Traveling with Kids
Let’s face it: taking your kids to China isn’t quite like packing up the minivan and taking a family trip down the highway. But if the thought of long international flights, unfamiliar foods, crazy traffic and rumors of stifling air pollution weren’t enough to deter you from visiting China with kids – congratulations! You’ll find that not only is it cleaner and safer than what you’ve heard, it’s a fascinating and in some ways uniquely kid-friendly destination. Thanks in part to the country’s One Child Policy, the Chinese shower attention on children, and in all likelihood, you and your family will be happily accommodated wherever you go (and maybe asked to pose for more pictures than a celebrity on the red carpet – but more on that later).
There is a lot that this country has to offer for kids, and it can really be a life-changing educational experience that broadens their horizons. It’s still important to remember, though, that China can be a chaotic place, so choose your destination wisely. Certainly, it’s not recommended to bring your kid on a Silk Road motorcycle tour through the deserts of Xinjiang, or climb Everest with your child strapped to your back. Instead, when traveling with kids, it might be best to bring them to more historic destinations while simultaneously mixing in theme parks and other action-packed attractions to keep their attention span.
Kid Friendly Attractions
They are everywhere in China, but for you and your child’s convenience, here are the Panda’s top eight attractions/activities for your little emperor to enjoy China to its fullest!
Beijing – There’s enough to keep you and your child occupied for months in the country’s capital. Whether it be sleeping under the stars at the Great Wall, ice skating Houhai Lake, making waves at the Happy Magic Water Park, kicking a football around in gorgeous Chaoyang Park, or even taking a tour at a world class museum, there’s something for kids of every age in this town.
Shaolin Temple, Dengfeng, Henan – What kid doesn’t like kung fu? Bring them to the world renowned Shaolin Temple and sign them up for a martial arts class with the monks. He or she will go home and certainly brag to everyone at school that they had by far the coolest summer vacation!
Disneyland, Hong Kong – This is a great bargaining chip. Tell your kids that they have to behave and enjoy some of the historical sites around China, or else they can’t go to Disneyland. It’s guaranteed to keep them in line. Plus, it’ll be a fun way to end the trip for mom and dad – Disneyland has something for everyone.
Sanya, Hainan Island – For the future beach bum, Sanya is a great place to swim, go jet skiing and paragliding, build sand castles and go snorkeling. We’re sure you’ll enjoy this beach paradise as well; it’s impossible not to.
Giant Pandas, Chengdu, Sichuan – Everybody loves pandas, especially children. Bring them to see the real thing in Chengdu and get them a stuffed panda teddy bear so they can always remember their incredible trip through the Middle Kingdom.
Dali, Yunnan – Dali’s Old Town is made for taking it easy, and the relaxing vibes here are just the beginning of what will appeal to your child about this sub-tropical mountain town. From a year-long mild climate drizzling down on the antique-, clothing- and shop-filled cobbled lanes, to the villages and boats around beautiful Erhai lake and the benevolent hug of the lush Cangshan mountains, Dali offers endless fun for your little adventurer.
International Snow and Ice Festival, Harbin, Heilongjiang – If you’re going to be in China during the winter, bring your family to a majestic town made entirely out of ice. Your child will have a blast sliding down an ice shoot and getting lost in a maze full of snow.
Pudong Skyscrapers, Shanghai – Shanghai has some of the tallest and most amazing skyscrapers in the world stacked next to one another like dominoes. Bring your child to the top of the second tallest building in the world (the Shanghai Tower, set to be completed in 2014) or the Shanghai World Financial Center (easily the biggest bottle opener in the world). Afterwards, bring them to the nearby Science and Technology Museum for gadgets and robots.
Before You Go: How to Prepare
Time your trip wisely. Travel during Chinese holidays? Forget about it. China’s 1.4 billion people all seem to travel at the same time: during Lunar New Year every January or February, and during the National Day holiday in October. Lines for tourist attractions can stretch on for hours. Train stations are a mess. Adults can deal with it, but children may not be able to. Do consider visiting in the spring or fall, when extreme weather is less likely to be a factor. Bundling kids up to face the cold every time you go out will be a hassle, and likewise, the summer heat and humidity can sap the little ones’ energy.
Get healthy before you go. Try to ensure that everyone is getting their vitamins and is in good shape before you embark on a long trip. If you’re already prone to illness, 12 hours on a packed airplane can do you in.
Prepare in advance for medical issues. Check with your pediatrician or travel clinic to see if kids need extra vaccines or anti-malaria pills. Many pharmacy staples that are easily available in your home town are tough to find in China, so pack accordingly. Also note emergency contacts for a major hospital – preferably an international one – in each destination city. Examples of good things to bring include oral hydrating salts or electrolyte solution, hand sanitizer, Aspirin or Tylenol (whatever anti-fever/pain meds you usually use), anti-itch cream, hydrocortisone cream, Benadryl syrup, children’s sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
Figure out what to bring with you and what to buy in China. It’s smart to bring your own infant formula when traveling abroad anywhere, since switching brands can suddenly upset a baby’s stomach. But if your luggage is lost or you run out while in China, don’t panic: family doctors in China regularly advise their patients that buying international brands, such as Nestlé, Similac and Enfamil, is safe. Ditto for diapers: unless your baby is very sensitive or has particular needs, you’ll find imported diapers with little trouble. Plus, many brands have Chinese counterparts, like Huggies and Pampers. They’re not exactly like the ones back home but pretty much OK.
