How to Take Your Parents on Their First—or Any—International Trip
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What we traditionally think about when we say “family travel” is parents taking their kids somewhere. When those kids grow up, however, it’s time to flip the script—maybe it’s time for you to take your parents on an international trip.
Going member Fawn B. did just that with her mother. "My mother hasn't been out of the country since she immigrated here from Taiwan 40 years ago. Now that I can afford plane tickets for two, I wanted to treat her to a mother-daughter trip to Taiwan or China. Within a month of becoming a Premium member, a flight to Shanghai appeared and I immediately booked it for us. It turned out to be an amazing trip—full of hugs, tears, laughter, and good food. My mom and I improved our rocky relationship, and China completely surpassed my expectations."
If your folks are experienced travelers, this is as straightforward as suggesting a place you all want to visit. Let’s say your parents aren’t seasoned travelers, though. What if they’ve never been outside the country? There are, as you’d imagine, a whole bunch of things you need to consider before you bring your parents on their first international trip—especially if you’re the more experienced traveler of the bunch.
Some of that is on them, since they’ll be agreeing to go outside their comfort zone in a pretty big way—but a lot of the onus is on you. You’ll probably need to adjust your expectations of what traveling looks like. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and traveling with parents can not only give each of you a different perspective on one another as fellow adults, it can also be a great deal of fun.
“My sister and I took my mom to Italy and France for her 60th birthday,” says Going member Sasha R (pictured above). “She had never been out of the US, and this trip began her love for travel. Since then, we’ve taken an annual trip with her. Last year we went to Spain and this year we are going to Germany. We watch for deals and travel wherever the deals take us.”
Your parents may be more or less active and adventurous than others, so not everything here will apply, but here are some key points to keep in mind in both the planning stages and during the trip itself to help ensure that your parents’ first international travel experience doesn’t turn out to be their last. Here are ten tips for multi-generational travel.
1. Choose locations carefully
Getting your folks on board is often as simple as finding out where they want to go. It’s not always as easy as asking, however, especially if they’re the type of parents who tend toward the, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” end of things.
Maybe they’re history buffs with a special interest in World War II? Or they love going to the theater together? Or perhaps their ancestors came from another country? Or they’ve mentioned an African safari in the past like it’s an unattainable goal? Interests like these can inspire trips that are not only fascinating and fun, but also more engaging than a randomly-selected place.
Member Victoria M. focused on her mother’s long-time travel dreams, and it paid off. “I had been planning to surprise my mom for her 60th birthday with her #1 bucket list trip, to visit Greece,” says Victoria. “I wanted to tell her on her actual birthday and then go over the summer since she is a teacher. The day after her birthday we’re laying on the beach in California and I get an email from Going about discounts to Athens that include the summer! We booked on the spot and it was a literal dream come true for her.”
>>25 ideas for where to go in Europe
2. Pick an “easier” location
Baby travel steps are usually a good idea with novice travelers of any age. A DIY trip through India, for instance, might be a more challenging inaugural international adventure for many travelers.
Instead, opt for a place without a language barrier (a visit to England for American travelers, for instance, or a trip to Spain or Latin America if you speak fluent Spanish) or that has some familiar foods. When there are fewer things every day pushing your parents outside their comfort zone, they may be more willing to try something new along the way. Cruises can be a good option; after a day exploring they can come back to the comfort and familiarity of the ship (it can also help dealing with finances as most expenses are pre-paid).
>> The best places to go for your first international trip
3. Start slow
You may not think it’s worth the long flight for a trip that’s shorter than two weeks, but for your parents’ first international trip you should probably start with something shorter. A 5–7 day trip in one place with a day trip or two may be a better option. Think of it like the sampler platter at a new restaurant—they’ll get to try a few things and know better what suits them for the next time, without being completely overwhelmed by too much all at once.
4. Figure out budget and finances ahead of time
As awkward as discussions about money can be with friends (who ordered the ceviche, anyway?), they can be even more challenging with your parents. If you want to treat them to an international trip, that’s lovely—but if you’re not paying for everything, it’s critical to make sure they know that and can afford the trip. Decide before you book anything what costs, if any, that you’re splitting.
