Travelling with two children under 6 - insanity or a great idea?

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My travelling family

Take your kids to work day is this week (April 28). Many think we've just been travelling for the past year but in actual fact Colin's been living "take your kids to work" every day for the last year and a half ... actually he's been living "taking the WHOLE FAMILY to work day" for the past 452 days. The joys of working nomadically with your family in tow ... every day is take your kids to work day. A number of travelling families have decided to celebrate take your kids to work day by discussing the highs and lows of long term family travel based on the various ages of our children. We're attempting to answer one of the most frequently asked questions by parents who are planning to travel long term with their kids - what is the best age to travel with your kids? Or in our case, were we insane to pursue a nomadic lifestyle with two kids under 6?

The grass is always greener ...

Hiding at the tea plantation

When we first set out 16 months ago to explore the world, Noah and Hayley were 4.5yrs and 2.5yrs respectively. We realised at the time that travelling with such young kids would come with it's highs and lows but it was the perfect time for us as a family to go. For the first few months of our trip, Colin and I kept stating how much more fun this trip would be if Hayley was closer to the age Noah was then. If she was 4 life would be good.

At least that's what we thought! Less need for day time naps, no toiletting accidents, more confident and less reliant on Mum, able to swim solo, a longer attention span for museums and movies. We could walk further, do more adventurous things and stay out later. 

And Noah at 6 would of course be a pure delight. He's able to sit through long train rides reading books with us, play independently, ride the big waterslides and enjoy even non-dinosaur museums. Travel would be a breeze!

Well guess what? Next month, Noah turns 6 and Hayley turns 4 and we're still waiting for our golden age of family travel.

We've since realised that even though the kids have both grown up in many ways, new difficulties have arisen and some things just haven't changed. Even at almost 4, Hayley still gets tired, wants to be carried and needs the occasional afternoon rest. We still have the odd toilet accident and she still wants to spend more time with mum than with friends. Noah is picking up reading but it's not his thing and dinosaurs still beat art galleries hands down, no contest. I'm pretty sure they will continue to do so for at least the new few years.

We've realised that there is no perfect act to travel with your children. The general concensus is that the older they get the easier it is ... up until a point! We now think between the ages of 7-10 might be our new golden age of family travel but who knows what we think when we'll get there. And there's definitely a lot of advantages of travelling with your children when they're even younger.

So what's it really like travelling with a toddler?

It's both tiring and frustrating, fantastic and heartwarming every minute of the day. We've realised it is possible to be both immensely proud of Hayley and want to put her in time out for the rest of the day in the exact same breath.

Hayley at the grotto

Travelling long term with a child aged less than 3 years old is an amazing experience for your family and your child. Lets face it - kids that young really just want the undivided attention of Mum and Dad. Travelling long term as a family has provided Hayley with exactly that for the past 16 months. It's attachment parenting at it's best. She has developed an immense sense of home as wherever her family is, rather than it being a place. She's had more time to be shaped by her parents than most children her age (we hope this is a good thing). We've been there to see her learn to hop and jump, read her first words, learn how to draw recognisable objects and people, and interpret the world in her own unique way. She never fails to surprise us with her different perspectives on things that we encounter as we travel, even if they are fantastical stories involving unicorns, princesses and farts. She soaking up the many languages she hears around her every day - she's only learnt a few words but she spends most of her time inventing languages and stories about the people that speak these words. We've had the time to notice her change from a shy toddler to a confidence, trusting, giving and determined girl.

Being able to spend so much time with her and seeing her grow has been priceless.

The toddler years are also one of the cheapest times to travel with kids. Entry for children under 3 is almost universally free to everything. Most hotels don't charge extra for your child provided you're happy to share beds. Most bus and train companies won't charge for children this young, although in some cases you'll have to have them on your lap. For under 2's you don't even need to pay for flights. The average toddler doesn't eat that much either so you can usually get away with them just sharing your meals.

