Get to Know... Small Family, Big Adventure
@smallfamilybigadventure are a family of four originally from Canada, they have currently quit the 9-5 to travel full time for 6 months. We recently discovered them on Instagram and love seeing where their travels take them and I'm sure you will to! Here we asked them for their top travelling tips and advice for Costa Rica with kids.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family?
We are a family of four, myself, France, my husband Justin, our son William who is 4 years old and our daughter Amélie who is 3. We live in Ottawa, Canada. Justin and I are both full-time professionals. I work in health care and Justin works in environmental services. We recently decided to put our careers on hold to travel the world for 6 months as a family.
Before starting this adventure, our days were very busy, rushed and focused on getting things done. Not unlike most families with working parents, there never seemed be enough hours in the day! In the midst of all the business, we were looking for ways to slow things down and take some of our life back.
We have always loved travelling as a couple, and we had also done a few small trips with our kids over the years. Every time we returned from our travel, I was always eager to plan our next adventure. Whether is was camping locally, taking a long road trip or boarding a plane to an international destination, we jumped on every opportunity to travel. Travelling as a family gave us the much needed break, uninterrupted time and opportunities to learn about the world together.
One rainy Saturday afternoon, while Justin was working another one of his long weekend shifts, I was researching our next travel destination and having difficulty picking just one. There were too many places to see, and not enough vacation time! That’s when an idea started brewing my mind; what if we took an extended period of time off work to just travel? Justin was on board immediately and we started developing a plan to make it happen. At the start of March 2019, we said goodbye to our home, family and friends and took off on a 6 month travel adventure.
How have you settled in to full time travel?
We are currently in Costa Rica, two months into our travels and we are so happy we decided to do embark on this adventure. Our time together has been priceless. We have seen and done things I always dreamed of doing and everyone has learned a lot along the way, especially the kids.
Settling into our new way of living was much easier than I had anticipated. We stayed at our first destination for 3 weeks to make the transition easier before picking up the pace. Back in Canada, we had been so busy up until the last minute trying to get our house ready for our tenants, packing and finalising any last minute details, that we had not had a chance to just relax in a long time. Thus, our first few weeks in Costa Rica were really about unwinding, having fun and taking in the sunshine.
To make the transition a little bit easier, we exposed the kids Spanish via songs and stories in the months before leaving. We often discussed with them the countries we would be visiting and the places we would go. Once on the road, we set out to establish a routine, with regular wake up and sleep times for the kids and a few hours dedicated to school work each day. We FaceTime our loved ones regularly which helps with the transition as well!
What are your five travel essentials?
It’s difficult to narrow it down to 5 when travelling with young kids but if I had to pick only 5, here is what they would be:
A good pair of walking shoes/sandals- Before leaving the entire family got a new pair of durable, grippy, waterproof hiking sandals. This is what we wear 90% of the time. Keen makes some great hiking sandals but I also got myself a cute pair of stylish Crocks that do the trick.
Tablets- At home, the kids get very limited screen time but when travelling, tablets really come in handy. They have been lifesavers during long flights and bus rides, keeping the kids entertained and distracted. They are also useful when you have limited access to toys and English TV for an extended period of time. Tablets don’t have to be fancy or expensive. For Christmas, everyone got a new Amazon Fire tablet that we purchased during a black Friday sale for about $40! We simply added larger memory cards that allowed us to download lots of the books, TV shows and educational apps on each tablet.
Legos- What kid doesn't like lego? Ours love them and can play with them for extended periods of time. I decided to fill a large resealable bag with lego to bring along with us and it has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. They are educational and fun for all ages. They help develop cognitive skills, encourage imagination and can be used to teach maths and basic physics. And best of all, they don’t take a lot of space in our suitcase!
Swimming gear (Swimsuits, UV protection swim shirts and hats) We packed 2-3 swimsuits for everyone and this is all we wore for the first few weeks. Good swim shirts and hats with UV protection are key to preventing sunburns or heat stroke when the average mid-day temperature on the coast of Costa Rica in March is 32C/89F. They pack tightly, are easily washable and dry quickly. Perfect for when you don’t have access to a washing machine.
Travel Towel and Water Bottle- Okay, I know these don’t go together but I couldn't pick just one! We purchased a large fast drying and compact microfiber travel towel before we left. We take it with us wherever we go. We’ve used it to enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach, dry up after a swim, keep warm on a plane and even to built forts for the kids in the the various homes we stayed.
