Zen Habits
Leo Babuata Updated: 15 April 2021 07:30 IST

Zen Habits : Travel Lessons with My Family

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In the past year or so I’ve traveled more than ever, for both work and family reasons:

  • A tour of southern Europe with 5 of our kids and Eva in summer 2012
  • NYC (with a vegan tour) with Eva in fall 2012
  • Maui with all 6 kids and Eva in January 2013
  • Japan, on an awesome train trip and cherry blossom festivals with Tynan and some new friends, in March-April 2013
  • NYC with all 6 kids and Eva, again sampling the vegan delights, in June 2013
  • Portland & Eugene for the World Domination Summit and to visit family, with Eva and some of the kids, in July 2013
  • Los Angeles with all 6 kids and Eva in July 2013

For me, a person who enjoys staying home and enjoying the simple pleasures, it’s been a bit crazy. I don’t normally think of myself as a traveler, but the evidence is against that. I’m a traveler now.

And during it all, I’ve been taking notes. I’d like to share them with you here — my lessons learned in the past year or so of traveling.

Traveling Lightly

For me, the traveling lightly philosophy isn’t just in what you pack (though that’s a good part of it), but in how you approach travel.

Here are some lessons learned:

  • For most people, a backpack of 24-, 18- or even 16-liters is enough. I’ve traveled with a 16-liter backpack for weeks with no problems. I think we tend to bring more because of fear that we might need more.
  • Wash clothes in the sink and hang them overnight. Bam. You just eliminated the need to bring a lot of clothes.
  • My packing list: I wear jeans, underwear, a T-shirt, socks and shoes (of course), and then pack 2-3 more underwear, another T-shirt/workout shirt, workout shorts (that I can run and swim in), 2 more pairs of socks, minimalist running shoes (that don’t take up much space), a Macbook Air and iPhone (with Kindle app so I can read books), cords and some toiletries. If it might be cool, a sweater or jacket.
  • I wear the same jeans over and over, and just wash them once every week, hanging them up at night to air out.
  • Packing lightly means traveling more easily, not having to drag around a roller bag or luggage. Honestly, you don’t realize how much this costs you in energy and happiness until you go without all the weight. Trips become easier, packing and unpacking takes a few minutes, and you aren’t tired or grumpy.
  • Traveling lightly also means you don’t plan out as many things to do, but instead just research possibilities. What do you do each day? You look at the possibilities, and explore. You might just walk around and see what there is to see. Don’t worry about a schedule.
  • Traveling lightly also means avoiding the tourist traps. Some tourist attractions are genuinely worth seeing (great art and architecture), but otherwise, just see the city and people watch. You avoid the lines, and again you are lighter and happier.
  • It also means resting. Built into each day: slowness and rest stops and picnics and lounging in parks and stopping to just be in a place.
  • Walk a lot to explore, and try public transit. Also go for a run. These are the best ways to explore a city.
  • Finally, let go of expectations. If you’re going to a great city like Rome for the first time, you probably have an idea of what it is like. You’re wrong, and because it won’t match your expectations, you might be disappointed or frustrated. Instead, go in with curiosity, to explore and to really see. You’ll enjoy every trip much more.

The Funnest Stuff

Here are some highlights that I’ve loved:

  • In New York City, definitely don’t miss Hack the Museum. My friend Nick recently started these super fun tours of the Met, and I took my whole family, not because I like tours (I usually hate them), but because they make a normal museum experience into an extraordinary one. Highly recommended.
  • In Portland, go on a run in Forest Park. Really lovely, miles and miles of trails through a real forest, right within the city limits.
  • In Japan, go during Cherry Blossom season, because it’s gorgeous. It gets crowded, but people watching is part of the fun. You also don’t need to go on the exact weekend when they have the festival, because Cherry Blossom viewing (hanami) seems to go on for weeks. Go with a few friends, lay down a blanket or tarp, bring Japanese picnic food and drinks, and have an amazing time.
  • In Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica blew me away with its grandeur.
  • The Cinque Terre in Italy — five towns tumbling down cliffsides into the Mediterranean, linked by a train and walking trails — were beautiful and worthwhile.
  • Sunbathing on the beaches of Antibes (southern France) was very nice, and I loved the romance of being where Hemingway and Fitzgerald also played around with their hip friends.
  • In NYC, we truly love Candle 79, Candle Cafe, Hangawi, Blossom, Dun-well Doughnuts, Babycakes and the Cinnamon Snail. Vegan heaven.
  • People watching: Central Park in NYC, beaches at Antibes and Barcelona, Osaka Castle, Ueno Park in Tokyo, Hachiko statue at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, Williamsburg flea market.
  • In Japan, you can buy a weeklong train pass and ride the bullet trains everywhere. Tokyo is amazing, but there are other great places, from Osaka to Kyoto and Uji to Miyajima to an organic tea farm outside of the town of Fujieda, that you should definitely see. Bullet trains (shinkasen) are amazing.
  • Portland has amazing vegan food! My new friend Ami Baio, a Portland vegan, took me and some friends to some terrific places: Canteen, Portabella Vegan Trattoria, Blossoming Lotus, SweetPea bakery, and the vegan mini-mall! Oh my goodness. All are highly recommended.

Traveling with Kids

Traveling with kids isn’t always easy. But we love traveling with ours. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Talk to them before the trip about mindset. We explained to them that things will go wrong, we’ll get tired, we’ll walk a lot, we’ll get lost. It’s all an adventure. If they have this adventure mindset, things will go much easier.
  • Talk to them about complaining. Again, we’re on an adventure, and complaining isn’t a part of that. Instead, be grateful you’re in this new place, exploring and seeing amazing things.
  • Bring sketchbooks. We brought sketchbooks to NYC and would take breaks in the park and draw. Lots of fun!
  • Walk a lot at home, for training. Our kids walk a fair amount here in San Francisco, so when we travel and walk a lot to explore, they don’t tire so easily. They still tire, but at least they’re in decent shape.
  • Rest. Kids need rest. Build that into the plan each day.
  • Gelato — they’ll go anywhere if you reward them with gelato!
  • Let them help with the planning. If you’re just dragging them to places you want to see, then it’s boring. But if they helped plan out the trip, including a list of places to see, they’ll be more interested.
  • Be each other’s tour guides. When we went to MOMA, we each picked an artist, learned about it, and then had to explain the artist to the others, like a tour guide.
  • Get an apartment. We used AirBnB to get apartments in each city. It’s more comfortable for a large family, and cheaper than getting several hotel rooms, plus we could get groceries and cook at home for some meals, rather than eating out all the time. Also, there’s often wireless internet and washer/dryer (if you choose well).
  • Kids can travel light too. Our kids each brought a small backpack each, one that they could carry (our younger ones had really small backpacks). They’re responsible for their own stuff. We’ve experimented with this on several trips, and it works out well.
  • Give the kids responsibilities. They’re not passengers sitting back enjoying the ride — they’re helping plan and find their way around public transit and pick restaurants and get us to trains on time, etc. They’re learning to travel, and as adults they’ll be really good at it.

These are just a handful of the lessons I’ve learned. I’ve loved every place we’ve visited, and have met some lovely readers in each city, and it’s been excellent. Thank you to everyone we’ve met.

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