There are benefits of travelling with a toddler over a baby. Generally they can miss a daytime nap and the whole world doesn't melt down. They're usually past the crawling stage and don't still put random things in their mouth - so travelling in developing countries doesn't require you to constantly chant "dirt is good for their immune systems ... really it is." If they do get sick they can generally tell you what's wrong. Another bonus of travelling with an under 3 year old is you don't have to worry yet about your child missing out on school or having to homeschool on the road.

Of course here's the negatives - toilet training! It's a big one.

The strangest sign we've seen so far

We were lucky that Hayley was out of nappies during the day by the time we started our trip, although there were still plenty of accidents so that meant we had additional sets of clothes and extra washing. She was still at the stage of identifying when she needed to go, which usually means she left it to the last minute to tell us and then we had to rush around a foreign city in search of a toilet. She also initially insisted on doing Number 2's in nappies, which meant taking up precious packing room with nappies and wipes. All that changed of course when she got her first case of travellers stomach and decided it was too yucky for nappies!

Then how about night time toilet training? Hayley has been ready for at least 6 months but when we're always sleeping in someone else's bed it's almost impossible to let her go through that first month where lots of accidents happen unless we want to carry plastic sheets with us, extra linen and 20 extra sets of pj's.

Children this age also get tired and over stimulated easily. Often we need to plan afternoon rests and nothing days where she can just rest. The lack of routine can be really draining. There are limits on how far she can walk - we don't carry a stroller so by the end of most days we're carrying her. Even the simple things like hiring a bike to ride around a city can be difficult - finding a baby seat for a rental bicycle in a third world country is challenging. And what about infant restraints? It's not practical to carry one of these around the world with you, but then you are making the choice to never have your child restrained 'properly'.

Then there are tourist attractions. Places you've dreamed of visiting your whole life that are amazing to you and about as interesting as watching grass grow to a toddler. It's unimaginably hard to have dreamed of visiting somewhere your whole life, book the tour, turn up on the day and spend your whole time chasing a bored, grumpy toddler around rather than oohing and ahhing at the thing you've paid good money to come and see. You put on a happy face, tell yourself you can come back when the kids are older and give into the play ... but it's hard. Toddler years are usually when fussy eating rears it's head. This can be really difficult to deal with on the road. We learned to dread the constant battle to find food she'd like in each new country and ended up giving in for a while - we had three months where Hayley lived solely on bananas, pink milk, jam toast and plain rice.

What about travelling with an under 6 year old?

Noah is a much easier travel companion than his little sister. He can walk further, sit through 8 hour flights without a complaint, hold serious discussions and thankfully has the whole toilet thing under control! He's almost at that "dream age" to travel with. Almost!

Noah trying to look sweet, Boh Tea Plantation

Spending an entire 16 months travelling with Noah has been a priceless experience. Seeing how his mind ticks as he encounters new cultures and people, as he learns new concepts and interprets the world in that fantastical way that only 5 year old boys. He is a sponge and remembers so many tiny details, even from our previous holidays. It's been amazing to have the time to appreciate how effortlessly he soaks up new knowledge regardless of whether it's how to add and subtract, geography, obscure facts about dinosaur with hugely complicated names that only children and palaeontologists can pronounce (I'm sure I knew how to say them when I was 5 but I so can't now) or the workings of a Buddhist temple.

Watching your child accept children of all cultures and backgrounds, without preconceived ideas or prejudice is something every adult should take the chance to see and learn from. We've watched him learn how to make new friends, anywhere anytime and become open to new experiences. He's grown 16cm since we left, lost two teeth, learnt to ride a bike and how to dust himself off after a fall.

The negatives? The biggest one would have to be education. Homeschooling a child who has never actually been to school and learnt the fundamentals of not only literacy and maths, but sitting still for extended periods of time and doing what he's told even when it's hard, is a lot harder than I ever thought it would be.