We also love the water bottle we purchased for our travels. It’s a large, insulated, stainless-steel reusable water bottle! It’s also environmentally friendly, thrifty and convenient. We carry it everywhere and refill it anytime we have access to potable water. You never want to be caught without water in the hot Costa Rican sun. It also came in handy during morning hikes to keep coffee warm!
Any tips for flying with children?
Flying with young children has some perks like being placed in the fast lane at security and being able to board a flight first, but it certainly has its challenges.
My first tip would be to expect the unexpected! On our most recent flight to Costa Rica, we made a surprise stop in El Salvador. The kids were tired and getting impatient with us as we carried our luggage around the airport asking, as best we could in Spanish, for instructions on where to board our next flight. Kids feed of your energy and so if you can stay calm, collected and just go with the flow, they are more likely to as well.
My second tip would be to always have snacks and beverages handy. Our go-to-snacks are usually dried raisins (or other dried fruit), granola bars and trail mix. We also always make sure to fill our stainless steel water bottle as soon as we pass security check.
Clothing is important. Dress everyone in layers so you can remove/add clothing as needed. Light puffy jackets can serve as pillows on the plane. Our travel towel always comes in handy as a blanket for overnight flights. I always wear a wrap on travel days that also serves this purpose very well.
Make sure the all electronics are fully charged and loaded with new games or shows before departure. We are pretty consistent with limiting screen time on a day-to-day basis but on travel days we are much more lenient. Once on the plane, the kids are very excited to have their tablets and don’t get bored of them easily.
Pack surprises and goodies for emergencies. I always carry tic-tacs, suckers, and jujubes for bribing! If needed, I use these as motivation to get the kids to walk just a little bit further to the next gate, wait patiently in the immigration line or to prevent a meltdown before it happens. It’s amazing what candy can do when they aren’t used to getting sweets.
Beach or City?
Definitively beach! For me, nothing beats the feeling of the sea breeze on my skin, the heat from the sun shining overhead and the sound of the kids splashing around in the waves.
For us, a beach is like a wonderland with endless entertainment options to keep everyone happy. Amélie would be happy to build sandcastles all day long while William would love nothing more than to spend the day jumping in the waves. Justin will take advantage of any opportunity he has to practice surfing and I am happy to just lay in the sand with a good book. To me, the beach makes for a perfect family vacation. Hence why we chose Costa Rica for our first destination.
Any tips for Costa Rica with kids?
In general we have found that costa ricans love kids. Everywhere we go they smile, say hello and often try to interact with the kids. There are a lot of kid-friendly activities to do, but I recommend doing some research beforehand to find age appropriate activities in the area you will be visiting. Be prepared to not be able to take part in some of the fun and exciting activities that are advertised everywhere such as Zip Lining and rappelling!
Pack lots of sunscreen, bug spray, bug bite lotion, polysporin and band-aids. Warn the children about dangerous plants, animals and insects. Emphasise the need to look with their eyes and not with their hands. On two occasions our kids were bit by what we believe were ants. William spotted one poison dart frog during one of our tours but thankfully, he knew not to touch it.
It’s a good idea to expose them to a bit of Spanish before they visit. At the very least, teach them how to say “thank you” and “hello”. There are a lot of good Spanish YouTube channels for kids that make it easy to teach the basics.
Keep in mind if you bring a stroller that many of the sidewalks are uneven and cracked and many of the roads are gravel. Many of the shops and supermarkets have very narrow aisles that would be challenging to navigate with a large stroller. A baby carrier may be a better option and more versatile.
Last but not least, pack good shoes, sunglasses and hats! You will likely be doing a lot of walking, and the heat can really drain you if you aren’t well protected.
What has been William & Amélie's favourite part of travelling so far?
I’d have to say their favourite part of our adventure so far has probably been playing at the beach and swimming in the waves. They also love it when we spot wildlife that they have never seen before. We visited Manuel Antonio National Park where monkeys roamed the beaches and so we got really close to them. This was Amélie’s favourite.
They get to spend every minute of every day with their parents. I think they love that! But of course, if you ask them straight up what they like best about travelling, they will tell you it’s the ice cream and popsicles that they get treated to, much more often now than at home.
Where are you heading on your travels? Have you planned ahead or seeing where things take you?
A little bit of both! We started our adventure having only planned the first 2 months in Costa Rica, but even at that, we made some last minute changes and travelled south to Panama as well.
During the first couple of months on the road we had the opportunity to reflect on what places we wanted to see and where we wanted to go next, knowing we would need to stay flexible. When if comes down to it, a big part of what determines our next destinations are flight costs. Airfare can eat up all of the budget if we aren’t careful. We found a very cheap flight to Ireland in May and so that’s where we will be headed after Costa Rica.
