You advised, I listened! Witches' advice on international family travel
We all came back
¡Hola! Thank you for indulging me in a brief break as we took our family out of the country for the first time and then enjoyed an utterly non-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving. Before we left, I solicited witches for some family travel advice, and I’m so glad I did because I got some amazing tips. Here were some of the suggestions I found most valuable:
“I’d actually suggest UNDER planning as much as possible. Know it’s gonna be mental overload for the kids and they will need downtime. For the trips we’ve done, we plan like, one thing a day.”
This was such good advice. I was stressing over being under-prepared for the trip, and this brought me back down to earth. Northern Colombia in November is hot and humid as can be anyway, so the nature of the country made it so that it just made sense to do one thing in the morning, then have pool/screentime in the afternoon, and re-emerge to either do a thing or just wander around in the evening.
Pack all the snacks
Before we left, I bought some animal crackers, peanut butter-filled pretzels, granola bars and a few beef chomp sticks. We had a 5 AM flight out of Chicago, and we got into our hotel in Cartagena around 2:30 PM. We needed to eat something, and I was glad I didn’t need to figure out where to go to do so. The snacks also came in handy on our five-hour car ride from Cartagena to Santa Marta, which involved some sort of detour, the cause of which I’m still not sure about (my Spanish hasn’t covered terms like “accident” or “construction.”) We just wanted to get where we were going without figuring out a proper meal along the way so we had snacks for lunch.
“ON LANDING, get out in the sun sun sun. Find a playground first thing you can, and let them RUN IT OUT.”
My younger son was so keyed up for our 5 AM flight that he (and I, by extension) was awake starting at 11:30 PM the night before. We hit the rooftop pool the second we checked into our hotel; that was the only plan for that day. That kept us from murdering each other (at least until that night, which was another story, but I try to accept the first night in a new place is always bad.)
“Decide now you are going to have fun and enjoy it even if no one else does. Let them grump.”
All hail this witch! On our first full day in Cartagena, we took a street food tour, and my kids, particularly the younger one, ran out of gas fast. To be fair to them, it was really hot, mosquitoes were biting, and even though they were troopers about trying the food, they weren’t wild about a lot of it. The grenadilla had a weird texture for them, and a lot of the fried bread included melty cheese, which is not their favorite, especially on a hot day. I wasn’t exactly proud that they were asking when we could be done and return to our hotel, but I decided not to mind it that much. I asked our guide, “Kristy, have you ever had a tired/crabby/hot child on one of your tours before?” I knew the answer ahead of time, but still, hearing her say yes made me feel better. (Ultimately, I said no thanks to her suggestion of a third fried bread stop, and we concluded our tour inside an air-conditioned juice place.)
“I love Reddit’s travel forum”
Go Fug Yourself directed me to this page which provided some very good pieces of advice:
Pack a portable tote. Good for beach/pool and for my husband to carry water and other things when we went sightseeing, so I wasn’t the main bag lady.
Pack sunscreen and bug spray. The bugs were biting—and my kids do not suffer quietly! Additionally, I packed Afterbite and the Bug Bite Thing, which is incredibly light. I’m not sure how much it works vs. is a placebo, but there is no downside to bringing one if you’re going to a buggy place.
Bring photocopies of your passports. This is mainly in case your passports get lost or stolen, but I found that you need your passports more than you’d expect. I put my husband in charge of carrying the physical passports, but I’m glad I had the copies on hand for times like checking into the resort or accessing the Wi-Fi without needing him to get out the real things.
Pack wet wipes.
Very glad I did. Hand sanitizer is one thing, but sometimes we ate things that were sticky or crumby, and in those cases hand sanitizer didn’t really help.
“Practical tip: keep the backpacks light so they can carry their own (learn from my mistake!)”
We had three huge suitcases, so I’m glad our kids carried their own loads. I warned them ahead of time when they packed their bags that they would carry them and we would not help.
