I never wanted kids of my own. I’m not sure why, it just never appealed to me; taking care of someone, the diapers, crying, responsibility, and especially the toddlers – I don’t do well with toddlers. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like kids – I love other people’s kids. Yes, they still may cry, but they aren’t my responsibility 24/7.
However, over the last 3 years I found myself traveling with other people’s kids quite often and that meant taking responsibility for them for extended periods. It’s quite a challenging and enriching endeavor for me personally. Whenever I start another trip with one of my nieces for the Niece Project, I still get a moment of panic that makes my stomach flip as we’re about to take off. It’s knowing that if something goes wrong – it’s my responsibility – my family is depending on me to keep everyone safe.
Since I’ve completed 3 trips now with my nieces, I also realize that I know a lot more now then I did on my first niece trip. I noticed my stress level was much less as we worked on our preparations to leave. This was niece number 3, I had learned a lot from traveling with the last two and I felt like I was really ahead of the game on this one. When I left with Evie last year to Vietnam I was a ball of stress, it was her first time abroad, and I was worried about everything – how she’d deal with the flight, the food, the jet lag, and how I could make sure her mother was feeling ok with this whole trip. However, maybe lesson number one to traveling with someone else’s kids is to make sure they have their passport before you pull out of the garage – which is what we forgot on our recent trip to Peru with my niece Megan.
I’ve had a lot of people contact me about their own Niece and Nephew projects with questions on how to prepare and how to cope with teenagers on the road, so I started compiling my steps I used for my recent trip. Here are my top tips:
For the time leading up to the trip, I try to do whatever I can to get them excited about it as normally I think they have a mixture of excitement and intrepidation. After all, for many kids this is the first time they will travel without their parents to far off places – and that can be intimidating. Get them a guidebook or send them websites or phone apps about your destination. Have them get involved in the research and decide what they want to do or see. This gives them more ownership of the trip and takes the pressure off you too.
As I said, you are responsible for the child you are traveling with and essentially their guardian for a period of time. It’s a good idea to talk with the parents ahead of time about getting a temporary guardianship document drawn up and notarized to take with you. I first did this when I started traveling to less developed countries with my nieces, but it’s a good idea to do no matter where you go. First off you’ll need this to prove you have responsibility for the child to any authorities/border regulations that might require it. In addition, you are the adult who has to potentially make split second decisions if something goes wrong from a medical emergency or country emergency. Luckily I’ve never had to pull out and use the document before – but I feel better having it.
Take Along Insurance Information
Of course if you are responsible for them you’ll want to ensure you have their insurance information and proper coverage. But if you are traveling internationally, then the first step is to talk to their parents and make sure they contact their insurance company and find out what their kid’s international coverage entails. And if you are traveling remotely or doing adventure travel like I recently did with my niece Megan in Peru, you’ll want to ensure they have emergency evacuation insurance and all of the international coverage boxes ticked. If they don’t have that coverage as part of their normal family insurance plan, then you can also get what supplements you need from companies like Insure My Trip where you can call and talk to a rep and make sure you get exactly what supplemental coverage you need for the trip.
Before you leave make sure that you have digital copies of their passports and insurance cards (as well as yours!) and leave them in your email or cloud storage AND also with their parents.
Enroll in STEP
If you are traveling internationally, it’s always a good idea to register with the STEP program with the US State Department (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). STEP is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. It’s a good habit to develop and I normally make my nieces go and do this step themselves so that learn about the process and will use it as they continue to travel by themselves as they get older.
We all know how picky kids can be when it comes to eating food that looks foreign to them. I always try to encourage my nieces to try new things, however it’s still a good idea to pack some ‘emergency’ snacks for flight delays, long train rides or buses. I normally ensure that we have nuts and Cliff Bars from home so that they at least have something familiar with them if they are having one of those picky eater days.
I mainly travel with teenagers, and you know how connected teenagers are to their phones – it’s their lifeline. I understand that the point of traveling with them is to transport them into another world, but they are still kids, and they do still want to stay in touch with their friends – especially if gone for a long time. I always carry a personal internet device (mifi) with me, which allows us to both connect to internet wirelessly. This way they can still get messages from their friends and more importantly share their experiences with their friends and family. It’s also a great way for them to stay in touch with their parents to let them now what they are doing
Share your Itinerary
I’m used to traveling solo and I practically never make an itinerary. However, to ease the parent’s concern and to let them know where you are, make sure they have all of your flight information as well as your itinerary of where you’ll be staying and any emergency numbers or ways to get a hold of you.
Make a Communication Plan
Before you leave talk with the parents to make a plan on how often you are going to contact them so that they feel comfortable. Also discuss the mode of preferred communication (email, skype, sms, phone calls) and test it out before you go. This includes the kid too – they should work out with their parents how they are going to communicate with them – especially if you are doing international travel. Before I left on my most recent niece trip to Peru, Megan had planned to use imessage to stay in touch with her parents and text them updates. We tested this out before we left and utilized the mifi device while in Peru to ensure she had internet connectivity to use the application. Just remember, every parent’s comfort level is different. Last summer my sister-in-law asked to have an email update every day. No problem – keep the parents happy is my main rule.
When you travel together for a while 24/7 it’s pretty easy to get tired of each other, I love to use tours to kind of mix it up and give each other another social outlet. I’ve used Intrepid small group tours as a great way for my nieces to meet other adults and kids while getting to know a more local side of a country.
Your Daughter/Son is So Cute!
Daughter – what? “No, no, she’s not my daughter, she’s my niece.” I have finally gotten used to this exchange on the road. People will of course think that you are the parent. Even though this seems really strange to me (after all I don’t think I look like a parent – or that’s what I tell myself), it’s of course natural for people to think that. As much as I would like to believe that it’s normal for aunts and uncles to travel with their nieces and nephews, it’s not. Maybe one day the Niece Project will really take off and that will be the case – but until then graciously accept that you will look like a parent during your travels.
Make a Money Plan
Sit down and discuss with the parents how you will handle the access to cash and spending. If you are traveling internationally, this becomes a little more challenging. Many kids these days do have debit cards or prepay cards – but you have to make sure they are useable in other countries. Does their bankcard work as an ATM card and will it work overseas? What are the international charges? Make sure someone contacts the bank and works this out as well as letting them know where you’ll be traveling so they don’t put a fraud hold on the card. Sometimes parents would rather not have the kid responsible for money and they’d like you to take out the money and dole it out accordingly.
Be Prepared for Queasiness
I know this sounds strange – but on 2 of the 3 trips I took with my nieces it left me frantically searching for a vomit bag; not for me, for them. It took me completely by surprise, but kids are kids and they tend to get motion sick, nervous, and generally sick. After a few times caught by surprise – now I always have a barf bag with me and a pack of Dramamine. And while you are stocking the first aid kit, make sure you know of any allergies or medical issues they may have before you go. You don’t want to be surprised by a bee sting or nut allergy!
I went through all of this recently as Megan and I prepared to leave for Peru and everything went pretty smoothly. We had a great time, never had to use our insurance or temporary guardianship, (whew!) but we did use our snacks and unfortunately our vomit bag. However – these tips should get you started on your first trip with kids who aren’t yours!
Do you have any other tips for traveling with kids you’d like to share?