Bring the comfort food. If your kid is a picky eater, you’re better off bringing his or her favorite snacks with you, as they might be hard to find and expensive here. If your kid is a little more easygoing, there’s a wide range of treats that they’ll probably love. Heinz brand baby food is widely available in China, though the flavors may be a little unfamiliar. If you’re looking for no-sugar-added or organic baby food, better to pack it with you. There’s a wide variety of safe bottled water brands to give to kids or mix with formula, and a brand called Great Lakes makes 100% apple, orange and tomato juice that is widely available in small bottles and sometimes juice boxes.
Learn a little bit about China before you leave. Rent Bruce Lee movies or Kungfu Panda that take place in China and watch the newspaper and TV for stories about the Middle Kingdom. Have your kids think up questions they have about China and try to find the answers together on Google. Basically, anything you can do to build excitement and curiosity for the trip will pay off.
Try to pick up a few phrases in Mandarin. Becoming fluent is obviously not a reasonable short-term goal, but learning a few key words can be fun. You might even find a Chinese language camp or class in your neighborhood that your kids could take before you go. Children pick up new languages much more easily than adults, and they might surprise you! An adorable seven-year-old with a few phrases in Chinese is an excellent bargaining tool in the markets.
Give Chinese food a test run. The good news is that most Chinese restaurants have kid-friendly choices: it’s hard to go wrong with pork dumplings or fried rice. But it’s smart to hit up a few Chinese spots in your town before the trip. You’ll find that Western Chinese food doesn’t necessarily resemble Chinese food in China, but it’s a good warm-up for your kids’ taste buds and can help them feel more adventurous.
Time to Travel: The Flight
Time your flight wisely to maximize sleep. It’s bound to be a grueling overnight flight to China, but you can try to minimize the disruption to your kids’ sleep schedules by choosing a flight that leaves later in the evening, when they’re likely to be asleep anyway.
Check in early to select good seats. Online check-in becomes available 24 hours before departure, so make a point of logging on to check in and choose your family’s seats. Many airlines also allow you to choose a seat in advance, so remember to choose wisely. Try to avoid sitting near the restrooms where a lot of foot traffic and doors opening and closing can disturb sleep. The ultimate score for traveling with kids is to be seated in the bulkhead, the row of seats with nothing in front but a wall. There’s more legroom (or crawl room), and you won’t have to worry about your kids kicking the seat in front of them.
Use the time to read about China. Reading about where you’re going when you’re actually on your way only adds to the excitement. Whether it’s this guidebook, history books, or even Chinese children’s stories in English, books can provide hours of entertainment while passing along tons of history.
Go high-tech. Even if you try to limit your kids’ use of electronics at home, now is not the time to take away the PSP or the iPad. You can confiscate the gadgets once you land and only pull them out again on long bus rides or for the flight home. Older kids might even have homework they need to keep up with if you’re traveling during the school year, and the flight is a perfect opportunity to take care of it.
On the Ground: Once You’ve Arrived
Treat jet lag with patience. The first three nights are the most difficult, and the second night is probably the worst. The best advice is to take it slow and sleep when they do. This might mean slowing down your sightseeing activities for the first couple of days. Don’t push everyone too hard. There’s a lot to see in China, but you can’t see it all in two weeks anyway. The time difference is a big adjustment, especially for little ones. Being tired and run down can lead to sickness, so make sure everyone gets rest and tries to slowly adjust to the time difference.
Don’t leave home without tissues. Toilet paper is not provided in most bathrooms, and you never know when you’ll need it. Likewise for Kleenex when you need to blow your nose or wipe your hands.
Plan for toilet drama. If you stay in nicer hotels and restaurants in China, you may never see a squat toilet. But odds are you’ll encounter one eventually. See our toilets section for more information on how to make using a squat toilet a relatively painless experience. Odds are, small children probably won’t care, though older kids might.
Keep hands clean. That’s good advice for all the travelers in your group, no matter their age. Bring along hand sanitizer and wet wipes (wipes are readily available in China too). Wash your hands and your kids’ hands whenever you get a chance – it’ll go a long way toward keeping you healthy.
Be prepared to face the paparazzi. This is less true in bigger cities, where foreigners are a more regular sight, but foreign kids can attract a lot of attention in China. Notions of personal space are different than what you’re used to. Some people might try to touch or pick up your baby. If you’d rather they didn’t, just be polite and firm in telling them no.
Watch the traffic. See our Culture Shock section for more information on how to be a safe pedestrian in China. It’s extremely important to keep an eye on little ones when you’re out and about, and little kids will be better off in an infant carrier, in your arms, or in a stroller. It’s not a good place to learn how to walk.
Engage your kids in their cultural surroundings. Take the time to point out cultural differences that you notice and explain the reasons behind them. With a little guidance, kids tend to appreciate them, rather than becoming grossed out or upset. Remember that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, no matter how old you are.