I’m sitting at a coffee kiosk at the Jardim de Estrela in Lisbon, Portugal as I write this. I’m nibbling on a pasteis de nata, a traditional custard tart pastry; my children are playing a few yards away at a giant climbing structure; I hear my son speak in French to some other children, presumably from France. My family and I are on a month-long summer vacation, travelling around Portugal. We started in Porto, then flew to Sao Miguel in the Azores, and now settled in Lisbon.
In the last few years, since my oldest, now seven, started school where summer vacation was a thing, my husband and I have taken a month off work to travel with the children. Many of our peers spend summers at cottages among the many lakes in Ontario (so Canadian!), but we do not cottage during the summer; we collect passport stamps. My children have over a dozen stamps in their passports, from countries such as Iceland and the Philippines, and now Portugal.
While travel is a part of my children’s childhood, it wasn’t part of mine. The first time I travelled internationally (I had taken a few trips south to the border as a kid, but I’m not counting that), I was 22 years old. Daniel, my then boyfriend (now-husband), and I went to visit his parents who were living in Beirut, Lebanon at the time. There was so much excitement bursting within as I stepped out of the airport. Sunshine! Palm trees! Heat! How exotic.
And then there were the roads and traffic.There were cows and donkeys on the road among the vehicles; busses stopped wherever and whenever, with passengers jumping on and off while the bus was moving; cars drove erratically, not following street lights and signs, weaving in and out, in between the animals and other vehicles. A part of me thought I was going to die in a vehicle collision, but another part grew with excitement to experience a different way of living. It was then that I realized how little I knew about the world. As I explored new places, meet new people, experience new cultures, I was filled with such wonder at the world around me.
It was that trip to Lebanon when travel became a fabric of my existence, becoming part of my desires and dreams and future plans. Travel was already part of Daniel’s fingerprint, having lived in Germany and Israel during high school; when we married and started our own family, it inevitably became part of our children’s DNA. Travel is something we value and prioritize, and here are some reasons we love it so:
Travel is transformative
Daniel and I were hopelessly lost in the Kahri Baloli spice market in Delhi India, in search of the Delhi Red Fort. After growing tired from wandering aimlessly, we hailed down a rickshaw to take us to our destination. We negotiated the fare upfront, a total of $0.50 CAD, and then travelled mere kilometers on a trip that took over forty minutes in a bumper-to-cow-to-rickshaw traffic. When we finally reached our destination, we paid what was owed, but also tipped an extra dollar. The gratitude our rickshaw driver expressed for what amounted to less than a cup of coffee served as a reminder of the value of money, finding contentment in working hard. Now still, years and years later after that rickshaw ride, when I am being bogged down by the daily grind or unhappy with my work salary, I think back to India and contentment comes easier.
A couple years after India, Daniel and I were in our mid twenties with a newborn, and perusing real estate listings. We were living in a condo — the same condo we’re still currently in — but the expectation, especially within our social circles, was that we would move into a bigger place. We decided to spend a month in France first, before seriously considering upgrading property size — to own a house with at least three bedrooms (because we wanted at least two kids) and a yard. In Paris, we met a family of four who invited us to their home for tea; they lived in a two bedroom apartment, approximately the same size as our condo back home (though, their apartment had magnificent floor to ceiling windows and a macaron patisserie downstairs). The children, a girl and a boy, shared a bedroom. Daniel and I were inspired; if the chic Parisians can live in a small space with children, so can we, because don’t we all want to emulate the French?! When we went back home, we forwent the house search and stayed in our condo (seven years later and one kid more, we’re still here).
There are many instances and examples of how travel has impacted my future life decisions: where to live, how to raise my children, even how to embrace work and money. Seeing how people live differently transforms how you see the world, giving a perspective which alters your “normal”.
Travel is not as expensive as you think it is
There are many costs associated with travel: passports, visas, flights and accommodations, entrance fees and treats! While travel, as I have described it thus far, is a luxury and quite a privilege, it can be done at reasonable costs.
Take our summer vacation to Portugal, for example. We bought tickets during a flight sale at $500 per person for a round trip from Toronto to Lisbon. We went during the summer because, had the children been home in the summer, we would have had to pay for them to attend summer camp, which, in Toronto, starts at $500 per week for two children. Four weeks of camp fees costs the same (if not more) as our four plane tickets. Not exactly “savings” (because, arguably, taking four weeks off and doing a staycation would have cost much less), but it is a different way of looking at travel expenses.
Check-in luggage was an additional cost to our plane tickets. To mitigate that cost, we are travelling with only carry-on luggage. Yes, we, a family of four, traveled for four weeks with two carry-ons and four personal bags. Travelling light also prevents you from buying too many souvenirs; so far, we have purchased two wooden swords for the kids and a tin of sardines.
Our accommodations are generally very basic and definitely never worthy of posting on social media, but it does save us a lot of money. We will stay in hostels with shared washroom, though not usually for more than a night or two at a time. Recently the hostel we stayed in cost $70/night; comparatively, a regular hotel nearby cost $125/night and a luxury hotel cost $300/night.
We stay primarily in Airbnbs, which means forgoing certain amenities and services, like housekeeping. However, Airbnbs, for the most part, come with dryer and washer — critical for minimal packing list — and, most importantly, a kitchen!! We cook 75% of our meals. Eating in and packing lunches offsets the costs of treats, such as daily pasteis de natas for elevenses and gelato after lunch, and allows for a nice restaurant splurge once in awhile.
