Family travel doesn’t have to be expensive. Two years ago Jess Farrugia and her husband Jim took their two girls, Madeleine (then aged 5) and Yasmine (then 3), on a 363-day backpacking adventure all over the world including Malaysia, Hong Kong, Canada and The Philippines. She tells suitcases&strollers how her family managed to travel on a budget and why they chose to backpack with kids.
Most people associate backpacking with young single travellers or couples, not families. Why did you choose to backpack with kids?
We met while backpacking and backpacked again for a year for our honeymoon. It is both part of our down-to-earth way of life as well as a means to an end. We prefer to travel on a budget for longer than to splurge on a much shorter trip. Taking the kids backpacking with us seemed like a natural thing.
What was the benefit for the kids of going on a long backpacking trip?
A longer trip allows you to experience things and places more deeply. And when travelling with children, slow travel is really a necessity. They need rest days and they need to do “kid stuff” like go to parks. But the adults also want to do their stuff, so this all means time.
We found that the places that we spent the longest amount of time were the places that stand out in our children’s memory. India was one of Madeleine’s favourite places as we spent 3 months there. She really got to get immersed in the culture. Ditto for Cambodia, particularly Sihanoukville, where we spent 3 weeks.
How much luggage did you take when backpacking with kids?
Jim and I had a main backpack each of approximately 55 litres and 40 litres respectively. Each person had their own day bag, including the girls, but theirs were tiny and only held their toys and books.
How did you keep the budget tight enough to last a whole year?
We are frugal by nature! Food is a big part of the expenses and to keep the costs (and waste) to a minimum the kids would usually share a main dish as they are not big eaters. (This meant that they had to agree and compromise.) Whenever possible we ate the local food and we tried to go where the locals ate.
We traveled with 2 Therm-A-Rest-type self-inflating mats so the kids could easily bunk down on the floor rather than take an extra room.
By travelling mostly overland using local transport (usually public), we were able to keep the budget in check too.
[For more ideas on how to travel on a budget with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
What kinds of family friendly accommodation did you use when backpacking with kids?
[In most of Asia] budget accommodation is in the form of guest houses or one to two star hotels. You have your own room with toilet and shower (although some have shared bathrooms). Some even have TV, air conditioning and/or swimming pools. Our average room cost was about US$23 per night.
In Malaysia and Hong Kong stayed in hostels due to cost. (Interestingly in Malacca, Malaysia we encountered many hostels which stipulated “No Children (under 12)”). In general hostels tend to be economical only for 1 or 2 people traveling together. Anymore than that, especially in Asia, and it’s cheaper (and better) to get your own room.
Going to such adventurous destinations, did you ever worry about the kids’ safety?
Our travel style did change this trip backpacking around as parents compared to when it was just the two of us. We made sure that we had good travel insurance and that we were up-to-date with the advised travel immunisations.
Overland travel can get dicey in Southeast Asia and India. You can only hope for the best.
[For more information about travelling in developing countries with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Isn't hygiene a problem when backpacking with kids?
When selecting accommodation, cleanliness was a big criteria. We often upgraded to air-conditioned rooms so that the kids could sleep more comfortably and a swimming pool was a definite plus.
Common sense prevails. We did try to remind the kids to try not to touch everything and to wash their hands whenever and wherever possible. In India and Sri Lanka, where the locals eat with their hands, this was actually more accomplishable that you’d expect.
We strongly feel that by eating where and how the locals eat, we minimised our incidences of food poisoning. The locals use fresh ingredients usually sourced daily and cooked upon request. Usually when you hear of tourists that get sick, it’s because they’ve eaten Western-style food that the locals are not that familiar with. Proper refrigeration also tends to be a problem in Southeast Asia with frequent power disruptions.
Asia is rapidly becoming more Westernised and squat toilets were actually not the norm, except in older buildings. But the kids got used to them (and so did we). In any case, squat toilets are probably more hygienic than “Western” toilets. [For Jess Farrugia's tips on how to teach kids to use a squat toilet, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Where was the most unusual destination you travelled to when you were backpacking with kids?
Most people would say that India was an ambitious destination to travel to, especially with small children. While our choice to travel overland through the country made it quite difficult at times (everything takes longer in India!), it was actually easier to do with kids than we’d expected. Our kids were amazing and really took things in their stride, from long journeys on rickety buses and trains with barred windows to the noisy dusty streets to the ever-present poverty. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of water parks, amusement parks and zoos which were very affordable. The kids got to have a lot of fun at these places.
Where was the hardest destination to backpack with kids?
Overland travel through developing countries, especially with children, is not without its challenges wherever you are. Sri Lanka was slightly more challenging due to their public transportation network. We mostly traveled by public buses which tended to be infrequent, extremely crowded and had poor routing. With the kids, this meant a lot of waiting around, uncertainty and long, crowded journeys. (Most foreigners who travel to Sri Lanka, especially families, tend to hire a private car and driver.) Also, Sri Lankan food is very spicy and our kids won’t tolerate any spice so this was very tricky.
What are your tips for backpacking with kids?
Allow lots of time. When
planning your itinerary, if you think you’d like to spend “x” amount of time in
a place, double it. Kids need downtime.
Don’t have any expectations. Every day, everyone and every place will be different. There will be some good, some not so good. But it’s all part of the journey.Keep routines. We tended to have our meals and bedtimes/waking up times similar to that at home. This ensured that the kids had enough rest and nutrition and gave them a sense of stability in our otherwise unstable lifestyle.
For more ideas on how to travel on a budget with kids, read the suitcases&strollers story here.
To read more about the Farrugia family, go to With 2 Kids In Tow, It's Backpacking We Go.