When I talk to people about our long-haul trips – lasting for several months each – they often admire the fact that we chose to travel when our children were relatively young. Many parents seem daunted by the prospect. If you ask me, they shouldn’t be. Traveling with kids rocks. It’s better than traveling with adults, in many ways. I’m going to show you why that’s the case and then offer 9 tips that can help you make traveling with kids even better.
If you’re waiting for your kids “to grow older” before you travel together, don’t. In our experience, traveling with kids is actually better than traveling without kids, in more ways than one.
The advantages of traveling with kids
Given the option, I would always choose to travel with our kids. If you were to offer me a full nanny service that would take the best possible care of the offspring while DH and myself were out there traveling, I would absolutely refuse your offer. I prefer to travel with our kids.
Experience has shown us that kids can make awesome travel companions for many reasons, which I’ll delve into in a moment. For now, I just wanted to stress the fact that not only are children not a burden when you’re traveling, they can be an asset. Also, let’s face it, they may be annoying sometimes but being away from your kids sucks. That’s why for many parents, the alternative is to wait for the kids to be older.
So, what are the advantages?
1. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes
For me, that has to be the number one reason. Children – at least my own – are far less cynical than adults. They look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes, free of prejudice.
We visited Disneyland back in 2009. It was our first visit to the US and our first time at any Disney park. In our early thirties, I suspect we parents would not have enjoyed it on our own as much as we did with the kids. In fact, I suspect we would have skipped Disney altogether, considering the cost.
With the kids, this was a dream visit. They were in heaven! On cloud nine! Ten! Eleven! Our boys were five and seven at the time and they genuinely and intensely excited and happy. And you just couldn’t avoid being affected. Their enthusiasm was catching and we found ourselves seeing the park through their eyes, and enjoying it far more than we could possibly have had on our own.
It’s not just Disney though. Pretty much anywhere that might be considered tacky by adult standards, becomes golden when you see it with your kid. It’s as if you’re given permission to let go and immerse yourself into the experience. In fact, I think “immersion” is the key word here. When we visited Jackson, Wyoming, during the 4th of July, it was our kids who spontaneously joined their peers in collecting candy thrown at them from the parade, instantly transforming us from mere spectators into a family taking an active part in the celebrations.
2. Kids make you slow down
Kids are natural “slow travelers”. They are perfectly tuned for enjoying the little things around them and they usually want to stop to try out everything. It can be a playground, an ice cream truck or meeting new people – they will take the time to slow down and smell the proverbial flowers.
On our first trip to the US, we had planned to spend four days in San Diego. We soon realized it would be better to slow down and take the time to enjoy places. We ended up buying weekly passes to the main attractions, and so we visited Legoland twice, Seaworld three times and Balboa Park and the zoo several times. In between, we toured through the Old City, Coronado and Gaslamp district, slowly and at ease. We ended up spending ten wonderful days in San Diego! Traveling with kids, we got to enjoy an extended experience that we would have otherwise missed.
3. Kids are energetic travelers
Young children can be like Energizer’s pink bunny. When excited, they can keep on going forever.
Visiting Las Vegas with our kids, we hiked through half the length of the Strip on our first evening in town. The kids’ Dad wasn’t too thrilled with Vegas (neither was I, truth be told) but our young Dan – only 5 at the time – wanted to see each and every free street show. After watching the fountains at the Bellagio hotel, Dad and older brother Ron decided to walk back to the hotel. I would have done the same if it wasn’t for Dan who insisted on seeing the volcano erupt at the Mirage. And so, a five-year-old boy dragged a tired Mommy through the Strip until we got to the Mirage. I wouldn’t have seen that particular show if it wasn’t for Dan.
Of course, it can be a double-edged sword. As an adult sometimes you really prefer to take a nap over spending the evening at the motel’s pool (not a lot of sightseeing to do there, after all). Still, I think kids bring a different beat into a trip and their sheer energy can be refreshing.
4. People along the route are nicer to you
Anyone who’s ever traveled with children knows that. People are far kinder to traveling families. I’ve lost count of the times people went out of their way to help us, or just befriend us, thanks to our kids.
A few examples, off the top my head –
- The NYC taxi driver who noticed that our Dan wasn’t feeling well after the flight, got out of his cab at the destination, phoned our AirBNB host and made sure we got to the right door and found our keys. We didn’t have a local SIM card yet and would have been fairly lost without him.
- The paleontologist who came out to chat with our kids at the dinosaur museum and gave them a genuine piece of fossilized dinosaur bone.
- The motel owner who happened to be a volunteer at at an educational drag racing project, took us all to see his trucks and to meet his racer friend (who gave us two greasy engine pistons as a souvenir!)
5. It’s educational for your kids (and for you!)
Travel provides our kids with endless possibilities to explore the world and learn about their surroundings. We’ve mostly traveled in the US (44 states and counting!) and during our trips, the kids have not only learned a lot about American geography, history and culture, they’ve also picked up the language. Their native tongue is Hebrew, so becoming fluent in English is quite an achievement.
It’s not just them though. As adults, we learned more during our trips than we would have without the kids. Take national parks, for example. The kids are avid Jr. Ranger badges collectors. Getting the Jr. Ranger booklet was the first thing we did at each park and let me tell you, some of these are hard! They’re all incredibly educational, teaching you not only about the park itself but also about related geological, botanical and historical topics. We – the parents – have learned a lot from these booklets and from the numerous ranger talks we had to attend, so the kids can get their badges.
