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No more travel faux pas: How to travel well with a family

Traveling abroad with a family: keeping safe, having fun, and doing it “green”

I have found that traveling and living in the developing world has been one of the greatest gifts of parenting for my family. While it was for the “greater good of my children,” that I first decided to pack my little girls up and spend the winter in Guatemala, I quickly realized the most immediate benefits were my own happiness. When I am parenting in North America–I have done it both in Canada and the U.S.–I often feel weighted by the pressure of getting it right, feel slightly out-of-sync with the “norm,” or simply feel the weight of all the STUFF of North American life: both the things we acquire and the activities in which it is normal to participate. When living in the developing world: things feels simpler. Or, perhaps, what I mean is that most of my time is spent in the basics of living and parenting: boiling water and soaking beans and walking the paths to school. I do not spend anytime while I am here driving kids to school, sitting outside while my kids attend swim lessons, or in thinking about things that I might “need.” These activities and this stuff all has a kind of weight and I notice it more now that I have practiced living without it. Indeed, traveling abroad can be an amazing opportunity to “practice” living with the basics more prominent and the other stuff less so.


When in Rome: the benefit of going, and then going local
Jane Reitsma, Executive Director of Stratosphere International, helps family and children travel well (ecologically and socially that is) for a living. Reitsma’s advice: “Support local!” “The more you support the local economy, the better your impact on the environment and the more you are helping local people to take care of their own families and to cherish their own communities,” she says. This means making an effort to stay in locally run hotels versus big resorts; use local transportation companies or shuttles; go to smaller restaurants.”

She has lots of tips on how to accomplish this: “Travel a little bit off the beaten track. For example, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is usually big international hotels (money flows out of the local economy), but Sayulita has all the amenities on a much smaller scale, and San Pancho is quiet but still has nice little, locally owned restaurants.” She also recommends considering renting a house if you are staying some place longer as a family through a website such as

Pack minimally, but don’t forget the essentials.
You will be a happier traveler, and a less conspicuous one, if you pack light. I know this is easier said than done with children. Seriously, I know. I spend three months every year living in Central America with my girls. Just imagine yourself bumping along in a van without seatbelts, with lots of other people, and your luggage piled on top. That will help you remember to leave your fancy technology and your new roller bag at home. Instead, use big bags that you can carry like a backpack or roll easily.

What to pack if you are traveling internationally:

  • Photocopies of your passports that you keep somewhere separate from the passports.
  • Water bottles, and best to opt for stainless steel (and possibly a water filter/purifier). Stainless steel water bottles are hard-to-find luxuries in many parts of the world and buying bottled water neither supports the local community nor is kind to the environment.
  • Eco sunscreen is a must. Have you read my indepth articles on the truth about sunscreen? In short: something is not better than nothing when it comes to sunscreen and you will not be able to find that good, goopy, mineral-based sunscreen you love easily in most far-flung, sun destinations.
  • Natural bug-repellent, because mosquitos in tropical climates can be a force to be reckoned with and a real challenge for little ones. Even where mosquitos aren’t a problem, little biting flies often are: they can all be helped with a strong, citronella-based bug repellent. I also travel with natural insect-bite salve for afterwards.
  • A good book that you don’t mind leaving in exchange for another good book.
  • A travel medical kit containing basic homeopathic remedies, herbal remedies, oregano oil, tea tree oil, probiotics, and a lice comb. You can even bring along natural bed-bug repellant spray for your mattresses and your bags so these little critters are less likely to come home with you. Also be prepared with your favourite topical skin ointment, e.g. Bacitracin, colloidal silver cream, or tea tree oil tinctures. Skin diseases, such as impetigo, scabies, and bizarre rashes are common in most perpetually warm and sunny places. These things, however, have a way of usually just clearing up on their own when you get home. Don’t forget, too, that you can help “sanitize” your clothing and bedding by putting them out in direct sunlight.
  • Pack appropriate clothing both by researching the weather and the local customs. The first time I went to Guatemala for the winter, I was surprised how cold it was at night and really disappointed I hadn’t brought long pants for my kids nor a sweater for myself. Think in layers: bring lots of cotton underwear (cotton breathes the best and is easy to wash by hand); bring easy cotton t-shirts; consider bringing a set of light woolens too as they work great to regulate temperature in a variety of weathers and deal well with moisture. Instead of bringing fancy winter gear or rain gear to locations down south, I recommend a sweater or hoody and a light jacket so you can wear each separately. Instead of jeans in hot climates, I like skirts and yoga-like pants or other leggings that can be slipped underneath in the cooler evenings. Look into local customs as well: I love that no one thinks twice about seeing a woman nursing her baby with no covering, however, those same places may be unused to seeing women’s knees or shoulders. Having conservative clothing is particularly important if you will be traveling during religious holidays or want to visit places of religious significance.
  • If you have a baby also consider bringing along: cloth diapers, baby carrier, sleeping tent (if they need it) or mosquito netting, the portable part of the infant carseat, and plenty of baby clothing because all these things are very hard to find in most developing countries where babies simply use less stuff. Leave the stroller at home as it will be a hinderance when traveling by bus or auto rickshaw/tuk-tuk and not much use in towns with no sidewalks.

