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What does it mean to travel intentionally?
Heath and I have always set travel goals for ourselves—visit all 50 states, RV in Europe, camp on the beach. Those goals have helped guide us as we’ve planned our travels so we can explore with purpose.
We’re annoyingly into setting goals with the current goal to visit 20 countries with our kids before they graduate high school, hopefully with many of those being in an RV!
As we start packing for France next week and our son’s first RV road trip, we’re thinking about how we can make this adventure most impactful for two very small kids.
Ellie is three and talking up a storm (until she hears other languages and reverts to making random sounds instead of speaking English). And Eli will turn one the day we fly back to the states at the end of our trip. They won’t remember much of these adventures, but they will influence them.
We want to be very intentional with how we approach travel knowing that it will influence our kids as they grow up.
Here are six things we’re keeping in mind so we can travel intentionally with kids.
1. Set a clear goal.
I know I already said this one and wrote a whole blog post about how to set a travel goal. But it’s our baseline for being intentional.
When things don’t go to plan (not if, when!), having a goal is a great way to remind yourself why you’re traveling.
Like when your three-year-old has a full meltdown at the Leaning Tower of Pisa because she doesn’t want to wear shoes and everyone is staring at you and you’re regretting ever thinking that traveling with kids would be awesome.
That was the only temper tantrum meltdown our three-year-old graced us with during our two-and-a-half-month trip, which I think is the most important thing to remember! Traveling with kids is awesome…but there will always be moments!
2. Learn something about each culture.
Heath and I both love to read. Even Ellie, who definitely doesn’t know how to read, but has some books memorized, loves to sit and read to her little brother.
And reading books about the countries we are going to visit is one of my favorite ways to expose myself to a place before I go. (Endlessly scrolling through Instagram photos of gorgeous destinations is another.)
I’m not talking about books on history or geography or anything too dry. I’m talking about the perspectives of the citizens on what makes their culture unique. I’ve read a few lately.
Like this one about Italy: The Sweetness of Doing Nothing
And this one about Denmark: The Little Book of Hygge
I, of course, read this obvious classic about raising kids in France: Bringing Up Bébé (I also recommend this funny one from an ex-pat living in France and one of my all-time favorite books: My Life in France by Julia Child. She is amazing.)
This is also a great way to pick up a few random words in a language and—especially if you’re an audiobook fan—start hearing the cadence of a language. No way I would pronounce hygge right without an audiobook.
Every culture has something that makes it unique and I love finding books that tell you all about that thing. In almost every country, that thing involves food. Every book I’ve read has a huge emphasis on how the country’s food impacts day-to-day life! Which always gives me a great list of “foods we must eat” when we go anywhere.
3. Have something you do in each country.
Speaking of food…
It was in our third country to visit together—Canada—that Heath and I found the thing we wanted to do in every country we visited.
A FOOD TOUR.
Our camera batteries were dying as we tried to film the experience, but honestly I was too busy enjoying three different desserts to care. It was delicious and amazing. We learned about the history of Banff National Park, about the people who live in town now, and about Canadian food. And we ate. A lot.
I told Heath that when we visit new countries, a food tour was a must for me. You can experience the culture through your taste buds. That’s my must-do.
But then, in Mexico last month, I took a cooking class. I learned how to make paella and shrimp aguachile and enjoyed a buffet of foods that other students in the class made. I think I had three slices of tlayuda, a type of Oaxacan pizza. I’ve eaten a lot of Mexican food over the years and visited the country four times, but I had never heard of tlayuda!
I’m drooling just remembering it and completely regretting that I didn’t grab my phone for pictures!
So now for every country I visit, I know I want to take a cooking class or a food tour. Heath booked me a class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris so I can learn how to make French pastries. I’ve never been so excited!
For Heath, it’s visiting a national park in each country. He adores the way national parks in Canada have “resort towns” like Banff. We hiked and explored multiple national parks across New Zealand. I think Dolomiti National Park in the mountains of Italy is my favorite national park in the world. And as we plan our next adventure, we’re researching what national parks are like and how to best explore them.
I think with the age kids are right now, the thing they will do in each country is play on the playgrounds.
We have played on dozens of playgrounds across Europe and the kids have had a blast. So far, London is queen of amazing playgrounds, but we’ll keep exploring and report back.
I think as Eli gets older that we might have to add theme parks to the list. We spent Ellie’s third birthday at a theme park in Tuscany and it was our favorite day in Italy. Everyone had a blast and while most theme parks in America are focused on thrills, many of the theme parks we’ve visited in Europe are much more little kid-friendly. We’ve only done Disneyland Paris and Cavallino Matto, but I see more of these in our future!
4. Learn the language
Hello. Please. Thank you. You’re welcome. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian.
Ciao. Per favore. Grazie. Prego. Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano.
Hola. Per favor. Gracis. De nada. Lo siento, no habla Español.
Okay this is (hopefully) a given when you visit any new country. You should always try to learn the language.
Ellie can count to ten in three languages and say hello and thank you in Italian. It was very confusing to her when we left Italy and went to the UK and France and suddenly when she said ciao, people didn’t say ciao back. She would get so mad walking the streets of London saying “ciao ciao!” to everyone who passed by, and no one replied in Italian! 😂 But she makes a conscious effort to learn languages when we go to new countries. We find Youtube videos before we leave and let her watch one a day to familiarize herself with new languages.
