The travel experience broadens a child's perspective, introduces her to new people, and deepens her understanding of other cultures, says Joe D'Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Convention and Visitors' Bureau. But before you pack your bags, make sure your kids understand that travel "is a special experience and a privilege -- not something everyone around the world gets to do," says Celeste Brash, Lonely Planet writer, who contributed chapters to Travel With Children. "It's an adventure." Instill a love of travel in your kids by prioritizing travel as a family. If you're not sure where to begin, take advice from some jet-setting parents who also happen to work in the travel industry. Discover easy tips on how to get your child excited, start planning a trip, and get ready for some lasting memories.
Try hyper-local activities such as bird-watching at the park, inspecting bugs and leaves in the backyard, tasting a new cuisine at an ethnic restaurant, or attending a festival or parade. Commitments don't have to require much time or money, as many outings call for only an afternoon or a Saturday. The goal is to expose your children to new experiences on a small scale, whether that comes in the form of music, art, food, geography, or culture. Consider taking a small trip for a birthday instead of showering your little one with a pile of gifts. "It doesn't have to be far away," D'Alessandro adds.
Enlist your munchkin to help with the planning and research. "Before you go on a trip, do some prep and get kids excited," Brash says. Ask your daughter where she wants to go, and let her pick out a few activities. When the school calendar comes out, Amanda D'Acierno, senior vice president and publisher of Fodor's, pulls out the globe with her son and they brainstorm ideas on where to spend long weekends. "We talk about seeing the penguins in Antarctica," she says, "and settle on something a little closer to home, like Florida or the Caribbean."
After you finalize a destination, look for a family-oriented guidebook about the place you plan to visit. Search for family-friendly activities such as children's museums or junior-ranger programs at national parks. In 2012, more than 810,000 junior rangers earned badges for activities like exploring wildlife, spotting animal tracks, and learning about the significance of the park's resources, says Kathy Kupper, spokesperson for the National Park Service.
"Children can read a book about a tree, or they can go out and touch it and climb it," Kupper says. So head outdoors and explore the world together.
Get your little one excited about travel by letting his interests determine the destination, says Lesley Carlin, spokesperson for TripAdvisor.com. If your son is obsessed with trains, for instance, consider all the places, near and far, that will spark his curiosity. Or go on a short journey by taking the commuter train or light rail instead of driving into the city one weekend. You can also explore a region of the U.S. on a longer Amtrak ride, or, if time and money allow, take the high-speed rail on a tour of Europe.
If you already have a trip booked to a certain spot, look for something in the area that will drum up your child's interest. D'Acierno's 9-year-old son is a huge sports fan, so her family often plans trips around athletic events. She likes minor-league baseball games, because they are inexpensive and family-friendly. "It's a different environment," she notes. "Kids can go on the field and have access to the players." Don't forget to ask friends for recommendations on any interesting, special, or wacky places they've visited, adds Carlin, who has traveled as far as Wales and Rome with her 5-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. "If there's something unusual or unique to the area, it's worth going an hour out of the way to get there," she says.
Avoid overprogramming the vacation. "If you want to focus on making it an experience for the child, let some of it happen naturally," D'Alessandro says. "You don't have to plan everything in advance." Leave room for down time and free time. Let the child go at her pace, not yours. Remember that flexibility will win brownie points with your kids and probably preserve your sanity. Rolling with the punches has its benefits. Brash once vacationed in Spain with her children, then ages 3 and 5 (now 14 and 17), but the museum her family wanted to visit was closed. Instead, they played in the fountain outside for an hour, and that became one of the most memorable moments from that trip. "There are things that happen when traveling with kids when you allow them to be kids," she says. "They see magic in things...they find things more exotic than you would traveling with just grown-ups."
Remember to let go of expectations. Your children aren't going to love every minute of traveling, and that's okay. If you have multiple kids, they probably won't enjoy the same things, Brash says. Make sure that each one gets a chance to pick an activity so that nobody feels neglected.
Emphasize the importance of experiences over material gifts, says D'Alessandro, who has traveled extensively with his daughter over the past 29 years. Save ticket stubs and receipts from flights, museums, stadiums, and restaurants to place in an album. Write captions on the page, making note of a funny moment, a memorable activity, or a favorite snack. This way, if the idea of assembling a giant scrapbook stresses you out, you have a simpler version that the whole family can still enjoy. Or begin a tradition of searching for the same kind of inexpensive souvenir, such as a holiday ornament, to commemorate each journey.