5. Don’t over-schedule every day
Even if you don’t think you’re a fast-paced traveler, chances are good that you’d pack more into a day than your parents might. Travel can be overwhelming, even when it’s great, and everyone benefits from being well-rested.
If you’re getting a guided tour of a museum in the morning, leave the afternoon open. If you’ve got plans to have a late dinner and see a show, allow for sleeping in or naps (or both) earlier in the day. Aside from helping everyone stay healthy during the trip, getting enough sleep also makes us less cranky.
It’s also important to consider any mobility issues your parents may have. Even if they’re spry, spending a whole day walking on cobblestone streets can be hard on joints. Consider their regular schedule at home, how much more active you’ll all be when traveling, and plan accordingly.
6. Get everyone involved in planning
This is one instance when you can’t just let Mom or Dad get away with, “Whatever you want to do is fine, honey.” Make sure everyone going on the trip offers input about their priorities, and then make doubly sure everyone has at least one of their top priorities included in the itinerary.
You may need to instigate planning sessions, either on the phone or in person. You may need to send them links to articles about the top things to do in a city, or drop off guide books for them to read. Whatever it takes to get your folks involved—do it. Getting their buy-in during the planning process means there are no surprises when you’re in the middle of your trip.
7. Plan as much as possible in advance
Whether or not you’re the type of traveler who plans ahead, it’s an important thing to keep in mind when taking your parents abroad for the first time.
Planning ahead means less time wasted during the trip going back and forth on the topic of what to do every day. It means booking skip-the-line tours, so no one has to stand for hours outside the museum. It means everyone knows (and approves of) the itinerary in advance and isn’t surprised by the announcement of a belly-dancing class, for example.
8. Balance new experiences with comfortable ones
For many of us, learning and experiencing new things is one of the perks of traveling. That doesn’t have to change when you bring your parents along for the ride, though the line where something new goes from “fun” to “scary” may well be in a different place.
This is largely about respect—you probably have a good sense of where your parents’ comfort zone ends and what might be pushing it too much. Find ways to make sure they’re not spending too much time being uncomfortable (after one dinner at an avant-garde restaurant, choose comfort food the following evening) to ensure they remain happy and not completely exhausted.
Plus, you never know—they may push you to do something you might not have done otherwise.
9. Plan some alone time
This may sound counter-intuitive, but a good way to make sure you’re all still friends after the trip is over is to do at least one or two things on your own. If there’s a museum you’re dying to see but your parents aren’t so interested, perhaps they’d rather spend the morning by the hotel pool with a good book and poolside snacks. Maybe there’s a cooking class they really want to take while you go on a bike tour in town.
This is particularly important if you live far away from your parents and haven’t spent much consecutive time with them in recent years. Even during a week-long trip, you may want to plan a day in the middle where you all get a break—everyone heads to their own afternoon spa treatment, for instance—to reset the family clock.
Ensuring you’re not completely dependent on one another for entertainment can be as simple as sitting at the restaurant bar for dinner instead of a quiet table so you can chat intermittently with the bartender or other diners, staying in central locations where everyone can comfortably walk to the corner for coffee, or going on group tours instead of private tours.
You don’t have to spend every waking moment focused solely on one another to be enjoying a multi-generational trip. What’s more, you’ll have plenty to talk about at dinner as you recap what you each did that day.
10. Make it about them, not you
This may be the most important—and most difficult—thing to keep in mind. You worked hard for those vacation days and saved up to go on this trip, and the last thing you want is to come home disappointed.
When you decide to introduce international travel to your folks, you’re signing on to take them on a trip that suits them. Depending on your parents, that might mean hotels instead of hostels, taxis instead of walking, museums instead of nightclubs, and more sit-down restaurants than street food. The perfect trip for you and your parents is out there—and you never know, they may surprise you with their adventurousness.
Going member Alice M. surprised her mother with a trip to Spain, and says the experience was one she'll always treasure. “We had the best time in our little AirBnB in El Born. We caught up over sangria every night, and it reminded me why she will always be my best friend.”
For member Anthony L., any concessions he had to make to take his father to Mexico were worth it. “He’s getting older, and when the time comes and he’s gone away forever, I’ll know we did it,” he says. “We took the time and made it matter.”
Published July 27, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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