Here are a few more things I highly recommend learning as a parent and traveler:
- Numbers 1-10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100. These are great for basics like grocery shopping (many countries will pick produce for you, so knowing how to say due zucchine is necessary unless you plan on just holding up your fingers) and for understanding any pricing, like negotiating a cab fare. Heath was once on the phone trying to schedule a car pick up for 10:30 AM. He kept saying “Dieci…Dieci…” And I called out trenta from the other room. I’m honestly super impressed I remembered that one. We got picked up at the right time 🕥
- “I’m sorry, I don’t speak ____________” I picked this up from watching a Kara and Nate vlog and it instantly clicked in my head. Of course this should be one of the number one things you learn! Everyone we’ve ever used this phrase with was incredibly understanding. It showed we tried to learn the language and knew enough to communicate this thought and it started with an apology, showing respect for their culture.
- “Do you speak English?” Even just saying this in someone’s native language is better than saying it in English. If I say parla Inglese? more often than not someone would shake their head and say something in Italian along the lines of uno momento and return with someone who spoke English.
- “Where are you from?” You will get asked this—especially if you’re somewhere where you don’t physically look like everyone else, like a redhead in Tuscany.
- “I have a question.” This is almost always immediately followed by “Do you speak English?” and an easy one to keep handy.
- Basic foods. Water, wine, oil, salt, coffee, ice cream—whatever foods you plan on ordering, it’s always helpful to know what they are in the language. Acqua, vino, olio, sale, caffè, gelato—you can probably see those words on a menu and guess what they are. Ellie liked to tell waiters she wanted “acqua frizzante.” Most menus (like 99% in my experience) in foreign cities will have menus in English as an option.
- Where is the bus station/train station/grocery store/pharmacy/hotel/bathroom? Even with Google Maps, you get lost. Keep this phrase handy.
- Diapers. You will need to ask someone if they have diapers or know where diapers are at some point. In small Italian grocery stores, I was directed to diapers in a basement, on a shelf above the cash register, and behind toilet paper. Asking for help finding pannolini was always necessary.
We also use blog posts like this one on Mondly to keep other common phrases handy. I screenshotted this blog post and saved the images to my phone for studying and for quick reference.
Oh and one more phrase you must learn in any country: how to order your coffee.
Every single country is different and coffee is important. Vital. Necessary life-giving force. I can’t drink caffeine, so this is doubly important for me to learn “vorrei un cappuccino decaffeinato per favore.”
5. Choose a souvenir for each country
Speaking of learning the language in each country, we buy the kids a book in each country. We actually bought two in Italy, but only one made it home. Ellie ripped it into two pieces and Eli’s drool had the book completely ruined after two months. But it was a great way to not need to pack books in our carry-on and also expose the kids to another language and culture.
We make try to make these books extra fun, like a touch-and-feel book on colors and a book about trains that had wheels.
For the kids, this is going to be our go-to souvenir, though I’m not opposed to buying a toy here and there when it’s part of a memorable experience. We didn’t buy any toys at Disneyland Paris, but we did get Peppa Pig cups from a tour we did in London and I knew that was something I wanted to keep. Ellie uses it almost every day when we’re home!
For Heath and I, our go-to souvenir was always Christmas ornaments, which can be very tricky to travel with. Then while we were in Italy in the spring, my brother-in-law asked us to keep our eyes open for a painting of Tuscany. We found a street artist selling her works in a mountain town and picked one out for him. It was €20 and gorgeous! I would’ve bought multiple, but we gave her our last bit of cash. This still haunts me to this day! Her work was phenomenal and looking at it was like eating pizza on a cool summer evening while listening to the waves crash on the shore. It was so utterly and completely Italy—but we needed more cash and couldn’t find an ATM. (I have few regrets in life—sleeping during our layover in Sydney instead of going to Bondi Beach and missing out on this.)
I told Heath as we flew home that I needed to buy a watercolor painting from a street artist in every country we visit from here on out.
Less than a month later in Mexico, I got this:
I see this on my desk at home and let’s just say I’ve been eating a lot more tacos than usual. It so perfectly captures Mexico! And supports a local artist versus buying little cheap trinkets from souvenir shops. This one was $15.
From here on out, it’s my mission to buy a small painting in every country where I can find one. My biggest concern was it getting ruined during our travels, but in both cases, we were given a plastic sleeve/bag to keep the art in and I slid it in between Heath’s laptop. For our next trips, we will carry our camera bag instead of a backpack, and this one has a laptop section that is perfect for storing the artwork until we get home.
And last but not least:
When we went to Alaska—state 50, woo hoo!—I didn’t journal once. Not a word. Nada.
And all these years later, I am heartbroken over it! I journaled for much of our fifty-state journey and I used those journals to create my book, RVing Across America. How else would I remember that while I was on the front page of CNN and getting seriously trolled by strangers, I also had to unclog our blocked-up RV toilet?
That was one heck of a bad day and a delightful chapter that makes me laugh all these years later.
Heath has journaled daily since before we got married and constantly comes to me and says things like “Hey today five years ago, you tried lobster ice cream in Maine. Do you remember that?” I can’t untaste it 🤮 I don’t have any photos of that moment, so the memory would’ve been lost if it weren’t for Heath’s journals.
Journaling is one simple way to freeze your travel memories so you can look back on them. Taking videos and photos on your phone is great too, but journaling in my experience is the best way to capture your reactions and emotions and the way travel is changing you as you go.
Our travels aren’t vacations. They aren’t about going somewhere just to say we’ve been.
For us, travel is about changing the way we see the world. Changing the way our kids grow up and view the world. Will Ellie always remember how to count to ten in Italian? Probably not. Will Eli remember anything about learning how to crawl and stand and walk while we were in Europe? Definitely not.
But travel shapes us in innumerable ways and with a little intentionality, it’s shaping our family too. I want to raise kind, respectful, wildly adventurous kids (who never get sick, eat any food in front of them, never whine, and always make it to the potty without accidents. What can I say? I’m a dreamer).