By Aaron Gulley
Originally appeared in September 2014 issue of Virtuoso Life
Wildlife made the biggest impression on 10-year-old Meghan O’Reilly. Her brother, Colin, 13, was flabbergasted by cinder-block homes in Quito
and how small children wandered busy streets and took care of themselves. Those might seem like disparate and unusual things to note about a place as exotic as Ecuador
. Then again, the hills of the O’Reillys’ Minneapolis suburb aren’t exactly stacked with tin-roofed, cement shanties or crawling with torpedo-size lizards.
“Watching them take it all in was incredible,” says mother Val O’Reilly, who, along with her husband, Dan, decided to take a bucket-list family trip partly because of the exposure it would give their kids. “Especially their curiosity. Everything was, ‘Why? Why are there reptiles on these islands when they can’t even swim? Why do people live in these cities the way they do?’
”For seasoned travelers, it’s easy to take the globe’s breadth for granted, from India’s crowded bazaars to the Amazon’s isolated tribes. “You can tell your kids about the world,” says O’Reilly, who traveled widely before she had a family, “but what they understand is only as big as their experience. We want our kids to know that the world is bigger than Minneapolis.”
It’s a massive planet, indeed, but it’s quickly becoming smaller. Just three flights will get you around it in a couple of days. Meanwhile, you can conduct business with colleagues in Hong Kong, correspond with friends in Cape Town, book travel in Prague, and chat with your parents vacationing in Honolulu – all at once, provided some of them are insomniacs. And school language programs have expanded to include Chinese, Korean, Russian, and even Arabic, with courses beginning as early as kindergarten in some places.
“Today, it’s not just if you want to expose your children. We have a responsibility to cultivate global citizens,” says an Austin, TX-based Virtuoso advisor who specializes in family adventure and educational excursions, including round-the-world trips.
This view – the idea of planning trips that chart a path toward global citizenship from a young age – is one many Virtuoso advisors share. An advisor in Phoenix says she sees parents who realize that their children will need to compete in a global economy and take it upon themselves to foster a broader worldview.
“Many families aren’t looking at travel as a luxury anymore,” she says. “It’s becoming a necessary part of education.”
To wit, meaningful family vacations are outgrowing the old weeklong-road-trip-to Disney-or-Yellowstone formula. “There’s nothing wrong with those destinations,” the Phoenix-based advisor says. “But you can get so much more with a guided tour.”
For instance, Natural Habitat Adventures
runs family-oriented excursions in Yellowstone with expert naturalist guides who can help kids delve into the park’s fauna and environment, which transforms the excursion from a glorified trip to the zoo to an in-depth learning experience.
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For those anxious about or unaccustomed to international travel with children, advisors typically counsel a progressive approach. Nearby destinations in the Caribbean
or Central America, such as Belize or Panama, offer warm-weather getaways with more cultural attractions than your classic beach trip. The shorter flight times also give families a chance to acclimate to plane travel before undertaking a long-haul destination such as Africa or Asia.
Taking children on an African safari
at least once is well worth the expense and effort, but trips to stepping-stone destinations such as the Galápagos
or Australia’s Kangaroo Island make easier introductions, with less overt cultural divides to bridge and lower-stakes wildlife viewing (no alpha predators and rifle-toting guards). And some advisors recommend saving Europe until kids are in their teens or in high school, when they’re more likely to appreciate its history, architecture, and museums.
As for the cost of jet-setting for four: the Virtuoso travel advisor who planned the O’Reillys’ Galápagos adventure says there are tricks for keeping international travel affordable. He helps his clients compare fares to similar countries and then narrows the destination based on the lowest-cost routes. For instance, if it’s $200 per ticket cheaper to fly to Belize than Costa Rica, the former offers a $1,000 savings for a family of five. And, he says, staying at a villa with a kitchen rather than at a hotel can offer a great value for those willing to self-cater.
Some agencies in the Virtuoso network have trust programs; there, parents or grandparents can set aside money for their children to be used exclusively on travel. “Rather than just leaving cash for kids to buy things, we’re encouraging people to give the gift of travel,” one advisor explains. “The experiences they’ll have on the road will last a lot longer than any car or other object they could buy with your money.”
Advisors can also offer consulting services to help families set destination goals and create a five- or even ten-year travel plan. “Parents often wait too long to start thinking about these things, and then there’s not enough time to give kids the experiences they want before they’re grown,” a Virtuoso advisor says. “People are amazed at the amount of money we can save them on a three- or five-year plan. Often the savings on a single well-planned trip can add up to ten grand or more.”
Affordability aside, you can’t put a price on how international travel affects and changes your children, as Val O’Reilly found out from her family’s time in Ecuador. “Colin couldn’t believe that people live in such tough conditions as they do in Quito. I think it made him really appreciate our home in Minneapolis,” O’Reilly says. “And both the kids got to witness the Darwin stuff firsthand. Now Meghan keeps talking about going back over there and becoming a marine biologist.”
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