Everything You Think You Know About Family Travel … Is Wrong

The Travel Blog Mob is writing about travel misconceptions this month. A particularly relevant subject for traveling with kids given that parents tend to have loads of preconceived notions about what it entails.

When I first launched Ciao Bambino in 2004 as a planning service to help families travel to Italy with kids, I’ll never forget my conversation with a friend who looked me in the eye and said, “I can barely manage to get to the grocery store with my kids … let alone Italy. You’re nuts!” That may be, but I can’t think of a single family that has used Ciao Bambino to plan a trip and regretted going.

This doesn’t mean every travel experience is flawless — far from it! The point is that fears and beliefs associated with family vacations are often greatly exaggerated.

boy-in-garden-at-borgo-santo-pietro-tuscany-italy

Enjoying the garden at Borgo Santo Pietro in Tuscany

Here’s my list of the top 10 misconceptions about family travel:

“I need to wait until my kids are older before taking them abroad”

Not true! In fact, I’d argue that travel with very young kids has some distinct benefits over traveling with older kids. Kids are entertained easily when they are little. We could spend hours in a piazza in Italy when our son was a toddler — he chased pigeons while we relaxed over coffee. This type of loitering becomes increasingly more difficult as kids mature. Moreover, when kids are young, you can fit the family into smaller hotel configurations and this keeps costs down (not to mention that many hotels don’t charge for kids under 12).

“Young kids won’t remember going to places like Europe, so why bother?”

Our son visited Europe a few times a year since he was a baby. Admittedly, he doesn’t remember Florence as a baby or Spain as a toddler or our trip to Banff when he was 3 or our week in Mexico for his 4th birthday … That said, we do! These are memories we’ll cherish forever as parents, plus the overall developmental benefit of these trips is significant. Travel builds flexibility in kids and an awareness that the world is a diverse place. I can’t think of a better way to teach kids to become global citizens (see Jessie Voight’s article on volunteer family travel for wonderful insight on this topic).

“A kid-friendly restaurant means there must be a kids’ menu available”

A kids’ menu is a nice perk, but there are loads of restaurants that are willing to make smaller portions of the adult selections for kids (at reduced pricing). Moreover, for a trip that is longer than a weekend, it’s easy to get bored of the same chicken nuggets with fries option, not to mention the lack of  healthy food on typical kids’ menus. Hotels and restaurants are getting better about accommodating families — check one of the many excellent family travel blogs for suggestions!

“Traveling with babies requires so much stuff that travel with them is a hassle”

Yes, babies need equipment and a big list of supplies. The good news, however, is there is a growing list of companies providing essentials to parents at their destination. Translation = you don’t need to “carry” everything with you and this reduces the hassle factor exponentially. See our directory of kids and baby equipment rentals for reference.

“Art museums aren’t fun for kids”

A visit to an art museum may be the highlight of a trip for every person in the family. It’s all about who you approach the experience. Nancy wrote a timeless article with tips on visiting museums with kids — the trick is to get kids to interact with what they are seeing. There are a few great companies offering family-focused art tours including ArtXplorers in New York City and Paris Muse in Paris.

“Parents need to a long list of structured activities on vacation or kids will get bored”

It depends on where you go, but in general, the best trips involve a balance of playtime, sightseeing, and structured activities vs. too much of any one thing. We are so used to being over-scheduled at home that it’s disconcerting to leave chunks of time open while on the road. Some of our best travel memories are unique, planned experiences (see finding and booking family tours for examples), but I find that wandering without a plan can be equally as enjoyable when you are open to discovering unexpected treats and points of interest.

“Jet lag is more challenging for children than adults”

The first two days in a new time zone can be sheer misery with young kids. If you can get through that first 48 hours, you’ll find that kids are more resilient than we are. On most of our trips, I’m still experiencing caffeine emergencies in the afternoon while our son is bright-eyed and ready for action. There are great posts about coping with jet lag and time changes on Best Family Travel Advice.

water balloon toss at montage laguna beach ca kids club

Water balloon toss at Montage Laguna Beach Paintbrush kids’ club

“Kids’ clubs are glorified babysitting and not a consistent, reliable entertainment option on vacation”

Families have different vacation priorities, but sending a child to a kids’ club need not be a guilt-inducing event. There is a growing list of hotels featuring unique kids’ club experiences offering everything from cultural to environmental lessons and activities. Choosing the best kids’ club set up for your family is key — but there’s no reason in the world not to take advantage of qualified clubs offered by some hotels.

“Luxury hotels with plush furnishings and gourmet dining aren’t kid-friendly”

Au contraire, I think it’s easier to find a luxury hotel that does a wonderful job of catering to children than a mid-range or budget hotel that manages kids well. The world’s best luxury hotels will work hard to make every member of the family comfortable. All experiences, however, are not created equal — see my tips for finding and booking luxury family hotels.

“Flying long distances with young kids is stressful”

It can be! I don’t want to minimize the angst of being on a long flight with a screaming child. All of us that have passed the baby and toddler years have been there. The good news is that these flights are not the norm. I hear more stories of flights gone well than awry.

The point is that fear of flying with kids is not reason to postpone travel. Portable electronics have come so far that entertainment is easier than ever. If you need activity inspiration see our great list of travel activities for kids of all ages.

