POSTED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 2:00pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 2:04pm
NBC NATIONAL NEWS — This holiday season, as parents struggle to figure out what toys to give their children, consider giving the gift of travel.
Although none of these gifts can be found under a tree, they're likely to last longer than the latest computer gadget or hottest electronic toy.
Younger children won't really understand that a future ski trip to Colorado, swimming in Santa Monica, California, or a week at Disney World is a (pricey) present, says Eileen Gunn, founder of the family travel website FamiliesGo!
That's why it's a good idea to wrap a travel-related present to put under the tree. It can be a stuffed elephant for a trip to the San Diego Zoo or a Disney movie for Disney World or the "Anne of Green Gables" books for a trip to Prince Edward Island in Canada.
Robert Reid is giving his daughter a sleeping bag for Christmas, part of his plan to take the 3-year-old on a camping trip next year. He got the idea from building forts and tents in their home.
As he starts to plan the trip, "I'm looking at her interests," says Reid, Lonely Planet's U.S travel editor and contributor to the publisher's "Not For Parents" book series. "I can't wait to do more trips and plan with her. I can't wait."
Maps, landmarks and animals
Teach them geography by giving them age-appropriate atlases and travel books for the journey, and hang a large map on their bedroom wall where they can pinpoint their travels, suggests Jennifer Emmett, editorial director of National Geographic Society's children's books department.
Older children and teenagers will be more interested in doing research for your travels if you let them help choose activities at your destination and or even help choose the places to visit.
"We find that kids get genuinely inspired by the idea of seeing places and landmarks they think are cool," Emmett says.
Even younger children who can't read can get excited if you link their favorite animals to the places you're visiting, such as crocodiles in Florida or bears in Alaska.
"Young kids latch on to the fact that China is where pandas live, Australia is the home of kangaroos, and lions are in Africa, and on and on," Emmett says. "Linking animals to a place makes the place come alive in kids' heads."
Little children will need a bit more care and feeding on any vacation, however. Don't assume they will suddenly get more energy or need less sleep when they're on vacation.
"Younger kids need to stick to those schedules," says Lissa Poirot, editor of FamilyVacationCritic.com. "You need to give them their snacks and nap time. You don't have to see it all in one day."
Poirot recommends finding a hotel with a good swimming pool, where children of all ages will like to relax.
'It's not the destination, it's the journey'
Dawn Wilson loves traveling and is proud her children know how to travel, whether the family of five hits the road or boards an airplane.
When they see her organizing her car, her children ages 9, 7 and 5 ask if she's going on a trip and if they can join her. When they head to the airport, the two older children know how to carry their luggage, and the youngest has stopped bolting from her parents.
When any trip is announced, "They ask, 'Are we taking the short way or the long way?' " says Wilson, a stay-at-home mom in Dallas. "Meaning: Are we driving or flying? They're used to spending a day or two in the car, and they're getting a sense of how big the country is."
Wilson makes sure the destination has something for the children to enjoy, whether it's a beach, pool or amusement park. They often took night walks on the beach during their Vero Beach, Florida, trip, looking for crabs because the 7-year-old inspired them to do so.
When they drive, she plans a nice break in the trip. They took four days to drive from Texas to California last summer, stopping for two nights at a Tucson, Arizona, resort with a pool.
"They always say it's not the destination, it's the journey," she says. "I always incorporate the journey into the trip.
"My husband and I have had opportunity to travel without them when the grandparents offered to stay with them for a week. We don't want to go without them. We love traveling with them as family."