Why travel with children

When I was a child

When I was a child my parents took me to the seaside in England or to Wales. I loved it. When I was as little older my brother and I went on holiday with our parents to France or Spain. That was as ‘exotic’ as our family holidays got. For my parents generation going to a developing country with children for a holiday was considered risky. Going to Australia, New Zealand or Australia was expensive. The only friends I knew who went outside of Europe with their mum and dad either had family living abroad or a dad working in the Middle East. Things have changed greatly since my childhood. It now seems reasonable to take kids all over the world.

Importance of tourism

The reason for this attitudinal change is to do, I suspect, with the massive expansion in the tourist sector. Although figures have dipped slightly because of the 2008 economic crisis, tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry that represents 6% of the global export of goods and services (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism). For some countries it is the bedrock of the economy. The media allied to the convenience of online booking has convinced people to take their children all over the world for holidays. Moreover, globalization has meant that those with money can feel assured that nearly anywhere they go on the planet that they can find a brand hotel like Hilton, as well as McDonald’s, a Hertz hire car, Starbucks, a supermarket with familiar brands, a can of coke cola and a local that speaks English. And of course, they feel confident that they can pay for much of their holiday on their credit card.

Tourism has been sold so well as a great consumer activity that parents don’t want to miss out. Rather than having to chance the poor weather in Brighton or Bognor people want to take their kids to places like Thailand to lie on a beach or to Peru to walk around Machu Picchu. For many a chalet in France or a beach holiday in Spain doesn’t seem exciting enough, seems a weak choice. Europe might be falling apart at the moment, but being more unified than ever before has no doubt made many look farther afield for holiday cultural experiences.

Nowadays many hotels are aware of the money to be had from family tourism. They let children stay for free with their parents. In Thailand the buffet breakfasts often feature cereal, bacon and eggs and other food stuffs that will be familiar for children. Also hotels often advertise babysitting services, a kids’ play room and a children’s pool.

Travel agents do well selling tours to families. Mum and dad want everything organized for them so they don’t have to worry about catching a train, getting lost or buying entry tickets. They can enjoy the tour with their kids in what they feel is a safe and organized bubble. This is all part of the notion of package tourism. Everything taken care of, everything group booked and the middle man handsomely rewarded.

Independent travelers and kids

On the other side of the travel coin I find independent travelers who take their kids with them incredibly brave and sometimes blindly selfish. I have met a mother in China taking her 9 year old son around the country. It was back in 1997. At one point there was a group of 5 of us running to squeeze into an already packed train. The mother and three others of us got on. The train pulled away with the boy left on the platform. Luckily a Japanese woman in our band of travelers was with the boy. During our time together the boy learnt lots of Chinese, played with the local kids and took everything in his stride. The experience of traveling in China was surely an informative and fun experience for the boy.

On the other hand, I have met a single mum dragging a 2 year old around the southern islands of Thailand going raving and drinking. The kid’s needs were completely subsumed by the mother’s desire to do things cheaply and to party. I felt like saying something.

Another memory of mine is meeting a man in a bar in Japan where I was DJing. He had with him his 14 year old daughter. They were moored up. They had spent months sailing around the world. He was tutoring the girl. I could see by the joy she got from the small disco atmosphere that here was a teenager starved of music, people and all the distractions that makes up the universe of a typical teenager. I spoke briefly to the girl and it was hard to discern whether she shared her dad’s passion for sailing.

My experience and my conclusion

I recently became a dad. I timed this event so it coincided with the completion of most of my travel ambitions. I had just finished a large circle of South America with my wife. It was a struggle taking a 1 year old on a 10 hour flight from Japan to the UK. It was nothing that my kid enjoyed. The aspirin formula that we gave her to sleep just made her doped out.

This summer I went to Italy as a family. My kid loved being at the beach, paddling in the sea and eating Italian ice cream. However, other than the ice cream my child would have been equally as delighted doing the same activity around the corner from home. I wonder what age the joy of traveling for kids matches that of their parents.

In a way I’m glad I never left Europe when I was a kid. When I did eventually venture out by myself I did it with my own money and on my own terms. I went to India when I was 21. This was before the internet; when the world was not connected by huge global corporations; when the world felt more foreign and more exciting for it. This is the experience I want my child to have. I don’t want her to book everything online, pay with it all by credit card and move in a consumer tourist bubble. I want her to realize that going on a journey is not the same as picking out a new flat screen TV.

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