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Diary of a Globetrotting Family
After half a year of full-time travel, here are 6 family travel lessons we’ve taken to heart
For this week’s Diary of a Globetrotting Family, we wanted to do something a little different. Since leaving our home in August 2022, as of this entry we’ve been traveling full-time for 6 months. We began with about a month in the USA, and have been abroad ever since. From British Columbia to Texas, Washington state to Virginia, Mexico to Malaysia, our family of four has learned a lot of family travel lessons about how we travel together.
So, in honor of 6 months of full-time traveling, here are 6 lessons that our world travels have taught us.
A little local language goes a long way
At the apartment where we’ve spent a month in Hua Hin, Thailand, our room included weekly housekeeping. Every Wednesday morning around ten, two women would be at the door, ready to clean and refresh our rooms. I always greeted them with a “sawadee kwrap” (hello), and a wai, or traditional Thai gesture with palms together, over the heart, accompanied by a wee bow.
“May we clean your room?”
“Chai,” I replied, trying to pronounce the Thai word for yes with the right mix of “ch” and “sh.”
One lady giggled. “You are learning Thai!”
“I’m trying to get beyond hello and thank you,” I replied.
“Next time you come to Thailand,” she told me with a smile, “you will know more Thai.”
“I hope so!”
A good guest tries
One of the most important family travel lessons we’ve learned is to always be willing to try to speak some of the local language. Even when it’s as little as please and thank you, Jodie, the kids, and I all try to have at least a little of the local language wherever we go. Time and again, we’ve seen it help us.
Not knowing the language can be one of those things that makes people afraid to travel beyond their home country or home language. But you know what? If someone who didn’t speak your language was visiting your country, and they clearly were making an effort to say a few words, you’d see that for what it was: someone trying to be a good guest. You’d want to help them, and you’d feel patient with them.
We all want to be a good guest—and a good host. For us, having a few words, being willing to try, accepting our mistakes with a laugh and a smile, and always showing that we are trying, has been one of the most important things we do on our travels.
Jodie and I also like the example it sets for the kids: It’s okay not to know, as long as you’re willing to make mistakes, learn from them, and show effort. Do what you can. Make it clear that you are being respectful and polite. You will find help. You can get what you need. Good people will recognize earnest effort in a good guest.
How we work on languages
Some family travel lessons take form as actual lessons. Jodie and I have Google Translate on our phones, and we download languages so we can translate even if offline. Sometimes we can use the app’s camera visual translation tool, but results can be mixed for languages such as Thai and Vietnamese.
However, the text translation is generally excellent. Usually we type out in English what we are trying to say. Google translates it, then lets us show a large-text version of the translation. From figuring out directions to negotiating tech repairs, this tool has made our day-to-day lives on the road so much easier. Plus, local folks have Google Translate too. They can type up what they’re trying to communicate and show us the English translation.
Duolingo is also one of our essential travel tools. Each of us works on language learning every day. In fact, as of this writing we’re about to go to Japan, so I’ve switched from my main secondary language, Spanish, to focus more on Japanese.
Though I will also learn more Thai.
Prioritize where you spend your time, money, and energy
When Jodie and I were planning our wedding in 2008 and 2009, we happened upon the most useful book. Priceless Weddings for Under $5,000 encouraged us to identify the 3 most important things about our wedding. Those 3 areas were where we needed to focus our time, energy, and resources. Anything else could take less time, require less investment, or be cut altogether.
(In case you’re wondering, our 3 focuses were bringing together the people we loved, showcasing Oregon, and amazing food and drink. Spoiler alert: We nailed ‘em all.)
How we prioritize what we do and don’t do while traveling the world as a family
As I write this, I realize that what we prioritize on our family world travels is not that different from what we prioritized for our wedding.
We travel to have lots of time together as a family. Childhood is when kids and parents get about 90% of the time they will ever have with each other. Our 90% is going to be bursting full.
