Remember when you were in college or in your early 20s and you would travel without a care in the world? You could spend 75 cents and have a sleeve of Oreos and an apple for lunch. You could wander for hours getting lost in a city just for the sake of exploring. You could sleep overnight in an airport when your flight got canceled.
Then you had kids.
Suddenly travel became overwhelming. How am I supposed to travel the world with these kids when it feels like I need to pack my entire house in the diaper bag for a trip to Target? Will they sleep at all in the hotel, or will they just keep waking each other up? Will the flight or road trip be a preview of what hell is like? What if the baby cries the entire time, or the toddler throws a fit because he just wants to be exploring the aircraft instead of sitting quietly in his seat? Also, it's actually pretty expensive to travel with 5 human beings instead of 1.
Fellow parent, your fears are not unfounded. Travel with kids is EXHAUSTING. It's hard, and it will TEST your marriage. It will possibly bring you to tears, and it will make you want to lock yourself in your house the moment you get back and never leave again.
So why do people do it? Why do we keep subjecting ourselves to the trials and tribulations of air travel and long road trips with our tiny dictators who leave destruction and lots of crumbs in their wake? Why do we open ourselves up to disrupting routines and sleep schedules?
It's because the reward is so great. The return on our investment is huge. Yes, travel with kids is tough, but the growth you will see in your children and in yourself makes every sleepless night and transportation nightmare totally worth it.
10 reasons to travel with little kids even though it's a giant pain in the butt.
1. It encourages your child's natural curiosity.
Kids are naturally curious creatures. Parents, you know this, as you are on the receiving end of a million and one questions each day. As a former teacher, however, I know that not all kids retain that zeal to learn and explore. Travel is one way to keep kids hungry to learn and thirsting to know more about the world around them.
When we start traveling with them at a young age, they recognize their smallness in the world - in a good way! They realize from the start that the world is full of many different kinds of people who look different, eat different things, speak different languages, and practice different habits. Instead of looking down on those people or thinking their way of doing things is "weird," kids will respect those differences and want to learn more about them.
2. They become problem-solvers instead of complainers.
One thing you know if you've traveled before is that something is likely to go wrong on most trips. Sometimes the problems are big, like a canceled flight, and sometimes the problems are small, like you forgot to pack nail clippers and you chipped a nail.
Regardless, the more you travel, the more you learn to deal with problems in a proactive way with a positive attitude. You learn to be resourceful and to ask questions (politely) of people who might be able to help you. Your kids are watching you, and they will learn to handle frustrating situations with creativity and patience.
3. It will strengthen your bond as a family.
When you're away from home you'll have to learn to rely on one another for safety, support, and comfort. You'll experience funny, frustrating, and fantastic situations together. You'll learn to put up with each other's annoying habits and quirks. There is often no way to escape one another, as you're all stuck in one hotel room or car.
Going through these situations together will bring you together in a way that sticking to your routine at home never could. When something is new or scary or awe-inspiring, you share an unbreakable bond with the people you experienced it with.
4. You'll share memories for years to come.
I often hear people say they're going to wait to travel until their kids are old enough to remember the trip. I understand their reasoning, but in my experience, my 3 and 5-year-old share plenty of memories of our travels. At the very least, we have photos and videos to remind them.
It's not uncommon to hear my son say, "Mommy, remember the shark we saw at the aquarium in Gatlinburg? His teeth were so big!" Or my daughter might sigh, "I want to go back to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower again."
Related: Family Travel Guide to Gatlinburg
These trips and vacations are part of the fabric of our shared family history and make our time together richer and layered with stories.
5. It’s the best education they’ll ever get.
When my daughter was 14 months old we took her to London and Paris. She could already say a handful of words, but the one word she couldn’t (wouldn’t?) say was mama. I tried over and over, but to no avail.
During our time in Paris, our little girl learned to say bonjour. That’s right. She said bonjour before she said mama.
A few months later she tagged along with me to visit family members who were serving as missionaries in Mexico. We picked up a few Spanish-language board books that we still use and learn from to this day.
Language, world cuisine, cultural norms, wildlife conservation, geography, art, and history are just a few of the topics kids will pick up during their travels. Most of the time, they’ll be having fun and won’t even realize they’re learning.
6. They will learn to be flexible.
I value nap time. I value schedules. I value habits and structure for my kids.
But I also value flexibility. I want my kids to be able to cope when they’re waiting in a long line, when there’s no wifi, when they’re hungry or bored or tired. I want them to be able to fall asleep on the floor or in a bed that’s uncomfortable.
These are valuable skills that kids will learn if they're traveling a lot.
