When we first started telling people we were going to Korea on vacation for 2 1/2 weeks, one of the first questions many asked was: “Are you bringing the kids?” or “All of you???” When we said, “Yes!” we were often met with offers for prayer and well wishes. Some thought we were, quite frankly, a bit nuts. Yes, we in fact were planning on traveling half way around the world with a 3 and a 4 year old.
I must admit that the very thought of such long air travel with two little kids made me more than a bit queazy. Just how does one occupy young humans for an extraordinarily long period of time in a such a small, confined space? How would they handle the change in time zones? What about the long days we knew they’d have on the trip? Having their schedules disrupted? One could make themselves downright panicked just thinking about all of the “what ifs”. In the end, we decided to throw a bit of caution to the wind and just do it.
We have now been to Korea and back and survived to tell the tale. We had a fabulous time. I cannot begin to tell you how meaningful the trip was for me as an adoptive parent going back to see where my children were born, to meet their foster families who loved them before we could, to experience Korea with my children on something other than an adoption trip. While the trip was thoroughly exhausting, the timing was ultimately right for our family, and we’d make the decision again in a heartbeat.
Here are some of the things that worked for us:
* Initial Downtime – We decided right out of the gate to build in time at the beginning of the trip to allow the kids to get on “Korea time”. We were staying for over 2 weeks, so we had the luxury of scheduling absolutely nothing for the first day and a half. The first full day and the beginning of the next day we simply got our bearings, meandered about, and adjusted to our time in Korea.
* Pace – We also knew that for our kids a surefire way to have a miserable time would be to over-extend the kids, so we worked hard to manage the pace of our trip. This meant that we saw and did fewer things than we would have had we been on our own or traveling with older kids. Typically we would do one major thing a day. If the kids were tired, we ate dinner in. Since we know we will come back to Korea in a few years, we were under no pressure to try and do it all…We would be back, and Korea would still be here.
* Strollers – We brought umbrella strollers with us. One can never predict when the 3-4 year old set will decide they are done walking. The strollers were a life saver in getting through the airport and on some of the excursions like to the children’s zoo, going out to eat, exploring, etc. They were a bit of a challenge at times in the subways as there are a lot of stairs, but we found elevators where we could and when we couldn’t, we had the kids walk and carried the strollers (folded up).
* Transportation – When we wanted to go somewhere, my husband would take a good look at the subway map and figure out exactly where it was that we needed to be. From there we’d decide what combination of taxis and subway we would use. What ended up working well for us was not to take a cab to the nearest subway station, but rather to take a taxi to a station slightly further in and to go from there. What this did was to eliminate one transfer. We also chose the same station each time, so we were familiar with it. What worked for us most of the time was to take a taxi to the Hapjeong station by Holt (our adoption agency) and go from there. There were a few times where we took a taxi all the way, but not many.
* Food – ALWAYS CARRY FOOD! Seriously, this is HUGE! Often times with our kids I found that if they were beginning to lose it, it was often times due to either hunger or fatigue. If it was hunger, having a snack available to them was a life saver for all involved.
* Discipline – This was a tough one in public. How do you handle discipline in your child’s country of origin? What do you do when all eyes were on you? We quickly realized that the trip was an unusual situation, and we’d have to handle things differently for the time we were in Korea. Even raising your voice just a little brought unwanted attention. Putting one’s child in a time out in public just wouldn’t fly. We couldn’t exactly send either kid to their room (except when we were at the apartment). Our goal became to address the situation as quickly and quietly as possible. We ended up taking the route of least resistance most of the time when we were in public as this was about the only option that seemed viable. Sometimes that meant handing our child an iPhone and letting him play Angry Birds to keep him content, other times it meant breaking out a treat for the kids, etc.
* Grace – Extend both your kids and yourself some grace.
* Managing Expectations – Our kids are young humans, and they act their age. Sometimes it was hard when they’d have a rough moment or chose not to obey, but we’d do our best to take a deep breath and try to remember that they were, in fact, just 3 and 4. We had some long days and expecting them to be perfect was just not realistic nor would that have been a fair expectation to place on them. There were the occasional meltdowns, but overall, they did a great job.
* Plan & Organize – Do your homework. Plan and organize what you can, research what you want to do and how to make it happen, etc. There’s something to be said for good planning.
* Control – Now that I’ve just said planning is important (and those of you who know me know I love to plan and organize), part of taking a trip like this and having it go well is to give up some of the control. Plan what you can & be organized and then relax and don’t worry about the rest. If you try and control ever aspect of the trip, you will make yourself batty and it won’t be fun.
* Flexibility – When you travel with kids, or at least our kids, being flexible is super important. Sometimes this means adjusting your schedule on the fly to accommodate children’s fatigue level or illness, to account for weather, etc. We had several days where we didn’t have flexibility because of scheduled appointments, but for the rest of the trip, we used our itinerary as a guideline, not a bible.
* Know Yourself – Both my husband and I need alone time to recharge, so one of the things that helped us was that each of us got time on our own in Korea. For my husband that meant going out to lunch with a friend who is working in Korea. It also meant going on walks in the evening to take photographs and making the morning breakfast run on his own from time to time. For me it meant going shopping with some friends who were in Korea traveling at the same time.
* Clothes – Young humans get dirty…VERY dirty! Just sayin’ If I could do one thing different it would be to have brought more clothes given the length of time we were staying. What I didn’t anticipate was clothes washing and drying situation. At least with DMC Ville, it took one and half to two hours just to wash one load of laundry. The drying feature on the machine was not effective, so you have to line dry virtually everything. Your ability to dry clothes was limited by the amount of time it took to line dry things as well as the amount of available space on the drying rack. Honestly, even if the drying function had worked better, you would still be faced by the constraint of having one machine to both wash AND dry clothes which limits you to one load at the time. Bottom line, I would have brought more clothes for the kids. Clothes are small; cram a few extra sets in. Oh, and do not forget to bring 1-2 changes of clothes for the kids on the airplane…vomit and potty accidents happen.
* Have Fun! – Seems simple, but it is important to remember. Have fun!
UPDATE: Regarding discipline, one thing that worked for us was instead of raising our voices, we lowered them to a whisper. We were able to communicate that the behavior was inappropriate without drawing as much attention. We were also willing to leave a situation if necessary (i.e. take our child out of a restaurant, etc). One of the things we found that was difficult was if we had multiple days of things like meetings, lunches, or activities that involved a lot of being quiet or involved a lot of sitting or riding in vehicles. This required a lot of patience and willpower on the part of our children and was taxing. It helped to have a more active day or kid-friendly day following a day like that. Even a trip to the playroom or a walk to a local park was helpful to expend some energy.
UPDATE 2: I wanted to add a couple more thoughts. If you have an iPad and/or an iPhone/Touch, I would bring them. When you are on the plane, having an iPad loaded with some fun toddler/preschool-friendly videos and games can be invaluable. For times like meeting with the foster family when you need to concentrate and have the kids stay occupied, having a smaller device like an iPhone or Touch (with in app purchases disabled) can be invaluable. As much as we strictly limit “screen time” when we are at home, having these devices on our trip were really helpful. Another thing that was helpful is having a small supply of things like lollipops, Kids Cliff bars, and other snacks. We rarely give our kids things like lollipops at home, but having a few special treats available for key times during the trip was a Godsend.