Work demands, school schedules, extracurricular activities, and general life obligations always seem to find a way of holding families back from traveling. For many, travel is viewed as a leisure activity and it’s difficult to justify spending precious time and money on a leisure activity. There are also perceived risks associated with family travel that can make it difficult for parents to step out of their comfort zone. Yet parents often don’t think twice about participating in youth sports, girl scouts, music lessons, etc., because these activities are expected provide some value or benefit to their families. These activities do help kids in various ways, and so does family travel.

Travel for fun versus travel for education

Travel is often viewed as a vehicle for leisure and relaxation. After all, the family vacation has long been canonized as a way to escape the trappings of daily life. However, purposeful travel that seeks out educational experiences can provide even greater and more diverse benefits than those provided by leisure tourism. 

Travel has the distinct power to expose children to new cultures, foods, and people, which can improve their ability to understand and adapt to new situations in life. It also helps extend what they are learning in school and enhance it with rich, real-life understanding. Therefore, family travel should not be viewed simply as an optional luxury, but rather as a smart and valuable investment in our children.

Travel is a bonding experience

Whether family travel is motivated by relaxation or education, it always creates an environment ripe for family bonding. Travel takes us away from the stresses of daily routine and provides more time for joint activities. For example, my kids often state their favorite part of family travel is that Mommy and Daddy don’t have to leave for work. They value that time with us, and I truly treasure that time with them.

Family in Memphis on Beale Street

In a 2001 study titled “The Influences of Family Leisure Patterns on Perceptions of Family Functioning,” Ramon B. Zabriskie and Bryan P. McCormick show that when parents and children share in leisure activities together, it increases family cohesion and improves familial relationships. However, with broad changes to career demands and family structures, Angela M. Durko and James F. Petrick also showed in their 2013 study, “Family Relationship Benefits of Travel Experience,” that time for family bonding in the home environment has been decreasing over time. It is important that parents find a way to fill this gap, and travel can really help. Even if it is just a weekend trip to a family friendly hotel in Vegas, or a quick trip to Palm Springs.

Family travel also creates memories that will literally be engrained in the child’s mind because the brain is constantly engaged while navigating and exploring new places. My kids often laugh at funny moments from our travels, like the time Mommy fell when her umbrella flew open in New Orleans during a tropical storm. We tell these stories around the dinner table. The sharing of travel memories can really open the flow of conversation between kids and parents.

Parents often sign their kids up for activities to help with socialization, but several studies including the 2009 study by Patrick C. West and L.C Merriam Jr., “Outdoor Recreation and Family Cohesiveness,” have shown that family connectedness can also benefit a child’s socialization and development.

Travel enhances what happens in the classroom

There is no doubt that education is critical to a child’s development, and there are many ways that children learn about the world. Family travel provides ample opportunities for growth and learning, sometimes in unexpected ways. On a recent trip to Philadelphia, my kids got to see the Liberty Bell and tour Independence Hall, which greatly augmented what they were learning in school.

philadelphia travel photos

Matthew J. Stone and James F. Petrick discussed their 2013 study, “Educational Benefits of Travel Experiences.” In their article, they show that travel provides tangible discoveries that promote learning because kids learn through active engagement with the world. Neuroscientists have also found that there are structural changes in the brain when immersed in a new learning environment. In their 1998 study, “Cortical Map Reorganization Enabled by Nucleus Basalis Activity”, Michael P. Kilgard and Michael M. Merzenich showed that permanent changes are made in the brain when more attention is focused on experiences. Travel provides children with diverse stimulation and experiences that simply cannot be achieved at school or at home.

The educational benefits of family travel are significant and viewed by many parents as being essential to their children’s learning. A study by Student and Youth Travel Association in 2008 found that 86 percent of respondents thought that travel was as important as other subjects taught in school, while 60 percent attributed positive academic improvements to travel experiences. Further, Elaine Meyer-Lee and Joy Evans explained in their 2007 study how travel helps to put education into context, leading to personal growth and continued motivation for learning.

Thanks to family travel, parents can see improvements in problem-solving, patience, flexibility, math, geography, and knowledge of cultures. A 2010 study by Cindy Miller-Perrin and Don Thompson showed that students who travel more had higher achievement scores than students who travel less.

Increasing adaptability in an ever-changing world

Every day our world seems to get smaller with cultures and world economies becoming increasingly intertwined. More and more people require intercultural interaction in their personal and professional lives. Adaptability is an extremely beneficial quality that helps individuals acclimate quickly to changing norms, beliefs, and behaviors, as demonstrated in John W. Berry’s 1997 study, “Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation.” Research shows that those who travel are more capable of adapting their behavior and perspective to cultural differences and dispelling stereotypes.

kids dancing in new orleans to live jazz music Market Cafe

Many perceived risks associated with travel often stem from lack of knowledge. A fear of the unknown presents a false sense of security and can breed stereotypes for people who differ. According to Mary M. Dwyer’s 2004 study, exposure to other cultures gives children a grander worldview. People with multicultural contact are more creative in problem-solving because they are better able to approach tasks from multiple perspectives. In fact, numerous studies have shown that those exposed to international travel are not only better at problem-solving, but also time management and communication skills. In addition, students that travel demonstrate more independence and self-confidence.

Instead of asking whether you can afford to travel, you should be asking yourself whether your family can afford not to. Mounting evidence suggests that children benefit significantly from travel experiences. There is no way to sugarcoat this – children with limited travel experience are likely to be at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to some of their peers. If you ask any parent if they would like to travel more with their family, chances are that they would say yes.

Research has shown that family travel provides just as many benefits as other activities for which many parents already find the time and money. Importantly, travel does not have to be overly exotic to be beneficial. A local weekend getaway can be affordable and provide the same benefits. Family travel is ultimately about the quality time parents get to spend with their kids and the experience of something new and adventurous together.

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Family Travel: Is it worth investment?