We do a lot of traveling with our kids. We knew before we had kids that we loved to travel and wanted to continue with our adventures once our kids were born. If trips could be a love language, that would be mine. My parents instilled the value and fun that come with family vacations in me from a young age. Whether it was a camping trip for the weekend or tagging along on a work trip, we were constantly going places as children.
Part of what makes family trips so great is that you get the best version of everyone. You unplug from work and the day to day stress of keeping the house clean, checking off items on the to-do list, and you free yourself of obligations and the feeling that you are on a spinning hamster wheel. I know that most people can relate to this feeling and that it doesn’t take much convincing to go on a vacation. I also know that the reality of bringing small children on that happy, relaxing, wonderful vacation is very far from the picture of the vacation in our heads.
Here are some reasons why I think it’s worth traveling with your kids (with the disclaimer that it is also important to enjoy time just you and your spouse or you and your girlfriends):
- They get to have full access to you away from work, home and all the normal day to day stuff. This is a gift for your kids and also for you. I find it so easy to turn into a monotonous version of myself at home who is all about keeping the house clean, clothes put away, snapping at the kids, getting to work, coming home, doing homework, getting to bed on time and starting over again in the morning. Trips interrupt that and I find that I have better perspective when I come home. I get to stop and smell the roses and enjoy my kids. My kids get to see me relaxing, being silly and having time to have fun with them. I find that when I don’t have travel for a while, I start to miss that silly side of myself. I think the silly me is the relaxed me who isn’t worried about work or taking care of housework. Sometimes it takes a trip for me to hit the reset button and remember how important it is to just be silly and fun and laugh with the kids.
- They get to see how much more to the world there is. Whether it’s going to a bigger city than you live in, a small town where there aren’t any Targets, or being totally unplugged in the woods somewhere, travel gives your kids a chance to see how much world there is to explore. We take our kids to Mardi Gras every year in New Orleans. We used to live there and know the “safe for kids” areas to be and what not to do, but it is so fun to watch the kids celebrate and enjoy something they never would have been exposed to otherwise. If they go somewhere where a different language is spoken, they might become interested in learning about a new culture or language. What is better than seeing it and feeling it in person?
- They learn to be resilient and go with the flow. Our trips rarely go smoothly. We are running late for a flight and I’m yelling at everyone to get in the car and throwing in suitcases like a crazy person. I forget to pack the kids’ underwear. We almost run out of gas and can’t find a gas station for miles. The place that looked good on VRBO smells like cigarettes and the A/C doesn’t work. You spend hours in the car and get there crazy late and the kids fall asleep in the car. On trips you all learn that these things happen even with the best laid plans, and that you can either make the most of the situation and have fun together, or you can have a meltdown and make it a disaster. Some of my favorite and most memorable trip moments happened on the “disaster trips.” Our car got stolen, bikes fell off the car bike rack and were dragged behind the car for a mile before we noticed, we ended up in a shady hotel and had to pile in and share a tiny bed with my sisters. It is in these moments that your kids can see that the fun is being there with each other. The circumstances aren’t always perfect, but if they see that you are able to laugh about the “disasters” and still have fun, the memories of these moments are carried home and are easily applied when life at home or at school doesn’t go just right.
- Some of the best memories are made on trips. At some point in my 20s, I began to realize that a huge portion of the favorite memories of my childhood occurred on trips. Whether it was hunting for shells early in the morning with my grandmother, my mom making yummy lunches and serving them as a picnic, playing War with my dad, making friendship bracelets at the beach with my sisters and cousins, or seeing a city for the first time, so many things that stood out from my childhood were the memories made on trips. I want my kids to look back on their childhood years and remember each of our adventures being filled with fun. I want each trip to be like the exclamation points in the story of their childhood, and I want the time our family spent together during those trips to be a huge part of what stands out.
- They give you something to look forward to. This is a tricky one. I am (or at least try to be) an “enjoy the moment,” “be in the now” kind of person. I don’t like saying “things will get better when…,” “I’ll be able to finally relax when…,” and I don’t want to spend my day to day life feeling like that isn’t good enough and I’m just counting down the days until the next trip. However, I love planning trips and anticipating what is coming. I have to remind myself to not skim through the normal days waiting on the next trip because those “normal” days are wonderful and important, but whether the trip is six months away or two weeks away, I just love having a trip to look forward to. I love that it will break up my routine, give me a chance to breathe, and let me enjoy being with my kids and my husband. If I don’t have a trip somewhere on the horizon, even if it’s something easy like camping, I start feeling like I’m on repeat and it is reflected in my attitude and energy.
- And finally, trips are better than things. I have this conversation with my kids over and over when they ask us to buy a toy they’re going to lose the pieces to in the first week or a new pair of shoes that they are going to outgrow in six months. I place so much more value on trips than something material. I would rather save on those things and go on a trip, and I’m trying to teach my kids to understand the value of great experiences, meeting new people, and discovering new places versus buying something that they tire of so quickly. Trips are gifts that keep on giving because, not only do you get to enjoy the time you are on the trip, but you also enjoy the memories for years to come. I think each new place you see and each new person you meet changes you just a little bit; things can’t do that.