A little extra insurance.
Reitma recommends a couple other safety measures before you leave, like registering with your government; “It helps them find you in case of a natural disaster.” And she recommends getting travel medical insurance (which may be included in your policy, so ask before you buy it). On the other hand, cancellation and baggage insurance may not be worth it, so consider before you buy these, she advises.

A little extra kindness.
Many of the sunny destinations North Americans and Europeans end up visiting are also poor places. If you take the time to live more “local” when traveling, you will meet amazing people. It can feel really great to
gift some of these people. A little research may help to figure out meaningful gifts, but I have found that cloth diapers, running shoes (children and women’s sizes), stainless steel water bottles, and computers—all can be slightly used—are extremely well received. As well, I once took a Polaroid camera and handed out photos. All of these things are rare, or expensive, treats in most of the developing world. Candy, junk food, and cheap trinkets are now available everywhere, so you don’t need to bring these things. Instead, see if you can make a small gift that might actually improve someone’s life. It feels amazing to see how far $20 worth of effort can go in the developing world.

Things to leave home
Spend some time considering before you bring any technology. Vacations are a wonderful time for the entire family to take a break from technology and to reconnect, says Cris Rowan a child development expert and author of Virtual Child: The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children. Reitmer says it is also important to: “Come quietly into a community.” She advises that showing respect in many communities in the developing world means being aware about how you talk about money, about showing mp3 players, and iPhones. These items are worth more than many people make in a year and its best to leave the really expensive stuff at home. In most countries, you can buy cellphones and pay-as-you go SIM cards for about $20 if you want access to a phone.

Get a basic phrase book, language dictionary, or take a class

Most places south of here, other than the U.S., are Spanish-speaking, but not all. For instance, Belize is English-speaking and Brazil is Portugese-speaking. Most of the Spanish-speaking countries I have been to are extremely friendly to foreigners and quite friendly about our butchering of their language. It is intimidating, however, to not speak the local language. Particularly because in many of these places, if you are traveling off the beaten path, you may find that the vast majority of people do not speak any English (and perhaps only poor Spanish even). Thus, it is useful to have prepared a few basic phrases. For instance, learn how to introduce yourself; to ask where things are, such as hotel, restaurant, and bus; and to count to ten in the predominant language of the places you are going. Consider taking at least a day of Spanish classes as a family if you are traveling to a Spanish-speaking country. These are easily arranged in most places once you are there. You will quickly be able to learn the above-mentioned phrases and it is a great way to get to know a local better, ask their advice on places to visit, and to ensure some of your travel dollars are going to supporting that local community.

Minimize flying (on airplaines that is)

I stilly fly, but my friend, Barry Saxifrage, who is a carbon researcher and writer, does not. He gave up flying, despite having plenty of reasons and money to fly, once he started researching the impact of air travel. “A person can create more climate damage in a few hours of flying than most humans create in years. Per passenger kilometer, flying creates more climate change emissions than other modes of transport, both for people and for goods, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. They say that the aviation industry, though small, represents a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions and that amount is growing: up 83 percent since 1990. What I find troublesome, as well, is that there really aren’t any model airlines out there helping to bring the aviation industry to a new level: “After two decades of meetings, the global aviation industry still has no plan to ever reduce their climate pollution or to pay anything for the climate damage they cause,” says Saxifrage.

You can read more about the impacts of flying on this Green Mama blog by Saxifrage. If you aren’t ready to ditch the airplane travel just yet, there are a few tips to making the best of it.

  • For instance, economy class isn’t just cheaper, it’s greener according to a study done by The World Bank which found first class passengers were responsible for as much as nine time more greenhouse gas emissions than economy passengers.
  • Certain airplanes also rate better: a Boeing 757 creates only about half the greenhouse gas emissions per person as a Boeing 707.
  • The other thing to consider is routing: it isn’t just annoying to fly “out of the way” it also takes more greenhouse gasses.
  • You can research the emissions of your flight and offset them with a reputable carbon offsetting organization, such as the Canadian-based Offsetters or do your own research on the excellent and then offset with a company of your choosing. It isn’t recommended to off-set your carbon emissions directly with the airline, though many such as Air Canada, offer it. These airlines dramatically under-calculate the carbon emissions compared with more neutral calculators such as those mentioned above says Saxifrage. They also don’t account for the huge difference between first class, business class, and economy class tickets.

Getting your children out of North America can be an amazing gift. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at The Green Mama by signing up for the weekly newsletter. Right now, you can vote for me for a People & Planet Award and your vote could help donate $1000 to an ecological children’s village in Guatemala. Learn more.

By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama.

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