The first few years of your kids’ lives, international travel is all about worrying about the flight, what food to take so they don’t starve, vaccines, how they are going to adjust to jetlag (hint: melatonin gummies!), the right stroller to take and figuring out what you can do while toting around a baby or toddler. But, once they are a bit older, you can focus on providing them an actual cultural experience, not just a sight-seeing one. This is important because to appreciate differences in each other and our cultures, you actually have to learn about them!
Here are 10 tips to appreciate cultures when travelling:
1) Know your objective – if you’re going to a resort in Cancun to lay on the beach and play in the water – ignore all this! You’re not going to learn much about Mexico going to a resort you never leave, and that’s perfectly ok!
2) Learn the language: teach your littles a few simple words like hello, good bye, thank you and please. It’s also helpful to know bathroom, numbers 1 to 5 and I don’t speak xxx, do you speak English? At one point, I could count to 10 in nine different languages (I can’t anymore, but I can recognize it!).
3) Sit and observe. Between the whirlwind of your sight-seeing schedule, sit at a local café or park and have your littles watch people. Who do they eat with? How do they socialize? How do kids behave with each other and with adults? Plus, gives you a chance to enjoy a local adult beverage or two 😀
4) Take a tour or class with a local, and (respectfully) ask them about their lives! This is one of my favorite things to do when we travel. Because you’re on a tour or in a class, the guide will usually speak good English and if you get a small group, you have more opportunities to sit and chat. Especially if it’s an all-day type excursion – at some point you break for a casual meal and it’s natural to have a conversation. You can usually tell if the person is comfortable with the conversation, and more often than not, they are just as curious about your story. I like to ask about people’s families, kids, how they met their spouse, what they do when they’re not working, their favorite meals, etc. When you're sharing your story, don't be obnoxious about money or all the things you may have that your guide may not have.
5) Attend a cultural dance or musical performance. In addition to museums and key sights, take in a cultural show!
6) Skip the hotel and stay at a guesthouse for part of your stay. In some places, this can be a really cool experience. There are so many great sites for this with well rated accommodations. This gives you a chance to explore neighborhoods, and depending on the setup, meet and talk to the owner or other travelers. But also, stay at a hotel for part of your trip – you’re on vacation after all and the kids need a break too!
7) Eat the food! This one can be really hard for kids, especially if they are used to eating certain foods at home. Do your best though – be patient and take baby steps! Talk to them about the ingredients, colors and textures of the food. It’s ok if they don’t like it – but get them to try it! Most countries have similar things – like bread or some type or rice/noodle/pasta that you can start with. Then, move onto a variation of a vegetable or meat they like. If all else fails, go with dessert J And if they are adventurous little eaters – even better!
8) Go grocery shopping in the local market. If you can, take a cooking class that also includes a tour of the local market (popular in Southeast Asia). Even if the cooking class doesn’t include a tour, it’s usually worthwhile anyway because they’ll generally introduce local spices and produce (this may have age restrictions though!).
9) Watch a movie at the local theater; whether it’s in English or a foreign film with subtitles, this will be an interesting experience. Great people watching and you’ll be surprised what you learn! For example, we were surprised in Thailand that they started movies with a tribute to the King and the royal anthem, and you’re required to stand for it.
10) Take public transportation. If the city you’re in has a train or subway system, have your littles listen for the stop or show them the subway map if they are old enough to figure out what route you need to take.
Bonus: Learn, learn, learn! For older kids (like junior high and older), make a game to glean the information from people, NOT the internet – maybe a scavenger hunt? Additional ideas:
- Learn about their government and at least a bit about their political situation. How do elections work (if they have them)? How often are they?
- How does schooling work? Who pays for it? How many days a week is it? All day?
- How do people greet each other?
- What food is the country known for?
- How do people observe religion?
- What time do people eat? Work? Sleep?
- How do people dress? What are their native outfits called?
- What are important festivals or holidays?
I hope you find these tips relevant on your next trip! My best advice for travelling is to slow down – it’s so tempting to rush through places so you can ‘hit the highlights’ of a city – but you’ll run yourself and your family ragged, while missing out on meaningful experiences. Plan to spend AT LEAST 2-3 days in each city you go to! Safe journeys!
Additional author’s notes:
There are almost 200 countries in this great big world of ours. So far, I’ve been to just over 30 of them, and it’s taken almost 40 years to just do those! There are a few that I’ve only been to once when I was younger, and have now changed so much that I wouldn’t ever recognize them, but travelling as a child to countries that were not as developed as the US deeply formed the person I am today and my general outlook on life.
I had the extreme fortune of being able to travel as a child, which I completely get not everyone has the opportunity to do. My parents were not rich by any means, but they would take us back to India on a regular basis when we were younger. Also, my dad was also a Chemical Engineer who would be away on projects for several weeks or months and we would get a chance to visit him (I’m assuming on the company’s dime, but who knows!). So as a young child, I got to visit China, Japan and South Korea, which at the time was highly unusual as people favored going to places in Europe instead. Truthfully, I was too young to remember much about those places (all before I was 10) – but I have very vivid memories that stand out that relate to the culture I experienced, rather than the sights that I saw.