“You take me on great trips,” read the childish scrawl on a Mother’s Day card my youngest son gave me, sometime ago, after his teacher asked the students to explain why their mothers were special.
To me, that’s high praise. I’ve been traveling with my kids since the oldest, now in his late 20s, was a toddler. Since then, we’ve taken trips to a dozen European countries, South Africa, Central America, Canada, Mexico, most of the Caribbean islands and half the 50 states.
My husband and I travel not only because it’s fun but also to expose our four children to diverse people, places and experiences. My kids have soared in a seaplane above Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier and marveled over the engineering and architectural wonders of the Colosseum.
But many parents are intimidated by family travel, especially long-distance journeys or trips abroad. They fear the hassles will outweigh the pleasures. They hold off until the kids are in elementary school, then decide to wait until middle school. And, in the blink of an eye, the kids are away at college and the opportunity is gone.
Resolve to make plans for a great family adventure. Here’s a bit of road-tested advice for making the journey easier and more rewarding:
Give Everyone a Vote
Anyone would agree that Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral is a must-see over the Planet Hollywood on the Champs-Élysées. Anyone but a 5-year-old, that is, and it was my 5-year-old’s turn to decide what to do during his first trip to Paris way back in 2000.
We only had time for one more activity that day before downtime at the hotel. Our youngest son was only three then and still needed naps. Although I would have preferred a visit to Notre Dame followed by a room service lunch, 5-year-old John had patiently toured the Louvre that morning and was now hankering for an American burger. Notre Dame would just have to wait for another day, or possibly another trip.
Let the kids have a voice in each day’s itinerary and everyone will be happier. When we took the kids and their grandparents to Italy, the in-law signed up for every possible activity. But, most days, the kids chose to forgo extra excursions. After these blocks of free time, they were eager to rejoin the tour’s included activities.
Yes, You Can Do “Grown-Up” Travel
Don’t make the assumption that theme parks are the only destinations for kids. The real world is a lot more educational and exciting than a world populated by costumed characters. So go ahead and take the kids to the Sistine Chapel. See Churchill’s War Room. Learn how chocolate and pineapple are grown in Costa Rica or buffalo mozzarella is made on Italy’s Amalfi Coast
Just remember to keep things short and sweet. On our Parisian jaunt, we dashed through the Louvre in five hours. My kids are in their teens and 20s now and still talk about the Mona Lisa and other treasures they were exposed to as small children. Next time they travel to Paris, they’ll be ready for a more thoughtful exploration of the Louvre.
Make the Commitment
The USDA says it takes $269,520 to raise a child to age 17. Social researcher Mark McCrindle says you’ll spend more than a million. Either way, that’s a lot of cash. Unless you’ve got a trust fund, you’ll need to make a plan for paying for all those diapers, daycare bills, braces and family trips. Decide from the get-go that travel is an integral part of your family budget. Set aside a bank account for trips and make a contribution—no matter how small—each and every month. Maybe you’ll need to skimp in other areas, like home furnishings or the latest tech gadgets. But it will be worth it when you embark on that family trip and make memories that will last a lifetime.
My final nugget of advice may not sit well with parenting experts, but I have no problem taking the kids out of school for a day or two to travel abroad. I diligently coordinate our travel plans around the school calendar, but, every once in a while, the kids miss a school day (or two or three) because a guided tour departs before their holiday break or summer vacation starts.
For example, the kids missed two days of school when we took a trip to Italy during one Thanksgiving holiday. In high school, youngest son’s Latin textbook taught the language by focusing entirely on the city of Pompeii. He was the only student in that class who had seen this UNESCO World Heritage site with his own eyes. I’d wager to say that Austin learned more during those two days away from school than any of his friends back in the classroom.