“Some of the best times I’ve had with my kids overseas is going to convenience stores and checking out all the new snacks.”
This!! It sounds dumb but it was fun for the kids to see Pringles cans written in Spanish and that Lay’s potato chips brand is called “Margarita” in South America. In Santa Marta, we were a little bit stranded at our resort aside from a nice outdoor mall a quarter mile away; my older son and I went there and bought snacks, and I said yes to anything we could carry. He tried chicken-flavored potato chips, and I discovered a new favorite: Tosh brand mixed dried chickpeas, green peas and peanuts. I brought a bag home for myself, and I wish I had bought more because I can’t find a way to buy some online.
“One thing we’re always grateful when we remember is that you can split up.”
YES. This was key to us not killing each other. Sometimes, at the end of a meal, I asked if I could just go back to our room/hotel by myself or with one kid. Many nights, I told my husband to go get a drink while I hung back and read while the kids watched TV before bed. I’ve said before how sometimes it feels like we are weaker together. This mega-applies on family trips.
Pack plastic bags and sleep masks.
Our kids don’t normally use sleep masks at home, but I was glad I could find two spare ones before we left since we didn’t successfully light-proof the rooms every night. Plus, the sleep masks, I think, are just a good cue for the kids (and myself) that it’s sleep time. Some small garbage bags were good for dirty laundry, packing liquids, and wet things. I used the Ziploc bags to bring along my son’s melatonin one night when we were out late and also to bring some fruit to hand-feed monkeys at the park (!!)
“Not sure if you will be driving at all but the one thing that helped us a lot is audiobooks/podcasts for them to listen to.”
I wish I had remembered to download the audiobook we had been listening to with our kids before our five-hour drive, but it was a fine substitution for the kids to listen to music on my husband’s and my phones. On top of this, I would recommend making sure that every device you bring has a corresponding set of headphones. I was irritated by how much tech support I did, looking for headphones or pairing air buds.
Here are a few things I would add myself if you plan to take your kids out of the country (our kids are 8 and 11, so this doesn’t include stroller/diaper/car seat type logistics):
Learn at least some of the language! Bonus points if you can say something witchy.
I have been taking Duolingo Spanish lessons since late 2021, which paid off. Yes, many of my conversations trailed off into me nodding and going “Sí, sí” or “Lo siento” or “Hablo poco,” but it all worked out. The kids were pretty impressed with the Spanish I used and like thirsty b I was glad they appreciated me for once. I made a waitress at the hotel restaurant laugh one morning when, at breakfast alone, while everyone else was still sleeping, I told her, “Estoy feliz sin mi familia.” My kids speak hardly any Spanish, but they said “gracias” when someone helped them, which made me happy. When the receptionist at the resort said “Que lindo” about the boys, I was muy orgullosa.
Apps can be amazing.
I can’t believe the things that make traveling convenient these days compared to when I was younger. VIPs included Google Maps and Google Translate. Nobody spoke English at the resort we went to in Santa Marta; the receptionist very patiently spoke into my phone when she helped us sort out some check-in confusion. Google Lens made life easy when figuring out what to order off Spanish menus. A currency converter was great because I did not have the brain space to convert pesos to American dollars. WhatsApp was simple to download and use and the preferred communication method for many of our contacts in the country. We packed a white noise machine for the kids, but my husband and I used an app for ourselves. We took advantage of Mobile Passport Control when we got back in the States, and it helped us avoid a long line at customs, which was huge when we had a tight connecting flight to make and TSA Pre didn’t seem to be in effect. Finally, a birding friend told me about the Merlin Bird ID app, which records birds in the area and identifies them for you, which was really cool just during downtime if we were by the pool or in a park. (Make sure to check your phone/data plan before you leave. AND inform your credit card company that you’ll be out of the country. We almost forgot this!)
Pack Poo Pourri.
You won’t be sad, especially if you’re all sharing one bathroom and someone has traveler’s tummy.