As a kid, I shared many-a hotel room with my family of 8, which means I slept on the floor a lot. We took long cross-country van rides to avoid paying for expensive plane tickets, which means I learned to be content with a small space and a book. I learned that not everything was going to go according to my timeline, and that was ok. Those skills have served me well as an adult - in my work, in my parenting, and in my travels. I want that for my kids, too.
7. They learn to be brave and try new things.
My 3-year-old (the middle child) can be kind of anxious. Noisy places and large crowds make him nervous, and he’s usually reticent to try new things. It would be really easy to just stay home with him and avoid meltdowns in public or long nights in a hotel room when he “just wants to go home.” But I don’t think that’s what’s best for him in the long run.
I talk to my kids all the time about bravery. I tell them that being brave means you’re scared, but you do it anyway. We talk about how it’s ok and normal to feel scared or anxious when something is different. I want them to understand that in new situations, they’re going to feel uncomfortable, but I also want them to be able to move past that.
Travel has given all of my children, especially my anxious little guy, lots of small opportunities to practice bravery in situations where Mom and Dad are right there to hug them and guide them through. Whether it’s a new ride at Disney World or touching a stingray at an aquarium, it’s so cool to see them push outside their comfort zones.
8. It makes them appreciate home and routine.
There’s no place like home.
Once kids have experienced time away from their own bed and their own toys, they come back with a renewed zeal for the familiar. They appreciate it more than if they had never left. They’re happy to play for hours with their old toys.
This is true for me, too. I have a bad case of wanderlust, and if I’m not careful to check my heart, that wanderlust can quickly turn into discontentment.
Exploring and travel, even if it’s just checking out a city a half hour away, has helped me to appreciate the mundane and structure of everyday life.
9. They will become excellent travel companions.
Anything is hard the first time you do it. This is especially true of travel with kids. If you start when they are young, it will likely be a very difficult experience. You will feel like you are packing your entire home just to feed and change the diapers of your little tiny humans in a different location. You will spend half your trip guarding your toddler from falling down the open staircase and the other half cutting up food and picking up crumbs. It’s going to be exhausting, and you’re going to come home and say, “Never again.”
But then the kids will get a little older. (Unless you’re still in the midst of having kids. Then this scenario will play itself over and over again for about 5 years). But THEN they’ll start to get older. And the trips will get a little easier. They will know how to entertain themselves on a long car ride or a plane. They will be able to fall asleep without you laying in the bed with them. You won’t have to cut up their food, and they will start appreciating things more.
Before you know it, your little monsters will turn into little travel companions who are passionately curious about the world around them. They will ask questions, they will take pictures, they will look forward to and reminisce about the trip.
This past summer, my daughter, who had just turned 5 and just learned to read, was reading through her state fact book on our drive from Big Canoe, GA to Atlanta, GA. “Mom!” she gasped. “Did you know Atlanta is the capital of Georgia?”
“Yes, baby! Isn’t that exciting? We’re going to visit the capital!”
“So…what’s the capital of Florida?”
“Well can we visit Tallahassee someday? I would really like to visit our capital.”
In that small conversation, I felt like I had made it. My little baby girl was reading about and getting excited about our destination. I was so excited to share that moment with her, and look forward to so many more.
Related: What to Do in Atlanta with Kids
10. It changes your own perspective on travel.
When you travel with kids, suddenly you start to see the world through their eyes. You start to appreciate simple moments like sunsets and bugs on the sidewalk. Children move a bit slower, and cause you to slow down and notice. Maybe you’ve seen a landmark or monument many times, but seeing it with your children for the first time gives it a new significance.
I’ve also noticed that traveling with kids opens you up to meet more people. Everyone want to stop and coo at your baby, or you might have a precocious or talkative child who isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with strangers. I’ve always said that meeting other people and learning about their lives is one of my favorite parts of travel, but often the introvert in me shies away from making the effort to connect with others. Kids have a way of knocking down those barriers.
So all of that to say…
… yes, traveling with kids is 1,000x more work than traveling as a young adult alone.
… yes, the first few times will be hard. Maybe even a disaster.
… yes, they may not remember every detail.
… that hard work will pay off. They will become amazing little travelers, quicker than you think!
… those hard times will make the good trips even sweeter. And they will make for some really funny family stories around the dinner table someday.
… though they may not remember the name of the museum you visited, they will remember how travel made them feel. They will recognize how it shaped them into the person they are. They will use what they have learned on travel to be a braver, kinder, more open person.
You got this! And if you don’t, at least post the disaster story on social media so we can all commiserate together.