Travel Blog Mob’s  round up of  “Everything You Know About Travel Is Wrong” posts:

Debunking common travel misconceptions on Wandering Educators

Everything you know about travel writers is wrong on BootsnAll

Travelers Beware: Everything you think you know may be wrong on Traveling with MJ

Opting out of full body scanners on Wanderlust and Lipstick

Getting it wrong on Nerds Eye View

3 obviously true travel facts that are wrong on Spot Cool Stuff

Los Angeles facts and myths on The Vacation Gals

Traveling Disaster: 6 Unfortunate Mishaps And How to Deal with Them on Sharing Travel Experiences

20 Comments

  1. I completely agree; great job! Especially the idea about “kids’ clubs’ at resorts. Sure, I’ve run into a couple that wee pretty bad (plop kids in front of a TV, pop in a DVD, meanwhile it’s a glorious day outside) — but the really good kids’ camps let children explore an environment that’s different from their one at home, with perhaps some craft time. The best yet are the Ambassadors of the Environment programs that a few Ritz-Carltons have replaced their Ritz Kidz camps with.

  2. A great list of misconceptions! One thing we did when when our girls were babies was ship items to our destination. Many baby items are bulky, disposable and light. For less than buying at our destination (usually overseas) we would ship diapers and wipes, special snack foods, disposable containers and even clothes to save on stress of dragging things in and out of airports, as well as packing them in the rental car. I’ve never had a B&B or hotel refuse to hold a package until our arrival- and it helped keep our checked bags to a minimum.

  3. Not having kids myself I would think all of these are spot on. Glad that you’re dispelling the myths and encouraging people to take their young ones on the road…

  4. Great article–spot on! We’re currently travelling with our 3 & 5 yr olds and like you said 1) they entertain themselves practically anywhere, 2) it costs us less as we can all fit into 1 room and 3) time change has never been a problem for them. They’ve traveled 20hr flights since they were babies and it’s only ever taken then 1 day to adjust for those distances. Already only 7 weeks into this trip, we can see impacts on their sense of their world that wouldn’t have been there had it not been for the travel, such things as concepts of time zones, different currencies, different countries with different language, culture and customs–remember, these are pre-schoolers! And photos will go a long way in ‘making memories’ for them when they’re older.

  5. Great post! I would rather go through the pre-trip anxiety and post-trip exhaustion than not travel with my kids. It is always, always worth it. (We are planning our longest flight so far with kids, so I am reading several of your linked articles from this post. Thanks!)

  6. Absolutely. We’ve traveled with all our kids since they were infants, including a number of trips to Asia. I always say they travel well because they are well traveled.

  7. I hear most of these excuses even when referring to trips to places that a decidedly kid friendly (Disney parks!) and I am always saying that THEY don’t have to remember it, I get to have the memory of them experiencing it.

  8. I agree with the statement about museums being great for little ones. I was amazed how much my 16 month old loved the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The Ishtar gate was so fascinating for her. She kept wanting to see the images of animals on the gate, and loved to point out the Assyrian lion statues.

    That being said, you need to keep expectations realistic, and not expect to spend more than 2 hours in a museum.

  9. What is your advice on enjoying the evenings and having dinners
    when traveling with a toddler who goes to sleep at 7pm at night?

  10. What about CAR SEATS? This has been the big “avoid-the-hassle” for us to leave our own country!

  11. I like your point about the not remembering – they certainly will remember a lifetime of travel no matter what stage of their lives they are at. We’ve take out hoard abroad and to the carribean, it’s just life with us.

  12. Great List! I’m liking the kids menu’s at restaurants point as we’ve fell foul of this several times, we know better now and ask before we sit down;)

  13. I think the most frustrating one for me is the argument that the kids won’t remember our trips. As someone who lives fairly remotely (far north Queensland in Australia) traveling with my two boys has been integral to consolidating their relationships with loved ones. It is for this reason that travel with our children has taken us to the United States, Italy, and frequently, to Melbourne and Sydney.

  14. Nice list. Our son is almost three, and while we haven’t traveled abroad with him much (just a cruise that went to the Bahamas), he’s been to about a dozen states, and we’ve taken him on many hikes, on a few camping trips, to the beach, and to lots of museums and other city-type activities. Of course expectations change once little kids are with you, but they can also enrich the experience. The things they find the most interesting are often not what you would expect and can expand one’s view of what is “interesting.” As for not remembering, as you said, that doesn’t mean it is not important. We all do many things for and with our babies and toddlers that they will not consciously remember, but they are still important experiences that can help shape who the child becomes. In addition, if they are having fun at the time, why is remembering necessary? Now that our son is closer to 3, he still talks about experiences, including travel, that occurred several months ago. He probably won’t remember these experiences long term, but that’s okay.

  15. Traveling with kids – wee ones or older – isn’t tough.
    *Parenting* is tough.
    If you really *can’t* take your kid – at any age to the grocery store without experiencing nightmare tantrums?
    Wherever you go, there you are.
    And your kids along with you.
    I traveled in a car cross country with mine from the time I had a lone bored 4yo right on through through the arrival of his (7 yrs later) sister and lil bro (3 years after little sis) and as they grew up.
    You think your kid gets bored in a fancy hotel, try buckled up in car seats for 2 days each way on these trips!
    But it was fabulous and they look back on our trips as happy memories- and I didn’t have the urge to kill them even once,lol!

  16. great article ! so true !
    A month ago i went to the Pompidou modern art museum in Paris with my kids (4 and 6) and they loved it 😉

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