And don’t get me going on about the science museums we visit. I’ve lost track by now. We all learned so much from them all. Traveling with kids made us smarter!
6. Traveling builds character
As a parent, few things are as rewarding as watching your child grow up to become a decent person. Traveling together, you get to be there and see your children mature in front of your eyes. Having to constantly deal with the challenges of traveling made our kids far more flexible, friendlier and independent.
7. Traveling is great family bonding time
Modern life often means not seeing our kids for 8-12 hours a day. Simply being together 24/7 is a huge perk. Being able to share the awesomeness of traveling together can really bring you together as a family. Sure, it’s not always easy, but trust me, when you get back home and look at the pictures, you realize just how important your time together has been.
I’ve talked about this with other traveling families and they seem to agree. Long-term traveling with the kids is golden.
Tips for making traveling with kids easier
Now that we’ve established that traveling with kids is simply awesome, let me share a few quick tips on how to make it even more so.
1. Stay flexible
Wherever and whenever possible, we don’t make reservations. If we have to make reservations, we always try to keep them flexible with a good cancellation policy. We just never know when we’ll decide to stick around at some place or when we feel it’s time to move on. Granted, this is true for everyone, including adult solo travelers. I just think that with kids, you’re more likely to decide to stick around at one place and let them enjoy one more day at this cute little town with the awesome playground.
2. Give yourself time
I’m all for slow travel for all involved but again, even more so with kids. A rushed schedule can work when you’re on your own, or traveling as a couple. With kids, you just have to give things more time. They walk more slowly, they eat more slowly and they are attracted by things that you may not even notice. They need more time – and that’s not a bad thing, just something you should plan ahead for.
3. Have plenty of space
When the kids were very young, we could get away with a family rental car. However, once we tried renting a minivan for a long road trip, we never looked back. Mini vans offer us plenty of room which means each one of the kids can have his own little corner. There’s also more room for storage.
It’s not just the car. Where possible, we try to get vacation rentals instead of hotels. Having the kids in a separate bedroom gives us all a needed break. Having a living room to spend time together is a huge bonus as well. I blogged more about that here: Vacation Rentals Vs. Hotels: Which Is Better For Family Travel?
4. Give them their own bag where they can have “their stuff”
People often tell me young kids would have a hard time spending each night a different motel room. Well, it was never a problem for my boys. What really helped was having their own bag with their familiar toys. Ron would have his notebook, pencils and books, so he could write his journal. Dan used to carry around a small suitcase filled with playmobil toys. Whenever we’d get to a new hotel, he would find “his spot”, usually between a bed and a wall and start playing.
They’re older today, so their bags have their phones, tablets and headphones but the principle is the same.
5. Have food and drink at hand
One of the first things we do when we start a long road trip is get a cooler. We always have some fruit, health bars, crackers and yes, ok, some not-so-healthy snacks as well. Oh, and noodles. We keep ramen noodles with us at all times, for those late evenings at a motel in the middle of nowhere. The noodles are lightweight and all you need to make them is some hot water, so we always have a quick hot dinner on hand.
Speaking of water, we also carry tons of water with us. You never know when you’ll go on an unplanned hike, so having a few litres of bottled water to take along is crucial.
6. Treat your kids as travel partners
I’m not saying you should treat your kids as equal travel partners. I don’t think that’s ever a good approach. You’re the parents – even when on the road. That said, getting the kids involved in planning and asking for their opinion on the itinerary can help create a better sense of what’s to be expected.
7. Let them take time off when you’re doing something boring
Some things may be too boring for your kids. For example, I know my kids have a limited attention span when it comes to art museums (don’t tell anyone, but so do I!) Now that they’re older, we let them bring their phones so that when things get too boring for them, we find a nice safe spot where they can sit and wait for us. When they were younger, we would often split up. One parents would take the kids to a nearby playground while the other would enjoy the museum in peace.
8. Stick to your rules and boundaries
Remember, just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have rules and boundaries. Boundaries are important for kids of any age and I think they’re even more important when you’re traveling. They make children feel secure, knowing that Dad and Mom are there to take care of things and all they need to do is follow the rules. Well-behaved children actually enjoy traveling more and they’re not being a nuisance to others around them (just as important!)
Following the rules would also keep kids safer – and that’s something they need to know. You may be setting different rules for travel time and that’s ok. As long as everyone is clear about the rules and follows them.
9. Speaking of safety
Traveling can be risky. Keeping your kids safe while traveling is a good topic for a separate blog post. For now, I’ll just mention a few of the basics.
- Keep kids fully supervised.
- Keep some form of ID on the kids, with your name and local phone number, just in case. When the kids were younger and couldn’t speak English, they wore their own “dog tags” with that information.
- Teach your kids basic safety rules, including road safety and handling strangers.
- Talk about what happens if they find themselves separated from you, adjusting your solutions according to their age and language skills.
I hope you found this post helpful. If you did, please share it with your friends. Questions? Comments? Just scroll down a bit and use the comment form for those! Oh, and if you happen to be traveling with kids to a national park, take a moment to read my post Visiting National Parks: 16 Ways to Boost Your Adventure. It has more advice for traveling families, specifically for national parks.