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 traveling 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.
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.
The cost of a traditional birthday
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 ($265) 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 $345. 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 $50. Add in $35 for chips and soda and you're over $400 for one birthday party and you haven’t even bought the goody bags yet. Add those in and you're approaching $450.
Think about that. That’s a lot of money for two hours of blurry Kodak moments. You can do a lot of other things with $450, like rent a fancy hotel room. 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.
How it sell it
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 Metro bus to downtown Seattle. We had a big late lunch and checked into a double queen room at a nice hotel. 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.
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 less than a 2-hour bouncy-house party and was a lot more memorable. And because we brought a suitcase, it totally counted as traveling.
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.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015, and updated in June 2019.