Raising a Young Traveler: Why Your Child Should Help Plan the Next Family Trip

Children have a stake in the game when it comes to what they want to see

Young boy looking up at a map

Annette Bunch / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our March features to family travel. Read on for insightful guides to the best road trips for different ages, the best hotels with amenities for children, and the changing face of family trip planning, as well as inspiring stories of traveling with a newborn, family travel post-divorce, the lowdown on family campground culture, and more.

With travel on the rise, more and more families are planning to take their home life on the road, whether it’s for a weekend or a lengthier, unschooling-fueled trips around the states. And while traveling with kids can be stressful—with all those suitcases and gadgets and cries of "Are we there yet?"—it can also be a deeply rewarding activity.

Indeed, as more and more parents are finding out, traveling with kids can be especially rewarding if they’re allowed to participate in trip planning. “Kids like to be part of the process and they like to know what to expect,” says Grace Bastidas, Editor-in-chief of Parents. “If you're making them part of the planning, chances are they're likely to get more excited instead of feeling like they're just being shuffled around from one place to another.

And getting involved isn’t just for teens and tweens. Involving young children in planning a family trip might sound ridiculous, but it’s far more valuable than it might seem. While children might not always be able to advocate for themselves in the most cohesive fashion, that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions or a stake in the game when it comes to what—or how much—they want to see on a trip. 

Sometimes, it’s just about leaving a little wiggle room in the schedule. Family travel expert Keith Waldon notes that younger kids might not necessarily be as excited about a city’s big sights as their parents or even their siblings. “You should not expect a 4 year old to spend eight hours in museums,” says Waldon. “It's really smart for parents to think as their four year old and realize, 'This is a 30 minute max type opportunity for my child.’” That attitude should help parents steer away from dreaded meltdowns that could waylay the rest of the day. 

Parents can also play into their child’s interests when planning a trip. If a little one is into dinosaurs, perhaps you’ll want to check out a city’s Natural History Museum. If they love animals, maybe there’s a way to incorporate a visit to a farm or an aquarium into the adventures, or maybe the family should prioritize a trip to Costa Rica’s rainforests over a jaunt to Mexico City’s urban jungle—this time, at least. 

It’s also worth noting that kids don’t always make insurmountable requests. Sally Black, travel agent and founder of VacationKids, says she was once planning a trip for a family with a “type A helicopter mom.” She says the mother “had planned the trip with military precision and you could tell she was trying to keep up with all the bus stop moms with all this educational stuff on the schedule, but I told her to put [her 4-year-old son] on the call and she thought I was out of my mind. I said to him, ‘Zach, what’s the one thing you want from vacation?’ and he said, ‘A pool with a slide.’”

One of Bastidas’ favorite ways to get younger kids psyched for a trip incorporates something a lot of parents are already doing: reading. “Books are perfect for little armchair travelers,” she says. “They let the kids get excited about the world before they even leave home.” Before a recent family trip to Puerto Rico, for example, Bastidas read her kids a book about a coqui, which is a type of frog known for its loud calls that’s often found on the island. Afterwards, she says, “My daughters got really excited to hear from this tiny little frog that sings at night.” 

"I said to him, ‘Zach, what’s the one thing you want from vacation?’ and he said, ‘A pool with a slide.’"

Parents can also spice up the more grown-up friendly parts of travel with kid-friendly accents, like a scavenger hunt at an art museum or a promised trip to a local ice cream parlor after a stop at a historical monument. (A lot of museums even offer special kids’ pages, which could make this kind of thing easier.) Family travel writer Eileen Ogintz, of Taking the Kids, also suggests that, for a trip to a city’s Chinatown, for example, a parent could challenge their child to see who could eat the most new foods. “Kids are really big on challenges,” she explains.

Catherine Ryan Gregory, who blogs about her family’s travels on her site To & Fro Fam, reminds parents that even the most minute choices can mean a lot to little ones. She recommends giving kids options around activities and letting them choose. For instance, she says, a parent could tell their kid, “We're going to go to the Natural History Museum this afternoon. There are two places that we could eat nearby. We could either get hot dogs in the park, or we could have sandwiches at this restaurant. Which would you rather do?” Giving a kid a fun choice can also help break them out of a funk or, as Gregory says, “move things along if a kid is having a hard time with the transition” to a new place.

