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Can taking a child abroad be fun?

By Katia Hetter, CNN
updated 10:51 AM EDT, Wed May 8, 2013
On their first trips abroad, kids will love exploring exciting spots such as a view of the Turrialba Volcano crater in Costa Rica.
On their first trips abroad, kids will love exploring exciting spots such as a view of the Turrialba Volcano crater in Costa Rica.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pick a country where your child will have some new and familiar experiences
  • Unless your children can go all day at home, book some time for everyone to relax
  • Don't expect more of your child abroad than you can expect at home
  • Plan a few grown-up events and bring the kids (or not)

(CNN) -- Perhaps we'd head to England, where accents would be our only language hurdle. Or I could take her to Mexico, where I spent a lot of time while growing up in San Diego. Or we could head to France or Belgium, where we have cousins.

I knew my 5-year-old daughter's first trip abroad could open her eyes to different cultures, music, food and ways of living. Even if she understood the language, she might see for the first time that people live differently than we do. While I had been pondering where to go, spring break in Costa Rica fell into my lap.

My child had to get extra shots, wouldn't speak the language and occasionally gets picky about food. But that was the point, right? To show her a different way of living. And it turned out the flight was a quick hop, we had excellent hosts and we loved the food and our adventures. By all accounts, the trip was a great success.

Here's what I learned -- through trial and error -- about making the leap into international travel with kids:

A little familiarity goes a long way

Top Tips: Surviving the family road trip

Any trip abroad is going to be a huge change for a small child. So why not cheat a little by picking a country where you know people or speak the language? I speak enough Spanish to get by. I probably wouldn't have done so well taking my daughter to Germany or Portugal, where I wouldn't have had any special connections or language skills.

My U.S. neighbors Paul and Kristin, who are living with their 10-year-old son on a university campus in Costa Rica for the spring semester, invited us to visit for the week. They also speak Spanish, are savvy about their adopted country's fun spots and set a pace that children can follow. Having another child built into the trip was essential for my child, who is incredibly social and was guaranteed a great time playing with her neighborhood pal.

Leave more ambitious trips for later

With small children, it's a terrible mistake to overbook unless your child is the Energizer Bunny. We were not going to take a seven-day backpacking trip through the Amazon. My preschooler still gets an afternoon nap, so I knew she would likely enjoy a couple of events per day with good lunch and dinner breaks. I also brought a tablet loaded with episodes of "Blue's Clues" and "Super WHY!" for the airplane and breaks.

I also didn't have a set agenda. When we landed to find our hosts suffering from a virus imported from previous guests, we deliberately scaled back our plans. We still hit an animal sanctuary the day we landed and held rainbow toucans and frogs, walked through butterfly and hummingbird enclosures and stayed a safe distance from a pacing puma.

Know your child

Knowing your child's strengths and weaknesses will help you on your trip, even as you teach them to go outside their comfort zones.

My child loves to learn new things (like "Where's the bathroom?" in Spanish) and does fine with a flexible travel schedule. She's also quick to get out of a funk. Once she learned she couldn't talk us into staying longer at a university pool, she pretty quickly regrouped and decided to have fun doing the next thing. But she doesn't do so well if she doesn't eat a good protein snack. That's why I packed healthy snacks and bought more.

Other children might need more advanced notice of the differences they'll see in a new country or more predictability about their schedules.

Book some adult-size rewards

The first tantrum came at a coffee plantation tour.

No child I know wants to go on a coffee tour, but the grown-ups in our party like their caffeine. So off we went. Children need to see their parents doing something for themselves on a trip or they'll think vacation (and life) is all about them. Teaching them to think about others is a good thing. Show them that accommodating others is going to happen no matter what.

I simply told her that we would also do fun stuff for grown-ups and that complaining would send her into timeout. Luckily, it worked. By the end of the tour, she had gotten into the banana trees scattered about the plantation and the chocolate-covered fruit candy at the company store. She high-fived our tour guide at the end.

Eat like a local

While I was worried about my daughter getting picky about food while we were abroad, I wasn't going to pack an entire refrigerator of U.S. foodstuffs. What could be better than mangoes with breakfast and avocados and tomatoes at almost every meal -- all delivered to our friends' doorstep and picked up from markets and street vendors? (And I had the benefit of friends who knew what food to trust.)

The local version of chicken nuggets and fries was the best grilled chicken I've ever had with papas fritas that any American kid would like, often with a fresh and local salad and ice cream from local fruit. She loved it all.

Tips for your next trip

Get your passport way before you need it to save money. Because I wasn't organized, I had to pay expedited fees to get it delivered quickly. (At least that was an option.)

Know what shots you need and get them early. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is a good resource.) We got our shots just in time. My regular doctor had all of my own shots in stock (not free but convenient), but my daughter's pediatrician didn't have typhoid shots, so we had to go to a travel clinic and self-pay ($170). Both doctors gave us prescriptions for antibiotics to carry with us in case we did get catch any number of diseases.

If you're traveling without your child's other parent, government authorities may require a notarized letter from the other parent stating it's OK for you to travel on specific dates to the specific country to assure officials that you're not kidnapping your own child.

How did our trip turn out?

As I was tossing the last of our gifts into our duffle bag on our last morning there, my daughter said quietly, "I don't want to leave." "That's the sign of a good vacation," I replied. "Let's come back some day."

If you've traveled internationally with your child, where did you go and what advice would you give other parents? Please share in the comments below.

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