If your kids are into sports, get into local sports.
We bought our boys Colombian soccer jerseys with the names of (approximately) the team’s Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the backs. These were fun souvenirs and gave them and us skin in the game when we watched the team’s matches at the hotel in Santa Marta and the Barranquilla river walk. We are now going to see if we can catch one of their upcoming games at a Colombian restaurant in Chicago. Having a new team affiliation was a nice intangible souvenir.
If your kids are old enough, let them pick out small packable souvenirs for their friends.
My younger son chose some magnets for his buddies, and my older son got some chocolates for one of his friends with a sweet tooth. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when I give these to him!” he said, which made me feel like I was raising a good gift-giver. (Postcards/postal service were hard for us to track down.)
Bring two sets of swimsuits per person if you’re going to a beachy/pool place, so one is always kind of dry.
Also, rash guards are easier/more effective than constantly reapplying sunscreen.
Don’t be afraid to be uncool/unpopular about your kids’ routines and needs.
We are sleep-schedule people. One of my kids, in particular, sleeps less the tireder he gets (our first night’s “sleep” after our 5 AM flight out of O’Hare was one for the record books.) We went to Colombia for a family wedding; weddings there often involve the hora loca, when the party really amps up and gets extra loud. There are costumes, noisemakers, and maybe even some light pyrotechnics. This often happens around midnight-2 AM. You know what? You can find footage of horas locas on YouTube and imagine being there. We left the wedding at 10 PM (still pretty late for our kids) and had no regrets, especially when we heard that some poor young lady who departed on the 2 AM shuttle threw up on the bus and had to be taken care of by Americans she’d just met that night. The (American) brother of the groom implied that it was disrespectful of us to leave early, but his opinion did not matter to me, and I still feel great about our decision to leave when we did (it helped that the music by that point was louder than any live show I’ve heard in my life.)
Additionally, aside from the first day, we didn’t push the kids that hard to eat food that was unfamiliar to them. I’d rather they eat pizza, hamburgers, ice cream, and breakfast sandwiches (all things Colombian people also eat!) than nothing. They were very fond of a Colombian pop called Postobón, which came in apple flavor. Fine.
Follow Jolie Kerr’s advice on how to prepare your house before you go on vacation to make coming home more comfortable. And do laundry before you get home if it’s feasible/affordable.
The exchange rate was extremely favorable to us in Colombia, so I paid for hotel laundry before we left Cartagena, which was valuable because it was so hot there that I changed my clothes whenever I came inside and often showered twice or three times a day. We stayed at an Airbnb in Barranquilla before we flew back to the States and did a lot of laundry there. It was quite a luxury to get home and simply put most of the clothes away instead of spending Thanksgiving washing loads and loads.
Make plans ahead of time to do things without your kids/family when you return.
My husband and I went out to dinner the night after Thanksgiving and enjoyed our first private, uninterrupted conversations in a while. I’m sure the kids didn’t mind playing with the sitter instead of us harping at them another night. That weekend, I also saw two friends who were in town for the holiday. My childfree friend Lila kept asking me if I minded running errands with her on Saturday, and I was like, “Are you kidding??” Running meaningless errands with an old friend, window shopping, and going to a store when you don’t have to is a joy. Not to mention girl talk when you’ve been around a bunch of penis-havers for 10 days straight.
Overall, we had a really great time, and I was proud of my kids for being decent travelers in a place where they didn’t speak the language and it was a little overwhelming at first in terms of crossing streets and people trying to sell us stuff. Hearing them say, “You know what, I just wasn’t used to it!” a few days into it was gratifying.
We also had some other intangibles that worked out in our favor, like on-time flights and built-in cousin time, so the kids had playmates. But Colombia was a great first time out of the country for us, especially with no jet lag. Thank you to all the witches for the great advice and encouragement. Especially when it came to me canceling Thanksgiving, which really put me in the right headspace before, during, and on the way home from this trip.
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