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Lonely Planet Co-Founder Reveals Best Family Travel Options

From Nepal to Peru, Tony Wheeler’s kids went everywhere with him and his wife Maureen as they researched their Lonely Planet guidebooks. We asked him to share his top family travel tips

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Tony, Tashi, Kieran and Maureen in Yosemite National Park in 1985

Tony and Maureen Wheeler created Lonely Planet during an Asia ‘hippie trail’ trek in 1972. After becoming parents, they kept right on travelling, researching their must-have guidebooks with their daughter Tashi and son Kieran in tow. Now the kids are all grown up, Tony remembers those years with fondness.

Hello, Tony Wheeler. You travelled everywhere with your children when they were younger. What was it like?

Difficult at times, rewarding at others. We’ve been to every continent with them, except Antarctica. When they’re small they certainly open doors for you – oh look, they’re not just a tourist, they’re real people with children.

Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the Komodo Islands
Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the Komodo Islands

Did you adapt the way you travelled?

Not much. We did look for swimming pools sometimes.

What are your favourite memories of travelling with them?

There were lots of funny incidents. One memory is walking through a village in the hills in Nepal on a trek and leaving the village with kids each toting a chicken the cook had just bought. They were much-loved pets by the end of the day, then they were eaten for dinner. A few years later, on a bigger trek with more children, we emerged from a village with a goat on a string which the kids took turns leading. At camp that night the cook came over to them and said, “want to see me kill the goat?” They all did and were impressed with how quickly the skin came off. Then they complained about how tough it was.

ashi and Kieran in Nepal in 1989
Tashi and Kieran in Nepal in 1989

Walking up from the Valley of the Kings across the range to the Valley of the Nobles in Luxor, Egypt they announced they were on strike and were only continuing with wheeled transport. “OK, find your own way back to the hotel,” we said, and started up the hill. Towards the top we were overtaken by them on donkeys. “Don’t worry Dad,” Kieran said, “he asked for X Egyptian pounds, but I bargained him down.”

What was the worst thing that happened when you were travelling with your kids?

The only real scare we’ve had was with Tashi in Guatemala when she was 16. She suddenly came down with a severe case of food poisoning. She was looking increasingly awful, totally dehydrated, throwing up even when there was nothing left to throw up, and finally after midnight I went in search of a doctor. Despite my terrible Spanish the one I found – right next door to the hotel – came back to the hotel and then drove off to his hospital and came back with a drip which he set up in the hotel room. The next day she was fine. We had done one correct thing, pouring fluids into her. The fact that they throw it straight up again is irrelevant.

Of course, there have been lots of “oh shit, where are they?” moments. Probably the funniest was when we lost Keiran in Kathmandu. When we found him a little group of Nepalese women had quietly surrounded him and made sure he didn’t go racing off in the wrong direction.

Maureen Wheeler with her children in Nepal in 1983
Maureen Wheeler with her children in Nepal in 1983

In your book The Lonely Planet Story: Once While Travelling, you reveal that when your kids became teenagers, they didn’t want to travel with you anymore – they just wanted to stay home during the holidays and hang out with their friends. What do you think is the ideal age for travelling with kids?

From once they’re out of nappies and you don’t have to cart so much baby gear around (although we did) until they don’t want to travel with you anymore.

What is your kids’ attitude to travel now they are adults? Have they inherited your passion for adventure?

Yes and no. Well, it’s difficult to compete with me in the ‘mad passion’ stakes. On the other hand, Tashi helped to run our charitable foundation and certainly ended up in some weird and wonderful places. In 2017, I joined a small group to drive old MGBs from Bangkok to London. It took four months and Tashi joined me as my co-driver from Bangkok through Thailand, Cambodia and Laos up to the Chinese border, and then again through Iran and into Turkey. There’s a photo of her at the wheel in Iran, with a headscarf. Iranian driving is famously edgy, but with Tashi at the wheel we often seemed to come into roundabouts at the back and emerge in the lead. “Who the hell taught her to drive?” I remember thinking. And handing over our passports at one hotel I remember thinking, “when did she go to these places? Equatorial Guinea? Mozambique?”

Tony on a family trip to Singapore in 1981
Tony on a family trip to Singapore in 1981

Where do you think is the ideal travel destination for families?

Oh, Africa. The wildlife, the camping, the weird and wonderful places. Or Nepal. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with civilised travel either. They’ve been to the Tokyo and Paris Disneylands, and the original Disneyland Resort in California. We’ve had a number of good trips to Bali. Australian road trips – particularly 4WD outback track trips – can be great.

What tips do you have for travelling with kids?

Be flexible — your plans and wishes may have to be sacrificed for a dose of travel reality. And don’t underestimate them. These days we might feel kids won’t walk as far as the TV set so long as they can find the remote. When our kids were young, we set off on the eight-day Helambu trek in Nepal went with some friends and their kids, aged from six-year-olds up to Tashi at almost 12. I do remember one day, when the campsite turned out to be much further than we expected, one of the six-year-olds told me, “this is the worst day of my life”. But at the end they all said, “when can we do this again?”. The trek organiser sent along a bunch of Nepalese kids as well. The Sherpa cook brought his two young sons, for example, so it was an international affair. We’d drag into camp exhausted, and next thing the kids were off playing hide and seek, counting down in English and Nepali.

Why do you think travelling with kids is important?

How else do they learn about the world?

Maureen and Tony at Anna Creek Painted Hills in South Australia
Maureen and Tony at Anna Creek Painted Hills in South Australia

Tony Wheeler is the author and co-author of dozens of travel books, including The Lonely Planet Story: Once While Travelling, which details he and his wife Maureen’s personal story.

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