I'm not saying homeschooling isn't a wonderful thing - I believe in it whole heartedly and I'm so glad we have chosen this path. I just wish that he had of been through the first two grades of school to learn these fundamental concepts so that we could just build on them together.

Age appropriate friends are becoming harder to find - they're usually at school so he becoming very bored during the day. Teasing his sister is becoming one of his favourite passtimes. Not because he's a mean, thoughtless kid. Far from it, in fact he just offered to give his sister his second tooth so the tooth fairy would come to her, knowing it would mean she would get the money. It's simply because he's bored and needs the stimulation of older playmates! In some ways, only having his sister to play with and Mum or Dad constantly around to do things for him has stopped him from growing up in small ways. He's not as independent as many kids his age, he relies on us for entertainment and assistance in simple things like getting his shoes. These are small things but they're becoming more and more noticeable.

Noah at Thredbo

At almost 6 he still can't walk all that far. Walking just isn't something he enjoys (he takes after his father!). He can't (or won't!) carry a backpack or hike up a mountain so we won't be doing Everest any time soon! He still gets very tired and throws some spectacular tantrums. Just like his younger sister, he doesn't really appreciate tourist attractions like historical monuments and world heritage sites. Ruins are for climbing on and racing around, historical cities are only cool if they have a decent playground, art galleries are boring apart from the kids craft area and famous landmarks are no where near as important as the obligatory ice cream stand outside.

And then there are the "Why?" questions. All kids go through this phase. "Why is the sky blue?" "What are clouds made of?" "Did the dinosaurs turn into people?". If you have kids you've probably been through this phase. Now imagine that you've opened up the whole world to your child. Different countries, cultures, experiences, religions, modes of transport, ways of life ... can you imagine how many more "Why?" questions you get asked each and every day. How many more "Why?" questions that you just don't know the answer too? And of course he can't read yet so we can't just tell him to Google the answer!

OK so this last negative is a bit tongue in cheek ... but when you've been together non-stop for months and a "Why?" day comes along ... ARGHH

Ultimately a 5-6 years old is an infinitely easier age to travel with than a toddler, but it's just as rewarding.

Travelling with your children is tiring (don't underestimate how tiring spending every minute together is!) and frustrating during those times when travel plans just don't come together. It's infinitely harder than travelling as a couple ... but it's also a lot more rewarding. Whether you're planning on travelling for years or just three months, whether your backpacking around the world or just renting a beach house somewhere and relaxing, we honestly believe the extended quality family time that a long term holiday can offer a family is something every family should have the chance to experience.

Are we insane? Quite possibly. But would any of us change our decision? No way!

Like to know what other travelling families think?

As part of Take your kids to work day, a number of other travelling families have all written their stories about what it's like to travel with their children. All of our children are different ages so it's worth taking a look at them all!

Next Post: What does a world travelling working dad look like? Previous Post: Travelling with kids: Have we been on the road too long?

About the Author

tracykids

Tracy Burns

Tracy always talked about traveling a lot more than she ever traveled. Married to an avid traveler that thankfully changed. After almost two years exploring South East Asia and Australia, enjoying the most amazing food, temples, beaches, and more importantly every sweet food treat she can find, Tracy is keen to explore further afield. Tracy juggles homeschooling, playtime, blogging and learning more about photography while they travel. Some days she juggles them better than others!

Comments (43):

  1. [...] Travel Lifestyle: The Best Age to Travel with Young Kids? The Dropout Diaries Attack of the Asian Baby Snatchers Almost Fearless The Amazing Adventures of [...]

  2. This is another lovely honest post, Tracey. But I think when we all look back and ask, would we have it any other way, we probably wouldn't. Though, boy, I don't envy you the toileting stuff...

  3. [...] Tracy: http://ourtravellifestyle.com/2011/04/28/long-term-travel-young-kids-under-6-best-age [...]

  4. [...] Traveling with two children under 6 – insanity or a great idea? by ourtravellifestyle.com [...]

