In general, travelling with our kids went very well. They did not seem to mind the long flights to and from the USA too much, and mostly saw the whole thing as a big adventure. Our children had never travelled on a plane at all, prior to the US trip.
The 747-400s used by Qantas for long-haul flights are good, because they have an entertainment unit in the back of each seat. These have dozens of channels, and the kids could watch cartoons, movies, play games, look at the flight path of the plane on a map, etc
One thing that was hard for them was the lack of friends and kids of their own age to play with. While we were in the USA, it was not really school vacation time, so there were not that many kids around that our children could hang out with.
A few times they would make friends with some kids they met in the hotel pool, but then they’d be sad when we had to move on again. This might not have been so bad if we were staying longer in the places we visited.
There was one really nice family we met in New Orleans, at the hotel we stayed at. They were visiting from Boston, and had a son roughly the same age as our kids. We went out to dinner with them a few times and enjoyed talking about all sorts of things. Both our kids loved to spend time with their son, but then of course we had to leave to go to the next stop on our itinerary.
Generally the kids were well-behaved, although all the driving we did would sometimes get to them and they would become difficult. A few times we threatened them with being put on a plane back to Australia on their own, and said that they would have to stay with their grandparents in Sydney while Narrelle and I completed the trip. They love their grandparents, but the threat of being returned home without us seemed sufficient to make them behave a bit better for a while!
We did give the kids pocket money, about $30 to $50 US per week each, so they could buy souvenirs and gifts for their friends back home. (They don’t get anything like this amount back home!) There was a system of fines, which meant the pocket money would be reduced for bad behavior.
Americans and tourists we met on the trip would often ask us how we had been able to take our kids out of school for so long. We felt it would not have any long-term effect on their studies at this stage – they are clever kids and we were confident they would be fine. We would not do such a long trip in school term with them once they begin high school, however.
We talked to our Principal about this well before we left, and she felt that it would not be a problem. She said that the kids would get such a learning experience out of the trip that it was well worthwhile doing. We asked her if they should take along some classwork or assignments to complete. She didn’t thing this was necessary, but we did pick up some math and English books along the way. The kids would do a few of the exercises in these books as we drove along.
We do not think our kids fell behind in their schoolwork, in general. The one thing that did suffer was our son’s flute playing. Both kids learn an instrument through the school, and Zac had just started flute at the beginning of Year 5 in February. We took their instruments with us, and they would try to practice in the car while we were driving along. However, this really was not all that practical, and Zac did not get in the practice that he should have been doing. We were reluctant to make them practice in the motels in case it was disturbing to other guests. Since we got back, Zac has been putting in a lot more effort, and has now caught back up to the group.
We also bought various kids puzzle books about the USA, which kept them amused along the highways. These have quizzes on the State Capitals, the State Birds and all sorts of other trivia about each of the states.
The kids were also interested to see licence plates from many states along the way, with their slogans and different color schemes. We had this little routine going where we’d see one from let’s say New York State while driving in Texas. We’d say ‘they’re a long way from home’ – the kids would answer ‘not as far as us!’
Zac especially was interested in the different cars and SUVs in the US that we do not get at home. He learned that the Ford Excursion was the biggest SUV, and could also recognize the sporty cars such as Corvettes and Mustangs.
We also started collecting the “State Quarters’ and bought a little album to keep them all in. Zac was very good at finding these, and discovered a useful trick to speed up the process. He learned that if you put a few quarters into a vending machine, then press ‘coin return’, the coins you get back are not the same ones you put in. He would stand at the machine, putting in regular quarters, or the State Quarters we already had, and gradually exchange them for the State Quarters we still needed, by using this method. We almost had one of each kind that had been released, by the time our trip was over, with only a few still to be collected.
Our kids were also fascinated to see squirrels for the first time. We have lots of unique animals in Australia, but no squirrels. I remember I used to like them too, when I first saw them in Europe and North America as a child. The kids took all this video footage of them at the Grand Canyon. Later when we mnet Clint Eastwood, we were joking that we should have asked his expert opinion of the critically acclaimed ‘Squirrels of the Grand Canyon’!
We had repeatedly warned the kids about rabies, which does not exist in Australia, thanks to strict quarantine laws and being an island continent. We told them not to play with cats and dogs, and not to get too close to squirrels. I think maybe we overdid the warnings, as later in the trip our daughter would not even walk down to the (outdoor) pool at Tybee Island GA, as there were a few cats hanging around the area!
Each of our kids had their own Discman, which they often used on the plane flights and also in the car to listen to the CDs we brought with us or bought on the trip.
Another thing we bought was a portable DVD player. This was near the end, in New York City. We were amazed how cheap such things were in the US, and after much haggling picked one up on 7th Avenue for about $220 US. It was ‘multizone’ so would work on DVDs back home as well as the North American format. This was great, as the kids could watch movies in the back of the car as we drove along. When we returned to Australia, we looked for these in the stores. They scarcely existed, or if they did, were about three times the price we paid. Just in the last month or so (December 2004), they have come onto the market here for something like the price we paid in the US.
We also discovered EZ-DVD, I think it is called. These were only sold in a few states, and cost about $5. Once you open the DVD, it works for 48 hours or so, then exposure to the air makes it inoperable after that. The center of the disk turns black once it’s expired. A good alternative to DVD rental, when you’re moving around a lot.
Speaking of electronic goods, the new digital camcorder we’d bought just before leaving Australia stopped working a few weeks into the trip, and we could not get it serviced in the States as it was in the Australian PAL format, not NTSC as used in North America. We could have mailed it to Chicago, or back to Sydney, but the trip would have been over by the time we got it back.
We ended up buying another camcorder at Wal-Mart in Texas. This cost maybe half the Australian price, once the currency conversion is done. It’s in the NTSC format, but that’s no major problem. Our TVs and DVD players work on both formats, and I’ve been able to upload the video footage from both cameras, combine it and burn it onto a DVD, with no hassles.
I think we took our kids on this trip at about the right age. From my own memories of travelling as a child, I’m sure they are old enough to remember this trip forever, but still young enough to be a bit cheaper to buy airline tickets for!