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Erysse Elliott refuses to pose for a photo with her brothers in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photograph by Christopher Elliott)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Reinventing Family Travel

Family. Travel.

Those two words are enough to make the average reader click away. But they shouldn’t be.

Family travel — at least the way it’s often portrayed by mainstream media — is predictable and completely boring. The family trip happens during a sanctioned vacation period and takes you to the same old places, like Yellowstone, a Disney park or the the beach.

No wonder you don’t want to read another story about family travel. You probably think you’ve seen it all.

You haven’t.

Family travel is a real adventure

Eleven years ago, when I found out I was going to be a father, I thought I’d have to hang up my travel-writing saddle.

I couldn’t see myself covering family-friendly cruises, children’s museums, and zoos, for a living. But beyond that, I had a little trouble with the image of family travel propped up by marketers and family travel “experts”: that every family trip is smiles and togetherness, and, above all, safe.

I’d been raised to know better.

Ever tried to pack a family of five into a 1953 Volkswagen Beetle for a weekend ski trip in the Austrian alps? My father, a Presbyterian minister, did. (Our skis rode with us in the vehicle.) Ever slept on an airport floor with your folks? I have. Have your parents ever made good on their promise to pull over the car and make you walk home? Mine have a time or two.

Point is, family travel is a real adventure fraught with delicious conflict, miscues, and misadventures — but does anyone want to know the unvarnished truth about it?

All the signs pointed to “no.” When I pitched stories about odd places to take your kids, my editors invariably countered with a question: Did I have anything on theme parks or beach adventures for their “summer family fun” issue?

What’s wrong with an idealistic view of family travel? Well, almost everything. Fashion magazines that pretend every woman is a size zero perpetrate the same kind of fraud. The real world looks much different.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with spending a week at the Magic Kingdom or camping in Yosemite — I’ve done both and they are lots of fun. But to suggest that every family trip fit that mold is as absurd as saying we should all look like runway models.

Likewise, it’s true that a vast majority of family trips happen during school breaks. Of course they do. That’s when the kids are available. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. But to imply that there’s no other time to travel with the young ones — that’s just wrong.

Bad parents?

Not long after our first son, Aren, started walking, I tried to strap him to my back on Whistler’s black-diamond ski runs. (Not allowed, said the lifties.) Mom, a scuba instructor, once inquired about taking a one-year-old on the boat with her. (Again, no.)

Our children were never harmed, even as we tested our parental boundaries.

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Aren, Christopher, Iden, Kari and Erysse Elliott at the start of their extended family trip.

That’s when we decided to record our adventures online, informally at first. We documented every trip, from Aren’s first cruise to his first international flight to London. On that journey, he (and we) explored more Roman ruins and medieval castles than tourist traps, which was is exactly as it should be.

Over time, and with the support of other forward-looking bloggers, our audience began to warm to the idea that there was life beyond amusement parks and children’s museums. I think this view was further validated when National Geographic Traveler decided to start Family Time, a blog devoted to the view that family travel can be a true adventure.

I’ll admit, it isn’t always easy. Some readers pinned the “bad parent” label on us for letting our kids skip school and for revealing their real names online.

I find these criticisms amusing. The world is the best classroom, something the smartest teachers understand. And at a time when privacy is a fading relic of a bygone era, refusing to show photos of our kids or making up fake names for them would probably attract the wrong kind of attention, anyway.

Things became to change when Aren’s siblings joined us, and our adventures became more ambitious. It became our mission as parents — and writers — to prove that you can be away and also be at home, that travel can be the ultimate classroom. To do that, we had to turn convention on its head, starting with the premise that everything you thought you knew about family travel is probably wrong.

In the 21st century, when definitions of “education” are being challenged as they’ve never been before, you don’t have to wait until September to start schooling your child, or until Thanksgiving to take a family trip. Plus, there are more opportunities than ever to get up and go with your whole family in tow — and to keep your career while you’re at it.

We spent much of the fall in Hawaii. The kids went to school (online) in the morning and, in the afternoon, were off national parks and learning about the islands with their parents in tow. (Fun? Sure, but it’s also enriching and inspiring.)

Why now?

It’s time to think differently about family travel.

With so many parents working from home and with kids being educated in all kinds of creative new ways, different is the new normal.

The idea of untethering yourself from an old-school education, of not living at a permanent address — or, at the very least, of taking an unconventional “family” vacation — is becoming an exciting reality for some families.

Definitely for ours. And maybe for yours, too.

Christopher Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home. Follow him on Twitter.