  5. Very well and honestly described.
    I recognized a few of my kids in it ;)

  6. I really enjoyed reading the downs you ponint out. While traveling with my just truned 4-year old, I face many challenges as well, getting rid of the night nappies is the latest obstacle to our sweet dreams...

    But definitely, the joys we have together on the world and how amazing is to see our kids mixing with other cultures, learning other languages and watching a different nature is too fantastic to not do it.

  7. i love that toilet sign, it is SO funny. you've been honest about the challenges and joys, that's for sure. but i bet you wouldn't have it any other way...great article!

  8. [...] Traveling with Two Children Under 6: Insanity or Great Idea? [...]

  9. How hilarious is that sign! I came across that sign in a bathroom in Penang over a year ago and it still gives me the giggles.

  10. Ditching the night nappies is definitely a tricky one on the road. It's hard when it's not your own mattress isn't it? Glad your enjoying your travels with your daughter. I'm so jealous you are in Costa Rica!

  11. Thank you. I wish I could have been as funny as your post though!

  12. Thanks Theodora. But come on ... I'm sure you'd like to swap with us for a few days and change nappies, wipe bottoms and wash wet knickers after toilets weren't reached in time. Come on ... I know you secretly want to!

  13. As someone travelling with a child who is 2.5 now, I completely agree with everything you've said. Except that Lucy is nearly 6, and she's so similar to how you describe your son.

    Peter (9) and Susan (8) on the other hand...well, the three of us had a 'grumpy' afternoon the other day trying to watch a documentary. We had a fight over whether vikings plundered or conquered a particular village (Peter was wrong, I was right). Then we had an argument about whether it was King Henry II or VIII who broke away from Rome (again, Peter was wrong, I was right). This was followed by us pointing out to Susan that King Henry VIII imprisonned a cardinal, not a pope (Susan was wrong this time, Peter and I were right).

    So it can be hard work when three are interested, and determined to be right! :)

    Amy

  14. Is that sign for real? Too funny! Just think how *easy* you'll find traveling once both kids are out of nappies! I don't miss the nappies but do sometimes miss my kids at that age. :)

  15. [...] Travelling with two children under 6 – insanity or a great idea? | Our Travel Lifestyle :: How... on April 28, 2011 at 8:41 [...]

  16. So do you think travelling is actually easier with older children? Or does it just get more opinionated - everyone has ideas of where they want to go, what they want to see and what the vikings did! Sounds like a hilarious grumpy afternoon. I'm glad everyone got the chance to be right!

  17. Oh the sign is completely real. It was on the toilet wall at the Butterfly Farm in Penang. I had to look three times the first time I saw it!

  18. Great article Tracy! I don't think there is a perfect age. Every age will have its own ups and downs.

  19. Very good post. My girls are 3 and 5 now and I'm just beginning to plan our adventures. Camping was our first baby step but I have a dream of doing long-term travel with them. I, too, have wondered what the best ages are. There's probably no magic age just as there's no "right time" to have them in the first place but I think mine will be more manageable when they're a little older. Can't wait to read more of your journey.

  20. We've just spent a lot of time camping over the last few months and had a fantastic time. It's a really fun age to camp with ... well apart from setting up the camp site with two young kids either wanting to help or getting in the way (actually they're the same things aren't they at this age?). I'm looking forward to checking out your website to see what camping is like in the states, we'd really like to get over there next year to spend a few months camping.

    I really don't think there is a magic age, but a little older is definitely easier.

  21. [...] Our Travel Lifestyle: Long Term Travel with Kids Under 6 [...]

  22. Awesome post. Wish I could have joined you on the post, but as you know things have been a bit nutty around here. WE are loving Kochi (Cochin) India, you totally need to plan this as a spot to visit.

  23. [...] Our Travel Lifestyle: Long Term Travel with Kids Under 6 [...]

