Why Travel Should Be the New Birthday Party

Save money, teach skills, no thank-you notes

Traveling with kids is not easy. They’re squirmy. They need to run around and be weird. It costs a fortune and even if money were no object, who has that kind of time? It’s one thing to dream about going away for the weekend, but it’s an entirely different ball game to make it happen.

But. While it’s true that travelling to places like Bali or California cost a lot of time and money, you can do lots of exploring without going broke or taking time off of work. The first step toward awesome family adventures? Get rid of the birthday party and do an overnight adventure instead.

Seriously, Elsa that thing right up and Let It Go.

Need some convincing? Let’s do a small role-playing exercise I like to call “Holy Crap, My Kid’s Birthday Is In, Like, Two Weeks. I Should Probably Do Something About That.” Some of you may already know this exercise. Feel free to nod your head enthusiastically. You are in good company here.

So you ask your precious snowflake where they want to go and of course they say the Bouncy Emporium because everyone wants their party at the Bouncy Emporium. It’s the party place! The cheapest party option is 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning ($160) but you can’t do that because no one can do that. It's ridiculous. So you go with the weekend-special party package at a base price of $210. There’s a more expensive package but you aren’t a Kardashian so you stick with that.

Next you need a cake. You could bake the cake yourself but for the sake of argument we’re going to assume that you have 1,400 other things to do that week and baking is not one of them. So you take your kid to the Safeway and let them pore over the birthday-cake catalog for 45 minutes before ordering something with more blue frosting per serving than the FDA recommends you ingest in a year.

That’s another $25. Add in $15 for chips and soda and you're up to $250 for one birthday party and you haven’t even bought the goody bags yet. Add those in and you're up to $275.

Think about that. That’s a lot of money for 90 minutes of blurry Kodak moments. You can do a lot of other things with $275, like rent a fancy hotel room. Actually, you can book a room in a fancy hotel for much less than that if you know how to look. And in case you didn’t know or can’t remember what it’s like: One night in a fancy hotel is a HUGE DEAL when you are a kid.

For one of our first family trips, I gave my kid the option to forfeit her birthday party. The deal was that she wouldn’t get the cake or any of the presents but instead we would go on an Overnight Adventure in a fancy hotel! Both kids were very suspicious but since I used the words Adventure and Fancy in the same sentence, she agreed.

Here's how it worked. Saturday morning we got up at our regular time, packed and then took a Seattle city bus downtown (about $5). We had a big late lunch (about $50) and checked into a Queen Double Room ($99, on special) at Hotel Ändra. The kids then proceeded to spend the bulk of the evening playing in the closet. I tried to get them interested in doing something (anything) else but they really enjoyed that closet so my husband and I shared a bottle of wine and read.

Hotel Andra
Courtesy Hotel Ändra

In the morning, we got up and took the bus home.

At home, there were no new toys waiting for us. There was no packaging to throw away. No thank-you notes to write. No leftover cake to feel guilty about throwing in the trash because boy-howdy, that frosting is horrible. Just two tired kids and a lot of “THAT WAS THE BEST TRIP EVER!”

The entire adventure cost about $155 (before taxes and tips) which, if you know how to subtract numbers from other numbers you will see is $105 less than a 90-minute bouncy-house party. And because we brought a suitcase, it totally counted as traveling.

And lessons were learned: The kids learned to wait for the bus without too much complaining and that lots of hotels have safes in their closets. And, being only seven miles from home, they also learned this:

“If you do not chill out, we will take the late bus back home and you will not get to play in this fancy closet any longer. You are in a hotel room, not a zoo. Nobody wants to listen to you screaming.”

So this year, instead of cake and ice cream and plastic toys that are only going to lacerate your bare feet, give your kids the gift of adventure! Teach them how to travel. Go see parts of your community that you wouldn’t normally get to see. Learn your city’s bus system. Find a funky hotel. It’s rewarding, it’s fun and you (probably) won’t have to scrape frosting off of anything in order to get a damage deposit back.

Tips for finding a hotel room without going broke

Get on the mailing list. Many hotel chains these days have a rewards program. Along with better rates, hotels often offer their program members perks like free wifi or discounted parking.

Do your homework. Aggregate travel sites offer "discounted" hotel rooms but before you make reservations through a consumer travel site, check out the hotel’s own reservations system. You may find other rooms available at a comparable price that are more suitable to your needs.

Understand what you’re getting. A mid-range hotel that offers a continental breakfast bar may be more expensive on a per-night basis than a discount hotel. But add the cost of taking everyone to breakfast in the morning and the mid-range hotel may be the cheaper option.

Location, location, location. Once you're at the hotel, you don't want to drive. So make sure you've booked a hotel in an interesting neighborhood with nearby options for dining, ice-cream-noshing, playground-hopping, etc.  (Or at least, make sure the room has a big closet.)

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