Before kids, travelling and immersing myself in a different culture was my favourite thing to do.
As soon as I had our first child six years ago, like most parents, my husband and I put our travel fantasies on hold.
It seemed too hard with kids, we told ourselves, and maybe it would work when they get older. But this also meant when we got older.
Last year, we decided to change this notion and give travelling a try with our son and daughter. We booked a three-week vacation in Portugal — and driving around the beautiful country with our two favourite people was incredible and much less stressful than we imagined.
So this year we took it up a notch and went to four countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan.
Credit: Farah Nasser
Seven flights in three weeks, with two kids aged three and six. Most of our friends thought we were crazy. It was ambitious, not always perfect, but we have no regrets.
And along the way, we also also picked up some lessons. Here are five questions parents often have when travelling with kids — and how we dealt with them.
How do you handle the long flights?
This was originally the part I was the most stressed out about, but it turned out to be the easiest after I forced myself to let go.
I’m super strict with screen time at home, but I’m pretty sure my six-year-old spent seven hours in a row on an iPad during the flight. My daughter occupied her time drawing with pen on her leg (then my leg, then her leg).
I packed a backpack of 24 small activities for our first 24-hour journey which were only used during a longer than expected layover.
We did make two highly-recommended purchases. The first was a large inflatable foot pillow which sandwiches between the kid’s seat and the one in front of you. It allows them to stretch out their legs. The littlest one was almost able to lie completely flat. We had the kid’s seatbelts on the entire flight which didn’t seem to bother them.
These pillows were a lifesaver (note: not all airlines allow them and they only work in economy). The second was a fleece headphone/headband/sleep mask in one. As the kids dozed off it was pretty easy to slide the headband over their eyes to help them get a deeper sleep.
Credit: Farah Nasser
We ordered kids’ meals which were super helpful. Still, sometimes they didn’t eat. Sometimes they didn’t sleep. We let go. The only rule we had was you don’t kick the seat in front of you or disturb other passengers.
Bonus tip: Stay away from booze and caffeine so you stay alert, but sleep whenever you have the opportunity. We both took many power naps on the long flights.
What about jet lag?
Our trip was a worst case situation (night is day, day is night). That’s why we started our trip in Singapore; it was the perfect place to beat jet lag. We picked a place where everyone spoke English, transportation was simple and there were tonnes of wonderful things to do with kids. We also picked a nice hotel in the middle of the action, so no matter what time it was, there was something to do.
Thankfully, we found jet lag was worse for us than the kids. The issue is when it hits them, it hits them hard. My 50-lb. son was bouncing off the walls as we jumped in a taxi taking us to a night market. As soon as we sat down, he fell into deep sleep mid-sentence in my lap forcing me to eat a delicious curry above his head. Our daughter woke up in the middle of the night convinced it was time to party until we took her to the lobby to show her it was empty, which seemed to work.
We gave ourselves a good four days to get used to the time change and made a conscious effort not to make a big deal about it to the kids.
Bonus tip: Pack a lot of snacks and/or keep them in your room. You never know when the kids will be starving. Also, keep them well-hydrated. Plane and hotel air can keep the kids pretty parched.
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What about picky-eaters?
This was tough. I had fantasies of my children downing durian and eating sushi from Japan instead of just singing about it. The trip started off with some sampling but once one of them ate something a little spicy, every spoonful was served with fear of a fiery bite.
My son who loves pad Thai here wouldn’t touch it in Thailand for the first few days. It got better but this was something I also had to let go. Like many moms, I wanted to make sure they were fed so if the noodles were plain, so be it. Breaded chicken was a godsend to get in some protein and of course fries, lots of fries.
Restaurants aren’t typically fun at home with kids and being away it can be worse. We kept our phones far away and gave the kids our undivided attention by playing games while waiting for meals. We also learned that even though we get bored with games and food (I’m looking at you pizza), the kids don’t and enjoy something they know well in an exploratory situation.
WATCH: Tips for travelling with kids
What worked well for us were the kitschy restaurants Asia is known for. In Tokyo, our best meal was at a ninja restaurant and funny enough we ran into Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at a Monster/Hello Kitty Café! Kanye, like my husband, wasn’t a fan of the food but he told me his kids ate well.
Bonus tip: Trying new food doesn’t have to be a big restaurant meal or street food, it could be a different flavour of chips from the convenient store or a unique fruit ice cream they haven’t tried before.
How much can you pack in?
Everything will take almost twice as long, there is no getting around that but we forced ourselves to slow right down. After we got a handle on jet lag, I packed our itinerary right up. After a full day at Legoland in Malaysia I thought it would be the perfect time for a night safari at the Singapore Zoo. I learned then that physically being there and truly experiencing things aren’t the same thing.
We settled on doing two activities a day. Two in a row if they were easy and didn’t require a lot of walking, or two with a trip to the hotel between them to rest, read or watch local cartoons.
We took the stroller on the trip but didn’t really take it out with us, but this meant taking taxis short distances when needed. We found the subway systems Singapore and Tokyo better than any North American city, which made things easy. In Bangkok, the tuk-tuks were a wonderful (though at times smoggy) way to see the city.
Bonus tip: We bought a carry-on suitcase in Bangkok which my son completely took ownership of since he helped pick it. Though he was a little slower than we would be, it kept him busy and feeling like he was helping the team.
Will they remember it?
I’m sure many of my incredible and well-meaning friends thought we might as well have flushed thousands of dollars down the toilet because the kids won’t remember any of this. For us, it wasn’t about the memories as much as the experience.
Much of my work surrounds diversity and inclusion — what better way to instill that in my children than to expose them to a completely different culture? It melted my heart to see them interact with other kids who barely understood them while bonding over Pokémon characters.
Our six-year-old asked us why people in Japan all looked the same and not like us and moments later witnessed the kindness of a complete stranger pulling out his phone to help us find a restaurant we were looking for.
This was real life-education for them that we are all the same inside — something some adults still have to learn.
They also experienced poverty. My son wrote in his journal how he felt seeing a small child asking for money on the side of the road on a sweltering hot day. We rushed inside a nearby market to get her a fan and some food. That one encounter led to so many questions about how the world worked.
Credit: Farah Nasser
This trip showed them that there is no such thing as “normal.” There are many different places and ways to live.
From mastering chopsticks because there was no fork to politely standing in lines to get into a subway car, my children have become more flexible and adaptable. They picked up how to say “hello” and “thank you” in two different languages and could teach adults a thing or two about going through security at the airport.
My three- and six-year-old may only remember key moments of our trip like feeding elephants in Koh Samui or praying for the school year at a shrine in Tokyo, but this trip instilled a sense of adventure that has them constantly asking — where are we going next?
Bonus Tip: One of the few rules we had on this trip was journaling. It was consistent, daily but tough to sit down and do on vacation. After coming back, the writing and drawings from the trip are just as important as the photos.
Farah Nasser is anchor of Global News at 5:30 and 6 p.m.