After returning to the US after 15 months on the road, we got a lot of questions about how we traveled during our time away. “What were your days like?” “Did you feel homesick?” “Are you so ready to have your own place again?”
The answer that often surprised friends and family was that we hadn’t run out of stamina for travel, even with a toddler in tow; we were just as excited to keep the adventure going as we had been months prior. Our choice to “re-settle,” at least temporarily, was largely driven by a desire for some variety in our pace, as well as personal family planning.
But that realization – that we weren’t tired of travel or desperate to settle – did prompt us to reflect on how we’d maintained our energy reserves for so long. We realized that our approach to travel had shifted in the past year: we’d adopted many of the practices often described as “slow travel,” and we’d iterated and adjusted our routines week-by-week.
What is “Slow Travel”
If you’re unfamiliar with the notion of slow travel, here’s my favorite description I’ve seen online: “Slow travel is an approach to travel that emphasizes connection: to local people, cultures, food and music. It relies on the idea that a trip is meant to educate and have an emotional impact, while remaining sustainable for local communities and the environment” (Source).
Basically, rather than thinking of a trip as an opportunity to “check all the boxes” of a new place, you reframe your approach in an attempt to best immerse yourself in that place.
But in telling our friends that “slow travel” was one of the keys to sustainable family adventure, a natural next question arose: what do you do if you don’t have 15 months, or even 1 month, to get away? How can a few days away or even a long weekend still benefit from “slow travel” practices?
Unplug, Even Temporarily
My first tip is perhaps frustratingly simple: one of the best ways to immerse ourselves in a new place is to minimize distractions coming from other places. That’s not to say that we traveled entirely off the grid, but we did make an effort to minimize our screen-time and connectivity, especially during daylight hours. While we had cell service over the course of our trip, we often spent our days in “airplane mode” and relied largely on wifi for getting directions or translations.
One tactical note: we’re heavy users of GoogleMaps when arriving in a new city (you can read my full post on the topic here). A nice perk of starred locations in Maps is that they continue to appear, even offline. We could still navigate to recommended restaurants, parks, and sights, even without a cell connection.
Transit Like a Local
One of our favorite strategies for exploring a new location is to get a sense of how locals get around, and then copy that method of transit. In Madrid and Seoul, the metro was booming; in Amsterdam and Melbourne, biking was an obvious choice; in huge metropolises like Tokyo and Mexico City, it was clear that exploring your own neighborhood on foot was key to finding comfort.
When we used to travel, we’d budget in spending on Ubers and cabs – trips felt like the perfect time to splurge on convenient, tourist-friendly travel solutions. But with a more intentional mindset, we’ve seen the obvious perks of getting around more like a local. You get a feel for the city in a much deeper and realer way, and you stumble across landmarks and pockets that may otherwise be inaccessible to tourists. There is certainly more coordination required and more inevitable stumbles, but that learning curve can also be a fun activity for a toddler. Our son loved being the keeper of our subway tickets or the captain of our bike brigades.
Here’s proof that this strategy can work, even on shorter trips: last summer, we had just 4 days in Munich. On our initial evening walk from the train station to our Airbnb, we were blown away by the packed, protected bike lanes criss-crossing the avenues. We decided then that biking would unlock our Munich experience, and we coordinated a 3-day bike rental starting the next morning. Biking enabled us to find beer gardens where we were the only tourists in sight, and swimming spots on the Isar River that would have been otherwise hidden.
Pack a Picnic
Every country, and perhaps every city, seems to have its own take on the inexpensive, portable lunch. Making picnics part of our visit plan was a great way to experience a city’s culinary scene, while also creating a kid-friendly, outdoor dining environment where we could all unwind.
Discovering the local lunch staple was often obvious: you can’t miss the savory pies in New Zealand or the baguettes and cheese in Paris. But in other places, we’d often need to do a bit of learning on the go. Our favorite strategy: we’d pop into grocery stores and check out the “grab-and-go” sections, usually right near the registers. These would often paint a clear picture of the standard commuter meal, which we could then compose ourselves, seek elsewhere, or just pick up in the moment.
Our other strategy was perhaps more obvious: find a commercial, downtown area with a lot of office workers, and hang around until about 12:30pm. Eventually, the lunch rush will hit, and you can simply gravitate toward the longest lines.
Regardless of how we found the food, the eating experience itself was always key. Picnics were the perfect impetus to explore a new park or greenspace and take a little extra time to decompress as a family.
After 15 months on the road, our approach to family travel has certainly evolved. But we also acknowledge that not all our travel can be as slow and open-ended as this past year. We’re committed to taking some of the best of “slow travel” on all our trips, even when we can’t fully hit the brakes.