Our first family overseas trip is becoming a distant memory as we immerse ourselves in the busy and humid days of an Ontario summer, it seemed like a good time to review our trip before other parts of life take over completely. The pros, the cons. The lessons and tips for other parents considering their first overseas trip with small children. A round-up of my suggested spots for families travelling to Tel Aviv, Israel. (This last one will be in a separate blog piece!)
Mr. L and I had a lot of discussion when the idea of this trip was brought up a year ago. We have family commitments in Israel and knew this would be an inevitable trip in order for our children to see their grandfather each year. There are also numerous cousins and friends whom we wanted to strengthen our connection. We chose this year, when our children were seven, five and two for a couple of reasons. 1) His father could no longer make the long flight to see us in Canada due to health reasons. 2) We hoped the older two would manage the flight well with the help of mini iPads, books and snacks leaving us to take turns dealing with our two year old.
The pros as we discussed would be many. Seeing the country where their father grew up. Experiencing a different culture. Learning more about their jewish heritage. Lots of sun and beach time. Meeting family members and cousins close in age to our children. Family time together. Deciding if this was going to be an annual trip for our family as we hoped but we would not know until we did it once.
The cons were more logistic in nature. Cost of travelling with five people. Accommodations for a family with three small children. Not knowing how any of the kids would react to a twelve + hour flight (taking line-ups for customs/security and baggage into consideration). Obvious safety concerns when traveling to a middle eastern country. The heat in Israel. Language barriers.
But, in the end the pros outweighed the cons. Not every family is ready or able to take a trip like this. The most important thing when planning an overseas family trip is to be realistic about the potential cons and plan for them as best as possible. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Know your children and take their personalities into account. We are fortunate to have three fairly outgoing and adaptable children who like to talk and learn new things. Well, two out of three if I am being honest.
We do have one child, Audrey, who is a little more of an introvert and takes longer to become comfortable in new situations. (Although once she is comfortable, she can hold her own in any situation.) She also does not deal well if her “equilibrium” is upset or has not in the past dealt well with being away from home. However, being only five, we were hoping this trip with our support, her being a bit older and having her older sister as a playmate, she could find her own enjoyment. If you have shyer, more introverted children who do not do well with an upset in their routine, waiting until they are older may be wiser for a major trip. Starting with smaller trips may be a better option.
Some general tips I learned on our first overseas trip:
1) Pack light. We were heading to a beach culture meaning casual wear and bathing suits. I overpacked (as usual) and did not take into account a grandfather who upon our arrival had purchased enough clothes for each child on our two-week stay.
2) Take a carry on per child and if they are old enough to pull a rolling suitcase. Let them.
Mr. L thought I was crazy but I will stick to my rule of a carry-on for each person. I have been victim to luggage being lost and was thankful I had packed that extra set of clothes in my carry-on. Each child had their own little rolling suitcase, brightly coloured with a change of clothes, bathing suit, favourite sleep item, books, iPad mini/or iPod touch and change of diapers for the toddler. It was more organized and I did not have to spend time digging for each item on one big carry-on.
3) Two year-olds still need an umbrella stroller.
We had not planned to take one as our little guy favours walking over being strapped down but a neighbour of ours (and a Mom) gave us one of their strollers and told me, “You’ll thank me.” I did when we got back. Jacob wanted to sit down at times and feel safe in the stroller at a busy airport or after a long day at the beach. It was also helpful to carry things when we were out.
4) Take aloe vera, sunscreen and all medications.
Tel Aviv is a modern city by all accounts. There are pharmacies and grocery stores. But unlike us, they have sun most of the year. Hot sun. I did not take aloe vera assuming we could find one in a pharmacy if need be. Israelis do not use aloe vera, they do not need to being brown most of the year. We finally did find a small tube tucked way back in a shelf after our first day at the beach where we all spent way too much time in the strong sun.
A rotovirus hit us on our second week. I had taken all the regulars. Advil, tylenol, Gravol, but for some reason did not anticipate tummy issues. There is not much to be done with a virus, but I wish I had taken more Advil so we did not need to hunt it down at the store to help with low fevers. If you have any natural remedies to help with tummy troubles, take it with you.
5) Do not spend your first day on a beach for the whole day. You will get sunburned, even when slathering sunscreen on.
In a climate like Israel, the sun is hot and strong. We knew that. We pulled the kids under umbrellas, chased them with hats and tubes of sunblock. Yet, we all got sunburnt. Wanting to feel the fresh sea air, we overdid it. Next time, half a day will suffice.
6) Flights. If you can afford first class. Get it. Since most of us cannot, we got the bulkhead seats. Extra leg room for all of us and bags the kids needed. It also meant our kids did not bother anyone in front of them.
7) Make a general outline of what you hope to see and do for your trip before you go, but be flexible.
You may want a day out of the sun. You may get sick. In our case we had family visits so fit those into our plans. We also planned a lot of down time for our first trip. Really, a walk to a nearby park to get ice cream was fun enough for our kids. Remember, you are travelling with small children. We still have a toddler who naps and after one day we tried to see if he could go without it. It was a disaster. Having to go back to the apartment for two-hour naps cut into our day, but it was nice downtime for everyone. I napped most days, a luxury I do not get at home.
8) Family time was really great but Mr. L and I scheduled some one-on-one time when we could. We were lucky to have family to babysit so we could sneak out to dinner alone a couple of times. But if you are without that luxury, ensure your accommodations have a patio/balcony somewhere where after all the kids are asleep (usually by 8 pm) the two of you can talk, drink a glass of wine and enjoy some quiet time on your own.
9) Let your kids be comfortable at their own pace. Tel Aviv is a busy and dense city. I loved it, but I could see it was a bit overwhelming for our kids. We made our outings in the less busier times or in short durations going out longer as the kids became more accostomed to city life. We went places early in the morning or after dinner. Saturday is unusually quiet in Tel Aviv as most of the businesses are shut down for the Sabbath. Not a great time to hit the beach as everyone is there, but a good time to see other sites.
10) Try to remember through tantrums, complaining and illness to watch your kids splash in the waves or dig in the sand. Enjoy how they charm the people you meet or family members and most importantly remember that this is only the first of many future family adventures. It can only get easier and better. (We hope!)