  24. You know, even at ten there are still toilet issues. You hit those squat toilets of Asia and the kids look at you like you've got to be kidding. Certain things will get easier as they get older (ours were 9-10 for our year of travel) but others get more challenging. And all the years bring joy.

  25. We've just discovered your blog and it is so nice to find ... really enjoyed this piece, recognized alot of my kids in there. We first travelled long term with them 5 years ago, when they were 8, 6, & 4. Now they are 13, 11, & 8 and I've been 'taking them to work' with me for about the last 240 days or so. I think it is a different (more opinionated and argumentative) experience as thy get older, but then again I guess that would be the case anywhere.

    Anyway, now we've found you we'll be popping back regulary to see what you're up to! Have fun, safe travels.

  26. Nice to meet you Joe! 240 days while working with three kids - congratulations! I think my husband and you would have fun chatting some time about the joys and trials or working on the road with kids. I hadn't really considered the fact that the kids will get a lot more opinionated (and argumentatives) as they get older ... I've just been dreaming about no nappies and less tantrums. Please tell me they start to fight less ??? Hmm I think probably not!

    Enjoy your travels

  27. Really? Don't burst my fragile little bubble Lisa! hehe toilets in Asia can take a little to get used to, can't they. Although to tell the truth I kind of miss the toilets in Malaysia - at least you know when there is something wet all over the seat it's just water from washing ... that's usually not the case in public toilets in Australia!

  28. I'm REALLY hoping you're right about the golden age (since we're heading out with an almost 9 and an almost 7 year old in 7 weeks) but I also think that it has so much to do with what kids are exposed to and the personalities they are born with. I'll be curious to see if you find the kids' changes over the years are about age or just that they're adapting to the lifestyle. Great post - made me think. :)

  29. Great succinct post! Luckily our 3yr old was well and truly toilet trained by the time we left--wouldn't want to deal with nappies for sure! both of our kids has surprised us with their walking abilities as well as their climbing abilities, but they obviously have their limits, and the heat and humidity are becoming a challenge! right age?? don't know, but we're pretty happy with 3 & 5 at the moment, despite its challenges. I think every age will have its pro's and con's but your point on the economic benefits we agree on wholeheartedly and are a real 'plus' when you are on a budget!

  30. Tracy, yeah, I really do think it gets much easier with older kids. Susan was 7 and Peter 8 when we left and could already read fluently. We've never had the frustration of teaching kids them to read without some set routine and place ... they've never been frustrating in the way the younger set can be.

    By the way, are you sure nearly 6 year olds are supposed to be able to find their own shoes? Lucy is 6 next month, and she wouldn't be able to find her own shoes unless they jumped at her ...

  31. I think it's a fantastic idea!
    We're planning and dreaming and starting to prepare to break free with our four kids, ages 8 1/2, 6, 3, and 1. Hopefully in a year!

  32. Thanks Rebeca, good luck making your dream happen. We've met a few families travelling with 4 kids and they had a wonderful time.

  33. [...] travelled all over Asia and are now settling down for a while in Penang, Malaysia.A favourite post: Travelling with Two Children Under 6: Insanity or a Great Idea? I know there are many more family travellers out there. Leave a comment and let us know your [...]

  34. Hello.

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I am thinking of taking my three children on a multi destination holiday but don't really know where to start. I would like to know how you prepare financially for such an experience? And how do you sustain finances along the way? I couldn't find any other appropriate area for these questions.

  35. Hi Tamika. I really should write a post on these things! Give me a few weeks to catch up and I will. Knowing where to start is hard - Asia is cheap so it's a good place to start but Australia/Europe/US are a little less foreign (easier to find food they like etc). Where are you interested in going? If you only plan to do less than 12 months a RTW ticket can be a good option, then just use budget airlines and local transport to get around. Finance - that's a hard one to answer. We are not good planners, we just kind of decide to do something and go for it. We sold our house in Australia, put most of the money into a high interest account and took 5K to get us started (tickets, immunisations, backpacks, clothes) and 5K as backup money to help us through the first few months on the road while we figured out how to budget! Along the way Colin works as a web designer with clients back home in Australia. He had his own company for many years and his clients were happy to do this.

