets and did some Asian cooking together at home.
To learn more about Asian cooking, try Asia Culinary Vacations: Noodling Around in the East. For more on Chinese cuisine, check out Food in Beijing: An Olympic Guide to Beijing Cuisine.
There were plenty foods my kids refused to try. But great new finds like sesame bars, white rabbit taffy and dumplings helped turn fear into culinary anticipation. I assured my daughters they wouldn’t be forced to eat anything.
So when they saw seahorses on skewer sticks, they went “eew” but quickly moved on, knowing there was plenty of rice and chicken in their future.
Don’t forget the peanut butter. When you’re eight, there’s nothing better than snacking on a peanut butter sandwich on The Great Wall.
Comfort food can turn a bad day into an incredible one. Along with the peanut butter, I stashed some granola bars, fruit leathers and portable powdered drink packets. You can’t beat a cold bottle of lemonade when you’re waiting for a Giant Panda to wake up from a sleepy afternoon nap.
Don’t wait until the night before to pack for an adventure like China. Plan ahead.
SURVIVING THE FLIGHT
Go High-Tech at High Altitudes
The flight from San Francisco to Beijing is a long one, even for the most seasoned adult traveler. After much debate, I caved and bought a Nintendo DS (a handheld video game system) for both of my girls. It was a smart move.
When there was cool stuff to see and do, the electronics were always away—by choice, not parental order. Even the hottest new game cannot compete with the Li River. But on long bus rides and flights, they entertained all, even mom and dad. Fifteen days is a lot of family together time, and both you and your kids will need a break. A few minutes, a good game and a good set of headphones can do amazing things for family harmony.
For more helpful gadgets, visit our Travel Gadgets & Gear section.
As your kids get older, and technology gets more and more amazing, passing the time is becoming easier and easier. On a recent trip to Spain, my daughters’ high-tech tool of choice was an iTouch. The best part about it is that just about everything on the list gets used at home on a daily basis.
The younger your kids are, the more planning and preparation it will take. But that doesn’t mean flying has to be a nightmare for you, or the person sitting behind you. Pack your carry-on correctly and the possibilities are endless really.
Take a Good Book
Though they can be a lot heavier in the backpack, don’t forget the power of good books. Reading about where you’re going when you’re actually on your way only adds to the excitement. What I wanted to carry limited the number of books my kids took to China. But much to my surprise, when we hit the ground, we found a great selection of Chinese children’s books (in English of course). From Chinese folk tales, to stories of a monkey hero who traveled throughout the Republic, the books provided hours of entertainment while passing along loads of history.
Learn more about China in our China Travel section.
Know When to Say When
When we landed in Beijing, the adrenaline kicked in and we were off to the races. The city activates all of your senses. The sights, the sounds, the smells—it’s a lot for an exhausted grown-up, let alone a kid. Adrenaline eventually wears off. It’s like running a marathon—if you sprint, you’ll never make it to the end, so pace yourself.
Get more tips on Family Travel & Traveling With Kids.
Sometimes It’s OK to Look Like a Tourist
Whether she was in “shopping mode” or just soaking in the sights, blending was not something my 8-year-old did well. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she was in many cases a walking tourist attraction for the locals.
Based on experiences in Japan, I anticipated her popularity and warned her about it. She happily embraced her uniqueness and was more than happy to take a picture with whoever asked—and many did. One grandmother asked, through the art of sign language, if she could touch my daughter’s hair. What could have been downright creepy helped my daughter gain an incredible appreciation of a culture so different from her own.
Don’t Leave Home without Tissues
Bathroom etiquette is not the nicest of topics, but as the mother of two girls, it had to discussed. Being able to squat isn’t easy when you’re 8, but it’s key to travel survival and second only to carrying tissues at all times.
In China, many toilets are government rated. If we found one with four stars, everyone went—whether they had to or not. The chances were good there might even be a “normal” Western-style toilet.
Three stars was disappointing. Two stars or less … well, you get the idea.
By taking some time to point out people’s differences, and explain the reasons behind them, kids often tend to appreciate them, rather than become grossed out or scared. It doesn’t matter whether it’s China, Russia or Brazil. Getting out of your comfort zone every once in a while is a good thing for kids and their parents. And more often than not, it’s a lot of fun.
Choose your battles wisely and don’t forget that peanut butter does a good job of keeping the family stuck together, even when you’re thousands of miles from home.
- Exploring the New China: Guangzhou & Shenzhen
- Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Hong Kong, China
- Tips to Banish Culture Shock in China
- What To Do On a Long Layover in Hong Kong, China
- Signs in China: A Guide to Understanding Common “Engrish” Expressions
Text and photos by Dana Rebman for PeterGreenberg.com. Dana Rebmann lives in Northern California with her husband and two daughters. She writes for Ciao Bambino, a family travel guide that provides tips and advice for all things related to traveling with kids including a list of the best kid-friendly hotels.