Elementary school kids can be a little more globally conscious, meaning parents can prep their kids for a trip by telling them about life in their destination. Waldon recommends showing kids a movie that highlights the destination and culture. It doesn’t have to be a documentary: If you’re going to Paris, for instance, you could screen "Ratatouille" or "Madeline." “Eat a meal that is tied directly into the culture of the destination in your local town before you leave,” says Waldon, like getting spanakopita at a local restaurant before a trip to Greece. “Having a very culturally specific experience before you leave home can really get kids very excited," he says.

Family travel expert Kirsten Maxwell, of Kids Are A Trip, says that making memories with elementary aged kids doesn’t have to be expensive, either. When she’s in a new city with her family, she says, “we go to the local grocery store versus a big box store. That way, we’re getting more of that local experience. If your little ones are learning a language, this could be a good time for them to test it out—or just a good time for them to pick up some intriguing new snacks. “They'll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you see what they call Sour Patch Kids here?’” says Maxwell, noting that her kids have developed a particular interest in the different flavors of Pringles available around the world.

That kind of experience might seem a little disposable, but it really can matter. Black says that she thinks the most important lessons kids learn by traveling are the “soft skills,” like “patience, flexibility, and being open to trying new fruits.” Getting a glimpse at someone’s everyday life can also make kids start to think about what kids their age are doing in those countries. Black says kids may ask “How is their life different than mine? How is their life similar to mine?,” and notes that picking up a sense of humility can be a virtue.

Getting a glimpse at someone’s everyday life can also make kids start to think about what kids their age are doing in those countries.

Sometimes, the best planning for a trip with tweens can just be to let go. Waldon says that agreeing to a tween’s requests, even if they aren’t your preferences, can even teach parents a thing or two. “We don't need to stop evolving just because we're older,” he says. Going on that trip to swim with dolphins might not have been your cup of tea before you did it, but actually getting in the water could be a game changer. 

On top of that, giving into a sometimes sullen tween’s request could actually make them open up a bit. As Waldon explains, “Our joy is directly tied to the joy of our kids, and when you can bring that to life and see the happiness in your child, there's really not much of anything that's better.” 

If your tween is into social media, they might want to help you plan out some spots to stop at for photos, whether they end up on the ‘gram or not. Bastidas says that, like a lot of parents, she’s “terrible at printing out photos of birthdays and everydays, even though [she has] thousands of those,” but she has made a commitment to herself that she’ll always make a travel album after each of her family’s vacations. Giving your kids a hand in making that book can help inspire them for future trips—or at least make them more involved in the one that you all  might currently be on.

Travel can even make school a little more exciting for teenagers. A family could choose to go somewhere relevant to a teen’s studies, like a Central American country for a kid who loves Spanish class. They could also incorporate a teen’s classes into an already existing trip. Family travel expert Jessica Griscavage, of travel agency Runway Travel, says parents should ask about their kids’ interests. “What subjects do they like? Do they love art? Do they have a favorite sport? Would they want to catch a soccer match if it's a European trip?” she asks. If they’re taking a world history class, perhaps they’d want to hit up the Colosseum in Rome or the Churchill War Rooms in London. 

Teens also typically have pretty strong opinions when it comes to family vacations, which can lead to some hairy family dynamics and stressful travel moments. Those could help bring a group closer together, though, especially if a teenager gets to see their parent dealing with a plan that’s gone awry.

Black says those snags can show kids that their parents are just as human as they are, “and, when you’re all in a new situation together, [parents] have to learn things just like kids. Everybody is learning at the same time.” Ogintz agrees, reminding that, “No family trip goes without hiccups. People think it's gonna be one Instagram worthy moment after another, but that never happens.” When kids are involved and it’s not all on mom and dad, then they can become invested in getting through those hiccups and learning to soldier through and work things out together, as a family.