So, trips are great and I’ve given lots of reasons why they are worth it. That all sounds great on paper, but does it play out like that in real life? All the time? Heck no. A lot of times we post Instagram photos of my smiling children and seconds earlier I was yelling at them for the fiftieth time to stop fighting. They pitch fits in the car. They meltdown on planes. They pick at each other non-stop, then love each other the next second. They follow me around in the morning when I want to relax saying, “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom” and needing me to do all the things.
Here are some things that we do to make the whole family trip thing work and be worth it:
- Lower your expectations. You spend a ton of money, hours planning, reading blog posts, and making reservations. The trip finally arrives and at the end of the first day of epic adventures, you ask your four-year-old what her favorite part of the day was and she says it was trying on the bedazzled NYC baseball caps in a cheesy gift store. Or you go to a theme park and spend most of your time waiting in line and you become frustrated to the point that it wasn’t even fun. Your first step with family travel is to lower your expectations. It isn’t going to be wonderful all the time. Do not look at other people’s Instagram feeds and be fooled into thinking that is real life. If you saw pictures of my kids on trips you would think our trips were rainbows and magic all day long. They’re not. They are a ton of work for my husband and me. There is lots of yelling at the kids to chill out and get their shoes on and “Why are you not listening until I get mad and yell???” moments. To be able to enjoy trips with young kids, you just have to expect less perfection, fewer quiet moments, and less relaxation. Those just aren’t usually the things you get from a family vacation with young kids. And anyone who tells you differently is lying. Just kidding…kind of.
- Assume the first day is going to be pretty crummy. Maybe this is just the case for us, but the first day of our trips is usually bad. Whether we fly or drive, leave in the morning or at night, go a short distance or far — for some reason the first day is no good. No matter where we are, the kids insist on turning into raging lunatics and jump on the beds and furniture. I have no idea why. They don’t jump on their beds or leap from chairs to beds trying to defy gravity at home, but by gosh if we check into a hotel room it’s like the kids get replaced with American Ninja Warriors. So we spend the first day yelling at them to stop trying to injure themselves and/or get kicked out of the hotel. We are tired and grumpy from traveling, the kids are crazy and hyper and excited to be in a new place. We’re all hungry and can’t figure out where to eat. It is just all the bad things the first day. Just go to bed and wake up hopeful for day two.
- Start your kids traveling at an early age. This is something I learned from my parents as they were traveling with kids pros. I knew going into having children that we were going to continue on with our normal trips and just bring the kids. We took our oldest on a six-hour drive to the beach for the 4th of July when he was three-weeks-old. We took our youngest who was three-months-old at the time on a cross country flight and then road trip from San Francisco to Seattle in a 12 passenger van with another family. If you start traveling at a young age and keep doing it, and aren’t scared of long road trips and flying and all that goes along with traveling with young kids, I am a firm believer that your kids will adapt and learn to ride in the car and sleep in their car seats or be ok on a plane. Don’t tell yourself you’ll wait until they’re older — just go for it. You can dooooo it!
- Don’t do all the tourist trap things. Ok, do some of the tourist trap things, but not all. Don’t buy every t-shirt, don’t shell out $30 for the photo with a fake backdrop, don’t drop $100 to do something just to say you did it. We’ve told our kids no to a horse and carriage ride every trip we go on because it’s so expensive, but we said yes in Central Park on our recent trip to New York City and it was so magical because they hadn’t done it elsewhere. We said no to buying the tacky bedazzled $20 baseball cap even though “it was the most beautiful thing” my four-year-old had ever seen and had a big conversation about how when we buy more things, we take fewer trips. Read blogs and see what people who have been there and have kids your age enjoyed the most. Try to pick some off the beaten path things that aren’t as touristy to get more of a feel for the place you’re visiting.
- Pick age appropriate things for your kids. When traveling with our kids, we don’t necessarily do things that my husband and I would do if we were traveling alone. Our kids are eight, six, and four; when they were four, two and a baby, our trip plans looked different than they do now that everyone can walk with their own legs. Attention spans are getting longer so we can check out a museum, but probably not an art museum. Picking age appropriate things for your kids helps keep their attention and focuses on things that you can all enjoy because they are engaged. The cool thing about this is that each trip will change a little bit as they get older. Our trip plans don’t totally revolve around what our kids want to do, but we try to mix in things that they’ll be interested in with things that we enjoy too.
- Don’t forget to enjoy nature or your surroundings. On a recent beach trip, we spent $20 to buy a cast net and we all learned how to throw a cast net to catch fish. That is one of the most memorable parts of that trip for my son. On our New York trip, we spent hours walking around in Central Park seeing things and people watching, playing in the grass and hanging out. Sometimes I get so busy planning things to do that I forget to just be there, and how much fun that can be when it’s mixed in with your planned things.
- Plan ahead. I’m not always a plan ahead person, but when it comes to trips with the kids I try to plan ahead. Read blog posts about new places. Make reservations for the meals you want to enjoy out, and research to hopefully avoid hangry children or too much idle time for everyone to revolt and turn into lunatics. It’s worth it.
The most important thing to realize when traveling with kids is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. People ask us all the time how we travel so much with our kids and don’t go crazy, and the answer is we just do it. It doesn’t always look perfect. It’s fighting and picking, grumpiness and being hungry and not able to find a good place to eat, it’s getting frustrated at each other or not being able to decide what we’ll do next. It’s a whole lot of craziness, but in the end it is worth it.