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How to overcome 5 challenges of foreign travel with kids

By Janet Castrejon

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Family at the airport

Foreign travel provides a wonderful opportunity to expose children to another culture and allow them to practice their foreign language skills with native speakers. However, foreign travel with children is not without its challenges. With a little planning and the following tips, you can make your next trip abroad a little smoother.

1. Food

While adults may love to try different foods while traveling, children may not be as eager. You could compromise with your children and alternate kid-friendly meals (possibly at international chain restaurants like McDonalds) and foreign food experiences (at authentic local restaurants). Ask to see the menu before entering a restaurant to see if there are foods that will appeal to your child. If there is nothing that your child will eat, you could feed your child before entering the restaurant and have them eat dessert or a snack while you eat your meal. Even so, encourage your child to at least taste some of the new foods from your plate. Maybe you'll be lucky and they'll like it.

The real secret to surviving the food challenges of foreign travel with children is to keep snacks with you. There's nothing worse than having to deal with a hungry, cranky child while traveling. Carry healthy snacks that don't need refrigeration such as raisins, crackers, granola bars and trail mix. If you have space, bring a cooler with yogurt, milk, cheese and sandwich ingredients. Stop at the local market and buy veggies and fruit to snack on. The cooler also allows you to carry sandwich ingredients to allow you to eat anywhere and save money.

2. Culture Shock

To help ease culture shock, explain to your child about the trip before you go. Explain where exactly you will be going and what you will be doing. Teach the child a little about the country. Check out children's books from the library to read to your child about the country. If you are familiar with the country and culture, explain to your child cultural differences that they may notice. If you are not familiar with the culture, try to speak to someone who is and who can explain about cultural differences. This can also help avoid accidentally offending someone from another culture.

3. Bathroom Stops

Hopefully you will never have the experience that I did of waiting in a long line to pass through customs and having your child inform you that they have to go to the bathroom. Luckily for me, I had put a Pull-up diaper on my child, although he had recently been potty trained. I explained to him that we were not allowed to leave the line and that he could go in his pants because he had a Pull-up on. I've had similar experiences of being stuck in Los Angeles traffic and not being able to take my child to the bathroom. On long travel days (flights or long drives) it is a good idea to put a Pull-up diaper on any child that has fairly recently been potty trained. Older children should be taken to the bathroom before any time that they will not have access to a bathroom (like before boarding a flight or before the plane's descent).

Before I leave the topic of bathrooms, I would like to warn you that many countries do not have bathrooms in as many places as we do in the United States. Take advantage of times when you have access to a bathroom even if your child says that they don't have to go.

4. Boredom

Although traveling has many exciting moments, there are moments of boredom as well. Bring along plenty of small toys to keep your child entertained in the airplane, car, hotel room, or restaurant. I try to bring the smallest toys I can find so that I can bring a big variety. Of course this only works if your child is beyond the choking risk age (over the age of 3). Here are some of my favorite travel toys . . .

  • Small paperback books
  • Color books and crayons
  • Travel-sized versions of games
  • Hot Wheels cars
  • Small plastic figures - Michael's (the craft store chain) sells tubes of small plastic animals or other figures that are great for travel.
  • Small dolls, clothes, and accessories
  • Balloons - Balloons are great for travel because they are very compact when not inflated. You blow them up for your child to play with in the hotel room or the airport waiting area. When you leave or check out of the hotel you just pop them and throw them away.

5. Transportation

Although travel can be lots of fun, the trip there can be long and unpleasant. I book non-stop flights whenever possible. The extra money is worth avoiding dealing with a tired and cranky child on an airplane. If you are going very far away (like the other side of the world), you may want to consider an overnight stay halfway.

When flying, arrive a little early to the airport. There's nothing worse than having to sprint through an airport dragging children and luggage. Arriving early also allows the child to see the airplanes from the window before having to board. This can help if flying is a new experience for your child.

When reserving a rental car, reserve a car large enough to comfortably accommodate your family and all of your things. Also consider trunk space for souvenirs or other purchases. If you are bringing a cooler along for food or buying one at your destination, allow space for that as well.

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