Traveling pre-children, for me, was a wild adventure: impromptu safaris, hitchhiking from Kenya to South Africa, even being found in a banana leaf shelter by a family of gorillas. Traveling with kids in tow is a different sort of adventure but can still be incredibly rewarding, bringing the adventure, learning and fun to unimaginably satisfying heights. Imagine the conquest of a mountain hike, enjoying stunning views and excitedly snapping photos. You take in the sounds of nature and catch a glimpse of an ancient temple. Having a hard time imagining your kids tagging along for all this? It may require a little change of perspective, but it’s definitely possible. Just remember to plan, pack and play.
Plan:For maximum fun, organization and planning are required
Destinations: Start small and well-planned, and build up to longer trips. Starting simple, we chose Jeju Island and the mud festival in our first year right from the Lonely Planet top ten! Each trip was a mini-reconnaissance mission for the following adventure. We mixed it up, choosing a variety of destinations: adventure trips in the mountains that combined skiing with temple visits, theme parks or family spa trips. We paired city trips with performances, hikes with cable car rides, and seaside festivals with water sports. We brainstormed a couple of options in each category and let the kids make the final decision. This approach whets kids’ appetites as they learn about possible destinations and gives them ownership over the trip. At the end of our first year we went to see the bamboo forest near Damyang. There was little to no information in our guidebooks, but the trip turned out to be one of our best ever. Collecting maps from local tourist information sites in both English and Korean helped us to communicate with bus and taxi drivers. The following websites provide plenty of ideas for your next excursion: Adventure Korea (adventurekorea.com), Korea National Parks Service (english.knps.or.kr) and the South Korea Travel Guide (thesouthkoreatravelguide.com). We wouldn’t want to leave out 10 Magazine (10mag.com), of course!
Accommodations: Think functional not fancy. Accommodations in Korea can be expensive. The important thing is to figure out what you need to be comfortable. If the kids don’t get a good night’s sleep, chances are you won’t either. Korea has hotels ranging from third class to super deluxe along with condominiums and pensions. Clean and comfortable hotel rooms can be had for prices starting at W30,000 per night. We have found the 1330 tourist line, asiarooms.com, hotel-base.com and agoda.com to be useful places to start looking. Condominiums can be more expensive, but have functional facilities such as kitchenettes with fridges. These can help cut down on the cost of eating out and give more flexibility for food choices. Sharing with another family has also worked well for us. See the accommodations section at english.visitkorea.or.kr for some good leads. For pensions, Trip Advisor (tripadvisor.com) has English links for pensions and also allows you to search for pensions by region. We usually like to play it safe these days and book ahead. However, even when we have been told on the phone that all the pensions were fully booked, many rooms were still available and prices negotiable even during the high season. Naturally, accommodations are more plentiful and cheaper on weekdays.
Transportation: Enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Don’t forget that kids love traveling on buses, trains, boats or even cable cars. Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of trains in Korea. The KTX is Korea’s high-speed train, which is great for intercity trips and weekends away. The benefit is shorter travel times, but it is more expensive. The business-like environment here is not always family friendly. The Saemaeul express trains are still quite comfortable, but more expensive than buses. Finally there are the second-class trains, known as the Mugunghwa. Though not as plush as the Saemaeul, they are cheaper than buses, as well as being clean and punctual. We have found these trains a lot of fun. They offer a warm, friendly atmosphere and they go to more local destinations. Detailed information about Korea’s trains is found on korail.com. Alternatively, travelers may want to try Korea’s express buses. These are cheaper and faster than most trains and cover short distances, too. A helpful government website for getting around Korea is the Korean Public Transportation Guide (traffic.visitkorea.or.kr/Lang/en).
Pack:You need less than you think. Packing lighter will simplify your transit experience. Remember the basics for keeping the family comfortable. Pack easy breakfasts, lunches and snacks. You can continue to stock up along the way. For clothing, stick with the basics and essential extras. Our role: a maximum of one suitcase per adult. Kids can carry their own backpack with entertainment, snacks, water, toiletries and sun/rain gear based on what they can handle. Think like a kid. Bring enough entertainment for the journey: books, soft toys, stuff to write/draw with, playing cards/Uno! Whether to bring electronics is a personal choice. iPods, recordings of books, portable DVDs and other electronic games can help the time go by. Our family rule is electronics for travel or waiting time only.
Play:Remember what it was like to be a kid. Letting go of the plan and going with the flow are not natural adult tendencies. Focus on the kids without forgetting your needs, too. Join in their activities whenever possible. Maintain a relaxed pace supported by a flexible, but not too lax, schedule. A lack of sleep and grumpy children do not equal fun! Kids learn so much more through play and just being happy. Make a game out of finding directions and praise them for being clever. Follow their lead and find answers for their questions. Spending time together is the best part of the trip! A paradigm shift may be necessary even for the most experienced traveler when branching out with a family in Korea. Relish the chance to make memories with your family and take full advantage of all the adventure, fun and learning Korea has to offer.
Shelagh Maudsley-Deegan has been experiencing the world by living and working with her husband and two children in Kenya, England, Indonesia and now Korea.