Family vacations are all about taking a break from the day-to-day, exploring new places, and exposing kids to fresh experiences. But they can be even more.
“Even though a lot of our trips are typical family fun stuff, the fact that we try to add a historical or educational element has made for such a richer experience,” says Carmen Sognonvi, creator of the luxury travel blog and YouTube channel Top Flight Family.
Sognonvi lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters. She spent many years writing for Hong Kong’s largest English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, and working in magazine publishing for titles like Surface and Town & Country before forging her own path as a content creator.
A pioneer in digital media, Sognonvi has been blogging and podcasting since the early 2000s and started focusing on luxury travel when she and her husband began traveling extensively with their children. They’ve been all over the world, enjoying first-class experiences and five-star accommodations everywhere from Dubai to Hong Kong.
Whether you visit the same destination year after year or take a globetrotting approach to travel, there are always opportunities to deepen the experience by digging into a destination’s history. Sognonvi shared her advice for integrating learning with family travels.
Why is it important to bring education and cultural awareness into family travel?
We’ve been traveling pretty intensely with the girls now for about two or three years, but I didn’t initially put too much emphasis on the educational aspect because I really wanted my daughters to develop the love of travel first.
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do more of, but there wasn’t always time to prep the girls and teach them about the history or culture of a place before we went. We definitely do some of the fun resort vacations where you’re lazy and don’t go anywhere. But we do try as much as possible to do trips where we actually see a place and get to know it and learn a little bit. I think everything changed when we decided to transition our girls to homeschooling.
What’s an example of a trip where you went deeper?
This summer we visited Williamsburg, Virginia, and I knew we’d be visiting Jamestown Settlement, where Pocohontas and John Smith lived. We’re a Disney family so we definitely have love for the Disney movie “Pocohantas,” but I know the movie is quite historically inaccurate. Before our trip, we did a little bit of homework with the girls by watching a couple of videos that told the true story of Pocohontas.
It gave them a great amount of context, and when we went to Jamestown it brought it to life a lot more than if we had simply showed up at the Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum. The girls went in with a more intimate understanding of that period of time, some of the things that went on, and why it’s important.
To me that made such a difference. We still did typical kid things like go karts and arcade games, but the fact that we had done a little bit of prep work in advance of the trip really made the experience that much richer for all of us.
How do museums perform, in terms of offering a well-rounded, balanced history?
It can be a bit of a mixed bag. In Williamsburg, I could tell they were putting a lot of effort into including narratives that may have traditionally been overlooked, like telling the stories of what white women, Black men, Native American men were doing at the time. This was at the Revolutionary War Museum in Yorktown and they did a great job of weaving in some of the other stories and historical figures.
Overall I do think you’re seeing more of that . At the same time, I’ve had experiences where there’s a lot of selective storytelling that will often gloss over some of the less savory parts of historical figures’ lives.
That’s where the homework comes in. If you’ve read up a little bit or watched a couple of videos, you can come in with that background and are able to notice those things. Even less comprehensive experiences can open up conversations with your kids, because you can tell them, “Remember, we learned about this, but it wasn’t really addressed in this place.”
What kinds of experiences lend themselves to an authentic, educational experience?
We recently took a family trip to Cancun. Most of the trip was a lazy, fun resort vacation, but the same week we were there, Chichén Itzá had just reopened for the first time since COVID, so we took a day out to go and visit the Mayan ruins there.
Knowing that we were going to be doing that, I shifted the focus of our homeschool history lessons to a unit on Mayan civilization. We learned a ton about their history, their religious beliefs, and their achievements in math, astronomy, and engineering. One thing that was really interesting to all of us is they are known for this ball game they played that had a lot of sacred significance. When we went to Chichén Itzá, we were able to walk on the ball court where they actually played this game.
The thing that made that experience really amazing was that we took a private tour. Given COVID safety concerns I actually think it’s a good way to go. There’s a safety benefit, but the other benefit is that you have so much more face time with the tour guide so you’re really able to customize the experience to the things you’re most interested in and you can ask all the questions you want.
What else do you get out of taking a private tour?
We learned some new things and some of the things we learned at home were reinforced on the tour. But there were also some things we’d learned that were refuted by the guide. His father is Mayan, so he has a personal and professional connection to the culture and he challenged some of the conventional assumptions about Mayan culture.
Taking guided tours can be a great way to have a deeper understanding of a place because you get to hear from someone who is actually from the area. There are little anecdotes and insights you aren’t going to get just from Google or reading a book. The local level knowledge is always on a different level than what you can get just researching on your own.
How have your girls responded to the educational aspects of your trips?
I don’t want to over-romanticize it, because there were definitely times in Chichén Itzá when my kids were complaining. We had masks on and it was hot. It was physically tough and it’s not like my kids were skipping and happy and thanking me for putting together this educational experience.
But there were moments where they said things that made me realize they actually were absorbing the knowledge, even if they didn’t seem like the most enthusiastic students ever.
With kids, you sometimes need to lower your expectations. Even if it doesn’t seem that way, they’re soaking it in and they’re still benefiting from it. It could be a week later and they drop some random comment that makes you realize, Wow! They really were paying attention. They really did get something out of that experience.” Just keep in mind that what you hope the experience looks like is not always what the experience looks like in the moment.
What other tips do you have for families who want to incorporate education and cultural awareness into their travels?
When you’re incorporating history into travel, you’re often dealing with things that are upsetting, like war or genocide or oppression. It’s good to think ahead a little bit to make sure you are pre-framing the experience for your child so there’s some preparation for them. On a more logistical level, you may need to build in enough time for the experience and to process what you saw afterwards.
I’ve also found that when you’re dealing with kids, it’s always helpful if you can find life stories of historical figures. By learning who the people involved were, you often find fascinating backstories of lives they led. That kind of storytelling is always going to be effective with kids.
How has it gone for the adults?
It’s not just about imposing education on the child—we’ve learned a lot, as well. I’ve never been particularly into archaeology, but because we did a little homework on the Mayans and then went to see it in person, now I want to see all the Mayan cities all over Central America. I’m already researching Guatemala and Belize!
It’s really invigorated my love of travel. I think all travel is good. I love the carefree trips as much as the educational ones, but being able to learn new things is something we as adults don’t get to do as often as we’d like anymore. To me, it’s really opened my eyes and uncovered a whole new layer to what we’re already doing and I’m just really excited about it.