by Eric Stoen – Memories last forever. It’s a cliche usually printed over inspirational Instagram photographs, but it’s also true. As a family with three kids under age 10, we’ve taken it to heart. And we’ve done so with family travel.
Unlike many friends who choose to travel the world non-stop with their kids, which I greatly respect, we’ve opted to keep a home base. The kids have stability, attend a fantastic school and have formed friendships. Then we squeeze in a few trips throughout the year. Doing so means the kids learn it’s always fun to go away, and it’s always great to come back home. Here’s how we manage to give our kids the gift of travel.
Minimize Gift-giving to Save for Family Travel
We don’t give many presents for Christmas, made easier by previous Christmases where the kids received toys that never lived up to the TV commercials. They matured quickly, not asking for much other than a few things, the occasional LEGO set, books, stuffed animals, the usual. So we’ve made Christmas especially about family and not about shopping.
We’ve also done the same with birthdays. Our kids have never wanted friend-oriented birthday parties, and they put a few small items on their Amazon wish lists. We celebrate simply: eating cake among family.
As well, we incorporate birthdays into our travel when we can. This is typically my youngest daughter’s birthday, since it falls over a school break. For example, two years ago she turned 4 in Bora Bora. This year she turned five in Mexico. And for her 6th birthday? She’ll be on safari in Kenya. Talk about not needing any presents to top that!
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Budget for Family Travel
Family travel is our family’s largest budget item, but it’s by no means an open-ended one. Our goal is usually to spend 5-6 weeks every summer in Europe, winter break somewhere fun in the world, spring break closer to home (Hawaii, Mexico or the continental U.S.), and Thanksgiving and Christmas close to family.
In addition, each year I let each of my kids pick any destination in the world for a one-on-one trip with me. To make all of that work, I plan extensively and book wisely, using discount family travel sites like Booking.com. I sketch out our trips a year in advance, and start searching for airfares and hotels or apartments so we’re not only able to stay at the places we want (specific hotels during peak times), but we’re getting the best possible rates.
We also play the mileage game to get as many free plane tickets as possible. When I book hotels or rental cars early, I constantly check rates to see when it makes sense to re-book and save money. I love to travel well but not at the highest prices.
Become a Local
We realized early that simply heading to Europe and wandering around cities for a few days before moving on wasn’t creating lasting memories. So we’ve since lengthened our stays, choosing to remain at a destination for several weeks at a time.
Twice we’ve gone to Paris for multi-week stays, renting an apartment, exploring neighborhoods and enjoying several picnics at the Eiffel Tower. In essence, we got into rhythms that made us feel like locals. Do our kids remember the first time they saw the Eiffel Tower? Probably not. But they remember all of our evenings there, eating and playing as the sun went down and the Tower lit up.
And when we traveled to Greece, we knew island hopping would be more about family travel logistics than enjoying the islands. So this past summer we chose to remain for several weeks on one, Naxos. There we discovered favorite sites and restaurants, and explored the island. In the end, we enjoyed the island so much that our kids didn’t want to leave!
Incorporate Things that the Kids Love
All three of our kids are foodies, partially from growing up surrounded by California’s farmers markets and having a mom who’s a great cook. But it’s also because of our travels. So when we’re on vacation, we add in cooking classes as much as possible and visit farmer’s markets, even touring farms when we can.
As a result, the kids are constantly exposed to different foods in various countries, and we expect them to try new things (not that we need to work very hard at that). My 7-year-old son’s favorite meal of the year, for instance? Roasted duck with a raspberry and peppercorn sauce from a bistro that we stumbled upon in Zagreb, Croatia. We went back multiple nights!
My son also loves LEGO. So last summer I took him to the LEGO Inside Tour in Denmark, where we visited the factory, went behind the scenes at LEGO headquarters and enjoyed Legoland park. Our chance to experience the entire process that goes into designing and marketing a new LEGO set was so much more interesting than buying and putting together a model.
Get Smart About Family Travel
Not only do we stay in places for multiple weeks, we also pack lightly. Doing so makes it easier for us to transport luggage from place to place and reduces the risk of forgetting something in the process. We also incorporate kid-oriented walking tours to make the art and history of a city come alive for them. But we also build in downtime during the afternoons or on hot days to lessen the chance of tantrums.
In other words, we try to minimize hassles with good planning, such as booking the best possible early-morning flights to reduce the likelihood of delays. Of course, you can’t plan for everything. And, indeed, some of the most amazing family travel experiences come from things not going according to plan. But the idea is to maximize the chance to provide the best memories for our kids, which we accomplish with solid planning.
Embrace the Unexpected
While we pre-book lodging and activities to enhance our trip, in essence maximize our time somewhere and minimize the chance of problems, we’re always up for spontaneity. This summer in Naxos, for example, we decided to have lunch at our favorite restaurant in the world, on Santorini.
One of the many benefits of traveling in Europe is public transportation, making it easy to do things like heading to a different island, even country, for a day. So that’s precisely what we did.
The ferry schedule didn’t work perfectly to make it a day trip, so we booked a last-minute apartment for one night, bought ferry tickets and headed to our destination. We had a three-hour lunch on the water at Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna that was as good as ever, and the kids loved it.
We finished our long lunch at 5 p.m. and could have just stayed through dinner. Instead we decided to wander around local village Oia, taking a little break between meals and dining around 8:30 that night at another restaurant, Thalassia. That spur-of-the moment leg of our trip turned out to be the highlight of the summer.
Consider giving the gift of family travel to your kids as well. Of course even without kids it would be fun kayaking in Antarctica on New Year’s Day, exploring Easter Island and watching the sun set over Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo. But bringing kids along makes everything a lot more fun and memorable.
Eric Stoen is a California-based writer and photographer specializing in family travel. He has traveled with his three young kids to 30 countries and six continents, with destinations including Antarctica, Bora Bora and Easter Island. Upcoming travel plans include Thailand and the Philippines with his 8-year-old child, and a two-week safari through Kenya and Tanzania with the entire family. In 2012, he won the Conde Nast Traveler’s Photo of the Year award. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or visit his Web site, Travelbabbo.