You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

(Bloomberg) -- At the suggestion of her 12-year-old son, Kristen Glosserman’s family recently visited China. They continued on to Texas, crossed back east to Korea, and eventually headed to Mexico—all while quarantined in their Manhattan apartment.

In general, her family plans travels “because we want to look forward to something—or to escape,” says Glosserman, an executive coach and partner in the Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants. “It’s really important now, when we’re feeling a little stuck.”

Since they’re a food-focused family, Glosserman began to wonder whether they could “travel” by cooking. The oldest of her four children embraced the idea and started with a Chinese-inspired dinner of beef and broccoli. “Where are we going next?’” he asked, after cleaning his plate.

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

Though it’s hardly the most serious casualty of the global pandemic, travel restrictions mean that families around the world have had to cancel trips to Paris and Tokyo, to beach resorts and Disneyland. They’re not just missing out on pampering hotels, photogenic views, and buzzy restaurants but on fresh perspectives, a sense of adventure, and cultural diversity.

“Research has shown that being in a state of awe”—often associated with travel—”benefits your mindset and helps reduce anxiety,” says Deepika Chopra, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and optimism expert.

Until genuine travel resumes, virtual vacations can encourage curiosity, teach children about other parts of the world, and help them feel less trapped at home. It can give grownups an outlet for their wanderlust—and even let them test-drive travel plans. For some, that has meant ordering lunch from a menu in Spanish, building Big Ben from cardboard, or making Mickey Mouse waffles and throwing a kitchen parade as a substitute for a few days in the Magic Kingdom. For others, it can be more elaborate, involving planned “itineraries” that include visits to virtual museums and shared research on a region’s history.

Just as with real vacations, however, these reenactments can easily misfire. How to maximize your odds of success? We tapped some experts to find out. The strategies vary by age, and they reveal some of the pitfalls in planning real trips, too.

Keep It Simple

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

For one family that asked around online, looking to recreate a trip to France, the ideas that came pouring in on Facebook were plentiful—maybe overwhelming. Build the Eiffel tower out of Legos! Make crepes Suzette! Paint the Mona Lisa! Sing along to Edith Piaf! Dress up as mimes! Bake croissants! Fold paper boats as if you’re in the Luxembourg Gardens! Don’t forget to stock up on plenty of Champagne for after bedtime!  

Replicating a full itinerary in all its detail isn’t just time-consuming. It’s unnecessary, says Samantha Stewart, a child and family psychiatrist in Los Angeles, particularly if you have kids up to 7 or 8 years old.

“Kids are being given a lot of tasks to fill the time right now,” says Stewart. And organized activities aren’t necessarily the most rewarding part of real travel. While real vacations may encourage curiosity and exploring, their biggest benefit for younger kids is simply getting to spend lots of time with parents who are in a more relaxed state.

That translates well to virtual vacations. Focus on being present and giving little ones a break from being questioned or told what to do. Even just packing for an imaginary trip can be entertaining and educational. Stewart suggests showing your kids that you’re along for their ride: “Agree and affirm. Say: ‘You tell me what to do.’”

Balance Structure With Freedom

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

Stewart says that, unlike younger siblings, “middle-school kids really like rules and structure, and they get a lot of reward out of that.” Start by watching a show or movie set in an interesting destination. Then help them think through and research the different aspects of a trip to that place. How would you get there? What would you do? What would you eat?

Teenagers, meanwhile, crave independence, and often resist family trips because they can’t be with their friends and won’t be in charge. “Let them plan the best trip ever,” Stewart recommends. “It could be an even more fun trip than would be allowed in real life.” Let them fantasize about inviting friends and plan what they’d do together. You could even give them a theoretical budget to work with. In this case, the trip exists purely in their heads, but if you’re brave, offer to take inspiration from their plans once real-life travel is allowed again.

Work Together

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

Virtual travel gives you a chance to figure out how to make decisions collaboratively, which in turn can build resilience, says Madeline Levine, a psychologist and author of the new book Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World (Harper; $20). You can sit down together and decide where to go, taking turns articulating ideas, asking questions, and listening.