There are many other ways to reduce travel costs, such as renting or Airbnbing out your own house, traveling to places where your dollar goes further, and signing up for travel reward programs and credit cards. We use our credit cards for everything, paying the balance in full each month, to take advantage of rewards points which we’ve redeemed for free flights as well as paying for accommodations.
There are websites that are dedicated to optimizing credit cards for travel. Flights and accommodations usually account for the biggest portion of travel costs; finding flight deals and patiently perusing through accommodation options to find something reasonable really helps to lower costs.
Travel does not have to come at a huge cost, though to do it cheaply does require patience, creativity, planning, and reprioritizing. And, if it’s valued, make saving for a trip a financial goal and work for it. If money is an issue, set a budget, like you would with everyday life, and stick to it.
Travel, with kids, is fun but different
Copenhagen has more Michelin-star restaurants in the city than any other in the world, but despite spending 10 days in the city a few years ago, I ate at none of them. My cousin, who was there at the same time we were, did — twice — in the four days she was there. Instead, I explored the city, a kilometer every hour (because that was the pace in which my son walked), and visited a plethora of playgrounds with my kids. Daniel and I joked about the slowness and “boringness” of our trip, but in reality, we had so much fun seeing the city through the lens of our children. Did you know that Copenhagen has more than 125 playgrounds, 26 of which are staffed by qualified childcare specialists? I would have never known nor experienced the city’s delightfully-themed and wonderfully-maintained playgrounds had I not been with the kids.
When I was telling a friend about a recent trip to Istanbul, she was surprised at how much I raved about the hospitality of the Turks. On her trip to Turkey, she had little interaction with the locals. They were nice, she said, but not how I described them. On my trip, my children opened doors to meeting people of a culture that highly valued children. People stopped my children on the streets to embrace them, give them treats and gifts, or simply to chat, leaving impression of warmth and community.
I would be disappointed if I expected travel with my family be like traveling with Daniel or a group of adults. Contrasting my cousin’s and my experience in Copenhagen, one wasn’t better or worse than the other, they were just very different.
And yes, there are times where it is hard, depending on their age and temperaments. I would remiss to think travelling with kids is relaxing; it is not (I repeat: It is not relaxing). It’s more akin to doing life but with sleep deprived, jet-lagged kids against a very pretty backdrop (and a lot more sweets). It is whining about who-knows-what and tantrums because they want more gelato and having to pee when there are no washrooms around and despite saying they didn’t when there were available washrooms.
But, it is also sword fighting in medieval castles and playing hide-and-seek among centuries-old trees. Despite the difficult moments, it is the good ones we all remember.
The more they travel, the easier it has also become. They will wait patiently at airport security and swiftly remove their backpacks and jackets for inspection. They will entertain themselves on short haul flights, allowing Daniel and I to take a nap or journal. They will try any local food! My son, especially, has become quite the adventurous foodie at seven years old.
The adage “Anything worth having doesn't come easy” applies to travelling. It really doesn’t come easy but it is so much fun.
Travel is an adventure
We’ve celebrated the festival of holi in India, trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, watched a live World Cup game in Brazil, ziplined through a cloud rainforest in Costa Rica. While amazing, I don’t travel for those unique exciting experiences; I travel because it puts me outside of my comfort zone and the new experiences challenge and stretch me. This means 7-hour hikes for nine days at the risk of altitude sickness (Nepal), but it also means tending to a child, who’s broken into an unsightly rash, because of the heat and humidity (Philippines).
It means something even more mundane: trying to figure out how much detergent to use for a load of laundry in a washing machine with instructions and labels in a foreign language, or how to entertain two overly bored kids in a rented home with no toys and lots of glass knick-knacks.
Those moments, all of them, is what I define as adventure, and what I crave and long for in travel. It is in those smaller moments — those regular parts of a quotidian rhythm, but different because the surroundings are new — that hold great transformative powers, developing and growing my character. I am a better person because I travel, and that is why I love it.
Some Practical Tips
Budget for travel: We have a line item in our monthly budget for travel and we set aside that amount every month in a high-interest savings account. The monthly amount varies year-to-year to accommodate for other financial goals, but money gets funneled into a travel fund after each paycheque.
Flight deals: Canadians, sign up for websites such as Next Departures or Secret Flying to be notified of flight deals. I'm sure there are other similar concepts, local to most big cities. Hopper is another app that predicts price deals.
Google flights: Use Google Flights to compare flights. Turn on flight tracking to send you alerts when prices decrease or increase and utilize its features, like “price graph” and the calendar view, to find the best deals.
Optimize your credit card points: For a list of the best travel credit cards (in Canada), read this MoneySense article. Do more research to learn to maximize miles & points programs. Here is an an excellent resource for "travel hacking".
Google My Maps: Use Google Maps to plan itineraries. It is a powerful tool that allows you to create custom maps and adding pins to locations. Since it’s Google, pinned items on your maps also has information such as opening hours, website, phone number, address.
Entertain the children with your old media devices: If you have an old phone, tablet or audio device, put on parental controls and load it with audiobooks, podcasts and music of their choice. It will give hours of entertainment, and they love having the responsibility of “owning” their own device. (We don’t put movies, television shows, or games on our devices for the kids, but you can!)
Thank you SO MUCH, Emily, for this sweet diary of your travels!
Follow Emily & Daniel's adventures at @emilypteo