    I'm not sure if these answers have helped? One day soon I'll write a post. If you go to http://www.vagabondfamily.org/family-profiles/ you'll find lots of other travelling families. I know there are a couple on there that are just in the planning stages of their trips so they might have some great advice for you. I know Great Family Escape recently wrote an article on financing a family trip and I'm sure there are others.

  36. [...] “He is a sponge and remembers so many tiny details, even from our previous holidays. It’s been amazing to have the time to appreciate how effortlessly he soaks up new knowledge regardless of whether it’s how to add and subtract, geography, obscure facts about dinosaurs with hugely complicated names that only children and palaeontologists can pronounce, or the workings of a Buddhist temple. Watching your child accept children of all cultures and backgrounds, without preconceived ideas or prejudice is something every adult should take the chance to see and learn from.” – from Tracy at Our Travel Lifestyle [...]

  37. I've also really enjoyed exploring your blog. We lived in England for a year when the kids were 18 months and 3.5. I understand the toileting issues! It was a great time for us as a family and we chose to do it before schooling was an issue. The kids, now 8 and 10, are really strong friends and I think it had a lot to do with our time travelling. We've done some short trips with them the last few years and while we don't have to worry about naps etc, they still tire easily and need feeding regularly. The older one is also prone to sulking if we don't do "their" stuff. But his teacher last year was very happy for him to miss out on school because of how much he would learn through experience. So you are definitely enriching their education and your family life. Enjoy!

  38. Thanks Sandra. Toilet training on the road is not a lot of fun. We're finally ditching the night time nappies - a process we've been putting off for 12months as it's just too difficult when you are always sleeping on someone else's mattresses.

    Do you find travel now with older children easier or does it just come with a different set of challenges and joys? I'm glad that you have found your children have benefited from their travels. It's great to hear that they are better friends for it ... a long term outcome we hope for our children.

  39. Hi Tracy,

    I stumbled on your website as I was thinking of taking my daughter to Laos next year for a few weeks (she will be 4-1/2). I ended reading about your kids and your observations of them, and found the description of your daughter very similar to my daughter. However, she has been in full time care since she was 13 weeks old (as I am a single parent and have to work full time). I am a long time traveller myself (pre-kid of course), and I spend all of my free time with her. It makes me wonder if they turn out to be who they are not so much because of whether they are at home with parents, travelling with parents, or at daycare all day ... but who their parents actually are. Interesting to wonder about it. :)

    Anyway, I am still abit scared to take her, but your website has given me some really great things to think about. Thanks!

    Erica.

  40. Hi Erica, so sorry for the slow reply. Internet has been ridiculously unreliable where we're staying at the moment. That's a very interesting thought - you may be spot on with the observation that the type of parents a child has might have more of an effect that a lot of other factors. I wonder in 10 years time when friends and media have a bigger effect if our daughters will sound so similar?

    Laos was really wonderful. Everyone we met loved children and we had such a different experience there thanks to our kids. I think you will have a wonderful time. I'm sure there will be challenges, but life with a young child is challenging.

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  42. Hi Tracey
    I have had so much fun reading your blogs. Are you a resident here in Penang? I have moved here almost a year back now. We are from British Expats and I am about to start homeschooling my five year old daughter. after posting on Penang expat frum, some helpful people have directed me to you! s there a sufficient homeschooling network here in Penang? I am a bit worried about the social side of things for my daughter as I can't find any other out of school children her age.
    Oh PS: have soooo noted down that Kraft Batik place in KL,, would love Haleema to have a go!

  43. Wonderful article on traveling with little ones! I loved that part about bonding as a family above bonding with a place. What a cool angle on attachment parenting!

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