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I traveled alone with three kids under five and it was awesome.

I’m not a mommy blogger or a parenting expert, but after my trip this summer, it really got me thinking about why it’s so important to travel with kids and I felt strongly enough about it that I had to share my story.

I grew up with travel in my blood. Born in the US, raised in Malaysia and Switzerland before being transplanted to South Bend, IN before high school. I attended three colleges in four years, Philly, New Orleans, Paris, and only landed in LA by accident. Once my husband convinced me that it was time to settle into a grown up life, we still managed to travel at least once or twice a year. If I didn’t, I would go mad, routine is not my strong suite.

Nothing changed once the kids came along. Now that I’m a parent, looking back on my childhood, I realize that traveling and living in so many different places played such an important role in shaping my understanding of the world. I’m thankful that I grew up with a certain level of fearlessness when it came to learning languages, making new friends, tasting new foods, exploring new places. And I want to impart that to my own kids. My kids aren’t a hindrance to keep me from doing the things I like to do. They’re the reason why I keep doing them.

I make it a point to set aside at least three weeks per year for a big trip with the kids. Often, since my husband works in video games and has to work insane hours, I take trips alone with the kids. When my son Cael was 18 months old, we went to Scotland and France to see friends. We also took a mom and son trip to Quebec a few years ago. I’ll never forget driving down the Gaspe Peninsula, singing out loud to Metric and taking in the amazing scenery with my little dude. This past summer, I took Cael (5), Rowan (2), and little Hana (4 months at the time) to France and Iceland with a quick stop in Boston on the way home.

While it’s different for everyone and everyone’s kids, these are a few things that I’ve learned from my trip to France and Iceland.

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A little crying is not the end of the world. The worst thing about traveling with kids tends to be the people without kids. It’s hard to ignore the scornful and judgemental looks. But I guess I’ve just developed a thick skin about it. We were all kids once, it’s just unfortunate that some people seem to have forgotten that. The inevitability of a full blown nuclear fit on the plane or at a restaurant is not enough to prevent me from taking my kids places because the way I figure it, kids are kids and they are going to cry and get angry no matter what, no matter where they are. It helps to remember that even though it might be stressful in the moment, nobody actually ever remembers those fits after the fact. You, as the parent, forget it as soon as you see your kids having a good time on the trip. The kids certainly don’t remember it, and the disgruntled strangers, who really cares?

Feed their wonder, and they’ll love to wander. Kids are no different than adults. They like to be informed and have an idea of what they’re getting into.Cael is five and a seasoned traveler so whenever we’re about to go on a voyage, we have a routine. I show him where we’re going on a map and tell him how long it’s going to take, how many planes we’re taking, what we’ll eat, where we’ll stay, who we’ll see. We hop on google and I show him photos. I try to feed the kids’ natural sense of curiosity, something that we as adults tend to lose. This makes everything from the non-stop transatlantic voyage to picking up the rental car less mundane and more…adventurous.

Make the simple things fun. As weird as it sounds, my favorite thing to do when we’re traveling is go shopping for food. It’s such a basic thing, but it’s a great way to show kids that we’re really all the same, wherever we go. We all need to eat. Exploring the markets is really fun with kids. When we were in Paris, we popped into the market to get out of the rain. We ducked into a big green gate only to find a warren of little stalls. The boys discovered groseilles (tart little red currants) and ate two whole baskets on the walk home. In Albi, we spent hours exploring the covered central market. There is nothing better than watching your kids savor the same chocolate cookies you used to inhale as a kid, or devour a new fruit that you never thought they’d like. After three weeks in the countryside, we got very good at remembering which village had a market on which day. Our favorite was the night market in the quaint little medieval village of Monesties. Whenever I look at this photo, I can still taste the tart brightness of the groseille gelato and the creamy goodness of the chestnut gelato, and I remember sitting on a dusty bench in the town square, elbow to elbow with my best and oldest friends, watching my kids happily licking their cones and dripping pink stickiness all over themselves, listening to the happy hum of the local villagers. If I remember that moment, so do my kids.

Embrace the little moments. All too often we get caught up in planning, programming, and producing our lives. I am totally guilty of it most of the time, but when we’re on holiday, we improvise. We never have a list of things we have to see. Instead, we fly by the seat of our pants. I figure the kids will develop more of an appetite for adventure if I let them choose it, rather than if I force feed them anything. So far, even though my boys are only five and two, they really seem to devour it. When we were in Paris, they made friends on the playground even though they don’t really speak French that well yet. In Aveyron, they played outside every night till the summer sun set (rather than even picking up their iPads). One afternoon, after driving aimlessly around the countryside, we discovered a random country zoo where the monkeys could climb out of their enclosures to plunder their neighbor’s fruit trees and visitors were allowed to cavort with the local goats. It was such a fun and weird experience. In the evenings, we drank gaillac wine on the back terrace, reminisced about the old days, watched the sun set behind the rolling green hills. We had no plan, did very little, and it was thoroughly amazing.

Embrace the humor of it all. I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from traveling with the kids is that sometimes you just have to laugh at it all, including yourself. It wasn’t all smooth going on this trip. There were tantrums and fights and tears at times. The worst, and best, was when I disembarked in Reykyavik with three cranky kids. As I rushed to find a family bathroom (which thankfully Keflavik and Charles de Gaulle both have, but NOT LAX), I was really beginning to question the wisdom of a layover in a new country all alone with three small kids. Cael was hungry, Rowan needed milk and a diaper change, and Hana was none too happy to be ripped from her blissful slumber by the cries of her brothers, only to find herself strapped to me in a public bathroom. Just as I thought it couldn’t get any worse, and I bent down to pick up Rowan, I heard the sound of the seat of my pants by which we had been flying for the last two weeks ripping to shreds, but my colorful expletives were enough to cut through the crankiness. We all looked at each other, four month old baby included, and couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. I picked everyone up and strolled out of the bathroom with my head held high and my butt hanging out of my pants with as much dignity as I could muster. All of us, still giggling. It turns out that mom’s public embarrassment is enough to make any child feel better.

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Haily’s practical tips and insider finds:
– She uses this book to help get the kids excited about their next trip. Also, it’s applied geography
– The best Paris market can be found here.
This was the best covered market in Albi.
– Dining out with kids is still possible, just choose places with distractions like ping-pong tables or places to run around outside. Try Derriere in Paris.
This animal park in Aveyron was the most memorable.
– Iceland is a super kid-friendly place. With the long daylight hours, you can stay out late with the kids. Also you can get shop tax free, just fill out a form on your way out at the airport and get your sales tax back after the fact. It’s also a great layover point to reduce jet lag once you get back Stateside.


Photos and article by Haily Zaki, owner of LA based Secret Agent PR