Interview with Elise Caffee, of 3 Kids Travel
Spring break is around the corner, which gets us thinking about travel for this year, so we invited Elise Caffee of 3 Kids Travel to share the best tips, tricks and recommendations for traveling with your little ones. We want to instill excitement and confidence in your ability to take your kids exploring whether you are close to home or across the world!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How Elise fell in love with travel
I am Elise and the founder of 3 Kids Travel. We are a family of five, with three daughters, and our home base is Salt Lake City, UT. I grew up living abroad and spent my formative, middle school years, in Tokyo. My mother was a model for living abroad and traveling alone with four kids! I knew from a young age traveling with children was possible and wanted to continue to do that with my own family. I caught the travel bug for myself in college when I studied abroad in Madrid and Jerusalem. Fortunately, my husband also lived abroad in college, including in Russia and Honduras, and those experiences fueled both of our desires to see more of the world. We moved to Utah shortly after getting married and realized the winters are long and hard here, which can take a toll on your mental health. We decided the best remedy would be to travel during those long months. We would get out of our winter sphere almost every month before kids.
How having a baby change traveling
Obviously, going from 0 to 1 child is the most shocking and was our biggest adjustment, but it wasn’t as bad as people think. Though we had a fussy baby at times, traveling made us happy and balanced life out. Not all our travels were across the world during this time, but instead we really embraced traveling to see family and friends. The market had just crashed and travel around the US was more affordable than it had been. Being able to afford to travel at that time kept our family sane and those smaller trips close to home gave us the confidence to travel internationally with a baby.
How was traveling with more children
There is always a learning curve when you are readjusting to being a new mom again, especially now that we also had a toddler. Once we were past those first few months, traveling was just as easy as it had been with one child. Two kids meant both parents were responsible for a child and I often took the more difficult one during long flights. Traveling with two kids was tricky and just meant spending a little more time thinking about logistics, but it is completely doable!
Traveling with older children
They have their lives here and don’t want them to be disrupted as much. When they were babies, we could just pick up and leave whenever we wanted. Now, we have to consider school, social lives, and activities. We take advantage of school breaks, like spring break and summers. Traveling gives them a unique perspective of the world to share with people and friends. Exposure to different ways of living has helped them learn to adapt more easily and to realize the world can look different than just our circle. Our oldest daughter is thirteen and will make suggestions now about where we should travel. It was her idea to visit China and Japan! They love flying and were excited about the length of the flights to Asia.
Planning for a vacation
Prior to children, or at least with very young kids, I did not do much planning aside from our flights, hotels, and transportation. However, as our children have gotten older, we want to do more touring, and that often requires tickets or advanced booking for a family of our size. I now make a penciled list of activities and will have an idea of what each requires, which allows me to organize the necessary arrangements. Now that everyone wants to see things to really embrace the places we are visiting, I also need to make sure I leave enough time to fit in all the activities we want to do.
We visited the Christmas markets in Germany and realized too late that the Bavarian Neuschwanstein Castle, that inspired the castle in Sleeping Beauty, was completely booked and required tickets in advance. It was disappointing because it just took a little more planning to have had that experience!
Familiar place vs unexplored territory
There are certain places, especially around the US, that are special and we visit every year. For instance, we have two family trips that have become family traditions; we visit Maine in October to see the fall foliage and every other year we visit Hawaii with my family for a big reunion. We take the same road trips close to home over and over again because it is easy, and we have friends and family to visit. However, with big trips, we try to visit new places. The girls are happy to repeat some of our favorite adventures, but they love the challenge of a new place.
If you are a family looking to travel, I would recommend travel blogs, like ours 3kidstravel.com to get the right recommendations for your family. We give more in-depth reviews and suggestions for traveling to a place with children. A lot of family travel blogs offer free information or paid itineraries that are worth it. I also get inspiration from Instagram and create our sightseeing list from things I find on social media. Travel as a family looks different and the reviews on google might not translate as well to a family, though you cannot go wrong with a classic google search just to get your bearings. I spent a few hours this week combing through google reviews of a hotel we are considering for an upcoming trip. Combining all of these resources can provide you with a broader picture of a place you want to visit.
