Think You Know What Kids Love And Hate About Travel? (Think Again.)

11/22/2011 08:32 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012
  • Peter Mandel Washington Post contributor, children's book author.

You're on the perfect vacation -- sampling history, adventure, cuisine -- and everything's shared because the kids are in tow. Then you hear it. Peep, peep. Ba-deep. No way. They wouldn't dare. They would. "Angry Birds" in the Musee d'Orsay.

Is taking the kids along all it's cracked up to be? Despite weird beeps in galleries and whiny complaints, for many adults the answer must be yes. Families are like roaming packs these days, and kids are now included on more than just the traditional car trips. The Travelers' Health Yellow Book, which tracks trends from year to year, says that the number of children who travel outside their home countries has reached an estimated 1.9 million annually.

A recent travel story in The New York Times shed as many tears as it did dots of ink about the fact that airlines and fellow flyers don't always "sympathize" with travelers who have little kids in tow. Referring to a beleaguered mom, the reporter wrote: "Her children are active" (gee, now there's a surprise) and that "efforts to allow them to move around the cabin were not welcomed by the plane's staff."

Reading this, I could hear the snorts of flight attendants everywhere. What's a plane's staff to do? Let passengers stumble over roaming toddlers in a tube that's bouncing through unpredictable air? But whether in their seats or not, kids have become standard issue on even the most arduous flights and train trips. Parents think it's a treat having 'em along on babymoons (whatever that really means) and on just plain vacations.

But are we absolutely sure that our kids feel the same?

It's time, I thought, to get the inside scoop from kids themselves on what they love and hate about travel. Their private warnings. Their secret tips. The stuff they'd say if parents weren't constantly at their side. Would they rather skip most "grown-up" destinations? Do they really think travel is fun and educational? Or is going places basically a bore?

Would they, if it were up to them, really prefer to stay home?

To find out, I talked with 12 kids ages 6 to 15. It was a group with varied vacation experiences and some geographic diversity: They hailed from six different states and one panelist lived in Spain. Most had traveled pretty widely with their families, including visits to Europe, Asia and South America.

Parents, get out your pens and notepads. Here are a few of your kids' vacation "hates," with the "likes" to follow in my next column:

Nearly everyone agreed that, although parents talk them up, museums are a vacation land mine. Will Clansky, 12, of Bethesda, Md., explained that he's sick of "paintings hung on walls. Sometimes they can be totally random pictures. A bed of flowers that's supposed to mean something. Instead I'd pick paintings of either sports or army. Of people who really knew what it was like having bombs dropped on you."

Outdoorsy stuff
Kids like nothing more than camping, right? A trip to the mountains? Fishing at the lake? Guess not. Outdoorsy trips were a frost for my group. Sophie Deixel, 13, of Brooklyn, complained that when she went out west a few summers ago, her parents "always wanted to go to these deserted places. When we were driving through Yellowstone, they kept stopping at every single hot spring they saw. The same if they saw even one animal. It could be just an elk or something under a tree."

Hotels without freebies
Dud places to stay for panelists included any hotel with a "smell" and places that "forget to put out good shampoo and soaps that you can take with you." Such extras seemed important to the panel, more so than, say, a comfy bed or clean room.

For the kids I talked with, seafood crops up way too often on vacation. "Parents always want you to taste local fish," complained Pablo Drexler Serrano, 12, of Escorial, Spain. "It's disgusting. Plus they make you taste the sauce, too."

Going vs. staying home
I asked my panelists this: If you got to choose between going on an interesting-sounding trip with your parents and staying home (to play with toys, hang out with friends, etc.), which would you choose? I'm sorry to report that just over half of my group said that when parents are traveling, they'd rather stay behind with a sitter or grandparents. (Sitter did you say? Remember those?)

"If I have a choice about almost any trip," explained Pablo Drexler Serrano, "I'd rather be home with Tabuca -- he's a German shepherd -- and Nico the cat. I have my books there, the TV; I have my room and all."

Sullivan Sweet, 9, of Wisconsin, summed up his feelings this way: "I like sticking around because we have a pet store that sells hamsters." And though Sweet enjoyed Paris monuments and the Metro, he said it's not even close to being his favorite destination.

The best? "It's Madison, Wisconsin," he said. "Because I live there."

Peter Mandel is a travel journalist and the author of ten books for kids including his newest about a guy who runs a jackhammer and uses his belly on the job: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook).