Parenting

Is there a "perfect time" for an overseas family trip?

While Ian Mendes reports on the Olympic Games in London, his wife, Sonia, wonders if there's ever a right time to take an international trip with the kids.

Above: Lily takes a much-needed nap on the shoulder of her dad. Below: Elissa rides the double-decker bus.

My two young daughters and I are pretty accustomed to having Ian away from home; as a roving television reporter for Sportsnet he is on the road a lot. When I say ‘a lot’ I mean about 150 days of the year, give or take. While I won’t lie and say that I like having him away so much — it can be very challenging — I am happy to be married to a man who has so much passion for his work.

Ian’s extensive travel schedule has also yielded a number of pretty sweet benefits over the years, not the least of which is Aeroplan miles. While his work-related flights are paid for, he is fortunate enough to be able to keep the frequent flyer rewards; with so many flights they do add up pretty quickly. This has helped cover airfare so that the girls and I can ride Daddy’s coattails for the odd work trip; we tagged a few days of fun and frolic at an Ottawa Senators’ broadcast in Tampa, Florida last February, for example.

But this summer — after more than 10 years of ‘holding down the fort’ in suburban Ottawa while Ian travels the globe — karma came back to reward the girls and I with the mother of all trips. After he was asked to join the Sportsnet reporting team for the London 2012 Olympic Games, Ian and I decided that we would expand it into a vacation for the whole family. A major bonus: Ian’s parents are currently living in London for a short time, which means we have a beautiful ‘flat’ (London speak!) by the River Thames and two very generous and gracious tour guides at our disposal.

Having just celebrated Elissa’s eighth birthday and with Lily about to turn five, Ian and I felt pretty confident that our girls were the perfect age for an international vacation. With the days of cumbersome diaper bags and bulky baby gear far behind us, we figured nothing could hold us back from an action-packed adventure in the UK. But our first few days have yielded some unexpected surprises that have us questioning that sentiment and wondering, “Just what IS the perfect age for taking a child on an international vacation?”


The first challenge we’ve faced since landing on this side of the pond is jet lag. It’s inevitable; when you fly across the ocean to a time zone that’s five hours ahead of your own, it’s bound to mess you up — at least a little. While nobody can totally avoid it, it seems that it’s much tougher for small children to cope with the side effects. Case in point: Our four-year-old daughter, Lily. On our first night in London, Lily crashed pretty early; she went to bed at 7 p.m. London time only to wake up two hours later in a sweaty snit of a mood. She stayed up for nearly three hours — eating snacks and playing computer games — until she was finally ready to go back to bed around 10 p.m. She then proceeded to sleep for 12 straight hours, which is virtually unheard of at home. The night-time routine has continued to be difficult to navigate since then.

Another item of contention we are encountering is that of our kids’ general endurance. Ian is pretty much a travel guru: He deciphers maps and transit systems in the blink of an eye, has a near-photographic memory (which comes in handy if you need to retrace your steps) and can trick away fatigue with eye drops and a bottle of Red Bull. I’m a chronically over-caffeinated young(ish) half-marathoner with an insatiable appetite for new places and experiences. Put us together and what do you get? Apparently, two total wimps in the kid department.

It’s hard not to get discouraged when — after planning an uber-cool destination for the kids here in London — they get tired walking from the Underground station to the double-decker bus. Getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’ can be a pretty intense experience here, so maybe we underestimated what a shock it would be for our coddled, suburban kids to manage the travel, which frequently requires multiple transfers from underground trains to over-ground trains, buses to taxis. But when all they want to do is leave the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens to go back to the flat and play computer games, it can be somewhat disheartening.

I suppose it all comes down to managing our parental expectations and doing our best to give our kids a balanced vacation. My hope is that they come away with some vivid memories of London and the places and activities that make it so loveable and unique; I hope that’s not too much to ask.

What do you think? In your experience, when is it the best time to take an international trip with your kids?