Hotels vs Airbnb/VRBO
We have recently found that hotels in America have been more affordable than Airbnbs, whereas abroad we found it to be the reverse. We do a lot of Airbnb in new cities, especially in Europe, because it allows us to find a more local neighborhood and get a sense of what it is like to live in that place. We will go to the grocery store and come home to cook a meal; it allows us to really immerse ourselves in the culture.
Dos and don'ts for families who want to travel
I have more dos than don’ts. Certainly, if you are traveling with children for the first time, lower your expectations, know there will be hiccups, and balance activities for adults and children. We travel to expose our children to new experiences and only sticking to “kid friendly” activities, like visiting a zoo, can do a disservice. Focus on cultural experiences for the whole family, things that are different and special to that new city you are exploring. Also, balance your days and understand that children cannot be expected to do a full day of touring without having some down time.
Most surprising travel location
The biggest culture shock was in China. The way people interacted with our children was very new to them. In Shanghai, if we waited too long in one place, we would be swarmed by people to have photos taken. There was a moment when a group of screaming school girls came running over to all take photos with us. Our daughters handled it so well and afterwards said they understood what it feels like to be a celebrity! It was a positive experience for them to see a very diverse society. On a personal note, I visited China when I was my daughters’ age and it was such a different experience. First of all, I picked up on different things as a child and missed a lot of political and social dynamics that are so noticeable to me now as an adult. It is fascinating to think of what that might be like for my daughters when they start returning to places we have traveled to as adults.
Recommendations for new parents are looking to ease into international travel
- If you have traveled internationally pre-children, it is helpful to take your kids to one of those locations that you are already familiar with. You can avoid some of that new-location-anxiety and create an easier jumping off point for yourself.
- Realize it will not be the same trip you took when you previously visited, so adjust your expectations. It will be more child led and you will need to include things they like. An agenda to see too much will not serve your whole family, so try not to have too much of a checklist.
- Remember the places you are traveling to already have babies living in them! You can always buy items that you need or forgot. Your kids are a lot more adaptable than you give them credit for and they will be okay. You aren’t trying to replicate your home life and don’t need all the gear you usually have there. Exposing your children to new routines and exploring a different way of living can help them be more adaptable in the long run.
- Travel to places with good public transportation. Having good infrastructure, especially when they are little, on international trips is easier. Of course, you can always rent safety devices, like car seats in taxis or with rental cars, but with good public transportation, all you need is a stroller. Japan had the best train system and made our travel experience so much better.
How to keep kids engaged during travel
In our daily life, we do not use much technology. However, when we travel, they do get unlimited access to devices. It allows us to enjoy parts of traveling that can be tiring. It also gives everyone a little down time on the go. When they were little, it was a full dog and pony show, especially on flights. I would have something to entertain them every 15 minutes on the flights. A really good parent hack are glow sticks to give to the kids when the lights go out on long haul flights.
Packing tips and tricks to keep kids looking lovely
When our girls were younger it was easier to dress them in what I wanted. Now that our oldest is 13, she has more opinions on what she wears. At home they are free to explore their personal style, however, when we travel, I enforce guidelines for outfits. There are a couple reasons for that: (1) it is really important to make sure everyone is dressed appropriately for the places we are visiting as a sign of respect and (2) making sure we look nice allows us to blend a little more, and give Americans traveling abroad a good image in a foreign place! I have a capsule wardrobe with a lot of layers, neutral colors, and items that we can mix-and-match. Recently, our goal for packing is to only take carry-on luggage. On our last European trip, I made sure one of our Airbnb’s had a laundry machine, but we also like to shop while we’re away and enjoyed finding new outfits in Paris.
Similarly Meems has an article on The Secret of Packing for Travel with Kids: Versatile, Strategic, and Classy if you need more inspiration for travel packing!
Where to next and how to follow along
Our next big family trip will be to Turkey. We will visit Istanbul and head to the coast. We even planned a day trip to Greece to enjoy a more relaxing beach day. The girls are excited about a cave hotel and my husband is looking forward to the food. You can follow our adventures on our website and social media!