And we travel because we want to showcase the world to our children. It’s a big world, and our son and daughter will one day be seeking their own place in it. We want to help them develop perspective, so they can make the choices that are right for them as adults.
If some aspect of a trip or destination doesn’t serve those goals, we don’t do it, period. One of the most important family travel lessons we’ve learned is to prioritize what we do based on what we care about.
Clean water is the traveler’s best friend
When I traveled in China, Tibet, and Nepal in 2004, it was on an incredible tour with Intrepid Travel. We knew to drink bottled water, and every morning we would receive a large thermos of boiled, hot water. One day, our guide told us how one morning long ago, he absent-mindedly drank a glass of tap water in a place where he really shouldn’t. He wound up catching giardia, a nasty parasite whose side effects include absolutely nothing I’m going to discuss here.
You know that saying that if you have your health, you have everything? A corollary in family travel lessons is that clean water is the traveler’s best friend. Contaminated water will make you sick. It will wreck your plans, derail days or weeks or of your travels, and potentially wreck not only your trip, but your health.
How we drink clean water while traveling the world
While in Japan and Singapore, we can drink the tap water with the same confidence we would at home in Oregon. But in other countries, we have to be more careful. We occasionally make use of bottled water, but it’s a tiny percentage of the water we drink.
Instead, we travel with a compact, gravity water filter. It’s one of the best pieces of gear we bought. Our Sawyer Squeeze Mini is simple enough for the kids to use it safely. We have stainless steel water bottles that we filter water into. In some places, our accommodation includes regular delivery of some bottles of filtered water. Once emptied, we refill the bottles with our filter, then tuck the bottles in the fridge so we always have cold water to drink. If we have an ice tray, we also use the filter to make ice with clean water.
In six months of traveling, we have not had one instance of water-related illness. Not only that, when we’ve compared how much we filter to the cost of bottled water, our filter is easily saving us at least US$100 per month.
Visit the attractions that interest you. Skip what doesn’t.
We don’t visit every attraction. Typically, we connect our sightseeing with our interests, not to what happens to be in a destination. We’re not going to try to visit every temple in Thailand anymore than we’d try to visit every cathedral in France. Will we visit a few? Sure.
However, there are plenty of things we don’t visit. It’s easy to feel pressure to try to take in everything a destination offers. Yet of all the crucial family travel lessons we’ve taken to heart, one that keeps us focused and centered is that an attraction’s existence doesn’t require you to block out time, energy, and money to go check it out.
Do we include notable places simply because they are noteworthy parts of a destination? Sometimes. However, we always aim to give our travels context beforehand. We’ll take time to learn about a place, what makes it noteworthy, some of what’s intriguing about its present and its history. Not only does that make things more fascinating for each of us as a family. We find more success in engaging the children’s interest than fighting them over feeling dragged around.
However, we feel no guilt in skipping attractions. Not every “place to see” is a must-do for every traveler.
How we choose what to visit and what to skip
Jodie and I typically make a list of places we might be interested in checking out, from restaurants and markets, to beaches and attractions. We know we will not get to everything on the list. From there, we talk over options with the kids. We listen to what gets their attention, and what they feel doesn’t interest them in the slightest.
From there, we’ll talk about places we want to prioritize. Sometimes we all make compromises. There are places we visit that fascinate the kids, but Jodie and I are there for their sake. Sometimes the opposite is true.
And no, that doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes we debate, argue, and disagree over what to visit. We keep working it out together though. There are times we’ve all gone to a place, and occasionally we’ve done some dividing and conquering, so we can meet competing interests.
Overall, through discussion, listening, and a willingness to compromise, we can make good choices as a family about what to visit and what to skip. The kids know we acknowledge their opinions, interests, and perspectives. Together, we work it out, making sure we do the things we consider a priority, and knowing what we’re willing to pass by.
It’s okay to push your comfort zone.