Take your family’s passions into account, too. “If your family likes to cook, make the food from a country you want to visit,” Levine says. (Even procuring the right ingredients online can be educational.) If the family likes to talk, each member gets 15 minutes at the dinner table to discuss a destination they’d like to visit. Readers can buy books related to a destination to learn more about it (the Tiny Travelers series for 5- to 6-year-olds, for example) or borrow them from e-libraries.

Still, families don’t always share the same passion points. Cultural institutions can be a great source of ideas and activities for armchair travel. Among the more entertaining options, the Asia Society Texas has created a series of at-home lessons for kids about different Asian countries, the Goethe Institute has a guide to German TV series you can stream in the U.S., and the French Institute Alliance Française in New York is hosting language and other events on Zoom.

Turn to Travel Companies

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

Lia Batkin, co-founder of the New York-based travel consultancy In the Know Experiences, has been helping some of her clients “visit” destinations while in quarantine by sharing links to online tours and experiences with them. She started with one family, whose year-long adventure was postponed by the coronavirus crisis, and expanded from there.

It helps that nearly every type of travel business—resorts, museums, restaurants, cruise lines, even safari outfitters—has been creating tons of free content in this semi-dormant time. Batkin has shared Instagram cooking classes from the five-star Hotel Salviatino in Tuscany, which has taught viewers to make saffron risotto and potato gnocchi, and offers livestreams featuring swimming elephants from Anantara Golden Triangle’s sanctuary in northern Thailand. The Resort at Paws Up in Montana is teaching knife skills, foraging, and fly-fishing on Instagram live; Six Senses Laamu, in the Maldives, has a 10-week Junior Marine Biology Program on its website.

Even Airbnb is going virtual. On April 9, the company announced a series of online classes hosted by locals around the world, including a meditation session with a Buddhist monk in Japan (from $10 per person) and an Irish dance masterclass (from $11 per person) streamed from Galway, Ireland.

Join the Club 

Travel clubs, which traditionally offer bespoke planning services and inspirational resources for annual fees, have become some of the best high-quality purveyors of virtual experiences. That’s especially valuable for families with older kids and teens, who are pickier and more skeptical of promotional-feeling content. 

Among the standouts are Indagare, which creates itineraries in partnership with several glossy magazines, and Bolt, which focuses on small-group adventures. They aren’t just recreating global experiences on social media; they’re bringing their communities together around expert-led conversations about culture and conservation.

Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley is hosting Zoom talks with notable people such as Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser and wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. She’s also organizing private online events, such as a behind-the-scenes video tour of France’s Versailles and a live-streamed Geisha performance in a home in Kyoto, Japan. Bolt, a group travel club that launched two years ago, has been hosting intimate video hangouts with activists and adventurers, including rock climber and photographer Ted Hesser and Max Frieder, co-founder of the nonprofit Artolution. 

Be Realistic

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

It might be tempting to use a virtual trip to soothe kids’ disappointment over a canceled or postponed vacation. But keep your expectations reasonable, Levine says.

“No kid is going to feel that seeing a picture of the Antarctic, or France, or a national park is the same as going there,” she said. That’s especially true for teenage children, many of whom face such big letdowns as graduations and proms that won’t happen.

So have fun with homebound trips, but don’t use them as Band-Aids, says Levine. Pay close attention to how kids are feeling, discuss that there will be disappointments in life, and model healthy coping mechanisms. They’re watching how you react to setbacks, so take the opportunity to showcase your creativity, patience, and problem-solving skills.

Revisit a Destination

You Can Get a Lot Out of a Virtual Family Vacation. Here’s How

Mollie Krengel, founder of the travel guide site Wild Bum, isn’t exploring new places from home with her three children—a deliberate decision. They’ve been looking at photos and videos from past trips and talking about their memories. They’re trying to recreate some of the foods they ate in Tel Aviv and discussing smells that remind them of a visit to Kenya.

“We even put together a puzzle that brought us memories of our times spent at the beach,” Krengel says. “This helps shift the focus from where we could be going to gratitude for where we've been.”

Reminiscing can be comforting, Stewart says, and it’s almost as much fun for kids as going on an actual vacation. It might even inspire your next trip to be a repeat.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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