I was 21, a college dropout who had just discovered the wonders of budget airlines. Working part-time at restaurants, I was able to save and go on short trips abroad at least once a month. This is no exaggeration; it was made possible by my tireless hunt for cheap tickets and my extreme penny-pinching skills. Sleeping at public places and surviving on instant noodles became the norm in my travels.
I started solo backpacking when it was something as foreign to Malaysians as that powdery thing called snow. If it had already gained popularity back then, I sure wasn’t aware of it and neither was anyone in my family, most of whom had never left the country. Those who did paid a fortune on tour packages.
In the beginning, I didn’t tell them of my secret escapades; only my closest friends knew. It was only after I had been to several countries that I decided to divulge my secret, expecting them to be wowed. Unfortunately, news of my solo travel was greeted with shock and disapproval. They were dismayed at how irresponsible I was, putting my life in danger like that.
Eventually, somebody expressed their suspicion over how I could possibly earn that much money to travel so often. Words then got around that I might be working for a drug cartel as a mule, transporting illegal goods from one country to another! I was not sure whether I should be more disappointed that they could think of me like that, or awestruck at their wild imagination. What would they think of me next – a CIA assassin?
Desperate for approval, I decided to take my mom on a holiday in a neighbouring country, to show her that budget travel is not a myth. I wanted her to see for herself how it’s done.
My mom had never owned a passport. She enjoyed watching the travel channel, but going to and from the shopping mall was all the traveling she was willing to do. She’s not the type who would jump at the idea of an impromptu trip where you just pack up and go to wherever your feet may take you. No, she would need at least a month’s notice so that she could make proper arrangements for ensuring the plants get watered and the stray cats will be fed.
My mom was 60 at the time, but very fit for her age – she jogs up and down a hill every morning, and does all the housework herself. But during our vacation, she refused to walk anywhere, because she feared that people would think lowly of us for not being able to afford a car or a taxi ride. She whined about shared bathrooms, mosquito nets, food, the locals and the overall vibe of the city. I sulked because she didn’t seem to appreciate the effort I made for that trip.
It reminded me of the main reason I moved out to live on my own. We’re both very dominant women who will each stand her ground to get things done the exact way she wants it. Like mother, like daughter. Now you can’t have two of these in close quarters over an extended period of time, or a cold war is bound to ensue.
What I failed to realise was that I had the privilege of travelling every month, albeit on the cheap. For my mom, this was once in the bluest of blue moons. Quite understandably, she would expect it to be a luxurious and relaxing treat.
Not everybody has the same idea of fun. I found satisfaction in challenging myself, while my mom couldn’t understand why a holiday needed to be a form of torture. Unfortunately, I was so hell-bent on trying to prove my point that I lost sight of the bigger picture. Only years later did I realise how very inconsiderate I had been. We did manage to enjoy some parts of the holiday but with thoughtful planning, I could have made it a better experience for her.
If you’re planning a trip with a parent who’s a reluctant traveller, here are 16 questions to think about:
1. What type of locale appeals to them the most? Cool highlands, sunny beaches, lush forests, or a buzzing city?
2. Once you’ve identified the locale, narrow it down further by the overall environment. If your parents love the beach, for example, Phuket might seem like a good destination choice but are they going to be okay with the nightlife? Will it be too loud and rowdy for them? Will they find it traumatising to be harassed by ladyboys inviting them to watch the ping-pong show on Bangla Street?
3. Can they handle cold winters or very hot summers? Check the weather forecast at your intended destination ahead.
4. What type of traveller are your parents? Some like visiting as many famous landmarks and tourist attractions as possible, while others just want to chill out at the hotel and take it slow. Plan according to their pace and interests.
5. What do your parents like to do in their free time? Read books/knitting/crossword puzzles/card games? Pack them along to keep them entertained during the boring parts of the holiday, like when waiting at the airports.
Tip: It’s a good idea to visit a place that you have been to before so that you would have seen and done what you like, and not feel frustrated about having to accommodate only their preferences.
In a new environment, sleep may not come easy. A night of insomnia can ruin the next day’s travel plans as they would be tired. Know your parents’ sleeping habits and needs, and make sure the accommodation you book can cater accordingly.
6. Are they used to staying in an air-conditioned room or prefer the fan?
7. Do they prefer soft or firm pillows? Is a duvet important or will regular blankets do?
8. Do either of them have back problems that could make sleeping on a soft mattress uncomfortable?
Tip: If it’s not too bulky or you have room in your luggage, pack along their usual pillow or blanket (whichever is more important to them) so they have at least one familiar, comfortable item to help them sleep.
Safety & Accessibility
9. Are either one of your parents wheelchair bound? Make sure the hotel has ramps and elevators.
10. Is the shower separate from the bathtub? Bathtubs can be very slippery and dangerous, not only for the elderly (I’m speaking from experience).
11. How are you going to get to your destination, and how do you plan to get around once there? You may not mind roughing it out but for your parents, if it involves sitting in cramped seats and being squished together with other passengers over long bumpy rides, you may want to reconsider your options. Avoid taking cheap public transports, especially during peak hours.
12. Do your parents get seasick/airsick/carsick easily? Whichever is their Achilles’ Heel, avoid as much as possible or at least minimise the time needed to travel in them.
13. If taking a long-distance bus or train, check whether there are special seats for senior citizens? Is there any assistance provided for wheelchair users? And are there toilet breaks on long journeys?
You and your parents might share the same religious beliefs, but they may be more rigid in their practice than you are.
14. Are they strict vegans? How important is it for them to dine at restaurants with halal certification? Or are they picky eaters? Make sure to research your options and where available, make reservations ahead.
15. Are your parents adventurous foodies who are willing to try out local fares, or do they want to stick to food that they’re familiar with? Consider bringing along spices or flavourings from home to make the local cuisine more palatable to them. It’s also not a bad idea to pack along instant noodles.
16. Do they have any food restrictions or allergies? Find out the local name for the ingredient(s) that they need to watch out for and keep a copy with you at all times so that you can show it at eateries to check that what you’ve ordered does not contain said ingredient(s).
When planning a holiday with a loved one, we all want to be able to provide the best for them so no detail is too trivial. Ultimately, the main purpose of vacationing with your parents is to spend quality time with them (and maybe remind them that you’re their favourite child!).
By Raja Ummi Nadrah
This article originally appeared on Zafigo, a travel guide for women travellers in Asia and the Middle East, and is republished with permission.