4 ways families can become happier travelers—according to researchers

Post-pandemic, we all want to travel more meaningfully. One tip: Ditch the bucket list.

If there’s one thing pandemic lockdowns have taught us, it’s that the ability to travel is a gift to approach with reverence and gratitude. In 2022, many of us want to travel differently because we’ve changed. The pandemic has opened our eyes to our fragile world and to our own physical and psychological frailties.

Travel traditions such as keeping a “bucket list” now seem flippant—almost irreverent. “And so very 2019,” says Jacqui Gifford, the editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure. “Bucket list travel has become tone deaf, especially during a pandemic. The idea that you must itemize destinations to see before you die, and that those select destinations will have a grander impact on your physical being or mental health than others, seems silly.”

The lifting of pandemic restrictions gives parents an opportunity to help kids develop a healthy mindset around travel—one based on values of engagement and empathy, rather than achievement and acquisition. We seek more purposeful interactions at our destinations, and we want our footsteps across the planet to imprint less but mean more.

Research backs the concept that exploring more mindfully not only benefits a destination but also our own personal health and happiness. Here are four ways families and kids can travel better.

Know why you’re traveling

Jaime Kurtz, a psychologist at James Madison University and author of The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacation, suggests starting any trip planning with the question, why do I want to take this trip? “Search within yourself,” she advises. “Why did I pick this place? What makes me feel happy and fulfilled?”

Instead of checking off some guidebook’s list of must-see sites, connect with your family’s interests and passions, and use that to design a trip “that’s more authentic” to you, she says. It might also inspire you to explore beyond your usual boundaries.

Research the history of the people and places before you visit them, Kurtz recommends. Consider taking a destination pledge, such as the Sedona Cares Pledge, which encourages visitors to follow their “sixth sense of responsibility” and respect the area’s trails and heritage. Several popular destinations—including Iceland, New Zealand, Palau, and Big Sur in California—suggest travelers read and sign their destination pledges before arriving.

(Here are 25 amazing adventures for the year ahead.)

While you’re traveling, Kurtz suggests “getting to know people’s stories and finding ways to empathize with the people in the place as opposed to just seeing them as a spectacle.” If you and your kids listen to others more attentively and ignore distractions, such as your phone or getting Insta-worthy photos, that enhanced focus can lead to more authentic understanding and connections. “The more we can get to know the place on a deeper level, the more we’re going to care about preserving it and treating it with respect and treating the people there with respect.”

For her own excursions, Kurtz hires local guides who often share their personal stories. They may connect you and your kids to lesser-known adventures, local makers, and local restaurants. Your dollars will then support that destination more directly.

Invest in experiences, not things

We are happier, research shows, when we spend our time and money on experiences rather than things. Choosing the experience of travel usually has personal rewards beyond the trip itself, says Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, Austin.

Although his research doesn’t focus exclusively on travel, it does reveal that “a whole host of benefits [can arise from] spending on doing versus spending on having.” Consuming experiences—attending a concert or snorkeling a reef together—is more likely to make you happy than buying a bigger TV.

(This is why travel should be considered an essential human activity.)

“Experiential purchases like travel tend to be more reflective of one’s identity or sense of self,” Kumar says. “Compared to expenditures on material possessions, investing in these experiences tend to be the kind of investment that contributes to who we are.” And that can translate into how you and your kids interact with the world. It can also inspire gratitude.

“When people think about these experiences rather than their possessions, they actually end up being more generous to others,” he says. For example, if you feel grateful to be hiking through the Sonoran Desert and getting to know new people and learning about the delicate ecosystem, you might tip more generously or teach your kids to use water more respectfully. 

And the travel gift keeps giving, says Kumar. We all know that joyful glow of anticipation before a trip, but your whole family can also look forward to building closer bonds with friends and other families through your after-trip storytelling. 

(Here’s why grateful children deal better with life’s challenges.)

Discover how the brain benefits from travel

Your travels, both near and far, may actually boost your family’s overall brain health, says neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum, an adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and founder of the Brain Health Center. “On a physiological level, travel is very good for the brain,” he says.

Initially, doing new things—like learning to surf or trying an unfamiliar local delicacy—may be challenging, but will become easier “because [brain] plasticity is such that you’re beginning to develop physiological, cellular connections to do those things,” says Nussbaum. “Something that was foreign is now more familiar.” As you face problems or challenges to solve in your travels, your hippocampi keep forming new networks, and your brain thrives.

Nussbaum says he even toys with the possibility of doctors prescribing travel for brain health. But your family can always self-prescribe more travel as part of your wellness journey.

“It’s a kind of universal massage of the brain that travel provides us,” Nussbaum says.

(Learn how thinking about your next trip can boost mental health.)

Center your family in their own travel narrative

Neuroscience and functional MRI studies have revealed that multiple parts of our brain engage and have heightened connectivity while and after we consume fictional stories. As we read or watch a story, parts of our brains can even light up as if we were the characters in action.

So, here’s my idea for a way to replace the outdated bucket list with what I call an “encounter list.” What if we more consciously envision ourselves as the main character in our evolving stories? When your kids perceive themselves as the main character of their story, they can feel more aware of their agency, of their power to craft a narrative they can be proud of. And travel is one of the most vibrant and memory-making parts of any self-construction.

(These 25 books may inspire your next adventure.)

Ask yourself in what novel settings might you place your family this year. What complex characters do you hope your kids intersect with? What out-of-your-box adventures will your family take on? Then imagine all the ways your lives might spark with greater engagement and connectivity.

Amy Brecount White is a writer based in Virginia who aspires to deepen her family’s connections to the world. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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