The biggest thing I learned on our trip to Japan this summer is that traveling with five people is very different than traveling alone or with one companion. You would think I would know this, having taken road trips with the kids for several years now, but we’ve never taken all the kids overseas before.
Public Transit is Tricky
The first thing that struck me as markedly different was navigating public transit. Nope, not the long airplane rides, which were a complete pain with tiny kids. The kids all did fine with the airplanes this time, better than I expected. It was the public transit. We lived and traveled in Europe when our oldest was just a baby, and two adults dealing with one small child in a carrier or stroller was generally fine. Sometimes it was a pain to get the stroller onto older style trams with steps, but mostly their public transit is set up to handle people in wheelchairs and parents with strollers and shoppers with groceries.
I will say that Japan was not great in this regard. I wouldn’t want to attempt their public transit with a wheelchair or stroller or European style grocery carrier. Still, two adults with one infant in a sling wouldn’t be a big deal except at rush hour.
Managing five people on public transit, though, is very different, and it’s also very different from managing five people when driving. On a road trip everyone knows where to go and what to do — there’s the car, get in your designated seat, put on your seatbelt, look at the scenery go by or do activities until the next stop. Public transit, especially in a country with a different alphabet system, was a bit more of a challenge. Does everyone have the correct change to get off the bus? Where do we buy day pass tickets? Who is going to hold onto the tickets so they don’t get lost? Have all the kids gotten on the subway before the door starts closing? Does everyone know where to get off? Who has the tickets so we can exit?
By the end of the first week the kids were getting really good at it. Our oldest was quick to read the signs and find the correct platform or exit, the kids generally were good about sticking with us, and I was the designated ticket holder for the Rail Passes and bus or subway day passes. Sometimes it was pretty stressful, but it always worked out fine in the end, even when we didn’t catch the bus we wanted. We only had to flag down a taxi once because of a bus mixup. Still, it took a toll in time and stress levels.
Mom, I’m Tired!
The next big difference is in stamina. With one or two young adults traveling about you can do as much or as little as you feel like. I traveled in Southeast Asia as a young adult, and my husband and I went to Australia on our honeymoon. We did all kinds of fun stuff. We hung out with friends, we stayed out late and got up early, and we tried to squeeze in everything we could.
When traveling with kids (or any group) you are constrained by the lowest common denominator. When the kids are tired out, it’s time to be done. Sometimes they’ll perk back up after getting some food into them, especially if they are interested in what’s coming up next, but sometimes we just had to be done, and skip what was next on the itinerary. And of course we adults don’t have the same stamina we did pre-kids, either. I put way too many things on our itinerary that we just didn’t manage to get to.
As a side note, two weeks is a very short time to visit another country. There were too many things that we would have liked to see that we couldn’t fit into the itinerary. Having to cut even that down when we were too tired to do more was so hard for me. It felt like we weren’t taking advantage of our time there. Fortunately, I knew it was better to have fun doing a few memorable things than make everyone hate travel because they were miserable. Now they want to go again someday.
Planning is a Must
Another difference when traveling with kids is the lack of spontaneity. We can’t just decide to go out and do something, we have to get everyone fed and ready, with raincoats and snacks and bus money and a willing attitude. We have to plan the meals unless we want to shell out big bucks to eat out whenever the kids are hungry. And if we want to get to the big things on the itinerary, it’s a lot harder to stop on a whim to check something out. Not everyone wants to check out the same things, and once they do get into something they often don’t want to leave.
We did stop and check things out whenever we could. We went into toy stores and book stores, we poked around off the beaten path at shrines, we stopped at playgrounds and parks, and we played in the ocean instead of going to a nearby shrine. They were great experiences for the kids, probably some of the more memorable ones. They just took more time and effort to do with everyone.
A few times during our trip the younger kids elected to stay at the hotel with Dad while our 14 year old came with me to see the sights. It felt so easy and free to not be managing a party of five, and we stopped briefly at a number of places on the way just to check them out. We even bought an amazing traditional top for my son at a used clothing shop on impulse and didn’t have to worry about everyone else being tired or impatient.
Travel with Kids Gives New Perspectives
This is not to say that travel with kids isn’t possible or rewarding! On the contrary, I think it’s essential. There really is nothing like experiencing a different culture to broaden your horizons. Kids who travel when young grow up with a bigger world view, not to mention more interest in international news. I always find I’m more interested in the news when it mentions a country I’ve visited, because I can relate the news to my personal experiences. And the kids always seem to have a learning explosion during and shortly after trips (including road trips). My dad said he noticed the same with us when we were growing up.
Last but not least, the kids add to our experience. Everything is fresh and new to them, and it’s great fun to see things through their eyes when they are excited or absorbed in something. Buying food at the corner market was an adventure, and we could indulge their impulses and try lots of things without breaking the bank. Stopping to check out toy stores wouldn’t have been on my itinerary as a single traveler, but they were a big hit. Other people are often more open and friendly when you have kids along, and more accommodating. And that stop by the seashore instead of seeing the shrine? It’s one of my best memories, too.