The Pleasure & Pain of Traveling with Kids

We approached the edge of the Grand Canyon slowly, eyes looking down at our feet and the ground immediately in front of us. When we got to the solid metal fence, we looked up and at once the grandeur and immensity of the canyon affected us. “Oh, my,” my six-year-old daughter called out. I glanced over at my nine-year-old son to see his mouth opened wide in wonder. My eyes filled with tears, not only at the beauty I was witnessing but at the real gift of sharing this moment with my children. This, I thought, is the reason we travel as a family. We are taken out of our everyday routine and get to have new experiences with those we love most in the world.

Of course, family travel is not all moments of transcendence like I described above; it also involves massive tantrums, sleep disruption, squabbling parents, unexpected illness, and more. I remember a trip to Disneyland which we had to cut short because first one child and then the other threw up in the rental car. These are the moments that parents dread. They are made more difficult by being in an unfamiliar environment and also because we have looked forward to the possibility of the vacation being relaxing or at least a break from our routine. Here are some ideas for making family travel more pleasant and less taxing for all involved.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

There are excellent ways to prepare for family travel on the Internet. I research hotels and activities carefully, reading reviews and anticipating my family’s needs and interests. Lately, we have been staying at Airbnb’s because it can be helpful to have more space and a kitchen when traveling with kids.

Include your children in the planning as much as possible. Perhaps as part of your Family Meeting, tell kids what is coming up and help them to anticipate what the upcoming travel might be like. Consider offering your kids a few choices of activities and asking them to choose the one in which they are most interested.

Enlist your kids in your research. I often show my kids maps, photos, and short videos of the places we are about to visit. This helps them to feel invested in the trip and also to have a small glimpse of what to expect. Most of us (including kids), do best when we know what to expect and also feel consulted in the the things that we are going to do on a trip.

Adjust Your Expectations

This is my most important suggestion! Remember that a vacation with kids will not be the same as a vacation without kids. Take it as a given that family travel will be a noisier, messier, more sleep-deprived experience. However, there will also be moments of connection and experiences that are simply not possible if you stay at home.

Family travel also gets easier as your children get older. There is simply less gear to bring along, for one thing! But also, you can choose to deeply explore your older children’s interests in a new place, showing them that you value their unique personalities and contributions to the family.

But if you are parenting young children, remember that the messiness of travel with little ones is not your fault. This is just the way it is and perhaps it helps a bit to just not expect anything different.

On that same trip to the Grand Canyon, I complimented by brother-in-law on how well his two little boys were doing on a long car ride. I could tell that he appreciated the positive feedback and he also said that he had been feeling that they had been a little too crazy. Sometimes, perspective is everything. The more we can learn to quiet our inner critics, the better. Often, we take our children’s behavior personally, instead of realizing that certain activities will be challenging for them and taking it as part and parcel of the experience.

Mix Things Up, But Also Remember Routine

In my opinion, vacations are not a time to stick to strict routines. Part of the fun of travel is stepping outside of our everyday existence. That said, remember that kids do well with knowing what to expect from day to day. So, be sure to let them know what is coming up throughout the trip. You will also want to insure enough time to sleep—adding back in naps or quiet rest time for older kids may be necessary. Treats can also be a part of travel, but remain mindful of getting kids enough protein and fiber so that they can feel their best through long days filled with new experiences. Again, some kind of balance is the goal. Staying too rigid may keep you from enjoying your trip, but imposing some structure and expectations is absolutely necessary for kids to be successful when outside of their normal routines.

Schedule Time For You

For many parents, a vacation is simply not a vacation without the opportunity to engage in the activities that excite us, indulge us, or challenge us. After all, we are human beings, not just parents! I encourage you to find ways to connect with the moments that give you pleasure and help you to find meaning in travel.

Perhaps, you and your partner could trade off childcare responsibilities so that you can participate in an activity. If you are visiting family, perhaps a family member can watch your kids so that you and your partner can have time without your kids. Be creative but just remember to give some thought to whether there is something that you really want to do and think about whether it is possible for you to do that activity. This is part of self-care and it is your responsibility as a parent to look out for yourself as well as for your kids!

Over years of family travel, I’ve discovered some ways to make the experience more pleasant, both for my husband and me and for our children. Perhaps most importantly, if your family values travel, I encourage you to keep doing it. You can adjust your expectations and make the venues child appropriate, but travel with kids can still be fun!