Our family is just starting to plan to visit a new (to all of us) continent: South America!
We as a family have a set of travel goals, one of which is to visit all seven continents. Our last international trip as a family was to Europe. It was my and my husband’s third and second trips to Europe, respectively. Because this is such a big, new adventure for us, I thought it would be interesting for readers to go behind the curtain with us as we start our planning. My hope is that the questions we are asking ourselves might also be helpful to you as your family plans an ambitious travel adventure.
Once we’ve decided on our actual destination within South America, I will likely post at least one more planning post specific to that destination.
My blog offers a whole host of other travel planning tips and strategies that are useful for families when planning a trip. Check them out!
Why Are We Focused On This Destination?
There are a few reasons we have zeroed in on South America.
- Family travel goals: As I mentioned above, one of our travel goals is to visit all seven continents. My husband and I have each visited four of them (North America, Asia, Europe and Australia). For many reasons we have decided to prioritize visiting South America, Antarctica and Africa before going back to continents we’ve already visited. Probably the biggest reason is that he and I are not young anymore, and we know that health into your old age is not guaranteed. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to explore new continents while we’re able.
- Promises to our children: At some point we told our kids that, depending on our life circumstances, we would let each of them choose a big destination for a family trip when they are about 15 years old. Guess what? Our son turns 15 in March. Time to make good on that promise. Our son loves adventure, and he’s fascinated by history.
- Amazing sights to see: South America has some amazing travel possibilities. We know we can only scratch the surface on this trip, but we are excited to see what it has to offer.
- Less jet lag: OK, this in probably not a good reason to go somewhere, but it’s nice to know that, unlike traveling east or west, traveling more or less straight south of us means less time change adjustment for our bodies.
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What Time of the Year Should We Go?
Because our kids are in school, the easiest time to go on a longer vacation is over their summer break. Our kids do get a spring break in early April, and they get almost a week off in October. But we would likely want to go longer than a week (see the “How Long” section below), and missing a week of school is sadly a fairly monumental barrier with our older kids. The avalanche of make-up homework would likely send our high schooler over the edge.
Of course, because South America is in the southern hemisphere, going there in our summer means we would be there during their winter. As a family that lives in Minnesota, where our winters are far too long, it’s not ideal for us to purposely travel into someone else’s winter during our all-too-short summer. Depending on where in South America we end up going, we are hoping it might be relatively mild compared to our winters.
How Long Should We Spend There?
We have done just enough international family travel to know that you could spend a lifetime on the South American continent and not see all of what we want to see. The options are endless! Realistically, with employer vacation constraints and the kids’ schedules, I think two weeks is the best we’ll be able to do. The trick will be to create an itinerary that is ambitious enough to see as much as we can in two weeks, but not so ambitious that we feel too rushed and sacrifice relaxation and enjoyment.
What are the Big Things We Need to Decide?
Some of the key questions we have regarding this trip are:
- What areas are safest for family travel? This almost goes without saying. Since it’s our first time on the continent, we’ll be looking for places that we are very confident are safe and have adequate tourism infrastructure.
- Should we try to visit more than one country while we’re there? This is always a tough question. On one hand, we aren’t planning to go back to South America over and over again, so we should make the most of our trip. On the other (very important) hand, it seems more important to decide what is realistic and manageable for an itinerary and do that well. Much of this decision will also depend on what we want to see and where those things are in proximity to other countries.
- What kind of trip do we want to have? We are not very beach-y and tend not to do a lot of relaxing poolside on vacation. However, we definitely do not push ourselves to the point of exhaustion on our vacations, either. It is, after all, meant to be at least somewhat relaxing. We likely want a vacation that entails national parks and/or other natural wonders, history, cultural experiences, hiking, and maybe even a zip line if we can find one.
- How will our kids handle whatever we plan? Luckily, our kids are awesome, resilient travelers for the most part. But throw them (and us) into a country with a foreign language, different customs and practices, different money, and very different food, and things could turn stressful really quickly.
- How much will this trip cost? We are not luxury travelers, but we also are not super thrifty in order to get the trip we want. We need to start getting a general sense of how much transportation and lodging cost in order to decide if we can realistically pull this trip off within our means.
Where On That Big Continent Should We Go?
When we were talking with our son about where he might want to go, he kept focusing on destinations around the globe that he had heard were great. (That Global Studies class he was taking at the time was both a blessing and a curse.) He was naming places like Australia, Singapore, Brazil, and Maldives, among others. (That Global Studies class he was taking at the time was both a blessing and a curse.)
I finally suggested to him that he think more about the kinds of things he wants to do, and then we could look for places where we can do those things (that fit within my husband and my criteria above, of course). He finally said he’d want to do some hiking, see beautiful scenery, and see things with historical significance. Obviously South America has all of these in spades.
After looking at the options, here are our finalist destinations in South America:
- Peru: Peru is a hot destination right now, and rightfully so. This country is definitely our front runner right now. When I showed our son (and our daughter) pictures of Machu Picchu, they were blown away. This country definitely checks all the boxes for us in terms of natural wonders, history and culture, and adventure opportunities. Plus their tourism infrastructure is strong enough to ensure we can see what we want within our two-week window of time.
- Argentina and Chile: We are definitely mountain lovers, and I think these two countries offer a lot in terms of what we’re looking for in a family adventure. The Andes Mountains look spectacular, and my husband and son would likely be happy eating at Argentinian steak houses every night. 🙂
- Launching point to Antarctica: We have had some short discussions of whether we should try to get to Antarctica while we’re in South America, effectively “killing two (continent) birds with one stone.” I think we have decided that, due to the amount of time that trip would take and the cost, we are going to have to wait on Antarctica.
Once we zero in on the country/countries we want to visit, we’ll probably search blog posts, Pinterest, Trip Advisor, and at least one guidebook to figure out itinerary items. We’ll also use our family process for getting family consensus on our travel itinerary. This process is probably the topic of a future post.
How Should We Get There?
The obvious answer here is “fly.” But a closer investigation raises more transportation-related questions.
- Should we do a round-trip flight or an open jaw flight? We have done trips both ways. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to make a straight-line path from one destination to another without circling back to get to your starting point for the flight home. For example, on our honeymoon we flew into Rome and, three weeks later, out of Amsterdam. However, for our last trip to Italy and France, we decided to stay within a smaller region and fly in and out of Milan. Generally the open jaw flights are a little bit more expensive, but the trade-offs might be worth it.
- How should we get around once we’re there? One thing I know is that I have no interest in renting a car if we don’t absolutely need it. We did rent cars in Australia and New Zealand (my husband was willing to drive on the other side of the road). This was fairly stressful at moments, but it did work for the itinerary we had created. For this trip we may want to consider some kind of bus option. We’re generally not big on taking organized tours, but there do seem to be some bus options (in Peru at least) that are less structured, getting you from one city to the next but on a schedule that is more flexible.
Lots to decide! Are there other questions you ask when you are planning a major international trip? I’d love to hear your thoughts.