Why You Should Travel When Kids Are Young

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Tim Clayton - Corbis / Getty Images

Parenthood is chock-full of ridiculousness, isn’t it? I mean, seriously. The things we put ourselves through—the state fair, where it’s 900 degrees, there’s a 20-minute wait for a corndog, and rows and rows of “games” where your kid can “win” cheap-ass toys that will break before you get home and drain $20 out of your wallet in 3 minutes. Or the beach! That’s a good one. Nothing better than cleaning sand out of a hangry, exhausted toddler’s butt-crack, amiright?

But we still do it. We still do all of the things, knowing they are going to suck sometimes more than than they don’t suck. Knowing we are going to shell out buckets of cash, only to carry our kids home in a sweaty puddle of meltdowns. Because that’s what parenting little kids means. It means doing the things that make them smile, taking pictures of said things, sharing them on social media and putting them in a picture book, and being perpetually exhausted and in debt every minute of every day.

It’s why you find parents dragging half-asleep 3-year-olds through the airport to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Disney World. Or why you see a mom with three kids about to pee their pants at a truck stop in the middle of Oklahoma. Because as parents, we know that even though traveling with our kids when they are young is the exact opposite of a “vacation,” it’s worth it. Here’s why.

They have low expectations.

Young kids know nothing, so parents should definitely capitalize on that, financially, and when planning the trip. They don’t yet know what’s at Disney, so if you go, and you visit one park for one day, they’ll think they’ve done it all. Or don’t. You can just as easily amuse your 3-year-old with a trip to the water park down the street, get her a shaved ice, and earn your “best mommy ever” badge that way too.

When they are older and in school and befriend super rich Kayleigh down the street, whose parents took her on a cruise in the Mediterranean where she took professional snorkeling lessons and swam with exotic rare dolphins off the coast of Greece, then you may feel pressure to compete. But until then? There’s no need to sell your left kidney to fund an expensive vacation for little kids.

Have you seen how excited kids get at hotels? That’s really all you need—a new place to sleep and a hotel pool. Boom. Happiness. Or, try this—I took my son to the mall last month and we rode the escalator. He said it was the best day of his life. Just sayin’.

They may actually love each other.

Another thing I love about traveling with young kids is how they morph into kinder humanoids who sometimes get along. They may even create a new bond. Now before you scoff at this absurd notion—I mean how would they possibly fight less when trapped in the car for 20 hours?—hear me out.

Sometimes when you leave the house, when you take away their toys and playroom and comfort of their regular surroundings, kids change. All of a sudden seeing a wild turkey cross the road is exciting. Or passing trucks and getting them to pull their horns becomes the best game of the day. Sharing snacks, communal waters (you gotta let the germ phobia go when traveling, seriously), passing toys back and forth… all of a sudden, you might hear giggles and look back and see them having fun. And then your motherhood heart chamber bursts open as you realize that they really do love each other.

I’m not saying it lasts the whole time. Someone is going to drink the last juice box or eat the last Oreo. They’re still children. But in my experience, the excitement of going to a new place, on an adventure, sometimes overrides the irritation of having to share the iPad.

They go to bed early.

Obviously, there are benefits to traveling with older kids as opposed to babies and toddlers. Older kids can do more, and you can probably relax knowing that they won’t poop themselves or jump into the lion cage or something. But here’s the good part about traveling with younger kids—they go to bed early. So guess what that means for parents? After an exhausting day of waiting in lines and visiting more public bathrooms than you care to count, once you get back to your hotel, you wash them up, say goodnight, and then it’s grownup time!

Also, when you have little bitties, the days can be short, and that’s okay. If your kids are pooped, go back to your hotel, veg in front of a movie, and crack a beer knowing the hard work is done. There’s not as much pressure to cram it all in and stay for the fireworks at 10 p.m. When my kids were babies and toddlers, many vacation nights were spent in pjs by 6:00 at night eating mac and cheese from the hotel restaurant, and that was just fine. And once they’re asleep, you can enjoy a quiet night with a glass of pinot on your hotel balcony. Because you know those little cherubs are going to wake you up at some ungodly hour the next morning to do it all over again.

It’s magical.

Although the hard thing about young children is that they have an attention span of like 3 seconds and super short memories, this is also a good thing. They live in the moment, and if the moment is seeing a rainbow or feeling the plane take off, it’s magical. And it’s joy. Years later they may not remember their first plane ride or that time you all pulled into an old-fashioned cash-only ice cream stand in a middle of nowhere town, but you will.

And in a couple weeks, when you’re back home and wrestling your child into a pull-up even though he can “do it himself” but he really can’t and you’re 15 minutes late for wherever you need to be, you can close your eyes for a quick second and go back to that place. To that moment he looked out the window and saw that he was flying over the clouds. And you’ll remember that the hard stuff is worth it.

Traveling with kids is probably one of the most exhausting things you can do. You’ll question yourself the whole time. Like why are we this stupid? Why are we lighting money on fire when our toddler is asleep in the stroller at this amusement park? And then you hear distant music, and the march of a parade coming your way. Your little one wakes up just in time to see Moana pass by on a Hawaiian float, look right at her and wave. And when you see the joy on their face, you whisper to yourself, That’s why.

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