We also explored opportunities for cultural exchanges via websites like Workaway. After reviewing a lot of profiles and sending many email to potential hosts, we have successfully confirmed two cultural exchanges with families in France and Portugal. We are very excited about these opportunities. In between, we hope to make our way to Budapest, Italy and Greece.
The plan is to return to Canada sometime in early July and start a cross-country trip, but we are going to see where things take us before we commit to this plan!
How have you found travelling as a family?
We feel really blessed to be in a position where we could travel long-term as a family. This is the longest time that we have been together, just the four of us, no sitters, no school, no work and no family and friends. Having this opportunity to spend so much time together has allowed us to really bond as a family, whether it’s sitting one on top of another on a packed bus or sharing bedrooms and small living spaces unable to get away from each other if we tried.
Having all this time together has improved our communication and made our connections stronger but spending so much time together can also be exhausting! The kids have not had many opportunities to make friends yet and so they play A LOT together, just the two of them. They are very close in age and get along quite well, but like all siblings do, they argue, in typical toddler fashion.
They are also at an age where they are very curious and asking a lot of questions. Some question we can answer, some we can’t and others are so random they make no sense whatsoever! We do our best to respond to encourage their sense of curiosity but there have been moments when we’ve had enough and can no longer come up with an answer to why parrots exist or why they can’t eat rocks.
What we found helps a lot when travelling with young children is slow travel. We don’t plan more than one activity per day. We learnt quick that trying to fit too much into our day is a recipe for disaster. Travelling longer-term allows for more flexibility in our schedule. If we can’t make it to the national park on a given day, we can always go the following day.
We also learn that the kids are just as happy (or happier) to play in the living room with a bag of oranges as they are to visit a national museum. So it’s important to find a balance between activities that the kids want to do and what the adults want to see.
Most child friendly destination you have visited?
I can’t think of one destination in particular. As a whole, we have found Costa Rica to be a very child-friendly destination. There are so many different hotspots to check out that the kids have loved. We spent some time on the coast and enjoyed the beautiful beaches. We’ve visited the cloud forest where we spotted wildlife from our front porch. We’ve had fun exploring some of the many national parks in the country. Everywhere we go, everyone has been very friendly and welcoming, catering to our kids needs when possible.
Cruises are a great family-friendly option for a more relaxed, stress-free vacation. We have done a few cruises over the years and have enjoyed the convenience and value offered by this method of travel.
Most cruise ships cater to children and families very well with amenities like play areas, game rooms, water parks, babysitting services and kids’ menus in the dining rooms. The entertainment staff on cruises work hard to develop daily itineraries that include lots of kid-friendly activities such as scavenger hunts, crafts, pool games, dance lessons, cooking lessons and more.
What we loved the most about cruises though, was the ability to visit a new country or city every day yet return to our secure, familiar home-base every night. This is a big plus with young kids and helps keep some sort of a routine while on the road.
One of the major limitations of cruising is that it can get expensive, making it difficult to sustain longer term. It’s not a great option for families like us who want to do full-time travel on a budget! (Although we may find a way to fit in a cruise into our itinerary over the next few months.)
Here are a few things to look for before booking any destination that make travelling with young kids a little easier. I always look for things to do nearby that my kids would enjoy. A nearby beach or a pool is always a big plus with my kids. I make sure that we will have access to basic amenities required to cook a meal. Access to a washing machine is very important. Packing light means we have limited clothing options and my kids are at an age where they can’t wear anything without getting dirty.
Other things I look when booking accommodations include access to a coffee machine or coffee shop nearby (happy parents means happy kids); proximity to a grocery store; bus access; safety of the property and neighbourhood; noise levels at night and proximity to neighbours. No matter how many times you tell them to stop yelling, kids are noisy! The last thing you want to have to do is continuously tell them to be quiet. This was a challenge recently when our Airbnb was an small apartment in a row a three and the neighbours were so close you could almost reach over and touch their window. We did our best to keep the kids quiet but I’m sure the quiet and quaint Bed & Breakfast guests were happy to see us check out.
All in all travelling with kids has its’ challenges but is well worth the effort. Even if you think your kids may not remember the places they have travelled to, it will most certainly shape who they are and will become. You will come back home with stronger family relationships, more adaptable and flexible kids, a different perception of the word and a new appreciation for all the things we take for granted on a daily basis at home.