You’ve probably encountered some variant of this plenty of times. There’s truth to it, too. Throughout our six months of full-time travel, we have all tried something that was out of our comfort zone, such as Connor trying spicy food, or me getting on a roller coaster.
Learning about your interests, passions, dislikes, challenges, and limitations requires pushing your comfort zone. A lot of our learning happens when we are willing to feel the right kind of scared. Recognizing that feeling is one of our best family travel lessons.
How we encourage each other to try something new
Pushing a comfort zone takes many forms. Sure, there are exciting, heart-pounding ways to do it, such as jumping out of planes or diving with sharks. But with kids, pushing their comfort zones can be a willingness to try out an unfamiliar activity or be responsible for ordering food in the local language.
When we feel uncomfortable about an experience, we check in with each other. After all, there is the discomfort that is a sign of needing to check safety and well-being. When that’s the case, that’s a sign to reassess the situation.
But when our discomfort is because something is an unfamiliar but probably a safe opportunity, we work out what we need to push forward.
When I rode a roller coaster with the kids at LEGOLAND Malaysia—and I cannot stand roller coasters—I only got on the thing because Aster held my hand the entire time we made our way through the line. I knew I would be okay: scared, but safe. And I knew that I probably would not ride another again. Still, I pushed my comfort zone. I was okay. I learned that I still dislike roller coasters and have no interest in them, but I’m glad that occasionally I can ride one with my kids and make them smile.
It’s also okay to know when to come back to your comfort zone.
All that said, the comfort zone gets a bad rap. (I prefer “capacity zone,” an alternate phrase I learned from business coach Beth Bielow.)
We know that staying too much in your comfort zone can be stagnating. We like to push our comfort zones, but not to the point of recklessness. Our comfort zone, or capacity zone, is our safe place. It is also good to feel safe. Sometimes the best thing for your day is to have the familiarity of a loved place or activity.
We like to push our comfort zones. We also like to have times where we enjoy what we know and love. Balancing the two helps us stay engaged in new experiences, while knowing when it’s time to focus on the familiar.
How we embrace our comfort zones
In Cambodia, we wandered ancient ruins over large expanses—and Jodie did that with a prosthetic leg. Throughout Vietnam, we struggled with the language while moving at a faster pace than we normally do.
So when we got to Hua Hin, Thailand, we were ready to hunker down for a few weeks of travel downtime. We felt no need to sightsee, no yearn or push to try something new. Our excitement level was checking out a new beach, trying grilled egg squids at the market, and going to the dentist for the first time in a long time.
Yes, sometimes the best thing to do on your travels is get your heart pounding, try something new, and push your comfort zone. Other times? Your comfort zone is exactly where you need to be, whether you’re at home or away. We embrace both, and talk through when it’s time for one or the other.
BONUS Childhood has no pause button.
Taking this opportunity to travel full time has reinforced something that came into sharp focus for us around this time last year, and especially from throughout the pandemic.
Jodie and I have always prioritized time together as a family. Leading up to becoming parents, we made life and career choices so that we could maximize the time we have with our kids, while they are kids. During the pandemic, a lot of the world was on pause. Normal activities were suspended, as if someone had pressed pause on many of the things that felt like a constant part of life.
But childhood? It has no pause button. Our kids moved right along in becoming a couple of years older. As I write this, Connor is only a couple of years out from becoming a teenager, and Aster’s age will be in double digits before we know it.
Every family has to figure out their own balance of the different priorities, passions, challenges, and obligations that comprise their dynamic. We’ve done what we could to prioritize time with Aster and Connor, and we wanted to combine that with lots of travel. That’s not everybody’s jam. But it’s ours.
Jodie and I know that most of the time we and our kids will have together is right now, while they are kids. (We also have our moments when it can feel like someone is jamming down the fast-forward button.) But Connor and Aster are growing up. Our travels are our chance to be with them as much as we can, while we can. Their childhoods have no pause button—and our adult lives definitely don’t either.